Biblical Veracity and Archaeology


Rabbi Dr. Dovid Gottlieb


The Torah contains a vast amount of historical material. Evidence that the Torah is true must also apply to this material. Since questions have been raised about the factual accuracy of the Bible as an account of ancient history, we ought to discuss that for a bit.

The Bible talks about the lives of the Patriarchs, wars, migrations, famines, marriages, and all kinds of other events in ancient history. How reliable is that record? Here is a popular way to investigate the reliability of the Bible. The Bible is what is in question and therefore we should not assume that it is true. Now, if we can find other ancient records, for example, ancient hieroglyphics, Syrian records, or Babylonian records, then we could check the Bible against them. If the Bible agrees with them that is indication and evidence that the Bible is correct. If the Bible disagrees with them, then that shows that the Bible is incorrect. That is an objective, neutral way of assessing whether the Bible's account of history is correct or incorrect.

Does that strike you as fair? I should hope not because it isn't fair. The mere fact that the Bible would contradict other ancient records doesn't prove that the Bible is wrong. Maybe the other records are wrong! A mere contradiction only shows that somebody is wrong. Why assume that the Bible is wrong? That would just be a hidden prejudice against the Bible. When there is a contradiction between the Bible and other ancient sources, then the question has to be raised: How can we best understand the nature of the contradiction, and which source do we rely upon?

Now, in making that evaluation you must know one fact - all ancient histories were written as propaganda. This is something upon which historians and archaeologists agree. The function of ancient histories was to glorify contemporary powers, and therefore they would not record their own defeats. After all, the scribes were their employees. You see this, for example, in the following type of historical chain of events. You read in the hieroglyphs that Pharaoh X raised a great army and conquered a number of provinces, and his son Pharaoh X Jr. raised even a larger army and conquered more provinces. Then, there is a hundred year gap in the history. What happened during that 100 years? For that you have to go to the Babylonian records. That is when the Babylonians were kicking the stuffing out of the Egyptians. The Egyptians don't record that because that doesn't glorify their empire. They just leave it out.

An example is the question of the Exodus. Why is it that no ancient Egyptian records mention the Exodus? The answer is that the Egyptians never recorded their defeats. Therefore, since the Exodus was a massive defeat, you would not expect them to record it. So, its absence from their records is not evidence against the Exodus.



Now if we are talking about the accuracy of ancient history, the key question is archaeology. Archaeology is supposed to uncover the actual evidence that these events did or did not occur. I am going to give you a brief review of the situation in archaeology with respect to the Biblical narrative. Most of this is referred to in a book called Biblical Personalities in Archaeology by Leah Bronner.

One hundred years ago it was assumed that Biblical history going back roughly to the time of King David and Solomon is more or less accurate. Bertrand Russell wrote in his History of Western Civilization that we can presume that David and Solomon were real kings. But, beyond David and Solomon, there was no evidence for anything whatsoever, and the prevailing view was that it was myth. It was simply stories invented to glorify mythical, that is to say non-existent, ancestors so as to create a great history for the nation. Many nations did that, such as the Greeks, and it was assumed that the Jews did it as well.

One of the ways that you can tell if this myth-making goes on is that the people writing the myth project into the past their own conditions of existence. They didn't know that 500-1000 years before life was very different. They assumed that life was more or less the same as their conditions of life and projected backwards. Then, what we find from archaeology is that the conditions were quite different from what was described in the myth, and we know therefore that it was a myth. For example, they may have projected back weapons that they didn't have, domesticated animals that they didn't have, trade routes that they didn't have, settlements that they didn't have and so on. That is how you determine if it was myth. So there was the same assumption about the Biblical account of history before David and Solomon.

But in the case of the Bible, archaeology has revealed the exact opposite. Archaeology has uncovered a myriad of details, details that the Bible records about the quality of life and the conditions of life of the Patriarchs which turn out to be accurate to the last detail. These details are accurate in ways that are utterly inexplicable if you think that this is a normal process of myth formation.

So, for example, Abraham in all his wanderings is never associated with the Northern part of Israel, only the Southern part of Israel. Now in the period to which Abraham is assigned by the Bible, the Northern part of Israel wasn't settled. Later, when supposedly the myth was being made up, it was settled. If someone were writing it later, and projecting his conditions of existence on the past, there would be no reason for him to discriminate against the Northern part of Israel.

Another example: the names Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Lavan, and Joseph were in common usage in the Patriarchal period and dropped out of usage thereafter. These names appear in archaeological inscriptions from that period and no later period. In the Bible those names are used only in the book of Genesis. Now, somebody five hundred years later is supposed to be making up this myth. How is it that he just happened to get right names for that period of time?

It was custom in that period of time that if a couple was childless, the husband would take a handmaid of the wife as a concubine and have children with her. If the original wife were then to have a child, law against being disinherited protected the child of the handmaid. This legal protection did not exist in later centuries. In the Bible, we have Abraham and Sarah doing this. If a handmaid had a child in the manner just described, the law of the time forbade expelling of the child of the handmaid. This explains why, when Sarah told Abraham to throw Ishmael out of the house, the Torah says that it was "Very evil in Abraham's eyes." It was very evil because it went against the local prevailing law. It wasn't forbidden in later centuries, but in that century it was forbidden. If this had been made up five hundred years later and projected onto the past, it would be inexplicable how they could have gotten this right.

An argument that they used that the account depicted in the Bible was a myth was the idea of camels being domesticated. The Patriarchs are described as having used camels for transportation. It was assumed that this was an anachronism. Camels were domesticated later, but of course the later people didn't know that their ancestors didn't have camels, and if they had camels they would of course have pictured their ancestors as having camels. Their great ancestors couldn't be less than they were.

But, it turns out that this was just archaeological ignorance. We have the eighteenth century B.C.E. Canophorin tablets in Northern Syria which list the domesticated animals and in which the camel is specifically mentioned. Another archaeological discovery depicts a camel in a kneeling position. A seal dating back to this period depicts a rider sitting on a camel. So, it turns out to be an accurate report of the details, not a later anachronistic projection into the past.

There are many examples dealing with Joseph. Take for example the price of a slave. Joseph is sold for twenty pieces of silver. That was the accurate price of a slave in Joseph's time, and at no other time. Slaves were cheaper beforehand, and they got increasingly more and more expensive later. Imagine someone five hundred years later putting in that detail. How would he know what the price of slaves were five hundred years earlier? He certainly wouldn't get it right by accident.

You have the same thing regarding sleeping in Egypt on beds. In Palestine at that time they slept on the ground, and in Egypt they slept on beds, and so therefore the Torah mentions explicitly that when Jacob was in Egypt, he died on a bed.

The investiture of Joseph as viceroy in Egypt follows the pattern from that period. He stood before Pharaoh and had to be shaved because the Pharaohs in that period were shaved. He had a collar put around his neck and a ring put on his finger. There are hieroglyphs of that specific procedure, and of riding in a chariot second to the king. All of these details are accurate.

Now, that means that at least the details of life are corroborated by archaeology. So, the normal assumption that this was written later and projected on the past simply doesn't hold up. It is simply not correct.



Now, I will not say that there are no problems. There are some problems. Some of the problems have to be looked at very carefully to understand what kinds of problems they are, for example, the Exodus. This is a textbook case. If the Exodus took place, what kind of archaeological evidence would you expect to find? You are talking about a large number of people leaving Egypt. You would expect to find implements, clothing, vessels, weapons, and these sorts of things scattered all over the desert. What about bones? People die, especially if they were in a desert for forty years. The truth is though we don't find anything. Nothing as of yet has been found as archaeological evidence of the Exodus.

Is this then evidence against the Torah's account? It depends on what is being tested. Are you testing the Biblical story? If you are testing the Biblical story, you have to test it in its own terms. You have to accept all of it. It will do no good to take one element of the Biblical story, and then graft onto it other non-Biblical hypotheses and then test the conglomerate, because that is a conglomerate that no one believes in.

Now in the case of the Exodus the Torah says explicitly that during the forty-year period their clothing didn't wear out (Deut. 8:4). Now, if you are going to look through the desert for scattered clothing, then you are not testing the Bible. The Bible would say you will not find a thing! The Bible says that they are not there. If you are looking for clothes, you are testing the assumption that there was an Exodus as the Bible says together with your naturalistic account of the evidence, which the Bible denies. Nobody believes that! To test the Biblical story you have to take it in all its own details.

Similarly is the case with the bones. The Bible gives no details of how the people died. But Jewish tradition (Midrash) records the following. Each year on the ninth of Av they dug a mass grave, everybody laid-down in the grave, and in the morning those who survived got up, and the rest that were dead were covered up and that was their grave. They didn't die from time to time, everyday more or less scattered all over the desert.

Furthermore, the Sinai desert is a big place and sands shift over time. We are talking about sands shifting over a period of three thousand years. Where exactly would you dig? How deep should you dig? How many holes should you put down to have a chance of finding anything? It is not even thirty-nine burial places because in certain places they stayed for many years. There are maybe twenty burial places in the entire Sinai desert. How many holes do you need to put down to have a reasonable probability of finding twenty burial places, each burial place being something like three, square blocks? So, the fact that they haven't found the kind of evidence they are looking for is no proof whatsoever. It is not even evidence against the idea of an Exodus.



Kathleen Kenyan excavated Jericho. She says the best date we have for the entry of the Jewish people into the land of Israel is 1400 B.C.E. She says that there is a hundred and fifty year gap between the destruction of Jericho and the entry of the Jewish people into the land. Therefore she concludes that the Jews couldn't have been the ones responsible for destroying Jericho. They just attributed it their ancestors in order to glorify them.

Now how does she arrive at her conclusion that Jericho was destroyed no later than 1550 B.C.E.? [For the details of what follows, see Biblical Archeological Review, March/April 1990 pp. 44-56.] She based her argument on the absence of imported Cypriot pottery. A certain style of pottery from Cyprus was imported into the area from 1550 to 1400 B.C.E., and she found none of it at Jericho. Therefore she concluded that Jericho must have been destroyed earlier than 1550 B.C.E.

But this conclusion is very weak. It can be attacked in at least four different ways.

(1) Method: conclusions based on what you don't find are always weak (see below).

(2) She herself says that Jericho was not on any of the major trade routes - is that where you expect to find imported pottery?

(3) She sank two shafts into what she herself describes as the poor section of the city. Is that where you expect to find imported pottery?

(4) She totally ignored the dating of local pottery, which had been found in earlier excavations, which do come from dates later than 1550 B.C.E.

Now bear in mind that the British government knighted her for her contributions to archeology! I won't speculate what leads to this kind of sloppy argumentation. But surely we don't have to give up our views in the face of criticism like this!

What has happened in Biblical archaeology in the last one hundred years is that it started with a completely negative mind-set: none of the Biblical narrative happened, it was all made up. Little by little, piece-by-piece, that mind set has been refuted in a myriad of details. That doesn't mean they are giving up entirely, they are still holding on to some of the things which they feel haven't yet been established. But this should give us two consequences. One: the trend is gradual verification. There is gradual archaeological corroboration of the Torah's account of history. Two: it should give us some insight into their mental set. They started off with a complete negative, and they are grudgingly admitting piece by piece that some parts have been verified. That means to say that they are imposing an unreasonable standard of proof for the Bible.

Archaeology can sometimes establish a positive. If you find something such as a city that was burnt, pillaged, or destroyed, you could assume that there was some sort of military action. It is very difficult for archaeology to establish a negative - for archaeology to establish that something didn't happen. In order for that, you need to know that if it happened I ought to find it here in such and such a place. That is a very tricky judgment. Even if it happened, how do you know you ought to have found it here? Maybe you will find it someplace else. Maybe this isn't the place that you thought it was. There are some cities that have gone through three or four identifications. Remember: they assumed that there were no domesticated camels because they didn't happen to find that cylindrical seal, or that particular hieroglyph. Then they found it and discovered that there were domesticated animals.

So beware of archaeology when it claims to find a negative. To establish that a war didn't take place or that a settlement wasn't there, or that so and so wasn't the king is very difficult. When archaeology claims to establish a positive, then it is more credible. Of course, even then it requires interpretation of what was found, and that is not completely reliable. In any event, I think we are in a position to say that archaeology is no longer the great problem it once was. Archaeology is still in progress. New insights and new deductions are still being drawn and there is a lot yet to be learned from it. New evidence in archaeology is providing gradual (though at present incomplete) verification of the Torah's description of history.10

I will end this chapter with one little insight that is due to William Albright, which I think is fascinating for a general picture of ancient history. Albright has a proof that there was an influence of the Jews on the Greeks. The names of the Hebrew letters are words in Hebrew. Aleph, Bet, Gimmel, Dalet and so on all have meanings in the Hebrew. The names of the letters in Greek are obviously related to the names of the letters in Hebrew: alpha, beta, gamma, delta and so on. But, those sounds in Greek have no meaning in Greek. Alpha and Beta are not Greek words. Where did they get those names for their letters? Albright says the historical archaeological community has accepted this - they received them from the Jews. Perhaps indirectly the Philistines took them to Greece and gave the letters to them, but it ultimately comes from the Jews.

Now if the very names of the letters of the Greek alphabet came from us, what else came? We know that there was some influence and that they took something from us. The names of the letters in your alphabet are pretty fundamental. Who knows whatever else they could have taken? Instead of thinking that the Greeks may have influenced Judaism, there a new sector of research investigating ways in which the Jews influenced the Greeks!