Thursday, February 23, 2017

The New Biblical Scholars and the Problem of the Exodus

"The Exodus is so fundamental to us and our Jewish sources," writes Senior Fellow at the W. F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, Jerusalem. "that it is embarrassing that there is no evidence outside of the Bible to support it."[1]

      That's the fact, according to the New Biblical Scholars, that brings the whole narrative of the Old  Testament and Jewish history down. For most of them the debate about the history of Israel in the Old Testament is about whether the narrative of the Old Testament can be trusted and about whether the story of God in the Old Testament can be trusted. And for most of the New Biblical Scholars it cannot.

     That is what brought Dr. Hector Avalos to write, "The only mission of biblical studies should be to end biblical studies as we know it." [2] Avalos is joined by many of the brightest and best biblical scholars who inhabit the warrens of academia. You might recognize some of the names: Bart Ehrman, John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, and others, some from the disciples of Archaeology like Israel Finkelstein. These scholars have in the past 30 years worked to bring biblical scholarship in line with historical methods (a good thing) but have mixed their scholarship with their own personal biases and have nearly succeeded in ending "biblical studies as we know it."

     But as Rosenburg implies, ending biblical studies as we know it is more than about theology. It is about rewriting history, and that rewritten history threatens the very existence of Israel. It is about flesh and blood for the Jews.  Because so much is on the line, it is imperative that we get it right.

     Let's examine the new scholars' premise. That premise is that biblical history that we find in the Bible is largely a fiction created in the 6th or 5th century B.C. perhaps by Jews returning from the Exile in Babylon, perhaps earlier. The purpose of this fiction was to provide the Jews with a history that would give them an identity as people in their newly reclaimed land - to to firmly establish Josiah's right to rule, depending on which story you prefer.  At least, that is what I gathered from one of the New Biblical Scholars from whom I took a class several years ago, Dr. Jacob Wright Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology.

     What these scholars propose is that there is a metanarrative behind the biblical narrative, a story behind the story. They declare such a metanarrative is necessary to understand the biblical narrative. I'd like to interact with that idea from the point of view of a student and teacher of literature.

     History as we read it in every history book and as we read it in the Bible is a narrative. It is a story. Yes, even the biblical narrative is a story.  It ties together the brute facts of primary sources, of which the writers were aware, and archaeology with some references to biblical texts to build a story about what actually happened in real history. In doing so, it is inevitable that the narrative is something of an interpretation of the brute facts. Interpretation cannot be separated from the telling of history. The is assumed. In fact, the biblical writers, as they wrote the biblical history narrative, constantly bring interpretation to the facts by telling us what God thought of the events.

     However, sometimes there are gaps in the primary sources and archaeological evidence, especially from our perspective of several thousands of years.  And gaps make everyone nervous.   In those cases, historians are pressed to create what in literature is called coherence. It is at that point the New Biblical Scholars pause. There are a lot of gaps  between the biblical narrative and the brute facts they have. (We might assume that those writing closer to the events, like the biblical authors, had better knowledge, they even refer to primary sources no longer available. But the New Biblical Scholars are not inclined to cut much slack.) What are they to do then with the gaps? How are they to fill them in? The solution has been to create the modern metanarrative. They rewrite history.

     There is one condition to writing history, a historical narrative must be anchored to brute facts to be valid.  Let me illustrate with an analogy to a cargo net on a pickup.

     The cargo is real history. The cargo net is the narrative that holds the cargo together. The anchor points where the net is anchored to the bed of the truck are the brute facts. The points of intersection in the web of the net are the elements that create coherence.

     Add in your visualization strands that are woven into the net. (I've colored several in the picture below.) These are in literary terms motifs. [3]

Motifs in color
     Motifs are evidence of  the coherence of the narrative. Remove any significant motif and the cargo net loses integrity and will fail. The cargo is blown out of the truck. 

     Passover is one of those motifs, according to Rosenburg in his article in The Jerusalem Post. Passover is found in many places in the Old Testament and intertwined inextricably with the rest of the narrative. And it is a continuing central celebration among the Jewish people today. Notice what Rosenburg says: " the account in the Torah is the basis of our people’s creation, it is the basis of our existence and it is the basis of our important Passover festival and the whole Haggada that we recite on the first evening of this festival of freedom."[4] Passover exists only because of the exodus story.

      He is not kidding. The Torah and the exodus are woven as a motif through virtually every book in the Old Testament. The rituals and sacred places such as the temple, the laws, and the people who are part of the exodus story cannot be removed from the biblical narrative without the whole narrative falling apart, without all Jewish history falling apart.

     But that is where it gets sticky. according to Rosenburg. There are no anchor points to primary sources, apart from the biblical text, and little to archaeology for this story. However, there are anchor points, a lot of them, for the rest of the biblical narrative.

Western Wall
     Space does not allow anything like a complete list, but it is safe to say that virtually all the archaeological finds in Israel are anchors points for the biblical narrative. The remnants of the temple wall called the western wall, is an anchor point for the historical narrative that tells of the building of the second temple.

Mernepteh Stele
     The Mernepteh Stele firmly anchors the narrative to 1200 B.C shortly after the exodus.

      Scarabs and pottery Dr. Bryant Wood found at the Jericho tel anchors the narrative to about 1400 B.C. when Joshua led Israel into Canaan. Jericho  And there are many more.

     Dr. Rosenburg suggests that the brute facts of the context provide, at least,  plausibility for the exodus narrative. One specific:
The first is that the Israelites were slave workers in mudbrick. They had to manufacture the material and they were semi-skilled workers in laying the bricks. As there were thousands of Israelites, what projects were they working on? The pyramids and the temples were in stone, the mudbrick houses of the peasants were built by themselves, so what project needed hundreds of workers in mudbrick?
His answer: "[a] new city El Amarna, on the east bank of the Nile, where there was plenty of soft mud for the bricks but little straw." And when was that? Akhetaten built the city, and it was in the time frame of the exodus in the biblical narrative.[5]

     Though that does not prove the narrative of the exodus is historically accurate, it provides a plausible explanation for part of the narrative.

     There are more than sufficient brute fact anchor points for us to be confident that the larger biblical narrative is a valid interpretation of real history.

     So in the debate between then New Biblical Scholars and more conservative biblical scholars, the biblical narrative looks pretty good, even when there are gaps in anchor points. Gaps, after all, are places where we do not have information. But lack of information is not evidence that there is none to be found or that there was none. Tomorrow we may documents or artifacts that are anchor points for the exodus narrative. Or we may find brute facts that contradict the biblical narrative. But in either case  brute facts of primary sources and artifacts are the anchor points.

     But what about the metanarrative? This is the story that scribes one thousand years after the exodus (alleged exodus) created this fictional biblical narrative.  Are there brute facts to anchor this metanarrative? The answer is no. There is no hint in any biblical or extrabilical literature that scribes wrote a fictional history of Israel after the Exile. There is no artifact that provides an anchor.  There is only speculation. Do we not expect the metanarrative to stand the typical tests that all history narratives must?

     That's a problem for these new biblical scholars. A historical narrative without anchors is no more than a theory. And, to be honest, the metanarrative theory raises more problems than it solves, not the least of which is the conspiracy that had to have been behind the creation of the fictional biblical narrative. The biggest problem, however, is not the theory or the conspiracy; it is the implication that the Jews had no earlier real history and somehow appeared out of nowhere with no pre-history. Every people group has a real history, just as every effect has a cause. No historian would leave that lie. So how does the metanarrative handle that?

     Here's the scenario: The Jews are in the land of Israel in 400 B.C. Fact. Where did they come from? Exile in Babylon. Fact. Why were they in Babylon? The Babylonians conquered Israel in 600 B.C. and took many of the people back to Babylon. Is that a claim with brute facts to support it? Yes.

      If the Jews were in  Israel prior to the captivity, how did they get there? They were nomads and just gradually moved in and took over. That is one of the theories I hear from the New Biblical Scholars. Or they were Canaanites who gradually differentiated themselves from their Canaanite culture and became the dominant people in Canaan. Are there brute facts (primary sources or artifacts) to support that claim? No. It is simply conjecture.

     That's a big problem. It is not how history is done.

     So bottom line: the metanarrative should not be believed until there are brute facts to support it and until that narrative can connect the Jews with a pre-history that also has brute facts to support it.

     Writing history is an ongoing process. It is a complex and demanding process. New evidence (brute facts) will be discovered. New methods of analysis (Bayes' theorem) may change how we interpret the facts which are the anchor points of the history narrative we write. But as of the moment relative to the New Biblical Scholars' rewrite of history, the weak link is the metanarrative. Until that is well anchored in brute facts, the biblical narrative we have in the Old Testament is far superior. You can take that to the bank.



1. The Jerusalem Post, April 14, 2014
2.  Avalos, Hector. The End of Biblical Studies.  Prometheus Books; 1St Edition edition (July 12, 2007). page 15. Quoted from
3. Motifs are recurring symbols or ideas or, in history, things or events that extend across many years of history.
4.Rosenburg, Stephen Gabriel. "The Exodus Does Archaeology Have a Say?" The Jerusalem Post. April 14, 2014.
5. op cit.

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