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Posts Tagged ‘chronology’

Many educated people take it as a given that the Exodus of the nation of Israel from Egypt, as described in the Bible, is simply a legend. After all, that’s the claim of prominent archaeologists working in Egypt and Palestine. For example, in 1999, Ze’ev Herzog, professor of archaeology (now retired) at Tel Aviv University, wrote in Haaretz:

[T]he Israelites were never in Egypt, did not wander in the desert, did not conquer the land in a military campaign and did not pass it on to the 12 tribes of Israel.

(“Deconstructing the Walls of Jericho,” Haaretz, Oct. 29, 1999)

This view is held by a great many dedicated, sincere researchers. Understandably, many thinking people take such assertions as fact.

patternssmallHowever, even though the fictionality of the Exodus is taken for granted in mainstream academia and much of the educated public, this is not a universal view. I’ve recently come across a remarkably well-developed body of research that is worth considering by the thinking person.

American filmmaker Timothy P. Mahoney has put together an excellent film called Patterns of Evidence: Exodus, along with a book of the same name (I will reference here some page numbers from Mahoney’s book). I would strongly encourage open-minded people to see this film (the film is available at Netflix) and consider reading the book for much more detail (the book is available at Amazon in print and Kindle format).

The authenticity of the books of the Pentateuch (the first five books included in modern Bibles and attributed traditionally to Moses) is controversial for many reasons, often ideological. I care about the issue of the Bible’s authenticity, as it has religious implications. However, I’m also interested in the question as a writer of Biblical fiction. It’s possible to write the stories of The Edhai even if the literary sources are mythology. But if they are authentic history, that does add some weight to the stories themselves, as they then become historical fiction.

The evidence considered by Mahoney in his film and book is too extensive to consider entirely here. However, here are some points that I found salient and interesting:

Most mainstream researchers erroneously place the Exodus in the 13th century B.C.E.

Statue of Ramesses II

Statue of Ramses II, Luxor., n.d., This slide colored by Joseph Hawkes. Goodyear. Brooklyn Museum Archives (S10.08 Luxor, image 9925).

Archaeological and historical researchers generally assume the year 1250 B.C.E. as the working date for the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. During that Late Bronze Age (LBA) period, they find no extra-Biblical evidence for an extensive Israelite presence in Egypt; or for a calamitous national collapse in Egypt; or for a massive departure of Israelite slaves from Egypt; or for a subsequent sudden destruction of Canaanite cities a few decades later, due to invading Israelites.

Researchers have traditionally focused on the 1250 B.C.E. date because this would place the Exodus during the reign of the powerful pharaoh Ramesses II, credited with the building of a city of that name. Exodus 1:11 says that the enslaved Israelites built a city called Raamses, so many researchers have asserted that the purported Exodus should be placed in the time period of Ramesses II. Mahoney calls this the Ramesses Exodus Theory (page 84).

However, Mahoney points out that Biblical chronology places the Exodus much earlier than 1250 B.C.E. His Chapter 8, “Challenging the Ramesses Exodus Theory,” (pages 189-217) presents multiple lines of evidence pointing to an Exodus two hundred years earlier, about 1450 B.C.E. Other researchers have argued for even earlier dates, such as 1513 B.C.E [see my article “When Did Moses (or Somebody) Write Genesis?“]

Fixing on the 1250 B.C.E. date for a purported Exodus means that archaeological researchers are going to be looking in the wrong time periods for a Semitic presence in Egypt, a sudden departure of a large slave population from the country, and a devastating invasion of Canaan forty years later. In fact, archaeological evidence for such events lines up much better with an earlier date for the Exodus. The connection of Ramesses II with the city mentioned in Ex 1:11 assumes that the name Raamses couldn’t have been used for the name of a city in earlier times. Insisting on such a connection seems unreasonable, especially considering the problems around the chronology of the ancient world and the fragmentary evidence it’s based on (see my article “Oxford scholar: Egyptian history is ‘a collection of rags and tatters.’”)

Archaeological and historical research reveal a large Semitic presence in Egypt during the Middle Bronze Age

The Biblical chronology would place the Israelites’ residence in Egypt during the Middle Bronze Age (MBA; conventionally dated as 2100-1550 B.C.E.), rather than the Late Bronze Age period proposed by the Ramesses Exodus Theory. Their departure would have been near the end of the MBA and beginning of the LBA.

In fact, archaeologists are currently uncovering an extensive Semitic presence in Egypt during the MBA. One of the important sites in this investigation is the ancient city of Avaris, which is being studied at Tell el-Dab’a in the eastern Nile Delta by an Austrian group led by Egyptologist Manfred Bietak. Mahoney visited the excavation and interviewed Bietak about it (see pages 87-92).

Map of Nile Delta

Map of Lower Egypt and the Nile Delta. The site of Avaris appears in the east delta. Jeff Dahl, CC BY-SA 3.0

The site covers about 2 square kilometers. It’s the same location where the ancient city of Ramesses is found, but Avaris is being uncovered at a lower (and thus earlier) level. Avaris is thought to have been occupied during the MBA from about 1850-1550 B.C.E. This would fit the Biblical chronology, which has the Israelites in Egypt from about 1728 to 1513 B.C.E., according to one well-known chronology.

Bietak said this to Mahoney about his findings at the Avaris excavation (pages 90-1):

We uncovered the remains of a huge town of 250 hectares with a population of approximately 25,000-30,000 individuals. These were people who have originated from Canaan, Syria-Palestine. Originally they may have come here as subjects of the Egyptian crown or with the blessing of the Egyptian crown. Obviously, this town enjoyed something like a special status, like a free zone, something like that.

Indications are that there are other such settlements of Asiatics from the same period in other areas of Egypt.

Mahoney asked Bietak whether the residents of Avaris could have been Israelites, but Bietak didn’t think so:

We have some evidence of shepherds. We find again and again in this area pits with goats and sheep. So we know shepherds, probably Bedouins, with huge herds roamed around this. But to connect this with the proto-Israelites is a very weak affair.

Why couldn’t these be the Israelites? Bietak responded:

According to my opinion, the settlement of the proto-Israelites in Canaan only happened from the 12th century BC onwards.

So Avaris is too early, according to the mainstream view, because of researchers’ ironic adherence to the Ramesses Exodus Theory.

Mahoney presents other interesting findings in his film and book, some more compelling than others. One of the more fascinating findings is a document called the Brooklyn Papyrus, a Middle Kingdom Egyptian papyrus that includes a list of slave names from an estate in southern Egypt (pages 161-3). According to independent scholar David Rohl, 70 percent of the names are Semitic, including some names that actually appear in the Bible, such as Menahem, Issachar, Asher, and Shiphrah — not necessarily the same people from the Bible, but people with the same names.

So why is the list of slave names in the Brooklyn Papyrus not taken by mainstream researchers as supporting evidence for the Israelite sojourn in Egypt? You guessed it: This evidence doesn’t fit the mainstream view that any Israelite presence in Egypt belongs to a later period. The papyrus belongs to the Middle Kingdom, conventionally dated about 2000-1700 B.C.E., associated with the 11th to 13th dynasties.

Rohl told Mahoney (page 163):

Although everybody recognizes that this is a list of Semitic slaves, and everybody recognizes the names appearing in the list are also Israelite names, these can’t be the Israelites, because it’s the wrong time period. The Israelites are [supposedly] much later in history. So these people we’re seeing here in the Brooklyn Papyrus cannot be the Israelites …

So scholars put the text to one side and say it’s another coincidence.

Archaeologists do not find evidence of the sudden destruction of key Canaanite Cities ca. 1200 B.C.E., but there is evidence of an earlier destruction

Many prominent archaeological researchers working in Palestine assert that there is no evidence for the kind of invasion described in the book of Joshua. Some even claim that the Israelites were just a group of Canaanites who emerged from the general population and invented a pious fiction to justify their rulership in the Holy Land.

Israel Finkelstein, professor of archaeology at Tel Aviv University, told Mahoney in an interview (pages 232-3):

First and foremost, many places which are mentioned in Joshua in the Conquest story, specifically mentioned as major places in Canaan, were excavated, and no evidence for a city in the Late Bronze Age has ever been found. And I’m speaking about major excavations. And we are speaking about many sites. It’s systemic; it’s not only a single site. Take the example of Jericho. In Jericho there is no big city the in the 13th century B.C., okay, any way you look at it.

By now, it should jump out at you that Finkelstein is assuming the same 1250 B.C.E. Exodus date common among mainstream researchers, with the purported Conquest coming 40 years later. Paradoxically, many of these same researchers claim that the Exodus story is a legend anyway, so a thinking person might wonder what the point is in relying on the 1250 Ramesses date for an event that supposedly never occurred.

Anyway, some of the minority researchers consulted by Mahoney make the point that there is in fact evidence for the destruction of a number of key Conquest cities much earlier, including Jericho and Hazor.

Archaeological findings suggest that a number of key Canaanite cities were destroyed around the end of the Middle Bronze Age, about 1550 BCE. From Patterns of Evidence: The Exodus, page 252.

Archaeological findings suggest that a number of key Canaanite cities were destroyed around the end of the Middle Bronze Age, about 1550 BCE. From Patterns of Evidence: The Exodus, page 252.

John Bimson, professor of Biblical studies at Trinity College Bristol, tells Mahoney that there is a pattern of destruction of Canaanite cities at the end of the Middle Bronze Age, conventionally dated at 1550 B.C.E. This includes many cities specifically mentioned in the Bible’s Conquest account. Bimson says (page 253):

We know that cities like Jericho and Hazor were major cities at that time, and in both of those cases, those cities were destroyed by fire, as the Bible describes. So if we go to this earlier date, we have a very good fit with a whole list of sites, a good fit between the biblical narrative and the archaeological evidence.

A wrinkle: The conventional chronology for Egypt is problematic.

Conventional chronology of ancient Egypt compared to a revised chronology by David Rohl.

Conventional chronology of ancient Egypt, compared to a revised chronology by David Rohl. via Wikimedia. Click to see the image in full size.

Some sincere researchers are critical of the conventional timeline ascribed to ancient Egypt, which has been standardized for many years and has become an important anchor for the proposed chronologies of other Near East civilizations, including Canaan. Critics have asserted that the Egyptian chronology has been over-inflated, for example, with regard to the Third Intermediate Period, conventionally dated 1069-664 B.C.E.

Mahoney writes (page 272):

[I]t’s been necessary to artificially insert dark periods into the timelines of all the surrounding civilizations, so that they match the dates of Egypt’s Third Intermediate Period. Yet some scholars maintain that the archaeology of these cultures does not seem to support such dark periods. They believe something is wrong.

Bimson tells Mahoney:

The 18th, 19th, and 20th Dynasties are dated too early because the Third Intermediate Period is too long.

Understandably, trying to readjust the timeline would not be a welcome effort among historians and archaeologists who have spent their careers assuming the standard chronology. Certainly, mainstream researchers feel they have solid reasons for not re-examining such assumptions. But the thinking person might keep in mind how hard it is to reconstruct civilizations and events that occurred three or four thousand years ago.

As Egyptologist Alan Henderson Gardiner wrote in 1966:

Even when full use has been made of the king-lists and of such subsidiary sources as have survived, the indispensable dynastic framework of Egyptian history shows lamentable gaps and many a doubtful attribution. If this be true of the skeleton, how much more is it of the flesh and blood with which we could wish it covered. Historical inscriptions of any considerable length are as rare as the isolated islets in an imperfectly charted ocean. The importance of many of the kings can be guessed at merely from the number of stelae or scarabs that bear their names. It must never be forgotten that we are dealing with a civilization thousands of years old and one of which only tiny remnants have survived. What is proudly advertised as Egyptian history is merely a collection of rags and tatters.

The tentative and fragmentary reconstruction of the past carried out by researchers, however well-intentioned and hard-working, doesn’t necessarily justify disregarding the historical accounts in the Bible.

These are actually only a few of the fascinating points raised by Mahoney in urging a reconsideration of the evidence for the Exodus of Israel from Egypt in ancient times. For thinking people with an open mind about ancient history, I highly recommend viewing Timothy Mahoney’s film, Patterns of Evidence: Exodus, and reading his book of the same title.

ARK — 2 April 2016

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Painting of an Egyptian Pharaoh

Egyptian Pharaoh, from a New Kingdom tomb painting. Credit: Jeff Dahl, via Wikimedia

Oxford Egyptologist Sir Alan H. Gardiner once wrote that “What is proudly advertised as Egyptian history is merely a collection of rags and tatters.”

Lately I’ve been writing about the authenticity of the Bible book of Genesis as an historical source. (See “When Did Moses (or Somebody) Write Genesis?“) Many people who consider themselves educated like to sniff that the chronology of ancient Egypt goes back before the Genesis dating of the great deluge at 2370 BCE. Therefore, they claim, Genesis must be fiction.

However, a more in-depth examination of the conventional chronology of Egypt reveals that it rests on fragmentary evidence. In fact, the uncertainties around the conventional Egyptian chronology illustrate the problems that exist in reconstructing the human past in general.

Egyptologist Alan Henderson Gardiner’s book Egypt of the Pharaohs: An Introduction appeared in 1966.  Here is a more complete quote from that work:

Even when full use has been made of the king-lists and of such subsidiary sources as have survived, the indispensable dynastic framework of Egyptian history shows lamentable gaps and many a doubtful attribution. If this be true of the skeleton, how much more is it of the flesh and blood with which we could wish it covered. Historical inscriptions of any considerable length are as rare as the isolated islets in an imperfectly charted ocean. The importance of many of the kings can be guessed at merely from the number of stelae or scarabs that bear their names. It must never be forgotten that we are dealing with a civilization thousands of years old and one of which only tiny remnants have survived. What is proudly advertised as Egyptian history is merely a collection of rags and tatters.

For similar comments by University of Chicago scholar Helen J. Kantor, see my article “How Much Does Archaeology Really Reveal?” Kantor once wrote:

The evidence preserved to us by the passage of time constitutes but a small fraction of that which must once have existed. Each imported vessel from Egypt represents scores of others that have perished… The amount of information that can be extracted from such occasional articles as the scraps of harness from the tomb of Amenhotep II or the dog collar of Mahirper indicates how much has been lost.

For comments from Cambridge Classics scholar Moses I. Finley about the paucity of true documentation of Roman history, see “How Much Do We Really Know About Human History?” In discussing the documentary evidence from Roman history, Finley wrote:

For the whole of antiquity, in sum, what we have at our disposal (apart from Athens) is a scatter of documents from one end of the Mediterranean world to the other, the great majority of them isolated texts without a context …

History is in important and valuable area of study, but the reality is that history and chronology are often tentative and based on fragmentary evidence, regardless of the assertions of those who claim to have the official version of the truth.

ARK — 29 May 2015

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Set of scrolls of entire Tanakh

Set of scrolls of the entire Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible. Source: Pete Unseth via Wikimedia Commons

Here on this blog, I’ve written some pieces focusing on the authenticity (or the supposed lack thereof) of the Bible book of Genesis. (See, for example, “Writer of Genesis: Moses or Someone Else?,” “How Much Does Archaeology Really Reveal?,” and “How Much Do We Really Know About Human History?“) Here I’ll try to take up the question of when the book of Genesis was written, based on the timing of the Exodus, that is, the migration of the nation of Israel from Egypt.

The Exodus is often dated by scholars at about 1250 BCE. Others argue for an earlier date, perhaps 1450 BCE. An internal chronology of the Bible would place the Exodus at 1513 BCE and the writing of Genesis at about that time. This earlier date assumes that Genesis is authentic, and that Moses is an historical character and the writer of the book.

Is Genesis an accurate account of the beginnings of humanity and the Hebrew nation? I’m interested in the question as a spiritual person and as a student of ancient history. But more relevant to this blog, I’m interested as a writer of historical fiction portrayed in Biblical settings. My current series, The Cursed Ground, is set in the ancient world described in Genesis 1-11, the earliest times of humanity, according to the Bible’s account. One of the issues I struggle with is whether fiction based on that account can even be called “historical.” Much of conventional academia scoffs at the idea that Genesis is anything but a collection of myths and distortions.

Moses, the Exodus, and the writing of Genesis

I wrote awhile back about the identity of the writer of Genesis, purported to be the Hebrew prophet Moses. With regard to timing, the popular but hypothetical Documentary Hypothesis (DH — note the word “hypothesis” here) places the writing of Genesis during the early- to late-first-millennium BCE. The DH ascribes the actual writing to a compiler or group of compilers much later than the Moses portrayed in the Bible.

My previous article outlines the critique of the DH and its dating of Moses’ writing. Here I take up a critique of the popular 1250 BCE date for the Hebrew Exodus. This is important, because many archaeological researchers have based their investigations on that late date for Israel’s departure from Egypt. I’m not going to try to set out the entire critique here, but I do want to point out that such a critique exists. You’ll often hear negative assertions about the Bible’s accounts voiced by academics who stake a claim to the official version of the truth. Readers and students trust them and often parrot what they’ve heard from the experts. But it’s important for the thinking person to realize that there are substantial critiques to majority opinions. (See “The Way Things Are, the Way Things Were, and What Is True.”)

Internal Bible evidence pointing to an exodus in the mid-2nd millennium BCE

Drawing of Israelites crossing the Red Sea

Israel crosses the Red Sea after fleeing from Egypt. Source: Jim Padgett, Sweet Publishing, CC-BY-SA 3.0

The 1250 and 1450 BCE dates for the Exodus are widely referenced (sometimes 1446 or 1447 is used).

The ca. 1450 BCE date for the Exodus is based on an internal Bible chronology assuming that Solomon’s fourth regnal year was 967 BCE. The first book of Kings 6:1 says that year was 479 years after the Exodus, which would take us back to the 1450 date.

An alternative chronology places Solomon’s fourth regnal year and his starting the temple construction at 1034 BCE. Counting 479 years back from that point would yield the 1513 date for the Exodus. This 1513 date is determined by pinning the calculation to the year 539 BCE, a pivotal point widely supported as the year when Persian ruler Cyrus overthrew Babylon. The Jewish former exiles would have been back in Israel in 537 BCE (Ezra 1:1-3; 3:1). Working back from that year results in the 1034 BCE date for the beginning of temple construction, using the following internal Biblical evidence:

  1. Jeremiah 25:11 and Daniel 9:2 cite a 70-year period for the Jewish exile in Babylon, from 607 to 537 BCE.
  2. Ezekiel 4:5 counts 390 years from the division of Israel into a northern and southern kingdom, to its destruction by the Babylonians in 607 BCE. The division of the nation, then, would date to 997 BCE.
  3. 1 Kings 11:42,43 says 40 years passed from the beginning of Solomon’s reign to the division of the nation. Solomon’s first regnal year, then, would be 1037 and his fourth year 1034 BCE.

Thus, for those who don’t dismiss the account of the Exodus as a total fabrication, the hypothesized dates for the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt come down to two basic time frames:

  • The mid-second millennium BCE (ca. 1450 or 1513 BCE)
  • Or the mid-13th-century BCE (ca. 1250 BCE)

… or a difference of as much as 250 years. Such a discrepancy can make a lot of difference in the work of researchers who try to piece together the human past out of old inscriptions and objects dug up from the ground.

What’s wrong with the 1250 BCE date for the Exodus?

The 1250 BCE estimate for a Hebrew exodus from Egypt is still widely cited by academics, with Israel’s entry into Canaan following at the generally accepted date (GAD) of 1230-1220 BCE.

In 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed (Princeton University Press, 2014), archaeologist Eric H. Cline points out various problems with the 1450 date and writes:

[M]ost secular archaeologists favor an alternative date of 1250 BC for the Exodus, which ignores the Biblical chronology but makes more sense from an archaeological and historical point of view.

Along with many researchers, Cline bases this date in part on the Biblical reference to the city of Rameses, which he assumes to be the city of that name built by the pharaoh Rameses II at about 1250 BCE. He also thinks this date fits with the destruction a few decades later “of a number of cities in Canaan by an unknown hand,” possibly the invading Israelites. (Pages 90-92)

In spite of its popularity among academics, the 1250 BCE date has been questioned for many years.

Drawing from a tomb relief

A deputation of Asiatics visits Egypt ca. 1900 BCE. From the 1902 drawing of a tomb relief. Credit: NebMaatRa, via Wikimedia Commons.

In Biblical Archaeology Review in 1987, Trinity College lecturer John J. Bimson and Biblical scholar David Livingstone outlined some of the important objections to the 1250 date. (Full text available here for “Redating the Exodus,” BAR, Sep/Oct 1987.)

Bimson argues that the GAD of 1230-1220 for Israel’s entry into Canaan doesn’t fit the archaeological evidence. He also shows how the enslaved Israelites could have been involved in building a storage city at Rameses (Exodus 1:11) hundreds of years before the life of the pharaoh of that name.

Bimsom discusses archaeological evidence showing city-building and an extensive Syro-Palestinian presence in the eastern Nile delta during the Middle Bronze II period (MB II), generally dated from 2000 to 1550 BCE. This fits the Biblical chronology for the residence of Israel in that area. They could have been in that region at the same time as other Semitic groups, such as the Hyksos.

Some mid-20th-century archaeologists such as Nelson Glueck claimed that the ca.-1500 BCE conditions of settlements in Canaan and Transjordan didn’t fit the Bible account of the Exodus and the Israelite invasion over the following 40 years. Such migration could only have happened during the 13th-century, they claimed. However, Brimson shows that those archaeologists had jumped to conclusions. As often happens in archaeological investigations, they hadn’t found everything there was to be found. In archaeology, the next dig could always be the one that turns scholarship on its head.

It speaks well of Glueck that he changed his views once new information came to light. Brimson points out that not all researchers have been so reasonable:

The important point, which has been reinforced again and again in recent decades, is that Glueck’s initial conclusions were definitely wrong, and it is disappointing to find scholars citing them as if they were still valid evidence against an early date for the Exodus. All too often the 13th-century date for the Exodus has been perpetuated by the baseless repetition of outmoded views.

Can it be “historical fiction” if it’s based on Genesis?

This article has grown long, and the truth is it could have been much longer, because there’s a lot to say about the dating of the Exodus, the life of Moses, and his writing of Genesis. The main point here is that there is good reason to doubt the often-cited date of 1250 BCE for the departure of Israel from Egypt, much as researchers might like to refer to that date as if it were indisputable. There is, in fact, a good argument to be made for the dating of the Exodus about 250 years earlier, around 1500 BCE.

This, in turn, speaks to the authority of the book of Genesis as an historical source — and worthy of consideration for those of us who are writing fiction based on its accounts.

ARK — 8 May 2015

 

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Book cover for Children of the KeepterSince publishing Book 1 of The Cursed Ground, I’ve started to get questions from readers about the world the story is set in. I like to let the story tell itself, so I avoid including a lot of backstory in the narrative. But for those who are interested, I thought I would set out some of the very broad concepts behind the fictional world I’m using.

Just to note, I’m releasing The Cursed Ground as a series of five shorter books. Book 1, The Child-Stealers, is already on the market, and Book 2, Children of the Keeper, is slated for release on May 5, 2015.

In terms of genre, I conceive of The Cursed Ground as historical fiction. However, the book might fit better in the market category of historical fantasy. I don’t use magic or the uncanny (much) in the story, but I admit to speculative elements, simply because the historical period I’m dealing with is understood only in general terms.

Here’s a bit of the big picture. The Cursed Ground takes place on the Earth, but at a remote time period when:

  • Humans commonly live for hundreds of years.
  • Cultural memory is very stable, because the long human life-span allows considerable overlap among generations.
  • All humans speak the same language (well, almost all — you’ll have to keep reading to get to that).
  • The names of people and places all have an understandable meaning, because of the common language and durable cultural memory. For that reason, all names in the story have a meaning in English, since that’s the language I’m writing in.
  • The human population is expanding rapidly into many millions.
  • Human civilization and technology have reached a level of development much higher than the modern world might expect.
  • The world is becoming increasingly violent and unstable.
  • The world is facing a major extinction event, but no human knows it.

A writer of speculative fiction must undertake a considerable task of world-building. In conceiving the world of The Cursed Ground, here are some of my assumptions about how the story fits into our understanding of the human past:

  • The story is broadly based on the account given in the Biblical book of Genesis.
  • Genesis is taken as an accurate historical and cosmological account, but not necessarily in the way that is often presented by religions of the world.
  • The story assumes a very old Earth, but a relatively young human race.
  • The conventional academic historical chronology is assumed to be accurate only back to about the mid-second millennium before the common era (BCE).
  • The methods used to date all kinds of objects that researchers dig up from the ground are probably only accurate back to about 4,000 years before the present (BP). The older an object is, the greater the likelihood that the ascribed date is off, perhaps by orders of magnitude.
  • During the early history of humankind, rainfall did occur on the Earth. This is a detail that matters, as many Bible readers take the view that it had never rained before the global flood. In the world of The Cursed Ground, Genesis 2:5,6 refers to a much earlier phase before the appearance of humans.

Here are some other articles I’ve written that might shed light on these various assumptions:

I recognize that many of the assumptions I’ve mentioned here could spark controversy. I don’t mind discussing my rationales, but in the end I’m writing a story, so I don’t intend to get into ideological arguments with people who disagree with the way I’ve built the world of The Cursed Ground. It’s fiction, after all.

ARK — 24 April 2015

 

 

 

 

 

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Rembrandt painting of Moses

Rembrandt: Moses With the Ten Commandments. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The question of who wrote Genesis has long been disputed among the erudites of religion and academia. I have a particular interest in the issue as a fiction writer, because the first installments of my Edhai fiction series are all set during the time period covered by the Bible book of Genesis, particularly the very earliest history recounted in Gen 1-11, from the creation of the first humans up to the time of Abraham.

Traditionally, Judaism and Christianity have asserted that Genesis was written by the Hebrew prophet Moses during the mid-second-millennium B.C.E. However, over the last couple hundred years, mainstream academia and many religious scholars adopted an idea called the documentary hypothesis (DH). According to this idea, the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) is actually a compilation of various original documents written between the early- and mid-first millennium B.C.E. There are various versions of the DH, but the classic version identifies four key sources for the Pentateuch:

  •  J, the Jahwist source — Prefers the personal name of God (YHWH, JHVH; Yahweh or Jehovah), particularly before Exodus chapter 3.
  • E, the Elohist source — Prefers the generic title “Elohim,” particularly before Exodus 3.
  • D, the Deuteronomist source — A purported later source that starts with the book of Deuteronomy and continues with other Bible books, such as Joshua and Judges
  • P, the Priestly source — Concerned with ritual and formalism and prefers the title Elohim in referring to God.

At Wikiversity, you can see a helpful text of the King James Bible, with the purported sources highlighted in different colors. Reviewing that overlay, I can see that the portion of Genesis I’m writing about, chapters 1 through 11, is attributed primarily to the Priestly and Jahwist sources, with ‘additions by a redactor’ inserted in some portions, supposedly to provide transitional language that ties the various original documents together to make a whole.

For a basic overview of the documentary hypothesis, see the lesson on “Source Criticism” maintained by theology professor Ronald A. Simkins, but written, I think, by Ralph W. Klein.

Fundamentally, the documentary hypothesis is based on analysis of the content of the Bible, rather than on a rigorous historical investigation. If different portions of the text exhibit different styles or different interests, those portions are attributed to different sources. If the investigators believe they have uncovered contradictions or anachronisms, those problems are attributed to the diversity of author sources.

Chart showing sources for the documentary hypothesis

Chart of sources according to the Documentary Hypothesis. Vadym Zhuravlov, via Wikimedia Commons.

However, many of the adherents of the documentary hypothesis take things much further than the mere assertion that the Pentateuch is based on multiple documents. They employ complicated explanations to attribute those sources to particular time periods and to various religious and political elements within the nation of Israel, often with conflicting aims and agendas. In the conventional view, none of the four DH sources dates back before about 950 B.C.E., which would rule out any association with the historical Moses, about 500 years before then. In fact, many scholars claim that Moses never existed, or at least that he wasn’t anything like the personage portrayed in the Bible. Such extreme views are in turn used to convince students and the public that the Bible is fictional, and to prop up the materialist-atheistic bias that controls much of academia today.

For many of us, these assertions are too extreme and speculative to be given much credence. Back into antiquity, Moses has been recognized by historians and by Jewish and Christian authorities as an historical character and the writer of the Pentateuch. In his history The Antiquities of the Jews (Book 1, Chapter 1), the first-century Roman Jewish historian Josephus frankly attributes the Genesis creation account to the literal Moses, including in his summary of that account such comments as “… but Moses said it was one day…,” “Accordingly Moses says,” and “Moreover, Moses, after the seventh day was over, begins to talk philosophically …”

All of this is not to say that there is no room for a nuanced understanding of the sources of Genesis. It’s possible that Moses himself might have been working from pre-existing written or oral sources in producing some parts of the Genesis account. Chapters 7 and 8 read almost like a mariner’s log or journal. Could Moses have been in possession of Noah’s account of his survival of the great flood? Possibly. Some portions of Genesis read as if they could have come from previous documents. For example, Genesis 5 starts with “This is the book of Adam’s history.” Genesis 6:9 starts Noah’s story with “This is the history of Noah.”

Some scholars suggest that certain issues with the text of Moses’ writings might be explained by the work of later copyists. In Creation and Chaos, Old Testament scholar Bruce Waltke writes,

[O]thers have not been persuaded by these [Documentary] arguments and would still trace the basic unity of the Pentateuch back to Moses without denying that the text was modernized in the course of its transmission according to the common Near Eastern scribal practices.

The point here is that I find no good reason to discount the existence of Moses or his writership of the Pentateuch. The Genesis account, including the first eleven chapters, are a legitimate source on which to base a storytelling project, which can reasonably considered historical fiction.

ARK, 23 February 2015

 

 

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My last two blog posts here were about the tenuousness of history, that is, the idea that we really know relatively little about the human past, especially about the ancient world — see “How Much Do We Really Know About Human History?” and “The First Named Author in History Was a Woman, but When Did She Live?

nilotic landscape from Santorinii

A bronze-age Egyptian-inspired “Nilotic” landscape from the Greek island of Santorini. Via Wikimedia Commons.

I thought I was done with this topic for awhile, but then by chance I ran across an interesting quotation by Helen J. Kantor (1919-1993), the famed Near East scholar who taught for many years at the University of Chicago. In her 1947 masterwork, The Aegean and the Orient in the Second Millennium B.C., Kantor admits that our knowledge of the ancient past is limited. Nevertheless, investigation is worth the effort, she writes, and as a result “it is possible to sketch a tentative outline of Aegean relations with the East and of the concomitant effects produced in Egyptian art.” (74)

However, in her lead-up to that statement, she makes an honest admission of the limitations of archaeological knowledge:

The evidence preserved to us by the passage of time constitutes but a small fraction of that which must once have existed. Each imported vessel from Egypt represents scores of others that have perished. Although objects testifying to the operation of Aegean influence on Egyptian art are rare, we must remember that those that do exist are but tokens of groups which would have been far more impressive in their entirety. Serious gaps in our knowledge exist even in the case of Egypt, where so much has been preserved and where supplementary data are yielded by tomb reliefs and paintings. Nevertheless, large, unplundered tombs are unusual and rich burials containing even a portion of their original contents are not often found. Most metal objects, in particular the more valuable ones, have perished. Elaborately decorated weapons such as those belonging to Ahmose and Tutankhamun are preserved only in exceptional cases. Relatively few carefully ornamented small objects of daily life remain to us. The amount of information that can be extracted from such occasional articles as the scraps of harness from the tomb of Amenhotep II or the dog collar of Mahirper indicates how much has been lost. In addition to these few objects, there must have existed many others; together they would have revealed the full story of the adoption of Aegean artistic traits by Egyptian craftsmen, a story of which we now possess only disjointed segments. (73)

I quote all of that just to emphasize that the most honest experts are willing to admit to the limitations of their knowledge. As a student of history and simultaneously a student of the Bible, I’m constantly reminded that knowledge of the past is fragmentary. Experts construct models of the human past based on the best information that they have, but often these models get presented to the public as the ‘official version of the truth,’ and average people pass these models along as factual, treating the Bible account with scorn.

I encourage the thinking person to keep an open mind to alternative points of view and to be careful about making strong assertions when your knowledge is, in fact, limited — see “The Way Things Are, the Way Things Were, and What Is True.”

ARK — 4 November 2014

 

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Bronze head of a king, thought to be Sargon of Akkad. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Bronze head of a king, thought to be Sargon of Akkad. Via Wikimedia Commons.

I was going to write a very brief blog entry about Enheduanna, an ancient Sumerian priestess thought to be the first named author in history. I thought it was interesting that that honor fell to a woman. But as often happens, I kind of plunged down a rabbit-hole when I started to try to pin down some of the details.

Enheduanna was the name of an Akkadian priestess of the moon-god Nanna and daughter of the king known as Sargon of Akkad. I came across Enheduanna in “The Rhetoric of Origins and the Other: Reading the Ancient Figure of Enheduanna,” a chapter by Roberta Binkley in the book Rhetoric Before and Beyond the Greeks. Binkley is lecturer in rhetoric at Arizona State University (see an essay by her about Enheduanna here).

(Here at this website and blog I’m focusing on my historical-fiction writing project, The Cursed Ground. However, under another pen name I write non-fiction, thus the interest in rhetoric.)

Binkley’s chapter is fascinating for all kinds of reasons, but I was struck by her statement that Enheduanna is “the first named historical author.” (47) Enheduanna “lived and wrote around 2300 B.C.E.,” says Binkley, “almost two thousand years before the “golden age” of Greece. (48) I found that tidbit fascinating, that the earliest-known named writer was a woman. Beyond that, I was eager to read Binkley and the other authors who contributed chapters to the book, just because they challenge the received wisdom that rhetoric started in fifth- or fourth-century Athens.

To be frank, though, I got a little stuck on Binkley’s dating of Enheduanna at “around 2300 B.C.E.” The Wikipedia entry on Enheduanna places her a few years later, at 2285-2250 BCE. It seemed to me doubtful that the lifetime of someone living so long ago could be known so definitely that it could be placed within a 50-year range like that. How can they be so certain?

I get a little cranky when experts act too certain about events of the past and their dates — see my blog entry “How Much Do We Really Know About Human History?” An expert in one field generally only has time to thoroughly investigate his or her own narrow specialty enough to feel justified in making strong assertions. When it comes to placing their findings within the larger historical context, they tend to just go with whatever is asserted by other experts. This seems to go on frequently in academia, with the result that multitudes of specialists end up relying on other specialists, and they all kind of cooperate to construct this vast chronological model of the human past, everybody trusting the soundness of the others’ scholarship.

Most of it is valuable work and worth consulting, but is the great hypothetical model of the past so certain that the everyday thinking person should just accept it all on faith?

Enheduanna is believed to have been the daughter of Sargon of Akkad, a.k.a, Sargon the Great. He used to be known as Sargon I, but then researchers found out about an even earlier Sargon, who now gets that designation. Some think that “Sargon” might really be more of a title than a proper name. Anyway, out of my interest in Enheduanna and her lifetime, I learned that Sargon of Akkad’s lifetime is actually somewhat uncertain. In the information box in his Wikipedia entry, his dates are listed as c. 2334-2279 BCE. (For this entry, I’m relying quite a bit on Wikipedia — maybe I’ll jump further down this rabbit-hole in the future, but I expect Wikipedia can be trusted as accurate for something like this.)

However, if you read the detailed discussion of Sargon’s origins and rise to power, you’ll see that the 2334-2279 range is based on what’s called the “Middle Chronology.” Meaning there are other chronologies. In fact, the Sargon article also mentions a “short chronology,” which dates Sargon later, at 2270-2215. I thought that was interesting to see two chronologies mentioned for the early period in Sumerian history, and that idea of multiple chronologies sounded familiar. I thought I had run into it before, so I went a little deeper.

In fact, consulting the article on “Chronology of the Ancient Near East,” what I found is that there are what the article editors call “competing proposals” for the chronology of the second and third millennia BCE. Here is an interesting table borrowed from the article under the section “Variant Bronze Age chronologies“:

Chronology Ammisaduqa Year 8 Reign of Hammurabi Fall of Babylon I ±
Ultra-Low 1542 BC 1696 BC – 1654 BC 1499 BC +32 a
Short or Low 1574 BC 1728 BC – 1686 BC 1531 BC ±0 a
Middle 1638 BC 1792 BC – 1750 BC 1595 BC −64 a
Long or High 1694 BC 1848 BC – 1806 BC 1651 BC −120 a

The various versions of the chronology depend greatly on the interpretation of astronomical records recovered from cuneiform tablets, particularly the Ammisaduqa tablet recording observations of the planet Venus. As you can see here, the reckoning of a key date can vary as much as 150 years, depending on which chronology you follow. The editor says that the Middle Chronology “has strong academic supporters” and that the High and Ultra-Low chronologies “are minority views,” which is probably why the Middle Chronology is the one that has prevailed in the discussions of Sargon and thus Enheduanna. However, that’s not to say that the Ultra-Low Chronology should be completely discounted. In fact, if I understand correctly, the Ultra-Low Chronology would place Enheduanna closer to 2200 BCE rather than 2300 BCE.

Venus tablet of Ammisaduqa. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Venus tablet of Ammisaduqa. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Yet, I wonder whether there are Akkadian scholars who would scoff at the 2200 date and insist that 2300 is the “right” one — see “The Way Things Are, the Way Things Were, and What Is True.”

But I digress.

Here’s another wrinkle: The Venus tablet of Ammisaduqa, the cuneiform document so important to establishing anchor dates in the ancient Near East chronologies, is not universally loved. In fact, digging down further and consulting the Wikipedia article on that document, we learn that this tablet supposedly records the movements of Venus for a mere period of 21 years during the reign of a King Ammisaduqa, a successor of Hammurabi. However, the earliest extant copies of this tablet are dated between 720 and 704 BCE. You can see from the table above that this tablet is used to fix events that supposedly occurred about 900 years earlier than its writing. Maybe the copyists did their work properly during all that long period of time, but maybe not.

In fact, V.G.Gurzadyan casts doubt on the validity of the Venus tablet altogether, as seen in this abstract from his article “On the Astronomical Records and Babylonian Chronology“:

We outline the priority of high quality data of astronomical content as our strategy for the analysis of the ancient astronomical records in the search of the absolute chronology of the Near East in II millennium BC. … We then discuss why the 56/64 year Venus cycle cannot be traced in the Venus Tablet and therefore cannot serve as an anchor for the search of chronologies. … In sum the available data support the Ultra-Low Chronology proposed in the book by H.Gasche, J.A.Armstrong, S.W.Cole and V.G.Gurzadyan, “Dating the Fall of Babylon” (1998) and, particularly, leave no astronomical background for the High Chronology. Ultra-Low Chronology is supported also by archaeological, dendrochronological, Assyrian king lists and other data as summarized at the Intern. Colloquium on Ancient Near Eastern Chronology (Ghent, July, 2000).

Oops, that’s a least one scholar who prefers the Ultra-Low Chronology.

And another wrinkle on top of the other wrinkles. The editors of the “Chronology of the Ancient Near East” article in Wikipedia also add this little tantalizing tidbit:

The chronologies of Mesopotamia, the Levant and Anatolia depend significantly on the chronology of Ancient Egypt. To the extent that there are problems in the Egyptian chronology, these issues will be inherited in chronologies based on synchronisms with Ancient Egypt.

If you want to learn something about the problems with the Egyptian chronology, I refer you again to my article “How Much Do We Really Know About Human History?

So what’s the lesson here for the average person interested in the ancient world? Maybe the lesson is that we have to be careful when supposed experts tell us they “know” what took place thousands of years ago, and when it took place. This is especially so for those who are interested in Bible history and who know the chronology set forth in that reliable set of documents. The work of historians and archaeologists and philologists and linguists — and, yes, professors of rhetoric — is immensely valuable in helping us understand the past. But beware when someone claims to have the last word about what happened in the human past.

ARK — 1 November 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

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