Monday, January 26, 2015

Assessing Historical Authenticity of the Historical Books of the Hebrew Bible

Many biblical scholars argue that biblical historical narratives (think things like Kings) were written, or for some scholars made up, years after the fact. Certainly in their current form, they can date no earlier than "the thirty-seventh year of the captivity of Jehoiachin" (2 Kings 25:27) about 561 B.C. Some scholars, nevertheless date them to the Persian period or Hellenistic period rather than the Neo-Babylonian period. The claim is that Kings presents a fictive narrative made up years after the fact to provide Judah with a national history that it never had.

What does a fictive narrative put together years after the fact look like? The apocryphal book of 1 Esdras is a good candidate. I am comfortable with a Hellenistic date for 1 Esdras but am willing to consider other options. I will briefly summarize the narrative adding actual historical dates in parentheses.
  • The narrative begins when "Josiah (640-609 B.C.) conducted the Passover to his Lord in Jerusalem." (1 Esdras 1:1).

  • Then "Pharaoh, king of Egypt, came to wage war in Carchemesh on the Euphrates" and Josiah was killed (1 Esdras 1:23-29). The source for this is the book of Kings (1 Esdras 1:31).

  • Then Jehoahaz (609 B.C.) became king of Judah (1 Esdras 1:32).

  • Then Jehoiakim (609-598 B.C.) became king of Judah (1 Esdras 1:37).

  • "Against him arose Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon" (1 Esdras 1:38).

  • So Zedekiah (597-586 B.C.) was appointed king over Judah (1 Esdras 1:44).

  • In the first year of the reign of Cyrus (585-550 B.C.) as king of Persia (1 Esdras 2:1).

  • Then came the reign of Artaxerxes I (465-424 BC) as king of Persia (1 Esdras 2:12).

  • Then Darius (550-486 B.C.) ruled over the Persian empire (1 Esdras 3:1).
The author of 1 Esdras cannot get the reigns of the Persian rulers in proper order. The only place where he gets the rulers in the right order is when he is relying on the book of Kings, which he cites as a source.

This can be contrasted with the order of Assyrian rulers in the books of Kings:
  • First comes the reign of Pul who is also called Tiglath-pileser (745-727 B.C.) (2 Kings 15:19, 29; 16:7, 10).

  • Second comes Shalmaneser V (727-722 B.C.) (2 Kings 17:3; 18:9).

  • Third comes the reign of Sennacherib (705-681 B.C.) (2 Kings 18:13; 19:16, 20, 36; cf. Isaiah 36:1; 37:17, 21, 37).

  • Then comes the reign of Esarhaddon (681-669 B.C.) (2 Kings 19:37; cf. Isaiah 37:38).
The book of Kings gets the Assyrian rulers in the correct order even though, when its final form was written, the Assyrian empire no longer existed (and had not for at least a couple of generations), nor did its records (which were discovered over two millennia later in situ). Given the hash of history that 1 Esdras presents us with, why would we expect that the writer of Kings would get the order of an earlier dead empire correct if he did not have access to more or less accurate historical records?