Part 1 of Unit 1: Mythbusters – Old Testament Historicity (Cornerstone College). I will follow with Part 2 of Unit 1 shortly.
The question concerning the historicity of the Old Testament is of particular personal interest to me. As far as I know the historical nature of the Old Testament is debatable and invites considerable deliberation. However, if I were to provide an attack on Old Testament historicity (and play devil’s advocate, so to speak) I would almost certainly start with the first five books, the Torah. I shall only be quoting Christian biblical scholars in defence of this position.
The truth of the matter is that only after the Torah do any solid extra-biblical and archaeological sources shed light on Old Testament historicity. We have evidence of King David’s dynasty, the Babylonian invasion of Judah by Nebuchadnezzar, as well as many other historical biblical events.
However, it is widely believed that such evidential corroboration does not exist for much, if not most, of the first five books of the Bible. It is true that scholars believe that we have evidence for some events, namely of the likes of the Tower of Babel and a few cities and towns said to be conquered by Joshua and his invading forces. Yet it comes as no surprise that the vast majority of biblical scholars and historians doubt events such as Israel’s early sojourn in Egypt, the Exodus event itself and most of the conquest narratives of Joshua. With the exception of several details in Joshua, no extra-biblical evidence supports these claims. It has also been shown that some of the historical narratives, namely the conquest narratives, conflict with what we know from archaeology. Christian scholar Thom Stark explains that “Many of the conquest accounts depicted in the biblical narratives are in fact contradicted both by archaeological and internal textual evidence” (1). And when it comes to alleged conquest of Jericho city by the Israelites the overwhelming scholarly view is that such a conquest is historically problematic (2). As Peter Enns explains, of the 31 towns listed in Joshua 12:9–24 only 20 have been identified (3). And of these 20 only Hazor and Bethel (and perhaps Lachish) fit the biblical description. The other towns either were unoccupied during the Late Bronze Period, show no evidence of sudden change, or were destroyed before or after the time of the biblical conquest.
Moreover, scholars commonly refer to the sojourn in Egypt and the Exodus as Israel’s founding, etiological myth (4). Other events in the book of Genesis, for example, are considered products of religious imagination. Lot’s wife turning to salt, and Abraham bartering with God over those in Sodom and Gomorrah, to name a few. There are also problems concerning a global flood, historically and scientifically. My personal view is that at most the Genesis flood was a localized event. However, the Genesis flood account is accepted by scholars to be a reworking of other ancient flood myths (the Epic of Gilgamesh, being one). What is theorized is that a local devastating flood impacted the Mesopotamia region which gave birth to these stories (5). The biblical tale picks up on these mythical traditions and the author reworks the narrative by putting his god, Yahweh, at its very center. The flood story, however, remains rich in its theological significance. Scientifically, the consensus view is that a global flood contradicts what we know from the sciences of geology, stratigraphy, geophysics, physics, palaeontology, biology, anthropology, and archaeology (6). The late Christian scholar James Barr calls this material “legend,” “mythology,” and “certainly is not historical or scientific” (7). Enns agrees saying “the flood story, though rooted in history, is dressed up in mythic clothes from head to toe” (8). Thus, in answer to this question this is where I would hone in an attack on Old Testament historicity.
However, I would also like to be fair and, in turn, note some conservative Christian responses. Notable in this regard would be Kenneth Kitchen’s lengthy treatment in his work On the Reliability of the Old Testament. The late conservative scholar Gleason Archer penned his Encyclopaedia on Biblical Difficulties, and James Hoffmeier’s has his work Ancient Israel in Sinai. My own views would generally not agree with most of these conservative scholars although I believe that readers should interact as well as consider them. For my own views on the nature of the Exodus, conquest narratives and Old Testament historicity I’d urge readers to consult this site’s relevant categories.
1. Stark, 2011. Human Faces of God. Location 4314 (Amazon ebook format)
2. Killebrew, A. 2005. Biblical Peoples and Ethnicity. p. 152.
3. Enns, P. 2013. “Inerrancy, However Defined, Does Not Described What the Bible Does” in Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy. p. 129 (Scribd ebook format)
4. Tiebing, W. 1989. Out of the Desert: Archaeology and the Exodus/Conquest Narratives
5. Enns, P. 2014. The Bible Tells Me So. p. 152 (Scribd ebook format).
6. Senter, P. 2011. “The Defeat of Flood Geology by Flood Geology” in Reports of the National Center for Science Education 31:3.
7. Barr, J. 1987. Biblical Chronology: Legend or Science? Available.
8. Enns, P. 2014. Ibid.. p. 152