Was the Old Testament Invented During the Babylonian Exile? The Answer is NO.

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Just recently the History Channel aired the six-part docu-drama, “Mankind: The Story of Us.” Perhaps you might have watched it. Last year I was contacted by the producers and asked if I would like to participate as one of the “experts.” While I certainly don’t consider myself an expert, I thought it would be a great opportunity to give some reasonable and more conservative responses to what are typically liberal slanting programs. So last April I flew to New York where I was interviewed for approximately 2 hours with about thirty questions which would be posed on the “Mankind” series. Here is the second question sent to me by the producers.

Describe how the Hebrew Bible originates during the exile in Babylon. How significant a moment do you think this is?

I have often wondered how most Christians would answer this. I did have an answer ready but when I began to give it the interviewer stopped me and said that he was “looking for a different answer” and that the series “wasn’t going to be focusing on controversies and debates” and such. So, I had to politely refuse to answer the question – which of course, “begs the question” on the origins of the Bible as well as Hebrew monotheism.

So I would like to set the record straight and publicly but briefly respond to what the “Mankind” series program promoted as well as what many other popular documentaries teach and promote on Israel’s early history. There are actually two major views among archaeologists and Bible scholars on Israel’s early history. One view is called biblical maximalism which holds that the Biblical text, archaeological and historical data are in general agreement. The other view is called biblical minimalism and holds that there is virtually no correlation between the Bible and history at all. Biblical minimalists are historical revisionists and believe that much of what we think we understand about the Old Testament needs to be completely rewritten. The Old Testament is epic poetry, and nothing more.

In the documentary (see above clip) Dr. Reza Aslan, an Iranian born, Shia Muslim writer, states in essence, that the Jews didn’t actually believe that the God they worshipped (Yahweh) was the “one true God for all of mankind” until after their experience in Babylonian captivity in 604-586 B.C.. Another point made in the episode dealt with the origins of the Hebrew Bible itself. The selected experts in no uncertain terms, either stated or implied that Hebrew monotheism, the Bible, and the stories contained therein such as Abraham, Noah, David & Solomon, etc… “emerged” from the experiences of the Jews during the Babylonian exile.

Unfortunately and not surprisingly, this view is not new. It’s been around for quite some time, at least since the late 19th Century when the German Old Testament scholar Julius Welhausen was making some inroads into biblical studies with his new “Documentary Hypothesis” on the authorship and dating of the Pentateuch. More recently it has emerged again in a more radicalized form under scholars such as John Van Seeters, Thomas Thompson and N. Peter Lemche under the unofficially titled “Copenhagen school.” The Copenhagen school is essentially the application of postmodern philosophy & hermeneutics applied to the study of the Old Testament.

So what’s the answer? How do we answer this charge against the Old Testament? Well, first we have to keep in mind that there are no simple answers, or short answers, but there is an answer. In this blog post I can only offer the beginning of an answer, as it would be impossible to bring to bear all of current conservative Old Testament scholarship to bear on these questions. For a more in-depth treatment on this subject and on the general trustworthiness of the Old Testament, I would recommend these two excellent books. On the Reliability of the Old Testament (2003), by Egyptologist, Professor Kenneth A. Kitchen and the insightful volume, Israel: Ancient Kingdom or Late Invention? (2008), Edited by Daniel I. Block.

To begin with, the claim that the Hebrew Bible, and monotheism began during the exile ignores or overlooks literally tons of epigraphic and archaeological evidence to the contrary which reveals that Hebrew Bible and the nation Israel have roots deeply embedded in real history. The first artifact discovered which referred to Israel as a people was in 1896 by the British archaeologist Sir Flinders Petrie. The find by Petrie was called the “Merneptah Stele”[1] and is also known as the “Israel Stele.” It got its name from the fact that the main text on the stele commemorates the Egyptian Pharaoh Merneptah’s victory over the Libyans and their allies. In line 27  “Israel” is mentioned by name as one of the people groups who were conquered. What is significant is that in Egyptian hieroglyphics the determinative for “people” is used which indicates that there was a group of people who identified themselves by the name “Israel” in the 13th Century B.C..

In recent years there have been an increasing number of artifacts and inscriptions which have come to light that indicate that there was indeed a Hebrew people along with their most well known kings such as David & Solomon. During the 1993-1994 excavation season at Tel Dan in Northern Israel, archaeologist Avraham Biran discovered fragment of a stele (fragment A) which clearly mentions the ‘house of David’ in ancient Aramaic providing the very first solid extra-biblical authentication of the existence of King David.

Most recently – Israeli archaeologist Yosef Garfinkel of Hebrew University, who is now excavating a site known as Hirbet Qeiyafa, located in the Judean hills not far from the modern-day city of Beit Shemesh.— has uncovered two model shrines, one of clay and one of stone. This discovery echoes elements of Temple architecture as described in the Bible and strengthens his claim that the city that stood at the site 3,000 years ago was inhabited by Israelites and was part of the kingdom ruled from Jerusalem by the biblical King David. In addition to this, according to the excavation project website, “The city has the most impressive First Temple period fortifications, including casemate city wall and two gates, one in the west and the other in the south. The gates are of identical size, and consist of four chambers. This is the only known city from the First Temple period with two gates.”[2] This evidence certainly doesn’t sound like an “invented” history.

Secondly, upon closer examination the Babylonian exile is not where Israel invented her past or started preaching and promoting monotheism. What and where exactly were the Israelites exiled from? They were exiled from Jerusalem and the Temple where they had practiced worshiping God as the sole God since the time of Abraham. As British scholar, Simon J. Sherwin correctly observes, “…it is unlikely that the crisis of the exile in itself could have turned polytheistic Israelites into monotheists. This is as true for those who were nationalists and those who where not. In order to maintain a distinct national religious identity it only necessitates the worship of Yahweh, not the denial of all others.”[1]

Finally, I readily admit that Israel’s early history is not easy to reconstruct from archaeological and extra-biblical epigraphic sources alone, but it is there. But there’s something else to keep in mind and it is that a meticulous reconstruction of the ancient past is not just a problem with Israel’s early history, but all of ancient history. The further back in time we go, the more unclear things become. It takes hard work, but we can get at the past. Israel was a small nation, so we wouldn’t expect to find huge urban centers such as we find in Mesopotamia or monumental architecture such as the great pyramids of Egypt. Yet, as the archaeologist’s spade & trowel continues sifting through the sands of history, a picture of early Israel is emerging from the artifacts that very closely resembles what we read about on the pages of the Old Testament.

Lastly, we must keep in mind that there is still much that we do not know. As one scholar once observed, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” As the much respected archaeologist Dr. Edwin Yamauchi reminds us:

1. Only a fraction of the evidence survives in the ground.

2. Only a fraction of possible sites have been detected.

3. Only a fraction of detected sites have been excavated.

4. Only a fraction of what has been excavated has been thoroughly examined and published.

5. Only a fraction of what has been examined and published makes a contribution to biblical studies.[3]

What we have discovered about the Bible both epigraphically and archaeologically is impressive indeed. And who knows what future excavations will reveal?


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Merneptah_Stele (accessed, January 5, 2013)[2] http://qeiyafa.huji.ac.il/ (accessed, January 5, 2013)[3] Edwin M. Yamauchi, The Stones and the Scriptures (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1972), 146-62

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