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).

800px-targum

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.

Before Ancient Israel

I have read quite a bit about the emergence of ancient Israel in the Late Bronze Age and Early Iron age. I have read quite a bit about the surrounding culture in the Levant and Near East. Today, though, I came across something which I have never thought about: the Levant in the 6th millennium (c. 5999 BCE – 5000 BCE). Because the article is relatively technical and unavailable for general readership, I will offer a succinct summary of the article.

Katharina Streit begins with a short history of scholarship for archaeology in the Levant. Although it has been noted before, she reminds us that the 6th millennium is not necessarily prehistory. At the same time, it doesn’t fit within ancient Israelite history. So, it is an oft ignored field of research. She then offers a short summary of Jacob Kaplan’s archaeology, which connected a particular style of pottery in the Levant  to a type of pottery found in Northern Mesopotamia.

Now, at a 2015 dig in Ein el-Jarba, two Halaf sherds were discovered. A Halaf sherd is a reference to a particular style of pottery in Northern Mesopotamia. In other words, these two sherds from roughly the 6th millennium BCE are evidence for active inter-cultural exchange between Northern Mesopotamia and the southern Levant. This means that there is reason to suggest that there was an “intense transregional exchange network that culminated in the sixth millennium.”

Although it isn’t necessarily directly relevant to the emergence of ancient Israel and the Levantine culture, I would love to see more about how historical circumstances back to the 6th millennium may have, or may not have, influenced the eventual development of ancient Israelite culture(s).

“The Near East before Borders: Recent Excavations at Ein el-Jarba (Israel) and the Cultural Interactions of the Sixth Millennium cal. B.C.E. ” by Katharina Streit, in Near Eastern Archaeology, Vol. 79, No. 4 (December 2016), published by ASOR, pp. 236-245.