History Archaeology and the Bible – What Really Happened and How can we Know it?


This is both a scholarly issue and something that touches the Bible's authority affecting the values and emotions of many Christian and Jewish believers.








Box 1


Are the “Historical Books” of the Hebrew Bible “History”?


‘“Let us learn to live with ambiguity."

Donald B. Redford, Egypt, Canaan, and Israel

in Ancient Times (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992)”

 ‘… Though we do not have full biographies of Herodotus or Thucydides, we have information that serves as a significant guide toward understanding their works. Furthermore, each work contains an important statement of purpose. Though like any statements outlining an author's goal, these are somewhat suspect, they still may help to guide the reader. In contrast, the biblical historical books are written anonymously and the date of their final composition and of the sources that they have integrated is extensively debated. In addition, no biblical historical book contains a statement of purpose, like that found in Herodotus or Thucydides. For these reasons, many fundamental questions about biblical historical texts remain unresolved. The relationships of biblical historical texts to actual Israelite historical events are certainly quite complex, probably more complex than is suggested by most biblical scholars. Some texts are probably written very close to the events they describe, and reflect authors who did not have a heavy ideological bias or great creative flair, but were interested in what actually transpired. At the opposite end of the spectrum, certain ancient historians lived many centuries after the "events" that they described, and they constructed or created events without recourse to sources....

‘As many scholars have pointed out, the Bible contains several commands to "remember" particular events; in that sense, ancient Israel held history in great esteem. Too many people have been misled by that notion, and have confused it with the belief that the historical records of the Bible are predominantly interested in the actual past and therefore contain an accurate description of it…. Yet it is not historical accuracy that the Bible means to emphasize, but what may be learned from the "events" which "transpired" in the past…. The biblical appeal to remember thus has little to do with curiosity about the past. Israel is told that it must be a kingdom of priests and a holy people; nowhere is it suggested that it become a nation of historians. This emphasis on recalling and remembering the past, even if it is typically for "theologically-didactic" reasons, makes the Israelite attitude toward the past unique within the ancient Near Eastern world…. [T]he Bible was in most of its aspects a typical Near Eastern historical text. Yet, he discerned a fundamental difference concerning "[t]he important role that the commemoration of YHWH's deeds in history plays in Hebrew worship."

‘There is a danger in a civilization assigning such great importance to the past…. the past is often used to serve the present or the future…. "memory and history, as constructions of the past, are often more clearly adjusted to what really serves the present than to what may 'really' have happened and cannot in fact be altered." Texts are typically written or reshaped to foster or to overthrow particular perspectives or ideologies. This tendency is especially acute in civilizations, or subcultures where historical texts are of fundamental importance, such as ancient Israel or the royal court in Assyria.

‘A useful analogy to this process may be found in the study of a subcategory of biblical history - genealogies. In some cases, no doubt, genealogies reflect the actual lineage of individuals. However, genealogies also had important social functions in the ancient world, functions which they still serve in many non-Western societies, such as legitimating a particular powerful group or ruler…. Within the Bible, for example, we can see how a later author has created a genealogy of the priest Zadok, who according to the Book of Samuel, first served under David. Early sources do not connect Zadok to the line of Aaron the priest; this has allowed for the speculation that he was originally a Jebusite priest in Jerusalem. The Chronicler, however, in an effort to legitimate the Zadokites" role as priests, has made them linear descendants of Aaron, the first high priest (1 Chr 5:29-34). Though it does not reflect historical reality, this genealogy is indistinguishable in form from genealogies which are thought to accurately reflect family relationships….

‘The central problem for the contemporary scholars of biblical history is to distinguish between material which is historically reliable and that which is not. A fundamental difficulty impedes this venture - there is no distinction in form between a work which accurately depicts the past and a work depicting the past that has no historicity. They frequently both look identical, just as the genealogy of Zadok in Chronicles, which is considered specious, is similar in form to that of the kings of Judah, which most scholars accept as accurate. Phrased differently, an ancient author interested in inventing a story showing how David had no involvement in the death of Saul would have used historical language identical to that of an author who was an eyewitness to the "events" of 2 Samuel 1….

‘Biblical historical texts reflect a combination of genuine interest in the past, strong ideological beliefs and refined rhetorical devices.... [T]he extent of the ideological involvement of various authors and editors is difficult to discern with full confidence, and many biblical texts have reached us in heavily edited forms, which may have obscured their earlier relationship to events. Texts may have a historical kernel, but there is no easy way to decide where it may be located and how large it may be - is it the size of a grape seed or an avocado pit? Additionally, it is difficult to know the distance between any event and its literary description in the Bible, although the author's proximity to an event is not a guarantee of his text's facticity..

‘Additionally, we know little about the forms of textual transmission in ancient Israel and how these may have changed a work through time. There are significant scholarly debates on whether the texts in their current form reflect oral or written transmission. In fact, scholars now speak of a variety of methods for the transmission of oral literature, so even when we speak of a stage of oral transmission, the extent to which this involves changing a work's content or adjusting it to new social and political contexts remains unclear. Finally, as even a cursory study of the Septuagint and the Dead Sea Scrolls reveals, biblical texts continued to be transformed, sometimes in a radical fashion, even after they began to be transmitted in written form, as various copyists took on the role of editors, partaking in the continual creative transformation of the text. Another issue deserves serious consideration: it is often difficult to know on the basis of a story's form or context whether an author was interested in depicting the actual past or if he was writing a symbolic or typological narrative. …

‘So what is the modern historian of ancient Israel to do? One option, of course, is to forget the biblical text, and to base a history of Israel on non-biblical evidence, such as archeology, the Hebrew epigraphic corpus and references to Israel in the texts of its neighbors. Though this has not yet been done, several recent works...  have moved in this direction. This approach also has its problems, for archeology is rarely unambiguous and typically demands the same types of interpretation as written sources. An important post-biblical example concerns the so-called scriptorium found at Qumran, which was connected to the community which produced the Dead Sea Scrolls, but is now considered by some to be a large dining or reception room of a private villa. While it is true that "historical Israel" must be distinguished from "biblical Israel," the biblical text will remain fundamental in reconstructing ancient Israelite history. But given the problems of that text, how should the historian proceed? ...Indeed, the problems of writing ancient Israelite history are fundamentally different from writing the history of much of the rest of the ancient Near East, where we have a wide variety of sources whose dates are clear and whose biases are known… In contrast, the biblical historian is working with one major source, the Bible, which is a compilation of texts whose dates of composition are debated, and which is supplemented by few outside sources.

‘Though the modern historian, applying the standard canons of historical research, may despair of reconstructing the actual Israelite past in the same way that he or she might reconstruct the Egyptian or Mesopotamian past, most biblical exegetes are simply unwilling to give up on the past. …  

'[W]e cannot know enough about the real David or Saul to see how the biblical authors' accounts relate to the facts. Only in rare circumstances, where we have a multiplicity of biblical and ancient Near Eastern sources which bear on the same event…. Most historians would agree that it is best to reconstruct actual history when we have multiple sources bearing on the same event.… In some small number of cases, we can reconstruct elements of biblical history "beyond a reasonable doubt." We know, for example, "beyond a reasonable doubt" that Jehoiachin, according to the Bible, the next-to-Iast king of Judah, was exiled to Babylon in 597, and continued to live there. Our confidence is based on the multiplicity of evidence in various historical and prophetic biblical texts, a reference to the exile in the Babylonian Chronicle and mention of Jehoiachin in a list of Babylonian grain rations! This set of events is exceptional - we cannot reconstruct much biblical history using the more stringent test of "beyond a reasonable doubt." Some non-political events may also be reconstructed "beyond a reasonable doubt"; so, for example, the evidence adduced ... concerning the existence of a royal Davidic ideology, which may be bolstered through an analysis of the structure and contents of the Book of Judges suggests that a royal Davidic ideology did actually exist in ancient Israel. Indeed, given the evidence, we can be more certain of the existence of that ideology than of the existence of David as ruler of a Judean state! More often, however, the evidence from the Bible is not complete enough, or is ambiguous, or has come down to us in a highly reworked form, so we cannot reconstruct the past "beyond a reasonable doubt." We can, however, often reconstruct a possible past by carefully reading the text and balancing various reconstructions against one another using the criterion of "a preponderance of evidence." Often, such an examination will yield different conclusions to different biblical historians who are acting as jurors. … Phrased differently, the evidence which suggests that the exile of Jehoiachin took place in 597 is much more certain that the evidence which suggests that the beginning of 2 Samuel does not narrate events that actually happened in antiquity…. '

From From The Creation of History in Ancient Israel by Marc Zvi Brettler, Routledge, London and N.Y. 1995


"The history of Judaism begins with the Hebrew Bible. But the history of the Hebrew Bible does not begin with the events depicted in it. It starts long afterward. As Morton Smith points out, "The Hebrew Bible. . . is primarily evidence of the interests of the Pharisees, who not only selected and interpreted the books but also carefully determined and corrected their texts. Behind the Pharisees, the previous critical period of selection was probably the Maccabean revolt. . . Thus the Hebrew Bible is the product not merely of partisan collection and revision but of a long series of partisan collections and revisions. . . . It represents therefore the literature of a large number and long succession of parties.” But seen as a whole, from the perspective of the history of Judaism, the Hebrew Bible is a single, unitary document, telling the story of the faith and destiny of the people of Israel."

From The Way of Torah: An Introduction to Judaism by Jacob Neusner, Dickenson,Encino, California, and Belmont, California 1974

'Let me begin by clarifying which books of the Hebrew Bible I think can be utilized by the would-be historian, whether textual scholar or archaeologist. With most scholars, I would exclude much of the Pentateuch, specifically the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus,and Numbers. These materials obviously constitute a sort of "pre-history" that has been attached to the main epic of ancient Israel by late editors. All this may be distilled from long oral traditions, and I suspect that some of the stories - such as parts of the Patriarchal narratives - may once have had a real historical setting. These traditions, however, are overlaid with legendary and even fantastic materials that the modern reader may enjoy as "story:' but which can scarcely be taken seriously as history. For instance, no archaeologist would go looking for the Garden of Eden (even though it might make a good movie thriller). The story is really about Mankind (Hebrew ’adam, "man") and the Mother of all living things (Hawwa, "life-giver") in an earthly Paradise (gan ‘eden) - in short, an idyllic and profoundly true story about the fact that when any man and any woman find each other, in love as it should be, there is Paradise. Eden is not a place on any map, but a state of mind!

'Or take the Patriarchal narratives. After a century of exhaustive investigation, all respectable archaeologists have given up hope of recovering any context that would make Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob credible "historical figures… And, … archaeological investigation of Moses and the Exodus has similarly been discarded as a fruitless pursuit. Indeed, the overwhelming archaeological evidence today of largely indigenous origins for early Israel leaves no room for an exodus from Egypt or a 40-year pilgrimage through the Sinai wilderness .A Moses-like figure may have existed somewhere in southern Transjordan in the mid-late 13th century B.C., where many scholars think the biblical traditions concerning the god Yahweh arose. But archaeology can do nothing to confirm such a figure as a historical personage, much less prove that he was the founder of later Israelite religion. As for Leviticus and Numbers, these are clearly additions to the "pre-history" by very late Priestly editorial hands, preoccupied with notions of ritual purity, themes of the "promised land," and other literary motifs ….'

From What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It?: What Archaeology Can Tell Us About the Reality of Ancient Israel by William G. Dever

Further reading The First Historians: The Hebrew Bible and History by Baruch Halpern (Paperback - August 1996)




Box 2


Archaeology and the Historicity of the Hebrew Bible

 From The Bible Unearthed; Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, N.Y. 2001

“The historical saga contained in the (Hebrew) Bible-from Abraham's encounter with God and his journey to Canaan, to Moses' deliverance of the children of Israel from , to the rise and fall of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah-was not a miraculous revelation, but a brilliant product of the human imagination. It was first conceived….during a few extraordinary decades of spiritual ferment and political agitation toward the end of the seventh century BCE (when) an unlikely coalition of Judahite court officials, scribes, priests, peasants, and prophets came together to create a new movement. At its core was a sacred scripture of unparalleled literary and spiritual genius. It was an epic saga woven together from an astonishingly rich collection of historical writings, memories, legends, folk tales, anecdotes, royal propaganda, prophecy, and ancient poetry. Partly an original composition, partly adapted from earlier versions and sources, that literary masterpiece would undergo further editing and elaboration to become a spiritual anchor not only for the descendants of the people of Judah but for communities all over the world….


After decades of excavation, researchers have been able to reconstruct the vast archaeological context into which biblical history must be fit …. By the end of the twentieth century, archaeology had shown that there were simply too many material correspondences between the finds in Israel and in the entire Near East and the world described in the Bible to suggest that the Bible was late and fanciful priestly literature, written with no historical basis at all. But at the same time there were too many contradictions

between archaeological finds and the biblical narratives to suggest that the Bible provided a precise description of what actually occurred….


“We will see how much of the biblical narrative is a product of the hopes, fears, and ambitions of the kingdom of Judah, culminating in the reign of King Josiah at the end of the seventh century BCE. We will argue that the historical core of the Bible arose from clear political, social, and spiritual conditions and was shaped by the creativity and vision of extraordinary women and men. Much of what is commonly taken for granted as accurate history-the stories of the patriarchs, the Exodus, the conquest of Canaan, and even the saga of the glorious united monarchy of David and Solomon are, rather, the creative expressions of a powerful religious reform movement that flourished in the kingdom of Judah in the Late Iron Age. Although these stories may have been based on certain historical kernels, they primarily reflect the ideology and the world-view of the writers. We will show how the narrative of the Bible was uniquely suited to further the religious reform and territorial ambitions of Judah during the momentous concluding decades of the seventh century BCE.


“But suggesting that the most famous stories of the (Hebrew) Bible did not happen as the Bible records them is far from implying that ancient Israel had no genuine history. In the following chapters we will reconstruct the history of ancient Israel on the basis of archaeological evidence-the only source of information on the biblical period that was not extensively emended, edited, or censored by many generations of biblical scribes. Assisted by archaeological finds and extrabiblical records, we will see how the biblical narratives are themselves part of the story, not the unquestioned historical framework into which every particular find or conclusion must fit. Our story will depart dramatically from the familiar biblical narrative. It is a story not of one, but two chosen kingdoms, which together comprise the historical roots of the people of Israel…. “It becomes evident when we begin to examine the genealogies of the patriarchs and the many nations that arose from their trysts, marriages, and family relations, that they offer a colorful human map of the ancient Near East from the unmistakable viewpoint of the kingdom of Israel and the kingdom of Judah in the eighth and seventh centuries BCE. These stories offer a highly sophisticated commentary on political affairs in this region.


“During the eighth and seventh centuries the lucrative caravan trade in spices and rare incense from southern Arabia, winding through the deserts and the southern frontier of Judah to the ports of the Mediterranean, was a significant factor in the entire region's economic life. For the people of Judah, a number of peoples of nomadic origins were crucial to this long range trade system. Several of the genealogies included in the patriarchal stories offer a detailed picture of the peoples of the southern and eastern deserts during late monarchic times and they explain - again through the metaphor of family relationships-what role they played in Judah's contemporary history. In particular, Ishmael, the scorned son of Abraham and Hagar, is described in Genesis as having been the ancestor of many of the Arab tribes who inhabited the territories on the southern fringe of Judah.  The portrait is far from flattering. He is described as a perpetual wanderer, "a wild ass of a man, his hand against every man and every man's hand against his" (Genesis 16:12, not surprisingly a J document). Among his many children are the various southern tribes who established new contact with Judah in the Assyrian period….


“It is entirely possible and even probable that the individual episodes in the patriarchal narratives are based on ancient local traditions. Yet the use to which they are put and the order in which they are arranged transform them into a powerful expression of seventh century Judahite dreams. Indeed, the superiority of Judah over all the others could not be emphasized more strongly in the last blessing of Jacob to his sons quoted earlier. Though enemies might be pressing on all sides, Judah, it is promised, will never be overthrown.


“The patriarchal traditions therefore must be considered as a sort of pious "prehistory" of Israel in which Judah played a decisive role. They describe the very early history of the nation, delineate ethnic boundaries, emphasize that the Israelites were outsiders and not part of the indigenous population of Canaan, and embrace the traditions of both the north and the south, while ultimately stressing the superiority of Judah. ... But by the late eighth and certainly seventh century BCE, Judah was the center of what was left of the Israelite nation. In that light, we should regard the ...  patriarchal narratives primarily as a literary attempt to redefine the unity of the people of Israel - rather than as an accurate record of the lives of historical characters living more than a millennium before."


Box 3


Review of

What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It?

by William G. Dever

The subtitle of this book, "What Can Archaeology Tell Us about the Reality of Ancient Israel?" asks whether the writings of the First Testament can be located in a real historical setting. In this work, the harvest of some thirty-five years' fieldwork in Syro-Palestinian archaeology, Dever asserts unequivocally that they can. He also launches a sustained, vigorous, and informed offensive against those who would tear the First Testament from any historical moorings and present it as a piece of theological invention from the Persian or Hellenistic period. Such scholars are variously described as revisionists or minimalists.

The book divides naturally into three sections. The first (chapters 1 and 2) presents a clear definition of the issues involved in the current scholarly quest to remove the Bible from the realm of history and place it in the realm of literature.

In his opening chapter, Dever effectively summarizes both extremes of the debate and rejects them; but he obviously regards the minimalists as more of a threat than any conservative scholars who maintain the essential historicity of the biblical tradition. He typifies as absurd the post-modern, deconstructionist school of literary criticism, which dismisses the importance of authorship or authorial intention, thus allowing a text to be read and interpreted in any way (p. 14). He also admits, however, that traditional biblical archaeology and its goal of finding tangible proof of the central events of the First Testament failed.

In chapter 2 he sharpens his criticism of the minimalist school and depicts its adherents as a small but highly organized and influential group bent on the abolition of a historical Israel and any historical exegesis of the biblical text. He selects five scholars with whom he has profound disagreements, summarizes and criticizes their views, and chides their lack of professional historical training and archaeological experience.

The second section (chapters 3-5) introduces biblical, more recently designated Syro-Palestinian archaeology as a discipline and assesses its ability to contribute to the understanding of the Bible and of ancient Israel as an historical entity. The author presents a lively and concise history of archaeology in Syria-Palestine from its inception in the nineteenth century to the present. He comments on the growth and decline of biblical archaeology, paralleling the biblical theology movement in the decades after the Second World War. Then he chronicles the rise, since the 1970s, of the "specialized, professional and secular" Syro-Palestinian archaeology (p. 62). He argues that this archaeology can make the Bible more tangible and real and that artifacts and texts can both be "read" (p. 67).

Chapters 4 and 5, the core of the book, offer a detailed discussion of the major archaeological discoveries of the twentieth century and relate them to the Deuteronomistic History (Joshua-2 Kings). Dever's method is to correlate text and artifact to demonstrate that significant material in the narrative plausibly derives from Iron Age II (ca. 1000-600 BCE) and not from later periods. His table on p. 125 associating the textual, Judges and 1 Samuel, and arachaeological evidence concerning the 12th century BCE village settlements in the central hill country exemplifies this. Another good example of his methodology is his careful situation of the description of Solomon's temple in Kings and Chronicles securely within the parameters of Syro-Palestinian temple building and decoration from the Middle Bronze to the Iron Age.

In the third section, a final chapter (6) attests once more to an historical core, evidence of a real Israel, that lay behind the later theological accretions and is essential to the Bible's existence and continued relevance in the western cultural tradition. He provides a succinct summation of this "historical core" (pp. 267-74) and concludes that there was an ancient Israel, that archaeology can identify and prevent from being "written out of history" (p. 298).

Written by a veteran archaeologist and passionate scholar, this book raises critical issues. Dever agrees with the revisionists that much of the Israel presented by the First Testament never existed. He argues for a real Israel, however, whose presence is revealed by archaeology and in the biblical text, for without that real Israel there is nothing. The anarchy of uncontrolled deconstructioin of artifact and text is exposed as ultimately pointless and destructive. The author highlights the revisionists' almost wilful ignoring of long-established archaeological and textual data, such as Assyrian inscriptions and the extensive body of ostraca, inscriptions and seals that present biblical Hebrew as a living language.

More disquieting is his disclosure that his opponents dismiss as forgeries or redate inscriptions that question their conclusions, for example the 9th-century Tel Dan inscription that most scholars agree mentions a "king of Israel" and the "House of David." In this rich, vivid, and "no holds barred" book scholars and general readers alike are given a compelling and thought-provoking read.

John Barclay Burns
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA 22030
COPYRIGHT 2002 Biblical Theology Bulletin, Inc in association with The Gale Group and LookSmart.
COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group



Box 4


What Do We Know About the Historic David and Solomon?


Bertrand Russell, in A History of Western Philosophy  (Simon and Schuster 1945) writes

"Socrates is a very difficult subject for the historian. There  are many men concerning whom it is certain that very little is known, and other men concerning whom it is certain that a great deal is known; but in the case of Socrates the uncertainty is as to whether we know very little or a great deal."

The historian of Ancient Israel is in a similar position vis-a-vis Saul, David and Solomon." Some texts are probably written very close to the events they describe, and reflect authors who did not have a heavy ideological bias or great creative flair, but were interested in what actually transpired. At the opposite end of the spectrum, certain ancient historians lived many centuries after the "events" that they described, and they constructed or created events without recourse to sources.... The central problem for the contemporary scholars of biblical history is to distinguish between material which is historically reliable and that which is not."

Some serious scholars eg. Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman maintain that our source, the Books of Samuel-Kings date from the 7th century BCE leaving us only with the certainty that these leaders existed and that David founded the Judean monarchy.  Other, equally capable scholars, such as Baruch Halpern (see below) maintain that careful historical analysis allows us to recover an outline of at least the historic David and Solomon with some degree of confidence.  However, the historic David, so recovered, may bear little resemblance to the paragon of Jewish and Christian traditions.

 "A leading scholar of biblical history and the ancient Near East, Baruch Halpern traces the development of the David tradition, showing how the image of David grew over time. According to Halpern, David was the founder of the dynasty that progressively exaggerated his accomplishments. Halpern clear portrait of the historical David reveals his true humanity and shows him to be above all a politician who operated in a rough-and-tumble environment in which competitors were ready literally to slit throats."

From http://www.google.ca/search?q=cache:kSe2FGSnISgJ:www.centuryone.com/4478-2.html+halpern+david%27s&hl=en&ie=UTF-8

"The preceding investigations indicate that David's enemies regarded him as a non-Israelite. Specifically, they thought of him as the Gibeonite agent of Philistine masters. They accused him of importing a foreign icon, the ark, as his state symbol. He consistently allied with foreign powers to suppress the Israelites whom he dominated. He spent most of his career as a brigand-king, and, where he ruled, he did so by employing murder and mayhem as tools of statecraft.In fact, the only murder in the books of Samuel of which he was probably innocent is the one murder of which he stands accused in the apology. His enemies considered him a mass murderer.

"David's empire, such as it was, was first confined to Judah, then extended into Transjordan. In the latter sphere, he brokered a balance between Israelites in the north and Ammon in the south, and as his price extracted all the heirs of the House of Saul to kill at Gibeon. He did not achieve full control over Israel until the end of the Absalom revolt.

"At the end of his life, David was certainly betrayed by one of his harem women, Bathsheba, and his foreign mercenary bodyguard. Instead of his heir, Adonijah, they installed Solomon, hitherto known as the son not of David but of Uriah the Hittite, on the throne. Quite as homicidal as his predecessor, but more punctilious and self-righteous about it, this second king of Judah quickly cleaned house, erasing his rivals, and probably all of David's sons, from the scene. He gave his kingdom the airs of a great power, and incidentally gave us the portrait of a flawed but heroic, then finally pathetic, David. Through him, his mother speaks with stunning artfulness.

"The real David was not someone whom it would be wise to invite to dinner. And you certainly would not be happy to discover he was marrying your daughter, or even a casual acquaintance. But he did have one virtue. His achievement in creating Judah and conquering Israel left, through his wife and through his successor, if not his son, a legacy of hope and of aspiration. If that legacy has little to do with the real David, if later imaginings of his empire magnify a small, sanitize a corrupt, and beautify an ugly reality, a reality there nevertheless was. The biblical story of David is indeed mythic in nature. But the myth was made necessary, though not by his glory, by his gore."

From David's Secret Demons: Messiah, Murderer, Traitor, King by Baruch Halpern, Eerdmans 2001


Further reading

Oral World and Written Word: Ancient Israelite Literature (Library of Ancient Israel) by Susan Niditch, Douglas A. Knight (Editor)


Jerusalem in David and Solomon's Time - It Really was a Major city in the Tenth Century BCE by Jane Cahill, Biblical Archaeological Review Nov./Dec. 2004


Where is the Tenth Century? H. Shanks, Biblical Archaeological Review March/April 1998



Box 5

How Reliable are Oral Traditions?


It is often assumed, that prior to their being written down, mainly in the seventh century BCE (see Box 29), oral traditions of distant events were maintained, with great fidelity, in Israelite society.  In that regard the following is worth considering -


The Real Basis for the Exodus

The Exodus from Egypt and the subsequent Conquest of Canaan seem to provide an inexhaustible source of articles with an astonishingly wide range of views...

The Biblical account and the archaeological evidence go hand in hand from the 10th century B.C.E. on. Everything earlier, however, was probably fixed for the first time in writing during or shortly after the Babylonian exile, that is, around the 6th century B.C.E. It is very unsound methodology to use this material to reconstruct the history of the end of the 2nd millennium B.C.E.

Nearly all peoples of which we have information have heroic epic tales concerned with miraculous migrations, fantastic battles and supernatural deeds by the protagonists of these tales. For example, in the Serbian guslar songs recited for several hundred years since the battle of Kosovo in 1389 between the Turks and the Serbs, we can see how the three basic elements of each story - i.e., the events, the personages and the place-begin to float in time and space after even a relatively short time. Each of the three elements is carefully preserved in varying degree for the first two or three generations of bards, but then begins a process of additions, omission sand telescoping. Events that took place are put in a different chronological order, persons who in the beginning had nothing to do with these particular events suddenly appear as protagonists at places where they never were, and certain events "wander," often from one geographical environment to another. Deeds which for the bard or his audience concern less important figures are attributed to a few dominant characters who gradually assume the role of "superheroes."

Because we can control the historical events concerning the battle of Kosovo by several historical sources on both sides- i.e., the Ottoman Turkish historiography as well as local Slavic monastic records-we can follow these developments very closely and study the process.

Similar trends are found with respect to the battle of Troy as recorded by Homer and other classical writers, the Finnish Kakvala, the Persian Shahnamehof Firdousi, the Japanese Kojiki and Nihongi (although to a lesser extent), the Irish Leabhar Gabhala, the Book of Conquests and many other epic creations.

In all cases we can see a "historical" event with its participants in a particular setting become "ephemerized" by successive layers of additional elements, certain omissions of "unnecessary" facts and reinterpretation in a new environment. It would seem foolish to base the archaeology of Finland, Iran, Japan or Ireland on these tales which undoubtedly all have some sort of a historical core but are distorted beyond recognition.

The same applies to the "Exodus" tradition and the "Conquest": There must have been many "Exodi" and several conquests that might have started the Biblical account. For example, there. was some sort of migration of early Semitic tribes from northeast Africa into Syria-Palestine by the end of the... 2nd millennium....All this shows is that anytime was a good time for an "Exodus" and, thereafter, for a "Conquest."

Not even the "where" can be guessed at with any certainty, for "Egypt" had different borders at different times, sometimes as far north as southern Lebanon.

Is it so difficult to accept the first books of the Hebrew Bible for what they are: a grand epic created by a great mind (or minds) with roots deep in the memory of the people and its neighbors, using epic songs, folklore and literary material originating from all over the Ancient Near East?  The material was re-interpreted and adjusted to the psychological needs of the deportees in Babylon for a particular purpose: to preserve their religious and national identity when confronted with the highly sophisticated civilization of Babylon. This epic shaped the people of Israel as they saw themselves at a certain point of time and gave meaning to their lives, just as the Greeks formed, or were formed by, the tales of Homer. But both works are allegories, literature in the purest sense-and not history as we understand it today. The greatness of these creations cannot be proved or disproved by poking around in the ground. Nevertheless, these literary works are of utmost importance for understanding what happened later because these works themselves made history, but they do not provide evidence for the events described.

Letter to Biblical Archaeology Review (March/April 1988) from Mattanyah Zohar, Department of Archaeology, Hebrew University, Jerusalem, Israel

Note also some of the points made on myth by Northrop Frye



Box 6

Jewish Responses

to Challenges to the Historicity of Biblical History

The traditional Jewish view, still treated as a fundamental belief in Orthodox Judaism, was clearly stated by the great medieval rabbi-philosopher Moses Maimonides –

The Eighth Fundamental Principle is that the Torah carne from God. We are to believe that the whole Torah was given us through Moses our Teacher entirely from God. When we call the Torah "God's Word" we speak metaphorically. We do not know exactly how it reached us, but only that it came to us through Moses who acted like a secretary taking dictation. He wrote down the events of the time and the commandments, for which reason he is called "Lawgiver." There is no distinction between a verse of Scripture like "The sons of Ham were Cush and Mizraim" (Gen. 10:6), or "His wife's name was Mehetabel and his concubine was Timna" (Gen. 36:39, 12), and one like "I am the Lord your God" (Ex. 20:2), or "Hear, 0 Israel" (Deut. 6:4). All came from God, and all are the Torah of God, perfect, pure, holy and true. Anyone who says Moses wrote some passages on his own is regarded by our sages as an atheist or the worst kind of heretic.... Such a heretic claims that some historical passages or stories are trivial inventions of Moses and not Divine Revelation. But the sages said that if one accepts as Revelation the whole Torah with the exception of even one verse, which Moses himself and not God composed, he is referred to in the verse, "he has shamed the Word of the Lord" (N urn. 15:31), and is heretical.”

A Maimonides Reader; Edited,with introductions and notes, by Isadore Twersky, BehrmanhouseNEW YORK 1972


A Reform Jewish response –

It is generally held in Reform circles that the Higher Criticism has irrevocably destroyed the authority of the Pentateuch. The Jew in the past held that the Five Books of Moses were dictated by God to Moses. Modem scholarship is said to prove that this could not have been so, that, on the contrary, the Torah is a compilation of documents composed during several centuries.

If these premises are accepted, we can draw from them the logical conclusion that the Jew in the past was mistaken in his view about the authorship of the Pentateuch. What does not follow logically from the findings of the Higher Criticism is the widespread notion that, because Moses did not write the Torah, it can no longer be the authoritative rule of-Jewish life.

“Let us be clear about this: the Jew in the past lived by the dictates of the Torah, not because Moses had written it down (although he was firmly convinced of this), but because the Torah was divine revelation, because God had made known His wilI in its pages. The information that it was not Moses… who wrote the Torah merely shows-if the claim can be fuIly substantiated-that the Jew in the past was not too familiar with the literary history of his own people. It does not necessitate the conclusion that God could not have made use of J. E. P. and D in the same way in which, at one time, it was

thought (mistakenly, it is now said) He had made use of Moses.

“Again, the question of whether or not a certain ritual is a divine commandment cannot be settled with a reference to archeological findings pointing to a non-Israelite or pre-Israelite provenance of the particular rite under discussion. No Reform Jew would insist that the prohibition of murder is not a commandment of the God of Israel-merely because murder is also discountenanced in the Egyptian Book of the Dead…. This is an interesting piece of information, but it can hardly rule out the possibility, on logical grounds, that God used this pre-Israelite raw material and incorporated it in His Torah. Does every worthwhile religious ordinance have to be a creatio ex nihilo?

“After all, according to the view of the Higher Critics, and of Reform's own Julian Morgenstern in particular, each "code" now contained in the Pentateuch was accepted at a specific historical occasion by the people as a whole, in a solemn covenant. Accepted as what? As the definite demands which the covenant deity made upon his partners of the covenant. If we follow this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion, we must arrive at a point in Jewish history when the Pentateuch as a whole (in the form in which it left the hands of its last redactor) was accepted as divine revelation by the people. This would be the canonization" of the Torah. Tradition ascribes this "canonization" of the complete Pentateuch to the time of Moses. Modern scholarship would set the date at about 400 B.C.E.-that is, a good 700 or 800 years after the time of Moses. Inasmuch as the findings of modem scholarship clash with the traditional notion, it is very much a question of temperament and training as to which of the two dates a modern Jew will ultimately accept.  But,… the question of dating the Pentateuch has very little to do with the authoritative or non- authoritative character of that book.”

Problems of  Reform Halacha by Jakob J. Petuchowski in Contemporary Reform Jewish Thought edited by Bernard Martin, Quadrangle Books 1968


Two Conservative Jewish response –


“For Conservative Jews, the Torah is no less sacred, if less central, than it was for their pre-modern ancestors. I use the word "sacred" advisedly. The Torah is the foundation text of Judaism, the apex of an inverted pyramid of infinite commentary, not because it is divine, but because it is sacred, that is, adopted by the Jewish people as its spiritual font…. The sense of individual obligation, of being commanded, does not derive from divine authorship, but communal consent. The Written Torah, no less than the Oral Torah, reverberates with the divine-human encounter, with "a minimum of revelation and a maximum of interpretation."  It is no longer possible to separate the tinder from the spark. What history can attest is that the community of Israel has always huddled in the warmth of the flame.”

The Sacred Cluster: The Core Values of Conservative Judaism by Ismar Schorsch

See further the discussion by Louis Jacobs in We Have Reason to Believe

"The claim of Judaism on men's minds was once advanced on the basis of truth and ultimate seriousness. Judaism claimed to present a true and correct understanding of the nature of the Jew, of the world, man and God. That claim was expected to be considered seriously and therefore to be measured against the criteria of all that men knew, or thought they knew, about reality. No source of insight or information could stand apart from Judaism, and none might be ignored.

"In brief, Judaism once claimed to speak truly about God, one and unique, who created the world and all that is, and happens in it; who revealed His purpose and will for creation to men through Moses and the prophets; and who expected men to carry out that will as it was recorded in Scripture, and elucidated by the sages of each generation. The task of the religious Jew was to uncover, explicate, and fulfil what was always immanent: the word of God in the world.

"If, therefore, for Philo Scripture became a mystic allegory, or for Maimonides an Aristotelian treatise, for the Talmudists a source of law, or for the Agadists a source of religious insight, or for Rosenzweig an existential record, the reason was always the same. The Torah could be nothing less than the abiding source of insight and illumination, and the alternative, that its relevance was limited by temporal or intellectual contingency, was unthinkable.

"The task of the Jew, and especially of the Jewish teacher, was to apprehend the truth of Judaism, to apply and to transmit it. The process of transmission never took precedence over the principle of truth, and it was rare that a teacher or sage, however troubled he may have been by the results of his inquiry, held back his findings or sought to distort them in order to preserve an edifice he feared might otherwise collapse. The consequence was that the tradition of Judaism was transmitted never intact but forever unimpaired....

"Judaism will survive anything but deceit. Atheism and heresy take many forms, but the most pernicious of all are the cloaks of legitimacy. The most dangerous enemies of Judaism today are therefore sentimentality and stupidity, which take the forms today of anti-intellectualism and unwillingness to reckon seriously with the scholarly endeavour and its manifold consequences.

"If day by day we come to a crossroads, then the choice of the way ahead should be guided by one principle, that of undeviating loyalty to plain truth, which itself must be the consequence of integrated and fully self-conscious perceptions about the world, man, and God emergent from the living traditions of humane and scientific learning, both Jewish and Western, of yesterday and today.

"'For you are my witnesses, says the Lord. When you are my witnesses, then I am the Lord, and when you are not my witnesses, then I am not the Lord.'"

 Intellectual Honesty in Jewish Learning in History and Torah: Essays on Jewish Learning by Jacob Neusner, Schoken Books, NY 1965


Box 7

A Christian Response to Challenges to the Historicity of Biblical History


“The French Dominican biblical scholar and archaeologist Roland de Vaux noted ..."if the historical faith of Israel is not founded in history, such faith is erroneous, and therefore, our faith is also”

The Bible Unearthed; Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, N.Y. 2001



“Moreover, by  presenting the faith of Israel as history, they demand for it a legitimation according to the norms of historical criticism. In maintaining that the history of Israel is the revelation to Israel, they have given to the historical disciplines the ultimate competence to decide what and what is not revealed among the biblical traditions. The rejection of the historicity of large parts of the Old Testament, thought by them to be historical, is understood as a challenge to faith because it challenges their identification of revelation with event.


But the stories about the promise given to the patriarchs in Genesis are not historical, nor do they intend to be historical; they are rather historically determined expressions about Israel and Israel’s relationship to its God, given in forms legitimate to their time, and their truth lies not in their facticity, nor in their historicity, but in their ability to express the reality that Israel experienced. To the extent that this experience can be communicated, it is a revelation of the faith that was Israel's.  And it is through this communication in word that Israel's experience can become ours, and Israel's faith our faith; for it is through this revelation that we are enabled to see through to the reality and the truth of the human experience which transcends the historical forms in which this experience has been expressed.”

The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives: The Quest for the Historical Abraham by Thomas L. Thompson, Walter de Gruyter . Berlin. New York 1974



Inscriptions in the mention a number of figures known from the Bible (David, Uzziah, Pashhur, Meremot, Joseph son of Caiaphas etc.)


First Temple Period

The Tel Dan Stele [1]

The Tel Dan Stele is strong evidence that a King David was known, in the 9th century BCE, as the founder of an Israelite dynasty but, of course, is not evidence that the story of David, as recounted in the Bible, is accurate.  Naturally, the same goes for the other people mentioned in our inscriptions who appear in the biblical narrative.

The Tel Dan Stele undoubtedly refers to the conflicts between Israel and Aram Damascus referred to in the Bible (see http://www.otal.umd.edu/~knobloch/dan.htm)It is thus clear that the biblical writer, whatever his or their historical accuracy, was describing historical events rather than making up a story out of whole cloth as alleged by some modern revisionist historians (See a telling response to revisionists in What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It?: What Archaeology Can Tell Us About the Reality of Ancient Israel by William G. Dever ). More broadly,

·         if the descriptions of lifestyle and realia described in the biblical texts, fit what we have learned of the various stages of Israelite history between c. 1200 BCE and the end of the First Temple Period (586 BCE) through archaeology, and do not fit the archaeological context of the Second Temple Period (approximately 536 BCE -- 70 CE)

·         then it can be assumed that the biblical writers based their works on traditions or records going back to the periods in question though the presentation might still be tendentious or simply erroneous

Mesha Stele[2] around 850 BCE Mesha's inscription includes the lines –

“As for Omri king of Israel, he oppressed Moab for many years, for Chemosh was furious with his country. And his son followed in his footsteps, and he also said: "I will cast down Moab." In my days, he spoke, but I triumphed over his house. And Israel has passed away forever. Omri occupied Medeba’s land. And he lived in it during his time and in the days of his sons; 40 years; yet Chemosh reinstalled it in my days. And I built Baal-meon, and I made a water supply in it; and I built Qaryaten. And the men of Gad dwelt in the land of Atarot from of old, and Israel’s king built Atarot for them; but I fought against that city and I slew all the people of the city as revenge for Chemosh and Moab. And I brought the altar-hearth of his beloved, and I carted it before Chemosh in Kerioth. And I established the men of Sharon and the men of Maharith in it. And Chemosh said to me: "Go! Bring Nebo against Israel." So I went by night and fought from sunrise until noon taking it and slaying all 7,000 men, boys, women, girls, and maidservants, because I dedicated them to Ashtar-Chemosh. And I took from there the altar- hearths of YHWH, dragging them before Chemosh. And Israel’s king built Jahaz, and settled there while he did battle with me; but Chemosh drove him out before my eyes.” (see http://www.biblehistory.net/Chap19.htm http://pages.sbcglobal.net/zimriel/Mesha/)

N.b. According to a recent reconstruction, line 31 originally read "And the House of David dwelt in...." (See André Lemaire, “‘House of David’ Restored in Moabite Inscription,” Biblical Archaeological Review, May/June 1994.http://pages.sbcglobal.net/zimriel/Mesha/index.html )

A different view of this event is recorded in 2 Kings 3:1-26

“In the eighteenth year of King Jehoshaphat of Judah, Jehoram son of Ahab became king over Israel in Samaria; he reigned twelve years. He did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, though not like his father and mother, for he removed the pillar of Baal that his father had made. Nevertheless he clung to the sin of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he caused Israel to commit; he did not depart from it. Now King Mesha of Moab was a sheep breeder, who used to deliver to the king of Israel one hundred thousand lambs, and the wool of one hundred thousand rams. But when Ahab died, the king of Moab rebelled against the king of Israel.

So King Jehoram marched out of Samaria at that time and mustered all Israel. As he went he sent word Jehoshaphat of Judah, "The king of Moab has rebelled against me; will you go with me to battle against Moab?" He answered, "I will; I am with you, my people are your people, my horses are your horses." Then he asked, "By which way shall we march?" Jehoram answered, "By the way of the wilderness of Edom." So the king of Israel, the king of Judah, and the king of Edom set out; and when they had made a roundabout march of seven days, there was no water for the army or for the animals that were with them. Then the king of Israel said, "Alas! The LORD has summoned us, three kings, only to be handed over to Moab." But Jehoshaphat said, "Is there no prophet of the LORD here, through whom we may inquire of the LORD?" Then one of the servants of the king of Israel answered, "Elisha son of Shaphat, who used to pour water on the hands of Elijah, is here." Jehoshaphat said, "The word of the LORD is with him." So the king of Israel and Jehoshaphat and the king of Edom went down to him. Elisha said to the king of Israel, "What have I to do with you? Go to your father's prophets or to your mother's." But the king of Israel said to him, "No; it is the LORD who has summoned us, three kings, only to be handed over to Moab." Elisha said, "As the LORD of hosts lives, whom I serve, were it not that I have regard for King Jehoshaphat of Judah, I would give you neither a look nor a glance. But get me a musician." And then, while the musician was playing, the power of the LORD came on him. And he said, "Thus says the LORD, 'I will make this wadi full of pools.' For thus says the LORD, 'You shall see neither wind nor rain, but the wadi shall be filled with water, so that you shall drink, you, your cattle, and your animals.' This is only a trifle in the sight of the LORD, for he will also hand Moab over to you. You shall conquer every fortified city and every choice city; every good tree you shall fell, all springs of water you shall stop up, and every good piece of land you shall ruin with stones."

The next day, about the time of the morning offering, suddenly water began to flow from the direction of Edom, until the country was filled with water. When all the Moabites heard that the kings had come up to fight against them, all who were able to put on armor, from the youngest to the oldest, were called out and were drawn up at the frontier. When they rose early in the morning, and the sun shone upon the water, the Moabites saw the water opposite them as red as blood. They said, "This is blood; the kings must have fought together, and killed one another. Now then, Moab, to the spoil!" But when they came to the camp of Israel, the Israelites rose up and attacked the Moabites, who fled before them; as they entered Moab they continued the attack. The cities they overturned, and on every good piece of land everyone threw a stone, until it was covered; every spring of water they stopped up, and every good tree they felled. Only at Kir-hareseth did the stone walls remain, until the slingers surrounded and attacked it. When the king of Moab saw that the battle was going against him, he took with him seven hundred swordsmen to break through, opposite the king of Edom; but they could not. Then he took his firstborn son who was to succeed him, and offered him as a burnt offering on the wall. And great wrath came upon Israel, so they withdrew from him and returned to their own land.”

Black Obelisk of Jehu c. 825 BCE – showing Jehu King of Israel doing obeisance before Shalmaneser III  King of Assyria. See http://www.thebritishmuseum.ac.uk/compass/ixbin/goto?id=OBJ1503  http://www.kchanson.com/ANCDOCS/meso/obelisk.html  http://www.biblehistory.net/Chap19.htm


House of Yahweh Ostracon  “a pottery shard dated to about 800 BC that contains a written receipt for a donation of silver shekels to (possibly…DS) Solomon's Temple. Written approximately 130 years after the completion of the Temple, this appears to be the earliest mention of Solomon's Temple outside the Bible.” http://www.biblical-archaeology.net/   http://www.kchanson.com/ANCDOCS/westsem/bytyhwh.html


Box 8

Sennacherib and Jerusalem

“The Assyrians then besieged Jerusalem, but the siege failed according to the Bible and Assyrian records. It is also carved in cuneiform on the walls of Sennacherib's palace. An Assyrian account of the siege of Jerusalem is on one of the colossal bull sculptures at the door of the throne room. The Bible and the Assyrians  give different versions of the siege and Herodotus has yet another version. In the Bible there are two stories about the campaign. In one, the Angel of the Lord comes in the night while the Assyrians are encamped outside the Jerusalem wall and slays 185,000 men (2Kings 19:35). In the same narrative, but a few verses earlier (2 Kings 18:13-16), Hezekiah agrees to pay a tribute to Sennacherib, a kind of bribe to make him go away. Herodotus says that the siege failed because mice ate the Assyrians' bow strings, so they couldn't shoot their arrows at the Israelites and therefore they withdrew.  The Assyrian account is remarkably like the second of the biblical accounts involving tribute. The tribute includes 30 talents of gold in both the Bible and the Assyrian inscriptions. The silver tribute is different in the two accounts--300 talents in the Bible and 800 in the Assyrian account.”  From ASSYRIAN CAMPAIGNS IN ISRAEL AND JUDAH  http://joseph_berrigan.tripod.com/ancientbabylon/id21.html


Sennacherib Prism (i.e. Sennacherib's own account)

“As for Hezekiah the Judahite, who did not submit to my yoke: forty-six of his strong, walled cities, as well as the small towns in their area, which were without number, by leveling with battering-rams and by bringing up siege-engines, and by attacking and storming on foot, by mines, tunnels, and breeches, I besieged and took them. 200,150 people, great and small, male and female, horses, mules, asses, camels, cattle and sheep without number, I brought away from them and counted as spoil. (Hezekiah) himself, like a caged bird I shut up in Jerusalem, his royal city. I threw up earthworks against him— the one coming out of the city-gate, I turned back to his misery. His cities, which I had despoiled, I cut off from his land, and to Mitinti, king of Ashdod, Padi, king of Ekron, and Silli-bêl, king of Gaza, I gave (them). And thus I diminished his land. I added to the former tribute, and I laid upon him the surrender of their land and imposts—gifts for my majesty. As for Hezekiah, the terrifying splendor of my majesty overcame him, and the Arabs and his mercenary troops which he had brought in to strengthen Jerusalem, his royal city, deserted him. In addition to the thirty talents of gold and eight hundred talents of silver, gems, antimony, jewels, large carnelians, ivory-inlaid couches, ivory-inlaid chairs, elephant hides, elephant tusks, ebony, boxwood, all kinds of valuable treasures, as well as his daughters, his harem, his male and female musicians, which he had brought after me to Nineveh, my royal city. To pay tribute and to accept servitude, he dispatched his messengers.” http://www.kchanson.com/ANCDOCS/meso/sennprism3.html


A very different (and rather theological) version is given in the Bible

2Kings 18-19

"In the third year of King Hoshea son of Elah of Israel, Hezekiah son of King Ahaz of Judah began to reign. He was twenty-five years old when he began to reign; he reigned twenty-nine years in Jerusalem. His mother's name was Abi daughter of Zechariah. He did what was right in the sight of the LORD just as his ancestor David had done. He removed the high places, broke down the pillars, and cut down the sacred pole. He broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it; it was called Nehushtan. He trusted in the LORD the God of Israel; so that there was no one like him among all the kings of Judah after him, or among those who were before him. For he held fast to the LORD; he did not depart from following him but kept the commandments that the LORD commanded Moses. The LORD was with him; wherever he went, he prospered. He rebelled against the king of Assyria and would not serve him. He attacked the Philistines as far as Gaza and its territory, from to fortified city.

"In the fourth year of King Hezekiah, which was the seventh year of King Hoshea son of Elah of Israel, King Shalmaneser of Assyria came up against Samaria, besieged it, and at the end of three years, took it. In the sixth year of Hezekiah, which was the ninth year of King Hoshea of Israel, Samaria was taken. The king of Assyria carried the Israelites away to Assyria, settled them in Halah, on the Habor, the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes, because they did not obey the voice of the LORD their God but transgressed his covenant--all that Moses the servant of the LORD had commanded; they neither listened nor obeyed. In the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah, King Sennacherib of Assyria came up against all the fortified cities of Judah and captured them. King Hezekiah of Judah sent to the king of Assyria at Lachish, saying, "I have done wrong; withdraw from me; whatever you impose on me I will bear." The king of Assyria demanded of King Hezekiah of Judah three hundred talents of silver and thirty talents of gold. Hezekiah gave him all the silver that was found in the house of the LORD and in the treasuries of the king's house. At that time Hezekiah stripped the gold from the doors of the temple of the LORD, and from the doorposts that King Hezekiah of Judah had overlaid and gave it to the king of Assyria.

"The king of Assyria sent the Tartan, the Rab-saris, and the Rabshakeh with a great army from Lachish Hezekiah at Jerusalem. They went up and came to Jerusalem. When they arrived, they came and stood by the conduit of the upper pool, which is on the highway to the Fuller's Field. When they called for the king, there came out to them Eliakim son of Hilkiah, who was in charge of the palace, and Shebnah the secretary, and Joah son of Asaph, the recorder. The Rabshakeh said to them, "Say to Hezekiah: Thus says the great king, the king of Assyria: On what do you base this confidence of yours? Do you think that mere words are strategy and power for war? On whom do you now rely, that you have rebelled against me? See, you are relying now on Egypt, that broken reed of a staff, which will pierce the hand of anyone who leans on it. Such is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all who rely on him. But if you say to me, 'We rely on the LORD our God,' is it not he whose high places and altars Hezekiah has removed, saying to Judah and to Jerusalem, 'You shall worship before this altar in Jerusalem'? Come now, make a wager with my master the king of Assyria: I will give you two thousand horses, if you are able on your part to set riders on them. How then can you repulse a single captain among the least of my master's servants, when you rely on Egypt for chariots and for horsemen? Moreover, is it without the LORD that I have come up against this place to destroy it? The LORD said to me, Go up against this land, and destroy it." Then Eliakim son of Hilkiah, and Shebnah, and Joah said to the Rabshakeh, "Please speak to your servants in the Aramaic language, for we understand it; do not speak to us in the language of Judah within the hearing of the people who are on the wall." But the Rabshakeh said to them, "Has my master sent me to speak these words to your master and to you, and not to the people sitting on the wall, who are doomed with you to eat their own dung and to drink their own urine?" Then the Rabshakeh stood and called out in a loud voice in the language of Judah, "Hear the word of the great king, the king of Assyria! Thus says the king: 'Do not let Hezekiah deceive you, for he will not be able to deliver you out of my hand. Do not let Hezekiah make you rely on the LORD by saying, The LORD will surely deliver us, and this city will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria.' Do not listen to Hezekiah; for thus says the king of Assyria: 'Make your peace with me and come out to me; then every one of you will eat from your own vine and your own fig tree, and drink water from your own cistern, until I come and take you away to a land like your own land, a land of grain and wine, a land of bread and vineyards, a land of olive oil and honey, that you may live and not die. Do not listen to Hezekiah when he misleads you by saying, The LORD will deliver us. Has any of the gods of the nations ever delivered its land out of the hand of the king of Assyria? Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim, Hena, and Ivvah? Have they delivered Samaria out of my hand? Who among all the gods of the countries have delivered their countries out of my hand, that the LORD should deliver Jerusalem out of my hand?'" But the people were silent and answered him not a word, for the king's command was, "Do not answer him." Then Eliakim son of Hilkiah, who was in charge of the palace, and Shebna the secretary, and Joah son of Asaph, the recorder, came to Hezekiah with their clothes torn and told him the words of the Rabshakeh.

"When King Hezekiah heard it, he tore his clothes, covered himself with sackcloth, and went into the house of the LORD. And he sent Eliakim, who was in charge of the palace, and Shebna the secretary, and the senior priests, covered with sackcloth, to the prophet Isaiah son of Amoz. They said to him, "Thus says Hezekiah, This day is a day of distress, of rebuke, and of disgrace; children have come to the birth, and there is no strength to bring them forth. It may be that the LORD your God heard all the words of the Rabshakeh, whom his master the king of Assyria has sent to mock the living God, and will rebuke the words that the LORD your God has heard; therefore lift up your prayer for the remnant that is left." When the servants of King Hezekiah came to Isaiah, Isaiah said to them, "Say to your master, 'Thus says the LORD: Do not be afraid because of the words that you have heard, with which the servants of the king of Assyria have reviled me. I myself will put a spirit in him, so that he shall hear a rumor and return to his own land; I will cause him to fall by the sword in his own land.'"

The Rabshakeh returned, and found the king of Assyria fighting against Libnah; for he had heard that the king had left Lachish. When the king heard concerning King Tirhakah of Ethiopia, "See, he has set out to fight against you," he sent messengers again to Hezekiah, saying, "Thus shall you speak Hezekiah of Judah: Do not let your God on whom you rely deceive you by promising that Jerusalem will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria. See, you have heard what the kings of Assyria have done to all lands, destroying them utterly. Shall you be delivered? Have the gods of the nations delivered them, the nations that my predecessors destroyed, Gozan, Haran, Rezeph, and the people of Eden who were in Telassar? Where is the king of Hamath, the king of Arpad, the king of the city of Sepharvaim, the king of Hena, or the king of Ivvah?" Hezekiah received the letter from the hand of the messengers and read it; then Hezekiah went up to the house of the LORD and spread it before the LORD. And Hezekiah prayed before the LORD, and said: "O LORD the God of Israel, who are enthroned above the cherubim, you are God, you alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth; you have made heaven and earth. Incline your ear, O LORD, and hear; open your eyes, O LORD, and see; hear the words of Sennacherib, which he has sent to mock the living God. Truly, O LORD, the kings of Assyria have laid waste the nations and their lands, and have hurled their gods into the fire, though they were no gods but the work of human hands--wood and stone--and so they were destroyed. So now, O LORD our God, save us, I pray you, from his hand, so that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you, O LORD, are God alone."

"Then Isaiah son of Amoz sent to Hezekiah, saying, "Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: I have heard your prayer to me about King Sennacherib of Assyria. This is the word that the LORD has spoken concerning him: She despises you, she scorns you-- virgin daughter Zion; she tosses her head--behind your back, daughter Jerusalem. Whom have you mocked and reviled? Against whom have you raised your voice and haughtily lifted your eyes? Against the Holy One of Israel! By your messengers you have mocked the Lord, and you have said, 'With my many chariots I have gone up the heights of the mountains, to the far recesses of Lebanon; I felled its tallest cedars, its choicest cypresses; I entered its farthest retreat, its densest forest. I dug wells and drank foreign waters, I dried up with the sole of my foot all the streams of Egypt.' Have you not heard that I determined it long ago? I planned from days of old what now I bring to pass, that you should make fortified cities crash into heaps of ruins, while their inhabitants, shorn of strength, are dismayed and confounded; they have become like plants of the field and like tender grass, like grass on the housetops, blighted before it is grown. "But I know your rising and your sitting, your going out and coming in, and your raging against me. Because you have raged against me and your arrogance has come to my ears, I will put my hook in your nose and my bit in your mouth; I will turn you back on the way by which you came. "And this shall be the sign for you: This year you shall eat what grows of itself, and in the second year what springs from that; then in the third year sow, reap, plant vineyards, and eat their fruit. The surviving remnant of the house of Judah shall again take root downward, and bear fruit upward; for from Jerusalem a remnant shall go out, and from Mount Zion a band of survivors. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this. "Therefore thus says the LORD concerning the king of Assyria: He shall not come into this city, shoot an arrow there, come before it with a shield, or cast up a siege-ramp against it. By the way that he came, by the same he shall return; he shall not come into this city, says the LORD. For I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David.

"That very night the angel of the LORD set out and struck down one hundred eighty-five thousand in the camp of the Assyrians; when morning dawned, they were all dead bodies. Then King Sennacherib of Assyria left, went home, and lived at Nineveh. As he was worshiping in the house of his god Nisroch, his sons Adrammelech and Sharezer killed him with the sword, and they escaped into the land of Ararat. His son Esar-haddon succeeded him."


Cyrus Cylinder - Cyrus describes a general policy of restoring cults suppressed by the defunct Neo-Babylonian regime but makes no specific mention of Judah or Jerusalem.  The text reads

the cities on the other side of the Tigris, whose sites were of ancient foundation the gods, who resided in them, I brought back to their places, and caused them to dwell in a residence for all time” http://www.kchanson.com/ANCDOCS/meso/cyrus.html http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/539cyrus1.html


This contrasts with the Biblical tradition i.e.

II Chronicles 36:22-23

“In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, in fulfillment of the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah, the LORD stirred up the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia so that he sent a herald throughout all his kingdom and also declared in a written edict: "Thus says King Cyrus of Persia: The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may the LORD his God be with him! Let him go up."


Ezra 1:1-4

“In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, in order that the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah might be accomplished, the LORD stirred up the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia so that he sent a herald throughout all his kingdom, and also in a written edict declared: "Thus says King Cyrus of Persia: The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem in Judah. Any of those among you who are of his people--may their God be with them! --are now permitted to go up to Jerusalem in Judah, and rebuild the house of the LORD, the God of Israel--he is the God who is in Jerusalem; and let all survivors, in whatever place they reside, be assisted by the people of their place with silver and gold, with goods and with animals, besides freewill offerings for the house of God in Jerusalem."


Isaiah 44:28—45:6

The LORD “who says of Cyrus, "He is my shepherd, and he shall carry out all my purpose"; and who says of Jerusalem, "It shall be rebuilt," and of the temple, "Your foundation shall be laid. Thus says the LORD to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped to subdue nations before him and strip kings of their robes, to open doors before him-- and the gates shall not be closed: I will go before you and level the mountains, I will break in pieces the doors of bronze and cut through the bars of iron, I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places, so that you may know that it is I, the LORD, the God of Israel, who call you by your name. For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I surname you, though you do not know me.  I am the LORD, and there is no other; besides me there is no god. I arm you, though you do not know me, so that they may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is no one besides me; I am the LORD, and there is no other."

Conclusion – First Temple Period

There is no uniform result of this type of analysis.  Sometimes archaeology seems to support biblical accounts (especially in the later First Temple Period, and sometimes it contradicts them and often evidence is lacking or ambiguous.  However, we must bear in mind that the biblical books, especially the Deuteronomic History (Deuteronomy- 2 Kings) see http://hillel.myjewishlearning.com/texts/bible/TO_Prophets_1460/DeutHist.htm; http://www.askwhy.co.uk/judaism/0320DeuteronomicHistory.html; were written as polemical literature promoting reform.  Thus it is a kind of ideological history which may seriously distort our view of what went on.  See Can the Bible Be Trusted? (historic accuracy of the Bible) Commentary Magazine, July, 1999, by Hillel Halkin http://www.findarticles.com/cf_dls/m1061/1_108/55127725/p1/article.jhtml?term=. Ugaritic literature, a product of archaeology, can give us some insight into the worldview of the worshipers of Baal who are polemically denounces in the Bible.

Second Temple Period

The Second Temple Period was the milieu from which emerged Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity.  In the early part of this period it seems that the tradition of history writing among the Jews virtually disappeared. Before the Dead Sea Scrolls our sources for this period were

Ø      Rabbinical sources, authored in the late second century CE (Mishnaic literature see http://www.ucalgary.ca/~elsegal/TalmudMap/Mishnah.html#Term http://mb-soft.com/believe/txo/mishnah.htm http://www.ucalgary.ca/~elsegal/RelS367/Oral_Torah.html) and later which purported to describe the centuries before their time.

Ø      The New Testament – this reflects how the Church, retrospectively, saw the late Second Temple Period which tended to be in terms of a struggle between Judaism and Christianity. See

Ø      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jews_in_the_New_Testament

Ø       http://www.learnthebible.org/Jews%20in%20the%20New%20Testament.htm http://www.cdn-friends-icej.ca/antiholo/newtest.html http://www.jewsforjudaism.org/web/j4jlibrary/newtest-jewish.html http://www.jewsforjudaism.org/web/faq/faq027.html

Ø      Old Testament Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha written by Jews in Second Temple times and transmitted, in translation, by Christians with or without Christian editorial changes.  A few of these of these are overtly historical (1 and 2 Maccabees ) whereas, other may include recoverable historical data.  This literature is similar to the non-Biblical, non-sectarian Dead Sea Scrolls.  In some case the lost originals of known Apocrypha (e.g.  Ben Sira, Tobit, Psalm 151 – see http://www.jcsm.org/biblelessons/Psalm151.htm ) and Pseudepigraphal (most importantly Jubilees) works were among the Dead Sea Scrolls.  However, it must be stressed, that this category of materials found in the Dead Sea Scrolls are, of course, untouched by the views of later Rabbinic Judaism or Christianity.  In the case of Jubilees, the Qumran community may provide the social context, in biblical studies called Sitz im Leben, which produced the work since its peculiar calendar was probably the most conspicuous feature setting off the community from the rest of the Jews.  Following the solar calendar of  Jubilees would have resulted in the Qumranites observing the Torah festivals on dates different from other Jews and would, probably, have scandalized their contemporaries.

“Jubilees is mentioned in the literature of the community of Qumran, and fragments of it were found in the Qumran caves. Its ideological tenets are similar to those of the community of Qumran (the immortality of the soul, the calendar, and the hegemony of Belial in the mundane sphere). In short, it was most probably one of the basic texts written and used by this sect—which was apparently early Essene …. From several details concerning events which he relates and from the particular religious prescriptions which he stresses—for example, he "knows" that the children of Israel will abandon the ordinance of circumcision (15:33) that the children of Israel will acquire hegemony over the Philistine cities (24:28–32; cf. I Macc. 5:68; Ex. 84) and over Idumea (38:14)—the author seems to have lived at the end of John Hyrcanus' reign (135–104 B.C.E). The book greatly influenced later midrashic literature….”

Encyclopedia Judaica

Ø      The works of Josephus, supplemented by I and II Maccabees and a number of minor sources.  Although not as severely polemical as the biblical history of the First Temple period Josephus too has his lacunae, prejudices etc. which can be better understood through the insights of archaeology.  In each of his major works Josephus had an audience and objective in mind and  his works are strongly biased by these factors as well as by his limitations of his sources and of himself as a historian,  Josephus describes the Jewish Sects of the period (see Segal). We now have one of these Jewish sects

The Dead Sea Scrolls enables us to read the opinions of the Qumranites (see http://www.mystae.com/restricted/reflections/messiah/deadsea.html) concerning the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem. It should be mentioned that the scrolls contain no overtly historical account of contemporary history.


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