During the past century, our knowledge of the historical and literary background of the Bible has increased by a series of prodigious leaps, and it is now advancing with steadily increasing speed. My own thinking has fully participated in this rapid change, as may be seen by comparison of my several volumes of a general nature, from The Archaeology of Palestine and the Bible (1932) through From the Stone Age to Christianity (1940) to Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan (1968). This steady advance is the result of several factors:

1. A rapid increase in the number of serious archaeological expeditions from many different countries, including Japan. Museum space and volume of publication have kept pace with the field work.

2. An improvement of archaeological method that has been little short of phenomenal. This applies both to the analysis of superimposed layers of occupation (stratigraphy) and to classification and relative dating of objects found (typology).

3. Use of innumerable new techniques derived from the natural sciences, among them radiocarbon (carbon isotope 14) for dating.

4. Decipherment and interpretation of the flood of new inscriptions and texts in many scripts and languages, many quite unknown until recent decades. The application of sound linguistic and philological method to well-preserved cuneiform tablets and Egyptian hieratic papyri makes it possible to publish them with speed and accuracy. A new script is deciphered quickly, if there are a few good clues or sufficient material to permit decoding. The number of cuneiform tablets from three millennia preserved under debris of occupation in Western Asia and Egypt seems to be practically unlimited, and new methods of baking and reproduction have reduced losses to a surprisingly low proportion.

With the aid of stratigraphy, scientific analysis, and museum research, the archaeologist can now reconstruct the daily life of ancient peoples with remarkable completeness, enhanced by evidence contained in written documents dealing with everyday affairs. He can fill gaps in military and political history; he can trace social and economic development and the effect on society of new inventions and discoveries—even in the absence of inscriptions. Aside from texts dealing with business and industry, we have masses of documents devoted to legal matters, including a dozen law codes and a host of records of court cases, legal actions, treatises, and contracts of all kinds.

Another very large body of ancient literature recovered by archaeologists is religious. Religion played such a dominant role in the life of the ancient Near and Middle East that it is impossible to imagine what its absence would have meant. Generally it is very easy to distinguish between religious literature and other forms of literary composition; this directly contradicts the sociologists and anthropologists who want to dismiss religion as unimportant for ancient and modern primitive societies. We can also follow the development of natural science in Mesopotamia and Egypt from simple beginnings to degrees of sophistication that in some respects even exceeded levels attained by early Greek science—though in general the Greek was far superior.

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In the light of our new information, biblical archaeologists no longer devote themselves primarily to proving the accuracy of Scripture, though this remains important and new confirmations are turning up almost daily. Their main purpose today is to interpret the Bible as fully as possible from the new evidence. The result is throughout favorable to the biblical record, and over and over again reinterpretations of biblical concepts and phraseology in the light of archaeology make the Bible more meaningful for today. For instance, the Amarna and Mari tablets have proved that the Hebrew verb naqam and its derived nouns do not mean “avenge, revenge, vengeful” when used of God, but “champion, vindicate, save,” and so on. The more we know about the world of the Bible, the brighter becomes the light shed on the historical relation of man to his Creator.

The Bible is itself a collection of written documents, and discoveries of contemporary documents are of the greatest value in interpreting the biblical writings. Written documents tend to appear in archives or accidentally preserved libraries, with stretches of little-known territory between large bodies of written documents. We shall limit ourselves to a number of outstanding illustrations of the wealth of material now available.

From the nineteenth and eighteenth centuries B.C. we have vast collections of cuneiform letters and legal or business texts. The largest single body of these comes from Mari on the Middle Euphrates and dates chiefly from the eighteenth century B.C. Since most of these tablets were written by Northwestern Semites speaking dialects closely related to patriarchal Hebrew, and since many of the tribal and personal names, as well as\laws and customs, are closely paralleled in biblical tradition, it is possible to recover the practices and beliefs of the people from whom the patriarchs came. Additional finds of similar documents have very recently been made in the cities of Shusharra and Qattara in what later became the core of the Assyrian empire. Adding to these finds, most of which have not yet been published, a very large number of Old Assyrian letters and legal texts from the Assyrian merchant colonies in Cappadocia (the eastern part of the central plateau of Asia Minor) dating from the nineteenth and eighteenth centuries B.C., we have a vast treasury of documents that will throw undreamedof light on the patriarchal period, demonstrating the substantial historicity of early Israelite traditions. Somewhat later are the Nuzi texts (fifteenth century), which have illuminated the customary laws of Genesis.

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To the late twentieth and nineteenth centuries B.C. belong the so-called Execration Texts, which have been found in northern and southern Egypt as well as in Nubia; they are written in Egyptian hieratic and include names of tribes, districts, and towns and their chieftains. These chieftains were vassals of the Egyptian pharaohs of the Twelfth Dynasty; most of them ruled in Palestine, southern Syria, and Phoenicia. They are of the greatest significance for the political and ethnic history of Palestine in the early Patriarchal Age. Thanks to these and other Egyptian lists of Semitic names from the eighteenth century B.C., it is possible to determine the exact phonetic form of a great many names of patriarchal type that appear in contemporary cuneiform texts, not only from Mari and other places in the north but also from the rich Babylonian cities of that time, including Ur, Abraham’s home.

Next we may list the Amarna Tablets and related documents from Palestine and Syria that include hundreds of cuneiform letters written in Babylonian of every type, from good Middle Babylonian of the fourteenth century B.C. to a kind of Canaanite Babylonian that is full of words and expressions characteristic of early Hebrew. Many of these tablets were written from such places as Jerusalem, Gezer, Megiddo, and Shechem.

It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of the Canaanite alphabetic tablets from Ugarit, north of Canaan proper. Thanks to them, we have a vast body of texts from the age of Moses (fourteenth and thirteenth centuries B.C.). They are partly in the local prose dialect of Ugarit at that time, but mostly in a generalized poetic dialect that corresponds closely to such early Hebrew poetic language as the Song of Miriam (thirteenth century B.C.) and the Song of Deborah (twelfth century), as well as to many of the early Psalms. They have enormously widened our knowledge of biblical Hebrew vocabulary and grammar.

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The steady accumulation of ink-written potsherds (ostraca) in both the dialects of Judah and North Israel in the tenth to sixth centuries B.C., accompanied by finds of Aramaic papyri in Egypt from the sixth to fourth centuries, has thrown light on a host of historical and literary problems in classical Hebrew and Aramaic literature. Our understanding of political and religious development from Samuel to Ezra has grown greatly.

But the incredible discoveries of leather and papyrus scrolls and fragments in the Jordan and Dead Sea valleys since 1948 easily take precedence over all other finds except the tablets of Ugarit. They are clarifying intertestamental studies to an extent considered impossible only a few years ago. New Testament studies are being revolutionized as the date of the Gospels is pushed back and the meaning of obscure texts is illuminated. Neither “form criticism” in Bultmann’s sense nor the now popular “existential” interpretation of Paul and John can withstand the torrent of Jewish illustrative material in Hebrew and Aramaic—practically all antedating the Fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.

In dealing with the Bible from the standpoint of modern archaeological discovery, one must remember that the Bible is both divine, since it rests on divine inspiration, and human, since it has come to us through human channels. Much of both the Old and New Testaments was transmitted by oral tradition. In other words, the Bible contains many things handed down by word of mouth—in the Old Testament largely in verse and in the New Testament as oral reports of words and acts of Jesus and his disciples. The written text of these early traditions followed later—though earlier than supposed by “critical” scholars.

It has long been obvious that our written Bible passed through an often complex history. Copyists inevitably made minor errors in copying, and their mistakes were compounded by later copyists until different recensions arose, with varying written forms of the texts, which can be classified both by key mistakes of copyists and by the efforts of later editors to correct real or supposed errors. In early times, there were naturally more errors of copyists than there were later, when accuracy became a prime object. Then came translations where, owing to the different connotations of words with similar meanings in different languages, there are nearly always slight semantic shifts that give rise to different interpretations. For instance, in the translation of Hebrew into Greek, the word for “pact, covenant” came to mean “testament,” and a whole new body of interpretation grew up around this change of sense. Illustrations are so numerous in both the Old and the New Testament that it is scarcely necessary to belabor this point. Although these changes do not affect basic religious convictions, they often do bear on specific theological interpretations.

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Oral tradition has its own characteristics, its own regularities, that render its transmission both safer and more accurate in some ways and less accurate in others. Since verse was put into fixed meters and stylistic forms, and since it was sung or chanted, it was often preserved with an accuracy rarely found in normal written transmission of early literary texts. Most of the early historical traditions of the Old Testament are based on such poetic transmission. Side by side with the poetic original we often have condensed prose paraphrases. The combination of verse and prose transmission results in extraordinary reliability from the point of view of the historian of events, literature, and religion.

Another point to be borne in mind is that as a rule the Old Testament was originally written with only the consonants and without spaces between words. The Hebrew Bible with vowel points and separated words did not come in until about the eighth century A.D. While it shows a remarkably continuous tradition with respect to grammatical forms and meaning of words, by that time more than 2,000 years had elapsed since the time of Moses and perhaps 2,500 years since the time of Abraham. It is not surprising, then, that the very existence of many words was forgotten and the precise meaning of many others was no longer understood. Today, thanks to an incredible series of archaeological discoveries of documents extending from about 2000 B.C., down to the first century A.D., we have a Northwest-Semitic literature that is much more extensive than the entire Old Testament. Consequently we are able to improve the interpretation of the Old Testament text, especially in poetic passages, to an extent undreamed of a generation ago.

In studying the New Testament, we now have a similar increase in the quantity of Semitic texts dating to just before and just after the time of Christ. They vastly increase our understanding of the grammar and vocabulary of the Hebrew and Aramaic spoken and written in the time of Christ. For the first time we can really grasp the significance of the Syriac versions of the Gospels.

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Much nonsense has been repeated about what constitutes orthodoxy in dealing with the texts of the Old and New Testaments. It has even been asserted recently that the Pentateuch was written by Moses in the exact form that has come down to us in the Hebrew Bible. So-called critical scholarships was partly responsible for this approach, since nineteenth-century critics insisted that the text of our printed Hebrew Bible had come down from the time of its supposed final editing in the time of Ezra without any appreciable change. Today, thanks to the Dead Sea Scrolls, we know that this is not true. There were different recensions of the Pentateuch, and no immutable form can be attributed to any part of it. It is quite impossible to cut the Pentateuch up into a patch-work of “JEP” with any hope of increasing our knowledge of what actually happened. That the Pentateuchal law is substantially Mosaic in origin and that patriarchal and Mosaic historical traditions are astonishingly early and dependable seems, in my opinion, certain.

There has also been a great deal of nonsense written about discrepancies and contradictions in the Bible. It must be remembered that reconstructing history is quite impossible unless we have different views of just what happened at given times and different reactions of contemporaries or successors. No true perspective is possible without different eyewitness or later accounts. In the case of any famous man of the recent past, we shall find different points of view and different interpretations of what he did and why he did it. In order to get as true a picture as possible of a man and of the events that transpired in his time, we must have different reports of what actually happened or appeared to happen. Minor discrepancies do not invalidate historicity; they are necessary concomitants of any true history of man.

Milton D. Hunnex is professor and head of the department of philosophy at Willamette University, Salem, Oregon. He received the B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of Redlands and the Ph.D. in the Inter-collegiate Program in Graduate Studies, Claremont, California. He is author of “Philosophies and Philosophers.”

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