Ze’ev Herzog and the historicity of the Bible

Ze'ev Herzog Tel Aviv UniversityTo what extent can we reasonably treat the stories of the Bible as actual historical events? On a recent visit to Tel Aviv, I had a fascinating interview with Dr. Ze’ev Herzog, a distinguished Israeli archaeologist and a leading figure in the debate regarding the “historicity” of the Hebrew Bible, or what Christians call the Old Testament. This is a topic that has intrigued me for years and is an important thread in my current project. I couldn’t have asked for better scholarly guidance on a complicated topic.

Though he formally retired three years ago, Dr. Herzog is still active in the field. Since 2005 he has been the Director of the Institute of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University, whose faculty includes some of the most sophisticated and intellectually courageous archaeologists in the world. He is an adviser to the Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority and was a peer and colleague to some of the giants of the recent generation of prominent Israeli archaeologists, including Yigael Yadin with whom he excavated Tel Hazor and Tel Megiddo (Armageddon), and Yohanan Aharoni with whom he excavated Tel Arad and Tel Be’er Sheva. He also directed the archaeological work at Beer Sheba, Tel Michal and Tel Gerisa and ancient Jaffa. (From his brief explanation of some of the finds there, I was ready to chuck the book project and volunteer to help dig!)

A provocative debate in Israel

What had initially attracted my interest in meeting Dr. Herzog was an article he wrote back in 1999 in Ha’aretz, a leading centrist Israeli daily, that precipitated a firestorm of debate among Israeli intellectuals and the general public. The article was entitled Deconstructing the Walls of Jericho, and it opened with these words:

This is what archaeologists have learned from their excavations in the Land of Israel: the Israelites were never in Egypt, did not wander in the desert, did not conquer the land in a military campaign and did not pass it on to the 12 tribes of Israel. Perhaps even harder to swallow is the fact that the united monarchy of David and Solomon, which is described by the Bible as a regional power, was at most a small tribal kingdom. And it will come as an unpleasant shock to many that the God of Israel, Jehovah, had a female consort and that the early Israelite religion adopted monotheism only in the waning period of the monarchy and not at Mount Sinai. Most of those who are engaged in scientific work in the interlocking spheres of the Bible, archaeology and the history of the Jewish people – and who once went into the field looking for proof to corroborate the Bible story – now agree that the historic events relating to the stages of the Jewish people’s emergence are radically different from what that story tells.

The article went on to elaborate the history of archaeological and historical research, and cataloged the solid evidence for conclusions that may seem radical but are in fact reasonable, even conservative, interpretations of the record by today’s objective academics. The public dialog the article precipitated was predictably intense, with many religious scholars attacking Herzog on his facts. But I was interested in hearing Herzog’s personal experience of the firestorm he created and the personal interactions that came out of it.

Ze'ev Herzog
Ze’ev Herzog in his office, Tel Aviv University

Herzog impressed me as a imminently reasonable man who was able to relate other people’s views calmly and respectfully. I had the impression listening to him, even as the time went on and we had the opportunity to talk about the work of other scholars in the field, that even if one of his scholarly opponents had been in the room with us, he or she would not have objected to Herzog’s summary of his or her position.

I was expecting to hear stories of vitriolic responses he had received from religious Jews, but this didn’t seem to have been his experience. Orthodox Jews, he said, did not seem to react much or even pay much attention, while many nationalist/religious-leaning Jews were intensely engaged in the topic but sought out discussion and debate in what seemed to be a perfectly civil manner: a typical reaction he related from these Jews was “maybe you just haven’t found the evidence yet.” He related a few reactions with devout Muslims that might be summarized as “I don’t care if the Bible is historically accurate or not, my beliefs come from the Quran so these have to be true.” And he shared one comment from a thoroughly-secular relative, who expressed disappointment only that Herzog could point to examples where archaeology supported the Biblical story.

The only group from which Herzog related getting indignant personal responses were from American Christians, from whom he received some angry letters warning him of the divine retribution headed his way. As an American traveler who is perhaps is vulnerable to media stereotypes of how irrationally religious those people in the faraway Middle East are, it was gentle and funny comeuppance.

The “burden” of having a Bible to refer to

On a broader topic, Dr. Herzog gave me an insightful overview of the shifting academic consensus about the historicity of the Bible that has occurred over the past one hundred fifty years. It is easy to find examples where religious academics seemed to have had their thumb on the scale when it came to interpreting archaeological finds, and more recent atheistic scholars may have been guilty of the same temptation. But leaving those examples aside, it is really interesting to me what a raw intellectual challenge it is to try to make sense of the ancient history of Israel. When the Biblical narrative is so powerfully ingrained in our sense of what “must” have happened there, how, as an archaeologist, can you ignore it as you dust off an artifact you’ve never seen before? Why should you ignore the Bible when it is the most comprehensive narrative you have of the region? And how do you strike a balance between focusing on the people who left a written narrative- even when you suspect it is false- and their neighbors and rivals who did not?

Dr. Herzog acknowledged these challenges while also pointing out that other fields of research have their own distinct challenges. He summed up by saying “while researchers in biology and mathematics have their own difficulties, at least they are not burdened by having a Bible.”

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30 Comments

  1. Most tribes throughout history have developed origin myths to give their people a sense of unity in the face of adversity. Th1e creators of the myths, which historically has been the priest class, consider unity, not to mention the perpetuation of their livelihood, to be more important than truth. The Jews, including their spinoffs, Christians and Moslems, are no exception.

  2. As the intelligence quotient increases, the ideas for belief diminish. There is no reason needed for one to believe in something especially a religion that dates back to mythical times. When I need help, I usually as a relative or very close friend. I don’t need any religion or religious person to augment the problem even more.

    • Ditto. Religion is not the solution to the problem. It is the problem. And no religion is “better” than any other. They’re all bad.

      The more you subscribe to the dogma of any religion, Judaism included, the nuttier you become and the more trouble you cause for mankind. The words of William Godwin, contemporary of Thomas Jefferson, come to mind: “The moment government descends to wear the badge of a sect, religious war is commenced and the world is disgraced with inexpiable broils and deluged with blood.”

      It seems that it is the U.S. and Great Britain’s turn to cause trouble for the world. This begs the question: Which religion is running the show in those countries, what are their aims of its leaders, and why should their ancient and anachronistic view of the world be imposed on everyone else ?

      If it is not possible for any anyone to stop the military machine of these countries, can academics and intellectuals at least start being honest with themselves, that is set aside their cultural and religious biases, long enough to apply some pressure on the leaders of these countries before they cause a third world war?

      • we pray that God almighty unveil your spiritual eyes so that you may experience too what we are enjoying in Him. A joy that cannot explain nor express in words but only understood in your inner soul. God bless you

    • So what’s your take on man’s purpose? Can we have a hope for anything other than this life? If not, what do you look forward to everyday when you wake up and get out of bed?
      God still loves you whether or not you acknowledge Him or not!

        • Well, I understand you’re not saying there is no God, but a God having a wife.

          If the religions are saying that that God has revealed, why does He “irresponsibly” remain silent, if the religions were lying & all false/evil?

          If He stays quiet then at least one of the religions is correct and justified, and actually better for mankind than no religion: I.e. the purpose of life being to vainly struggle to satisfy one animal passion after the other, including hiddenly killing an enemy or telling lies difficult to detect & dying without any reckoning etc.

      • Paul on
        yes u r right.God loves everybody but not He likes us all. I think if we give Him the chance to reside in our hearts the love of God in our live will be more intense and powerful gradually …
        and the realiazation that without God in our lives is meaningless.

  3. Life itself is a miracle,the birth of a child,the rising and setting of the sun,everything around us,if you choose not to believe is certainly up to you,I believe in our Lord but will not force that on anyone,we all have that option to choose.

  4. It seems to me that religion is a proscribed method of conduct within a culture, and as developed countries become more secular there is no sense of civility, or discipline, or respect for the other? Marx/Alensky said you have to change the culture to change the society.

    THOSE WHO BELIEVE IN SOMETHING have a sense of who they are. I’ve always seen religion as a behavioral guideline, and those who wrote Torah or the books of other religions embellished on actual fact, then developed on the behaviors that then developed, causing a system of discipline and rules for behavior.

    • CC
      When a manufacturer makes a car, he/she releases it with an owners manual to help the users mantain and enjoy their car for the lifespan it was designed for. This is petty standard on literally all man made consumer products. The reason is because manufacturers know the limits of their products.
      Ken’s observation that religion ‘I call it reverence for God’ appears to bring order is correct, as it governs the boundaries of human behavior and interaction. Though shall not kill, covert, Steal,…love your neighbor as thyself…this is because this is the owners manual.
      Our challenge is we have many variants of the owners manual, yet it is the one that brings civilization and order which is correct.
      For me, it is when I love my Neighbour whatever religion or belief, not kill, steal nor covert, love my God, forgive, am patient, kind and humble, love God…I run well on these, but also, when I’m in distress and call upon the name of Jesus, I find relief time and time again, the same way I may not know how an email is transmitted but know when I send this, it will be read around the world, This same Faith, has made me run well, so I conclude my source is the correct owners manual.

    • God like Christ is not a “Being” hence not religionist(i.e. having no specific religion), but a “Supreme Consciousness” that embrace all life including Humanity. You can only ‘worship’ God in Truth and Spirit St John 4:24 refers (interpretation is absolutely yours). The Master Jesus came and taught us what to look forward to every day in our lives and i.e. the Law of Love to God and Man, which transcend religion.
      Despite all the supposed ‘goodness’ of religion, man on earth still has no peace either personally or collectively. What then is the problem and probable solution?

  5. Why would your God (one of over 5,000 worshiped as the only one) creator of the infinate universe write a book ( Christian Bible) that deceptively made himself appear to have no more concept of the magnitude of what he had created than that of a person living on a tiny spec for less than a second of all time of that universe and only make the afterlife available to even less than a fraction of all mankind (Christins) that existed after the writing?

  6. Science can hardly explain religion sufficiently. Science is good and has helped mankind awesomely. However, religion or faith is a matter of experience and not experiment. I believe in the Bible,absolutely.

  7. The problem with the “owner’s manual” theory is that there are a lot of “bad” or “stupid” morals to take from the Old as well as the New Testament. If a girl is raped, her father should sell her to the rapist for 50 pieces of silver and she will become the rapist’s wife (one of them at least) for the rest of his days with no hope of divorce. If you beat your slave and he dies right away, you’ll be punished, but if he lingers a day or two, just the act of losing the slave will be your punishment as he was a source of your income. In the New Testament Paul sends an escaped slave back to his owner, which was actually against Jewish law at the time. There is the whole Quirinius/Herod killing of the infants timeline kerfuffle. There is the impossibility of keeping a 4000 year genealogy (from Jesus back to Adam) which, somehow, Luke conveniently ends up with. How many of you can trace your genealogy back 300 years in a modern era, let alone 4000? These type of things are embellishments of the ancients to try to make the story work. No, the Bible is a load of bollocks, now we just need to define what is right and just without the religious claptrap.

  8. The matter of proving the existence of primordial call God is always there. In cosmology scientist have often found the lack of evidence for a personal God of biblical stature. In biology it’s even apparent that spieces evolved through time and various other means like natural selection and gene variations. So the concept of a God especially in a amphoromophic terms is found to be not promising .But personally I still believe in God of the bible especially Jesus Christ my Lord and Saviour whom I experienced. His spirit and power is so tengable that I just couldn’t deny the experience of some numinous hidden even though sometimes certain fact seem contradictory.

    • RELIGIOUS MKULTRA?

      The 3 Abrahamic Cults of Death — JUDAISM – CHRISTENDOM – ISLAM, which have drenched the earth with the blood of their victims!

  9. Congratulations. As Í have a good idea of what is the purpose for writing the Bible, the findings are good for taking us out of our simple believes and go to a better understanding of ourselves as a humans and to find our real purpose of being here on earth.

  10. Religious people aren’t all obscurantist nutcases and it’s unfair to categorise them as such. You don’t see many Atheist charities around the World after all. The tension between the World as it is and as we would like it to be is unknown in Homer who regards war, and pointless slaughter, as the natural order of things in a way that modern people don’t. I think the Bible has played a part in that.

  11. God is a Cosmic Force that exist throughout the Universe and is not a Being like you and me. This is the driving and living Force that moves the Universe and everything in it, it all existed as One. When we prayed to God we are actually praying to this Cosmic Force that’s within us and surrounding us. And with enough Faith, our Soul can manifest what we prayed for because it is part of the Omnipotent Cosmic Force. And if we are benevolent towards our world, we shall be rewarded, as you reap what you sowed otherwise we too shall be punished for what we destroyed and then wash our face with our tears. Our Soul are part of this Force, a mere molecule inside this Force akin to a drop of water in the vast ocean. That’s why our life and our world is but just an illusion because there is neither a beginning nor an ending; it just existed within this Cosmic Force. Sorry, our tiny brain and mind is not created to go beyond this point of Cosmic Hypothesis.

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