Question about Abraham

I’m listening through Genesis at work, and I re-read a quotation from Adele Berlin:

"Narrative is a form of representation. Abraham in Genesis is not a real person any more than a painting of an apple is a real fruit. This is not a judgment on the existence of a historical Abraham any more than it is a statement about the existence of apples." (Poetics and Interpretation of Biblical Narrative [Eisenbrauns, 1983], 13.)

That said, most historical critical scholarship, including so-called "maximalists," deny the historicity of the patriarchal narratives of the Hebrew Bible (Gen 12-50), based primarily on the lack of archaeological evidence.

My question is this: why in the heck would we expect to find archaeological or documentary evidence of a small clan of a few hundred bedouin wandering around the ANE in the first half of the second millennium BCE?

Yes, there are cultural and geographical anachronisms in Genesis. But those don’t disprove the essential historicity of those narratives.

Thoughts?

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About Benj

I’m a native North Jerseyan, exiled to the land of Phillies fans…an Old Testament professor and former liturgist…husband to Corrie…father to Daniel and Elizabeth…eldest sibling to three, brother-in-law to Josh and Hannah…uncle to Marshall.
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10 Responses to Question about Abraham

  1. Rebekah says:

    Good point. You can expect to find the remains of, say, Babylon because it was a major world power with great architectural feats and loads of stuff for archaeologists to uncover. But Abraham? What are we supposed to find? A tent? Some pottery with a little imprint on the bottom that says, “This pot belongs to Abraham”? The bones of a bunch of animals cut in half and spread a few feet apart?

  2. thinkhardthinkwell says:

    I would expect to see pots that say, “Hand-made with care by your local Canaanite craftsman,” along with, “Property of Abram Abraham.”

  3. Chris Katulka says:

    Benj, most critical scholarship denied the existence of David until 1994 when they found the Dan Stele, and even now there is still doubt David ever existed. What makes us think they would EVER accept the existence of Abraham, that would require faith 🙂

    • thinkhardthinkwell says:

      @Chris: I accept the existence of Abraham based on my faith in Scripture, and my assessment that Genesis 12-50 is intended to convey something like actual, historical events. I don’t think we would ever expect to find other evidence, because no one would have really cared to preserve it.

      Personally, I don’t think much about archaeology. The whole thing seems really speculative to me.

  4. Ben T. says:

    I’m unclear on the connection between the Berlin quote and the archaeological question you raise–both Berlin and Alter are expressly non-committal on the issue of historicity. In view for Berlin is the literary/aesthetic quality of biblical history writing–replication vs. representation.

    I remember reading the Berlin quote in Schnittjer’s OT class my first semester at PBU. I’m still picking up the pieces of my shattered paradigms (in a good way!).

    I do think Alter’s concept of “fictionalized history” is helpful here, though not entirely without its flaws.

    How far is the Abraham story “accurate” to the objective facts of history? In what sense does the answer matter? More importantly, are these even the right questions?

    Good discussion–one that touches on many of the issues/crises being raised in the evangelical world. Would be glad for more of your thoughts/interactions!

  5. Chris Katulka says:

    Benj, I think highly of archeology strictly on the basis that it does show those without faith the reliability of the OT/NT. Thoughts?

    • Ben T. says:

      Hi Chris!

      I was wondering in what sense archeology shows the OT to be “reliable”? As I understand it (and I don’t know my archeology all that well!), there is very little corresponding external evidence to much of what we read in Scripture (beyond geographic locales). It’s not until the monarchy that there is some sort of agreement on the relative historical value of the OT witness.

      The minimalist/maximalist debate seems to highlight the controlling influence of our presuppositions on fields like archeology and sociology–the “facts” are always interpreted.

      Ben T.

    • thinkhardthinkwell says:

      Chris, I think I’m with Ben on this one. It’s all about epistemology and presuppositions.

      My concern is that I think Christians have an all-or-nothing approach to archaeology and the Bible, whereas I think it needs to be more of a sliding scale.

      For example, if archaeological findings indicate that the conditions for the exodus event were not in place until the 13th century, rather than the 15th century as indicated by a strictly literal reading of the biblical chronology, OK–we can adjust our reading of the biblical chronology and say that perhaps the “480 years” between the exodus and the building of Solomon’s temple is representative of 12 generations (12×40). My faith is not dependent upon a 15th-century exodus.

      OTOH, if someone found a 1st-century CE ossuary containing the bones of Yeshua, son of Yosef and Miriam of Nazaret, brother of Ya’aqov and Yehudah, I would say unequivocally that those could not be the bones of Jesus Christ, because Scripture says that Jesus rose on the third day and ascended into heaven. There would never be a way to prove that those bones were Jesus’, and so the skeptics and believers would each marshal their faith commitments for or against the resurrection.

      I think we can be flexible in some interpretive matters, and not in others. If, as I believe, the exodus was an actual miraculous event (though involving far fewer people than the biblical texts indicate at face value), we won’t find historical evidence that proves it, since historical investigation establishes what probably happened in the irrepeatable past, and miracles are by definition improbable.

  6. Chris Katulka says:

    To begin Benj, no true archeologist held that the bones of Yeshua found in the ostuary a few years back were actually the bones of Jesus, only those trying to stir the religious pot.

    Ben and Benj, you would be surprised how many archeological finds (in the past 100 years) has silenced those higher critics of the OT and NT, and burned a lot of scholarship that criticized the existence of certain biblical characters.

    Kitchens did a phenomenal book on the reliability of the OT based on archeological finds alone. In fact, he asks you to put aside epistemology and your presuppositions, while reading the book, so you get the full affect of how much extant evidence there is to back the stories of the OT. Believe it or not, it’s called On the Reliability of the Old Testament http://amzn.to/p2K7rz.

    Grant it, as you go further into history (e.g. Exodus, Abraham Account, creation *JK*) the findings are scant. However, a large portion of the OT (Conquest-NT) can be backed by the archeological finds.

    I wouldn’t totally discount archeology.

  7. thinkhardthinkwell says:

    @Chris: I agree. I guess my concern is that many Christians don’t consider the limits of external evidence in corroborating Scripture. Too often, we accept evidence that we like and disregard evidence we don’t like. It’s important to be presuppositionally self-aware, and to consider the sorts of claims Scripture makes in relation to the evidence that is available.

    I don’t have all the answers, but in my studies I’ve found that things are usually a lot more complicated than just a simple thumbs-up or thumbs-down on the “historicity” of Scripture.

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