Jan 14, 2020

The Historical Reliability of the Old Testament

Most of my students are surprised and some are scandalized when I tell them that there is a great deal of skepticism in the scholarly community in reference to the historical reliability of the biblical record to describe the history of Israel. Andrew Tobolowsky helps illustrate this with the following observation.
Very few scholars suggest that biblical descriptions of the periods prior to the appearance of Israel in Canaan contain more than vague, distorted memories, and potentially nothing of historical value. Discussions of the pre-monarchical period have also been characterized in recent years primarily by a growing hesitance to make concrete assertions about the nature of ethnic realities prior to the monarchy. Few doubt that the Merneptah Stele is hard evidence that a group called Israel existed in the highlands of Canaan already by the beginning of the Iron I, but there is now nearly as universal an agreement that Israel was only one of many groups active in that region and time (Fleming 2012: 254; Mazar 2007a: 91; K. Sparks 1998: 11; Killebrew 2005). However, while for Fleming, Miller, and others, this and new ways of thinking about ethnicity generally mean that, in Miller’s words, a ‘pre-monarchic Israel’ is ‘simply too difficult to reconstruct with any confidence’ (J. Miller 2008: 176). For many others, this ‘proto-Israel’ is clearly related to monarchical Israel in crucial and foundational ways (Faust 2006: 173; R. Miller 2004: 63; Killebrew 2005) ("Israelite and Judahite History in Contemporary Theoretical Approaches," Currents in Biblical Research 17 [2018]: 39-40).
The rest of Tobolowsky's article is unfortunately equally pessimistic. My experiences in the academy and archaeology have confirmed this type of skepticism. Those of us who affirm biblical historicity are definitely in the minority.

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