Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Book Review - On the Reliability of the Old Testament

Scholarly books should be a boring read.  After all, they're not written for a large audience, deal with tremendous amounts of facts and are composed to prove a point, not thrill a reader.  Yet every so often one finds such a book that combines rigorous academic information with an engaging style that allows one to read through a complex subject and actually enjoy it.  Such a book is On the Reliability of the Old Testament by Professor K.A. Kitchen.
One of the major advantages of the book is the recent date of publication.  In archeology, like any field of science or history, changes occur on a regular basis.  Yesterday's accepted truths are today's disproved theories.  Thus the more recent the book, the more accurate the analysis, at least until the next one comes out.  Because of the recent date, Prof. Kitchen is able to analyze the current state of archeological knowledge of the Middle and Near East and provide a compelling analysis as to the truth of the historical accounts in the Old Testament.
Another thing that makes this book valuable is that it reminds the believing Jew to go back and look at the straight pshat of the Biblical text.  So familiar are we with the aggadot and various mephorshim we sometimes forget what the text says and what it actually does not say.  While studying the Tanach from a religious perspective requires such ancillary sources, analyzing it from an academic and historial perspective is actually hampered by it.  One of the strength's of the book is its insistence on examining the unvarnishing, uninterpreted text to show how it testifies to its own validity.
The book is organized in a reverse historical fashion, starting with the era of the Babylonian exile and, chapter by chapter, working its way back in history towards the beginning of civilization.  Each chapter deals with its chosen historical era in a systematic fashion:
1) Looking at what the Biblical text says and what it does not say
2) Looking at what external sources say about the same events and the degree to which they corroborate the Tanach
3) Looking at the current archeological record to see what lights they shed on the Biblical text
In each and every chapter, Prof. Kitchen unforgivingly and thoroughly sets down the following facts which he shows cannot be disputed.  Firstly, there is no archeological or historical evidence that disputes any accounts in the Bible.  The best a Sinai-denier can do is say that there is no positive evidence on the record for those accounts but there is no evidence that events described in the Tanach did not happen.  This is the foundation for his analysis since it is self-evident that if there were such evidence, the Tanach could easily be discredited by it before any deeper study was conducted.
Secondly, Prof. Kitchen shows how both external sources and the archeological record confirm many details of the Tanach's narratives throughout every era of Jewish history.  Although a full recounting of all his examples would make this post unbearably long, a few examples will suffice.
In his analysis of the era of Yehoshua and the invasion of land o' Canaan, he focuses on a literal reading of the text.  Too many people, he remarks, have read the book superficially and come away with the impression that Yehoshua invaded the land, conquered all the Canaanites and burned the whole place to the ground.  But the text itself denies that account!  Careful reading shows that less than half a dozen cities were actually burned.  What's more, most attacks on Canaanite strongholds were followed by a return of the Israelite army to the home base in Gilgal.  In other words, Yehoshua conducted non-occupying raids more than anything else.  Interestingly, this fits with Chazal's statement that Yehoshua was punished for dragging out the conquest in order to extend his life.  At the end of the book, Prof Kitchen notes, is an admission that the only real zone of occupation for our ancestors was a narrow strip of land from Gilgal north to Shechem.
And what does the archeological record show?  That right around that time four major Canaanite cities were burned to the ground or otherwise collapsed, exactly at the text describes.  What's more, our ancestors used pottery and had dietary habits that were distinct from the pre-existing Canaanites and evidence of such appears in those strata that correspond to the time period the Tanach says we entered Canaan.  In conclusion, no negative evidence against Yehoshua, plenty of evidence in favour of the text.
A second example is the story of Creation.  A rational person will admit there is a great difficulty with a literal reading of the first eleven chapters of Bereshis.  Recorded human civilization is over 10000 years old so a time line ending 5770 years ago is untenable.  Kitchen examines this and brings some amazing ideas, based on external source comparison.
The first is that the account of Creation down through the Flood matches in style and some content most other contemporary accounts of the Creation of the World.  The Sumerians and others all worked along a standard temple - Creation of the world, creation of man, society builds up, Flood, then rebirth of humanity.  However, one significant difference is that the non-Tanach sources put the Flood further back in history than the geneologies in Bereshis.  Kitchen solves this problem by noting that in the ancient world geneological records were never complete.  "A" begetting "B" didn't always mean that A was B's actual father but that after A, B was the next significant person in the family tree.  Thus A's anonymous descendants were part of his begetting B.  This means that A begetting B at, say, 100 years of age, might mean A begetting the son who was the next generation on the way to B being born.  Further, the extended lifespans may hint that the next significant generation was born that many years after A started his begetting (BTW, I love that word!).  So if A lived 840 years after begetting, that could mean B was born 840 years later.  In this light, a significant amount of time can be added to both sets of geneologist, bringing them in line with contemporary non-Tanach accounts.
One theme that also repeatedly appears through the book is the reminder that the ancients did not have the same approach to history that we do.  With our broad knowledge of the development of civilization, we can see and understand how life has changed over the millenia.  The ancients, on the other hand, did not have this approach.  What was current for them was what always was and it was difficult for them to understand that things might have been very different long before.  Further, archeologist was not a known field of knowlege in the ancient world.  If city X was destroyed in 1400 BCE, people in 1200 BCE might never have heard of its existence!  Thus mentions in Tanach of cities that were known to have been destroyed long before the Babylonian exile or the Greek-Roman period are proof of the antiquity of the text.  As Kitchen repeatedly shows, there is no other explanation for how the city of Ramses, which was an obscure memory to only the most educated Egyptians by the time of the Babylonian exile, could have been conjured up by supposed the post-exilic redactor.  Again, we see evidence of this in the writings of Chazal where time and time again Biblical settings are described in then-contemporary terms.  Standard to the time, Chazal simply imagined that the Avos and others in the Bible lived exactly like they did, had the same daily routine, etc.
It is the final chapter, however, that I found most entertaining.  Having proven his case for the validity of the Tanach over and over and over again the preceding chapters, Prof Kitchen turns his attention to the various Sinai-deniers who have made careers out of trying to make the Bible into a fraudulent document.  One after another, he shows how their best arguments are based on conjectuve, willful misinterpretation of existing data or simple ignorant bias.  It was quite entertaining to see Prof Kitchen take all the best arguments of the so-called Biblical criticism school as well as the work of other, less-accomplished archeological scholars and demolish their so-called proofs.  The impression I was left with was: If those are the strongest arguments against the validity of the Tanach, why on Earth does anyone believe them?
The answer is wilfull revisionism, something Prof Kitchen helpfully fights against.  I strongly recommend this book for those who wish to see the Tanach from an unusual and very deep perspective.


David said...

Odd... so he says that the Bible is reliable simply by taking those plain factual statements that are ridiculous on their face and interpreting them to mean something other than what they say. You can make pretty much any text "accurate" by doing that, can't you? Moreover, the fact that the Flood story matches other flood stories is hardly proof that the story is accurate-- rather, it seems like it's proof that the story is a rehashed folk tale. Moreover, you yourself are not prepared to argue that God destroyed all human life except for one family and a sample of animals with a flood. So, we're in agreement that this part of the Torah is false.

For a more balanced review of this book:

Garnel Ironheart said...

He addresses the difficult statements in one of three ways:
1) He is not in the business of theology and therefore doesn't touch that stuff. For example, the actual Maaseh Bereshit is not dealt with. He is looking at recorded human history and seeing if the Bible is consistent with that.
2) You say the flood is a rehashed folk tale. I say that cultures from around Africa, Europe and Asia have some kind of flood or world altering disaster somewhere in their past and that this is evidence of a common event recorded by different cultures in different ways.
3) Why am I not prepared to argue about the authenticity of Noach? I'm easy, I'll argue about anything.

Garnel Ironheart said...

Okay, I've read the link and thank you for providing it.

1) As I noted a moment ago, Kitchen does not deal with theology. Yes, his argument that the Cyrus Isaiah was speaking about was a different one relevant to his time is quite weak. As a believing Jew, there is still no conflict. God was providing Isaiah with a vision of the future. This is completely consistent with much of the prophetic books. When they talk about redemptions, they're not waxing poetically but repeating what a God who already knows what will be told them. So no issue there.

2) I agree that Kitchen can be somewhat venemous at times but as a climate change skeptic and frum Jew, it's nice to see the other side get it for once.

3) There are a couple of errors in the link. For example, Mishnah does not mean repetition. It means Teaching. It's a very important different. Mishneh means teaching.

4) Further, no one holds that all the big prophetic books were composed in one shot. It's very likely that most of them were assembled as we have them now by the Anshei Knesses Hagedolah as the gemara describes them going through the various texts and deciding what was Biblical and what wasn't. This is especially true in Jeremiah because the book is not in chronological order.

So some of the criticism are valid but I circumvent them through my belief in God's playing a role in history, others I disagree with.

David said...

Interesting... and, of course I'm at a disadvantage, not having read the book. But it seems to me that you may be stretching his points to suit your views. I would think it would be impossible to read the Bible, believe it all to be accurate and true, and not draw a few theological conclusions. Thus, I'm inclined to doubt that Kitchen really claims that there was a global flood, or that God actually spoke "shamor" and "zachor" simultaneously, or that 3,000,000 people all heard it.

Garnel Ironheart said...

So in response to your specific points:
1) You're right. The point of reading the Bible is to draw theological conclusions. However, there are large sections that are not, strictly speaking, theological, but narrative. Was there an Avraham Avinu? Are the events describes in the wandering through the desert accurate? Does the historical section of Joshua-Kings 2 match up with known history? It is specifically those sections that Kitchen addresses. He very specifically stays away from any discussion on Matan Torah, for example, or whether or not prophecy was Divinely inspired. In fact, his entire chapter on prophecy simply deals with how the structure and style of the major prophetic books match those of contemporary and preceding societies around Israel, thus authenticating their claimed date of origina as opposed to a post-exilic one.
2) His only references to the flood are to show how most creation narratives of the time all followed the same template - creation - humanity - flood - rebirth of humanity. He avoids any actual discussion of the flood for obvious reasons.
3) See point 1
4) He has a fascinating discussion on population and numbers. As a rationalist he does not believe 3 million people walked out of Egypt but does note that the word "elef" can mean either "thousand" or "chief" and brings examples from ancient literature that demonstrate the latter usage. Thus perhaps 30-40 thousand bnai Yisrael left Egypt according to his reckoning and this would fit with the estimates of how the population changed in Canaan, growing by about 35-40 thousand suddenly just around the time the Bible says Joshua entered the land.

I would strongly suggest you read the book. It's entertaining, thorough and gives some great insights into the Bible not available through our traditional sources but which really enhance them.

david a. said...

I too read the book awhile back and IMHO, its very good. Despite Kitchen’s own bias and agenda, he does seem to do an excellent job of bringing a bit of balance to archaeology/ANE vs Tenakh (the OT).

However, while there is no question that names, dates and events, especially in Kings and Samuel (not so much in Joshua and Judges) are strongly supported by archaeological discoveries, it’s also a case of “is the glass half empty or is it half full?”.

Because, at the same time archaeology has decidedly added to the evidence proving that TMS is just not true, and that much of Khazal’s midrashim and views of the ancient past simply border on non-sense.

Garnel Ironheart said...

Hi David A.,

The glass analogy is quite good but it also works in this case. I am not so interested in proving whether it's half full or empty but that there's water in there in the first place, something both sides must agree on.
Thus as I noted, the first question is: do we have contradictory evidence? No. Do we have positive evidence. In many cases, no. But we do have much indirect positive evidence, such as writing style, details that only someone living at the specific time could have known, etc. Certainly I might what something a little stronger but in the absence of any contradictory evidence, direct or indirect, the onus is on the Sinai deniers to prove their case, not me.
Further, archeology has not added any evidence that TMS is not true. As Kitchen himself shows, the voyage through the desert, the time frame and many of the details are supported by indirect evidence. And as I noted to David (the other one), you cannot expect to find evidence of miracles like manna or the actual event at Sinai. So archeology has nothing to add or detract in those cases.

david a. said...

>>>>> Thus as I noted, the first question is: do we have contradictory evidence? No. Do we have positive evidence. In many cases, no.

Oh, please…A bit disingenuous aren’t we??? Since in many cases the answer is an emphatic yes, and that’s the whole point. Take the flood..archaeology has added enormous bits of evidence to the other substantive scientific evidence that any kind of major flood, let alone a universal flood, could not have possibly happened 4100 years. This one case alone is enough to debunk the reliability of the bible as accurate history.
>>>> Further, archeology has not added any evidence that TMS is not true.

If you mean the events at Sinai, so what. That’s like having this surgeon who happens to kill 9 out 10 of his patients, and then you point to the one he saved and say ‘see how great he is’.
Archaeology has plenty to say about many other narratives.
Re: Kitchen's cute txtual re-interpretations doesn’t help much either. Because if he’s right about his suggestions, implies that Khazal didn’t know how to correctly interpret these narratives in the Torah, so at best (or worst), it impugns their reliability/credibility.

Shalmo said...

What about the various failed prophecies? Certainly they prove the bible is not a reliable source for factual data.

The prophet Isaiah, for instance, foretold the drying up of all the waters of the Egypt, and the destruction of all land used for plantation due to this drying up of the River Nile.Isaiah 19:5-7

This part of Isaiah, widely accepted by scholars to be written around the eighth century BC, is about 2750 years old. And in all this period of two and three quarters millennia, this prophecy has yet to be fulfilled! Moreover it is clear from the context that Isaiah prophecy was meant for the Egypt of his time. For it was with that Egypt that Isaiah and his people had a grievance against, and the prophecy was a warning to them. Obviously this is a clear example of an unfulfilled prophecy.

Isaiah also spoke of a prophecy God made to Ahaz, the King of Judah that he would not be harmed by his enemies:Isaiah 7:1-7

Yet according to II Chronicles, Syria and Pekah did conquer Judah!

Ezekiel made a prophecy that, at the time he wrote, seems most likely to be fulfilled. The prophet was writing, in 587BC, at the time when Nebuchadnezzar was laying siege on Tyre. With such a powerful army like Nebuchadnezzar’s, it was not surprising that Ezekiel prophesied the fall of Tyre to the Babylonian king. Ezekiel 26:7-14

The whole passage clearly prophesied the sack and complete destruction of Tyre by Nebuchadnezzar. However, the vivid description of the sack and fall of Tyre never happened. After a siege of thirteen years, until 573BC, Nebuchadnezzar lifted his siege on Tyre and had to arrive at a compromised agreement. Thus Nebuchadnezzar did not destroy Tyre. Tyre was destroyed by Alexander the Great, 240 years later. And furthermore, despite the prophet, the city of Tyre was eventually rebuilt.

Furthermore the prophecy says that Tyre shall never be rebuilt after the destruction by Nebuchadnezzar-which never happened-since he never destroyed the city. Even after the destruction by Alexander the Great, the city was still rebuilt. In fact the city of Tyre was even referred to, by that name, in the New Testament (Mark 7:24, Acts 12:20). Tyre exists to this day and has a population of about 12,000.

Ezekiel tried his luck with another prophecy regarding Nebuchadnezzar:

Ezekiel 29:20
I have given him [Nebuchadnezzar] the land of Egypt as his recompense for which he has laboured, because they worked for me, says the Lord God.

Unfortunately, here too he failed! For Nebuchadnezzar never conquered Egypt.

Jeremiah prophesied that Jehoiakim will have no successor:

Jeremiah 36:30
Therefore thus says the Lord concerning Jehoiakim king of Judah, he shall have none to sit on the throne of David.

Unfortunately his prophecy is proven false by another passage in the Bible:

II Kings 24:6
So Jehoiakim slept with his fathers and Jehoiachin his son reigned in his stead.

Prophecies that can fail are further evidence that the Bible is by no means an error free book.

David said...

Wow. Considering that these books were generally written down after the events took place, it's pretty sad that the prophets couldn't even make accurate prophecies about stuff that took place in the past...

Shalmo said...

Indeed! Some prophecies were accurate because, quite simply,many biblical prophecies were written after the events supposedly predicted or that their text was modified after the event to fit the facts as they occurred. One of the most famous examples of an alleged after-the-fact prophecy is the Little Apocalypse recorded in the Olivet Discourse of the Gospel of Mark. It predicts the siege of Jerusalem and destruction of the Jewish Temple at the hands of the Romans in 70 AD. The Book of Daniel is also a good example of this. It pretends to have been written during the time of the Jewish exile, that is around the sixth century BCE. Today, it is has been shown that Daniel was actually written around the second century BCE.

Anyway the OT is filled with failed prophecies if one knows where to look. For example:

Amos 9:14-15 (New International Version)

14 I will bring back my exiled [a] people Israel;
they will rebuild the ruined cities and live in them.
They will plant vineyards and drink their wine;
they will make gardens and eat their fruit.
15 I will plant Israel in their own land,
from the land I have given them,"
says the LORD your God.

AMOS 9:14,15 claims that after the Babylonian exile the Jewish people would never be uprooted again, but indeed through history we learn they were were uprooted again in ca. 130 CE following the Bar Cochba revolt.