Ancient Israel: Myth or History?

Part 1

The Importance of this Question

Among the many archaeological anomalies which the biblical apologist must contend with, perhaps the enigma of the Biblical Patriarchs is one of the thorniest. Who were the founding fathers of our Judeo-Christian faith? Who were the Israelites? Were they just figures invented by someone in the past to lend credibility to the stories in the Old Testament or were they real people who actually lived in the past? This blog will be the first of three that I will post concerning the historicity of the earliest chapters of the Bible. Part one will be a statement as to why Ancient Israel is important to apologetics. In part two I will highlight the main arguments and criticisms against historical Israel and in part three I will share evidence from history and archaeology as to why we can trust the Old Testament when it comes to our spiritual forefathers.


On a recent family trip to Virginia, I took a tour of Thomas Jefferson’s house, Monticello. Jefferson was a man of many talents and abilities, and of course, he was the third president of the United States of America. Just recently a new visitor’s center has been constructed which highlights the amazing life and contributions of this man who has been called one of the founding fathers of liberty and a (then) new democratic form of government, not only in America but also in the world. He was in every sense of the word a founding father for America and for freedom loving peoples around the world. Monuments have been built in his honor, statues have been erected, museums built, and libraries have been constructed; all for the sole purpose of remembering who Jefferson was and what he did. Jefferson was certainly not the only founding father of America. At the founding of this great country stands three great men: Washington, Jefferson and Adams.

Within Judeo Christendom there also stands three great founding fathers: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. We know about these men in the pages of the Pentateuch or Torah.  In 1 Samuel 1:27a, David wrote the haunting song of lament upon hearing the death of Saul and Jonathan. He cried,  “How are the mighty fallen…?” In responding to this, Egyptologist James K. Hoffmeier writes, “The same question might be asked of the central figures in Israel’s early history – Abraham, Moses, and Joshua – in the scholarly literature in the past two decades.”[1] So, where have Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses gone?

Many notable Christian apologists today, rightly defend the historicity of the New Testament and the Resurrection, however, when it comes to defending the historicity of Old Testament there is a paucity of defenders. In our apologetic defense of the resurrection, the life of Christ, Intelligent Design, theism, and many other worthy subjects, it seems as if evangelical apologists have side-stepped the Pentateuch and the Patriarchs.[2] Why is this? Are the earliest chapters of Scripture not as important as the latter? After all, the theological message of redemption is intimately linked not only to the resurrection of Christ but also to the historical reality of Adam and Eve and the faith of Abraham and Noah.


Christ Affirmed the Historicity of the Patriarchs

 In addition to the historical and archaeological data I will be sharing on future posts, those who hold to a high view of Scripture have the testimony of Christ Himself who was a prophet confirmed by miracles and by His own resurrection from the dead. Christ affirmed that the Patriarch’s were real persons and not ideals or inventions. They are, in fact, included in His genealogies (Matthew 1:2-16, Luke 3:23-38). Christ, in affirming who He was to the Pharisee Nicodemus (an “expert” in the Torah), used a passage in the Torah to validate His person and ministry. Christ said, “Just as Moses [actually – historically] lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must [actually-historically] be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14).  Here, Christ spoke of an event recorded in the Torah, in the book of Numbers 21:8-9.  That event was the wandering of the Israelites in the desert wilderness, an actual historical event that would be used as an illustration of faith. The wilderness wandering and the sending of the serpents to kill the Israelites in the desert was an historical event which Nicodemus should have known about. Perhaps Nicodemus did know about it, but the theological meaning escaped him. Nevertheless, Jesus told him,  “I spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?”(John 3:12).

Throughout the pages of the Gospels no-where does Christ refer to the biblical Patriarchs, Adam, Noah, Abraham and Moses as anything but actual historical persons. It is possible Christ was deluded or that He was just following the “traditions” of Judaism in the first-century, but this is highly unlikely. Christ even connected the future [actual] judgment of the world with the biblical patriarch Noah. In the Olivet Discourse Christ said, “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man…” (Matt. 24:37-9). The passage and the message would not make hermeneutical sense if the referent (i.e. Noah) is anything but historical. It would have no force or weight if the Noah to which Christ referred was an “ideal” or an “invention” by a people to give them legitimacy.

Did not Jesus Himself rebuke His disciples for not believing the Old Testament?

He said to them, ‘How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” (Luke 24:25-27)

Like the disciples, we are too are slow to believe all that Moses and the prophets have spoken.

Why is defending the historical existence of Israel as she is portrayed in the Old Testament important? Because the very integrity of the Scripture is at stake.

[1] James K. Hoffmeier, Israel In Egypt: Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press), 3.

[2] This statement is not entirely true. There are a small number of biblical scholars who are conducting research and defending the historicity of Ancient Israel and the Old Testament Patriarchs: such as evangelical archaeologist Bryant Wood,  Egyptologists, Kenneth Kitchen and James K. Hoffmeier as well as Dr. J. Randall Price, John Currid and Gleason Archer. However, their work remains virtually unknown and unappreciated by many evangelicals and politely ignored by the larger community of academics in Near Eastern archaeology.


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