We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Bible Battle Goes On: Of Camels, Bones, & Patriarchs

The first in a series of online stories claiming that recent archaeological discoveries show that the Bible is wrong about camels, seems to have been a posting appearing on ScienceBlog on February 3rd entitled, "Archaeologists pinpoint date when domesticated camels arrived in Israel."  Relying on recent archaeological research, the introduction to this article states that,
Camels are mentioned as pack animals in the biblical stories of Abraham, Joseph, and Jacob. But archaeologists have shown that camels were not domesticated in the Land of Israel until centuries after the Age of the Patriarchs (2000-1500 BCE). In addition to challenging the Bible’s historicity, this anachronism is direct proof that the text was compiled well after the events it describes.
 The report by the researchers themselves,"The Introduction of Domestic Camels to the Southern Levant: Evidence from the Aravah Valley," does not mention the Bible or Abraham at all, which means that the ScienceBlog has itself made the link between the research on the introduction of camels and Abraham.

Noted evangelical archaeologist, Alan Millard, quickly responded to the flurry of media attention to this story in a letter to The Telegraph, which the paper entitled, "Camel bones do not cast doubt on Bible stories: Archaeological discoveries don't negate biblical accounts."  Millard writes,
Rare references in Babylonian texts and representations from other parts of the Near East show that camels were known in the Age of the Patriarchs, about 2000-1500 BC. Such discoveries are rare because the camel was not at home in urban societies, but useful for long journeys across the steppe and desert. There is no good reason to suppose the stories of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob cannot reflect events long before the deaths of those camels, whose bones were left south of the Dead Sea in about 900 BC.
Millard does not address the point made by ScienceBlog that the biblical texts were assembled long after the events they describe, which is a given in mainline biblical scholarship.  The process by which Genesis, for example, was compiled and composed is extremely murky but seems to date in its final form from the exilic and post-exilic eras (6th century BCE), long, long after the Era of the Patriarchs.  However we view the Genesis stories, it is entirely possible that an inaccuracy concerning camels found its way into the text as those stories were copied, compiled, copied again, compiled with other material again, and so on over several centuries.  And Millard is correct is pointing out that there are credible explanations of the data that do not require us to "cast doubt on Bible stories."

The larger question here is the relationship of the Genesis stories to history and to the past.  They are not historiographical, that is they were not written by historians studying actual past events.  They are historical in the sense that they reflect the historical experience of the Hebrew-Jewish people and their historical identity.  That is not to say that the stories "really happened," which is a complex historiographical issue that will never be solved.  They do, however, reflect the world out of which they arose and, of far greater importance to those who acknowledge their significance for their faith, they reflect the Hebrew-Jewish experience with the divine.  They are a key resource for faith, an authoritative part of our faith tradition.  In them, we sense God's breaking into humanity's past our lives in a fashion that inspires us in our faith today.

In a cogent response to the camel tempest in a teapot, "Will camel discovery break the Bible's back?" Joel Baden writes, "What the camels in Genesis reveal, in fact, has nothing to do with the “truth” of the biblical story at all." That just about sums it up.