Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Part 2: Can we still believe the Bible? An archaeological perspective

In this series I am considering the question: Can we still believe the Bible? The previous discussion focused on the scholarly study of the Biblical text. In this essay, I consider the archaeological study of the historicity of the Bible. To what extent is the Biblical narrative archaeologically confirmed? I develop a Kantian approach to archaeology that allows some fine-tuning not found in other approaches - and uses that to explore the question. As such I consider the conditions for the possibility of determining the trustworthiness of historical narratives in general before application to stories about historical events found in the Bible. 

The Bible is an ancient book or rather, a collection of books that originated in the ancient world. The stories told in the Bible stretch from the earliest period of remembered history to the end of the first century AD. The author of the Book of Genesis recounts stories that go back in time long before the people of Israel even existed in their land. He also tells how an early forefather named Abraham migrated sometime early in the second millennium BC from the land of Sumer to the land of Canaan where his descendants later became the people of Israel. The Biblical narrative includes the stories of the ancient patriarchs, their sojourn in and exodus from the land of Egypt, the early stages of Israel's history in their land, the monarchical period, the Babylonian exile and return. The Christian Bible also tells the story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the Church that He founded. 

The mere fact that the Bible is an ancient book containing ancient stories, does not immediately mean that the stories about the earliest epochs are indeed ancient and as such handed down through the centuries until they were eventually written down or that the stories of later periods that recount the lives of Abraham, the patriarchs, the exodus etc. are indeed real history written by people who experienced those events. The question is: How do we determine whether the Biblical narratives are indeed trustworthy? It is surely possible that the authors could have made up the ancient stories themselves and that the later events in the land of Israel could have been written long afterwards in a context where the authors had various hidden agendas of their own. To consider this question there are two aspects of central importance. First, there is the study of the texts themselves. Secondly, there is the study of the available evidence which may confirm or deny the historicity of the events mentioned in the texts.

Both the study of the texts and the evidence concern specialized disciplines, namely textual studies and archaeology (other disciplines are also involved in any integrated approach). Central to both these disciplines is the issue of interpretation. The texts, as well as the data, should be interpreted with careful consideration of both the methods and their limits, otherwise, the conclusions could be way off the mark. Often practitioners in these disciples give up too high for their own fields of study - using the methods without due consideration of the limits within which they are valid. Since these fields have branched into various approaches during the past half-century, it is important that we carefully consider what constitutes a balanced approach before trying to engage with the above-mentioned question.

I have written two essays in which both the methods and the limits of these disciplines are carefully considered [1,2,3]. In this regard, I do something similar to the philosopher Immanuel Kant, who in his famous book Critique of Pure Reason, showed that pure reason has certain limits in its ability to make determinate judgments [1]. I merely extend that approach to the academic disciplines concerned. Instead of uncritically accepting the pronunciations of the academics involved (or those who merely assert the trustworthiness of the Bible!), such a study allows us to evaluate the validity of their claims. Often these practitioners have no philosophical training and have no idea about the limits of their discipline - some still operate in the modernist mindset that asserts the unlimited and objective reach of their methods. Others are in reaction and think that humans are so restricted (to arrive at valid conclusions) that all viewpoints should be accommodated (they enforce limits beyond the real limits of the field of study).

In a previous essay in this series, I considered the field of textual studies and how the practice of that discipline impacts on the question regarding the trustworthiness of the Bible [4]. I showed that the modernist roots of Biblical Criticism seriously undermines the so-called scientific study of the Bible. Textual studies can never be a science - it is a mere hermeneutic discipline. I showed how deeply flawed are some of the hermeneutic tools used in that discipline and how that impacted historically on the arguments against the trustworthiness of the Bible. I also made some proposals for a balanced approach to hermeneutical analysis which in some respects show exactly the opposite of that asserted in Biblical Criticism. In this essay, I proceed to consider the archaeological evidence. What does it say about the trustworthiness of the Bible?

1. Archaeological approaches to the Bible

When the first archaeologists set out to unearth the remains of ancient civilizations, some of them thought that it would be quite straightforward to "prove" the accuracy of the Bible. In time, however, it dawned on them that the archaeological study of history is not as easy as one might have originally thought it to be. One may ask: What amount of evidence is to be expected before historical accuracy is confirmed? The positivists of the time required positive proof before accepting anything written in the Bible. They thought that no evidence proves that such events did not happen. If archaeology is indeed an empirical science as was originally thought, then this is what one would expect. However, after the renewed efforts of the "New Archaeology" of the late 1960’s (also called "Processual archaeology") to finally obtain "objective" interpretations of the archaeological record, most archaeologists have come to the realization that this is not an achievable goal - it merely reflects the last convulsions of the modernist mindset. Archaeology is not an empirical science.

Why is archaeology not an empirical science? Although archaeologists work with empirical data, the context in which that data is found merely constitutes the "excavated reality", not the historical reality. Although the artefacts found in excavation belong to the historical world in which they were produced, the context of their appearance merely reflects the excavated situation. Whereas all empirical sciences work with an existing reality to which theoretical models are applied, the existing reality that archaeologists encounter in their excavations is not the historical reality that archaeologists try to reconstruct. The process of time has destroyed the historical reality that once existed. Even in cases where a city was suddenly destroyed and the artefacts are well preserved (as in the case of Pompey), the archaeological record is incomplete (for a more detailed discussion, see [3]).

All archaeological records are statistically incomplete (under-represented) due to the fact that there is an indeterminable gap between the excavated reality and the historical reality. Even when some hypothesis (theoretical model) agrees with the "excavated reality", there is absolutely no grounds to take it as necessarily also conforming with historical reality. The problem is not merely that our representations of reality always fall short of reality itself which may result in various interpretations about the nature of reality (as we find in the empirical sciences); it is that the representations that archaeologists work with are that of "excavated" reality which is forever disconnected from historical reality. Although we find a distantly similar situation in quantum physics, where the representative outcomes stand removed from the pre-measurement quantum states (existing reality), we do find in that case that the statistics of outcomes can be accurately determined.

Regardless of how carefully archaeologists prepare their digs, using all sorts of techniques to establish a good definition of the excavation, the data cannot be considered "evidence" in the same sense as experiments in the natural sciences or controlled studies in the social sciences. The reason is that there is absolutely no way in which archaeologists can determine to what extent their data is representative of the historical reality. One can never know if the accessible data is a statistically representative sample. In most cases, it obviously is not. Since it can often not be established that archaeological data does, in fact, represent a particular historical situation, how can general scientific conclusions be drawn from it?  It is not only possible but inevitable, that evidence has disappeared with time or that it has been severely damaged or reduced [5].

Another but related problem that archaeologists face concerns the connection between the evidence found in excavations and events mentioned in textual documents. When some artefact is found, how do we know how it is related to particular historical events if such artefacts bear no inscriptions? This issue is especially relevant in Biblical archaeology where artefacts are typically not inscribed - in contrast with the situation in, for example, Egyptian archaeology. In the empirical sciences, the causal relations between empirical data are used to determine its identity - in the natural sciences, for example, various methods are used to determine the identity of particles that one is studying. Insofar as the archaeological data lacks precise information (inscriptions), there is also a gap between the data and the historical events to which they belong. Although archaeologists are careful to reconstruct the context of all evidence, this is always open to various interpretations and bedevils the task of allocating data to particular periods and events.

I can give a somewhat extreme example to illustrate the point. One of the periods in history that fascinates me, is that of the Akkadian empire which constituted one of the greatest ancient Middle Eastern empires (~2350-2150 BC). In an excavation at Tell Brak in Syria, the remains of a palace of one of these kings, named Naram-Sin, was found. Under well-controlled circumstances the dendrochronologically derived dates for grain and charcoal samples from the preceding archaeological layer were found to differ substantially, giving dates of 2023 BC and 2662 BC respectively [7]. Since the material culture cannot be assigned with substantial accuracy, one can ask: To what date would this structure be dated if the king's name did not appear on the bricks of the palace?

Since 1) dendrochronologically obtained dates vary, 2) changes in the material culture often take place over relatively long periods of time (and cannot assign precise dates) and 3) the context in which artifacts are found are often differently interpreted, it is for the most part impossible to assign structures and artifacts with scientific precision to historical events. This is exactly the problem that archaeologists are confronted with in dating archaeological structures in Jerusalem or elsewhere in Israel. Scholarly consensus - when that exists - cannot replace scientific accuracy and is always open to reconsideration. When we have access to inscriptions there is a dramatic improvement in the possibility of assigning such items to historical persons and events.

This reality has led to a reaction against the modernist stream in archaeology. Today there is a strong postmodernist current, also called "Post-processual" archaeology, which accentuates the subjectivity of all interpretations (often such scholars are guided by the current "politically correct" social-political context). Often this results in the mere production and comparison of scholarly opinions without trying to arrive at substantial conclusions. But even in this case, certain interpretations which are in conflict with established notions (going back to the modernist period of this disciple) are still taboo.

These historical developments in archaeology have enormous implications for Biblical studies. When our expectations are wrong, when we wrongly think that all important events in the Bible should be sufficiently represented in the archaeological record, lack of such evidence would immediately lead to the wrong conclusion that the Bible is an untrustworthy source of history. One of the main reasons why Biblical Criticism scholars originally started doubting the historical accuracy of the Bible was that they held positivist expectations which are discarded today.

The problem, however, is that the conclusions arrived at during that modernist period in Biblical Criticism are still widely accepted in that field (such as the assertion that even those Biblical texts which seemingly describes history, are written long after such events and should be considered merely as propagandist discourse - for a detailed discussion, see [2]). Although one can accept that this is one way of approaching the Biblical texts and developing narratives as to how they came into being, this should not exclude the possibility of constructing narratives that take the Biblical stories seriously insofar as history is concerned - especially since the problem of historical verification does not necessarily lie with the texts but may be due to the nature of archaeological data.

When such narratives are found wanting in the context of good philosophical consideration one would in any case not expect them to make inroads into academic thinking - but the opposite is also true. In this essay I try to establish exactly this: in what manner may it be possible (if at all) to construe such narratives that can compete with those in which no relation between the stories and the historical events described is assumed (those typically developed in Biblical Criticism circles). Scholars should resist the temptation to exclude certain narratives merely because they contradict their scholarly approach - which may be coloured by the positivist roots out of which the scholarly paradigm evolved - and adamantly assert that certain events cannot under any circumstances be considered as historical. I assert that a balanced approach requires that that file is reopened.

In my view a balanced approach should not only be open to reconsidering such positions (and to rectify old mistakes), it should also say in what sense those approaches are especially applicable to the field of archaeology in contradistinction with the empirical sciences on the one hand and hermeneutical disciplines like textual studies on the other. Often practitioners of archaeology are influenced by the major philosophical trends (modernist or postmodernist) instead of developing tools that fit the unique features of archaeology. Although there are many streams in current archaeology (which for the most part concern Processual and Post-processual philosophy and the relation between them), in this study I do not reconsider these but rather develop a new approach which I believe is the best way to navigate between those extremes. I develop a Kantian approach to archaeology (in reference to the work of the philosopher Immanuel Kant), in which the conditions for the possibility of obtaining trustworthy narratives are considered. In the process, I develop certain basic archaeological principles to guide good judgment. These can then be used in the discussion concerning the historicity of the Bible. (I used a similar approach previously with regard to textual studies [4]).

2. Basic principles of archaeology

As said, the challenge is to navigate our way between the extremes of modernism and postmodernism. The modernist view asserts that evidence of certain persons and events would be represented in the archaeological record if those persons and events mentioned in the literary tradition really existed/happened. The postmodernist view does not merely think that we cannot make such assertions; it also thinks that many different but nonetheless valid historical narratives can be reconstructed. They accentuate the fact that many interpretations of the archaeological record and the related texts are possible. The question is whether it is possible to reconstruct "better" interpretations in accordance with some basic principles which can discriminate between those interpretations that can be accepted and those that should be discarded? Then the next question would be: to what extent do the Biblical narratives align with such "better" interpretations? To what extent can the historicity of Biblical events be accepted within the framework of good interpretation?

2.1 Taking the workings of the justice system as a point of departure

Since archaeology is not an empirical science, the question to ask would be: What would constitute a good methodological process in this field? Should we regard archaeology as a hermeneutical (interpretative) discipline on the same footing as, say, textual studies? Although archaeology involves interpretation, and there is a school of thought which think that a good approach constitutes at least working in analogy with the interpretation of texts - i.e. considering the archaeological "record" as a kind of text - the problem of ascribing artifacts to particular events (see above) implies a certain indeterminacy beyond that found in texts (in texts events are clearly delineated in the sense of providing details associated therewith). It seems to me that archaeology, in general, should have a differentiated approach particular to itself.

In my view, the justice system provides us with the best approach. In this case, various kinds of sources of information are available to the court which eventually makes some judgment concerning the case at hand. Both the manner in which the information is presented and the manner in which it is evaluated can serve as guidelines in archaeological studies. Regarding judgment, what is necessary, is good, practical judgment. From a philosophical point of view, one may recall the Aristotelian concept of "practical reason" (phroneses) which involves the everyday, practical use of reason. One can also ask what conclusions the "reasonable man" would come to - not the "academic" man who is often too confident in the framework of his own paradigmatic commitment.

The information available to the court includes 1. forensic evidence, 2. witness testimony and 3. expert testimony. This closely resembles the information available in archaeological studies. Forensic evidence has its counterpart in archaeological evidence. In both cases, this constitutes the physical data that is to be used in our interpretation of events. In both cases, great care is taken to reconstruct the scene of events (the crime scene or the excavation). The difference is that forensic evidence often involves very precise data, like DNA, which is much more difficult to obtain in archaeological excavation (maybe not in a general sense but in a particular sense). Also, forensic evidence is taken within a contemporary context in which the reality of events can be much easier reconstructed. The detective lives in the reality of the society in which the crime has been committed; the archaeologist is forever removed from the historical reality of events. Assessing archaeological data is, therefore, more difficult than assessing forensic evidence (Think of the difference that DNA testing has made in forensic science and how many people that were previously convicted were subsequently shown to be innocent! What does this say of archaeology?). 

Witness testimony finds its equivalent in literary texts. In the same manner that witnesses provide written testimony regarding events, so the authors of texts provide testimony regarding historical events (that is when texts with such characteristics are considered). In both cases it is important to establish the credibility of the witness: were they physically present, do they contradict themselves etc. The integrity of the witness is of central importance in deciding whether to accept testimony. In the case of ancient texts like the Bible, the issue is much more complicated. The authors cannot be examined personally. Such authors, nonetheless, sometimes mention their sources or manner in which they obtained the information which could reinforce their credibility.

I have previously argued that the Biblical Criticism approach, under both modernist and postmodernist influences, has imposed a contemporary perspective on the texts [4]. In imposing our view regarding their view on the texts, the integrity of the authors and the tradition from which they came have not been respected. This goes against the very grain of good hermeneutics as formulated by philosophers like Gadamer who asserts the importance of approaching the text with an openness, in which the opinions of both the author and tradition in which he/she operates are valued. He wrote regarding tradition: "I must allow tradition's claim to validity, not in the sense of simply acknowledging the past in its otherness, but in such a way that it has something to say to me" [8]. I argued that we should not merely discard the authors' position and the sources that they claim to have used in construing their narratives just because we do not agree with them. I also developed hermeneutical principles that should guide readers in the interpretation of texts [4].

Another important kind of testimony is provided by expert witnesses. These are typically scholars who are masters of their particular fields. This is, however, not always the case. Sometimes such testimonies are biased and even unscientific. Although the public and even the courts often trust such testimonies, they are sometimes ripped to pieces under cross-examination. In South-Africa, there was an interesting case in recent years where an expert witness whose testimony was uncritically accepted in one murder case, was taken apart in another such case. 

The same can be said about scholars who provide expert "testimonies" in the field of archaeology or textual studies. In these fields of study, there is no such thing as an objective perspective - all scholars are situated within a particular academic paradigm [9] which adheres to certain presuppositions, they also bring their own background, preconceived ideas and preferences to the text [2]. When the metaphysical view of the scholar is in conflict with those of the authors of the texts that he/she interprets, this could even be regarded as a conflict of interest. In this case, the role of the "expert" may correspond more with that of an attorney or prosecutor who takes a critical stand towards the witnesses of their opposition. 

The primary question is: What does a good judgment consist of? In a judgment, witness testimony is evaluated against forensic data in a context elucidated by the expert witnesses. On a broader sense, the various narratives constructed by the prosecution and defence are considered in the light of such evaluations. When the narrative under consideration is in substantial agreement, the "truth" thereof is assumed. Substantial disagreement would, on the contrary, establishes falsity. Of special interest are those cases where none of these can be established. The main goal of the defence is to show that guilt cannot be established above a reasonable doubt. This means that various narratives are possible (the court cannot decide among them), some of which would constitute the innocence of the accused. 

When such judgments are to be made in archaeology, the situation is slightly different. There is a certain distance (some distortion) between the world (reality) in which we construct our narratives and the world (reality) in which the events happened and the texts were written (see above). The question is if this means that no truth judgments can be made due to the incomplete and indeterminate nature of archaeological data? Is there no manner in which the given distortion can be overcome - even in a very weak sense? In fact, we can confirm that even though archaeological data is statistically incomplete it may sometimes provide good representations of historical situations (Pompey etc.) and also that indeterminacy does not involve all data - we sometimes have inscriptions that provide determinate outcomes. Although we can agree that truth in the sense of court judgments is not an obtainable goal, we may ask if there is any manner in which the trustworthiness of historical narratives (based on textual information) in the framework of archaeological parameters can be established. 

Can we go beyond the indeterminate position (when the court cannot decide) where many possible narratives may be accommodated (accentuating the mere subjectivity of interpretation)? In my view, we can go beyond that. We can establish rational principles (similar to the concept of the "reasonable man") which allow us to articulate the coherence of certain historical narratives in the sense that some positive agreement between the information in texts (provided by both authors and the traditions from which they originate) and the data can be established. This obviously does not mean that the objective truth of such narratives is established; it merely means that within the framework of our constrained conditions we can use practical reason to distinguish between well-argued truthful historical narratives and their alternatives in accordance with such principles [10]. 

Before I proceed to present such principles, one should ask: What about the judge? Who is the judge that should consider the evidence, listen to arguments, evaluate the testimonies etc? Often people think that only the "experts" are in a position to judge such matters. But how can that be? This means that the expert witness would also be the judge! He/She obviously cannot present a neutral position as one finds in the natural sciences since his/her discipline is not an empirical science. The person who should judge is the informed reader. So often we do not think for ourselves and merely follow others in their opinions. When it comes to good, practical judgment - the best person who can do that is indeed those who read widely and considers all positions carefully. Those who consider not merely the evidence, but also the methods and limits of those disciplines in which "experts" derive their opinions in the field of archaeology or textual studies. 

2.2 Archaeological principles for judgment 

This brings me to the principles for judgment themselves. From a Kantian perspective, we can think of these as principles grounded in our basic rational structure. I merely extend the basic Kantian principles for obtaining knowledge to an archaeological context. In a systematic sense these include 1) relations (transmission) in space/time, 2) the relation between objects given in perception and our conceptual structures (theoretical models in archaeology, construed narratives) and 3) those relations between perceived objects in time which allow us to discriminate particular events from "background" noise [11]. These principles are used both in the process of establishing narratives and in evaluating them. 

1. Consider the role of tradition. In my opinion, the role of tradition is not nowadays adequately accentuated in archaeological studies (it seems to have gone out of fashion with the idea of "cultural history"). What is often accentuated, is not the long tradition in which certain ideas and artistic motifs are handed over from generation to generation within a particular community, but the agreement between the material forms and iconography within the same region during the same period (that is, including all the various cultural groups in that region, for example, in the ancient Middle East). One reason for this is practical - often there are relatively few artefacts available and comparing them seems to be the natural thing to do. Another reason is that some kind of diffusion between groups within the same region is often assumed and called upon to explain correspondences.

The problem, however, with this approach is that it is not always good practice and can be philosophically unsound. One finds, for example, that scholars often accentuate agreements but not differences (maybe in support of some theoretical model). The problem is that the differences may, in fact, accentuate the different cultural traditions involved whereas the agreements may be due to some early influence common to all the cultural traditions concerned. This immediately means that internal cultural traditions are more important than the fact that those cultures share the same region at the same time. This does not exclude spatial diffusion of ideas, technique, and iconography - it, however, requires that the stages associated with such diffusion and the changes involved, be clearly delineated.

Although archaeological education, for the most part, does not involve philosophy (except in the framework of theoretical archaeology), the work of prominent philosophers may have special application to this aspect of archaeology. In this regard, the accentuation of tradition by philosophers like Martin Heidegger and Hans-Georg Gadamer is especially important. Although all the scholarly disciplines that originated in the modernist period grew out of a milieu of strong reaction against (Christian) tradition, and tradition is much easier changed in contemporary society due to the use of mass media, these philosophers accentuated the important role that tradition play. This is especially important when ancient societies are studied. Heidegger captured this by his concepts of "thrownness" (the spiritual and material, historically conditioned environment) and "fallenness" (present situatedness). Gadamer accentuated that the hermeneutic experience as an insertion into a world of relations and meanings (tradition). 

In contrast with the situation in textual studies, where I previously asserted the importance of synchronic (unified in time) over diachronic (distinguishing the parts and their singular histories) approaches and thus valuing the unity of texts as produced by one author, in the field of archaeology the exact opposite is true: we should give preference to diachronic approaches that consider the traditions in which ideas and motifs have been transmitted within the same coherent cultural community over synchronic approaches which try to find commonality between groups within the same geographical and temporal zones. Both processes are often in interaction leading to adaptations in tradition (Gadamer said a lot about the power of renewal in tradition). 

2. Texts and artefacts. The basic problem in archaeology is to relate artefacts, which in a certain sense stand apart from both the historical reality as well as the information from that period (insofar as these are not inscribed), with the historical narratives that are construed from the texts. Without the texts, the artefacts merely present general data (which can only be interpreted in the most general terms); without the artefacts, the information in the texts is only stories (unconfirmed accounts from the distant past). Historical narratives are formulated when these are integrated in some manner [12]. 

Some take a very critical attitude: they fundamentally doubt the reliability of the information in texts even though such texts tell stories about such events (this is especially true in the case of Biblical texts where these are often assumed to have been written too late to say anything meaningful about such events). This view has its origin in the indeterminate nature of archaeological data (which is often wrongly taken to imply that the problem lies with the narratives in the texts). Others believe the information in the texts; they often fit the data uncritically to those narratives. 

What would constitute "good" narratives? Of central importance in this regard is 1) the context in which the data is found, 2) the general context of the period in which the events happened and 3) the context in which the texts were written. The context determines how the data and texts are to be integrated. The more information we have regarding all these areas the more accurate is our narratives regarding those events. Often different possible contexts can be reconstructed in which the events and the stories about it came into being. This is one of the major dividing factors in constructing narratives. Often traditional scholars would place the time of writing in an early context whereas Biblical Criticism scholarship would place it much later. 

I have previously asked how this problem can be solved and proposed that Gadamer's insights may be helpful [4]. Insofar as we acknowledge that our data is incomplete (in the sense of it being removed from historical information) and do not know of any good reason to distrust the textual account, we should have an open attitude and be willing to really listen to the voices of the authors and the tradition from which they originate. We should not have an overly critical attitude which automatically assumes that the textual tradition is untrustworthy. I have criticized Biblical Criticism for not valuing the integrity of the Biblical authors and their tradition insofar as they impose(d) contemporary perspectives on the texts. In that manner, the voices of those ancient authors, who often assert that they are writing real history, have effectively been silenced. In this regard, the modernist roots of Biblical Criticism play a central role in their dating of Biblical texts [2].  

Gadamer challenges us to take the ancient authors serious except when we have good reason not to do so (see the discussion in [4])! This means that we should at least consider the possibility that the data could agree with the narratives as told by those authors. Even though many historical narratives might be possible, a historical narrative in which the ancient stories as told by the authors agree with the data in essential points is obviously preferable above others - insofar as the integrity of both the data and authors can be upheld.

3. The overall picture. In academic research, one can be so focused on a particular situation that one misses the overall picture - like the Indian guy who took the legs of the elephant for trees. Often the stories about historical events involve a variety of settings that constitute an overall picture. Although it might be impossible to relate data convincingly to particular stories (due to the incompleteness of archaeological data), the overall picture when all the data is taken into account might support the general thrust of such stories. In this case, we relate the patterns in the data with particular instances/events in the stories told by the authors. In this manner, we might compensate for the incompleteness of the individual archaeological data in reconstructing historical narratives. 

All judgments through which historical narratives (which consider both the contexts of historical events as well as how the texts came into being) are brought under these principles are always coloured by some metaphysical paradigm. Nobody can absolve him/her from their own metaphysical commitments. This is also why Biblical archaeology is such a loaded field - the Bible is always in some manner regarded in metaphysical terms. This may involve the belief in the Bible as the Word of God or the critical standpoint that regard it as a mere book among other books (there is no neutral ground, especially insofar as questions of divine inspiration or intervention are concerned - but this issue is not included in the present discussion). This means that, even when we use good philosophical principles, there would never be general agreement on these issues. What is, however, obtainable, is some agreement as to what constitutes "better" narratives in accordance with these principles even though this would always be a contentious matter in the same manner that court decisions are. Insofar as the Biblical narratives (which are actually our reconstruction of those narratives) can be shown to agree with these principles we can regard them as a trustworthy account of history.

3. Re-reading the Bible

We can now focus in more detail on the Biblical material. I would like to consider the most problematic aspects of the story about the history of Israel as told in the Bible, namely the "ancient history" (Gen. 2-11), the patriarchal history (in the rest of the Book of Genesis) and the Mosaic history (especially regarding the exodus). In general, these histories are not taken seriously by contemporary Biblical Criticism scholars and archaeologists. I would like to re-evaluate them in this essay in the light of the previous discussion. Since space does not allow an in-depth discussion, I merely give the markers for constructing sensible narratives - such narratives would require a much more detailed discussion.

The "ancient" history tells a story that stretches from the time of Adam and Eve until Abraham's calling in Sumer [for a discussion of Adam and Eve, see [13]). The patriarchal history tells the story of Abraham's migration to Canaan and his stay there as well as that of the next two generations (Isaac and Jacob). The story of the Exodus tells how Israel, who since the time of Joseph (son of Jacob), sojourned in Egypt, was led out by Moses and how they eventually entered the land of Canaan where they lived thereafter. These three kinds of history are chosen because they provide examples of the application of the mentioned archaeological principles. 

We can ask: what kind of history is the "ancient history"? This story primarily concerns a tradition about events that played off in the distant lands of Israel's past. What is interesting is that it has a very special and distinct character, even when considered in the framework of the Book of Genesis as a whole (see [4]). I have previously shown [4] that its essential features correspond closely with that of the Sumerian King List (lists of genealogies, very long lifetimes, short descriptions of events, same Mesopotamian setting etc.). It includes a lot of material which clearly originated in ancient Mesopotamia (Sumer). In fact, all this material goes back to the early second millennium BC - there is absolutely no material from later periods included (see my arguments in this regard in [4]). This suggests that the ancient history might contain ancient Sumerian material in accordance with the claim that their forefather originated in that land. 

This Sumerian hypothesis directly contradicts the generally accepted Babylonian hypothesis according to which this tradition was fabricated during the Babylonian exile. According to the first view, the stories may have some ground in historical events in ancient Sumer; according to the second view they have absolutely no historical significance and should be considered in the framework of the Babylonian exile and post-exile period. As such the Babylonian material is thought to have originated in Babylon during the exile and the sources used in this part of the Book of Genesis should be considered in the framework of that time (for a detailed discussion of the theory of the sources of the Pentateuch, see [2, 4]).  

The difference between the Sumerian and Babylonian hypotheses is that archaeologically speaking, the first follows a diachronic approach in which tradition is valued whereas the second discard the idea of early traditions being handed down through the centuries. If tradition plays an important role in the transmission of such ideas in accordance with the work of Heidegger and Gadamer, this might imply that the Sumerian hypothesis is to be preferred above the competitive hypothesis. The first principle underlies this - and ask that we should have at least an openness towards the possibility that such tradition could be grounded in traditions and events in the ancient land of Sumer. 

When we find good general agreement between the ancient history in the Book of Genesis and the Sumerian tradition, and can even construct a sensible history of ancient Sumer in line with these traditions, then it seems reasonable to think that those traditions go back the same original tradition which evolved out of the historical situation in ancient Sumer. One may even assert - surely in the face of strong objection coming from a paradigmatically constrained archaeological community - that the ancient history is correct in essential respects. I discuss the issue in some detail in my book Abraham en sy God (2012, Griffel).

In this book I show that a sensible narrative can be constructed according to which the events mentioned in the ancient history (Adam, Enoch, the flood, early origins in the land of Ararat, Nimrod, the building of the Tower of Babel and the subsequent confusion etc.) are taken as referring to events mentioned in ancient Sumerian sources (Adapa, Etana, the flood, early origins in the land of Aratta, Enmerkar, the building projects during the Uruk period at Uruk and Eridu, etc.). What is remarkable, and in my view excludes the possibility of later borrowing, is that this does not merely constitute a detailed agreement between traditions (although there are also differences as can be expected from the parallel transmission of traditions), but that these traditions constitute a perspective on ancient Sumerian history that is very much in line with archaeological evidence (it is only in the Biblical tradition that they are also clearly ordered in a manner closely corresponding with archaeological evidence).

In this reconstruction, I have taken the "flood" as referring to the flood layer visible at Ur, Eridu, Uruk and elsewhere in Sumer from about 4000 BC [14] when the sea inundated the land [15, 16]. This layer provides the only important break in the continuity of the Mesopotamian material culture when the transition between the Ubaid and Uruk Periods occurred. According to the Sumerian texts, the family who ruled Sumer in the subsequent period originated in the land of Aratta (taken to be the Biblical Ararat). There is a remarkable correspondence between this family and the Cush family of the Bible. One can, for example, consider the Sumerian Enmerkar and Biblical Nimrod as referring to the same historical figure (if such a historical figure behind these traditions is allowed). The "Tower of Babel" is taken as referring to the ancient shrine at Eridu which was rebuilt by Enmerkar according to the literary tradition. Both the name ( and mythology of Eridu were later taken over by Babylon. The confusion of languages, which is mentioned in both traditions (Gen. 11; "the Incantation of Nudimmud"), can be grounded historically in the context of the introduction of the first phonetic writing at the end of the Uruk period [17]. This constitutes the basic markers for a sensible historical narrative about events in early Sumer [18].

Insofar as the patriarchal history is concerned, the most important figure is Abraham. There is also a general academic consensus that Abraham does not refer to a historical person and that the stories about him are totally unhistorical. But is that a well-argued position? Or is it merely accepted within the framework of an academic paradigm in which such thinking is taboo? According to my second principle, we should at least (as a mere hypothesis) allow for the possibility that the story told in the texts could, in fact, be grounded in history. If we do not do that, we would open ourselves to the accusation that we exclude certain possibilities in accordance with our own preconceived ideas - that we do not really consider the possibility that the author and the tradition from which he originates, valued integrity in their handing down of historical data. As such, he could have used material, even written material, handed down to him in writing his narrative.

I have previously mentioned that the fact that the Abrahamic story involves so many oracles presents a very strong case for thinking that these were in fact handed down in written form in the framework of an accompanying account of the context of those events [4]. The reason for this assumption is that we find elsewhere in the same area in the same period that such oracles were indeed written down (in Mari). The reason for writing down oracles is that their divine origin was taken seriously and necessitated their careful conservation. We also find in the western Semitic tradition in Mari and elsewhere that the context in which such oracles were given, is often recorded (especially insofar as the kings were concerned). In this regard, one should remember that Abraham is also depicted as a "mighty prince" (Gen. 23:6; 14).

When considering the Abrahamic narrative, there are especially two events that stand out that may have been prominent enough to have found their way into other sources than the Bible. The first is the Elamitic incursion into northern Syria and Palestine (Gen. 14) and the second Abraham's visit to Egypt where some interaction with the royal court is mentioned which may have resulted in it being recorded (the Egyptian king wanted to take Abraham's wife for himself; Gen. 12:10-20). Regarding the Elamitic incursion, we know today from Elamitic sources that such an incursion into northern Syria did in fact occur. This happened in 1822 BC according to the so-called high chronology of Mesopotamia during the reign of Siwe-palar-huppak, king of Elam (1826-1799 BC). According to Elamite sources the king's brother Kudu-zulus, king of Susa, was previously involved in incursions to the west and it is possible that he may have played an important role in leading this one as well [19].

This date corresponds remarkably well with the period when Abraham is said to have lived according to the Septuagint [20] - he is said to have left Haran for Canaan in 1837 BC, which implies that the incursion took place 15 years later which fits the Biblical narrative very well. Of special interest is the name of the king who led the incursion according to the Bible, namely Chedor-laómer (Kedor-laómer). The root of the first part of this name clearly agrees with that of Kudu-zulu, namely k-d. It seems to me astonishing that an author who is thought to have had no access to historical sources could have had the fact of the incursion, the date thereof as well as the name of the leading king correct! Although many details of the Biblical account cannot be confirmed (this is the nature of archaeological data) the essential elements are clearly correct.

Regarding Abraham's visit to Egypt, there is an Egyptian depiction at Beni-Hasan that may, in fact, have recorded this visit. In this depiction, the visit of Canaanite Semites led by one Abi-shai/r (the same Amoritic name-type as "Abraham") is recorded to have taken place in the sixth year of the Egyptian king Senuseret II. An astronomical recording of the helical rising of the star Sirius in the time of his successor Senuseret III enables us to calculate the date of this visit, namely 1836 BC [21]. This agrees so closely with the date that Abraham is said to have come to Egypt (if we accept that Abraham came directly to Egypt after leaving Haran, 1837) that we can accept at least that there is a strong possibility that the depiction may, in fact, be that of Abraham and his entourage. Although this can obviously not be proven (how much from that period can be proven - very little!), these two events clearly provide good reasons to reconsider the accepted scholarly opinion. Even though other views may be formulated as to how this story originated, the remarkable historical confirmation of a key historical event (or: events) provide support for taking this patriarchal story as reflecting historical events and constructing a narrative in line with that.

In the last instance, I consider the story of the exodus. The manner in which this history is related in the Pentateuch and the Book of Joshua may indicate that it presents a more substantial kind of historical writing than the "ancient history" and even the patriarchal history. One may argue that, if these events really happened, they would have left a very deep impression on the Israelite psyche which may account for the fact that they were so often referred to throughout Israel's later history. As such one may expect that written accounts of these events could have circulated shortly after the events themselves in accordance with the claims made in this regard in the mentioned writings. The main reason why this history is doubted is that the kind of evidence that is often expected (due to positivist attitudes) is not available to substantiate these stories.

Once we become aware of the problematic nature of archaeological evidence (and especially how this relates to the issue of migration, see [3]) we may ask what can be reasonably expected. The Sinai desert is truly a "terrible" place and one can think that remains left to the desert heat and storms would have been greatly diminished through the ages. At this point we may call upon the third principle discussed above, namely to consider the overall picture of the story of Israel's migration from Egypt to Canaan and see if the evidence from all areas over this period support the general thrust of the story. 

When we consider all the evidence from the period that Israel is said to have sojourned in Egypt to their presence in the land, we find various bits that are in agreement with the Biblical narrative. There are depictions of Semitic slaves producing bricks and being hit by sticks from the time of king Thutmose III from the eighteenth century (1479-1425 BC) when Israel is said to have lived under such conditions in Egypt. Then there is the evidence of the destruction of Jericho which resulted in it being left uninhabited for a long period of time as mentioned in the Bible (Jos. 6:26; 1 Kings 16:34). Although Kathleen Kenyon argued that the original dating to ca. 1400 BC should be adjusted to ca. 1550 BC which would have excluded its destruction by the Israelites, more recently Bryant Wood argued that she made certain mistakes and that the original date was, in fact, correct (see the discussion by Hoffmeier [22]). This date fits perfectly with the Biblical dating of events.

Regarding the conquest of the land of Canaan, Hoffmeier [22] proposes that we discard W. F. Albright's dramatic version and merely subscribe to a "limited conquest of key sites in strategic areas" in accordance with the information given in Joshua 11:3 and Exodus 23:29-30. In this case only Jericho, Ai and Hazor were burned by the Israelites. Although the date of the burning of Hazor is somewhat uncertain, it might be related to those events (see [3] for the somewhat problematic nature of dendrochronological dating). When the name "Israel" occurs (for the first and only time) in an Egyptian inscription of 1208 BC by king Merneptah, son and successor of Ramesses II, the Israelites were already in the land of Canaan. In this period a dramatic increase in agriculturally-based settlements from the late Bronze Age is observed in Israel with 93% of these being new ones. This would agree with Israel's settlement in the land [22]. If we allow that the exodus occurred in ca. 1400 BC even the monotheistic reforms of Akhenaten of the Eighteen Dynasty (1352-1336 BC) may be regarded in this context.    

In my view, we can use the principles presented above to construct historical narratives for all periods of Israel's history in accordance with the Biblical literary tradition. In this approach, the books that contain stories about the history of Israel are not taken as being written long after the events and therefore as having no relation to the archaeological evidence. In fact, it rejects that approach as being misguided in ascribing all sorts of agendas and intentions to the Biblical authors which are in conflict with philosophical hermeneutics which deny that we can do that in any meaningful manner (see [1, 4]). Also, the positive outcome of the application of the mentioned archaeological principles to those stories, show that we are justified in taking them seriously as referring to real persons and events.

My view takes the statements of the Biblical authors and the historical character of the various books serious when they tell us that they wrote history. Although it is obviously impossible to prove that Israel's history evolved in that manner, one can construct historical narratives that are not only sensitive to the voices of both the authors and the traditions represented in the texts but which also account for the positive agreement with archaeological evidence. If we can do that for all the kinds of history in the Book of Genesis, I think we can accept that we can do it for the rest of the Bible.

When we make practical judgments regarding such narratives, we evaluate them in the light of the agreement between the textual information and the available archaeological data within the context of the ancient world in which they originated. In this regard, we take the distance (distortion) between our world and theirs into account. We ask what can reasonably be expected when this aspect is incorporated in our analysis. Then we ask whether our analysis tends toward agreement or disagreement - whether there may be data that contradicts the information in the texts. In this regard, I would like to challenge any scholar to present evidence which constitutes substantiate disagreement with the textual accounts for any period in Biblical history (which is generally agreed as not being due to interpretation)!

If this possibility is discarded, we can ask if we can do better than merely accepting that any amount of narratives can be construed depending on the contexts assumed. I have argued that we can move to a positive assertion that the Biblical narrative is trustworthy in the framework of archaeological parameters. I believe that the application of good archaeological principles show that well-argued historical narratives can be construed even when all the constraints are taken into consideration. When no positive outcomes can be established, the contexts in which the data and texts may have originated multiply - but even in that case, good hermeneutical principles should guide our judgment regarding the origin of the historical data in texts [4, 23].


In this essay, I brought the question regarding the trustworthiness of the Bible as a source of history under the searchlight. This is an extremely difficult issue and any fast pronunciations in this regard should be frowned upon. I showed that the traditional positivist stance in the disciplines of archaeology and textual studies have greatly muddled the issue. The current postmodernist approaches are also not very helpful. I developed a Kantian approach to archaeology in which the justice system is taken as the point of departure in understanding what is going on in archaeology. I showed how we can construct certain basic archaeological principles which would allow us to articulate the coherence of certain historical narratives in the sense that some positive agreement between the information in texts (provided by both authors and the traditions from which they originate) and the data can be established. 

I applied these principles to three kinds of historical writing found in the Bible, namely the "ancient history" in Genesis 2-11, the patriarchal histories told later in that book and the Mosaic writings. I argue that even when we work with a tradition that was handed down in the early period of Israel's history (which is what I assert), we can obtain a remarkably good fit with the parallel Sumerian tradition and even the archaeological reconstruction of Sumerian history. Although I did not discuss the manner of such transmission in any detail, I show that sensible historical narratives may be construed in agreement with those traditions. I did the same for later periods in Israel's history. 

In the end, I argued that the historical narratives obtained when the Biblical texts are taken seriously regarding their historical information show good agreement with archaeological data when one considers the incomplete and indeterminate nature of that data. Although other narratives may be construed that understand the texts in a totally different manner, I believe that the narratives construed in the manner that I propose have certain advantages above other narratives which are not always conducted in accordance with good philosophical practice.

[1] The critiques that I wrote [2, 3] should not be regarded as merely criticizing those disciplines; rather, it is to be taken as an evaluation of the limits of the legitimate use of those disciplines. I have something similar to Kant's Critique of Pure Reason in mind in which he produced such a critique of pure reason. In those essays, I merely analyzed academic practice; I did not introduce positive proposals of my own. This is what I do in this essay as well as [4].
[5] There are also other reasons why archaeology cannot be considered to be an empirical science, for example, that excavations are non-repeatable experiences (in contrast with experiments in the natural sciences). Although it could be compared with similar excavations elsewhere, it could never be the same. The fact that it is a one-off experience implies that it is after all also a personal (individually and socially) experience for those involved - it is not necessarily so that other archaeologists would have arrived at the same conclusions. One can mention many examples of different interpretations of the same archaeological excavations and data. Vance Watrous's made a powerful statement in this regard: "[O]ne of the most interesting things about archaeological material, is you get the same object, you get three archaeologists, you come up with three different interpretations based on that" [6]. Although we find in some interpretations of quantum physics also that the observer is considered to be part of the experiment (Von Neumann's interpretation), such experiments are repeatable. In that case, the differences in interpretation consider the reality behind such experiments; in archaeology, the differences in opinion are closely related to the experience of the excavation itself which always concerns the "excavated realty". For a more detailed discussion, see [3].
[6] Watrous, L. Vance. 1998. Egypt and Crete in the Early Middle Bronze Age: A Case of Trade and Cultural Diffusion. In Cline, E. H. and Harris-Cline, D. (eds.), The Aegean and the Orient in the Second Millennium, Liège: Université de Liège.
[7] Oates, Joan. 1985.  Tell Brak and Chronology: The Third Millennium. Mari Annales de Recherches Interdisciplinaires 4:137-144.
[8] Gadamer, Hans-Georg. 1994. Truth and Method (translation revised by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, second, revised ed.). New York: Crossroad. Gadamer is one of the most important philosophers of hermeneutics of the twentieth century.
[9] Kuhn, Thomas S. 1962. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
[10] In the Critique of the Power of Judgment, Kant developed a manner of judgment which is to be used in situations where our constrained understanding cannot make determinate judgments. He calls such judgments "reflective" judgments. These are not judgments of truth; one can maybe call them rational "estimations". This form of judgment may play a role in deciding between historical narratives where one cannot be established as trustworthy above the others.
My idea of rational archaeological principles corresponds with the concept of the "reasonable man" in the justice system. This allows us to reach a certain level of determinacy that is not objective (as in the sciences), but which can nonetheless distinguish "better" from "worse" narratives (i.e. that a narrative can be regarded as truthful). At the same time, this judgment cannot distinguish between various possible "better" narratives. Something similar characterizes the justice system when the acceptance of some narrative as truthful, may allow for many variations to that narrative that cannot be decided. This, however, does not influence the basic acceptance of the truthfulness of such narratives. When we decide between "better" narratives (interpretations) we use reflective judgment.
[11] My approach is constructed in analogy to the basic Kantian approach which is concerned with the possibility, conditions and limits of human knowledge. As such I regard the human endeavour in archaeology as an extension of basic human experience; the same principle, therefore, applies, although in more complex form. On the most basic level this involves 1) perceiving things in space/time, 2) combining concepts and intuitions (these are grounded in our discursive kind of intellect which involves both these faculties), 3) establishing the necessary relation between perceived objects in space/time, that is, real events (in this regard Kant's second analogy in the Critique of Pure Reason is of special importance). 
[12] We can compare the archaeological process of bringing data in some relation with texts (conceptual constructs) with the Kantian understanding of everyday human experience (and by extension, with scientific experiment) according to which data given in an empirical intuition is brought under concepts. My formulation (see above) "without the texts the artifacts merely present general data; without the artefacts the information in the texts is only stories" is formulated in analogy to the Kantian insight: "Thoughts without intuitions are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind" which can be reformulated as follows: without concepts intuitions are blind; without intuitions (through which data is given in perception) concepts are empty. Both are necessary for empirical knowledge (or to establish viable narratives in archaeology). 
There are two general interpretations of Kant's philosophy which correspond closely with the two approaches discussed in my essays (this one and [4]), namely the one followed in Biblical Criticism (and in archaeology insofar as these collaborate) and the one advocated here in accordance with Gadamer's work. The first is called the two-object approach and involves imposing concepts on the "raw" data in the world; the second is called the two-aspect approach and involves a judgment in which the empirical intuitions of objects are brought under concepts (rules). In this last case, both the empirical intuitions and concepts have their own individuality, the first is determined by the order in the world and the second is determined by the construction of conceptual models (these can be called a posteriori and a priori determinations).  
In the same manner that the two-object view thinks in terms of concepts imposed on raw data, Biblical Criticism has in the past imposed their own perspective (modernist or post-modernist - see [4]) on historical texts and data. All phenomenological approaches do the same. In the same manner that the two-aspect view values the individuality of both conceptual structures and empirical intuitions, my approach values both our current efforts to construct narratives as well as the voices of the authors and traditions from which they originate. The Kantian play between concepts and empirical intuitions (both of which involve apprehension, namely conceptual and empirical) finds its hermeneutical equivalent in the play between reader and author and their respective horizons, or between our efforts to reconstruct their world and their historical world which is represented in data and texts. In the same way that things as they are "in themselves" (see [4]) do not disallow objective knowledge in the Kantian system, the fact that the ancient world is forever beyond our reach does not disallow the construction of sensible narratives regarding that world (in contrast with the post-modernist view that their world is forever lost (the author is "dead") which allow us to construct narratives in which our own concerns take center stage).    
In the two-aspect interpretation of Kant's philosophy, we use judgment to determine whether data given in empirical intuitions agree with concepts - which would then constitute knowledge (when the outcome is positive). One can, however, always analyze the data in a more substantial manner and also construct ever more sophisticated conceptual structures (i.e. theoretical models) - which is why knowledge is in effect always in progress. The difference between the Kantian understanding of everyday human experience (and scientific experiment) and archaeology lies in the indeterminate nature of archaeological data (in reference to historical reality) which results in various competing (instead of progressively more refined) narratives insofar as the same data is concerned. 
[14]  Howard-Carter, T. 1981. The Tangible Evidence for the Earliest Dilmun. Journal of Cuneiform Studies 33(3/4):210-223. 
[15] Larsen, C. 1975. The Mesopotamian Delta Region: A Reconsideration of Lees and Falcon. Journal of the American Oriental Society 95(1):43-57.
[16] Nutzel, W. 1979. On the Geographical Position of as Yet Unexplored Early Mesopotamian Culture: Contribution to the Theoretical Archaeology. Journal of Near Eastern Studies 99(2):288-296.
[17] Abraham en sy God (2012, Griffel).
[18] Van de Mieroop, M. 2005. King Hammurabi of Babylon: a biography. Oxford: Blackwell.
[19] My analysis has a lot in common with that of David Rohl but differs in many particular aspects. See Rohl, D. 1998. The Genesis of Civilization. London: Century.
[20] According to Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews, XV:2) and St. Paul (Gal. 3:16-17), both using the Septuagint, the period from Abraham's departure from Harran to the exile was 430 years. We read in the Septuagint: "Now the sojourning of the children of Israel, and their fathers, which they sojourned in the land of Canaan and the land of Egypt, was 430 years" (Ex. 12:40). According to the Septuagint, the period from the exodus to the commencement of the building of Salomon's temple in the fourth year of his reign was 440 years (1 Kings 6:1). Starting with the currently accepted date for the fourth year of Salomon, namely 967 BC we arrive at 1837 BC.
[21] Krauss, R. 1985. "Sothis- und Monddaten, Studien zur astronomischen und technischen Chronologie Altagyptens". Hildersheimer Agyptologische Beitrage 20. This calculation assumes that the observation took place at Elephantine in the south of Egypt. In my view, this dating together with the high chronology in Mesopotamia give the best results for an integrated dating of all periods in the ancient Middle East. I plan to present such a chronological outline in future
[22] Hoffmeier, J. K. 2008. The Archaeology of the Bible. Oxford: Lion.Hudson.
[23] In this essay I only consider historic archaeology; pre-historic archaeology is not considered. One may extend this approach to earlier periods when the role of texts in the formulation and evaluation of narratives is replaced by symbols. In this case, the hermeneutics of symbols (which are always to be considered in archaeology) supplants that of texts. Such hermeneutics may involve depth-psychology and the study of shamanism.

Author: Dr Willie Mc Loud. Posted on
The author has written a book on the Sumerian roots of the Bible (Abraham en sy God (Griffel, 2012)) and is a philosopher and scientist (PhD in Physics, MA in Philosophy). He writes on issues of religion, philosophy, science and eschatology. 
For a more in-depth discussion of the Book of Genesis, see the series of essays on it. Read also

Part 1. Can we still believe the Bible? A hermeneutical perspective 
Part 3. Can we still believe the Bible? A scientific perspective
Part 4. Can we still believe the Bible? A prophetic perspective

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