“Would you willingly lie to your children?” asks Rabbi Adam Chalom, Ph.D. “Would you say this is what happened when you know this is not what happened? There’s an ethical question there.” The lie Rabbi Chalom is referring to is the continued maintenance of the popular belief that the Jewish foundation narrative detailed in the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) chronicles actual historical events, when in fact it’s been known among biblical archaeologists for nearly three generations that the Five Books of Moses (the Torah) and the Deuteronomistic History of the Nevi’im (including the books of Joshua, Judges, and Samuel) are no more a literal account of the early history of the Jewish people than J. R. R. Tolkien’s, The Lord of the Rings, is a literal account of World War 1. “The truth is out there,” continues Rabbi Chalom. “They’ll find this archaeological, evidence-based version of Jewish history… and then they’ll say, why did you lie to me?”
On first inspection Rabbi Chalom’s explicit dismissal of the veracity of the bible might seem an aberration to many not versed in biblical criticism, an odd and unfamiliar voice in the dark, but he in fact represents the consensus position of rabbis in all but orthodox movements of Judaism who today concede (although rarely publically announce) not only that the Patriarchs tales are simple mythology, but also the more intrusive admission that the Israelites were never in Egypt, that Moses was a legendary motif not found in history, that there was never an Exodus, and that there was never a triumphant military conquest of Canaan. It is a deeply pervasive confession and strikes to the heart of what will be for many outside of Judaism one of the most profoundly uncomfortable historical readjustments this century will likely witness. Redefining the early history of the Jewish people means, after all, also redefining the very foundation slab of two of the world’s most popular theological systems – Christianity and Islam – and when words like “historical,” “genuine,” and “actual” are replaced forever with words such as “fiction,” “fable,” and “myth” worlds will invariably collide, and they will do so regardless of anyone’s sensibilities.
“The Pentateuch is the Jewish Mythology,” stated Rabbi Nardy Grün speaking to me recently from Israel; one of over sixty rabbis from every movement in Judaism I reached out to for this essay and whose thoughts concerning the authenticity of Jewish scripture and its problematic relation to the actual early history of the Jewish people are, in part, detailed here. “My duty as a Rabbi is to interpret the Bible and consider it as my Mythology,” Grün continues, “as the founding story of the people of Israel, of course not to take it literally… it is not a book of facts, but a myth.” An “extended metaphor” is how Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism described the view of the bible held by most rabbis today. “The Torah is not a book we turn to for historical accuracy,” noted Newsweek’s Most Influential Rabbi in America (2012), Conservative Rabbi, David Wolpe; one of the leading figureheads in Judaism’s largest single denomination. “Most Reform rabbis and Jews agree that the biblical text is not to be taken literally or word-for-word,” confirmed Reform Rabbi Victor Appell. “My sense is all liberal seminaries and the vast majority of Jews assume the Bible isn’t literally true,” asserted Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of The National Jewish Centre for Learning and Leadership, adjunct at the United Theological Seminary, and also one of Newsweek’s Most Influential Rabbis. “The Pentateuch is filled with wonderful mythology of our beginnings,” attested Rabbi Robert Schreibman. “The Torah is a piece of human literature,” professed Humanistic Rabbi, Jeffrey Falick of The Birmingham Temple. “Its stories are fictional and that is how I teach them.”
“Some people are surprised, even upset, by these views, yet they are not new,” wrote Rabbi Wolpe in a 2002 article, Did the Exodus Really Happen? “Not piety but timidity keeps many rabbis from expressing what they have long understood to be true.” Wolpe, who was also named one of the Fifty Most Influential Jews in the World by the Jerusalem Post (2012), was among the first rabbis to publically address the awkward, but unignorable, corporeality of biblical authenticity against the backdrop of archaeological discoveries when in his now famous 2001 Passover Sermon he told his unsuspecting 2,300 strong congregation at Los Angeles’ Sinai Temple that Moses and the exodus he supposedly led was little more than a work of inventive fiction, and that “the rejection of the Bible as literally true was more or less settled and understood among most Conservative Rabbis.”
Understanding something does not, however, necessarily translate to that same thing being enthusiastically embraced. In a recent conversation Wolpe confirmed to me an eyebrow lifting anecdote in which he recounts a (nameless) Jewish scholar who while scolding him publically in print for his disclosures at the time took him aside over a lunch one day and privately confessed: “Of course what you say is true, but we should not say it publically.”
What this nameless scholar was admitting to be true but which he deeply bemoaned being spoken aloud was in fact nothing more than what the world’s leading biblical archaeologists had been saying for decades, and what they’d been saying was most economically summarised by famed Israeli archaeologist, Professor Ze’ev Herzog of Tel Aviv University in the foreword to his 1999 essay, Deconstructing the Walls of Jericho: “The patriarchs’ acts are legendary stories, we did not sojourn in Egypt or make an exodus, we did not conquer the land… Those who take an interest have known these facts for years.” Reviewing Herzog’s paper, Professor Magen Broshi, archaeologist at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, endorsed the essays startlingly blunt opening remarks, stating, “There is no serious scholar in Israel or in the world who does not accept this position. Herzog represents a large group of Israeli scholars, and he stands squarely within the consensus. Twenty years ago even I wrote of the same matters and I was not an innovator. Archaeologists simply do not take the trouble of bringing their discoveries to public attention.”
Archaeology is a difficult science to be so confident about, discovered artefacts rarely line up in such a way to paint a complete picture of ancient eras, and the unusual solidness of the consensus here reflects a century of exhaustive archaeological work conducted across Israel and its environs, including the Sinai into which archaeologists poured following Israel’s capturing of the peninsular in the 1967 Six Day War. It was work that steadily, albeit un-expectedly, shattered the thesis present at the beginning of the 20th century which, perhaps mostly because of familiarity with the stories, accredited the biblical narratives with an assumed historical validity that many believed needed only to be unearthed to be confirmed. It was a position that even in the gentle hands of biblical advocates such as the American archaeologist, William Albright working in the first half of the 20th Century, proved disturbingly elusive. “Slowly, cracks began to appear in the picture,” explained Herzog in his essay. “Paradoxically, a situation was created in which the glut of findings began to undermine the historical credibility of the biblical descriptions instead of reinforcing them. A crisis stage was reached when the theories within the framework of the general thesis were unable to solve an increasingly large number of anomalies. The explanations became ponderous and inelegant, and the pieces did not fit together smoothly.”
The reasons why the thesis collapsed was relatively simple to explain: the greater part of the Masoretic Text was a work of 7th and 6th Century BCE fiction conceived of and promoted to service 7th and 6th Century territorial and theological ambitions, not document actual historical events, rather invent them in a legendary time so as to fit the contemporary geopolitical needs of Judah and its Yahwehist priests after the sacking of Mamlekhet Yisra’el (Kingdom of Israel) by the Assyrians in 722 BCE.
“There is no archaeological evidence for any of it,” declared renowned Israeli archaeologist and professor of archaeology at Tel Aviv University, Israel Finkelstein. “This is something unexampled in history. They [Judah] wanted to seize control of the territories of the kingdom of Israel and annex them, because, they said, `These territories are actually ours and if you have a minute, we’ll tell you how that’s so.’” In a sentence, for Joshua’s purported 12th Century BCE conquest narrative to make sense to a 7th and 6th Century audience a period of enslavement and rightful (miraculous) return was invented, and for that chapter to bear faculty an ancestral origin tale was constructed and put to ink. “The goal was to create a myth saying that Judah is the centre of the world, of the Israelite way of life, against the background of the reality of the later kingdom,” explains Finkelstein. “The people of Judah started to market the story of Joshua’s conquest of the land, which was also written in that period, in order to give moral justification to their territorial longings, to the conquest of the territories of Israel.”
“Scholars have known these things for a long time, but we’ve broken the news very gently,” explained one of America’s leading archaeologists, Professor William Dever. What Dever, a one time Christian seminary student and biblical maximalist to many, was referencing was the provocative yet conclusive collage of archaeological evidence that when superimposed over settlement patterns, population data, and comparisons of biblical and Egyptian texts did not tell the story of a once enslaved people returning to Canaan, rather a people who never left; hill-people, refugees from Canaanite coastal states who created a culture and economy that would ultimately be unified as the nation of Israel. As the historian and biblical archaeologist Professor Carol Meyers of Duke University stressed, “no archaeological evidence of a massive migration of Jews from Egypt across the Sinai Peninsula to Israel has been found and the biblical account of Jewish origins is, at best, historical fiction: sometimes plausible, but generally imagined.” To this point Robert Coote, Senior Research Professor of Hebrew Exegesis at San Francisco’s Theological Seminary, was far more pronounced, stating, “The period of the patriarchs, exodus, conquest, or judges as devised by the writers of Scriptures… never existed.” Even Orthodox Rabbi, Shalom Carmy, granted to me that “Outside the Bible and the literature it engendered, we do not presently have direct reference to Moses;” a concession mirrored in the second edition Encyclopaedia Judaica which concludes that the entire Exodus narrative was “dramatically woven out of various strands of tradition… he [Moses] wasn’t a historical character.”
“We looked for evidence for the Exodus in the Sinai Desert and found there was nothing in the Sinai Desert,” explains Rabbi Chalom. “We looked at the Patriarch stories and the times in which they supposedly lived, and it didn’t seem to match. Then we looked at the stories of the Patriarchs in the time they were apparently written, historically, and that matched much better.” “The Torah reflects the attitudes of the people who wrote it, and their attitudes are a reflection of the times in which they lived, no more and no less,” affirmed Rabbi Falick. “Biblical tales are not so much descriptions of real events as they are propaganda for political and religious arguments which took place many centuries after the presumed events took place,” wrote Rabbi Wine in his posthumously published book, A Provocative People. “The story of Abraham has less to do with 1800 BCE, when Abraham presumably lived, than with 700 BCE when his story was created.”
Against the tide of contradictory evidence, is it at least provisionally plausible that there are kernels of truth lurking behind these narratives, obscure waypoints from which the larger theatrical epic was hung? Even staunch minimalists are unwilling to rule out the possibility of seeds; no story, real or imagined, develops wholly in isolation and groups such as the Hyksos (expelled from Egypt in 1560 BCE) might indeed be the artistic bridge between the actual and the adapted dream sequence retold by villagers in the Canaanite hills, but it must be underscored that of the biblical descriptions and their application to the authentic historical Jews nothing matches. Nothing, that is to say, without a great deal of sometimes jaw dropping imaginative manoeuvring, like the idea forwarded by an Orthodox Rabbi who suggested the reason why the Sinai was so conspicuously free of evidence was because Yahweh had (obviously) deputised a tribe to clean it all up; an idea which Professor Herzog would no doubt call an inelegant explanation.
The strength of this new understanding of the less adventurous, more pedestrian early history of the Jews – a history that even objective biblical maximalists today reluctantly admit has no appreciable resemblance to the scriptural narrative up until the period of Babylonian captivity – is in fact so overwhelming that the word “myth” has now even breached the rigid walls of Orthodox Judaism. In early 2012 Orthodox Rabbi Norman Solomon published his book, Torah from Heaven: The Reconstruction of Faith, in which he presented the case that the concept of Torah Mi Sinai (the claim that the Five Books of Moses were dictated by the god Yahweh to Moses on Sinai, itself a legendary location that has never been found) was not rooted in reality but was rather a “foundation myth;” an origin dream, not a descriptive historical fact. The admission sent shockwaves through the Orthodox world not felt since the one-time candidate for Chief Rabbi of Britain, Rabi Louis Jacobs, contested the validity of Torah Mi Sinai by delicately suggesting that it was a “complex idea with textual, historical, and philosophical problems that needed to be addressed;” a seemingly benign statement, but one which ultimately cost him the position and standing in the Orthodox community. Fifty years later Solomon’s conclusions have drawn analogous and strikingly harsh criticism from influential Orthodox groups including the Vaad Harabonim, a cluster of Canada’s most prominent Orthodox rabbis, who publically denounced the British rabbi and accused him of ‘kefiroh baTorah’ [heresy].
Writing in the Huffington Post, Yoni Goldstein said of the incident: “[The rabbis response] reveals how terrified the Orthodox hierarchy is by the idea of modernizing religion to correspond to new revelations from the academic world. What Solomon is suggesting is no less than a direct threat to the future of Orthodox Judaism. If the principle that god dictated the Torah to Moses at Sinai is false, then the entire movement begins to unravel. If that isn’t true, what else isn’t true? Most Orthodox Jews’ beliefs would be shattered in an instant, and Solomon’s notion of “foundational myth” is not going to be much of a consolation prize.”
Such severe criticism is however thoroughly contrasted by Conservative Rabbi Steven Leder who said in 2001, “Defending a rabbi in the 21st century for saying the Exodus story isn’t factual is like defending him for saying the Earth isn’t flat. It’s neither new nor shocking to most of us that the Earth is round or that the Torah isn’t a history book dictated to Moses by God on Mount Sinai.”
For the Orthodox, retreating into a theological redoubt from which they can preserve a literal interpretation of the Bible is what Rabbi Karen Levy described to me as being “radically un-self-aware,” yet for many Orthodox rabbis the inexplicable contradictions have meant a choice between participating in the evidence-based world or that of the poetic, unsubstantiated narrative. As Orthodox Israeli rabbi and scholar Mordecai Breuer wrote, “Unable to withstand the contradiction most men of faith consciously avoid biblical scholarship in order to safeguard their traditional belief.”
Wilful ignorance, like the nameless scholar’s plea to Rabbi Wolpe to not talk publically about already well-established facts, is an unsustainable and ultimately unacceptable response. “The truth is out there” attested Rabbi Chalom, and this truth does not only press upon religious Jews. Accompanying them down this rabbit hole where the familiar quickly becomes the unfamiliar are those bound to both the Christian and Islamic faiths; religions whose foundations are rooted to the history of the Jewish people, and as that substructure shifts so too will the superstructure of all Abrahamic religions shift with it. How, after all, does an Abrahamic theology reconcile itself with the news that there was no Abraham, no Moses, no Exodus, and no Conquest? How does one re-categorise a revealed religion when there evidently was no revelation? How do Christians and Muslims harmonise their faiths in light of the tremendously awkward realisation that their central figures of devotion, supposedly inspired sages, were unable to distinguish between historical fact and inventive fiction?* Indeed, at what point do librarians delete “historical” forever from their call cards and re-type “mythological”?
It is a far-reaching, deeply penetrating catechism that will weigh heavily on 21st century Western (and Middle Eastern) religious practice and, ultimately, redefine its validity and reception in our societies. And with that we return to the question posed at the beginning; a question that will become increasingly difficult to avoid as popular culture catches up to the educated, evidence-based position of the majority of Jewish rabbis today who concede that the foundation narrative upon which all Abrahamic faiths are built is little more than a handcrafted human myth: Would you willingly lie to your children? Would you say this is what happened when you know this is not what happened?
*In Islam, Musa (Moses) is considered a prophet and is named 136 times in the Qur’an. Abraham is named 69 times. In the New Testament, Moses is mentioned 85 times with Jesus naming him in Luke 3:8, John 5:45 and twice in Matthew. Abraham is mentioned 75 times with Jesus specifically identifying him eighteen times in John 8 alone.