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Archaeology and the Hebrew Scriptures

An overview describing all viewpoints

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Overview:

Christians, Jews and archaeologists hold diverse beliefs about the historical accuracy of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament).

Christians can be divided into at least two groups: conservative and liberal. Each holds very different beliefs. Judaism is similarly divided. These religious beliefs do not necessarily coincide with religious denominations or traditions. You will find both religious conservatives and liberals in the Presbyterian Church (USA), for example. These differences can be largely traced to their fundamental beliefs about the nature of the Hebrew Scriptures.

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Events recorded in the Pentateuch:

Considering the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) the most extreme views are:

The Pentateuch Common conservative religious beliefs Common beliefs of secular archaeologists & religious liberals
Accuracy Totally accurate, inerrant, & infallible. Contains no mistakes. Inspired by God. Mixture of ancient myths,  some valid history, & legends.
Author(s) Moses Documentary Hypothesis: Four unknown authors + one Redactor; 
Date of writing 15th century BCE 10th to 6th century BCE
People:    
Adam, Eve, Noah, Isaac, Ishmael, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, etc. Real people who lived their lives as described in the Bible Mythical, legendary people who probably never existed.
Philistines Existed in 19th century BCE (Gen 21:32) First entered Palestine well into the 1st millennium BCE
Early history of the Israelites Grew from 12 men and their families into a large culture while in Egypt Originally Canaanites; developed a separate society within Canaan
Strong military presence in Palestine, late 2nd millennium BCE Philistines. (Egyptian presence is not mentioned.)  Egyptians. (Philistines did not arrive until well into the 1st millennium BCE)
Places:    
Garden of Eden Where Adam & Eve lived Non-existent place
Mount Sinai Where Moses received the Ten Commandments Non-existent place
Beersheba, & other towns Existed in 19th century BCE (Genesis 21:14) Did not exist until many centuries later.
Events:    
Flood of Noah Covered the world No evidence it happened; may have been a memory of a local flood.
Jews as slaves in Egypt Happened as described Little or no evidence.
The Exodus Happened as described No evidence it happened
40 years in the desert Happened as described No evidence it happened

Notes:

bulletA few archaeologists and "minimalist" Old Testament scholars argue that the Pentateuch was completed as late as the 2nd century BCE.
bulletThe remains of houses similar to that used by ancient Hebrews have been found in Egypt. These may have belonged to Hebrew slaves or hired workers.

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Qualifier:

Of course, some individuals are both archeologists and religious conservatives. Some believe that the Bible accounts are true on the basis that no evidence of existence is not necessarily evidence of non-existence. That is, Abraham and Moses may have been historical figures because there is no evidence to prove that they did not exist.

Other archeologists who are also religious conservatives believe a mixture of the above beliefs. Some accept that the Bible is inerrant on matters relating to faith and spirituality, while being in error concerning some historical events.

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Events in the remainder of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament):

Similar disagreements occur in the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures. 

bulletThere are many theories of how the ancient Hebrews came to occupy Canaan:
bulletThe biblical book of Joshua describes a massive invasion of Canaan and a genocidal war against the Canaanites ordered by Yahweh. 
bulletJudges 3:5 explains that the Israelites settled peacefully among the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Amorites and Jebusites, and intermarried with them. 
bulletThe archaeological record shows that, in many cases, cities mentioned in Joshua did not exist when the Israelite invasion was supposed to have happened. In most of the other locations, there were no signs of destruction as described in the Bible. There is a growing belief among archaeologists that neither the Judges nor the Joshua biblical stories is true. Rather, the Israelites developed from what some call proto-Israelites who "...started out as indigenous Canaanites," already in Canaan. 2 In other words, the ancient Israelites started as a sub-culture within Canaan; they did not attack Canaan from outside.
bulletMost archaeologists who are not conservative Jews or Christians, believe that Adam, Eve, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Ishmael, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, and other leaders mentioned in the Bible prior to King David were probably the product of myth; they did not exist as actual people. Archaeologists are debating about how much of David's and Solomon's stories are accurate.
bulletDaniel in Babylon, Ester in Persia, Johah in Jaffa and Nineveh, and Ruth in Moab and Bethlehem, are regarded by many archaeologists as mythical characters.
bulletModern-day archaeologists are studying ancient Palestine independently of the Bible. They no longer try to match their findings to passages in the Bible.

The findings of archaeologists in recent decades would probably upset most of today's Christians and Jews. Many of the latter, as children, were taught the remarkable stories of the Old Testament. However, discoveries from the Middle East are rarely discussed outside of scientific journals. Students in mainline and liberal Christian seminaries learn about these findings; however, they rarely discuss them in sermons in order to avoid distressing their congregations.

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References used

  1. Quoted in Josh McDowell, "The best of Josh McDowell: A ready defense," Here's Life Publishers, (1990), Page 93. Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
  2. Philip Davies, "What separates a Minimalist from a Maximalist? Not much," Bible Archaeology Review, 2000-MAR/APR Vol. 26, #2, Page 24 to 27; 72 & 73.
  3. W.F. Albright, "The Archaeology of Palestine, Rev. ed.," Pelican books, (1960), Page 127 - 128. Out of print. However, Amazon.com may be able to get a used copy

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Copyright © 2000 and 2004 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2000-APR-12
Latest update: 2004-AUG-19
Author: B.A. Robinson

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