God

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What’s more, this isn’t just the case for biblical stories like Noah’s flood and the Tower of Babel; it’s also the case for even the most historically-themed stories in the Old Testament – ones you’d think would surely have to be based on actual historical events. For instance, we all know the story of Exodus, in which Moses leads the Jews out of slavery in Egypt. This narrative is arguably the most essential part of the history of the Jewish people, as the Jewish and Christian religions describe it. Given how central it is, then, you’d think that the historical evidence and documentation of its effects would be overwhelming. But the Exodus story suffers from the same problems as the flood story. It describes God laying utter waste to the Egyptian civilization – destroying all their crops, killing all their livestock, turning all their water into blood, and ultimately killing the firstborn of every Egyptian family directly (both children and livestock); and then, when Pharaoh and his army pursue the fleeing Israelites on horseback, God wipes them all out as well, crushing them beneath the Red Sea. But aside from the host of internal contradictions and practical impossibilities that once again arise with this story (How could there have been any firstborn livestock left to kill, or any horses in Pharaoh’s army, if God had already wiped them all out with an earlier plague? How could there have been any surviving Egyptians at that point, for that matter, if God had long since taken away all their food, water, and transportation?), the most glaring flaw here is that if God ever actually did decimate the Egyptian civilization as thoroughly he did in the Exodus narrative, then the Egyptians themselves were never aware of it. The historical and archaeological records show that at the time of the supposed Exodus, the Egyptians weren’t struggling to survive amidst a series of plagues that threatened to wipe out their very existence; they were just building their pyramids, conquering their enemies, creating their artwork, and maintaining their records the same as they’d always done, without any kind of civilization-scale disruption ever interrupting them. The pharaoh of the story – generally claimed to have been Ramses II – wasn’t destroyed with his army in the Red Sea; he lived to the ripe old age of 90, and in fact you can still go see his preserved body to this day at the Egyptian Museum. Needless to say, if the events of Exodus had actually occurred as described, it would have been impossible for such an apocalyptic-scale series of events to have gone unrecorded, and for no evidence of their effects to have been left behind. But that’s exactly what we see – there’s not even the slightest trace of evidence that anything even close to the Exodus story actually happened, either in the historical records of the Egyptians themselves, or in the records of their regional rivals (who would have been eager to claim credit for the Egyptians’ downfall for their own gods).

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In fact, it’s even worse than that, because not only is there no evidence of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, there’s no evidence that the Israelites were ever even in Egypt in the first place – not a single campsite, or scrap of parchment, or fragment of pottery, or any sign at all that they ever lived in Egypt, crossed the Red Sea, camped at Mount Sinai, or wandered through the wilderness for 40 years in search of the Promised Land. It’s not just that there’s some evidence but that it’s incomplete or ambiguous – there is literally zero trace of the Israelites ever having any presence in ancient Egypt whatsoever, much less being enslaved in the millions as Exodus claims. What’s more, there’s nothing to indicate that Moses in particular ever existed as a real person, much less that he did everything that the Bible claims. The decisive consensus among scholars is that Moses (along with other biblical patriarchs like Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) was a figure of legend, like King Arthur or Robin Hood – that his existence as a real flesh-and-blood person, just like the Exodus story as a whole, has no basis in actual history.

This is also the case for the Bible’s account of how the Israelites, after wandering in the desert for 40 years, subsequently conquered the land of Canaan. You might remember the story from the Book of Joshua about how the Israelite army marched around the city of Jericho, blew their trumpets, and miraculously caused the city’s walls to come tumbling down. But once again, archaeologists and historians are virtually unanimous that the Battle of Jericho, and the Canaanite conquest more generally, never actually happened. As Thom Stark writes:

The archaeological record also contradicts many of the battle accounts in Joshua, and several key battles in the Transjordan found in Numbers and Deuteronomy. The city of Jericho had long been uninhabited by the time of the alleged conquest. Moreover, there is no destruction level at Jericho in either of the proposed dates for the conquest. That is to say, Jericho was destroyed in 1550 BCE (confirmed again recently by radiocarbon-dating), well over a hundred years before the conservative dating of the conquest, and three hundred years before the consensus dating. There is no evidence that it was occupied again until Iron II. In short, there were no walls to come a-tumblin’ down in either of the proposed conquest periods.

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The account of the battle of Ai is similarly problematic. Joseph Callaway, a conservative Evangelical archaeologist went to the Ai dig site et-Tell in the 1960s in the hopes of confirming the biblical account, against the earlier findings of Judith Marquet-Krause. What he found, instead, was that the archaeological record unequivocally contradicts the biblical picture. He found an Iron I city, with no fortifications, and directly beneath it an Early Bronze settlement. In other words, the city of Ai was uninhabited from 2400 BCE to between 1200 and 1000 BCE (a period of twelve to fourteen hundred years). And again, there were no fortifications. This should not be surprising, since the word Ai means “ruin.” The site’s modern name, et-Tell, also means “the ruin.” The fact that the city is known by no other name in the Bible than “ruin” suggests that that’s how it was first known to the Israelites before they built their city upon it in Iron I (the period of the Judges). Scholars have concluded that the story of Ai in Joshua is an etiological narrative (a narrative created to explain why something is the way it is). So the “ruin” that was Ai came to be explained in folk tradition by reference to a Joshua-conquest legend.

There are numerous other examples where the stories in Numbers, Deuteronomy and Joshua of Israel’s migration through the desert into the Transjordan and then into the Promised Land are anachronistic. For instance, in Num 20:14-21 the text states that the Israelites are refused passage by the “king of Edom,” but Edom did not achieve statehood until the seventh century BCE, about 600 years after the events depicted in Numbers! There was no king of Edom to deny them access. Num 21:1-3 narrates that Israel destroyed all the cities in the region of Arad, including the city of Arad. But Arad wasn’t founded until the tenth century BCE, more than 300 years after the time of the conquest. Israel apparently attacked a city that wasn’t there.

The account in Numbers 21 and Deuteronomy 2 of Israel’s destruction of the Amorite city of Heshbon is also anachronistic. Heshbon didn’t exist until the Iron II period, at the earliest 250 years later than the purported events of the conquest.

The account in Num 21:30 of Israel’s siege of the Moabite city of Dibon tells the same story. Dibon was a minor city in the ninth century BCE, 400 years after the alleged conquest. There were no Late Bronze Age residues there. (And this site was excavated by a group of conservative Southern Baptists who were hoping to prove the Bible accurate. They were forced to concede otherwise.)

The account of the Gibeonites in Joshua 9 is also anachronistic. Another devout Christian, James Pritchard, excavated there and found nothing but residues from the eighth century BCE (500 years after the conquest). Gibeon did not exist at the time of the conquest. The story of the Gibeonites was another etiological narrative which served to justify the fact that the Gibeonites were slaves in Judah at the time these narratives were written.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg. What all this shows is that the conquest narratives were written by someone with a geographical perspective from about the seventh century BCE. The geography described in these accounts didn’t exist until much later than the time the conquest supposedly took place.

As the Wikipedia citation of Robert Coote’s work on the subject summarizes it, “The story of Jericho, and the conquest generally, probably represents the nationalist propaganda of the kings of Judah and their claims to the territory of the Kingdom of Israel after 722 BCE.” And this makes sense; the story’s claims suddenly seem a lot more understandable once you stop thinking about them in terms of their historical accuracy and start thinking of them instead in terms of their propaganda value. After all, modern archaeological techniques didn’t exist back when these accounts were written, so there was no way to confirm whether or not their claims were actually true. If people wanted to promote their tribe’s most impressive legends – especially if those legends concerned events that had happened centuries earlier – then how could they be refuted? Those legends could even include claims of massive, civilization-destroying miracles, and there would be no way for anyone to challenge them.

But of course, our ability to verify such claims has vastly improved since then, to say the least – and now that we actually do have access to all the relevant historical and archaeological findings, we can in fact refute these claims. When religious stories assert that a particular city (or nation, or entire global population) was destroyed during a particular time frame – and we can see all the evidence showing that no, in fact, it most definitely wasn’t (and if it had been, the world would look significantly different from how it looks today) – then we can safely conclude that the stories just aren’t historically factual ones. Or if a religious story claims that some earth-shatteringly extraordinary event occurred which would have affected an entire region or even the entire planet – and yet there’s no trace of it anywhere in the historical or archaeological records – then we can confidently say that the most likely explanation here is that the event in question just never actually happened as described.

If you’re a Christian, you probably already apply this logic to every other area in your life aside from your religion. If you see a news story about someone being accused of a crime, but then you find out that there’s security footage showing that the suspect was in a completely different country at the time, then you probably have no trouble determining that the suspect is most likely innocent. Or if you have a friend who makes some wild claim that, say, America was first discovered in 1870 by Chinese explorers or something, then you probably have no trouble dismissing the claim in light of all the evidence to the contrary. Even for religious claims – as long as it’s not your own religion – it’s perfectly easy to see the flaws in historically inaccurate narratives and overly-ambitious miracle stories. When the Muslim Quran claims, for instance, that Muhammad once split the moon in half – as it does in verses 54:1-2 – you can rightly point out that this obviously couldn’t have literally happened, or else at least one or two other people on the planet would have, you know, noticed that the freaking moon had been split in half, and made a note of it.

But the Bible stories that are so central to Christianity suffer from the same problems. And in fact, even the Canaanite conquest story itself includes an astronomy-based miracle that’s more over-the-top than splitting the moon in half. In Joshua 10, the Bible describes God stopping the sun and moon in the middle of the sky for a full 24 hours, so that Joshua could massacre the Amorites in broad daylight. Obviously, this raises some significant astronomical questions, like how the sun could have been stopped in the sky at all unless it was orbiting the earth and not the other way around. (This, incidentally, is one of the reasons why there was so much religious backlash against Copernicus’s idea that the Earth-centric model of the solar system was wrong and that the earth actually orbited the sun.) Or alternatively, if you try to account for heliocentrism, you then have to explain how the rotation of the earth could have abruptly stopped (giving the illusion of a stopped sun) without killing everyone and everything on its surface. But aside from these questions, you also have to explain why, if the sun really did stop in the sky for 24 hours, not a single person noticed it at the time and documented it, and it was only centuries later than the author of Joshua thought it might be worth making a note of. If this event had actually happened, then don’t you think that every single one of the other world religions at the time would have been scrambling to put their spin on it and attribute it to their own gods? Don’t you think that at least one of them might have at least noticed it? Or is it more likely that the story is, as with all these other stories, just another religious legend handed down from a time when such legends were ubiquitous?

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