The Old Testament wars: Is the Bible history or fiction?

In the history of the Jews, the first five books of the Bible, known as the Torah, have acquired a unique significance. They are for the orthodox believer not only sacred, as representing divine truth, but they are its very embodiment, as if God spoke directly through these words. For centuries scholars have mined and disputed the interpretation of this text, a task given urgency by the belief in its divine origin.

Today, as in the case of the Gospels in the New Testament, the historical accuracy of these works has become a major battlefield. While the majority view of scholars working in the field, both Jewish and Christian, is that there is a growing body of archaeological findings that support the historical truth of the text, there is also a substantial body of revisionists who attack the idea that there is any evidence at all that the first five books of the Hebrew Bible are historically accurate.


The extreme revisionist position, as summarized by William G. Dever in the March / April issue of Biblical Archaeology, is that the Hebrew Bible is the product of the religious and cultural identity crisis of Judaism in the Hellenistic era, dating from the fourth to the first centuries B.C.

This was a period in which Judaism came into full contact with Greek culture, and needed desperately to form a clear sense of its own identity in order to survive. According to the revisionists, the Torah is essentially literature, and is a "social construct" reflecting the religious interests and propaganda of a late, elitist theocratic party within Judaism.


According to these critics, there was not an "early Israel" as a distinct ethnic entity from the 13th to the 11th centuries B.C., as described by the Torah, no Judahite state before the late eighth century, and no significant political capital in Jerusalem before the second century B.C.

Even Dever himself, once thought of as a traditionalist, does not believe in the full accuracy of Hebrew text. In his Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From? (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 280 pages, $25), Dever says that while the Exodus stories "may rest on some historical foundations, however minimal," the Israelites did not spring primarily from the people who fled Egypt, as the Bible maintains.

Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman agree with this assessment.

In their The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts (Free Press, 304 pages, $26), they present persuasive archaeological evidence to support this view. They maintain that the people who became the Jews seem to have existed in the area for thousands of years, and did not arrive from Egypt in the way described in Exodus.

Like the revisionists, Finkelstein and Silberman hold that most of the first five books are historical fiction, although they date the writing much earlier than do the radicals. They say, "The historical saga contained in the Bible -- from Abraham's encounter with God and his journey to Canaan, to Moses' deliverance of the children of Israel from bondage, to the rise and fall of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah -- was not a miraculous revelation, but a brilliant product of the human imagination. It was first conceived -- as recent archaeological finds suggest -- during the span of two or three generations, about twenty-six hundred years ago." This would date the writing to the reign of Josiah, king of Judah from 639 to 609 B.C., and make the authors an anonymous group of scribes in the royal court.

There are also historical contradictions within the biblical text itself, as, for example, the spectacle of Cain, after he murdered Abel, wandering through the cities of the world, although he is the son of the first man and woman.

There are also references to divine beings in Genesis (6:1-2), where we find this passage: "that the divine beings saw how beautiful the human women were, / so they took themselves wives, whomever they chose." The divine beings are not otherwise identified, but their very presence would argue against a strictly monotheistic world.

David Klinghoffer provides a novel interpretation of the story of Abraham, relying, however, on the Bible and the oral tradition in his The Discovery of God: Abraham and the Birth of Monotheism (Doubleday, 368 pages, $26). In an interview, Klinghoffer remarked, "The trend among 'serious' thinkers and writers on biblical subjects is to dismiss the biblical patriarchs as men who lived and walked the Earth, and to cherish them -- sentimentally, I would say -- merely as creations and inventions of much later storytellers. But the reality is, if it is not true that a man named Abraham met or 'discovered' God, then there is no God -- no God of Israel, no God of Christianity, Islam, or Judaism -- to discover."


With so many contradictory voices, the dispute on the historical accuracy of the Bible is not likely to be resolved. It will be settled for most not by scholarship, but by faith. Many would argue, however, with Klinghoffer that the existence of God is dependent on the existence of Abraham, and implicitly, the accuracy of the text.

Of course, attacks on the historicity of the Hebrew Bible are not new.

In the 19th century, there were the problems raised by Charles Darwin and by later Darwinists regarding the fossil evidence of life existing for hundreds of millions of years, and species evolving rather than being created in one divine act. However, some contemporary scientists have resurrected the idea of intention or "fine tuning." This has been brought out by a distinguished reporter on the conflicts and dialogues between science and religion, Larry Witham, in his By Design: Science and the Search for God (Encounter Books, 200 pages, $24.95).

Witham points out that while literal creationism in its biblical form is not an issue for these scientists, the sheer complexity of the universe's physical and organic forms suggests if not design some sense of built-in intentionality. A number of sophisticated biologists -- among them Stuart A. Kauffman, author of the masterful The Origins of Order: Self-Organization and Selection in Evolution (Oxford University Press, 734 pages, $45) -- are unable to endorse a purely mechanical universe.

For such people, it is difficult to look at the generative diversity of the world without feeling the presence of divinity, whether it is a god who has a personality like ours, or who is vastly more complex and who may be immanent in the very nature of the world.

The world, as Alfred North Whitehead maintained -- and as the Gnostics proclaimed 2,000 years ago (see, for example, Elaine Pagels' Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas [Random House, 256 pages, $24.95]) -- may be divine, or divinity may be in its very nature. It is also a view held by philosophers such as Immanuel Kant and G.W.F. Hegel. This is a world that could generate its own forms, including human beings, who would then have their own history, and their own mythology, including their stories of God.


We might then read these stories not for their literal truths, but for their intimations of divinity that we might find all around us, and glory in the very diversity by which the world makes divinity manifest.

Craig Eisendrath's At War With Time: The Wisdom of Western Thought From the Sages to a New Activism for Our Age will be published by Allworth Press this October. He is also the author of The Unifying Moment: The Psychological Philosophy of William James and Alfred North Whitehead (Harvard University Press, reprinted 1999 by toExcel).