The Quantum Thomist

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Is God a failed Hypothesis? Part 10: The unreliable God

Is God a failed Hypothesis? Part 11: Introduction to Biblical Archaeology
Last modified on Sun Feb 6 19:07:37 2022


This is the eleventh post in a series on Victor Stenger's book God: The failed hypothesis. In his sixth chapter, The failures of revelation, Professor Stenger made a brief mention of Biblical archaeology, making the (rather common) claim that not only is there is no evidence for most of the Old Testament, but some parts of the Old Testament are directly contradicted by the archaeological evidence. My intention is to answer this criticism, or at least give hints as to how it might be answered. This is a topic which I have had an amateur interest in for some time, though I haven't yet written anything about it, until now.

What I intend to write in these posts is, to the best of my knowledge, based on accurate facts. I then apply my own interpretation to those facts. As is well known, there can be many theories which fit the evidence, especially when the data is limited. I am thus not going to say that the interpretation that I offer is superior (in the sense of better agreeing with the data) than various other interpretations. My only claim is that it is a possibility worth considering. However, I am neither an archaeologist nor an expert on the ancient Middle East. I am, of course, drawing on the work of others who are experts, and (hopefully) faithfully reproducing what they have proposed, only in my own words and with my own spin. This work should be seen as merely pointing to the work of those who do have the required expertise. Where I have questions myself concerning their work, I intend to raise and highlight them. I don't claim to have all the answers, and I don't claim to have every issue resolve. I just claim to have more answers than Professor Stenger had questions.

My purpose in writing these posts is in part to respond to atheist claims, such as those of Professor Stenger, but just as much in order to get feedback. I am interested in two questions: 1) Have I got any facts wrong; and 2) are there any other relevant facts which I have not taken into account which contradict my interpretations. I would distinguish between facts -- those things dug out of the ground which all can agree on, and interpretations, which can in a few cases include the details of an artefact's dating and authenticity, but, more usually, how that data fits into the wider historical picture. My (or rather the scholars I am following) disagreement with the sceptics is not concerning the raw facts, but in the interpretation of that data.

The purpose of archaeological investigation

Archaeology is never going to be able to prove the Old Testament. Consider, for example, the following passage:

1 Samuel 20:35 In the morning Jonathan went out into the field to the appointment with David, and with him a little boy. 36 And he said to his boy, "Run and find the arrows that I shoot." As the boy ran, he shot an arrow beyond him. 37 And when the boy came to the place of the arrow that Jonathan had shot, Jonathan called after the boy and said, "Is not the arrow beyond you?" 38 And Jonathan called after the boy, "Hurry! Be quick! Do not stay!" So Jonathan's boy gathered up the arrows and came to his master. 39 But the boy knew nothing. Only Jonathan and David knew the matter. 40 And Jonathan gave his weapons to his boy and said to him, "Go and carry them to the city." 41 And as soon as the boy had gone, David rose from beside the stone heap and fell on his face to the ground and bowed three times.

We can think about what archaeological remains might be left over from this story. Maybe a few arrowheads in a field (if the boy was negligent in his duties). There is a heap of stones. But even if an archaeologist finds such things, there would be no obvious clue linking them to David and Jonathan.

So for the Christian, archaeology is not there to prove the Biblical text. If you accept that the story above occurred, it has to be for some independent reason (such as a) Jesus affirmed the Old Testament; b) Jesus is God and thus both knowledgeable and incapable of lying; c) Therefore the Old Testament describes events which are historically accurate). And if you have an independent reason for accepting the Old Testament text, then why do you need archaeological confirmation?

But Archaeology still has uses for the Christian.

  1. It can help us to understand the culture of the Biblical world, which can aid us in interpreting certain difficult passages. This is not just the culture of the ancient Israelites, but also the societies around them and which they interacted with.
  2. It can help clarify passages which are ambiguous, by providing external evidence to favour one interpretation over another.
  3. It can fill in many of the gaps in the Biblical record. Many Christians would say that the Bible is the truth and nothing but the truth, but I don't think that anyone can claim that it is the whole truth, at least when it comes to the history of ancient Israel. The historical books contain numerous gaps; periods where they give only a few details if any. Even for those periods which are well documented, there are lots of things omitted. For example, we know from Assyrian records that King Ahab contributed to a force of nations that fought the emerging Assyrian empire at Qarqar. There is no mention of this event in the Biblical text, but it gives us more information about an important Biblical figure.

    The Biblical writers were biased. This does not mean that what they wrote was inaccurate. Nor that their interpretations of those events were incorrect. But it does mean that they were selective in the material they chose to report. So it is always nice to get another perspective to flesh out those stories and put them in a wider historical perspective.

  4. It can provide a physical connection to the Biblical heroes and villains. We can walk though the gates where Solomon (possibly) walked. We can hold in our hands seals that were stamped by Hezekiah and (possibly) Isaiah. We can see the remains of Ahab's palace. For some people, this physical connection is a powerful link to the events they have read about.
  5. It is an interesting subject to look at in its own right, regardless of any religious implications.

For the sceptic, on the other hand, Biblical archaeology serves an important additional purpose. While the Old Testament cannot be proved through archaeology, it can be disproved. For example, the book of Joshua is explicit that the walls of Jericho collapsed and the city was burnt when the Israelites entered the promised land. If archaeological evidence shows that the city wasn't even inhabited at the time of Joshua, then that proves at least that part of the story false. If the conquest, or exodus, didn't occur, it would be a big problem for orthodox Christians, in part because it is clear from the New Testament that Jesus and the apostles believed such stories to be historical.

And this is another reason for the Christian to study Biblical archaeology. The Christian faith should not be based on blind ignorance, but informed by the best evidence. The Christian ought to seek to understand how the Biblical accounts are both internally consistent, and consistent with the evidence external to Christianity. If there is a problem, then the Christian either ought to resolve it somehow, or hope that a resolution presents itself when there is more or better evidence, or abandon Christianity if the assumptions and evidence that present the problem are more secure than the evidence that caused him or her to accept Christianity.

The Christian apologist, of course, has to be able to counter such arguments, and show that the archaeological record, while not enough to prove the Old Testament, is at least consistent with it. So the biggest burden is on the sceptic. The sceptic needs to prove inconsistency to make his case. Not just that his own preferred interpretation of the data is inconsistent with the Old Testament, but that every possible interpretation of the archaeological data is inconsistent with every possible interpretation of the Old Testament. The Christian does not need to prove his own interpretation of the archaeological evidence is the only possibility; he (or she) only needs to show that it is among the possibilities.

There are, however, numerous things to bear in mind when approaching the subject. The first is the need to distinguish between the evidence and the interpretation of the evidence. The evidence should be agreed by all parties. But the interpretation varies from one scholar to another. Sometimes this can get quite technical. Sometimes there is a sequence of supposition built upon supposition, until you get an immense structure built on very shaky foundations.

The second point to bear in mind is that there isn't very much evidence. Archaeologists cannot choose what they dig up; it is a bit like drawing raffle tickets out of a hat. Sometimes you get lucky. Sometimes you don't. You can, perhaps, improve the odds through careful selection of where on the Tell to dig, but ultimately no archaeologist can determine what they are going to find, or if they are going to find anything that furthers our knowledge. Archaeologists look at artefacts which are discarded by the people living at the time, and eventually get buried. But people generally don't leave that much waste lying around in their houses. If you break a pottery jar, you clear away the pieces rather than leave them on the floor for the next decade or so. Very few of the artefacts used by the people of the Bronze Age would have been left behind for us to later dig up. Of these, many would not have survived to our day. Most plant and animal based materials would have rotted away long ago, leaving just a few chemical residues. These residues can be used to gather clues about diets and so on, and long-lasting remains such as ash, olive pits or charred grain can be used for carbon dating, but we should not expect things made out of skins, wood or wool to survive intact to our day. If they do survive then that's a bonus. But we have no right to expect to find anything that could have rotted away.

This is particularly important with regards to writing. The ancient Mesopotamians generally wrote on clay tablets, which are durable. We have a lot of contemporary written records from ancient Mesopotamia, meaning that for the most part (there are a few exceptional periods and places which break this rule) scholars can be confident in their reconstruction of Assyrian and Babylonian history and culture. But the Egyptians found that they could make a convenient writing medium from split, weaved and flattened Papyrus leaves. Various hints from the Old Testament suggest that the ancient Israelites and the cultures around them adopted Papyrus from the Egyptians to keep their official records. Except in a very dry climate, and even then it only occasionally survives, Papyrus rots within a few hundred years. Nothing is left of the archives of the Canaanite population, and we should not expect there to be anything to find. The records would have preserved by being copied afresh in each generation, and generally speaking ancient scribes were very good at making accurate copies of their key texts, both in terms of the wording and even the layout of the text. The Egyptians also carved propaganda onto the walls of their temples and tombs, and those inscriptions have provided us with a great deal of insight into Egyptian history, but the inhabitants of Canaan generally didn't. So we don't have much in the way of writing from Canaan and the nations around them. There is the occasional inscribed stone tablet; a few scribblings on pieces of pottery, some graffiti carved into rocks, the odd correspondence using Mesopotamian clay tablets, and various clay seals. But even here, we don't have very much. The main archives, and business transactions, and personal letters, and astronomical and divination warnings -- these would have once existed, but are now lost to us. In the absence of a contemporary written history, archaeologists are reliant on records from Egypt, Assyria and a few other great Kingdoms, and whatever they can infer from other artefacts to piece together what life in Bronze and Iron Age Canaan and Syria (or the Levant, as the region is known).

So what does survive? Stone, and in particular the stone foundations of buildings. This gives us a partial picture of where people were living, and in what numbers. But it is only a partial picture. Nomads living in tents, for example, or wooden dwellings, wouldn't leave any such remains behind. Building materials and stones were often moved or reused by later generations. And we can only find evidence for habitation in those few places where we have dug. Then you have pottery. Jars, seals, figurines, and so on. This forms the bulk of the surviving artefacts, and is particularly important. Some metal objects might survive, and some jewellery and carved ivories, although these are few and far between. Ash survives, so we can tell whether a city was destroyed in a fire. And bone, both human and animal, although again not all of this will survive. It is not just a problem with materials rotting. There have been plenty of civilisations between the time of Israel and our own day who have been working or farming the land, reusing cut stones, and generally disturbing archaeological sites.

On top of this, only a small fraction of what is available has been excavated. Many sites haven't been touched, except for a surface survey. Some sites can't be touched, because there is a modern town (or mosque) built on top of the archaeological site. Nobody would be keen to have someone demolish your home just to start an archaeological dig. And of those places which have been excavated, there is still a great deal to uncover. We have only just scratched the surface of even major sites such as Jericho and Hazor. And even once the excavation is complete, archaeologists frequently seem to be unbearably slow in analysing and publishing their results.

I shouldn't paint too negative a picture, of course. We have found evidence -- a lot of it. But one should never be tempted to say "We should expect to have found evidence for these people or events." Only if everything from the ancient world survived. But it didn't, and we know why it didn't, and should never expect that it would. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

But scholars always want to come to some sort of (preferably controversial) conclusion. Now common sense dictates that when evidence is scarce, any conclusions drawn should be tentative. But that is so rarely the case. And it seems to be especially rare in the area of Biblical archaeology. Now, of course, that applies to the Christian apologist just as much as it does the Biblical sceptic. There seems to me to be considerable over-confidence on both sides.

So the first task of both the Christian apologist and the Biblical sceptic ought to be to try to construct an interpretation of the data that is reasonable and consistent. Then the apologist can try to defend it and the sceptic find evidence which contradicts it. The sceptic should not start by proposing a single interpretation contradicting the Biblical data, and then confidently asserting that they have disproved the Bible.

Schools of thought

Thirdly, in this introduction, I ought to mention some of the positions that different scholars take. The traditional view, which I will label as ultra-maximalist, is that the Old Testament is a broadly reliable historical document (albeit with some omissions and exaggerations), written or based on sources roughly contemporary with the events described. Thus the first four books of the Bible were written by Moses during or towards the end of the Israelites wandering. Deuteronomy was written by one of Moses' companions, but, aside from the introduction and conclusion, based on various speeches and songs composed and delivered by Moses, and thus can also be said to be authored by Moses. The book of Joshua was written by Joshua; Judges based on records of the time or oral traditions and compiled early in the united monarchy period, and so on. And these books have been faithfully copied to our current day.

That view won't find many supporters today, if it ever did. For example, we can compare Genesis 14:14 with Judges 18:29

Genesis 14:14 When Abram heard that his kinsman had been taken captive, he led forth his trained men, born in his house, 318 of them, and went in pursuit as far as Dan.

Judges 18:29 And they named the city Dan, after the name of Dan their ancestor, who was born to Israel; but the name of the city was Laish at the first.

The account in Judges about the naming of the city seems to be accurate; the name Laish is recorded in the Mari archives dating to the 18th century BC, Egyptian campaign lists of the 15th century BC, and others. But if the city was renamed during the time of the Judges, how could Moses have known what it would be called a few centuries earlier? Clearly the ultra-maximalist view is not tenable, and I am not aware of anyone who holds it beyond various ill-informed fundamentalists.

Other passages which have been cited as showing signs (at the very least) of later editing include

Not all passages which are cited to try to demonstrate later editing stand up to close scrutiny, but enough do that the ultra-maximalist position is difficult to justify. And as such, it is not really held by any Biblical scholars.

So this leads us to the maximalist view, which is similar to the ultra-maximalist, but states that the text was updated and had minor editorial changes as it was copied down the centuries, until it was eventually finalised during the Persian period. These changes are, however, minor, and did not change the meaning. So, for example, the bulk of the text of the Torah goes back to Moses, or one of his contemporaries, but there are a few later amendments and additions. This is not unreasonable; we know that to preserve it, the text would have to be copied and recopied, and we also know that, while some scribes in the ancient world faithfully wrote everything out as they read it, others did make minor alterations or interpolations, perhaps to make the text more understandable or relevant to their contemporary readers. The changes might be similar to the example above, where the reference to a city was changed to its (at that time) contemporary name. Moses wrote Laish. Some later scribe changed it to Dan, and that's what was passed on to our day. Such minor alterations, of course, don't affect the actual meaning of the text. We can still attribute the Torah to Moses, since the bulk of the text is as Moses wrote it. But we can also see the imprint of the later editors, and this accounts for the few anachronisms in the text. They might be adding a few words of explanation for a later generation. They might update the grammar and language to make the text more understandable. Nothing that radically alters the meaning of the text, or which takes away from the original authorship. It is a bit like an author who publishes Chaucer's works, only updates it to modern English so that the causal reader can understand it.

But the central thesis of the maximalist position is that the Bible is generally reliable as a historical text, from Genesis 12 through to the monarchy, and the events described in it happened broadly as described. (Genesis 1-11 is a different question, as it refers to a pre-historical period, and thus requires another methodology and a separate discussion.)

Examples of maximalist scholars include Kenneth Kitchen, James Hoffmeier, Bryant Wood and John Bimson. They are generally split into two schools, depending on their preferred date of the Exodus: either thirteenth century or fifteenth century BC. (There are also other maximalist scholars advocating different exodus dates, but those two are the mainstream positions). This also filters down to the dates of Joseph and Abraham.

The maximalist school remains, however, a minority position amongst Biblical archaeologists.

At the other end of the scale, we have the ultra-minimalist scholars. Examples include Thomas Thompson and Philip Davies. This school believes that the Old Testament was composed in the Persian period, and is of no historical value whatsoever. This is, however, a view that is again almost entirely rejected by contemporary scholarship.

Between the maximalist and ultra-minimalist schools there are a whole range of positions. The majority of scholars would say that the Biblical text was primarily written in the divided monarchy period, with strands written either in ancient Israel or ancient Judah to reflect the priorities of those Kingdoms, and then put together by a later editor or redactor. An example of this school is Israel Finkelstein, whose work is the basis of Professor Stenger's brief summary. Finkelstein believes that the bulk of the Old Testament historical section was put together at the time of Josiah, with the purpose of supporting Josiah's religious reforms. Minimalists believe that the account of the divided monarchy period, particularly the later part of it, is reasonably (if not perfectly) accurate. But as you get earlier in time, the text becomes less and less reliable. The discovery of the reference to David in the Tell Dan Stele and Mesha Stele means that the minimalists begrudgingly have to accept David's existence as the founder of the Kingdom of Judah, but his achievements and Kingdom are downplayed -- he is treated as just a minor chieftain. Finkelstein uses a controversial chronology of the Iron Age to come to this conclusion.

Moving a little further on from the minimalists, we get those who will take a more optimistic view of the time of David and Solomon (if not fully accepting the Biblical account), but still largely dismiss the judges period and those which came before it. They will reject all accounts of the Exodus and Conquest, and everything which came before this. William Dever is a prominent example of this school. One of the big discussions is about the emergence of Israel. A distinctive Israelite culture becomes visible in the archaeological record in the thirteenth century. The question is, in the absence of a Biblical conquest, how it emerged; whether a peasants revolt or a gradual infiltration, or if there were several different events that led to it.

The most popular views among archaeologists and historians are the minimalist and centrist positions. But truth is not a democracy. It is far better to judge on the basis of the evidence itself, than on what the majority of scholars think. From what I have read, these scholars have not really properly thought through other possible interpretations of the data. I am going to be arguing for a maximalist position, largely following the work of Bryant Wood and his colleagues. In my view, this is the best construction of the data consistent with the Biblical account, at least out of those put forward by the scholars. I do still think that there are unanswered question with Wood's construction, and some points of doubt which still remain. But I will discuss those when I come to it.

Archaeological method

Archaeology is the scientific study of the past using the systematic excavation of artefacts. In ancient times, people generally built their cities on top of their father's towns. If they wanted to build something new, they would clear away the current construction, and build on top of it. Over time, dirt and dust accumulates, and gradually buries the older construction. The next generation would then build on top of that. So what emerges are city mounds, gradually rising up from the plain over the course of centuries. These are the Tells of the Middle East. Each Tell consists of numerous layers or strata, relating to an occupation phase. So at one level, you would find the pottery and other remains of one generation of people, and at the level above it the pottery and remains of the next generation, and so on. So as you dig down into the Tell, you go into the past.

So an archaeological excavation proceeds as follows. Firstly, the archaeologist decides which site they want to excavate, and which areas of the site. They then divide that area into a grid. Each team takes one square of the grid, and gradually removes the soil layer by layer. Bulwarks between the squares are left unexcavated, firstly for access, and secondly to provide an easy reference to show changes in soil type. Everything is carefully and meticulously recorded. The soil from each layer, as well as any artefact they find, is then bagged up separately. It is sifted to find any small pieces of pottery or bone that was missed on the initial survey. The finds will then later be analysed and put together. Any remains of stone buildings are dug around and exposed. Any changes in the soil type in a layer are recorded; holes might be evidence of posts.

There are, of course complications. Future building works, such as cisterns, tombs, or preparing the foundations for subsequent buildings can disturb previous layers. Animals digging into the ground and tree roots can mix up the layers. Stones and buildings can be re-used from one age to the next. The method is time consuming and difficult, and not always rewarding. You rarely find the sort of artefacts which lead to headlines in the popular press. A good day for an archaeologist is to find a few shards of pottery. But by and large the method works well. Things that might be found include:

  1. Evidence of occupation, i.e. people were living at this site at a particular time, and it was abandoned at another time.
  2. Evidence of city destruction, i.e. there was a layer of ash across numerous different squares.
  3. Evidence of culture: idols, altars, household objects, jewellery.
  4. Evidence of architecture: were the cities fortified? What building style did they use? Are the houses small or large? What were their tombs like?
  5. Evidence of culture. What sort of religions did people follow? What were their diets? Who did they trade with? What utensils did they use?
  6. Evidence of writing: this is rare, and therefore exciting when it is found. Mostly the writing is fairly boring and dull, such as labelling what type of wine was stored in a particular jar. But you also get a few seals, or royal inscriptions, or Egyptian scarabs (a seal in the form of a scarab beetle, usually inscribed with the name of a Pharaoh or other high official). Very occasionally, something more exciting is found, such as a statue base, inscribed tablet, or stone stele.

Identification of sites

We have various cities mentioned in the Bible. We have various city mounds scattered around the country. How do we connect the two?

In some cases we can with high confidence. For example, Jerusalem has been a continuously inhabited major city since Old Testament times. Nobody doubts where it is. The identification of Jericho with Tell es-Sultan is forced on us by the geography. Places like Megiddo and Hazor from a combination of the importance of the city combined with a rough knowledge of where they ought to be found. Tel Miqne is known to be Ekron due to an inscription found at the site. Occasionally people guess an identification based on the modern name of a site, although that isn't always reliable.

But in other cases, it is not so clear. We know roughly from the Biblical record where the city ought to be. But there might be numerous tells within that area. We can also check when the city was inhabited, but that brings up another whole load of controversy. There is the additional complication that sometimes a city would be abandoned, and then a little later a neighbouring site given the same name. So, for example, we know where the city of Arad was during the time of the Israelite monarchy. But was the Arad encountered by Moses in the same place?

Means of dating

Alongside where the city should be found, the other major issue is when the finds were deposited. There are several ways in which this is judged.

The holy grail is to find an inscription, perhaps carved into a clay or stone tablet, or painted on some pottery, which names a known person; perhaps an Egyptian Pharaoh. This isn't always clear-cut. For example, one common example of this are Egyptian scarabs, small seals in the shape of a beetle, with the name and insignia of an official or ruler inscribed on the bottom. These were popular collectors items. However, they were also kept over generations as an heirloom, or the scarabs of popular Pharaohs might be manufactured in later times. So finding a scarab doesn't mean that the strata dates from that particular Pharaoh's lifetime. But it is still an indication that the strata dates from after that time.

The most important means of relative dating is pottery. While people have used pottery since well before the Biblical period, one clay pot is not the same as another. In particular, there are differences in how the pots are manufactured, the type of clay they were made of, their shape and decoration. All of these changed over time. If you look at a single Tell, an expert can see these changes as they dig down through the layers as they go further back into the past. Then if you can find similar pottery styles in a strata at a neighbouring site, you can deduce that those two strata were contemporaneous. And if you are lucky enough that you reach a site with a datable inscription with a similar pottery style, then you can date all those strata across the country. Even if you don't have an inscription for all the pottery styles, you can still date some of them, and if you know what order the pottery is found in, and know roughly how long it took for each strata to be laid down, you can still deduce something about when those pottery styles were in fashion.

Pottery dating obviously has its limitations. Firstly, different pottery styles remained in fashion for decades, so it is not always precise. Secondly, the method assumes that different types of pottery spread instantaneously across the country. It may be that a new type of decoration came into fashion in the coastal plain, and took years or decades to spread across the hill country. It is even possible that it would not be adopted at some distant site. Maybe one particular town insisted on using its own traditionally made pottery, or some type of pottery never became popular there. Thirdly, the differences between different pottery styles can be quite subtle, leaving even experts in disagreement. But the advantages of the method are clear. Pottery is by far the most common substance found in an excavation. There is an abundance of evidence. And the method is reliable enough that it can be used to give a very good, if not perfectly precise, date to archaeological strata.

Of course, there are other things which can also be used in a similar way to provide a relative dating. For example, handwriting, archaeological styles, and various aspects of material culture.

There are also various absolute dating methods. First of all, we have published king lists, which can be backed up in many cases by contemporary inscriptions. Various ancient societies, most importantly the Egyptians and Assyrians, kept records of all their kings, and how long they reigned. So you can get the chronology just by adding up all the reign lengths? Not quite. There is, of course, the problem of whether the history was correctly copied and preserved. Equally, there are questions about how the ancients counted the years, and in particular the part years that occurred when rulers were inconsiderate enough to not die on the anniversary of their ascension. More importantly, you might have several kings ruling at the same time, either because there are competing dynasties each claiming the crown, or because an elderly king might appoint his son as a co-ruler, either to ensure a stable succession or just to share the burden of the royal duties.

The Assyrians also had another system of keeping track of the years. They named each year after a particular official, and all documents were stamped with that name. Lists of these officials were maintained, and have survived to our day. Thus by counting back one name for each year, and tying that with various documents mentioning the regnal year of a king, we have an independent check for Assyrian chronology. Thus most people consider the Assyrian chronology secure. Diplomatic links with (for example) the Hittites and Egyptians then allow us to cross check that chronology with other civilisations.

In this context, I should also mention the Hebrew concept of Jubilees (Leviticus 25:8-12), which required that they marked off every seven and then forty nine years. This gave the Israelites an independent chronology, in addition to their lists of Kings and Judges.

Secondly, there is astronomy. Many cultures in the ancient world were keen astronomers, or at least astrologers. They left us with inscriptions of solar and lunar eclipses, the rising and setting of stars, and planetary motions. These inscriptions would also be dated to a particular ruler. We now have the ability to insert the known motions of the planets into Einstein's equations, simulate backwards in time on a computer, and determine when the eclipses and other events could have been observed. We then correlate with the archaeological records, and that provides an accurate and absolute date for the observation, and thus the ruler associated with it.

Of course, this method also has its drawbacks. Firstly, the astronomical phenomena are relatively common, and repeat themselves. Eclipses occur every few years somewhere in the world. So one astronomical observation isn't going to tell you enough to pin down the date. But if you have several such observations, separated by a known number of months, then you have a chance of identifying a particular eclipse or alignment of the planets or stars with the historical inscription. Plus, of course, the king lists and pottery provide us with a date which is accurate to within a few decades. So if you only have one possible match for the astronomical observation in that period, you can be confident about when it was. The second problem is that although we can compute the movements of the planets and moons to a precision which is easily good enough, to work out where on the earth the eclipse would be seen also requires knowing the speed at which the earth rotates. This isn't constant, and over thousands of years the small changes can make a big difference. Here things are far less certain. People in archeoastronomy use various models to account for this, but this is an important source of imprecision. Thirdly, there are questions about where the observation happened. The big debate in New Kingdom Egyptian Chronology is over whether a particular astronomical event was observed in Thebes or Memphis. It leads to a difference of a few decades in the chronology of ancient Egypt (which also ties down the chronology of ancient Israel because of the links between the two regions).

Another form of dating is tree ring dating. I won't discuss this in detail, since it is not so important on the sites I am interested in. The basic idea is that every year trees add an extra ring as they grow. The width of this ring depends primarily on the climate for that year. Thus you get a pattern of thick and thinner rings. If you then match this pattern up against a known continuous sequence of tree rings, you can provide an absolute date for the wood. This method has a number of problems. Firstly local variations in the climate might mean that the pattern might be different in one part of the world compared to another. So unless you have a sequence of rings in the same country to compare against, your matches might be spurious. Secondly there is the problem of old wood. The best that this method can tell you is when the tree was growing, not when it was cut down and used. And it is that second piece of data which you want to know.

Finally, I will mention radiometric dating, of which the most important is radiocarbon dating. Cosmic rays hitting the atmosphere convert nitrogen atoms into the unstable carbon-14 isotope, which has a half life of about 5740 years. This carbon-14 then combines with oxygen, drifts down to the surface, and is absorbed by plants. That plant matter is then eaten by animals. Thus every living being has small traces of radioactive carbon-14 in them. While the being is alive it continually absorbs new carbon-14, but as soon as it dies this process stops. The carbon 14 in the remains of the creature then gradually decays back into nitrogen. The amount of carbon-14 in the substance decreases over time at a known rate, while the amount of stable carbon-12 remains the same. Thus we can dig up the remains of a living organism, perhaps some wood, ash, or a bone. By measuring the ratio of carbon-14 and carbon-12, and if we know the original ratio of carbon-14 to carbon-12, we can calculate how long ago that organism died. This provides an entirely independent method to date archaeological strata.

There are, of course, several problems with radiocarbon dating. The first is that it is not really precise enough to settle chronological disputes. Archaeologists generally agree on their chronology to within a few decades by other means. The statistical imprecision in radiocarbon dating is also in the region of a few decades. Thus it is not capable of resolving these debates one way or the other. However, it can still be useful where there is no inscriptional evidence to securely date a particular pottery style in a particular place, and as confirmation that the general chronological scheme is correct.

Secondly, there is again the old wood problem. Suppose you find a layer of ash in your excavation, indicating that the city was burnt down. You send a sample of ash for radiocarbon dating, and it comes back with a date of 1500BC. What you want to know is when the city was destroyed. But the ash is presumably from the roof timbers of the various buildings. So the best the dating can do is tell you is when the building was built, or at least when it was last repaired. And even this might not be accurate. If the tree had been chopped down decades before, and the wood re-used, or the timbers had come from the inner and thus older parts of the tree, you don't even have this date. All you know is that the city was destroyed sometime after 1500BC, but it might have been decades or perhaps even centuries later. This problem can be resolved by using short lived samples: charred grain, animal bones, olive pits and other such things.

Thirdly, there is the problem of contamination with some modern carbon. This can be avoided with careful enough handling of the artefacts, but can cause the odd anomaly.

Fourthly, there is the problem of the atmospheric ratio of carbon-14 and carbon-12, before it was absorbed into the plants and then the animals. We can measure what that is today, but it changes over time, from one year to another, and even from one season to another. It would have been helpful if the ancient Egyptians had measured it, but sadly they declined to do so, and thus we are left groping in the dark. We have no a-priori way of knowing what this ratio was 3000 years ago, at least with the precision needed to make radiocarbon dating useful. Fortunately, there is a simple way around this problem. We can use use objects of known dates to create a calibration curve between dates calculated using today's atmospheric ratio of the two isotopes and the known date of the object. For example, if we find an object and measure its date as 3000 years before present (the present being 1950) based on today's ratio of carbon-14 to carbon-12, but have another wood sample also dating to 3000 years before present, but which we know was actually from 1100BC, then we can also date the object of interest to about 1100BC. This bypasses the question what the the isotope ratio was in historical times. The calibration curve is constructed primarily from long sequences of tree rings which have survived in Europe and North America, and also from other sources such as ice cores. It is assumed that the carbon 14 diffuses through the atmosphere fast enough that it is the same wherever you are on the hemisphere. Three calibration curves are published: one for the Northern hemisphere, one for the Southern hemisphere, and one for the oceans. One complication, at least for the armchair historian, is that these curves are updated every now and then with slightly different dates, meaning that research published in 1980 gives a date that isn't quite in line with what we would state today.

But with the calibration in place, carbon 14 is a useful and accurate means of dating (if not as precise as we would like), and being scientific it is in many ways superior to the old-fashioned pottery dating of the archaeologists. Or so its advocates would want you to believe.

The first problem is that growing seasons are different in the middle East and the places where the samples were gathered to construct the calibration curves. In Europe and North America, trees tend to grow in the summer. In the middle East, the summer is too hot, and the growing season is the spring and autumn. With seasonal variations in the ratios of the isotopes, this can mean that the calibration curve might not be applicable everywhere. The difference is not going to be big -- but that still might correspond to a few decades.

The second problem is that there is a discrepancy between radiocarbon and the standard archaeological dates constructed according to traditional methods. Up until about 1250BC, the two dating methods are in good agreement. But before that time, at least in the Middle East, there is a steady divergence.

The classic example of this concerns the eruption of Thera, a volcano in the Greek islands. The burnt remains of an olive branch were found under the lava from the volcano, and carbon dated to around 1620BC. However, artefacts from the Minoan civilisation which preceded the Thera eruption have been found in an early 18th Dynasty Egyptian context, dated to around 1520-1500 depending on which Egyptian chronology is adopted. Pumice and ash from Thera also appears in these levels. There is a hundred year discrepancy between the date calculated by traditional archaeological method and the radiocarbon dating. It is impossible to create an extra hundred years of Egyptian history to fill this chronological gap; the 1520BC date is as stretched out as it is possible to be.

Radiocarbon offsets at Tell el-Dab'a

The image above (taken from Manfred, Bietak & Höflmayer, Felix. (2007). Introduction: High and Low Chronology. 13-23) shows that this offset is not unique to this one event. It is taken from an important Egyptian excavation. The red bars show the radiocarbon dates, for short lived samples (avoiding the old wood problem). The grey trapeziums link these to various rectangles, which give the dates obtained from the standard Egyptian chronology. Bietak uses the low chronology of the New Kingdom, while the high chronology which I will use in subsequent posts gives dates about twenty years or so earlier. But, even so, there is a clear and consistent discrepancy of about a century between the dates derived from radiocarbon dating and those from historical dating. This is replicated at numerous other sites.

To my knowledge (which is incomplete and probably a little out of date) this discrepancy has not yet been resolved. The Archaeologists maintain that either the radiocarbon calibration curve must be in error, or there were special circumstances in the Mediterranean area which means that a different calibration needs to be used there. The radiocarbon people assert that their methods are sound, and the historical dates need to be revised. I personally am on the side of the historians. Until the dispute is resolved, caution needs to be applied to the use of radiocarbon dates. They can still, however, be used as another means of relative dating. Whatever has caused the discrepancy, its effects are likely to be the same in Jericho and Jerusalem; so if two strata have the same radiocarbon date, we can be confident that they ought to be dated to within a few decades of each other.


Dates in archaeological excavations are tied to pottery classes, and the pottery types are classified in terms of various "ages". These ages were originally named after various metals, but that is just due to the historical development of the terms. Today, they aren't correlated to the use of Bronze or Iron, and the names shouldn't be taken literally in this sense. People used Iron in the Bronze Age and Bronze in the Iron Age. Instead, they refer to the pottery types.

The periods of interest for biblical archaeology are the Bronze Age and Iron Age. These are further divided into various sections, such as the Early Bronze Age (EB), Middle Bronze Age (MB) and Late Bronze Age (LB). The next level of subdivision is denoted by a number, so you have MB1, MB2, and MB3, and you might further divide these periods by another letter, so the early Late Bronze 1 period could be called LB1a (or just "early late Bronze 1").

Obviously, it is also convenient to relate these periods with dates, which is ultimately what we are interested in. These dates depend on where you are in the world -- the Bronze Age in Europe was at a different time to the Bronze Age in the Middle East. Egypt and the Southern Levant are interconnected, so generally use the same system. However, the dates for these archaeological periods is sometimes disputed, at least when we come down to the finer details. An additional complication is that not all scholars use the same terminology, and call the same period by different names. In particular, the period which I am calling MB1 is more culturally connected to the EB3 period than it is to MB2, so a more modern terminology is to label it as either EB4 or the "Intermediate Bronze Age," and then split the first half of what I am calling MB2 period into MB1 and the second half of it as MB2. This obviously creates a complication when comparing one writer with another.

A rough scheme (stolen from Wikipedia) is as below. This should not be thought of as definitive, but I am presenting it here as a typical example of a pottery chronology. It should be emphasised that these dates are only approximate, and that transition from one archeological period to another was gradual, spanning perhaps even several decades, rather than the sudden jump implied in a chronology such as this.

PeriodDate (BC)

There are a few areas of controversy I should mention. The start of Iron Age 1 is tied to the campaigns of The Egyptian Pharaoh Ramesses III and the invasion of various cultures from the Aegan known as the "Sea Peoples" or the Philistines in the Biblical text. The end of Iron Age 2B is fixed by the Assyrian invasion of Israel. Between those two markers, we don't have any firm ties to either Egyptian or Assyrian chronology, so there is room for dispute for the precise dates of those periods. In particular, several scholars from Tel Aviv, led by Israel Finkelstein, have proposed an alternative chronology where the IA1 period is expanded by about 100 years and the Iron Age 2 period is condensed by the same amount. This redating is justified mainly on the basis of some anomalies in Philistine pottery. However, most scholars believe that it compresses Iron Age 2 far too much. For example, at Hazor six strata (from level 10 to level 5) spanning the latter part of IA2A through to the end of IA2B would occupy would occupy 220 years with the conventional chronology, but only 150 under Finkelstein's chronology. That averages 25 years per strata, which seems too low given that it usually takes 50-60 years for each archaeological period. The radiocarbon evidence is disputed, with both sides claiming that various dates favour them.

Finkelstein's chronology is central to his case about the lack of historicity of the Old Testament. Iron Age 1 is a relatively poor period in Israel, with few major building works. That changes in Iron Age 2A, where there was a significant building program, with consistent archaeological styles. Under the traditional chronology, that building program would date to the time of David and Solomon, and is what we would expect given the Biblical text. However, on Finkelstein's scheme, the building program would instead have been carried out by Kings Omri and Ahab of Israel, leaving David and Solomon in the archaeological vacuum of Iron Age 1.

A second point of contention I am aware of is the transition between the Middle Bronze Age and Late Bronze age. This is conventionally tied with the emergence of the New Kingdom in Egypt, at around 1550BC (low chronology) or 1570 BC (high chronology). There are a sequence of destruction levels in Israel at this time, with cities burnt to the ground or abandoned, which were attributed to the first Pharaoh of the 18th dynasty, Ahmose. Before Ahmose' time, Egypt had been divided. The North of the country was occupied by some hated foreign rulers, called the Hyksos. The South was still under the control of the native Egyptians. There was a conflict between the two, and the native Pharaohs of the seventeenth dynasty, managed to liberate and unify the country, and were renumbered as the 18th dynasty in the process. The Hyksos were Semitic people who originated in the Levant. The Egyptians were known to have pursued them back to their homeland. The destruction layers that mark the transition between the Middle and Late Bronze Ages were assumed to derive from this campaign. However there is no evidence that the Egyptians did launch a large scale campaign into Canaan at this time. Their records only mention an attack on Sharuhen, on the Egyptian border, as a reprisal against the Hyksos. There are hints that Ahmose later campaigned in Syria. But that is it. No evidence of a widespread invasion at that time.

The alternative view was raised by Manifred Beitak based largely on his excavations of Tell el Daba in Egypt, where he could find pottery and artefacts related to particular Pharaohs in the same strata. He has proposed that the transition should be later in the 18th dynasty, around the time of Thutmose III, around 1500-1450 BC (low chronology) or 1520-1470BC (high chronology). Thutmose III was known to have campaigned against some of the cities which were destroyed in the archaeological Middle Bronze to Late Bronze transition, so this is a reasonable alternative. Radiocarbon is of little help in deciding between these two views, since this is the period when radiocarbon dating gives unreliable results.

I should mention that Assyrian pottery uses an entirely different scheme and terminology.


The three main chronologies I am interested in are the Biblical, and Egyptian, and Mesopotamian (Assyrian and Babylonian) as the major civilisations which interacted with the Israelites. There were a few other important civilisations of the time: the Hittites, based in central Turkey, the Phoenicians on the coast of what is now Lebanon and Syria, and Mitanni in those parts of Syria between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. If this were a complete study, I would have to discuss them as well; but since it is not, I will make do with just the three major players.

Egyptian Chronology

Ancient Egypt, as a distinct civilisation, lasted from about 3000BC to 30BC. It was ruled by Kings known as Pharaohs, who traditionally (including by the Egyptians themselves) have been divided into thirty or thirty one dynasties (depending on whether one counts the thirty-first, who were a brief sequence of Persian vassals), followed by the Ptolemaic Kingdom founded by one of Alexander the Great's generals. During this time, Egypt was sometimes united and strong, and sometimes divided and weak. The periods of unity are known as the Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom, New Kingdom, and Ptolemaic Kingdom, and the periods of division are known as the Intermediate Periods. Of most interest to this study are the Middle Kingdom, Second Intermediate Period, New Kingdom and Third Intermediate Period.

We have some histories of Egypt from the Greek and Roman period, and a few surviving ancient Papyri, but our main source concerning ancient Egypt are the numerous inscriptions carved by the Pharaohs and other high officials onto the walls of their temples, shrines and tombs. These sources are biased. Their purpose was to make it seem as though the Pharaohs or other high officials who wrote them were the greatest people ever, since, this would indicate that they had the favour of the Egyptian gods, and would bring greater glory to those gods. The texts were generally written on the walls of temples. They were intended to glorify the good things that the gods had done for the Pharaoh and the people of Egypt. The pharaohs would not record their failures on the temple walls, since that would imply, and be repeated as part of religious worship as the texts were read, either that the gods were impotent or that the Pharaohs did not have their favour. There is no reason to suspect that they lied or falsified anything, but they exaggerated their successes and downplayed or ignored their failures. The official Papyrus court records would have presumably contained a more honest account, but they are now lost to us.

The Middle Kingdom (dynasties 11 through to the first part of dynasty 13) began with the re-unification of Egypt at the start of the 11th dynasty, around 2030BC, give or take a decade or so. It gradually weakened during the 13th dynasty, so that historians are in disagreement about when precisely one can identify the end of the Middle Kingdom and start of the Second Intermediate Period. Proposed dates for the end of the Middle Kingdom range from about 1750BC through to 1650BC. Egypt was not generally aggressive during the Middle Kingdom, and remained within its natural borders, although there was a little expansion towards the South. This was a period of great stability and prosperity.

The Second Intermediate Period, however, was different. The Northern part of Egypt was under the control of foreign rulers. This started midway through the 13th dynasty, where the Semitic 14th dynasty established control in the Eastern delta, possibly from the city of Avaris, modern Tell el Daba. The 13th dynasty continued to rule from Memphis in central Egypt. The 14th and 13th dynasties seem to have co-existed peacefully. Records are scarce, so we don't know what their precise relationship was, but there is no evidence I am aware of for conflict. But, after a period of time, a new dynasty of foreign rulers came to power, the Hyksos. They overthrew the 14th dynasty, and established a violently aggressive government in Avaris, and sought to rule over all Egypt. This 15th dynasty ruled for a little over 100 years. Little is known about the origins of the Hyksos. They had strong links to Canaan, and apparently worshipped the God Seth, rather than the Egyptian chief deity Ra. The Greek historians stated that the Hyksos came through a violent invasion towards the end of the thirteenth dynasty. These historians had access to Egyptian records in Alexandria which are now lost to us, but were writing around one and a half thousand years after the events, and their works only survive through quotations by other writers. So most modern historians don't consider them the most reliable of sources. We have New Kingdom inscriptions describing the end of Hyksos rule, but very little from the Hyksos period itself. Archaeological evidence points to a population of Semitic people in Egypt, recognisable from their artefacts and architecture styles, from the late twelfth dynasty, which gradually increased during the thirteenth dynasty. Thus modern historians generally prefer a gradual infiltration model, and suggested that the 15th dynasty arose from the already established Asiatic population rather than being a new tribe of invaders. A recent study of strontium isotopes in the teeth and bones of people buried in Avaris during this period suggests that the foreign inhabitants of that city were a combination of people who had been born raised in Egypt (even while their ancestors had come from Canaan), while others had been raised abroad and immigrated into the Nile valley. In the time of the 15th dynasty, the majority of people had been born locally, but there were still some who had come from abroad. But, however they achieved it, the Hyksos first overthrew the 14th dynasty, and then began a rapid expansion southwards. They took Memphis, and drove the native Egyptians back into Upper Egypt. The 16th and later 17th dynasties took control in Thebes, and were first of all able to halt the Hyksos expansion, and then gradually recover lost territory. The final years of the second intermediate period were marked by warfare between the 17th and 15th dynasties, as they wrestled with each other for control of the whole country. Eventually the 17th Dynasty won out, the surviving Hyksos were expelled from Egypt, and the rulers of the newly united Kingdom restyled themselves as the 18th dynasty.

The New Kingdom lasts from the 18th dynasty through to midway through the 20th dynasty. Again, it is not completely clear when we should mark the transition to the Third Intermediate period. The New Kingdom was a period of great military expansion. Undoubtedly the greatest ruler of the period was Thutmose III of the 18th dynasty, whose military campaigns established an empire stretching from Nubia up to Syria. In second place would have been the long reigned Ramesses II of the nineteenth dynasty, who wrestled with the Hittites for control of Syria. But the New Kingdom also contained the enigmatic and hated Akhenaten, who (briefly) overturned the old Egyptian religions, and turned the nation into monotheistic sun-worshippers.

The Third Intermediate Period began with the collapse of the New Kingdom's Levantine Empire during the twentieth dynasty under the incursions of invaders known as the sea peoples, who changed the political landscape of the Middle East. Ramesses III was able to hold off the sea peoples and maintain Egypt's integrity, but his successors were weaker rulers, who oversaw Egypt's disintegration into various competing dynasties. There were some high points during this period, such as Shoshenq I's campaign in Israel and Syria, and possibly an earlier campaign by Siamun against the Philistines. But for most of this period, Egypt did not expand into or pay much attention to what was happening to its North East. Eventually, however, the Asiatics came for Egypt. Third Intermediate Period Egypt was absorbed into first the Assyrian and then the Persian Empires.

The chronology of the New and Middle Kingdoms is constrained by correspondence between the Egyptian and Mesopotamian or Hittite rulers, which roughly fixes the dates with reference to Assyrian Chronology, working through the King Lists, and various astronomical observations. In particular, there are references to the helical rising of the star Sothis in both the 12th and 18th dynasties. The question is whether this was observed in Memphis (the religious capital) or Thebes (the secular capital), which leads to a difference of about 20 years in the dates. This has not been resolved, so both remain possibilities. I will use the high chronology based on an observation in Memphis. There are also questions over the lengths of some Pharaoh's reigns, and the extent of various co-regencies. Thus while historians have a great deal of confidence that the dates below are approximately correct, they could be out by 20-30 years. So the two chronologies I present below shouldn't be taken as definitive. My source for the high chronology (on the left for the New Kingdom) is Douglas Petrovich, and for the low Chronology Dodson for the New Kingdom. In both schemes, there is a margin of error of a few years.

12th Dynasty

Amenemhat I1991-19621979-1950
Sesostris I1971-19261960-1916
Amenemhat II1929-18921919-1884
Sesostris II1897-18781887-1878
Sesostris III1878-18411878-1840
Amenemhat III1844-17991859-1813
Amenemhat IV1799-17871814-1805

18th Dynasty

Amenhotep I1550-15291524-1503
Thutmose I1529-15161503-1493
Thutmose II1516-15061493-1479
Thutmose III1506-14521479-1425
Amenhotep II1455-14181427-1397
Thutmose IV1418-14081397-1388
Amenhotep III1408-13691388-1351
Amenhotep IV/Akhenaten1369-13521351-1334

19th Dynasty

Ramesses I1307-13051292-1290
Seti I1305-12901290-1279
Ramesses II1290-12231279-1213
Seti II1209-12031203-1197

Early 20th Dynasty

Ramesses III1194-11621186-1155

Most scholars today prefer the low chronology for the Middle Kingdom, mainly (I think) because it makes better sense of synchronisms with the Hittites and Mesoptomian chronologies. For example, there are letters preserved between Amenhotep III and the Kassite (Babylonian) King Burna-Buriash II. Conventionally Burna-Buriash ruled from 1359–1333 BC, which is inconsistent with the Egyptian high chronology dates, but consistent with the low chronology. Thus proponents of the Egyptian high chronology also need to redate Mesopotamian chronology by about 10-20 years. There is, again, uncertainty and debate the Mesopotamian chronology of this period, but even so there is not that much room to manoeuvre. Thus a consensus is building around the low chronology, if not yet completely unanimous.

I will close by mentioning that a few writers, most notably David Rohl and Peter James, have proposed radically revised Egyptian Chronologies. These are, however, generally rejected because they disrupt the synchronisms between Egypt, the Hittites and Assyria. Rohl's work in particular has gained some popularity because of the proposed links between his revised chronology and Biblical events. In practice, while his revised chronology does solve some problems for the Bible, it creates others in their place. As it is generally rejected by scholars, I will not mention it further in these posts. My policy is to use data and dates which are accepted at least as possibilities by mainstream scholarship.

Biblical Chronology

Biblical Chronology is reasonably uncontroversial from the time of King David to the Babylonian exile. There are two independent lines of Kings with their own lists of regnal years, which can be cross-checked against each other, and against the Assyrian and Egyptian rulers with whom they interacted. The main schemes are those of Theile, Young and Hughes, which are all within a few years of each other. These figures will at most be out by a decade, and probably far less. I have taken them from Kenneth Kitchen's work. I am going to assume for this section that the Bible is a reliable historical source, and use its figures without questioning them. (Any questioning can wait until later.)

Judah KingDate BCIsrael KingDate

Before this time, things are less certain, and much disputed. The two main areas of dispute are the length of the judges period, and the length of time the Israelites spent in Egypt between Joseph and Moses.

With regards to the judges period, the first thought might be to add up the time periods recorded in the book of Judges. This leads to a time of at least 470 years between the time of entry into the promised land under Joshua and King David's ascension. This 470 years excludes various times which are not recorded, including the length of time between the entry into Canaan and Cushan-Rishathaim's oppression, and the time of Samuel's judgeship. We don't know how long these are, although we have some chronological indicators: the twenty years of 1 Samuel 7:2 which comprise part of the time of Samuel, and we can deduce that Joshua's campaign lasted at least six years from Joshua 14:7,10. The length of Saul's reign was originally recorded, but the text at that point is corrupted, so I have also excluded this from the count. Adding in reasonable estimates for these missing periods would give a length of time of at least 500 years, and a conquest in the middle or late sixteenth century BC, around the time of the Middle Bronze age/Late Bronze age transition.

However, almost all scholars believe that this is an over-estimate of the date. Many of the periods recorded in the book of judges are likely to have overlapped.

There is a second string of evidence which points to a 15th century Exodus and a conquest at about 1406BC, the transition between Late Bronze 1 and Late Bronze 2. The key reference here is 1 Kings 6:1 which records that the exodus was 479 or 480 years before the dedication of the temple in Solomon's 4th year, which would be about 967BC. This leads to an Exodus around 1446BC. This is backed up by the 300 years of Judges 11:26, and a reference in the Talmud that Ezekiel's prophecies (Ezekiel 40:1) coincided with the end of the 17th Jubilee cycle, which would again put the conquest in the late fifteenth century.

The main rival to this view, and the one most commonly used, is Albright's proposal that the Exodus took place in the thirteenth century BC. There are numerous main pieces of evidence cited in favour of this view:

  1. This is the approximate time period in which a clear Israelite culture is first seen in the archaeological record in Canaan. There are numerous small villages appearing in the hill country. They are distinguished from the Canaanite culture by a distinctive architectural style (the four roomed house), a distinctive type of pottery (the collar rim jar), an absence of pig bones, and a cultural continuity with the later Iron Age cultures which are identified through written sources with the Biblical Kingdoms of Israel and Judah.
  2. The Merneptah Stele, with its mention of Israel as a people group encountered by the Egyptian Pharaoh on his military expedition into Canaan, is clear evidence that the Israelites were established in the land by 1210BC.
  3. Exodus 1:11 records that the Israelites built the city of Ramses. There is little dispute that this refers to the city of Pi-Ramesses, which was established by Pharaoh Ramesses II as his capital. Ramesses II is dated from 1279 (Low Chronology) or 1290 (High Chronology).
  4. The structure of Deuteronomy closely follows the norms of international treaties of the LB2 period, but not at other periods. This implies that the book, and hence the end of the exodus wanderings, was written around that time.
  5. The New Kingdom Pharaohs of both the eighteenth and nineteenth dynasties conducted numerous campaigns into Israel. During this time, Canaan was largely an Egyptian province. Yet there is no mention of the Egyptians in the books of Joshua or Judges. Nor, it is claimed, is there mention of the Israelites in the Egyptian records until Merneptah. I will discuss the testimony of the Amarna letters, which is also often cited to this effect, in a later post.

Further evidence for the late date of the exodus comes from the archaeology of Moab and Edom, which shows occupation in the LB2/IA1 transition (roughly the date of the conquest in this model), but not, it was claimed, in the LB1 period of the early exodus date. This date was supported by the notable archaeological pioneer Albright, and also by prominent modern scholars such as Kenneth Kitchen and James Hoffmeier. It is also the date used by most critics of the Biblical account.

However, in the following posts I intend to use the early date for the exodus, around 1450BC. I do have some sympathy for the 1550BC date (late Middle Bronze age exodus or very early Late Bronze Age conquest), and wish that greater efforts had been put into investigating that, but I am making it a point of principle that I will follow at least some of the actual scholars in this work. That leaves me with only the 1250 and 1450 exodus dates to choose between, and to my mind the evidence strongly favours the earlier date.

  1. The artefacts at about 1200BC are the earliest surviving artefacts which indicate a settled Israelite culture. However, it is possible that the Israelites were in the land before then, but without leaving evidence. Settled populations leave behind evidence -- we can excavate the buildings they lived in. A nomadic population, living in tents, on the other hand leaves behind very little -- maybe just a few shards of broken pottery scattered around the countryside. But if we are only excavating the Tells then we won't find this. It is notable that the earliest mention of Israelites living in houses in the book of judges is in the story of Gideon. On the early exodus date, this would be set in the late thirteenth century BC - just at the time when the signs of a settled Israelite culture first appear. Before then, the only references we have are in Judges 4 where a household -- not Israelite but of similar stock -- dwelt in a tent, and Judges 7:7-8 where Israelite soldiers were sent home in verse 7 and went to their tents in verse 8. So it is uncertain but consistent with the Biblical witness that the Israelites were nomadic for the first part of their stay in the promised land.

    The book of Judges records that the conquest of Canaan was incomplete. The Israelites failed to drive out the Canaanites in the coastal plain, the central Jezreel valley, and large parts of the Northern hill country. That left them with the central and southern hill country. The number of settlements populated in that region and which leave a mark on the archaeological record reduced dramatically in the Late Bronze Age, until the emergence of the Israelite settlements towards the end of LB2. This decline happened sometime in the LB1 period; I think most scholars would say towards the start of LB1, but it is not completely clear when precisely it was. Early LB1 pottery is fairly similar to late MB pottery, so there is some uncertainty in the dating. Thus it is quite possible that the sedentary MB or early LB1 Canaanite population of the hill country was then replaced by a nomadic population (and thus invisible to archaeologists) for the bulk of the Late Bronze Age, who then settled down again in stone houses towards the end of the Late Bronze age. The emergent Israelites would have had to ignore the command to settle in the Canaanite's houses (Deuteronomy 6:10) -- but since when were the ancient Israelites obedient to the Law of Moses?

    A quote from Finkelstein and Silberman's book regarding these early Israelite settlements is pertinent here:

    However, a dramatic difference can be seen in the bones collected at the few sites in the highlands that continued to be occupied in the periods between the major settlement waves. The number of cattle is minimal, but there is an exceptionally large proportion of sheep and goats. This is similar to the composition of herds among Bedouin groups. For pastoralists who engage in only marginal seasonal agriculture and spend much of the year seeking fresh pastureland, heavy, slow-moving cattle are a burden. They cannot move as fast and as far as sheep and goats. Thus in the periods of intense highland settlement, more people were engaged in farming; in the crisis years, people practised sheep and goat herding.

    The process that we describe here is, in fact, the opposite of what we have in the Bible: the emergence of early Israel was an outcome of the collapse of Canaanite culture, not its cause. And most of the Israelites did not come from outside Canaan -- they emerged from within it. There was no mass Exodus from Egypt [in the thirteenth century]. There was no violent conquest of Canaan [in the thirteenth century]. Most of the people who formed early Israel [who built these Israelite settlements] were local people -- the same people whom we see in the highlands throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages. The early Israelites were -- irony of ironies -- themselves actually Canaanites!

    If we leave aside the polemic, and look at the evidence (of which there is more than I have quoted here) rather than the conclusions, we see that this is this is similar to what we might expect from a fifteenth century Exodus. The thirteenth century settled population of the Israelite highlands arose from a previous nomadic population, which left only enough archaeological traces to hint that it was there, but not to learn anything about its culture. But that nomadic population were not necessarily Canaanites. The only hint we have to their cultural identity is that their descendants, when they built stone dwellings, were Israelites. They could well have been in the land herding their sheep for the previous two hundred years. (Or they might have just arrived, if the late date exodus is correct.) That, of course, brings back the question of whether the situation in the LB1 period of depopulation of the previously settled MB population is consistent with the idea of an Israelite conquest, but I will discuss that in the subsequent post when I look at evidence for the conquest.

    So the evidence of a settled Israelite population in the thirteenth century is not inconsistent with the idea of a fifteenth century Exodus and conquest, given the archaeology of Late Bronze Age Canaan/Israel and the possibility that the Israelites were largely invisible (to us) nomads for the first few hundred years of the occupation of the land.

  2. The Merneptah Stele shows that the Israelites were in the land at around 1213BC (using the chronology above), if it was written down in the last year of Merneptah's life. This is consistent with both the early and late date exodus theories. However, it fits more comfortably with the early date. The Israelites described in the stele are settled in the land. They haven't just arrived. In particular, it would be difficult to imagine Merneptah encountering Joshua during the conquest and it not being recorded in the Biblical record. But let's assume that Merneptah recorded the Israelites just as they crossed the Jordan. If we add forty years of wandering to this date, we reach 1253BC. If we add forty years of Moses exile in Midian, we reach 1293BC. The Biblical text implies that the building of Ramesses was before this. But Ramesses II, in the same chronology, came to the throne in 1290 BC and started building his capital shortly after that date. One can avoid this by supposing that the Biblical text is out of order; that the Israelites built Pi-Ramesses, or at least made a start to the city, during Moses exile in Midian. Even if that was the case, there would still be little time we could add for the Israelites to settle down before encountering Merneptah, or if Merneptah's campaign into Canaan was earlier in his reign. So while not inconsistent with the late date of the Exodus, this does stretch the chronology uncomfortably. The early date theory, on the other hand, has no problems of this sort whatsoever.

  3. The city of Pi-Ramesses has been identified with the archaeological site of Quantir, in the Egyptian delta, on one of the branches of the Nile. It was a large city, and was indeed first built by Ramesses II, and served as the Egyptian capital for most of the nineteenth and twentieth dynasties, before being abandoned in favour of the the city of Tanis a bit further along the Nile. However, just across the river from Quantir is Tell el-Daba, a site which I have already mentioned. Pi-Ramesses grew, and Tell el-Daba became one of its suburbs. Tell el-Daba was a much older site. I will call it Avaris, after the Greek name, but in Egyptian it was known as Hut-waret, and later on the port of Peru-nefer. Avaris was founded back in the twelfth dynasty in the Middle Kingdom, with a substantial Canaanite rather than Egyptian population. After the Middle Kingdom collapsed, it became the Hyksos capital of Northern Egypt. When the Hyksos were defeated by the Pharaohs of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth dynasties, the population of the city was greatly reduced. But the city wasn't completely abandoned. A palace complex and small population continued through the early years of the eighteenth dynasty. It was fully abandoned either during the reign of Thutmose III or Amenhotep II. The site then lay deserted until Ramesses II built his capital a century and a half later. Note that the final abandonment of Avaris corresponds well with the early date of the Exodus.

    So the advocates of the early date of the Exodus maintain that the city built by the Israelites was Avaris, which we know was built by Semites. Later on, either towards the end of the Late Bronze age or early in the Iron age, a copyist updated the name in the text to that of the current city on the site, Pi-Ramesses. The update of the name could not have been later; In Iron Age II they would have used the name of Tanis (or Zoan in Hebrew), the later Egyptian delta capital, as in Psalm 78:12. So while sitting more comfortably the late Exodus date, Exodus 1:11 doesn't rule out the early Exodus date.

  4. The Hittite treaties of the LB2 period that are comparable with Deuteronomy are close enough in time to the early date that they can't be used to distinguish between the early or late dates of the Exodus. They are, however, good evidence that Deuteronomy wasn't composed later still, in the Iron Age.

  5. The Egyptian campaigns tended to be centred around the coastal lowlands, and the Jezreel valley -- areas which were not under Israelite control during at least the early part of the book of Judges. Many of the eighteenth dynasty Egyptian campaigns are also not relevant to the discussion, since Thutmose III, Amenhotep II and earlier Pharaohs ruled before the time of Joshua even on this timeline. That still leaves the campaigns of Seti I, Ramesses II, and possibly Merneptah of the nineteenth dynasty or Horemheb of the eighteenth. However, the book of Judges is sparse in its description. It describes a number of isolated incidents, with decades between them when "the land was at rest" passed over in a single verse. There was thus a lot going on in Israel at the time of the judges which is not recorded in the book of Judges. There is no obviously reason why Egyptians fighting against Canaanites would have been recorded.

    What about 19th Dynasty Egyptian mentions of Israel? Firstly, there is no reason why they would go on mentioning that name. Their campaigns were not concentrated on the hill country occupied by the Israelites. And to the Egyptians, the Israelites would have just been another Semitic group. The society in the judges period was disjointed, held together only by cultural links. There is no obvious reason why the Egyptians would have mentioned the tribal group rather than listing the town or cities, as was their custom, in the bulk of their inscriptions. The inscriptions we have are the Egyptian Pharaohs gloating over their accomplishments, so they would not mention the Israelites unless they had something positive to say about the encounter. So we might not expect many Egyptian mentions of Israel from their campaigns in this period. And there are Egyptian 19th dynasty records which could plausibly be mentions of Israel or Israelite tribes -- not many, but some.

    If the Egyptians were active in Israel at the same time as Joshua, then there would be more of a problem. It is difficult to imagine that both the Israelites and the Egyptians could have been leading major military campaigns in Canaan at the same time and not mentioned each other. However, in the early date Exodus theory, the Egyptian ruler at the time of Joshua would have been Amenhotep III in the early stages of the campaign, with Akhenaten on the throne during the follow-up campaigns described in the opening chapter of book of Judges. There was a reduction in Egyptian campaigns and influence in Canaan from mid way through Amenhotep II's reign until towards the end of the 18th dynasty. The Egyptians campaigned regularly in the South. Thutmose IV (Amenhotep III's predecessor) mentions a brief campaign in Syria. Horemheb lead military campaigns in the North before his ascension to the throne, most likely during the reign of Tutankhamen. That leaves a gap in Egyptian activity just at the time when Joshua and the Israelites would have been active.

  6. There are further possible Egyptian references to Israel, earlier than the Merneptah stele. Firstly, we have the Berlin Pedestal. This was discovered in the late nineteenth century, but lay gathering dust in the basement of the Berlin museum until it caught the eye of a scholar about ten years ago. It is the base of an Egyptian statue, and the inscription lists some of Pharaoh's enemies. The first name specifies the city of Ashkelon, which would become one of the Philistine cities in the coastal plain. The second name specifies Canaan. The third ring is damaged; however it is argued that the only plausible reconstruction from what remains is Israel. The spelling is slightly different from the Merneptah stele, which is one reason why this reading is controversial. Another reason is the proposed date of the statue, in either the late eighteenth dynasty or early nineteenth dynasty -- before the late date of the Exodus, but consistent with the early date. However, both the dating and the reading are very natural interpretations, and if it were not that it challenges the popular late-Exodus and no-Exodus theories there would be no real reason to reject them.

    Secondly, there are the Soleb and Amarah inscriptions. These are down in Sudan, but were set up by the Egyptian Pharaohs, and again they are the Egyptians listing their enemies. The first inscription dates to the time of Amenhotep III; the second to Ramesses II. In the section listing enemies to the North East of Egypt, we find a reference which can be read as referring to the Shasu of Yahweh. Shasu is a generic term for a nomadic or semi-nomadic population. Yahweh is obviously the Israelite God, the name, according to Exodus, first revealed to Moses. These is the earliest inscriptions we know of which refer to the divine name. Obviously this might not refer to the Israelites; perhaps there was an earlier group of Yahweh worshippers among (say) the Midianites. But, in later history where we have more documentation, Yahweh is solely associated with Israel. So there is a very plausible argument that this text refers to the Israelites. Amenhotep III's inscription dates to about 1400BC; consistent with an early date of the Exodus (which would then be a recent memory), but not with the late date.

    Thirdly, there is a plausible reference to the tribe of Asher in an inscription at Wadi Abbad by Seti I, Ramesses II's father and predecessor. Both the general geographical location and the inscribed name are consistent with what we would expect for the Israelite tribe, and there aren't any obvious alternatives that the text could be referring to. Obviously, this is too early for the late date of the Exodus, but perfectly consistent with the early date. Asher's territory lay along the main road from the Jezreel valley to the Phoenician cities, so it is quite plausible that the Egyptian army would have encountered them, and yet avoided the main bulk of the Israelite population in the South.

  7. Finally, there is the archaeological evidence of the Conquest. I will discuss this in detail in a subsequent post, and will admit immediately that there are still many unanswered questions. However, I will argue that a LB1 period provides a much better fit with the Biblical account than the LB2 or IA1 periods.

So I will adopt the early date of the Exodus, around 1450BC, with a conquest around 1410BC.

The second disputed date is the length of time the Israelites spent in Egypt. The key text is Exodus 12:40. In the Masoretic Hebrew text, this reads

40 The time that the people of Israel lived in Egypt was 430 years. 41 At the end of 430 years, on that very day, all the hosts of the Lord went out from the land of Egypt.

However, the Samaritan version of the text reads

40 The time that the people of Israel lived in Egypt and Canaan was 430 years. 41 At the end of 430 years, on that very day, all the hosts of the Lord went out from the land of Egypt.

The Greek manuscripts, based on an early and important translation, are divided between the two versions, as is the account of Josephus. Genesis 15:13 mentions 400 years of affliction. It is thus not clear on the basis of the manuscript evidence whether the Israelites spent 430 years in Egypt, or about half that number, and scholars are known to disagree. I am going to use the longer period, which places Joseph's entry into Egypt at about 1880 in the MBII period, and Abraham's entry into Canaan at about 2090BC in the MBI period. These dates should be regarded as rough approximations, and I reserve the right to question them when I come to discuss the archaeology of Abraham and Joseph. At this point there is a great deal of uncertainty and imprecision in the chronology.

Mesopotamian chronology

Finally, we have the various kingdoms and empires that arose from Mesopotamia, which encompasses modern day Iraq and parts of Syria. The ancient Iranian kingdoms are also relevant to this study, so I will briefly mention them. The main civilisations we are interested in are the Sumerians, in the South of Iraq, the Babylonians (whose major cities included Kish, Larsa, and Babylon), a bit less South than the Sumerians, the Assyrians (Ashur and then Ninevah) in the North East, Mitanni (Carchemish) and Mari in the North West of modern Iraq and across the border into modern Syria, Elam (and later Persia) in the southern Part of Iran, and Gutium and later Media in the Northern part of Iran. Aside from the Iranian civilisations, all of these are connected by the two great rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates. The Hittites (in central Turkey) were also a major power for much of the Old Testament period. In the Old Testament, we frequently encounter individual Hittites, but the civilisation itself plays only an indirect role in how it helped shape international politics.

The Sumerians have a strong case to be the oldest human civilisation, although that depends a bit on how you define "civilisation." They are the ones who built the irrigation canals which gave life to the desert between the rivers, and allowed agriculture to flourish in the otherwise barren land. The Sumerians were the first to invent writing (although the art was independently discovered several times in different places later on). Baked pottery was possibly first used in the neighbouring Iranian highlands, and quickly spread to Sumer. They pioneered the use of agriculture. The first great fortified cities, and monumental temple architecture arose in Sumer. Equally, the earliest recorded empires whose influence spanned across numerous cities where Sumerian. This is the Biblical land of Shinar, mentioned briefly a few times in Genesis through to the book of Joshua. The principle cities of Sumer were Kish, Eridu, Uruk and Ur. The Northern city of Akkad was also significant, at the heart of the first empire which united Sumer with Northern Mesopotamia, and later on places such as Isin, Larsa, and Babylon, just to the North of the Sumerian heartland, would overshadow Southern Mesopotamia.

Biblical history coincides only with the final flourish of the Sumerian civilisation. In the Chronology I am adopting (and again, the chronology is disputed, with variations of up to about 60 years), at about 2200 BC Sumer was invaded by the Gutians, who ruled over the land for about a century. A liberation movement was formed, led by people from the cities of Uruk and Ur. Eventually, the Gutians were driven out, and Sumerian society re-established itself, first with a brief dynasty based in Uruk, and then with the third dynasty of Ur. Once again, these dates for the third dynasty of Ur should be seen as very approximate.

Ur-Nammu 2112–2095
Shulgi 2095–2047
Amar-Sin 2046–2038
Shu-Sin 2037–2029
Ibbi-Sin 2028–2004

The third dynasty of Ur rapidly North spread out of its heartland, and into Northern Mesopotamia and Syria. They seemed to have a smaller area of direct control, but numerous vassal states paying them tribute. Their maximum influence was during the reigns of Shulgi and Amar-Sin, who, if the Biblical chronology above is accurate, would have been contemporaries with Abraham. Records are sparse, but there is indication that the states giving them tribute stretched to the Mediterranean coast at Byblos.

Contemporary with the Sumerian dynasty were the Old Elamite Kingdom, and in particular its Shimashki dynasty, from about 2100-1900BC, and the Sukkalmah dynasties which followed it. Little is known about the Elamite Kingdoms of this period. At times they were dominated by the Sumerian and then Babylonian Kingdoms; at other times they dominated them, and at other times were allied. Even during periods when they were dominated by the Sumerians, they maintained their independent royalty. This period marks the high point of Elamite civilisation, until the great Persian Empires one and a half thousand years later. However, historical records for this period are sparse, and there is a lot more that we don't know than do know, including the names and dates of many of its Kings.

The third dynasty or Ur fell after a rebellion by several of its vassals, first of all the Amorite settlements of Isin and Larsa, and then a direct attack from Elam. After a short time of Elamite domination (about which we know little), the Kings of Isin and Larsa was able to drive his former allies out of the land, and the rulership shifted to the Amorite cities, to first Isin and then Larsa. The Sumerian Empire collapsed at this point, and in particular the Assyrians to the North declared independence. This period lasted into the 1750s, when the first Babylonian dynasty arose, lead by the great law maker Hammurabi.

The ruling house of Isin and Larsa were Amorites. These people were originally from Syria, and perhaps also in Canaan, and led a generally nomadic and tribal lifestyle. They are mentioned in writings from Sumer, Akkad, Assyria, and Egypt. They exerted pressure on the Sumerians, and the inability of the later Kings of the third dynasty of Ur to effectively control its Northern border was one of the factors that led to its downfall. With the defeat of the First Babylonian Empire, at the start of the 16th century, the Amorite influence in Mesopotamia was ended, leaving them with just a minor presence in Caanan and Syria. References to the Amorites stop at around 1200BC.

The first Dynasty of Babylon fell after an invasion from the Hittites, but the Hittites were themselves defeated by the Hurrians, and in the 14th century the political map changed again. Power shifted to the North, to the Hurrian Kingdom of Mitanni in Syria and the Middle Assyrians in Northern Iraq. These Kingdoms contested with Egypt and the Hittites for control of Syria and Israel. The Hittites and Mitanni fell to the Sea peoples at about 1200BC, and the Assyrians and Egyptians were subdued, leaving a power vacuum that lasted until the rise of the neo-Assyrian Empire.

The neo-Assyrians rose to power in 924BC, and gradually expanded to the South and East to form a massive Empire that span from the Persian gulf up to Southern Turkey, and then back down the Mediterranean coast to Egypt. The dates below are known with near certainty, until the last few rulers as the Assyrian Empire was collapsing.

Ashur-Dan II 935–912
Adad-nirari II 912–891
Tukulti-Ninurta II 891–884
Ashur-nasir-pal II 884–859
Shalmaneser III 859–824
Shamshi-Adad V 824–811
Adad-nirari III 811–783
Shalmaneser IV 783–773
Ashur-Dan III 773–755
Ashur-nirari V 755–745
Tiglath-Pileser III 745–727
Shalmaneser V 727–722
Sargon II 722–705
Sennacherib 705–681
Esarhaddon 681–669
Ashurbanipal 669- 631
Sin-shumu-lishir 626
Sin-shar-ishkun 627–612
Ashur-uballit II 612

The growing Assyrian Empire came into conflict with Biblical Israel and Judah from the time of King Ahab. The Kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrians under Shalmaneser V. Sargon and Sennacherib then attacked Judah, which survived the attack, but only barely and the Kingdom was considerably weakened.

During the time of Sinsharishkun, in a general period of instability, Nabopolassar, governor of Babylon, declared independence. Surviving the initial Assyrian reprisals, the Babylonians were able to gain control of Southern Mesopotamia. The revolt was joined by the Medes, and Ninevah was captured in 612BC. The remnants of the Assyrian Empire, together with their Egyptian allies, lost the decisive battle against the Babylonians at Carchemesh in 605BC, and from there the Babylonians were able to retake most of the old Assyrian Empire without meeting serious opposition. The best known Babylonian King was Nebuchadnezzar II, who defeated the Kingdom of Judah, led its people into exile, and destroyed Jerusalem including its temple. This event marks the end of the period I am discussing in this series. After Nebuchadnezzar's death, the Babylonian kingdom underwent a period of instability, from which it never really recovered.

Nabopolassar626 – 605
Nebuchadnezzar II 605 – 562
Amel-Marduk 562 – 560
Neriglissar 560 – 556
Labashi-Marduk 556
Nabonidus 556 – 539
Belshazzar 553 - 539

Following the death of Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian's former allies in Media were overcome by the Persians to their South. The combined forces of Persia and Media were then able to defeat the Babylonian army in a disastrous defeat during the last years of Nabonidus. That left the city of Babylon defenceless, and the Persians were able to take it in a swift attack, and take its last King prisoner. The Persian Empire then rapidly seized control of all of the Middle East, to become the most powerful Empire the world had yet seen.


Ancient near East

Israel and surrounding lands

Israel itself can be divided into a number of regions. To the South, there is the Negev desert. As you work Northwards, there is a mountainous country, the central hill country, which is still arid but able to support livestock farming and limited agriculture, mostly grapes and olives and other fruit trees. This was in many ways the heartland of ancient Israel, with the major cities of Beersheba, Hebron, Jerusalem, Bethel, Shiloh, Samaria and Schechem. In the South West, there is a fertile and largely flat coastal plain, the Philistine plain, and to the East the Jordan river and its East bank provides another flat fertile region, until you come to the Jordanian plateau and desert. Moving North from the central hill country, there is the broad and fertile Jezreel valley, separated from the Philistine plain by the Carmel ridge. These flatter areas were the agricultural heartland of the region, and thus their cities were the wealthiest and most powerful. The main cities of the valley are Mediggo, Tanaach and Jezreel. Another hill country lies to the North of the Jezreel valley and to the West of the Sea of Galilee, extending Northwards towards Lebanon. The most important cities in this region were Hazor, to the North of the sea of Galilee, and Dan, which marked the Northern boundary of Israel.

The main road through Israel ran from the Sinai coast through the Philistine plain, and it crossed the Carmel ridge into the Jezreel valley. From here, one could turn North West through the territory of Asher to the coast towards the Phonecian cities, or North East, skirting the Sea of Galilee and then Northwards towards Hazor and then onwards to Damascus. A second major road crossed the Negev South of the Dead Sea, and then progressed Northwards to the East of the dead sea and Jordan along the Jordanian Plateau to Damascus. Both routes thus avoided the central hill country where the bulk of the Israelites lived.

Aside from Jerusalem, Schechem and Hazor, the most important and wealthiest cities in the region were either in the coastal Philistine plain, the Jezreel valley, or the Jordanian valley. This is not surprising -- this is where the best land was, and these cities were connected to civilisation on the main road. The central hill country was seen by the major powers, until the time of the Assyrians, as a poor, unimportant, backwater. It was bypassed by the important roads, and contained few important or major cities.

The Old Testament Text

I also need to address the formation of the Old Testament text. This is obviously a different question to the reliability of the Old Testament, though not completely unrelated. The text, in its current form, can be relatively late and historically accurate. It could be relatively early, and inaccurate. But there is a general rule of thumb that earlier sources tend to be more reliable than late sources, and this is also the case here. As such, those who believe that the New Testament text is inaccurate usually tie in their interpretation of it with a composition during the monarchy or even Persian periods, while those who regard it as accurate will postulate that it was composed, perhaps not in the exact form we have today, but close to it, around the time of the events it describes.

The traditional view, of course, regarding to the historical books, is that Genesis through to Deuteronomy were written by Moses, or at least (especially with regards to the narrator of Deuteronomy) someone of the same generation. Joshua by Joshua; Judges assembled probably at the time of Saul or David based on earlier records; Samuel would be based on the records of Samuel, Nathan and Gad, and Kings and Chronicles compiled either during the exile or after it, but based on contemporary notes and the royal and priestly archives of Judah and Israel. The books of the prophets would be written either by the prophets themselves or their scribes. The wisdom books compiled over a period of time, and Job is hard to place. That does not preclude that there was some later editing of the works, and, as stated, various anachronisms in the text imply that there must have been if this basic framework is to be accepted. It is also possible that various small notes were added to the text by later copyists, perhaps first as an explanatory marginal note explaining obsolete terminology, and later merged into the main text. Equally, there would be updating of the spelling and grammar, and even the script was changed from Late Bronze Age Paleo-Canaanite through to the modern Aramaic based Hebrew characters. The books of Kings and Chronicles were obviously put together by historians with a distinct theological bias. They were intended to convey the message that Israel and Judah prospered under God-fearing Kings, and suffered under those who succumbed to idolatry, and selected the accounts they would share accordingly. But, for the earlier works, such editing would be minimal, according to the traditional view. The various texts were then canonised and put together in their final form in the post exilic period, either by Ezra or some of his successors. This is not to say that there is no evidence of later editing and combination of sources in the Old Testament -- the obvious examples are Judges 17-18 and 19-20, which are disconnected from the main body of the text, and could well have originally been separate stories tacked onto the rest of the book at a later date; but the work of such editors in claimed to be minimal. The date and place of composition are assumed to be contemporary, unless obvious otherwise from internal clues (such as the mention of David in the book of Ruth, indicating that the story was written down during or after David's reign; and the references to Israelite Kingdom integrated into Judges 17-20, without any knowledge of the division of the Kingdom, suggests that those stories between the time of Saul and Rehoboam as the Kingdom was trying to establish itself over the loosely united tribal structure).

Assuming the above paradigm, were there documents originally a unified work, or compiled from different sources? There are a few hints suggesting what the sources behind them might have been. In ancient Akkadian texts (from Mesopotamia or Assyria) it was customary to insert a brief note, usually at the end of the tablet and known as a colophon, which gives details of the author and the time and place it was written. There are a few possible colophons in the Torah, indicating the original breaks in the original documents before a later redactor merged them together into their current form. There are some differences with the format from other documents of the era, but that is not unexpected given the different language and culture. Thus we have:

  1. Exodus 38:21. These are the records of the tabernacle, the tabernacle of the testimony, as they were recorded at the commandment of Moses.
  2. Leviticus 26:46. These are the statutes and rules and laws that the Lord made between him and the people of Israel through Moses on Mount Sinai.
  3. Leviticus 27:34. These are the commandments that the Lord commanded Moses for the people of Israel on Mount Sinai.
  4. Numbers 30:16. These are the statutes that the Lord commanded Moses about a man and his wife and about a father and his daughter while she is in her youth within her father's house.
  5. Numbers 36:13 These are the commandments and the rules that the Lord commanded through Moses to the people of Israel in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho.

Some of these words obviously are at the end of the section they describe, such as Numbers 30:16. Exodus 38:21 concludes the main section describing the construction of the tabernacle, although there is a section following it describing the material brought forward for the tabernacle construction, and another section on the making of the priests garments. Leviticus 26:46 is immediately preceded by a series of blessings and curses, which customarily concluded an ancient covenant document. The main section of the book of Deuteronomy both begins and ends with an attribution:

  1. Deuteronomy 1:1 These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel beyond the Jordan in the wilderness, in the Arabah opposite Suph, between Paran and Tophel, Laban, Hazeroth, and Dizahab.
  2. Deut 29:1 These are the words of the covenant that the Lord commanded Moses to make with the people of Israel in the land of Moab, besides the covenant that he had made with them at Horeb.

The book of Deuteronomy continues past this point, with an account of Moses' writing of the law, Joshua's succession, two songs of Moses, and an account of Moses' death. The conclusion of all this is that the Torah, at least from Exodus through to Deuteronomy 28, is introduced as a series of documents written by Moses and later combined together by a later editor. There are three main covenant documents (Exodus 1-Leviticus 26; Numbers 1-Numbers 36; Deuteronomy 1-29:1), with a few shorter documents inserted either after the covenant documents (Leviticus 27, Deuteronomy 29-34) or interpolated inside them (Numbers 30; Exodus 35:4-38:23) by a later editor. So the books claim Mosaic authorship, although a latter editor probably arranged them into their current form. The colophons can be used to hypothesise what the original source documents were, all (baring the end of Deuteronomy) attributed to Moses at different points in his career. There would also have been a few minor changes and insertions as the texts were copied through the centuries. This is speculation, but not implausible. The book of Judges also shows signs of being merged together from various sources.

In the 1930s, P. J. Wiseman proposed that the toledoths of Genesis also served a similar function as concluding the section that immediately preceded them. The standard view is that these serve as the introduction to the next section. They are usually, but not always, followed by a genealogy, and most translations will render them as "These are the generations of ...". However, not every genealogy is preceded by a toledoth, and there is another Hebrew word more frequently used to denote generation. In Wiseman's view, the toledoth concluded the source document and the genealogy began the next one. The word was certainly used as an introduction to a genealogy in later periods, for example when it is used in the books of Ruth and 1 Chronicles, and the translator of the LXX interpreted it this way. It is possible that word changed its meaning over time, and had a different meaning in the earlier documents of Genesis and Numbers. Those who support Wiseman's view would instead translate its use in the Torah as something similar to "family history" or "account".

The Toledoths occur at:

  1. Genesis 2:4. The generations of the heavens and the earth, following the first creation account, and preceding the story of Adam.
  2. Genesis 5:1. The book of the generations of Adam. Following the accounts of Adam and Cain (including the genealogy of Cain), and preceding the genealogy of the descendants of Seth.
  3. Genesis 6:9. The generations of Noah. Following the genealogy up until Noah's time, and a statement about the corruption of the earth. The main flood narrative follows this toledoth.
  4. Genesis 10:1 The generations of the sons of Noah. This follows the flood narrative, and precedes a genealogy of the descendants of Japheth, Ham and Shem.
  5. Genesis 11:10. The generations of Shem, following the tower of Babel account, and precedes a genealogy of Shem down to Terah.
  6. Genesis 11:27. The generations of Terah, following the genealogy of Shem to Terah, and precedes the story of Abraham.
  7. Genesis 25:12/25:19. The generations of Ishmael and Isaac. Following the stories of Abraham until his death, and ending with Isaac happily settled down in the land with his wife, and preceding the genealogies of Ishmael, and the story of Isaac's children Esau and Jacob.
  8. Genesis 36:1/36:9/37:2. The generations of Esau and Jacob. This follows Jacob's story and concludes with him settling down happily in the land. It precedes lists of the descendants of Esau and the story of Jacob's children, leading into the account of Joseph.
  9. Numbers 3:1. The generations of Aaron and Moses. This follows an account of a census of the people of Israel, and precedes a list of Aaron's sons.

There is no toledoth or other colophon concluding the story of Joseph at the end of the book of Genesis. This story is a little different in tone and language to the rest of Genesis. For example, it contains many words borrowed from Egyptian, while the preceding sections of Genesis are purely Semitic.

Wiseman's theory was that the toledeths marked the end of the individual source documents, written by the person they named after they had settled down. Basically they record a family history maintained through the generations, which each person writing the accounts of his ancestors up until the point where he had settled down with children to whom he could pass the torch (or, at least, they would later be attributed to those individuals). They were then both translated and stitched together by a later editor, presumed to be Moses, who only made a few minor changes to the text, but just copied one after the other. The account of Joseph would have been added from an Egyptian source document lacking a colophon.

Wiseman's view has its pros and cons. The standard interpretation of toledoth as introducing a section or genealogy does not fit with Genesis 2:4, 25:19 and 37:2, which are not followed by a genealogy or an account of the person involved (Genesis 11:27 only barely escapes being added to this list), while these passages do fit with Wiseman's hypothesis. Indeed, most of the tolodeths do bring the story of the person they name to a natural conclusion where he is living happily with his family, and the person referred to them is still reputed to be alive (if one takes the long lifespans recorded in the text seriously) at the time when the story preceding the tolodeth comes to an end. On the other hand, the toledoths around the time of Noah and his sons don't fit so well with this account, and the toledoths of Esau and Ishmael don't fit the pattern but do fit the idea that a toledoth introduces a genealogy, and those genealogies are a rather blunt insertions into the main story. You have to take out Genesis 25:12-18 and 36 for Wiseman's proposal to work. Wiseman justified his hypothesis by comparing these accounts to Akkadian cuneiform tablets of the second and third millenium BC, but the form of the toledoth doesn't really match the colophons of those documents. As such, Wiseman's hypothesis should be viewed as an interesting speculation, but no more than that. It has found a few supporters, but is rejected by most scholars, even those who are sceptical about the documentary hypothesis and hold to a traditional view of the composition of the Torah.

Needless to say, the traditional view of authorship is heavily disputed, and has been since the nineteenth century or even earlier.

The starting point for these sceptical views is the documentary hypothesis by Wellhausen, which proposes two things: 1) That the Old Testament is the merger of four different works, known as J, E, P and D; 2) These works were written during the latter part of the united monarchy; 3) They were then merged together by a post-exilic redactor. This is the starting point and not necessarily where people are today. There are many who would divide the text further beyond these four sources, but I don't want to discuss them here. The main source I will use for arguments in favour of the Documentary hypothesis is Richard Friedman's Who wrote the Bible?. The various counter arguments I have picked up from various places, but the most important are probably Umberto Cassuto's The documentary hypothesis and various works of Kenneth Kitchen.

To put it a little over-simply: the four authors are distinguished by their style and vocabulary. J names God as Yahweh (which in the Latin translation was transliterated as Jehovah). He is particularly focused on Judah and the Kingship, and is strongly monotheistic. E names God as El or Elohim. He has more of a focus on the Northern tribes, tends to emphasise an ensemble of prophets opposed to the governing ruler, and is perhaps a little more flexible in his monotheism. P is concerned with things like genealogies and religious rituals, and wants to promote the supremacy of the Aaronic priesthood. D wrote most of Deuteronomy and the historical books. He is moralistic, and likes long sermons.

As well as identifying the sources, the documentary hypothesis proposes when and where the books were written. J is claimed to have been written in Judah, midway through the united monarchy. E was the response shortly afterwards from Israel. P was originally proposed as being written after the exile by the priestly class in Jerusalem, but Friedman proposed that it was written shortly before the destruction of the temple. Deuteronomy is usually associated with the book of the law which Josiah's secretary claimed to have re-discovered during the renovation of the temple. In the view of the source critics, the book was actually written at that time to try to justify Josiah's religious reforms. These authors might have been inspired in part by earlier legends, but they largely wrote to provide religious justification for their own interests, and thus were not afraid to just make things up if it suited their goals.

So the question immediately presents itself: what evidence supports this construction? From what I can see, for something that has gained such wide acceptance, remarkably little. The whole structure is supposition built upon supposition.

We have no hard physical evidence for the early forms of the Old Testament text. The main Hebrew text used as the basis of our translations is the Masoretic text, with manuscripts dating back to the 10th or 11th century AD. This is our earliest complete Hebrew text of the Old Testament. While obviously very late compared to its date of composition, this is in line with other literature from the ancient world. A parchment manuscript that has survived for a thousand years has done pretty well for itself. The manuscripts were written on papyrus or parchment, both of which rot in all but the driest conditions.

Conditions such as those found around the dead sea. The dead sea scrolls are very fragmentary, but contain texts from almost all of the books of the Old Testament, written from the first century BC to the first century AD. They confirm that there were no significant changes to the text of the Old Testament between a time a bit before that of Christ and the Masoretic text.

We also possess two other sources, which deviated from the Hebrew text at an even earlier date. Firstly, there is the Greek translation, the LXX. This was made (or at least started) around 230BC, and again confirms that the Masoretic Hebrew text did not deviate significantly from the Old Testament text at that date (what variations there are are noted and taken into account by both conservative and liberal Old Testament scholars). Secondly, the Samaritans kept their own version of the Torah, which they maintained independently of the mainstream Jews. We don't know when the two traditions split, although it is notable that the Samaritans kept the old Paleo-Hebrew alphabet used during the Israelite monarchy, while the Jews changed their alphabet during the exile to the block letters used in Mesopotamia. Jewish tradition states that Ezra changed the script of their holy texts. This might suggest that the Samaritan literary traditions split from the Jews before the time of Ezra, and possibly before the exile (as implied by the Samaritan origin story in 2 Kings 17:24-34). So we have good reasons from the manuscript evidence to accept that the Old Testament was complete and seen as authoritative by the third or fourth century BC, and that the Masoretic text we possess accurately reflects the Hebrew Old Testament of that time. The Old Testament could, of course, be much older than that. All we know from the manuscript evidence is that it could not have been later. We have a seventh century BC copy of Numbers 6:24-26 inscribed on a small silver scroll; but the Aaronic blessing could be older than the rest of the text, so it is not really an indication of when the rest of Numbers was written. So that is as far as the physical evidence can take us. And we have no right to expect any more. The Old Testament would have been written on Papyrus scrolls, which have long since rotted or been destroyed by invading armies. It could have been written a thousand years before the time of Ezra, or it could have been written by Ezra. As far as the manuscripts themselves are concerned, there is no way to decide.

So without hard external evidence, people are able to make up any wild theory they like, and there is little to challenge them. Indeed, there was even less evidence when the documentary hypothesis was first proposed. But it is easy to propose a theory consistent with the evidence (especially when there is no evidence), but much harder to prove it true. Indeed, the earliest proposers of documentary hypothesis made two false assumptions to dismiss the traditional account of authorship.

  1. That writing wasn't invented until well after the time of Moses. This is false; our earliest surviving examples of writing date from around 3000BC, and examples of the alphabetic script later adapted by the Israelites dates from around 1800BC.
  2. That religions gradually evolve from simple animism into more sophisticated forms over time, both in their theologies and cultic practices. This hypothesis is unproven, and even if true there were already other religions of equal sophistication to that described in the Torah by the time of Moses (and, indeed, in our earliest written records). Even if the evolution view of religion views did evolve, that process had culminated into sophisticated religious cults before Moses arrived on the scene, so the theory has no bearing on the authorship of the Torah.

These days, those who advocate the documentary hypothesis focus on the internals of the text.

There are a few assumptions made:

  1. Each author wrote with a single rigid style and vocabulary, particularly but not only with regards to the names used for the deity.
  2. The authors weren't interested in the truth, but advancing the political power of their favoured group.
  3. Within each author there was no duplication or repetition; the repetitions in the Bible were caused by the redactor merging together different sources each of which had a different rendition of the same story.
  4. Each author was perfectly internally consistent. Inconsistencies were again created when the redactor merged together different sources.
  5. Other signs of composite authorship include duplicate passages or different names for the same person or place.
  6. Theological ideas always develop in a linear fashion, starting out with the simplest conceptions and gradually becoming more sophisticated.

None of these assumptions stand up to scrutiny. They defy common sense, and what we know about other cultures and literary traditions in the ancient world. The authors of the Old Testament lived in the Bronze and Iron Age. They cannot be expected to hold to the literary standards of a modern writer. The modern academic writer polishes his work to remove inconsistencies in style or theme. But this is not the norm. Most people are inconsistent in their style and vocabulary as they write. They might contradict themselves in either their theme or content. This is particularly true if they wrote over the course of many years, gradually adding to a work. They repeat themselves (this is certainly true of me on this blog). The source critics hold the Old Testament writers to a standard which they should not be reasonably be expected to meet. A writer's style will vary according to his topic, readership, who he had to proof-read or edit his work, and over the course of his life as he becomes more practised and mature, encounters new ideas and words, and thinks things over again.

For example, a single writer can write both enthralling narrative (as in the first 19 chapters of Exodus) and a boring detailed description of carpentry and needlework (as in Exodus 25-28). His goal in the first place would be to record a particular history; in the second place to detail something else which was equally important to him. Why should he be expected to describe the tabernacle construction with the same vividness as he described the plagues of Egypt? They are different subject matters, which naturally lend to a different style. And why should the same author not want to write them both down? It is not necessary to propose separate authors when a single author will do. And why should that same author not also be interested in moral concerns, and outline commandments? Why should he not want to promote both his own priority and the priesthood of his brother?

Equally, a good author will change their style between writing a book and giving a speech. They will vary it according to their intended audience. Deuteronomy records series of speeches and a few poems and songs, joined together by a framing narrative. We should expect it to be different in style to the books of Numbers or Leviticus, which were literary from the start, and always intended to be.

Or take differences in vocabulary. If there are two words describing the same concept, why should an author not switch from one to the other? If they truly have the same meaning, then the author might pick one word over the other just according to his mood, or whoever he happened to last be conversing with. If, however, in the mind of the author, they have a subtly different meaning, then he will choose the one that best fits what he intends. It is difficult for us today to pick up those nuances, since we live over three thousand years after the document was written, there are no other contemporary sources in the same language to judge it against, and languages evolve over time with nuances between different words both created and lost. The later scholar studying his work might not understand the author's purpose. Maybe that scholar views the two words as true synonyms; maybe he has a different way of distinguishing them. To that scholar, the use of one word over the other might seem inexplicable. But the failures of the scholar do not nullify the author's internal logic.

Take, for example, the different names of the deity in the Old Testament. It is well noted that the word "El" or its derivatives are used when God is described as the sovereign over the universe, and ruler of all mankind. "Yahweh" is used when describing God interacting directly and personally with particular people. There are a few exceptions to this rule, but it is striking how few there are. So did the author of the Torah swap between his two names for God to make this distinction? We don't know. Maybe it was something else that caused him to pick one over the other. We can't read minds, particularly the minds of people who lived three and a half thousand years ago in an alien culture, so it is foolish for us to say that we know for certain the author's intent in picking one word over another -- unless he tells us. Neither can we say that an author could not have switched names. But there is no need to posit that he was actually two different people when simpler hypotheses equally well or perhaps even better explain the data. What we do know is that when gods in the ancient world often had more than one commonly accepted name, sometimes the authors of documents that referenced those gods would switch between those names even in a single document. ( Kitchen, Ancient Orient and the Old Testament, 1966, Intervarsity )

Or take inconsistency in theme. Often these are in the mind of the interpreter more than they were in the author, and a sign that the interpreter has not properly understood the author's intent. Perhaps the interpreter has a rigid view of either A or B, while the author was in practice somewhat more nuanced, and took a position that took on elements of both positions. So in the mind of the interpreter, the author was sometimes arguing for A and at other times, and inconsistently, for B, while in reality the author was arguing for neither of those positions but coherently outlining a third view. It is well observed that a form or source critic will frequently raise two passages as inconsistent, as they make no sense in his enlightenment world-view and theology, while to the conservative with a different world-view and theology they are perfectly coherent. All that tells us is that the conservative's general understanding and world-view is closer to that of the original author (though, no doubt, still not perfectly aligned) than the modern scholar. And if there was an genuine inconsistency in the author's thought, then that implies nothing. Few people are perfectly consistent in their beliefs. Or those same beliefs, or their way of expressing them, might change over time.

The source critic will claim that it is not just each of these points individually which makes their case, but their cumulative effect. One can split the document into sections which show multiple of these features. However, the documentary hypothesis splits up the text on a verse by verse basis. And with this degree of cutting, one can artificially create this consistency by assigning any verses from a section which disagree with the paradigm to a different author. The "sources" are consistent (to the degree that they are consistent) because they were deliberately constructed to be so. The consistency of the sources is the result of the assumptions used to construct them, and thus cannot be used to justify those assumptions.

Take, for example, the story of Noah's flood. Richard Friedman, in his work Who wrote the Bible? uses this as the paradigmatic example of how the methods of the documentary hypothesis can uncover the sources, and I will cite his deconstruction of the text. The verses he attributes to J are in italics; the verses he attributes to P are in bold. I am using the ESV translation.

Genesis 6:9 These are the generations of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God. 10 And Noah had three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth. 11 Now the earth was corrupt in God's sight, and the earth was filled with violence. 12 And God saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth. 13 And God said to Noah, "I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence through them. Behold, I will destroy them with the earth. 14 Make yourself an ark of gopher wood. Make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch. 15 This is how you are to make it: the length of the ark 300 cubits, its breadth 50 cubits, and its height 30 cubits. 16 Make a roof for the ark, and finish it to a cubit above, and set the door of the ark in its side. Make it with lower, second, and third decks. 17 For behold, I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life under heaven. Everything that is on the earth shall die. 18 But I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons' wives with you. 19 And of every living thing of all flesh, you shall bring two of every sort into the ark to keep them alive with you. They shall be male and female. 20 Of the birds according to their kinds, and of the animals according to their kinds, of every creeping thing of the ground, according to its kind, two of every sort shall come in to you to keep them alive. 21 Also take with you every sort of food that is eaten, and store it up. It shall serve as food for you and for them." 22 Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him.

7:1 Then the Lord said to Noah, "Go into the ark, you and all your household, for I have seen that you are righteous before me in this generation. 2 Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and his mate, and a pair of the animals that are not clean, the male and his mate, 3 and seven pairs of the birds of the heavens also, male and female, to keep their offspring alive on the face of all the earth. 4 For in seven days I will send rain on the earth forty days and forty nights, and every living thing that I have made I will blot out from the face of the ground." 5 And Noah did all that the Lord had commanded him.

6 Noah was six hundred years old when the flood of waters came upon the earth. 7 And Noah and his sons and his wife and his sons' wives with him went into the ark to escape the waters of the flood. 8 Of clean animals, and of animals that are not clean, and of birds, and of everything that creeps on the ground, 9 two and two, male and female, went into the ark with Noah, as God had commanded Noah. 10 And after seven days the waters of the flood came upon the earth. 11 In the six hundredth year of Noah's life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened. 12 And rain fell upon the earth forty days and forty nights. 13 On the very same day Noah and his sons, Shem and Ham and Japheth, and Noah's wife and the three wives of his sons with them entered the ark, 14 they and every beast, according to its kind, and all the livestock according to their kinds, and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth, according to its kind, and every bird, according to its kind, every winged creature. 15 They went into the ark with Noah, two and two of all flesh in which there was the breath of life. 16 And those that entered, male and female of all flesh, went in as God had commanded him. And the Lord shut him in. 17 The flood continued forty days on the earth. The waters increased and bore up the ark, and it rose high above the earth. 18 The waters prevailed and increased greatly on the earth, and the ark floated on the face of the waters. 19 And the waters prevailed so mightily on the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered. 20 The waters prevailed above the mountains, covering them fifteen cubits deep. 21 And all flesh died that moved on the earth, birds, livestock, beasts, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all mankind. 22 Everything on the dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died. 23 He blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens. They were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those who were with him in the ark. 24 And the waters prevailed on the earth 150 days.

8:1 But God remembered Noah and all the beasts and all the livestock that were with him in the ark. And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided. 2 The fountains of the deep and the windows of the heavens were closed, the rain from the heavens was restrained, 3 and the waters receded from the earth continually. At the end of 150 days the waters had abated, 4 and in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat. 5 And the waters continued to abate until the tenth month; in the tenth month, on the first day of the month, the tops of the mountains were seen. 6 At the end of forty days Noah opened the window of the ark that he had made 7 and sent forth a raven. It went to and fro until the waters were dried up from the earth. 8 Then he sent forth a dove from him, to see if the waters had subsided from the face of the ground. 9 But the dove found no place to set her foot, and she returned to him to the ark, for the waters were still on the face of the whole earth. So he put out his hand and took her and brought her into the ark with him. 10 He waited another seven days, and again he sent forth the dove out of the ark. 11 And the dove came back to him in the evening, and behold, in her mouth was a freshly plucked olive leaf. So Noah knew that the waters had subsided from the earth. 12 Then he waited another seven days and sent forth the dove, and she did not return to him anymore. 13 In the six hundred and first year, in the first month, the first day of the month, the waters were dried from off the earth. And Noah removed the covering of the ark and looked, and behold, the face of the ground was dry. 14 In the second month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, the earth had dried out. 15 Then God said to Noah, 16 “Go out from the ark, you and your wife, and your sons and your sons' wives with you. 17 Bring out with you every living thing that is with you of all flesh—birds and animals and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth—that they may swarm on the earth, and be fruitful and multiply on the earth.” 18 So Noah went out, and his sons and his wife and his sons' wives with him. 19 Every beast, every creeping thing, and every bird, everything that moves on the earth, went out by families from the ark. 20 Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and took some of every clean animal and some of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar. 21 And when the Lord smelled the pleasing aroma, the Lord said in his heart, "I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man's heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done. 22 While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease."

Friedman's claim is that if you read each account by itself, you get a continuous and coherent story, each with its own vocabulary and concerns. That's not quite true. For example, the first mention of the ark in the alleged P source is Genesis 7:1, but this mention only makes sense if the ark had been discussed earlier in the passage -- which is true if we read the story as a continuous whole, but not if we split it up as Friedman recommends. Equally, the J source never describes Noah leaving the ark, nor the animals entering the ark. The P source still repeats himself. The proposed solution to this is the redactor was happy to omit material from his sources. But then, the whole assumption of source criticism -- the idea that we can construct the putative sources from the combined text -- is that the redactor did not change his sources, but just blindly copied them. If the redactor was able to omit material which duplicated his existing text, why leave in the duplicates that he did leave in? And why would he not change the text elsewhere to smooth over any of the alleged inconsistencies?

However, the account reads perfectly well as a single unit. The multiple species of birds being sent out, which Friedman splits between the sources, are also witnessed in the Sumerian Flood account which probably had a common source to the Biblical account (the account here is from the later epic of Gilgamash, which parallels a more fragmentary and much earlier Sumerian text):

When the seventh day arrived, I brought out a dove and set it free. The dove went off and returned. No landing place came into its view, so it turned back. I brought out a swallow and set it free. The swallow went off and returned. No landing place came to its view, so it turned back. I brought out a raven and set it free. The raven went off and saw the ebbing of the waters. It ate, preened, left droppings, did not turn back.

Nobody proposes that the epic of Gilgamesh must have been composed by three authors because there are three different birds. Why would they? So why insist that the raven and dove entered the Biblical story from different sources?

Indeed, the text reads better as a single unit. There is carefully constructed structure to the text. The text is in two parts; firstly destruction and then restoration. Every section in the destruction is mirrored in the restoration section. (Note that the sequence refers to the Hebrew text, which is not quite in the same order as the English translation.)

This chiastic structure was common in ancient literature, though rarely as extensive as this, and here it serves a particular purpose of God undoing his act of destruction step by step. It appears elsewhere in the Torah, both in other individual stories and in the overall structure of each section of the books. This structure is destroyed by the source theory. Neither of the purported individual sources contains it. It only appears in the "final" version of the text, so presumably the source critic would have to say that it was put in place by the redactor. But if all the redactor was doing was stitching together different texts in a manner that allowed them to form a coherent story, then he would have needed to be immensely lucky that they be such that this structure could arise.

This is just one example. By chopping up the text as they do, the source critics destroy patterns, structure and references that were put in by the original author, whether that was Moses or someone else.

None of the pillars of source criticism are convincing. Everything that the critic relies on has alternative explanations consistent with a single author. I have already mentioned the divine names. It was, back in the nineteenth century, assumed that each different name meant a different deity, and thus must imply a different author. Now we know, by examining texts from other cultures of the same time, that deities often went by several names and the same author would switch between them. It was assumed that repetition would be avoided. Now we know that it was a common feature of ancient Middle Eastern writings. It was assumed that various stylistic differences assumed different writers; but now we know that many of these differences were simply the writer applying the same general rule in different circumstances. A more complicated rule than "Use the same word in each case," but a rule nonetheless. The source critics failed to make the fine distinctions that were important to the original author.

The second part of the documentary hypothesis is to identify the dates at which the sources were written and the communities which generated them. This is a difficult task. We can't compare the style of writing against other Hebrew documents, because such Hebrew writing we have is far too limited. We can compare against writings from neighbouring cultures in related languages, but this has its limitations. Anachronisms are an important tool in dating a text, but not definitive, since they could be the result of a later copyist (although they could show that the text was written earlier than a certain time). There is tradition, and a few hints in the text (such as Exodus 24:4, and Numbers 33:2), but these are easy enough to discount if you don't want to believe them.

The documentary hypothesis dates the text by assuming that a) they were written to reflect the needs of the culture at the time; and b) the required cultures were present during the united monarchy period for J and E, and in the post-exilic period (or just before the exile) for P. The first of these assumptions is questionable, but even granting it, the second doesn't permit the conclusions of the source critics to be held with such confidence. How do the critics know that the periods they identified were the only times when the issues in question were a concern? Tribal rivalry goes back to the time of Moses; the division of the monarchy was only a reflection of a disunity and rivalry that existed long before. Equally, P reflects the interests of the priestly class, supposedly as Israel tried to come to terms with the end of the Monarchy. But the priestly class existed since the time of Moses. Could not the same conditions have applied at the time of the Judges, as the priests in Shiloh tried to assert their influence over the disparate tribes, and to prevent them from appointing a King as an alternative focus of unity? Secondly, they can only suppose that the required conditions were present at the times they attribute the sources by adding in a great deal of supposition and guesswork about the relationships between the two Kingdoms. It is only done by reading things into the text which aren't there.

Then there is Deuteronomy, or rather what is known as the Deuteronmistic history, since Joshua through to 2 Kings each build on the previous books. The general assumption made by the source critics is that a) The book of the law found during Josiah's renovation of the temple (2 Kings 22:8) was Deuteronomy. b) The book was not rediscovered at this time (as claimed by the text itself), but recently composed in order to support Josiah's religious reforms. The other books of the history would have either been written at the same time or a little later; it is claimed that the original version of the Deuteronmistic history ended with 2 Kings 23:25. The author of D would have been aware of the material in J and E, and partially based his work on them. But there are various changes made in D which are said to support Josiah's reforms; most importantly the centralisation of worship in one place.

What evidence is put forward for premise a)? Friedman offers none. The alternative hypothesis is that the book found was the complete Torah, so any evidence in the text of 2 Kings 22 and 23 that supports the book being Deuteronomy is also consistent with it being the whole Torah. Josiah's reforms match those required by the Torah, but was the Torah inspired by the intentions of Josiah or one of his ministers, or did Josiah act in the way that he did because he wanted to be faithful to the newly rediscovered Torah? Correlation cannot prove the direction of causation. The implication that the book promises disaster for failing to keep the law is certainly consistent with the curses in Deuteronomy 27 and 28. But this doesn't show that the book was Deuteronomy alone. The destruction of the high places (local places of worship) as part of his reforms is also in line with Deuteronomy. But what of 2 Kings 23:10, And he defiled Topheth, which is in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, that no one might burn his son or his daughter as an offering to Molech. There is no reference in Deuteronomy to sacrificing children to Molech. That refers back to Leviticus 18:21 and 20:2. Josiah's reforms are consistent with knowledge of the whole Torah, but not the second law alone.

What about the premise that the book of the law being written at the time of Josiah rather than rediscovered? The idea that it was rediscovered is not implausible. Yahweh worship had been suppressed in Jerusalem for over 50 years by Josiah's predecessors Manasseh and Amon. They converted the temple into a temple for Baal. It is no wonder that the book of the law of Yahweh would have been removed from public view, and left buried in a dusty corner. But why would the book have been new to Josiah? Surely it would have been available in every Jerusalem bookshop? We have no reason to suspect that there would have been that many copies of the work. The story doesn't require that there were no other copies throughout Judah, only that Josiah had not seen it, meaning that there were few copies. Given the expense of writing materials, and the limited literacy of the time, it is likely that only the priests kept copies of the law; and it is a plausible hypothesis that there would have been been few copies of the Torah during this period even at the best of times. What few there were would have been suppressed during Manasseh's reign, or destroyed during the Assyrian invasion of Judah (which was far more devastating than the Biblical text implies unless you read carefully; the Biblical account focuses on Judah's victory at Jerusalem, and skims over that almost all other cities in Judah were captured or destroyed by the Assyrians). Taking the Biblical account at face value thus makes sense given the context.

Friedman gives one piece of evidence to support a late composition of Deuteronomy. Various earlier rulers did not follow the rule that worship was to be centralised (Deuteronomy 12:5). Hence, it is concluded, the law could not have been written at the time. However, in his model, the accounts of those rulers were still written after Deuteronomy. For the same reason that the purported authors invented the command to have a centralised place of worship, the authors of those accounts would have been equally motivated to have their ancient heroes keep the commandments, or at least for there to have been consequences for breaking them. But the traditional account is perfectly consistent. Having the rule does not guarantee that people keep it. We know from history that people of power rarely keep the rules, if it will cost them something to do so, or goes against their impulses. The Old Testament stories are just yet another example of people mostly failing to live up to their standards, and frequently not even trying.

Equally, Jerusalem is never specified as the central place of worship in Deuteronomy; as would be natural if Josiah's priests wrote the text to concentrate the worship at the temple. The only central place of worship mentioned in Deuteronomy is to be constructed on mount Ebal, overlooking Schechem in the territory of the Kingdom of Israel. During the Judges period, the central place of worship was at Shiloh, also in the Northern Kingdom and away from Jerusalem. If the author of the Deuteronmistic wanted people to focus their worship in Jerusalem, he didn't do a very good job of making that clear.

And if you do take the Biblical history literally, then just as it contains examples before Josiah of people breaking the law of Deuteronomy, so it contains examples of people keeping it, such as Hezekiah (1 Kings 18:22). The traditional view, that the law existed from the start of Israel, is thus perfectly consistent, but people broke it, is also consistent with the evidence presented for this argument. Thus that people are recorded breaking the Deuteronomy law code does not eliminate the alternative options and thus does not prove that Deuteronomy was written at the time of Josiah.

Professors Finkelstein and Silberman, in the Bible Unearthed, offer an alternative argument for the authorship of the bulk of the Old Testament at the time of Josiah, or at least the late divided Monarchy. Their claim is that the cities mentioned in the accounts of Genesis, Numbers, Joshua and so on did not exist at the purported time of Moses, but were populated during the late divided monarchy. Thus those authors used the geographic setting of their time which they were familiar with as a backdrop for the stories they were inventing. If true, this would be a strong argument. Although one must bear in mind that the population of Judah and Israel was larger during the late divided monarchy, so most places where you could build a town (i.e. which had access to water and a convenient defensive and strategic location) did have a town at this time, so it is no real surprise that most of the places mentioned by Moses or Joshua were occupied. However, their case is weakened because they only consider a late date of the Exodus, and the consequent shifts to the earlier Biblical chronology. As I shall outline in subsequent posts, the early date of the Exodus works well: there is a distinct correlation between the sites which the Bible describes as being occupied and the archaeological context at that date. Equally, Finkelstein's argument is an argument from silence, and arguments from silence have a track record of being proved false. How does he know that he is looking at the correct location when he searches for a lack of archaeological evidence? And even if he is in the right place, with limited excavations at most sites in Israel and the surrounding countries, there is no guarantee that evidence for a smaller occupation would have survived and been found. And there is always the possibility that the population were nomadic, living in tents or other structures which would not have survived, or perhaps away from the main city mound.

And, of course, it is not true that all the sites mentioned in the earlier books were occupied at the time of Josiah. The obvious example is the city of Pi-Ramesses, which was abandoned some 500 years before Josiah's time. Had the story been constructed as Finkelstein suggested, then the authors of J, E and D would instead have referenced Zoan/Tanis, the contemporary delta capital of Egypt. As indeed was done in those books which genuinely were written in the monarchy period, such as Psalm 78.

So while I can only give a very brief survey here, it is becoming clear to many scholars that the evidence for the documentary hypothesis, both the idea of multiple sources and the dates when they were meant to have been written, is on very shaky grounds indeed. Today, it is being increasingly abandoned, albeit that most of the scholars try to resolve the difficulties by breaking up the Torah even further. On the basis of the discussion so far, the documentary hypothesis is not impossible, but the evidence presented in its favour is hardly enough to prove it beyond any doubt.

But is there any evidence against the documentary hypothesis?

Firstly, if the Bible was written in that way, it would be truly unique among works of literature. Obviously later historians use multiple sources. But they don't do so as the source critics demand, pasting in one line from one source, and then the next line from the other source's account of the same or a similar incident. Even when they copy directly, they also embellish, and change the text. Yet source criticism requires that the redactor made no changes; otherwise how can we have confidence that the words we read today, including the features used to distinguish the sources, were those of J, E, P and D? The source critic demands that the authors of the sources were perfectly consistent in style, and yet the redactor cared nothing for it. The redactor was both simultaneously an idiot, leaving in all the apparent contradictions that the critics condemn, and a literary genius, in the deeper structure and connections he was able to forge out of his disparate sources.

For example, consider Numbers 16, the rebellion of Korah, Dathan and Abiram against Moses and Aaron. Friedman divides this chapter between the J and P sources, with P describing Korah the Levite's rebellion against Moses and Aaron, and J describing Dathan and Abiram against Moses. He once again picks the passage apart verse by verse to separate it into the two stories, while claiming that the various places where the narratives were joined together were added by the redactor. This division still doesn't make much sense, with the two stories disjointed in places (for example, in Friedman's construction -- but not the complete text -- Korah escaped unscathed); so we have to assume that as well as adding various words the redactor also took some away. But we have to ask why would the author present this as one event? If the author was Moses, or someone of his generation, then the answer is simple: the two rebellions occurred at the same time so were seen as part of the same event. But if the author was a redactor working from two different sources, why splice the two stories together in this way, rather than placing them one after the other?

Why is there no direct evidence for the sources, J, E, D and P? Why, after being compiled together in the Persian period, would they disappear from history, with no mention or allusion by later writers, or sign of disagreement or schism over what must have been a controversial act to the religiously-minded Jews? This is particularly pertinent, because we do have considerable Jewish writing from the period immediately following that of the purported redactor; writing which references the Old Testament as we have it, but makes no mention of its purported sources. Did the redactor have the only copies of the original texts, so no other writer could access them? How did he persuade the Samaritans to adopt his version (but transliterated back into the older Paleo-Hebrew script rather than the modern block letters adopted by the Jews during their exile), rather than sticking with their original source (presumably either E or JE)?

But the biggest argument against source criticism is the correspondence between the Biblical text and the ancient historical records. I am going to discuss this in later posts, so won't go into detail here. The are things recorded in the Old Testament narrative that a later author would not have got right, but which have been confirmed by archaeology. The source critics assume that the Old Testament account only contains accurate history up until perhaps the time of David according to some writers, or later according to others. Even then it contains falsehoods mixed in with the truth. It is an attempt to describe how this national history could have been written if it didn't happen. Mythological and legendary history takes time to develop and then be written down. If the Old Testament accounts are mainly false, then it would have to be written down well after the event, and the documentary hypothesis, and its successor theories, would possibly be as good as any way of explaining the data (though not proven). But the Old Testament contains small hints and gems of knowledge that point back to an earlier age. If the books were written at the time of the monarchy, there is no way that the authors could have known about those various details, and got them right. Unless they were relying on much earlier sources. But if there were earlier sources behind J, E and D, then why focus so much on those writers?

Secondly, the whole justification of the documentary hypothesis is that the purported authors wrote to reflect the needs of their own time. But there is plenty in the Torah which is not relevant to the later Israelite life. But which would be relevant to Moses; either for his current day or looking into his planned future when the Israelites occupied the land. This indicates that either the later authors weren't solely disinterested in history, or that the text was written far earlier than the source critics suppose.

  1. Why so little mention of Jerusalem, or none of Shiloh?
  2. Why the page after page detailed description of the construction of the tabernacle? By the time that P was said to have been written, the temple dominated Judah's religion, and the tabernacle was a long-distant memory. Friedman claims that this discussion was inspired by the temple in Jerusalem, with the original tabernacle perhaps folded away in a side room. But even so, the attention to detail for something which was for all practical purposes irrelevant and superseded in that later period is unintuitive. But if the Exodus account was written by Moses, or someone of his generation, then the detail makes sense. The tabernacle was at that time the centre of the religion. It was intended to remain the centre of the religion. You would go to great lengths to describe its construction, because to Moses, but not Josiah or Hezekiah, it was important.
  3. Why the command to destroy the Amalekites (Exodus 17:14), and its fulfilment in 1 Samuel 15 and 30, when the Amalekites no longer existed?
  4. Why the continual emphasis on the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites as inhabiting the land -- formidable opponents for Moses and Joshua, but extinct and forgotten well before the supposed time of J, E or D?
  5. Equally, the frequent mention of the Amorites makes good sense in the period when the stories are set -- but at the time of the divided monarchy, they were a forgotten people. So if the Old Testament accounts were written to reflect the needs of the people at the time of the monarchy, then why mention the Amorites?
  6. Why the great celebration over the defeat of Og the King of Heshbon and Sihon King of the Amorites, detailed in Numbers, Deuteronomy, and remaining in Israelite consciousness even to the time of the Psalms? It makes great sense if the accounts were written by Moses, because to the early Israelites those first battles were notable victories, which would then go into legend. But eight hundred years later, Heshbon and the Amorites had long since vanished. The threats were from Aram and Assyria to the North, Egypt to the South West, and perhaps Edom and Moab, to the South East. So why bring up as this great adversity a city that was prosperous in the Middle Bronze Age, but a non-entity since that time? The only reaction people would have had if the stories had been written then could only be be "Who the heck was this Og? And why are you boasting so much about beating him?"
  7. Why provide the old name of cities such as Dan, Bethel and Hebron, when that name wouldn't have been used for hundreds of years? The older names are mentioned in Egyptian and Mesopotamian records, so they weren't just made up.
  8. Why emphasise that piles of stones, people and so on were still around "to this day," when they had long since vanished by the time of the monarchy?
  9. Why place the (Greek) Caphtorim of Abraham's time in Gerar, rather than the later Philistine centres of Gath, Ashkelon, Gaza, Ekron or Ashdod?
  10. The Torah contains a far greater proportion of loan words from Egyptian than the rest of the Old Testament, and virtually none from the Mesopotamian languages. The later books of the Old Testament, such as Kings, Chronicles and the prophets, have this reversed. This makes sense given the traditional authorship: you would expect Moses, Joshua and their contemporaries to have a strong Egyptian influence, while the later books were written at a time when the Mesopotamian powers were starting to dominate. However, it is harder to explain in the time frames proposed by the documentary hypothesis, which proposes that all these books would have been written at about the same time.
  11. The personal names recorded in the Torah contain several which are unique to the Egyptian New and Middle Kingdoms, but not the later periods when the documentary hypothesis proposes that it was written.
  12. The Torah shows good knowledge of New Kingdom geography and practice (i.e. the cities which were important at the time).

Many of these problems can be resolved if we suppose that J, E and D relied on an older source. Given the precision of some of the data, this would need to be a written source rather than an oral tradition. But if they used an older source, then what do we gain by proposing J, E and D with their first millennium authorship? Why wasn't this source preserved, and used by the redactor? And use of this source undermines the whole assumption that the authors of J, E, and D framed their stories to reflect the needs of their own age without regard to historical accuracy.

Thus the reasons for accepting the documentary hypothesis are weaker than is often claimed, with the whole edifice reliant on premises which seem absurd; while there are also some (perhaps not conclusive) reasons for rejecting it. The main problem is that we have very limited hard evidence, both in terms of actual manuscripts and also texts in Hebrew (and related languages) against which we can compare the literary style (although even this might not be conclusive because of the possibility of subsequent modernisation of the text as it was copied). We are just left with questioning the internal structure of the text, but the methods used are too subjective and based on too rigid assumptions to draw any definitive conclusions.

Ultimately, the question comes down to the reliability of the text. Should The Biblical accounts prove to be reliable, then it is likely that either they were near-contemporary documents, or at the very least preserve a (perhaps embellished) near-contemporary source. If they are unreliable, then that would suggest a late source. We should not presuppose a late composition of the text before comparing it against the archaeological evidence.


This is a considerably longer introduction than I had been planning. I have said something on archaeological method. I have discussed the disputes over the Biblical chronology, and given an outline of the relevant parts of the history of Egypt and Mesopotamia. I have described the various dating methods, and their limitations, and the problems that can arise in connecting archaeological sites with the Biblical names. I have also discussed the composition of the Old Testament text.

As should be seen from this overview, rigorously disproving the Old Testament from archaeology is not as easy as it might seem. There are questions about the chronology, except for the divided monarchy period where the evidence for Biblical reliability is reasonably strong. There are also questions about the identification of sites -- so finding evidence in one Tell which contradicts the Biblical account might just mean that the Biblical city remains buried under a neighbouring mound. There is also not that much evidence of any sort -- either for the Biblical text, or against it. In particular, there is very little writing from ancient Israel and its neighbours -- and we do not expect much given that perishable materials were generally used for record keeping. What little writing we have inscribed on the odd fragment of pottery or on various rocks, whether in the proto-sinatic alphabet, or later Phonecian or proto-Canaanite alphabets, does tell us that the society that lived in Israel at the time was literate; and presumably would have kept records. But we don't have them. This absence of any sort of evidence makes it easy for critics to use the argument from silence. But that is a mistake. To deny the Biblical account you need firm evidence that contradicts it, not a lack of evidence one way or the other. Arguments for silence also don't have a good track record. They were used to dispute the existence of King David, until the Tell Dan Stele was discovered. They were used to dispute the existence of Belshazzar, until the Nabonidus Cylinder was discovered.

But while we do not have much evidence, we do have some evidence. I intend to discuss that in subsequent posts.

Does the Mentaculus disprove efficient causality?

Reader Comments:

1. Gerlof
Posted at 14:47:36 Thursday March 18 2021

Awesome post! This blog is a goldmine! Thanks a lot for your insights

2. Ante
Posted at 20:53:31 Wednesday April 7 2021

Thank you so much for this post, I realy appreciate it! Please keep up the good work!

3. James Scott
Posted at 18:55:11 Tuesday April 20 2021

“There may well have been a Jericho during 1275-1220, but above the tiny remains of that of 1400-1275, so to speak, and all of this has long, long since gone. We will never find ‘Joshua’s Jericho’ for that very simple reason.-Kenneth Kitchen.

It could be late or earlier. I could go either way.

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