Thursday, February 26, 2015

On Historical Discrepancies

One of the disciplinary leitmotifs of biblical studies is the search for discrepancies or inconsistencies or contradictions in the text. Supposedly discrepancies or inconsistencies indicate different sources since we all know that human beings in general and source critics in particular are entirely free from inconsistencies. Supposedly inconsistencies with historical or archaeological evidence indicates that the account is not historical.

Unfortunately, inconsistency is a staple with ancient history. Take for example the history of Til-Barsip (modern Tell Ahmar). A poetical account from Assyria tell us that in 856 BC. the Assyrians under Shalmaneser III conquered the Aramaean forces of Bit-Adini under the ruler, Ahuni, at Til-Barsip, resettled Assyrians in the city, reorganized it as a royal residence, and renamed it Kar-Shalmaneser.

We know Aramaeans were in the city because tablets bearing Aramaic inscriptions were found there. The Assyrians also left a provincial palace which is attested archaeologically, as is an expansion of the town to cover 50 hectares. Assyrian statuary, murals, and mosaics have been found.

So from Assyrian sources we know that the Assyrians conquered the Aramaic speaking nation of Bit-Adini in Til-Barsip in 856 BC. These seem to be supported archaeologically.

Now, as it so happens, a number of inscriptions from the ninth century BC. were also discovered at Tell Ahmar. From these inscriptions, in Hieroglyphic Luwian, we learn that Tell Ahmar was the home of a pair of dynasties of Luwian speakers throughout the entire ninth century. The kingship seems to have passed from Hapatilas to Ariyahinas to Hamiyatas's father (whose name is missing) to Hamiyatas to Hamiyatas's son (whose name is also missing) and back to Ariyahinas's son. These Luwian speaking rulers ruled a country called Masuwari.

The Hittite style architecture and the statuary is also attested archaeologically at the site.

So the contradictions here are huge. They include the name of the country (Bit-Adini vs. Masuwari), the names of the rulers (Ahuni vs. Hamiyatas or Ariyahinas), and whether or not there was an Assyrian invasion. There have been a variety of attempts to make sense of the historical and archaeological record but the inconsistencies are plainly there. None of those who have dealt with the evidence (Lipinski, Hawkins, Akkermans and Schwartz) seem to deny that any of the evidence that they work with was not historical or accurate; none of them deny the Assyrian conquest or the account left in poetic form.

Tell Ahmar is now on a island in a lake created by the Tishrin dam on the Euphrates and part of the tell has washed away. It is also located in the Kobane province of Syria and so not an ideal place to excavate at the moment. So it is unlikely that there will be any additional help from archaeology for a resolution of the contradictions at the moment.

Inconsistencies and discrepancies are a standard part of the historical and archaeological record. The existence of inconsistencies does not mean that the events did not take place or were not historical, nor does the fact that the historical accounts were couched in poetic form, despite what some biblical scholars might think. Navigating through such discrepancies is what historians do. Different historians will propose different theories to resolve the discrepancies in the historical evidence. The usual method of deciding which historical theory is to determine which theory best accounts for the available evidence.