What we know from evidence about the Old Testament
by Matt Giwer, © 2005 [March]

Proceeding strictly from the physical evidence the material we consider to be the Old Testament first appears in history as the Greek Septuagint. Neither belief nor argumentation is acceptable. Only physical evidence is of interest.

  • There is not one prior mention of such material, stories or events.

    There are a few questionable translations of single words or passages. There are a few name similarities. In no case do any of these have any connection with any event or situation in the bible.

  • Today not one inscription has been found which predates it.

    While Egypt is the most professionally dug place in the world, the playground of more archaeologists than any place else in the world, Palestine is a close second for the professionals. Palestine including Israel teams with amateurs often thwarting the antiquities laws. In addition modern Israel has had more construction per square mile in the last fifty years than Egypt will likely see in the next century. Everything from homes to highways, parking garages to high-rises, it is likely the most dug place in the world.

    The construction companies are ruled by the strict antiquities laws. Israel itself has both a religious and a political drive to establish biblical Israel. For the last half century Israel has financed digs aimed directly at finding physical evidence of the Old Testament. Nothing has been found.

  • Nor is there any sign of a Hebrew language which predates it.

    There is a circular argument used by bible believers. When Phoenician inscriptions are found outside the areas the Old Testament says the Hebrews lived it is identified as Phoenician. When they are found inside those areas it is identified as proto-Hebrew. Without the Old Testament "guidance" the inscriptions are indistinguishable. What is called proto-Hebrew is Phoenician.

By the simple rule for ancient writings, the first mention of a document is the date of the document. This means the Greek Septuagint is the original document. There is no mention of the Septuagint being a translation until Josephus nearly three centuries later. The Greek Septuagint appears in history full blown without antecedent or prior mention nor today with the least physical evidence that it is other than the original.

Given the religious interest of the Christian world in evidence for the Old Testament and of the Jewish world for both religious and political evidence one would assume if the above were in error museums around the world would display the evidence I say does not exist. These are the days of the internet and many good search engines starting with Google.com. Please use it to find these artifacts. You will be disappointed.

Israeli museums should be full of them. All you will find are artifacts of other cultures mostly from the Greek and Roman period along with Phoenician, Assyrian and even Egyptian. You will find nothing specifically related to any biblical event or story.

When you get out of the professional links you will find circular reasoning from the Old Testament. A typical mention will be "dated to the time of Solomon." That is simply using bible begats to determine a time frame. We can find artifacts in the New World dated to the time of Solomon. Saying dated to the time of Solomon does not connect it to Solomon or Israel even if found in Palestine.

To be an artifact of biblical Israel it has to have some intrinsic feature which makes that connection. This is why the forged temple inscription was of such interest when it came to light in 2004. It had words roughly like those found in the Old Testament. Had it not been a forgery it would have been physical evidence and would have been the first physical evidence that the Old Testament predates the Septuagint and the latter being a translation. The same people who created this forgery are also credited with forging the "pomegranate" and the James ossuary.

In a more general sense simply showing bibleland was populated in the past is meaningless. Ever since primates started leaving Africa millions of years ago the land has been populated. Gibbons and orangutans lived there. Home Erectus, Neanderthal and Sapiens have lived there. There is no way out of Africa without passing through Palestine.

Another way of trying to salvage the Old Testament is to say "so much is known that Solomon could have been no more than a local warlord." That is not saying he was a local warlord or that he existed. It is phrased to true believers can hold on to their beliefs.

The need to believe is strong. Consider those who would believe Solomon was just a local warlord. Simply believing that says the entire Old Testament is false as there is no biblical Israel, no great kingdom, nothing. It is no different from finding an inscription outside of bibleland which only has a name similar to a name in the Old Testament and saying it confirms all of it. A find means absolutely nothing more than what it says internally. It is physical evidence only of itself.

So who wrote it?
It appears about the time the Maccabees appear in history. By the physical evidence all we have of them are a couple coins with the image of the grandson of Judah Maccabe so we can't run too far with it. But it is the only confirmed event we have which coincides with the appearance of the Septuagint. Did the revolt in the books of Maccabe occur? There is no evidence of it. We have only the story in the books. Remember we only have those coins as evidence of their existence.

Why did they create it? I have no idea but I can guess. It does make their claim to the land by conquest. Ownership of land by conquest was the only basis for the claim until after WWII when it was formally abjured. We have no idea if this is other than an modern aberration. Another possibility was it was a guileless creation. The land was ruled by the eastern Greek empire at the time; braggadocio in the books of Maccabe to the contrary as those books are not part of the Septuagint. In this case it would be simply recording the myths of the local people as the Greeks had recorded their myths making it a simple matter of emulation.

How could they have created such a huge work so quickly? Perhaps even creating a religion so quickly? We have seen Joseph Smith create the Book of Mormon and a successful religion which shows no signs of disappearing. We have L. Ron Hubbard creating Scientology and needs only make a few changes to avoid future criminal charges to go mainstream. Given a plethora of legends to work with cobbling something together would not be a significant challenge. Given the history of the region, essentially always ruled by so many other cultures all of those legends would have been available. Name changes and making the people related no matter how incongruous would not have been a difficult matter. For example, the life of Solomon is almost identical to the life of Ramses III. It is obviously the model.

In addition we look at the Letter of Aristeas and see it gives an Egyptian connection to the creation of the Septuagint. At the time it was created the library of Alexandria was in its full glory. It would have contained thousands of records from all three Greek empires as inspiration for the stories. We cannot expect to identify them all as most all the contents of the library were lost over a thousand years ago.

And yes, much of the Old Testament is incongruous. We do not find anything intrinsically incongruous with fairy tales because we suspend disbelief, we feel free to fill in the blanks and explain away incongruities. As we are not only raised to believe it in but immersed in a culture which usually behaves as though it believes in it we just do not notice the incongruities. Very few of them are thrown in our faces by the text itself.

In a fairytale which do not have to make sense the stories are changed in the retelling to make them more credible. Popularity chooses among the retellings. So also a bible story rarely appears on its own, start to finish. The scene is set, the story is liberally retold without regard to the original content, and we are told what it means. There are very few stories which hit us in the face as unexplainable such as Abraham sacrificing Isaac and those are subject to unending explanations.

What does not make sense, what seems stupid, insane, irrational, becomes the fodder for endless digression and explanation of the hidden meaning of the story. If these were not considered "sacred" books but rather from another religious tradition we would dismiss them for what they are, stupid, insane and irrational. As they are from our religious tradition we search for deeper meanings. If politicians were given this latitude we would also believe they are geniuses who never lie.

For example the story of Adam and Eve clearly says why they were banished from Eden, to prevent them from eating of the Tree of Life and living forever to become gods themselves. But as that clear statement does not comport with the Old Testament as a religion the clearly stated reason for being banished is left out of the retelling. But if you leave it in you see why the god of the Old Testament rules with the stick instead of the carrot. And you can see why that god has no problem tormenting people like Abraham and Job.

The bible does not make sense as written. It is filled with magic and miracles therefore it is nonsense. But people are told they must understand it. People believe they are required to find ways to understand it. And there is no dearth of people explaining it in different but acceptable ways. As they are acceptable ways, people can accept mutually exclusive explanations and still not come to blows.

The point of all of this is the collection of stories in the Old Testament is not some massive, coherent work which implies some super editor in the sky. It is a set of short stories with cardboard characters loosely stitched together. As such the origin of the David and Goliath story can as easily have been inspired by the Tortoise and the Hare fable as anything else. But the good little guy beating the big bully is something all boys hear as children and there is no reason to think this story has not been told to boys back to the time humans had evolved enough to tell stories.

It is called great literature but it is never studied as literature as it is barely literature. What little literary merit there is exists only in the King James Version translation which introduces it. It does not come close to the quality of ancient literature. It is dross compared to the Iliad.

An Afterthought
What has always struck me as interesting is the interest in the "Hebrew" bible by true believers. Let us assume for the moment it is the original and the Septuagint a copy. Fine.

Is not the Septuagint a translation into a very well known, relatively unambiguous language, Greek, 2200 years closer to the original than us? Would not they be immeasurably better qualified to know the real meaning of the original than we? So why is not the Septuagint taken as the original meaning? It is certainly the oldest meaning we have for the Old Testament.

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