I have been in Pasadena the last few days theologizing and schmoozing with fellow leaders in Messianic Judaism at the Hashivenu forum. My roommate, as always at conferences like this, is the inimitable Kirk Gliebe, Rabbi at Devar Emet in Chicago.
Like me, Kirk gets a subscription to Biblical Archaeology Review. Unlike me, at least this month, Kirk never fails to read his. Mine, by contrast, is sitting in a pile unread (though much beloved). So, Kirk wowed me with a story in the latest edition of BAR and the article makes an interesting case. Below is my presentation of the idea . . .
There are two texts that have a problem. They both cannot be confirmed by archaeology.
One is the corpus of letters known as the Amarna letters, written in Akkadian cuneiform on small clay tablets. There are over 300 of them and they are letters from Canaanite city-state rulers back to their Egyptian overlords, from the period between 1500 – 1150 B.C.E.
The second is the Bible, a corpus of texts written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, the most ancient copies of which date to 200 – 150 B.C.E.
There is a certain argument, widely believed and propagated by those who doubt the truth of the Bible’s historical record and its depiction of the origin and growth of Israelite culture. The argument is actually fallacious and it goes like this:
1. The record of the Bible cannot be completely confirmed in many details by archaeology.
2. Archaeology is more accurate than texts written with propagandistic motives (the Bible).
3. Thus, the record of the Bible is largely or completely untrue.
The problem with this argument is that the Amarna letters face the same problem. They depict a Canaanite province under the rule of Egypt, with the heavy presence of Egyptian forces and administrators in the land, and with thriving city-states and a healthy population.
Nadav Na’aman is a professor of Jewish history at Tel Aviv University. He is one of the scholars who worked on the Amarna letters and has written along with Yuval Goren and the famously skeptical Israel Finkelstein. In the January-February 2009 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review he writes about “The Trowel vs. the Text.” His arguments expose the fallacy of the above argument.
To see the problem, try putting the above argument this way:
1. The record of the Amarna letters cannot be completely confirmed in many details by archaeology.
2. Archaeology is more accurate than vague ancient texts written (the Amarna letters).
3. Thus, the record of the Amarna letters is largely or completely untrue.
The problem with this argument? It is epistemological suicide!
Sure, the rulers who wrote the Amarna letters to the Egyptian royal administration may have used exaggeration here or there to persuade Egypt to send aid or troops. But these letters make no sense as a deliberate conspiracy of revisionist history.
Therefore, I suggest a new argument:
1. Archaeology sometimes, and for reasons not too difficult to imagine, cannot verify the historical picture revealed in ancient texts.
2. Archaeology depends on many factors to get access to preserved remains.
3. Archaeology cannot be the sole factor in determining historical reality.
Suddenly, in light of this reality and in light of the providential record of letters from some Canaanite vassals to their Egyptian overlords, we can silence those who insist the Bible is balderdash.