Friday, May 17, 2013

The Biblical Testimony to the Historicity of the Events and Persons of the Tetrateuchal Narrative

I’m interested here to note the widespread belief in the persons and events of the Tetrateuchal narrative (i.e., the narrative portions found within the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, excluding the legal and ritual codes, census, etc.) before the Tetrateuchal narrative was written. I believe the narrative should be dated to the early post-exilic period. But this means that the narrative did not make up the events and traditions found therein, as they appear in texts written before or during the exilic period. Here is just some of the data scattered throughout books written before, during, and after the exile.

The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is mentioned in Deuteronomy (29:23; 32:32), Amos (4:11), Zephaniah (2:9), Isaiah (1:9-10; 3:9; 13:19), Jeremiah (5:1; 23:14; 49:18; 50:40), Lamentations (4:6), and Ezekiel (16:46-61).
Abraham is mentioned in Micah (7:20), Deuteronomy (1:8; 6:10; 9:5, 27; 26:5; 29:13; 30:20; 34:4), Joshua (24:2-3), 1 Kings (18:36), 2 Kings (13:23), Isaiah (29:22; 41:8; 63:16), Jeremiah (33:26), Ezekiel (33:24), 1 Chronicles (1:28, 32, 34; 20:7; 29:18), 2 Chronicles (30:6), Psalms (47:9; 105:6, 9, 42), Nehemiah (9:7).
Isaac is mentioned in Amos (7:16), Deuteronomy (1:8; 6:10; 9:5, 27; 29:13; 30:20; 34:4), Joshua (24:3), 1 Kings (18:36), 2 Kings (13:23), Jeremiah (33:26), 1 Chronicles (1:28, 34; 29:18), 2 Chronicles (30:6), Psalms (105:6, 9).
Jacob, in reference to the person, is mentioned in Amos (7:16) Micah (7:20), Deuteronomy (1:8; 6:10; 9:5, 27; 29:13; 30:20; 34:4), Joshua (24:4), 1 Kings (18:36), 2 Kings (13:23), Hosea (12:12), Isaiah (29:22; 41:8; 63:16), Jeremiah (33:26), 1 Chronicles (1:28, 34; 16:13; 29:18), 2 Chronicles (30:6), Psalms (105:10, 23).
Joseph, in reference to the person, and elements relating to his story are mentioned in Joshua (17:1-2; 24:32), 1 Chronicles (2:2; 5:1-2; 7:29), Psalms (77:15; 105:17-22), Obadiah (1:18),
Moses in Psalms (99:6; 103:7; 105:26; 106:16, 23, 32), Isaiah (63:12); Jeremiah (15:1), Micah (6:4), Malachi (4:4).
 The exodus (often referring to coming out of Egypt, the splitting of the Reed Sea, the wildernesss journey, etc.) is mentioned in Hosea (2:15; 11:1-5; 12:9, 13; 13:4), Amos (2:10; 3:1; 9:7), Isaiah (10:26; 11:16; 63:11-14), Jeremiah (2:6; 7:22-26; 11:4-8; 16:14; 23:7; 31:32; 32:20-21; 34:13), Deuteronomy (1:27, 31-32; 4:45; 5:6; 6:21; 10:19; 16:3, 12; 11:3; 24:9; 25:17;  26:5), Joshua (5:4; 24:5-7), Judges (11:16-18), 1 Samuel (12:6-8), 2 Samuel (7:6, 23), 1 Kings (6:1; 8:9-10, 16, 21, 51; 9:9; 12:28), 2 Kings (17:7, 36; 21:15), 1 Chronicles (17:5, 21), 2 Chronicles (5:10; 6:5; 7:22), Psalms (78:10-54; 81:5-7, 10; 105:24-45; 106:26-33; 114:1; 135:7-9; 136:10-16), Ezekiel (20:5-26), Micah (6:4; 7:12, 15), Nehemiah (9:9-21), Haggai (2:5).

What do we do with this data? I have not noted here every occurrence, but only a gist of what we have scattered throughout the Hebrew Bible. I have not noted the occurrences of names when they function as eponyms, even though that is highly significant as well (the fact that the nation was referred to often as “Jacob,” or a tribe, or group of tribes, had a particular name evidences a tradition that that entity came from that particular historical individual).
One could attempt to argue that all of these references are of later date, and I’m sure many date the texts based upon a type of circular reasoning (i.e., the tradition is late because the text is late, the text is late because the tradition found therein is late). But seeing all of these as later interpolations is a bit too much. Many of these texts make no sense once one removes these statements.
Of course, some of these texts are later than the Tetrateuchal narrative, in my opinion. Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah, Ezekiel, Malachi, Daniel (which I didn’t even cite here), and some of the Psalms all certainly may have gotten their traditions from the Tetrateuchal narrative itself.
However, it seems that Israel’s identity as a nation was not merely constructed in or after the exile as some scholars would suggest. The tradition is not only attested in these more explicit forms, but also within the themes and motifs that appear in earlier books, as well as in the assumptions of a covenant that YHWH made with Israel. Remove these, and what these books are arguing makes little sense.
Now, if one wishes to argue that all of these books are late, so be it. My only point here is that the Tetrateuchal narrative is not some work just made up and disconnected from the rest of the Hebrew Bible. It relates an identity that Israel is to assign to itself. In fact, most of the texts above talk about the fact that Israel sins against YHWH by forgetting this history (and it is treated as real history).
These cannot be brushed off as merely rhetorical, as though the author does not rely upon this historical data in order to make his argument. Hence, one who denies the historicity of the Patriarchs or the exodus rejects the Prophets. He or she chooses not to believe them. They trust in their modern arms of flesh instead (ironically, the very thing the prophets are rebuking Israel for doing by not remembering and trusting in God based upon His promises to the Patriarchs and what He did for them in Egypt).

Despite what many scholars argue, the archaeological data says nothing either way. Attempting to establish dates in this time period is pretty shaky. There are no explicit texts that relate the people and events beyond the biblical texts. There is no mention of the exodus in Egyptian texts (nor would there be btw). The Genesis narrative, although containing some ancient elements in the text that are accurate to the time, also contains a lot of narrative presentation that reflects the later time in which it is written (which is to be expected of any historical reconstruction written in a later period). Hence, there is no way to compare the Tetrateuchal narrative en toto to the slim amount of what one might say concerning the archaeological data we do have of these periods in an effort to discern the historicity of the events the narratives describe.

What we are left with is just the fact that a lot of tradition within Israel, as evidenced by the Hebrew Bible, indicates that these people and events did exist in history. Archaeology cannot tell us if they are historical. Narrative description cannot tell us if they are historical. And other documents cannot tell us I they are historical. We only have the Bible here, and we can believe or disbelieve it. That’s all there is to it.

For Christians, of course, we also have the New Testament, and specifically, Christ, who assumes the historicity of these people and events. However, one might argue that they just adopt the history of their time, inaccurate as it may be. I’ve argued, briefly, before, however, that Christ doesn’t merely assume the historicity of Abraham and Moses, but proclaims that He has had direct knowledge of them that is beyond the historical record. Christ tells us that He knows of Abraham rejoicing to see His day, and that He knows that Abraham actually saw His day in John 8. I also believe that Luke 16 is not a parable, and would give further evidence that Christ is telling us that He has special knowledge of Abraham beyond the historical tradition. Likewise, Christ tells us that Moses spoke of Him in the Scripture (that could just be a reference to the historical tradition), but then we are told that Moses and Elijah appear with Christ on the Mount of Transfiguration. Now, one might argue that such merely is allegorical and shows that Christ transcends the authority of the Old Testament, but this event seems to be reported as really occurring (and relating the theological significance through the historical event rather than in absence of it). The apostles truly believe this (e.g., 1 Pet 1:16-21).

This places Christians in another dilemma, one that is not merely dealing with speculative theories that seek to make sense of the data in the Hebrew Bible. One must now ask, If Abraham and Moses do no actually exist, are Jesus and the apostles liars?
Again, this isn’t simply a matter that one can escape by saying that they are influenced, as fallen and finite men, by the traditions of their culture. These are claims of personal experience with these persons. Indeed, Jesus seems to say that He is the God of the exodus, having personal experience of Moses and Israel on Sinai and in Egypt. If one concludes that the witness of the Hebrew Bible is false, and these events and persons did not actually exist, then one must conclude that Jesus and the apostles are lying.

But, as I have argued before, the methodology that seeks to say that archaeology disproves the historicity of the events or persons, or even makes their historicity improbable (improbable in the light of what?), is shoddy scholarship.

1 comment:

  1. How providential. I was literally thinking just the other day of looking through the prophets and seeing what references they make to the Tetrateuchal traditions. Seems to me that we can't base our faith in what happened on the ever-changing probabilities presented by scholarship. On the other hand, we can't presume what kind of literature God would present His truth to us by unless He's indicated what kind of evidence it's based on, as in Luke (i.e. most evangelicals assume the genre of the Tetrateuch would have to be pretty much the transcript of a video documentary). So if God through the prophets directly says He did something/ something happened, I think we should believe it and be open to how the less-direct tradition may have developed (still under God's guidance, of course, but perhaps allowing more for human limitations), which could involve legendary material. You're absolutely right: archaeology will never be able to prove or disprove this approach, which I actually see as a key strength.