This page outlines, very briefly, what secular historians have concluded about the Old Testament. Because so much is, from their perspective, uncertain, their conclusions will not necessarily be the final word on what a Christian might believe about the Old Testament. Christians may choose to believe the Bible despite the scholars’ findings, but we need to understand what the scholars have concluded.
The scholars’ conclusions may be challenging or even distressing for some christians. Please don’t stop halfway through, but read through to the end to get a more complete picture.
The Old Testament as literature
The Old Testament is the Christian form of the Jewish scriptures, known as the Mikra (= “that which is read”) or the Tanakh, which is an acronym made from the three major divisions: Torah (= “teachings”, the five books of Moses), Nevi’im (= “Prophets”) and Ketuvim (= “Writings”).
The Christian Old Testament is a collection of 39 separate “books”, some of which were written together, but most of which have different authors. Many different genres of writings are included, sometimes more than one in the same book:
- Narrative (Genesis to Esther) – may be history, or myth/legend or a mixture of both – mostly aimed at not just telling descriptive history, but in making a theological, moral or cultural point.
- Law codes (parts of Exodus to Deuteronomy).
- Poetry (Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Songs)
- “Wisdom” literature – includes poetry, but also Job and Ecclesiastes. Job should be seen as a fictional story used to present different views on suffering, rather than history.
- Prophecy (Isaiah to Malachi) – some of the prophetic books also contain narrative and poetry.
- Apocalypse – Daniel contains elements of narrative, prophecy and apocalypse.
It is a mistake to treat all forms as being literal history or prophecy – each must be interpreted appropriately.
Who wrote the Old Testament?
According to tradition, the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament) were written by Moses. Traditionally, later historical books were written by other major figures such as Joshua, Samuel, Jeremiah and Ezra. However scholars nowadays question all these traditions, and the idea that any of these books were written by a single author.
The internal evidence suggests that most of the narratives (and probably other writings as well) were initially passed on orally, and modified and added to in the process, with the purpose of better understanding and explaining Israelite history, its beliefs about God, and its current situation.
- Right from the first chapters of Genesis different names for God (Elohim and Yahweh), the use of some other phrases and some different emphases, seem to indicate that Genesis and other early books were compiled from different sources written by different authors.
- Scholars believe that Hebrew, the language in which the Old Testament is written, only came into use about 1000 BCE, making it likely that older stories were passed down orally. (However there is some evidence that some portions of the text, often relating to Moses, appear to be in an older form of Hebrew, suggesting that some parts of the text were written down in the second millennium BCE.)
- There are many places in the Old Testament historical books where there are different accounts of the same events, sometimes from quite different perspectives.
- Books supposedly written by Moses, Joshua and Samuel contain accounts of their deaths, indicating that at least some parts of those books were written by someone else.
- Many of the books describe some feature of very early Israel geography or culture, and then point out that they have remained “to this day”, indicating that the final form of the book was much later than the events it describes.
- There are more than 30 other books mentioned in the Old Testament and some of these are mentioned as sources of the information we have. This is a strong indication that the historical books were compiled from various sources.
- Some of the customs, laws and proverbs found in the Old Testament are similar to writings in other ancient near east cultures, suggesting some were “borrowed”.
So it seems clear that the traditional authors may have been sources for the books they are supposed to have written, but the historical books, at least, are compilations of a number of oral and written sources, put together a long time after the events they portray, and written to explain Israel’s place in the world rather than just record descriptive history.
It is likely that the books of the prophets were compiled by followers of each prophet. The prophets are often seen as telling the future, but scholars say it is more accurate to see them as showing the outworking of God’s will in human affairs. As such, they sometimes predict the future, often as a warning to be heeded (in which case the prophecy may not be fulfilled). More often, the warning is contemporary, based on criticisms of social injustice, inequality and oppression.
Some of the prophets’ predictions came to pass, others didn’t (see The fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy), but the writers and compilers of the prophetic books, and of the Tanakh as a whole, seemed to have no problems in preserving both. This may indicate they had a different view of prophecy and fulfilment that we do today.
The Old Testament as history
The Old Testament text and corroboration
Historical study is a matter of assessing evidence. Where there is only one source of information about an event, scholars may accept or doubt the reliability of that source, depending on their sometimes subjective assessment of the genre of the text and its believability, but their conclusions can only be tentative. Where there is corroborating evidence (other texts or archaeology), we can have greater confidence in the historicity of events.
The world of the Old Testament is millennia away from us. Archaeological and written sources, apart from the Old Testament itself, are sparse for the early Old Testament period, so while they can tell us something about the culture, they provide little corroborating information about the people and stories. There is more corroboration for the second half of the Old Testament.
Minimalists and maximalists
There is a wide range of opinion, and much disagreement, on the historical value of the Old Testament. Minimalists see little value in the Old Testament as history before about 800 BCE, whereas maximalists tend to accept the Bible as history except where it is contradicted by archaeology. In the middle are those who see historical value in both archaeology and the Biblical text without making assumptions about the Bible’s accuracy.
I will try to fairly represent the range of scholarly opinion while giving greatest weight to the less “extreme” views.
Genesis 1-11: aetiological myth?
There are good reasons to believe the early chapters of Genesis are not literal history. The creation and flood stories have sufficient similarities to older Akkadian stories (Enuma Elish, and the Atrahasis and Gilgamesh epics) that it seems likely that they share a common source.
All these stories read like aetiological myths – stories developed through repeated telling that explain how a people see themselves and their origins. The repeated re-telling makes it impossible to know what, if any, was the historical basis of the stories. We can be reasonably confident that the stories have been passed down for many generations because (i) a nomadic people almost certainly wouldn’t carry with them the materials to write them down, and (ii) they are written in Hebrew, a language that probably didn’t exist before about 1000 BCE, more than a millennium after the events were said to have taken place.
If this is so, it is probable that Adam & Eve, Cain & Abel and Noah were not historical characters. Christian scholar Denis Lamoureux (I Love Jesus and I Accept Evolution) has made a particular study of how this shouldn’t surprise us or worry us.
Summary: Myth (but we probably already knew that).
The Patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob
The stories of the patriarchs are set in the first half of the second millennium BCE (i.e. 2000-1500 BCE), perhaps 700 years before they were written down. These stories would have been passed down for generations, probably slowly modified in the telling to teach truths important to the people of Israel. For example, several times the text describes a situation that remained “to this day”, which is apparently much later than the original events.
There is no known historical evidence outside the book of Genesis for any of the patriarchs (nor would we expect it for these nomadic herdsmen), so it is difficult for historians to draw conclusions about the historicity of the stories. However there are many archeological finds from this period which generally confirm the world depicted in this part of Genesis, though there are a number of apparent anachronisms in the stories. Some of these are only anachronisms if Moses is thought to have authored Genesis, as tradition says, but if the stories were developed in the telling, these are not anachronisms at all. But others (e.g. the use of camels by the patriarchs when it is believed camels were not domesticated until much later, or the mention of the Philistines when they didn’t exist as a people at the time) seem to point to unhistoric aspects of the stories.
It is possible that new evidence will arise to explain these anomalies, but at present it seems most likely that the stories of the patriarchs cannot be considered to be objective history, but stories told for a different reason – perhaps to strengthen support for the monarchy and the centralised priesthood in Jerusalem. We cannot know what basis in history they have, though Gary Rendsburg suggests “these stories work better if the characters are real people known to later Israelites, and not fictional literary creations.” Christians (and Jews) are free to accept them in faith if we choose.
Summary: Not enough external evidence to either verify or falsify these stories.
Moses and the Exodus
These events present the greatest problems of all for christians. The exodus from Egypt was foundational for the Jews and is a very important theme for the New Testament writers. The giving of the law is also foundational, and Moses is a key person in the Bible story. Yet there are significant problems with these stories as history.
- The archaeological and historical evidence for the exodus is meagre. Nomadic people leave no writings or monuments and few artefacts behind them, and none have been found that support these stories. Moses is a name of Egyptian origin, and there are a couple of historical references that may link the Israelites to Egypt and later to Canaan, and that is about it, apart from the Old Testament stories. We wouldn’t expect there to be much evidence external to the Old Testament, but what we have is very little.
- According to Exodus 12:37, “there were about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children”, making the total number something over 1.5 million, with some estimates as high as 3 million. It is difficult to believe this is true.
- It would have required a high birth rate, though certainly not impossibly high, to reach this number.
- Scholars estimate the total population of Egypt at this time to be only about 3 million (some say only about 1 million).
- If the Israelites marched in ranks of 100 wide and 1 metre apart, the column would have been 15-30 km long. If the ranks were smaller and the people further apart (e.g. if they were carrying possessions), the column could easily have been 50-100 km long. Would this have been logistically possible? It seems certain that the numbers at least are exaggerated.
Nevertheless, Old Testament scholar Richard Friedman has found evidence that the Levites (the priests of Jews) came from Egypt to Canaan, bringing some new religious practices and ethics with them, an idea supported by DNA evidence. So perhaps this is the historical basis behind the Exodus stories?
Therefore the majority of scholars are doubtful the stories we have are totally historical. Minimalists conclude the exodus and Moses himself are either inventions or vague historical memories. Other scholars accept the stories but say the numbers are not literal, but symbolic. In the middle are scholars who see parts of the Biblical text, often those apparently written in an older form of the Hebrew language, as indicating earlier and possibly historical accounts, while other parts less likely to be historical. But the lack of external evidence makes it impossible to be very definite.
Old Testament scholar Peter Enns represents a reasonable middle ground: “Many – I would say most – biblical scholars and historians would say that the biblical narrative echoes real, though distant, historical events.” On this view, the stories are not intended to recount literal history but to explain Israel’s origins and destiny, and this involved both history and legend. If we are going to believe more than this, it will be based more on faith than historical study.
The Ten Commandments and the Law
It turns out that the laws given to the Israelites are similar to the law code of the Babylonian king, Hammurabi, from the 18th century BCE, several centuries before the law was given to Moses. There are similarities in the laws, and even sometimes in the wording. And the wording of the Ten Commandments and some of the laws in Deuteronomy is very similar to Hittite treaties between a king and his vassals.
I don’t see any problem with God issuing laws in a form with which the Israelites would have been familiar, but it seems that it might have been more than this – that the Israelites “borrowed” parts of their Law from surrounding nations. This doesn’t necessarily prevent the laws from being God-given, but it may be that the process God used was more “organic” and gradual than the stories indicate.
Summary: Some details (primarily the numbers) seem unhistorical, and there is little external evidence either way for most of these stories. But there may indeed be a historical core behind the stories.
Joshua, Jericho and the conquest of Canaan
We would expect to have a little more information from other sources for this period when the Israelites were recorded as invading and destroying cities and cultures. But the evidence we have is not very supportive of the Biblical text. There is some evidence from archaeology to show that the Israelite people were living in Canaan around the thirteenth century BCE and some evidence of a disturbance to Canaanite culture. However there is little evidence of a large group conquering Canaanite tribes and cities as described in the book of Joshua.
It appears that some cities (e.g. Hazor and Bethel) were indeed destroyed as the Bible says, but not at the time it is supposed the events depicted in the Bible occurred. Other cities mentioned in Joshua appear not to have existed, or not to have been walled cities at the time, or not to have been destroyed.
The evidence at Jericho is much argued over, with many conflicting claims made. The archaeology shows destruction and burning that apparently accords with the account in Joshua, but most agree it was not at the time necessary to support the Old Testament account. However, the chronology of this period is uncertain, so if the accepted dates were found to be wrong, the evidence at Jericho could then be seen as supportive of the Bible.
Even within the text of Joshua, there are inconsistencies – basically two quite different stories. The first half of Joshua describes the land of Canaan being totally conquered, whereas the second half describes a much slower assimilation with some battles. Towns, kings and tribes which are said to have been destroyed in the first half of Joshua are later mentioned as still being alive and well, indicating that even the authors/compilers recognised that the “conquest” was overstated. Their purpose was obviously more than historical.
Overall, the Bible accounts can probably be seen as propaganda based on some genuine history, but much embroidered. We shouldn’t be too disturbed by this conclusion. The stories of the Israelite invasion and occupation of Canaan include some barbaric commands from the mouth of God, and we should be pleased to find these were probably not historical.
Summary: There is external evidence that the Israelites were in Canaan, but many of the stories of an invasion appear not to be historical.
David, Solomon and the monarchy
It is here that we begin to find corroboration for the broad historicity of the Bible accounts, which themselves read more like descriptive history than the earlier books. Few doubt that David and Solomon were historical figures, but the maximalists and minimalists argue over how large the kingdom was at this time, with minimalists saying these “kings” were little more than tribal chiefs, and their cities and palaces less imposing than we might think from the text, while other scholars argue the evidence supports the picture painted by the Bible. Recent archaeological evidence (e.g. the Tel Dan inscription, which mentions the “house of David”) seems to be swinging the pendulum a little away from the minimalists.
The period of the later monarchy is quite well supported by corroborative evidence, with several archaelogical discoveries (e.g. Hezekiah’s water supply tunnel) and some events recorded elsewhere (e.g. Sennacherib’s unsuccessful siege of Jerusalem, recorded by the Assyrians).
Nevertheless, the evidence suggests that these historical chronicles aimed at making theological and cultural points rather than simply recording descriptive history.
Summary: Reasonable external evidence for these events, though some aspects may be “talked up” a little.
Exile and return
Nebuchadnezzar’s capture of Jerusalem in 597 BCE, recorded in 2 Kings, is confirmed by the Babylonian Chronicles, but archaeological evidence suggests only about a quarter of Judah went into exile. There is excellent evidence of the Jewish exile in Babylon. The re-building of Jerusalem by Nehemiah is also well supported by archaeology, though there are disagreements about exactly how much was re-built at that time.
The historical parts of Daniel are problematic. There are various views about the date Daniel was written (some say it wasn’t written until centuries after the events, while others say the historical sections were written earlier) and some questions about whether some of the kings named were historical. Most of the questions concern the prophetic sections, and the broad historical outline may be historical.
Summary: This part of Biblical history is generally corroborated by external evidence.
The Old Testament as theology
There is considerable theological diversity in the Old Testament. Some scholars say it is more like a conversation between different understandings (the Jewish way) than a definitive set of statements about God and life (the Christian way). Some examples of differing views:
- Many of the Proverbs give conflicting advice on the same topic (e.g. Proverbs 26:4-5 gives two different approaches to responding to a foolish person in two adjacent proverbs). This suggests they were intended to provoke thought rather than prescribe behaviour.
- There is diversity in the ideas and advice given within Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Job. Proverbs teaches us that wisdom leads to a positive life while Ecclesiastes argues that all attempts at wisdom and a good life are futile. Proverbs teaches us that doing good will bring reward while Job presents the view that the righteous can suffer.
- The second of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:5-6, Deuteronomy 5:9-10) says that God will punish children and grandchildren for the sins of the fathers, but Ezekiel 18:19-20 says this isn’t so – we all stand or fall by our own behaviour.
- Exodus 21 gives different rules for slaves than are given in Deuteronomy 15.
- In giving the rules for the Passover, Exodus 12:8-9 says the meat must be roasted and not boiled, but Deuteronomy 16:5-7 says it should be boiled. There are similar variations in some of the sacrificial commands.
- Scholars say that some of the early references to God speak of him as being one among many tribal gods, with the loftier full monotheism coming later (e.g. in prophets like Isaiah).
- God is depicted in some places (several times in Genesis) as changing his mind, sometimes after Abraham or Moses talk him out of some action. This is a different concept of God than we might expect. Other strange things attributed to God in the earlier parts of the Old Testament include sending Moses on a mission then trying to kill him (Exodus 4:24) and sending an evil spirit to Saul (1 Samuel 18:10).
Yet in the Old Testament we can also find very “lofty” views of God, way ahead of virtually anyone else in history – e.g. in the prophet Isaiah. How can we explain all this?
All these diversities and apparent anomalies suggest that the Old Testament isn’t one consistent revelation, but a record of God dealing with people over time and revealing himself gradually. At first, Yahweh seems to the Israelites to be a somewhat capricious tribal god like many others around them, but by the time of the prophets, they are beginning to see he is the king of the universe who demands ethical behaviour from them. CS Lewis wrote (my emphasis):
“If you take the Bible as a whole, you see a process in which something which, in its earliest levels (those aren’t necessarily the ones that come first in the Book as now arranged) was hardly moral at all, and was in some ways not unlike the Pagan religions, is gradually purged and enlightened till it becomes the religion of the great prophets and Our Lord Himself. That whole process is the greatest revelation of God’s true nature. At first hardly anything comes through but mere power. Then (v. important) the truth that He is One and there is no other God. Then justice, then mercy, love, wisdom.”
This is a very brief outline of some of the things scholars have concluded about the Old Testament. It is a very different picture from what we might have learnt in Sunday School or in church.
Assessing the evidence
It seems to me that the “conquest” of Canaan is a key to understanding the historicity of the Old Testament. Before that, there is generally insufficient evidence to draw definite conclusions about the accuracy of the stories. After that, the evidence gives reasonable support for the Old Testament history. But the entry into Canaan is an event where there is archaeological evidence and it tends not to support the accuracy of the Bible story, though some of the information seems true.
It therefore seems likely that the earlier narratives are similarly a mix of history, exaggeration and legend or myth, told more for the messages they carried than for the events themselves. We may each assess how much of each element is present in any book, and it probably makes little practical difference where we draw the line.
How should a faithful christian respond? I suggest there are three possible ways.
1. Ignore the scholars and trust the Bible
This may seem like the “safe” and faithful response. The scholars might be wrong, or they might be biased. There is very little corroborating evidence for much of the Old Testament, so very little that can prove it wrong. It isn’t unreasonable to think the scriptures are historically correct, and Jesus and the New Testament writers seem to think this.
But I suggest this is an inadequate response, because it isn’t based on the evidence even within the Bible itself. I think there is a better response that is more faithful to the God revealed in the Old Testament.
2. Conclude the Bible can’t possibly be from God
Many ex-christians have trodden this path. They were taught the Bible was inerrant, but they found the Old Testament and its view of God quite inconsistent.
I think they too were not responding correctly to the evidence, but assuming the Bible was something different to what it is.
3. Learn to know the God who dismantles our expectations
The key to this response, which I believe is correct, is the CS Lewis quote above, and the highlighted sentence: “That whole process is the greatest revelation of God’s true nature.”
I suggest we should read the Old Testament as it is, accept the conclusions of the scholars (though not the more extreme views) and learn from this what God is like and how he has actually chosen to reveal himself (not how we want or expect him to reveal himself).
If we do this, we see that God didn’t impose himself on the Jews nearly as forcefully as might first appear, but it seems he gradually revealed himself as a quasi tribal god, then slowly taught them how much more than that he is – just as CS Lewis described. Many of the stories in the early parts of the Old Testament are apparently a mixture of history and legend, told to show what people were learning about God, and modified in the telling as they learnt more.
It is interesting that we see some similarities to this pattern in the New Testament. Jesus didn’t come with pomp and power, but humbly as a baby who grew up unnoticed in a small Galilean village. He ministered mostly away from the centres of power and culture. It took a while for his followers to realise just how exalted he really was.
God seems to have chosen to work slowly and sensitively. We might ponder why he did it that way.
I believe the argument that Jesus and Paul assumed the historicity of the Old Testament is invalid. The New Testament quotes Jewish legendary stories as well as the Old Testament, and Jesus and the apostles were quite free in how they used the Old Testament. You can read more about this in How Jesus and the Apostles interpreted the Old Testament.
I hope you have found this brief survey helpful, and not threatening. I find this new view quite exciting – it doesn’t change anything I believe about Jesus, and it removes some of the problems we find with the Old Testament picture of God, especially his commands to annihilate whole tribes.
I invite you to pray, as I have done many times, for the Spirit’s guidance on whether this approach to the Old Testament is true. God bless you as you ponder these things.
More to come
In further pages on the theme of the Bible, I will examine how we should view and use the Bible in the light of what the scholars have told us.
There are too many references to list them all here, but here are some that you might like to follow up:
- Books: Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation,
Hays & Ansberry, Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism,
Dennis Lamoureux, I Love Jesus and I Accept Evolution.
- General background: Peter Enns on evangelicals and Biblical criticism,
Craig Keener, A Deeper Look at If the Bible Is Reliable,
reviews of William Dever’s books, What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It? and Who were the early Israelites and where did they come from?,
Eric Meyers, Israel and Its Neighbors Then and Now: Revisionist History and the Quest for History in the Middle East Today,
Claude Mariottini, The Debate Between Maximalists and Minimalists,
Steven Collins, Has Archaeology Gone Overboard in Throwing Out the Bible?,
Salon, King David was a nebbish (a review of Finkelstein and others views),
Paul Maier (christian apologetics), Biblical Archaeology: Factual Evidence to Support the Historicity of the Bible.
- Early Old Testament: John Goldingay, The Patriarchs in Scripture and History,
Gary A. Rendsburg, The Genesis of the Bible,
Peter Enns, everybody…put the camel bones down and step away before someone gets hurt
- Exodus: Jewish view, The Exodus Is Not Fiction,
Peter Enns, Exodus, Historiography, and Some Theological Reflections, and Did the Exodus Happen? How “Historical Evidence” Might or Might Not Help
Richard Friedman, The Exodus.
- Conquest of Canaan: William Dever, Beyond the Texts
Bryant Wood (maximalist view), Did the Israelites Conquer Jericho? A New Look at the Archaeological Evidence,
Bart Ehrman (sceptical view), Historical Problems with the Hebrew Bible: The Conquest of Canaan,
Wikipedia on Jericho
- David and Solomon: National Geographic on David and Solomon,
Science Daily Discovery of official clay seals support existence of biblical kings David and Solomon, archaeologists say,
Eric Cline: Did David and Solomon Exist?
Phys.org, King David’s palace found, says Israeli team
- Later Old Testament: Wikipedia on the Assyrian Siege of Jerusalem,
Yigal Bloch, New Sources and Insights on Judeans in the Babylonian Exile,
David Ussishkin, On Nehemiah’s City Wall and the Size of Jerusalem during the Persian Period: An Archaeologist’s View, in New Perspectives on Ezra-Nehemiah, Ed Isaac Kalimi,
Adam Pivec, Nehemiah’s Wall Discovered,
Gerhard Hasel, The Book Of Daniel: Evidences Relating To Persons And Chronology.
- Some examples of the disagreements between scholars:
reviews of Israel Finkelstein’s books The Forgotten Kingdom and The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of its Sacred Texts,
Yosef Garfinkel, The Birth and Death of Biblical Minimalism, and
Phillip Davies defends his minimalist views.
Photo: Flickr Creative Commons