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Notes from Philip R. Davies: In Search of 'Ancient Israel', 1992--

Common Sense and Credulity

When was the Bible written? The answer to this is vital for understanding the origin of its stories (or history) about Israel. Scholars have traditionally assumed that two events in the Bible narrative give the vital clues about when it was written. But did they really happen? How do we know? Or are we again arguing in a circle? Are we being a bit credulous and lacking commonsense to think they really did?


Did These 2 Key Events Really Happen?


EVENT 1: The Babylonian Captivity

French miniature by Jean Forguet (15th cent.)The most well-known of these events is the King of Babylon sending the Jews into exile. The common image has been of Jewish captives carrying their scrolls of their history and traditions as they are forced to walk to Babylonia where they will become as slaves. Once in Babylonia they take time to reflect on their past sins that led to their exile and collectively repent and pine and ache to return again and do everything right this time. While in captivity their scribes are imagined to have written up the final form of their books recording their history and laws in order to preserve their national and racial identity and strengthen their faith in their God. Then when the time was right, with their first edition of the Bible in hand, they would all return back to Palestine more zealous to obey their God than ever before.

It is a very romantic picture and has nothing in common with what we know about mass deportations and the enslaving of conquered peoples in ancient times. The whole point of deporting populations into slavery in foreign lands was, firstly, to smash any sense of identity and organization they once had as a people to render them incapable of ever rebelling; and secondly, to reorganize economic resources.

It is inconceivable that a conquering king would allow a conquered people he was deporting as slaves to take with them records of their own laws, history, and religious traditions. His purpose was to enslave them so they would adopt new names, language, gods and customs. They would be scattered and mixed with other peoples and not allowed to remain in one place as a national group. Even the Bible story is inconsistent in its claim that exiled slaves experienced a spiritual and cultural revival. It elsewhere claims that only a very few ever finally 'returned', and that those who did so had very little idea of what they were supposed to be doing. They had no interest in building a new temple. So the image of a people staying together while in captivity and becoming more devoted to their God and longing to return to their homeland is simply not borne out even by the Bible story.

Given what we know about mass deportations, exile and slavery in ancient times is it really sensible to think that such a "Babylonian Captivity" could have been a time when the Jews first wrote and studied their Bible?

EVENT 2: Discovery of the Book of the Covenant and the Reforms of Josiah

The other presumed historical period was the discovery of "a book of the covenant" in the Jerusalem Temple that led to the reforms of King Josiah. The only evidence that such a book was ever discovered and that this king ever existed or enacted these reforms is the story itself found in 2 Kings 22-23. The whole point of this story is to explain to the reader that if the laws of book of the covenant had been obeyed then the nation of Judah would never have gone into Babylonian captivity. Furthermore, 2 Kings appears to be strongly influenced by the ideas and language and style found in the book of Deuteronomy, and the book of the covenant in this story is described in a way that makes it look very much like it was really the Book of Deuteronomy in the Old Testament. The whole story looks like an attempt to make the book of Deuteronomy appear to have been known in ancient times and to have had authority. In the story good King Josiah is conveniently killed after enacting the laws of Deuteronomy and all his good work is undone by his successors.

Thus alas! the book was unknown both before after Josiah's time, at least until the time the story was written. It looks very much as if the whole story was written to make a much later book look ancient and requiring obedience to its laws.

If such a story as this were found anywhere except in the Bible it would simply lack credibility. Readers would assume it was a fable.

But let's suppose the story really were true and stop and think about it. Can we imagine an ancient king really using Deuteronomy as his new book of laws. Deuteronomy has only one chapter with commanding a king what to do. (He must not get horses from Egypt and must spend day and night reading the book, etc.) Some scholars have argued that Deuteronomy was actually written at the time of King Josiah, but if this is so it is hard to understand why it has so few commands for kings at a time when kings had all authority over virtually all the activities of their kingdoms. But let's suppose one king really did decide to give up all his ways and begin to rule entirely by the rules of this book. Can we really imagine the many other powerful individuals and groups in the kingdom, those who owed their powers and status to the king, can we imagine them also calmly stepping aside and allowing their king to do this? Possible maybe, but highly improbable.

Now if these stories are untrue we open the floodgate of rethinking all our notions of when the books of Moses and other Bible books were actually written, by and for whom and why.

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