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Old Testament History- Is the Playing Field Level?
- Peter Williams is Warden of Tyndale House, Cambridge; he was previously senior lecturer in New Testament at Aberdeen University. View all resources by Peter Williams
Most of the Old Testament presents itself as the literature of the Israelites. It differs significantly from the literature of other ancient people groups such as Assyrians, Babylonians, and Egyptians in that it contains a large amount of joined-up narrative purporting to tell of events that spanned long periods. Ancient Near Eastern writing has nothing equivalent. Typically each ruler gives us his(!) own account of what happened during his reign, told so as to cast him in the most favourable light possible. We do not hear of his defeats. Nor do these records give us a narrative that covers hundreds of years. Moreover, many of the accounts that survive are on broken tablets or stones.
Here the Old Testament could hardly be more different. For a start, rulers, including Israelite ones, are generally not cast in a favourable light at all. In fact not one monarch receives an entirely positive write-up. This at least suggests that the Old Testament is not royal propaganda. Secondly, the Old Testament books contain subtle narratives, telling of what is supposed to have happened over long periods of time, and setting forth both events and their long-term consequences. Thirdly, the narratives are complete and relatively well understood. Ancient Hebrew, while still containing puzzles for scholars, is still far better understood than any of the other ancient languages in which there are records purporting to give us history. Thus, at first glance, the Old Testament presents us with what would appear to be a superior quality of record to the records of other societies: it is more complete, better understood, less obviously biased towards the powers that be, greater in scope, and vastly more sophisticated.
However, despite such a seemingly promising start, this is not how most contemporary scholars view the matter. For many scholars the Old Testament is like it is because it is later theological reflection and projection onto the past. Scholars will admit that Assyrian, Babylonian and Egyptian records have their biases, but these records, though often fragmentary, are at least indisputably ancient. Many clay tablets that come from Mesopotamia have been dated to the second or even third millennium BC. They take us directly to the past. On the other hand, the earliest complete copy of the whole Old Testament we have in Hebrew comes from AD 1008. Sections of the Old Testament are attested as early as 200 BC in the Dead Sea Scrolls, and parts of the priestly blessing of Numbers 6:24–26 are contained on silver amulets that date to before the Babylonian Exile, but this is all nothing compared with the hundreds of thousands of clay tablets from Mesopotamia, or the Egyptian hieroglyphs, which are so numerous that many of them will not be read by modern scholars in the foreseeable future. Put this way, it seems that the records of the cultures surrounding Israel give us evidence that is far more reliable. These records tell of the existence of some, but by no means most, of the kings of ancient Israel and Judah, but tell us nothing of the Judges, the Exodus, or the Patriarchs. Surely we should prefer the certainty of a solid and clearly ancient record of the Babylonians to a narrative that is found in the Bible.
But such a negative approach to the Old Testament may reveal how the playing field is not at all level. We must first ask what kind of records different societies provide.
Most people in the twenty-first century regard writing on a computer as a more sophisticated means of communication than writing by hand on paper, and it is not hard to see why. It is possible to type more quickly than it is to form letter shapes; we can correct errors more easily; we can store the writing in a smaller space and if we desire can send the writing almost instantaneously across the world in an e-mail or publish it on the Internet for all to see. The list of advantages could go on, but this is enough to illustrate the point. However, in one way writing on paper is evidently superior as anyone who has irrecoverably lost data in a hard-disk crash can attest. Paper is still more durable. Though paper has not been in existence for thousands of years (papyrus has), there is good evidence that it can store data for thousands of years—far longer than a CD or hard drive. The amount of data that has been lost since the invention of the computer is probably far greater than the loss of all the libraries in antiquity because the ‘advance’ in technology has been at the expense of durability. If modern society really does go ‘green’ and reduces its use of paper this will have obvious advantages for the rainforests, but could also make it far harder for future generations to reconstruct our history. The one thing that will help our generation from avoiding oblivion is if the data we now have is constantly copied from one electronic medium to another. There are many signs that this is happening for lots of our data and that therefore our generation will not be forgotten. Every computer user knows how important it is to ‘back up’, i.e. make a copy.
I would suggest that there are good reasons for seeing this as an analogy for the history of ancient Israel. Whereas Assyrians, Babylonians, and Egyptians had complicated writing systems, in which there were hundreds of signs and many signs could have multiple value, Hebrew was written in an alphabet which only required the knowledge of 22 signs. Whereas Assyrian and Babylonian records on clay were relatively weighty and provided a clear practical limit to the length of any text, Israelite writing on perishable material (leather or papyrus) was relatively light and portable and more easily allowed for long narratives. The great advantage of the alphabet, which the Hebrews shared with their immediate neighbours, including the Phoenicians, led to its eventual adoption by the Greeks and Romans, and subsequently by most modern western societies. The superior writing system, when viewed alongside the more sophisticated narratives of the Old Testament, really does suggest that the Israelites’ ability to create literature and even record history may have been in advance of some of the great surrounding cultures, including those of Mesopotamia and Egypt. If so, perhaps Ancient Hebrew literature which corresponds to the ancient Babylonian and Egyptian records has survived, only it has not survived in copies contemporaneous with the events. It has survived by being copied many, many times. This is not an idea without evidence. In fact, there is good evidence that the Israelites did write on perishable material. This comes in the form of papyrus fibre marks on the back of seal impressions (bullae), which are found plentifully in Israel. Moreover, even the shape of the alphabet attests that it is a form of writing designed for use on perishable material. We know that material such as papyrus needs very particular conditions for it to survive. In some dry parts of southern Egypt papyri survive in great numbers. However, come to the wet Delta region in the north and papyri do not survive. It would obviously be absurd to conclude that people in the south of Egypt knew how to write on papyrus and people in the north did not. The nature of the writing material is also adequate to account for why we do not find large numbers of ancient Hebrew records from the time of the Old Testament. Here and there writing survives when people wrote or impressed Hebrew on durable material such as pottery or clay. Otherwise it does not. This does not, however, give us any reason to doubt that plentiful writing did exist.
This then leads us to the question of what sort of evidence we should expect for Old Testament events. Typically at this point scholars conclude that not much of the Old Testament can be taken seriously. Whereas we have impressive, almost contemporary, records of Assyrian kings and officials or of Egyptian rulers, we have nothing equivalent for the Old Testament. The Old Testament, it is said, needs to be confirmed by documents outside itself. One can understand why scholars might adopt this historical method. After all, the academic environment today considers it a greater sin for a scholar to believe something that is untrue than not to believe something that is true (in real life it can be just as perilous not to believe warning signs of a financial downturn than to be overly ready to believe in one). Corroboration is obviously of huge help to the historian. Yet the problem with asking for the Old Testament to be confirmed by something else is that, if it is the principal deposit of Israelite literature, we should expect that most of it will remain indefinitely without external confirmation. To insist that we only accept parts of the Old Testament that are confirmed by other ancient Near Eastern records, could be rather like insisting that we write a history of England based exclusively on records from outside England. Likewise, if we tried to write a history of ancient Egypt based entirely on records from other nations our history would be very meagre indeed. However, when we accept its records we can know a significant amount about its history, since Egypt has the good fortune of much writing on durable material and a dry enough climate in the south to preserve much perishable material too. The only place in Israel where we could expect perishable material to survive would be out in the desert if someone decided to hide writing safely in some storage jars. This, of course, is precisely what did happen in the case of the Dead Sea Scrolls, whose concealment could only have become desirable in very particular historical circumstances. Nevertheless, even in this case, despite the dry climate, caves and jars, most of the writing that was hidden has been lost. Despite the losses, some of the biblical texts among the Dead Sea Scrolls do show that careful copying could proceed for a millennium between the time of the Scrolls and our earliest extensive manuscripts of the Hebrew Old Testament. So, as far back as we can see, there is some evidence of a culture of careful copying and the conservative spelling conventions of the Old Testament suggest that this went back even before the Dead Sea Scrolls. There is thus the necessary evidence for us to be able legitimately to conclude that through a process involving copying over long periods of time we could have access to ancient Israelite literature. If so, and if we are not going to penalize the Israelites for having written on a more ‘advanced’ writing material, we need to give the Old Testament a serious place in historiography alongside other writings of the ancient Near East.