Friday, February 14, 2014

Abraham's camels: Archaeological discovery and unwarranted conclusion
Many have been circulating the recent news on how the latest carbon dating of camel bones in south Levant has shown that the story of Abraham contains anachronism. Abraham's history is commonly dated to about 3,500 to 4,000 years ago (1,500 to 2,000 B.C.), but the carbon dating report concludes that camels were only being domesticated about 3000 years ago (1,000 B.C.):
Current data from copper smelting sites of the Aravah Valley enable us to pinpoint the introduction of domestic camels to the southern Levant more precisely based on stratigraphic contexts associated with an extensive suite of radiocarbon dates. The data indicate that this event occurred not earlier than the last third of the 10th century BCE and most probably during this time.
(Lidar Sapir-Hen and Erez Ben-Yosef, "The Introduction of Domestic Camels to the Southern Levant: Evidence from the Aravah Valley," Tel Aviv, vol. 40 [2013]: 282.)
This conclusion prompted readers to raise question about the camels in the story of Abraham and his family (Genesis 12:16, 24:10-64, 30:43, 31:17, 32:7, 15). Many celebrate this report as another evidence that confirms their belief that the first book in the Bible is not entirely historical. Andrew Brown wrote on his Guardian column:
Whoever put the camels into the story of Abraham and Isaac might as well have improved the story of Little Red Riding Hood by having her ride up to Granny's in an SUV.
The New York Times states in a as-a-matter-of-fact tone,
These anachronisms are telling evidence that the Bible was written or edited long after the events it narrates and is not always reliable as verifiable history.
The National Geographic reports:
While there are conflicting theories about when the Bible was composed, the recent research suggests it was written much later than the events it describes. This supports earlier studies that have challenged the Bible's veracity as a historic document.
The Times interviewed a few scholars for their view. Carol Meyer, the Mary Grace Wilson Professor in Religion at Duke University, said:
The biblical authors, composers, writers used their creative imaginations to shape their stories, and they were not interested in what actually happened, they were interested in what you could learn from telling about the past.
Choon-Leong Seow, Professor of Old Testament Language and Literature at Princeton Theological Seminary, commented (paraphrase),
The Bible has also never been a history book or a scientific textbook…. Interpreting the Bible is a little like studying Leonardo da Vinci’s painting The Last Supper…. Modern viewers do not consider the Christ figure in da Vinci’s painting an accurate portrait because we know it was painted centuries after the supper happened, but that does not take away from the artist’s spiritual message about Jesus’ last night with his disciples.
Joel Baden, Associate Professor of Old Testament at Yale University, trivializes the anachronism in Abraham's story, making it more palatable for those who are troubled by such conclusion:
It has been suggested that this anachronism in the biblical text is akin to importing semitrailers into the medieval period. But this is a level of ridiculousness too far.

I would suggest that it is more similar to describing a medieval Italian as enjoying pasta with tomato sauce. How many people, even today, know that tomatoes only came to Italy from South America in the 16th century?

The camels in Genesis may be “wrong,” but they are not a “mistake.” We all imagine the past to the best of our knowledge, the biblical authors included.
After reading about the archaeological report, a Singaporean church leader endorses on Facebook that such anachronism is not a problem for Christians except those who believe in the doctrine of inerrancy. The person then asserts that the scripture is saturated with anachronisms.

Reading the comments and conclusions by these journalists, scholars, and church leader, I wonder if they know what the report is really about, and the historical issues involved? 

First, the carbon dating in the report was conducted on dromedary camels' remains. We don't know if the camels mentioned in Abraham's story were dromedary (those with one hump) or bactrian (those with two humps). As K. Martin Heide, Associate Professor for Semitic Languages at Philipps-Universitat Marburg, has pointed out:
It is usually assumed that camels in the book of Genesis are dromedaries. The Semitic root gml, however, occurring once in a Hebrew inscription recently found and dated to the 7th–6th centuries BCE…, and several times in the Hebrew Bible, as gāmāl, does not betray to us what species (Bactrian/Arabian) the animal belongs to.
('The Domestication of the Camel: Biological, Archaeological and Inscriptional Evidence from Mesopotamia, Egypt, Israel and Arabia, and Literary Evidence from the Hebrew Bible,' in Ugarit-Forschungen: Internationales Jahrbuch fur die Altertumskunde Syrien-Palastinas, eds. Herausgegeben von Manfried Dietrich and Oswald Loretx [Germany: Hubert & Co, 2011], 362.)
So it is very interesting to see those journalist, scholar, and church leader so readily assume that the camels mentioned in Abraham's story are dromedary, and then conclude that the biblical data is anachronistic. I wonder why?

Second, the bactrian camels were already being domesticated during Abraham's time (3,500 to 4,000 years ago):
The earliest known Mesopotamian lexical evidence of the camel is provided by an animal list from Fara of the early Dynastic Period (ca. 2600–2500 BCE), where the Sumerian termḫ [Bactrian camel] occurs again... In his list,ḫ is found in the proximity of terms for wild animals, such as the elephant, the water buffalo, the bear and the wolf. This looks as if the Bactrian camel was regarded as domesticated in part only in the 3rd millennium BCE [5000 years ago]... But its name element ḫ "road/caravan" makes no sense if it would have been assigned to an animal which does not go on the road or in a camel-caravan and Mesopotamia was far away from the natural habitat of the wild Bactrian camel... it can be concluded that the people of Mesopotamia gained some acquaintance with the Bactrian camel in the Old Babylonian period, at the end of the 3rd/ beginning of the 2nd millennium [4000 to 5000 years ago].
(Ibid., 358. Italic added.)
As Heide's concludes:
To sum up the early evidence, it is certain that based on archaeological evidence the domesticated two-humped camel appeared in Southern Turkmenistan not later than the middle of the 3rd millennium BCE. From there or from adjacent regions, the domesticated Bactrian camel must have reached Mesopotamia via the Zagros Mountains. In Mesopotamia, the earliest knowledge of the camel points to the middle of the 3rd millennium, where it seems to have been regarded as a very exotic animal. The horse and the Bactrian camel may have been engaged in sea-borne and overland global trading networks spanning much of the ancient world from the third millennium BCE onwards.
(Ibid., 359. Emphasis added.)
From lexical and archaeological evidence, it could probably be that Abraham had bactrian camels. As Alan Millard, Emeritus Rankin Professor of Hebrew and Ancient Semitic Languages of University of Liverpool, commented on The Telegraph:
Rare references in Babylonian texts and representations from other parts of the Near East show that camels were known in the Age of the Patriarchs, about 2000-1500 BC. Such discoveries are rare because the camel was not at home in urban societies, but useful for long journeys across the steppe and desert.

There is no good reason to suppose the stories of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob cannot reflect events long before the deaths of those camels, whose bones were left south of the Dead Sea in about 900 BC.
Third, even if there is anachronism in Genesis, this does not mean that the whole Bible is not without history. Let's be clear that the Book of Genesis is not the Bible. The Bible is a collection of more than 60 ancient documents of various genre. So if one data found in one of the books is not historically correct, that does not mean other data in the book is wrong, nor does it mean other books are not historically reliable. Say, if we found one data being reported wrongly in an edited volume of academic essays, that does not by itself mean that every other data in the book is wrong. Yes, it raises skepticism, yet to conclude that therefore everything else between the covers is wrong is a leap in logic.

Fourth, disagreement with discovery that can be interpreted to challenge the historical reliability of the Bible is not necessarily motivated by the desire to defend the Christian faith or the doctrine of inerrancy, or both. I find it puzzling that those who think that the Bible is full of anachronism assume that there is no other reason why people would disagree with them except for piety's sake. People, with or without religious commitment, can and do disagree for the sake of historical research and intellectual integrity. I disagree with the conclusion drawn from the report mentioned above not because I believe the Bible cannot have anachronism in it. Rather, it's because I don't find their conclusion historically valid.


a_seed said...

William J. Hamblin says an 18th century BC Syrian cylinder seal were found, depicting men riding a Bactrian (2-humped) camel. -- see his book "Warfare in the Ancient Near East to 1600 BC" page 132.

Sze Zeng said...

Thanks for the reference, a_seed.