When historical research seems to go against what people believe, they complain that history can mean anything you want it to mean. But when the research seems to back them, they point it out with conviction. So one minute, people are historical skeptics, and, the next, they’re historical enthusiasts. This applies especially to historical biblical studies.Part of the problem is: History is not an easy topic and neither is the Bible. Both can answer only so many questions; and they often give answers that are more general than we prefer.
So what can history tells us about the theory that the stories of the Bible were written long after the supposed time of their occurrence and were compiled from sources that often contradict each other? Answer: It depends on which period of history and which part of the Bible you’re talking about.
Historical studies of the Bible’s earliest stories cover vast periods of history that are extremely remote from us. So conclusions must be relatively broad and general.
But the study of Bible stories that are less remote is more compact, with more historical and archeological data. So conclusions can be more specific.
Stories that are very remote include accounts of creation, the Flood and the travels of Israel’s patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Conclusions here have to be broad. We must be content to decide: Does the evidence support the idea that these stories are compilations from a late date? Or does the evidence indicate these stories trace back to the times represented in them?
Less remote stories concern the exile and return of Israel-toward the end of the Old Testament-and stories about Jesus and the early church. Here we have a lot more historical and archeological information. So names, dates and places can be discussed with greater certainty.
For now, we’ll stick to the most distant stories-creation and the Flood.
K. A. Kitchen of the School of Archaeology, Classics, and Oriental Studies at the University of Liverpool has an interesting analysis of the earliest stories of the Bible. He gives three lines of evidence that they trace back to sources that must be dated very early and are not late-date compilations.
First, Kitchen indicates that the theory that undermines the traditional understanding of these stories puts confidence in creative ways of manipulating the text of the Bible rather than in hardcore historical study that finds parallels and contrasts between the Bible and other texts from that time.
Second, he shows that the essential structure of Genesis 1-9 is the same as other important ancient texts from that part of the world and that time (the 18th and 17th centuries BC). The Sumerian King List, the Atrahasis Epic and the Sumerian Flood Tale-all follow the pattern of: (1) a beginning (2) a period of history that leads up to divine judgment in a universal flood (3) a new start after the flood.
Third, he points out that these three extra-biblical texts were copied and re-copied for centuries, preserving the text. Ancient people in that part of the world were anxious to keep important documents intact, not change them.
So Kitchen demonstrates, if you’re not too skeptical to accept it: Historical evidence is in favor of traditional ideas about the origin of the first stories in the Bible.
By BOB GARRINGER