Archaeology From the Time of the Patriarchs

One area that Biblical skeptics often assault is the Patriarchal period. They claim that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are myths created in order to establish Israel an ancestral history in Canaan. Julius Wellhausen was one of these skeptics and claimed that “no historical knowledge” of the patriarchs could be retrieved from Genesis. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were merely a “glorified mirage” from later Hebrew history, projected back in time.”[1] Yet if this was the case, inconsistencies between the Biblical narrative and the archaeological evidence would be expected. 

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Mural from Beni Hasan in Egypt depicting tent dwelling people like Abraham

Keeping in mind that the author of this paper lives in the early 21st century, allow an analogy to be presented. The author of this paper cannot fathom a world where women married for security without respect for love, or where people were forced to marry because of an illegitimate child, yet no less than 100 years ago this was the customary. If the author of this paper wrote a myth set in the World War II era, it would be impossible to accurately capture all the nuances and cultural norms of the day, even with the vast amount of knowledge accessible through historical documentation, because this author has never lived in the world being painted. People come to the world with various lenses. Everyone sees things differently because of their personal experiences and cultural conditioning, therefore the ability to write an accurate myth matching the historical data of that period perfectly, without the author’s personal cultural biases creeping into the story, would be impossible.

This is exactly the scenario presented when discussing whether the Patriarchs were a myth or actual historical figures. If they were a myth projected backwards in time by even 100 years, historical inaccuracies would run rampant in the text and there would be no way for the author to have included nuances and customs that were not norms in his present day culture. When one studies the archaeological evidence for the patriarchal period, one finds nothing but archaeological support for Biblical narrative.

One such nuance or culturally dependent circumstance was the price of slaves, which can, for the purpose of understanding inflation, be explained in terms of modern day gas prices. Currently, gas prices range from $2.57-$2.85 a gallon, but this author can remember a time when gas was a measly $1.25 per gallon. Yet, if one speaks with someone of an older generation they will hear about when gas was 25¢ a gallon. That seems unreal to the modern reader who has never experienced such a low price. Such is the case with the price of slaves.

Archaeological evidence has shown that: “[U]nder the Akkad Empire (2371-2191 B.C.), a decent slave fetched 10-15 silver shekels” and that “the price dropped slightly to 10 shekels during the Third Dynasty of Ur (2113-2006 B.C.)” only to bounce up to 20 shekels “in the second millennium B.C., during the early Babylonian period.”[2] “By the 14th and 13th centuries B.C…. the price crept up to 30 shekels and sometimes more. Another five hundred years later, Assyrian slave markets demanded 50-60 shekels for slaves; and under the Persian Empire (fifth and fourth centuries B.C.), souring inflation pushed prices up to 90 and 120 shekels.”[3]

In every case that money has been discussed regarding slaves in the Bible, the price matches that of the archaeological record. According to a “combination of Egyptian and Biblical evidence…the patriarchs…should be dated to the first half of the second millennium B.C. (the Middle Bronze Age).”[4] Therefore when Joseph is sold into slavery by his brothers for 20 silver shekels, the Biblical record of his price is accurate for the time. When Moses discusses compensation to a master, for the death of a slave, in Exodus 21:32 as being “30 shekels of silver,” this price is accurate for the day. When King Menaham taxes many of the people of Israel “50 shekels of silver,” in 2 Kings 15:20, so he can pay a ransom to a foreign king, this price is accurate for the cost of slaves in that day.[5] If all of this was written by a person from a later period, it would have been impossible for him to have known the correct price of slaves, in each of the corresponding time periods, with such precision, because unlike 21st century writers, first millennium B.C. writers had little to no access to ancient records.

Covenants and treaties are another area where the archaeological evidence and the Biblical narrative match in an uncanny way. In the third millennium B.C., treaties are characterized as having a “formal oath” then a list of stipulations or agreements which was “followed by a curse embodying a second oath.”[6] In many cases, each stipulation was followed by its own curse within the treaty. Early second millennium B.C. treaties are characterized as calling upon a deity as “witness to the oath binding the parties to the treaty,” an inclusion of the oath being made, followed by stipulations to the treaty and typically was concluded by a ceremony to celebrate or mark the treaty.[7] Yet in the middle of the second millennium B.C., the characteristics of treaties changed dramatically. First, the stipulations are moved “between the witnesses and oath” sections, by the Hittites around 1400 B.C. and then later in the 1400s B.C. and 1300s B.C. “an elaborate seven-fold scheme: title (preamble), historical prologue, stipulations, a recitation of the deposit of the treaty, a reading of the treaty (optional), witnesses, curse and blessings” becomes the norm thanks to the Hittites. Treaties from the first century are even more different than any previously mentioned and are much more concise.[8]

Just as one would expect, considering the Patriarchs are dated to the early second millennium B.C., the Patriarchal treaties of the Bible, in Genesis 14, 21, 26, 31, all follow the characteristics of the early second millennium B.C. treaties rather than third millennium or late second millennium or even first millennium treaties. This is yet another reason why the Patriarchs could not have been a myth made up by later generations. Later generations would not have known the nuances of treaties from past periods. They would have made Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob’s treaties like the treaties of their day.

The patriarchal period is full of details both biblically and archaeologically that gives much support to one another. This section has only covered a few facets but there are many more areas where the physical evidence and the biblical narrative match identically in their details. Although the names of the actual Patriarchs have not been found in any excavations to date, their existences seems undeniable based on the evidence. The archaeological evidence discovered from the time of the patriarchs helps the Christian Apologist to not only understand the circumstances surrounding the patriarchs, but also to support the historical accuracy of the patriarchs. A skeptic will have to go to much greater lengths to prove the biblical narrative to be unreliable, because the archaeological evidence is in favor of the Bible.

[1] Kenneth A. Kitchen, “The Patriarchal Age: Myth or History?” BAR, Mar/April (1995), 48-57, 88, 90, 92, 94-95. http://members.bib-arch.org/publication.asp?PubID=BSBA&Volume=21&Issue=2&ArticleID=3 (accessed 6/16/2010)
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.