Historicity of Abraham (by Paul Johnson)

 
Well since my edit on Wikipedia was removed, I figured I’ll just post it here.

The article on Abraham in Wikipedia (as of 8/3/2013) says,

In the early to mid 20th century leading scholars such as William F. Albright and Albrecht Alt believed the patriarchs and matriarchs to be either real individuals or believable composite people living in the “patriarchal age”, the 2nd millennium BCE. In the 1970s, however, significant new conclusions about Israel’s past and the biblical texts challenged this portrait. The two works largely responsible were Thomas L. Thompson’s The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives (1974), and John Van Seters’ Abraham in History and Tradition (1975). Thompson’s argument, based on archaeology and ancient texts, was that no compelling evidence pointed to the patriarchs living in the 2nd millennium and that the biblical texts reflected 1st millennium conditions and concerns; Van Seters, basing himself on an examination of the patriarchal stories, agreed with Thompson that their names, social milieu and messages strongly suggested that they were Iron Age creations. According to archeologist William Dever, by the last quarter of the 20th century, “respectable archaeologists [had] given up hope of recovering any context that would make Abraham, Isaac or Jacob credible ‘historical figures'”.

The patriarchal stories most likely had a substantial oral prehistory: the Oxford History of the Biblical World notes that the purpose of oral tradition is not to record history but to pass on cultural values from one generation to the next: historical facts quickly become garbled, events and characters are invented to serve aims, and variant versions develop beside each other. At some stage in Israel’s history these oral traditions became part of the written tradition of the Pentateuch, the series of five books which tells of the origins of the world and the people of Israel: a majority of scholars believes this stage goes back to the Persian period, roughly 520–320 BCE.1

Here is my revision which was removed (my editing is highlighted; references are changed to numbered footnotes):

In the early to mid 20th century leading scholars such as William F. Albright and Albrecht Alt believed the patriarchs and matriarchs to be either real individuals or believable composite people living in the “patriarchal age”, the 2nd millennium BCE. In the 1970s, [“however, significant new” removed] conclusions about Israel’s past and the biblical texts challenged this portrait. The two works largely responsible were Thomas L. Thompson’s The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives (1974), and John Van Seters’ Abraham in History and Tradition (1975). Thompson’s argument, based on archaeology and ancient texts, was that no compelling evidence pointed to the patriarchs living in the 2nd millennium and that the biblical texts reflected 1st millennium conditions and concerns; Van Seters, basing himself on an examination of the patriarchal stories, agreed with Thompson that their names, social milieu and messages strongly suggested that they were Iron Age creations. By the last quarter of the 20th century, “respectable archaeologists had given up hope of recovering any context that would make Abraham, Isaac or Jacob credible historical figures.”

Some believed that the patriarchal stories most likely had a substantial oral prehistory: the ”Oxford History of the Biblical World” notes that the purpose of oral tradition is not to record history but to pass on cultural values from one generation to the next: historical facts quickly become garbled, events and characters are invented to serve aims, and variant versions develop beside each other. The belief holds that at some stage in Israel’s history these oral traditions became part of the written tradition of the Pentateuch, the series of five books which tells of the origins of the world and the people of Israel: a majority of scholars believes this stage goes back to the Persian period, roughly 520–320 BCE.

Historian Paul Johnson has offered a likely alternative to these beliefs in his book, ”A History of the Jews”. He states that, although “the Book of Genesis and related Biblical passages are the only evidence that he existed,” there are several corroborative archaeological finds that support the cultural norms of time period making “the substance of this Biblical account” history.2 Abraham (then Abram) traveled from Ur, first to Haran, then throughout Canaan, and ending at Hebron (where he was buried at the Cave of Machpelah); real cities illuminated by the findings of Leonard Woolley, Albright, Nelson Glueck, Samantha Kenyon, et. al.3 Johnson agrees with R. K. Harrison’s calculations which place the time period of Abraham “between Ur-Nammu and Hammurabi, the outside limits being 2100-1550 BC” (Middle Bronze Age).4 He states that the king-list of Genesis is “not to be despised” anymore than other king-lists of antiquity, such as the pharaoh-list by Manetho and king-list by Berossus. Johnson also states that the ten-name anti-diluvian genealogy in Genesis (as opposed to the earliest king-list containing eight names) corresponds to Berossus’ list; a “link between the two is perhaps Abraham, who brought the tradition with him.”5

Ancient customs as seen through the Ebla, Nuzi, and Mari tablets support this claim. For example, the “Ebla and Mari tablets contain administrative and legal documents referring to people with patriarchal-type names such as Abram, Jacob, Leah, Laban and Ishmael” and there are “also suggestive expressions and loan-words related to Hebrew.”6 The Nuzi tablets offer even more direct cultural parallels. One tablet “produces exact parallels” to Abraham taking Hagar as a child-bearing concubine because of Sarah’s barrenness (Genesis 16). Other Nuzi tablets attest Esau’s sale of his birthright and the binding power of Isaac’s oral contract “in the form of a death-bed blessing” in Genesis 27.7 Another Nuzi parallel shows that “family gods were like title-deeds, with symbolic legal value” thus explaining why Rachel stole Laban’s idols.8 All of these show to be authorized legal proceedings of marriage and family contracts at the time. Tablets from Mari corroborate the more strange practice of slaughtering animals to confirm a covenant; attesting Abraham’s covenant with God seen in Genesis 15:9-10.9

Johnson believes that Abraham is best understood in the context of being a tribal leader among the Habiru, “difficult and destructive non-city-dwellers” who moved from “place to place” living in agreement (or at war with) governing authorities.10 Abraham, like the Habiru, had the power to purchase freehold land in Hebron with the consent of the community while being an alien. The land he purchased in Genesis 23:20 “was owned by a dignitary called Ephron the Hittite, a West Semite and Habiru of Hittite origin.11 In light of this view, some patriarchal events are more sensible. For example, tablets show that a “wife with the legal status of a sister commanded more protection than an ordinary wife,” highlighting Abimelech’s fear in Genesis 20.12 Like the Habiru, Abraham also deals with major authorities, such as Egypt in Genesis 12 and the King of Sodom in Genesis 14. Although settlement deals were contentious and legalistic, as seen in Genesis 21:22-31, “it was sometimes in the interests of the settled kings to tolerate the Habiru, as a source of mercenaries.”13 Though if the dwelling tribe grew too large and powerful, “the local king had to tell them to move on, or risk being overwhelmed himself” as seen with Abimelech and Isaac in Genesis 26:16. In Johnson’s view, all of these dealings, “problems of immigration, of water-well and contracts and birthrights … testifies to the Bible’s great antiquity and authenticity.”1415

P. S. – If anyone is a reviewer on Wikipedia, please let me know how this is less credible or biased than what was originally posted. Thanks!

Update – I’ve recently made a CreationWiki.org account. I’ve decided to dedicate much more of my archive editing time there, though I will still edit Wikipedia, Archive.org, et. al.


 

1 Permission to copy as per the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License (reference links removed).
2 {{sfn|Johnson|1988, 2009|p=10}}
3 {{sfn|Johnson|1988, 2009|p=9-12}}
4 {{sfn|Johnson|1988, 2009|p=11|c.f. R. K. Harrison, ‘Introduction to the New Testament’ (London 1970)}}
5 {{sfn|Johnson|1988, 2009|p=11}}
6 {{sfn|Johnson|1988, 2009|p=12|c.f. A. Malamat, ‘King Lists of the Old Babylonian Period and Biblical Genealogies’, ‘Journal of the American Oriental Society’ 88 (1968); ‘Northern Canaan and the Mari Texts’, in J. A. Sanders (ed.), ‘Near Eastern Archaeology in the Twentieth Century’ (Garden City, NY 1970), 167-77; and “Mari,” ‘Biblical Archaeologist’, 34 (1971).}}
7 {{sfn|Johnson|1988, 2009|p=13}}
8 {{sfn|Johnson|1988, 2009|p=13|The Nuzi tablet reads: “[The adoption tablet of Nashwi, son of Arshenni.] He adopted Wullu, son of Pohishenni. … When Nashwi dies, Wullu shall be heir. Should Nashwi beget a son, he shall divide equally with Wullu, but Nashwi’s son shall take Nashwi’s gods. But if there be no son of Nashwi then Wullu shall take Nashwi’s gods. And Nashwi has given his daughter Nuhuya as wife to Wullu. And if Wullu takes another wife he forfeits Nashwi’s land and buildings.”}}
9 {{sfn|Johnson|1988, 2009|p=13|c.f. C. H Gordon, “Abraham of Ur”, in D. Winton Thomas (ed.), ‘Hebrew and Semitic Studies Presented to G. R. Driver (Oxford 1962), 77-84; E. A. Speiser, Genesis, ‘Anchor Bible’ (Garden City, NY 1964). See also M. Grunberg, “Another Look at Rachel’s Theft of the Terraphin”, ‘Journal of Biblical Literature’ 81 (1962).}}
10 {{sfn|Johnson|1988, 2009|p=13}}
11 {{sfn|Johnson|1988, 2009|p=5|c.f. E. Sarna, ‘Understanding Genesis’ (London 1967), 168ff.}}
12 {{sfn|Johnson|1988, 2009|p=14|c.f. E. A. Speiser, “The Biblical Idea of History in its Common Near Eastern Setting”, in Judah Goldin (ed.), ‘The Jewish Experience’ (Yale 1976).}}
13 {{sfn|Johnson|1988, 2009|p=14}}
14 {{sfn|Johnson|1988, 2009|p=15}}
15 {{cite book
|last = Johnson
|first = Paul
|title = A History of the Jews
|year = 1988, 2009
|isbn = 0061828092 (88), 0060915331 (09)
|ignore-isbn-error=true
|publisher = Weidenfeld & Nicolson in Great Britain and Harper & Row in the United States
|location = 10 East 53rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10022
|url = http://books.google.com/books?id=ecpxpxl40PYC&printsec=frontcover&dq=isbn:0061828092&hl=en&sa=X&ei=Dhb6UZz3J6H9iwKol4DoBA&ved=0CC8Q6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false
|ref = harv
}}

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