Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Israelite Origins and Biblical Inerrancy

James McGrath has had an interesting month, to say the least. He started the month debating at Triablogue about his views on inerrancy (in which he's a "standard-issue liberal" and quite probably an apostate). A few days later, he posted a quote on inerrancy from Eric Reitan. That post has 79 comments running still today 11 days after the original post. (Let's just say there's a lively discussion going on there that, incidentally, illustrates why I moderate comments.) That exchange apparently led to a commenter writing to James's pastor to inform him of his status as a liberal apostate heretic. And yet, he continues to post on inerrancy, without fear and trembling. The fact that he actually attempts to dialogue with some of his commenters is quite commendable (read the comments to see why).

Today's post raises questions about Israelite origins and the biblical accounts of the Exodus and Conquest. I normally avoid engaging controversial issues head-on. My series on Apologetics and Critical Bible Scholarship has been something of an exception, but even there, I only obliquely touch on the question of inerrancy as a theological commitment that governs how evidence will be interpreted. I think the firestorm of comments that James has set off shows how passionate people are about their beliefs and about how vehemently they will defend them lest their entire belief system fall apart. Despite the fact that the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy has only been around 31 years or so, it clearly reflects the only right way to understand biblical inspiration as it is based on careful exegesis of Scripture itself. It is an exegetical conclusion, not a theological commitment. (If you're unsure how to take the tone of those last 2 sentences, go here.)

Today, James asked:
Is there any single period of approximately a century during which we
find all the relevant cities mentioned in Joshua to have been destroyed
in something like the way the Book of Joshua indicates?

The answer is No. The Joshua narrative and the archaeological record for Canaan, Israel, and Transjordan for the appropriate time frames are difficult (dare I say, impossible?) to reconcile. The problem is that many biblical sites have been identified and excavated. One can appeal to our overall lack of knowledge and the inexact nature of the science, but such an appeal is usually only made in one direction. That is, it's used to explain why the evidence does not fit the Bible. The identification of many sites is quite certain and only challenged if the city that's found couldn't possibly be the city the Bible mentioned.

Gibeon is a great example of how the narrative and the archaeology don't line up. Joshua 9 is the well-known story of how the people of nearby Gibeon tricked Joshua into not destroying them (Josh 9:3-4). Regardless of whether we date the Exodus in 1446 BCE or 1290 BCE, it falls in the archaeological record during the Late Bronze Age (ended ca. 1200 BCE).

In William Dever's survey of the evidence for Israelite origins, he says that:
Gibeon was apparently not occupied in either the late 13th or the early 12th century B.C. The American excavator who dug there in the 1960s -- James Pritchard, a well-known archaeologist and Professor of Religious Though at the University of Pennsylvania -- found Iron Age remains, but nothing earlier than the 8th century B.C.
    Nor is the problem misidentification for here the identity of the site is certain. The Arabic name, el-Jib, is the exact equivalent of Hebrew "Gibeon," as the great American Semitist and topographer Edward Robinson pointed out as long ago as 1838. And Pritchard found 56 broken jar handles inscribed "Gibeon" in Hebrew in a deep water system of the 8th-7th century B.C. The fact that this water system is probably the same one that is mentioned in 2 Samuel 2:13 suggests that the book of Joshua belongs to the 8th-7th century B.C., when the Gibeon known to the biblical writers really did exist. (pp. 48-49)
Dever also raises the point that Joshua 12 and Judges 1 have different stories to tell about the success of the Conquest. One example: Ta'anach was defeated (Josh 12:21) or was it? (Judges 1:27) Those discrepancies were probably the earliest clues for me that the Bible was perhaps not telling me a historical story in the sense that I'd previously believed. I knew how to harmonize evidence from history that didn't fit with a literal reading of Scripture, but I didn't know how to accept as literal and historical two competing versions of the story from Scripture itself. Why do we impose modern ideas about science, history, authorship, and accuracy onto an ancient text? What if God didn't intend to give us an exact historical and scientific account of things?

Reference: William G. Dever. 2003. Who were the early Israelites and where did they come from? Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.


  1. I sure had some fun dropping one or two silly comments on the thread at James' blog. Perhaps being absurd in such a "serious" debate was not a good idea. Still, it made me smile to myself.

  2. Hi Doug,

    I'm commenting on James McGrath's post on my blog.

    As for your question about Taanach, my mentor in archaeology, Albert Glock, as well as my text professor, Frank Crusemann, would probably have said: start elsewhere, with the poem in Judges 5. Start elsewhere, that is, if one is interested in making a comparison between Israel's own account of its ethnogenesis, and archaeological and other data.

    Of course, it's a mistake to think that even that old poem is a sufficient window into what happened in Israel before the establishment of the monarchy. But it's the best textual starting point we have. Judges 1 comes next, with texts like Joshua 1-12 being among those least amenable to historicization.

  3. Thanks, John. I was commenting at your post, apparently while you were here. What you've said here I think clarifies what I was trying to point out in the post - not that the text is full of errors but that many of the texts that some people try so hard to prove as historical are also the ones "least amenable to historicization."