Camel Bones and Jerusalem: Archeology Shows Bible written Late, Full of Errors

(By Juan Cole)

A new paper by Israeli archeologists Lidar Sapir-Hen and Erez Ben-Yosef, [pdf] posted at the University of Tel Aviv web site , is bad news for biblical literalists and far right wing Israeli nationalists who use the Bible for support.

The Hebrew Bible’s oldest chapters– Genesis, Exodus, and even Judges purport to discuss events thousands of years ago. The custom in Western biblical scholarship is to date Abraham to e.g. 2000 B.C. This dating is based on nothing more than counting generations (“begats”) backward and assigning an arbitrary number of years to each generation. In fact, Genesis is replete with myths and assertions of people living hundreds of years, and was only historicized in this way by 19th century positivists.

But here is proof that the Bible was written late and projects later developments into the distant past: it alleges that people had domesticated camels four millennia ago in what is now Israel. And that assertion, folks, is simply not true. That is the finding of Sapir-Hen and Ben-Yosef.

E.g. Genesis 24: 64 says, “Rebekah lifted up her eyes, and when she saw Isaac she dismounted from the camel.” If this encounter happened circa 2026 BC, it was happening a thousand years before anyone was riding camels.

The archeologists’ digs near the Jordanian border find evidence of domesticated camels sort of 930-900 BC. But they don’t find that evidence in any settlements older than 930 BC. There is a pretty clear dividing line between the pre-domestic camel and post- domestic camel settlements.

Although it was likely based on previous oral tales, the Bible probably wasn’t written down in something like its present form until the Babylonian exile, 586-539 B.C. When those scribes reworked the folk tales of the Canaanites, they projected sixth-century BC realities back into the past. Thus, they had characters riding camels before they were domesticated. Riding a camel was taken for granted in 580 BC.

You might think this point is a minor one. But it demonstrates how the scribes worked. They projected recent things into the distant past.

The archeological evidence shows that not only weren’t people riding camels in the Levant when the Bible says they were, David and Solomon didn’t have a huge palace in Jerusalem in the 1000s and 900s BC. The Assyrians, the gossips of the ancient world, wrote down everything on their clay tablets. They knew events in the whole Middle East. They did not know anything about a glorious kingdom of David and Solomon at Jerusalem. Indeed, in the 1000s when David is alleged to have lived, Jerusalem seems to have been largely uninhabited, according to the digs that have been done. Jerusalem was not in any case founded by Jews, but by Canaanites in honor of the god Shalem, thousands of years ago. There is no reason to think anyone but Canaanites lived in the area of Jerusalem in the 1000s or 900s BC. Likely some Canaanites became devoted to Y*H*W*H in a monotheistic way during the Babylonian exile when they began inventing Judaism and becoming “Jews” and projecting it back into the distant past.

In short, those far right wing Israelis who use the bible stories as a basis for kicking Palestinians out of their homes in East Jerusalem are making many mistakes, including historical ones, as well as human rights mistakes.


Related video:

The Invention of the Land of Israel – book launch with Shlomo Sand | Frontline Club Talks

37 Responses

  1. Good to see another piece of hard evidence getting some publicity. In fact, most of the conventional religion-based content of the Pentateuch has now either been undermined by archaeology, or is on very shaky ground. No evidence for tribes wandering in the desert, or indeed for the exile in Egypt. A number of the towns mentioned in connection with the exile/return saga would have been well known to those hearing the stories in the time they were written in the mid-1st millennium, but the excavation evidence indicates they weren’t inhabited at the time in the second millennium when the events were supposed to have taken place.

    All societies seem to like to have a foundation myth- in this case, the evidence is very much that they wrote themselves a past. However, despite all the evidence, there seems to be a general reluctance to address the implications this evidence has for the religions practiced by the peoples of the Book.

  2. OK, now I am officially crestfallen.. I just can’t believe the bible is not accurate. Next they’ll claim there was no star that led the wise men to the stable where Jesus was born.

  3. “but here is proof that the Bible was written late…….and projects latter devleopments in to the distant past.”
    Do you expect people who do not even accept evolution to accept anything that is touted as truth that the Bible has errors?

  4. I’ve been wondering what Kerry was thinking when Nutsandcuukoo was telling him that the Zionists had to have the West Bank because that is where Jacob had his dream about the ladder. Probably no archeological evidence of that, either. How tall was that ladder, or stairway, anyway? With all due respect, please.

  5. One of the major mistakes of literalists and religious fundamentalists in all religions is that they read their scriptures as statements of fact. The Bible is not a history book. It is more akin to literature and poetry, to the tales of Sir Gawain and the Green Knights, to the Avestan stories about an ancient kingdom of Jamshid or stories about King Arthur than to any proper historical narrative.

    In fact, there might be more historical truths in the myths about King Arthur who was a legendary British leader of the early 6th century AD than in the tales about Abraham, David and Solomon whose alleged existence is shrouded by mystery and myths. The same goes for the sojourn in Egypt and the exodus. It is important to bear in mind that the oldest record of the complete text of the Old Testament survives in a Greek translation called the Septuagint dating from the 4th century AD and the oldest extant manuscripts of the Bible upon which modern editions are based date from the 9th century AD. In other words, old tales were transmitted by the word of mouth before they were written down hundreds of years after the events that they refer to.

    The Avesta, the Vedas, the Bible, the Koran and other ancient religious texts are fascinating accounts of the beliefs and superstitions of ancient people, but they seldom provide an accurate account of past events or a guide for modern life.

  6. A great update on so-called Biblical archaeology – so-called because so much of it turns out to be completely wrong, and it doesn’t take an Israeli archaeologist to tell us that. It has been known for quite some time that the literary and archaeological record of the Bible simply fail, for the most part, to correspond. Robin Lane Fox’s fine book, The Unauthorized Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible, is an excellent piece of scholarship that explores the difficulties one faces in attempting to connect history with biblical literature.

    As an example: the gospel of Luke implies that Herod the Great was king of Judaea at the same time the Roman governor of Syria was Publius Sulpicius Quirinius. Well, good luck with all that – Herod had been dead for a decade once Quirinius undertook his governorship. Again, Luke states that Caesar Augustus (d. AD 14) ordered all the world to be taxed. Again, good luck with that: the empire was not universally taxed until Caracalla (d. 217) granted (near) universal Roman citizenship.

    As for biblical anachronism, this is a phenomenon familiar to any historian of ancient Rome who deals with early Roman history. The great Roman historian Livy, for example, emphasizes in his early narrative of Roman history the struggle between the nobility and the plebeians, a conflict that that was far more acute in recent Roman history, during the time of Livy and the two or three generations immediately proceeding him, and probably colored his narrative of events two to five centuries before his own day.

    The problems reconstructing the past using even ancient historians, such as Thucydides and Polybius, who are somewhat respected for their relative accuracy, are legion; to try and build a modern nation-state based on an ancient source is the task of a fool who is wedded to what is tantamount to mumbo-jumbo.

    By the way, the attempt to nation build based on ancient texts has been done before. That text was the Germania by the greatest of the Roman historians, Tacitus, and that nation was the modern Germany. The work contrasts at key points Germanic virtue, probity, and freedom, against Roman decadence. The text was read in some circles as proof of German superiority over inferior peoples, and we all know how that turned out (see C. B. Krebs, A Most Dangerous Book, [New York, 2011]).

  7. Now if the vast majority of Muslims who literally believe the Qur’an is the Word of God as conveyed to Muhammad by the Angel Gabriel would start to question their beliefs and admit that such beliefs are just as much myth as is much of the Bible, we might begin to find secular common ground. The piece below on the “Death of God” in Iraq is a promising beginning.

    • That will happen when the vast majority of Christians who literally believe the Bible is the Word of God as start to question their beliefs and admit that such beliefs are myth.

  8. very interesting. I’m part of a local Palestine Study Group and we have a new Christian Zionist member. I just want to keep up with the debate (for his sake!)

  9. A local professor of ancient history has stated that the whole Egyptian exile and exodus have no historical backing. The Egyptians – who documented EVERYTHING, and for many thousands of years – say nothing about it. They wouldn’t fail to cover a mass exit of thousands of slaves, particularly if preceded by water turning to blood, locusts, frogs, and a mysterious death of all the first borns, including the young Pharoah to be.

    You know, here in New Mexico, before you can take title to any piece of property, the law requires that a title search be made. It’s a big deal here, due to the centuries of assorted treaties and other agreements made with the native American nations. Another complication is the original Spanish colonization, the land grants from the Crown, and how these claims to property were honored via treaties made by the United States when it took possession. Some of these cases are still in the courts.

    One would have thought that similar precautions might have been taken in granting the land of modern Israel to European Jews…

  10. As much as I enjoyed this post and strongly believe in the evidence presented, the “true believer” does not use logic. It’s simply “Because God/Yahweh/Allah said so!” You will never convince them otherwise, which is a shame. My only hope is that future generations abandon a reliance on myth and fable to explain the “meaning of life.”

  11. Science MUST be discredited by those who profess and teach ” faith” in myths and magic. Politicians and con artists will be disempowered by science once “faith” is sufficiently exposed for the trickery that it is. Given the power of the tricksters in today’s societies, it is critical that archeology and anthropology, geography and geology must be taught to young people in this now-globally-connected world. Maths, for instance, should include the historical (archeological) evidence of the development of maths as a tool of the development of societies — the key word being EVIDENCE. Humans will use their brains when the tricksters are sufficiently exposed. This archeological evidence has been known for several years, but archeologists don’t tend to be “evangelical” as are the myth-dogma tricksters are. This Real Bible Story cannot be told too often. Thanks Juan. The stories of human development were relegated to myths and magic in ancient times. Allowing the politicians and con artist tricksters to ignore and evangelically discredit science has been a big mistake. When Bill Nye challenges the creation museum, he deserves a LOT of backup.

  12. Good reference. I am now reading “The Bible Unearthed” by Finkelstein and Silberman which discusses related research. Considering all the great and substantial religions of the world and the provable time they have been in existence, it always strikes me as laughable the sway that Judeo-Chrisitian religions have on the planet. Really, it would be just as reasonable to believe in Santa, the Easter Bunny or an honest politician. Just sayin’.

  13. I think religions ought to be studied from a different time perspective. What are 2000 or 5000 years out of millions?
    Mankind has always made up new stories. Otherwise the
    Harry Potter billions could never have been accumulated.
    I compassionately acknowledge the need of mankind for
    some god(s) but that is where all of the fairy tales do end.

  14. The truth that the tales of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Joshua, Samuel, David and Solomon are but myths is nothing new. For a long time there has been a minimalist school of study of the Old Testament texts that has made clear that the kingdom of David and Solomon was no more than an illiterate tribal community of sheep herders living on the margins of the great ancient empires of Egypt and Mesopotamia and the Phoenician city states. But it is an illusion – or wishful delusion – to suppose that these results of serious scientific scholarship, historical research, and archaeological endeavour, will make one iota of difference to the Zionist extremists. Their faith will not be in the least undermined. Religion and religious understanding of “sacred” history is in reality but a peripheral force driving nationalist zeal. In other conflicts apparently driven by religious hatred, the religious beliefs of one or another of the protagonists have been unimportant. Who really believes that when Catholic mobs hurled molotov cocktails at the Royal Irish Constabulary, they were motivated by a devotion to transubstantiation or the immaculate condeption? Being “Catholic” was merely waving a flag. It was an identity. Most Protestants in Ulaster were not churchgoers and cared nothing for the 39 articles of the Anglican communion or the teachings of Calvin and John Knox. They called themselves Protestants simply to distinguish themselves from the “Papists” who were a different ethnic group to themselves. And so it is with so many Zionists. Ultimately, religion as such does not matter, They simply have a racial prejudice against (ironically) the Semitic natives of Palestine, Arabs, Asians, non Europeans who seventy years ago made a pact with Hitler. Religion is a justification for a pre-existing hatred, not the driving force; and scietific undermining of the “truth” of the Torah will not alter their fundamental animosity to “inferior” peoples.

  15. I can’t get as excited over this paper’s publication as some of the folks posting here. The Old Testament, the New Testament and the Koran — you seriously want to believe in them literally? Yes, there are archeological sites which offer evidence to early Jebusite, Cananite and Jewish settlement in the land within the old British Mandate. It’s clear enough that the evidence from the 3rd Century BC is sufficient for scholars to reach their own conclusions. But if you want to believe that some guy walked on water or that another guy flew on his horse from hundreds of miles away to Jerusalem and then ascended to heaven – ok, whatever suits you. But please, let’s get away from this holy war nonsense. There’s no way out of this to reach any kind of resolution. Papers like these and the polemics which inevitably follow are simply boring and take everyone off point.

  16. “that another guy flew on his horse from hundreds of miles away to Jerusalem and then ascended to heaven – ok”

    I do not think the Quran tells this story..

    • Look, no offense. You’re free to believe what you want to believe. But I think the comedian Bill Maher makes a very good point about these assorted stories and everyone’s tribalistic itch to proclaim “my team’s better than your team” based on whatever special pipeline you believe your side has to the Almighty. If folks want to believe so deeply in fairy tales, that’s their right. But it gets in the way of more mundane policy making and attempts to try and resolve what ought to be fairly straightforward territorial disputes.

  17. Your mistake, Juan, is to assume that belief has anything to do with rationality. Facts rarely have any weight for the true believer.

  18. Joseph Campbell has an interesting lecture recorded where he discusses how, when the Bible was being slapped together there was serious consideration of stitching Christianity onto the Greek mystery religions rather than onto the myths of the jews and their barking mad psychopathic god.

    What a missed opportunity.

    • I hadn’t heard of that interesting tidbit, but there was a conference of Bishops held in the Levant about three centuries after the death of Christ which decided what the Christian Canon was going to consist of. It was then that the Old Testament was grafted upon it. One shudders when thinking of the impact of that.

  19. As I recall, it was George Santayana who said that myths had a truth all of their own. Make what you want of this idea.

  20. There are other works that have fairly consistently suggested late authorship / compilation of Tanakh.
    Not without its crititics but a good read is The Bible Unearthed by Israel Finkelstein, Professor of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University, and Neil Asher Silberman, a contributing editor to Archaeology Magazine.

  21. For those who believe in talking snakes, and that God spoke to Moses and had a son, the possibility that the Patriarchs (if they existed) rode mules and not camels is not likely to dissuade them. However, your post makes the same absolutist errors made by right wing Israelis to justify the state of Israel.

    There is a wide range of possible ‘truths in the Bible’ yet you take the most extreme position possible to support your ideological position. There were of course no Jewish slaves in Egypt, but the Exodus story has authentic Egyptian elements suggesting that it is a reworking of some historical event. The same can be said of the flood myth common to many cultures. More importantly, the size and importance of the kingdom of David and Solomon is an active archeological debate and should not be approached as you do from a political position. You accept the position of the ‘minimalists’ like Finkelstein that the kingdoms of David and Solomon were unimportant. However, their previous position was that neither existed, a view found in error when an inscription ‘the house of David’ was found. There is also a considerable body of research (which includes archaeological sites) that contradicts their view. If you choose their position through a study of the primary literature in biblical research it is fine, but if you choose to support the minimalists through a preference for the political consequences that it implies you are making the same error as the biblical literalists.

    In any event, I don’t see how any historical finding is relevant to the current oppression of the Palestinians or any other group of people.

    • “… the Exodus story has authentic Egyptian elements suggesting that it is a reworking of some historical event.”

      There was no such reworking of events. Instead there was contact through trade between Egypt and other parts of the region. So of course there were authentic Egyptian flavorings in the fables. There were also Egyptian invasions of the Levant. Those armies were living Egyptian elements. Men from the Nile Delta were a familiar phenomenon. But there is no basis whatever for crediting myth which has no archaeological or historical basis whatever. That’s especially so when it is used as justification for naked aggression in the 21st Century.

      No one here wishes to deny you the Torah, but there is certainly great resistance to the use of it to justify war crimes and territorial aggression in the 21st Century.

  22. I hate to throw a spanner in the works here, but ‘the Bible’ may have been put together in the early Middle Ages after the Roman Empire was wiped out by a series of cataclysmic events, although it probably drew on some tales that were far older. See: link to

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