Is the Hebrew Bible a Historically Reliable Text?

The following is a draft which I am developing for Ancient History Encyclopedia. Although I will be writing on ancient Israelite and Judean religion, the historical reliability of the Hebrew Bible is problematic for many, scholars and non-scholars alike. In particular, the historical reliability of the Hebrew Bible’s portrayal of ancient Israelite religion is problematic. Thus, I wrote this piece to undergird my presentation of ancient Israelite and Judean Religion. As I proceed, I will add more layers to the issue. My goal, though, is to make the information comprehensible. 

The historicity of the Hebrew Bible is a complex issue. In order to decide whether or not it is historically reliable, we must pay close attention to the text, archaeology, and other literature from the ancient Near East. After analyzing the Hebrew Bible alongside other ancient Near Eastern literature and archaeology, we can make an informed decision as to whether or not we should utilize the Hebrew Bible for understanding the history in the regions throughout the Levant (the Levant is the area encompassing modern day Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria).

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Source: Wikipedia

In seeking to understand the historical reliability of the Hebrew Bible, though, we must take three factors into consideration. First, we must consider that the Hebrew Bible was not originally written and composed as a single document; rather, it is an anthology of ancient writings. The ancient writing were written by many authors, over a long period of time. Thus, any attempt to answer the question must consider the varying degrees of historically reliability of texts within the anthology. Some texts may be historically reliable. Some texts may not be historically reliable.

Second, we must consider the length of time over which the Hebrew Bible was developed. As Sara Mandell notes, the history of the Hebrew Bible is “a historically late, redacted composite that presents the diverse religious and historical perspectives of its several layers of editors.”[i] In simpler words, the Hebrew Bible consists of texts which were edited by many people. By the time of the earliest, fully compiled version of the Hebrew Bible (c. 300 BCE), the text had been developed and edited for nearly 600 years. Because it was developed over such a long period of time, it contains traditions and ideas which reflect the culture of the 10th century BCE. Yet, it also contains traditions and ideas which reflect the culture of the 3rd century BCE. So, when we think about whether or not the Hebrew Bible is historically reliable, it is essential that we recognize that it was written and edited over a long period of time and in many different historical contexts, not just one.

Third, the Hebrew Bible is not just history. Within the Hebrew Bible, there are many different genres of texts. For example, the Psalms contains liturgical hymns used in temple contexts, lamentations, personal prayers, and many other genres of literature. Additionally, texts like 1 and 2 Kings are historiography, historiography being an attempt to tell history through a particular worldview. In the case of 1 and 2 Kings, the author(s) viewed the history through a theological lens. In addressing the historically reliability of the Hebrew Bible, then, we must think about the genre of text. Would one read Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) like it is a poem? Absolutely not. Darwin’s book is about scientific observations. It does not fall within the genre of poetry. Likewise, we should be aware of the genre of text we read within the Hebrew Bible. By doing so, it can help us to understand how relevant the particular text in terms of its historical reliability.

To summarize, the historical reliability of the Hebrew Bible is not a simple question to answer. We must take into consideration archaeology, other ancient literature, and the complicated nature of the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew Bible is, after all, (1) an anthology of many texts and traditions from the ancient Levant. (2) These texts were developed over a period of nearly 600 years! 600 years ago from 2017, the USA did not exist, France was not established as a country, and the events which inspired some of Shakespeare’s plays were still taking place. In other words, a lot can happen in 600 years, both in Europe and the ancient Levant. Within the anthology of texts composed over a long period of time, namely the Hebrew Bible, (3) things were written in many different genres. By being aware of different genres, we can think about how we should read the text. Should we read Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games as a story? Or should we read it as a history like Edward Gibbon’s History of the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire? These are pertinent questions and considerations when thinking about whether or not a text within the Hebrew Bible is historically reliable.

 

[i] Sara Mandell, “Israelite Religion”, in Encyclopedia of Judaism, vol. II.

Continued: Notes on “Civilizations of the Ancient Near East”

This is a continuation of my current project. Click here for the first post which outlines the project.

Palaces and Temples in Canaan and Ancient Israel (Vol. 1-2, William G. Dever, 605-614).

  • Utilizes the terms “Syria” and “Palestine” to avoid ethnic and time-bound terms (605).
  • For my purposes, I am not too interested in palaces.
  • Temples
    • Easier to identify because they held to a stereotypical style (607).
    • Smaller sanctuaries and private shrines often remain enigmatic (607).
    • Main ways to think of this region’s temples:
      • Houses for the gods
      • consecrated for sacred usage
      • run by priests
      • worship consisted of offering gifts, like food and drink.
        • Often times, the gods were related to aspects of fertility.
    • Chalcolithic-Early Bronze Age (c. 4000-2000)
      • Temple at En-gedi on a hill top with pits for offerings and an open area.
      • Later temples were constructed atop this site.
    • Middle Bronze Age (c. 2000-1500)
      • Four basic types
        • Two long room types
          • In these, they may have served both a religious and administrative function.
        • A threeroom type, which became the standard Phoenician and Israelite
        • Smaller temples or shrines which do not fit with the preceeding categories (609-610).
    • Late Bronze Age (c. 1500-1200)
      • Three-room, tripartite temple became standard.
        • I should look up pictures of these Temples and show this aspect of religion visually. Material culture is good.
      • Area H temple at Hazor best fits with this tripartite structure (Stratum XV)
      • There were also “bench temples”
        • Small sanctuaries with one or two rooms, plus a side room.
        • Bench around wall; central altar on back wall for worshippers.
        • See for reference Amenhotep III Stratum VII and Sety I Stratum VI temples at Beth She’an, Tel Mevorakh Stratum VIII temple, and three temples at Lachish “Faosse Temples”
        • At Hazor, the “Stelae Temple” of Area C has ten basalt standing stones. See also “Summit Temple at Lachish and Dayr ‘Alla in the Jordan valley.
      • Iron Age (c. 1200-600)
        • This is the most relevant for my writing. The previous data offers the historical and archaeological heritage of ancient Israelite temples.
        • Best preserved Philistine temple is Strata XII-X, 12th-10th century, at Tell Qasile.
        • Similar to bench temples in the Late Bronze Age; however, these ones had Aegean features, like votive offerings in large storeroom behind the altar. Also, a large outer court.
        • Israelite temples
          • Dan on the border of Palestine
            • Open air sacrificial podium
            • adjacent two room temple with altars.
            • Among finds were male and female figurines, incense stands, miniature altars, incense offering shovels.
            • Dates to 10th to 8th century and reflects 1 Kings 12:31, the period in which Jereboam ruled.
          • Arad, near Beer-Sheba
            • Same period as the Dan temple
            • tripartite structure
            • large sacrificial altar in open forecourt
            • smaller altars in inner chambers
            • Incense stands
            • bronze lion
            • “two shallow plate sinscribed with an abbreviated Hebrew formula that probably means “sanctificed for the priests” (1-2.611).
          • Smaller Israelite cultic installations
            • These were not temples; rather, ‘private shrines for family use” (611).
            • Short list
              • Shrine 2081 at Megiddo, “cult building” at Taanach, Tell al-Far’a gateway shrine, “Cult Room 49” at Lachish.
              • The aforementioned are all dated to the 10th century BCE.
            • Kuntillet ‘Ajrud, in eastern Sinai wilderness
              • Dever says 8th century; however, I have an article which, based on Carbon Dating, suggests that Kuntillet Ajrud can be dated back to the 10th century BCE. Thus, it would match with the Short list provided.
              • Inscribed stone votive bowl
                • What does this mean and what was inscribed on it?
              • “painted cultic scenes familiar from Canaanite and Phoeneician art
              • Hebrew graffiti
                • Blessing formulas relate to El, Baal, Yahweh, and Aherah.
              • ‘Ajrud shrine for “caravans traversing the desert region.
                • Still, though, it is primarily Israelite-Judean.
            • Temple-sanctuary at Qitmit, east of Beer-sheba in eastern Negev Desrt
              • Dated the seventh century.
              • Edomite
                • Many terra-cottta deity representations.
            • Most famous is Solomon’s Temple, but we only see this directly in 1 Kings 6-7.
              • My thought: Based on the existence of many other temples through Palestine in the 10th century, Solomon’s Temple is not implausible to imagine. Although, it may not have been as grand as 1 Kings 6-7 describes it.
        • Palace-Temple combinations existed:
          • palace-temple combinations from the 9th-8th centuries
            • Zincirli and Tell Halaf in Syria
            • These complexes support the possibility of a palace-temple complex constructed by Solomon.
          • Canaanite palace-temple complexes remind us of the lack of distinction between state and religion.
            • King appointed priests, at least for the main place of worship
            • King also acted as a religious official.
            • Offerings to gods were often claimed by the kings.
            • “royal and priestly structures served a crucial social role in both centralizing and legitimizing national ideology” (612).
              • While I completely agree with this, I do think that it needs to be nuanced. What distinguishes palace-temple complexes, and the god-king-priest relationship therein, in a West Semitic context from an East Semitic context? While there is overlap, I think that Sanders’ book may help to clarify this issue. It will help me to localize Israelite-Judean religion.
          • Temples and Everyday Life
            • Temples indicated signs of wealth among Canaanite, Judean, and Israelite rulers.
              • Less than Egypt or Mesopotamia, of course.
            • Highly stratified society (speculative).
            • What can we learn from these temples, though?
              • For actual religious practice, it is tough.
              • By looking at what was offered, though, we can understand what sort of things were given as offering to the gods, or god.
              • Object recovered at Tel Mevorakh (Strata XI-X, c. 1400-1200) were divided into three categories
                • votives or costly gifts
                • vessels for food and drink offerings.
                  • Like stone cup, mortar, mini libation table.
                • impliments for liturgical function
                  • Like snake figure, dagger, arrowheads
              • Other stuffs, like seals, bead, pendant, game pieces, jar, pots, bowls, platters, chalices, cups, etc. all seem to be evidence of what was offered at a public shrine.
                • Likely to El, Asherah, Ball, or ‘Anat; by this period Yahweh is not a deity in the region.
                • Still, these offerings from a LBA help us to understand what constituted religious worship in the heritage of ancient Judean-Israel religion.

Brief notes on Legal and Social Institutions in Canaan and Ancient Israeli, by Hector Avalos

  • Priests often served as judges (622).
  • Priests usually inherited their position (623).
  • There were very structured temple hierarchies (623).
    • This is shared in Phoenician and Hebrew texts (623).
    • Each one expresses the hierarchies in a different way (623).

Brief notes on Ahab of Israel and Jehoshaphat of Judah by Joseph Blenkinsopp

  • Bethel and Dan were set up by Jereboam to rival Jerusalem (1 Kings 12:26-33), (p. 1315).
  • Imagery of a golden, young bull, familiar from Canaanite iconography, “either represented Yahweh or served as his pedestal” (1316).
  • Like mentioned to entries ago, there was a large place for sacrifice at Tel Dan, constructed by Jeroboam I – the Omrids expanded it (1317).
  • Sanctuary at the fortress of Arad had two incense altars and a sort of holy of holies.
    • Used in the 9th and 8th centuries – abandoned at the end of the 8th century (1317).
  • According to HB, Ahab build an Asherah. Likewise, the HB notes four hundred prophets of Asherah (1 Kings 16:33, 18:19). Even with a strong Yahwistic zeal, cult of Asherah still flourished until the destruction of Jerusalem and beyond. It was considered acceptable worship alongside Yahweh.
    • Cf. Kuntillet ‘Ajrud inscriptions and Khirbat al-Qom. These both attest to a strong relation between cult of Yahweh and Asherah.
      • Blenkinsopp translates it as, “I bless you by Yahweh of Samaria and by his Asherah” (1317).
      • May be dated as early as 10th century. Z. Meshel dates it to as early as the second half of the 9th century.
    • In neighboring regions, like Melqart of Tyre and Chemosh of Moab, they were worshiped with a female consort (1318). Thus, for ancient Israelite-Judean religion to do so is not unheard of or surprising.
  • Samaria ostraca include elements of Yahweh. They wrote YW, “corresponding to the Judean YHW” (1318), 8 for Baal, some with El, Gad, and Bes.
  • In the midst of all this, there were extremist cults dedicated to the cult of Yahweh alone.
    • Of course, this is questionable. Perhaps these cults were monolatry. Eventually, though, they began to turn into an early form of monotheism in order to retain their ethnic identity (Mark Smith and others).
  • With the rise of Omri, king of Israelite, sought closer ties with Phoenician cities through marriage and peace.
    • This was not received well because it broke customs and traditions (1318).