Ancient Israel: Myth or History? (Part 2)


Part 2 – The Challenge

It is probably safe to say that the average Christian is not aware of the scholarly challenge to the Old Testament record of the existence of the biblical Patriarchs and the ancient nation of Israel. As I have pointed out in my previous post (see Part 1), the existence of the biblical Patriarchs and the ancient kingdom of Israel are integral to the Christian message found in the New Testament, albeit in an indirect way. The challenge arises from two primary areas: philosophy/hermeneutics and archaeology.

My goal in this post (part 2 of 3) is primarily to bring these two challenges to light so that: (1) the average Christian can be aware of the debates that happen in scholarly circles concerning the Bible and, (2) I can provide a response to them (as much as one can in a blog post) so that Christians will know how to answer these challenges when they are confronted with them.

Over thirty years ago a book by a team of scholars from the UK wrote the following:

Recent publications have sought, among other things, to show that the biblical patriarchs were a literary, even fictional, creation of the first millennium BC, produced to provide the nation of Israel, which came into prominence only then, with ‘founding fathers’.”[1]


The book which is now out of print, was written over three decades ago and skepticism of ancient Israel and the Patriarchs has only increased!


Were the biblical patriarchs merely a literary or even a fictional creation to provide the nation of Israel with founding fathers? Some scholars think this is the case.

Consider the work of professor Thomas Thompson, formerly of the University of Denmark. The focus of Thompson’s writing has been the interface between the Bible (specifically the Old Testament) and archaeology. His book, The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives (1974), was a critique of the (then-dominant) view that biblical archaeology had demonstrated the historicity of figures such as Abraham and other Biblical patriarchs. His book, The Early History of the Israelite People From the Written and Archaeological Sources (1993), set out his argument that biblical history was not reliable, and concludes: “The linguistic and literary reality of the biblical tradition is folkloristic in essence. The concept of a beni Israel … is a reflection of no sociopolitical entity of the historical state of Israel of the Assyrian period….”[2] In Thompson’s book, The Bible in History: How Writers Create a Past[3], he argued that the Bible was entirely, or almost entirely, a product of the period between the 5th and 2nd centuries BC. Regrettably, The Bible in History is widely used as a textbook in many undergraduate biblical studies courses [today][4]

Biblical Minimalism & the Minimalist-Maximalist Debate (The Copenhagen School)

Thompson belongs to a particular school of thought within biblical studies called the Copenhagen School which, incidentally, also goes by the name “biblical minimalism.”

Essentially “biblical minimalism” is a school of biblical exegesis which treats the biblical text as a purely mythical literature rather than as history. It is an outright denial that the biblical text can shed light on actual history. Within this paradigm, archaeology [alone!] should be used for reconstructing history, and the Bible has no value for that.[5] Of course, this begs the question. This contrasts with another approach (sometimes called “biblical maximalism”) to the historicity of the Bible which sees at least some [and I emphasize some] historical value in parts of the Bible, particularly parts of the Old Testament.[6] Minimalist scholars date all or most of the Old Testament to a period centuries later than the majority of scholars, seeing it as literature created later rather than as oral history handed down.

Another scholar of the said, “Copenhagen School” is Niels Peter Lemche. According to the Israeli scholar, Ziony Zevitt, Lemche, “has assumed the role of philosophical and methodological spokesperson[7] for the movement.

His position on biblical scholarship is can be summed up in the words: “The conclusion that historical-critical scholarship [i.e. scholars like W.F. Albright, G. E Wright, et. al.] is based on a false methodology and leads to false conclusions simply means that we can disregard 200 years of bible scholarship and commit it to the dustbin. It is hardly worth the paper on which it is printed.”[8]

Sparse or Indirect Archaeological Evidence

Aside from the criticisms of Thompson and Lemche and others like them, another problem of reconstructing the picture of ancient Israel as described in the pages of the Old Testament, is the sparse archaeological evidence of three major events described in Israel’s early history: the Egyptian sojourn & Exodus; the military conquest of Canaan under Joshua: and the kingdoms of David and Solomon. For well over a century the documentary hypothesis of the Old Testament has been the reigning theory on how to interpret the Pentateuch (the first five OT books). The Documentary Hypothesis is fueled partly by linguistic or language studies and partly by sparse or conflicting archaeological data about ancient Israel.[9] Essentially very little has changed in this area of biblical studies.[10] Most Christian apologists writing today who are trained in NT apologetics, are not prepared to answer many of the criticisms of the Old Testament.[11]

Does the Bible Contain Mere “Make-Believe” Stories? How Should Christians Respond?

I hate to leave you hanging, but in my next post I will share some very exciting information that has been developing the past few years concerning the historicity of the Old Testament. In particular: the sojourn & mass Exodus of Israel from Egypt; the Conquest of Canaan by Joshua and the existence of the ancient Israelite Kingdom under David. Don’t miss the conclusion (coming up in part 3)!

[1] A.R. Millard and D. J. Wiseman, Eds., Essays in the Patriarchal Narratives (Leicester: InterVarsity Press, 1980) preface.

[2] Thomas L. Thompson, The Early History of the Israelite People From the Written and Archaeological Sources (Leiden, Boston & Tokyo: Brill Academic Pubishers, 2000).

[3] Interestingly the US title for this book is, The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology and the Myth of Israel.

[4] (accessed November 10, 2009) [emphasis mine].

[5] Ibid.

[6] For instance, even William Dever considered to be a biblical maximalist is skeptical whether the existence of Abraham, Isaac or Jacob can ever be demonstrated historically. See his book, What Did the Biblical Writer’s Know and When Did They Know It? (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2001), pg. 98.

[7] Ziony Zevitt, “Three Debates About Bible and Archaeology,” in Biblica 83 (2002) 1-27.

[8] source?

[9] A parallel to this over a century ago was the debate between Sir William Ramsay and the Tübingen School – a debate over the trustworthiness of the New Testament for accurate historical information. For more see, chapter 2 in Edwin Yamauchi’s, The Stones and the Scriptures (Philadelphia and New York: J.B. Lippencott Company, 1972), 92-125.

[10] For an excellent scholarly response to the “Documentary Hypothesis” see Gleason Archer, Jr’s, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994).

[11] One of the only books written by an apologist on the Old Testament is Paul Copan’s excellent book, Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011): but it only deals with the moral and philosophical problems in the Old Testament and not the historical or archaeological challenges.

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