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Mythological Elements in Other Biblical Narratives

The books of Judges, I & II Samuel and I & II Kings are normally considered to be the most historically veracious. Judges, for instance, contains the account of the Canaan conquest that is at variance with the one told in Joshua. Here, in contrast to the swift and total conquest under the unified command of Joshua narrated in the previous book, the conquest was more gradual, not always successful and affected by the various tribes separately. Many scholars thus believe that the accounts of the conquest is more historically reliable here than in Joshua. [1] Certainly no one doubt that, alhtough overlayed with theological “spin”, much of I and II Kings are historical; the fall of Israel (II Kings 17), the fall of Judah and the deportation of the Jews into exile in Babylon (II Kings 25) are all events which are well attested historically. [2]

The dates of composition of these books are unknown, but although there are variants as to the actual number of editions the books went through, the consensus is that the language and outlook seems to point to a post exilic period (after 586 BC) of composition. [3]

Saying that these books may contain some historical facts should in no way be confused with the claim that these books are accurate, or true, in all aspects. Given below are a few examples of the historical errors and contradictions in these books.

Chronological Contradictions Between Judges and Kings

The Book of Judges, for instance, contains chronologies that contradict I Kings, another book considered to be historically reliable. The relevant verse from the latter is given below:

I Kings 6:1
And it came to pass in the four hundred and eightieth year after the children of Israel were come out of the land of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon's reign over Israel, in the month Zif, which is the second month, that he began to build the house of the LORD.

Now, after the exodus, there was the wandering in the wilderness, the conquest of Canaan and division of the land by Joshua. The period of the Judges started after the death of Joshua. After the Judges there were two “latter Judges”, Eli and Samuel. Samuel appointed Saul king and after Saul’s death David, became king. David’s son, Solomon ascended the throne after that. The table below gives the chronology from Judges and adds these to the other relevant figures:

ExplanationBiblical ReferenceYears
Wanderings in the Wilderness
Conquest of Canaan to the death of Joshua
Subjection under Cushanrishathaim
The rule of the judge Othniel
Subjection under Eglon of Moab
The rule of the judges Ehud and Shamgar
Subjection under Jabin of Hazor
The rule of the judge Deborah
Subjection under Midian
The rule of the judge Gideon
The rule of the judge Abimelech
The rule of the judge Tola
The rule of the Judge Tair
Subjection under the Philistines & Ammonites
The rule of the judge Jepthnath
The rule of the judge Ibzan
The rule of the judge Elon
The rule of the judge Abdon
Subjection under the Philistines
The rule of the judge Samson
The rule of the judge Eli
Ark taken from the Israelites
The rule of the judge Samuel
The kingship of Saul
The kingship of David
Four years of Solomon’s reign
Joshua 5:6

Judges 3:7
Judges 3:9-11
Judges 3:12-14
Judges 3:30-31
Judges 4:1-3
Judges 5:31
Judges 6:1
Judges 8:28
Judges 9:22
Judges 10:1-2
Judges 10:3
Judges 10:8
Judges 12:7
Judges 12:9
Judges 12:11
Judges 12:13
Judges 13:1
Judges 16:31
I Samuel 4:18
I Samuel 7:2

I Samuel 13:1/Acts 13:21
II Samuel 5:4
I Kings 6:1
40
(25)?
8
40
18
80
20
40
7
40
3
23
22
18
6
7
10
8
40
20
40
20
(12)?
(42)
40
4
Total Elapsed Time633

The chronology of Judges

Thus we have a period of 633 years between the exodus and the building of the temple. This obviously does not square with the 480 years given in I Kings 6:1. The numbers in brackets (for the reign of Joshua and the judgeship of Samuel) are guesstimates since there is no exact number given in the respective books. However, even if we take out these two numbers (as though Joshua and Samuel never existed!) we still have 596 years. Further, the period of Saul’s reign is not given in the Hebrew version of I Samuel (although the book of Acts refers to a reign of forty years), if we were to minus the number there, 42, we would still be left with 554 years. Thus we have, at the very minimum, a discrepancy of more than 70 years between the chronology of Judges and Kings.

Furthermore, we the constant repetition of the number 40 or its multiples or divisor, in the reigns of the Judges, makes the whole chronology looks artificial. [4] 40 is a commonly used number for designating time. Thus in the account of the flood it rained for 40 days and 40 nights, the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years after the exodus and Jesus fasted for 40 days.

The number in Kings is also suspect. Note, for example, that both David & Solomon (and probably Saul see Acts 13:21) reigned for 40 years. 480 is actually a multiple of 40 and 12. Twelve, as we may recall, is also a significant number; there being 12 tribes of Israel. In fact, one will note that 480 years also separate the construction of the first temple from that of the second temple. If we calculate the biblical chronology from the building of the first temple to the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BC, we find that 430 years have passed. Furthermore, we find from the book of Ezra that the second temple was begun two years after the Jews were released from exile (Ezra 3:8-10). According to the same book, they were release in the first year of “Cyrus, King of Persia”(Ezra 1:1-4). Now Cyrus became king in 538 BC, or on the 50th year of the exile. This 50 years added to the 430 years give-480 years! Thus according to these calculations, the time that separates the exile from the building of the first temple and that separating the building of the second temple from the first is exactly equal-480 years. This is too incredible to be a coincidence-somebody has manipulated the numbers along the way to make the two numbers the same. As the historian Robin Lane Fox remarked “grand number patterns have no place in good history: they make a point about the past, while fudging the truth of it.” [5]

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Anachronisms in I Samuel

As for I & II Samuel, the discrepancies we pointed out elsewhere should be enough to convince anyone that the history here is by no means impeccable. In fact it is worth looking more closely at the David and Goliath story again to illustrate the point. As we have seen there are two stories within the books of Samuel about the slaying of Goliath. We know that II Samuel 21; 19 credits the slaying of Goliath to Elhanan while I Samuel chapter 17 credits David with that feat. We have good reason to believe that the David account is fictitious. Our proof lies in the passage below, set immediately after David killed the giant from Gath:

I Samuel 17:51, 54-55
Then David ran and stood over the Philistine, and took his word...killed him, and cut off his head with it...And David took the head of the Philistine and bought it Jerusalem;...When Saul saw David go forth against the Philistine, he said to Abner, the commander of the army, “Abner, whose son is this youth?”

The passage above contains a glaring anachronism. At the time the event was taking place, Saul’s capital was Gibeah, in Judah (I Samuel 10:56;11:4; 15:34). Jerusalem did not even form part of Saul’s kingdom. It was David himself who conquered Jerusalem, seven years after Saul’s death (II Samuel 5:-5-9). Thus the whole episode is cast into doubt due to this anachronism. Further, we can understand the reason why the author of Samuel, or one of the original source document, wanted to credit David with the slaying of Goliath, for David by then must have been a semi-mythical superhero-someone who can do anything! [6] Thus, it is more probable that Elhanan was the slayer of Goliath.

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Anachronisms in I Kings

We also know that some of the speeches attributed to Solomon in I Kings are much later inventions and cannot be authentic. Solomon’s prayer and blessing in I Kings 8: 14-61 contains two explicit references to the exile and to the destruction of the temple (which was supposedly still another four centuries away)[7]:

I Kings 8:46
"If they sin against you--for there is no one who does not sin--and you are angry with them and give them to an enemy, so that they are carried away captive to the land of the enemy, far off or near."

I Kings 9:6-8
"If you turn aside from following me, you or your children, and do not keep my commandments and my statutes that I have set before you, but go and serve other gods and worship them, then I will cut Israel off from the land that I have given them; and the house that I have consecrated for my name I will cast out of my sight; and Israel will become a proverb and a taunt among all peoples. This house will become a heap of ruins;a everyone passing by it will be astonished, and will hiss; and they will say, 'Why has the LORD done such a thing to this land and to this house?'

To again quote Robin Fox: “It would be naive in the extreme to take the narrative of Kings as a true or comprehensive history.”[8]

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The Chronicler: "The Splendid Liar"

The next set of books we will look at are widely considered to have been written or edited by the same person. These books, I & II Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah are normally referred to having been written by “the chronicler.” While Nehemiah and probably Ezra were derived from primary documents (i.e. to eyewitness accounts) the evidence in the text showed that the chronicler had rewrote the narratives quite considerably. The chronicler has no qualms about rewriting history. He transformed the image of David (from the lifelike one in Samuel) to an ideal figure. He did not mention any courtroom intrigue before David was crowned as the King of the united kingdom of Israel and Judah nor about David’s wrong doings which was mentioned in Samuel. [a] Yet David’s act which he considers important are narrated in detail, such as his bringing the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem and his failed attempt to built the temple. [9] In the one case that he showed David in a slightly bad light, he still couldn’t resist falsifying his work. The original verse is taken from the second book of Samuel: [10]

II Samuel 24:1
And again the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he moved David against them to say, Go, number Israel and Judah.

Probably he couldn’t stomach the idea of God inciting an evil act in David, he thus changed it to:

I Chronicles 21:1
And Satan stood up against Israel, and provoked David to number Israel.

Robin Fox calls the chronicler a “splendid liar”. Alice Parmalee in her book Guidebook to the Bible has this to say about the chronicles:

On every page we find anachronisms. The account of music and worship in David’s reign is really a picture of the Jewish Church of the Chronicler’s day, nearly seven hundred years after David. He magnifies the function of the Levites and singers to such an extent that at one point they overcome two armies merely by singing hymns (II Chronicles 20:21-31)! Indeed there is so much singing in the chronicler’s books that we wonder at times whether this is history or opera.[11]

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Notes

a.For instance II Samuel 11:2-17 narrates how David committed adultery with Bathsheba, and then plotted, successfully, to have her husband, Uriah murdered in the battlefield.

References

1.Asimov, Asimov's Guide to the Bible: p226
Anderson, A Critical Introduction to the Old Testament; p63
2.Anderson, A Critical Introduction to the Old Testament; p76
3.Fox, The Unauthorized Version: p181-182
Parmalee, A Guidebook to the Bible: p38-39
Stiebing, Out of the Desert: p24-25
4.Anderson, A Critical Introduction to the Old Testament; p67-68
5.Fox, The Unauthorized Version: p194
6.Barthel, What the Bible Really Says: p159-162
7.Anderson, A Critical Introduction to the Old Testament; p83
8.Fox, The Unauthorized Version: p195
9.Asimov, Asimov's Guide to the Bible: p407-408
10.ibid; p408-409
11.Parmalee, A Guidebook to the Bible: p76

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