The Old Testament described many events that created traces that, at least in theory, can still be found. Battles, captured peoples, destroyed cities or catastrophes that affect a whole region – everything can be found in these timeless stories.
The Old Testament is a collection of writings which were first put to paper (or better papyri) around the 7. century BC. A current theory claims it was collected by a group of people who wanted to use the rich myth heritage to create an identity and community feeling for the people who lived in Palestine at that time.
The stories themselves are much older and were handed on orally from generation to generation. According to biblical scholars the exodus, the escape of the Jews from Egypt under most dramatic circumstances, took place around 1200 BC.
There is no “original” Old Testament from 600 BC anywhere in the world. We do have isolated fragments and copies of copies in various languages. Prior to the Qumran finds (caves near the northwestern shore of the dead sea where scrolls with Old Testament texts where found around 1950) the oldest complete text dated ca. AD 800. In Qumran a version of this text was found which was 1000 years older. In spite of the age difference both texts were very similar which indicates that these texts were always copied with greatest care.
The Old Testament we have in our bookshelves today is the result of a very interesting selection, merging and translation process only partly understood. One has to keep in mind that culture was not invented in Palestine but near the big rivers like Nile, Euphrat and Tigris. There flourished the cultures of Egypt and Mesopatamia when Palestine was basically populated by illiterate shepherds. The Old Testament includes stories from these cultures. For example, the well known story of the deluge and Noah’s ark was can be found almost literally in the Gilgamesch epic which is some 1000 years older than the Old Testament. Written on clay tablets in cuneiform the Gilgamesch epic tells the same story. Just the name of the storie’s hero is different. In the Gilgamesch epic he is called Utapischti instead of Noah.
The Old Testament was at least partly created by “merging” older versions. Visible traces of this merging process are two or even three slightly different descriptions of the same event. For example, the Old Testament contains two versions of the creation of man. In one version man and woman were created simultaneously from a piece of loam. In the other version man was created first and woman was created second from one of the man’s ribs.
We are used to consider the Old Testament as monotheistic. It seems, though, that it had polytheistic elements in the beginning which were removed later.
For example, the first line of the first book Moses, the Genesis, reads
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”
In the Hebrew version, however, it clearly says “Gods”. Scholars agree that as subject the plural form (Elohim) is used while the verb “create” is used in the singular form. I think it is a plausible explanation that in the beginning the text used plural. Later it was modified into the singular form but nobody dared to change the word “Gods” so it remained.
Last but not least the modern Bible was translated several times. At least once into Greek and once into the modern language. Each introduction no matter how careful does create slight variations.
So much a small introduction to the Old Testament as a written source. Now to its historical truth. Did archaeological digs confirm the given descriptions?
It depends. Objects, cities, battles, natural catastrophes and some rulers can be quite accurate. It seems, however, that everything that is used to describe the dramatical adventures of the Hebrews, and thus Gods interventions, is vastly exaggerated. The described events might have had a true core but were far less spectacular than described. I guess that the number of people involved in the exodus was in reality just 1/1000 of the numbers given in the bible.
To give some more examples, recent excavations at Jericho showed that, when Hebrews arrived in the late bronze age at 1200 BC, the city had no walls. No need to blow the trumpets.
And the wise king Solomon from the 9. century BC? To date not a single piece of archaeological evidence was found that he ever existed. No inscriptions, nothing. Not even at the so called “Solomon’s horse stables” at Meggido, a town known in the Bible as Armageddon (“Hill of Meggido”), place of the last battle between good and bad.
It is also unlikely that he had an affair with the queen of Sheeba since the kingdom of Sheeba existed some 150 years later.
Was he extremely rich? Probably not by the standards of other Kings at that time. Palestine was imbedded between the superpowers of that time, Egypt in the south and the Hethites in the north. When one of them went to war the first country to be conquered and demolished was always Palestine. Natural resources were also scare though the country had a good position for trade.
To sum it up, some details of the Old Testament are correct, others are probably wrong. Descriptions related to the Hebrews and their God are probably vastly exaggerated, probably to promote the “chosen people” feeling and give the people a sense of identity. Still, the events might contain a true, but far less spectacular core.
(C) 2006-2011 Thorsten Straub, www.biblical-finds.com