The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology And The Myth Of Israel


By Thomas L. Thompson

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The Jewish people’s historical claims to a small area of land bordering the eastern Mediterranean are not only the foundation for the modern state of Israel, they are also at the very heart of Judeo-Christian belief. Yet in The Mythic Past, Thomas Thompson argues that such claims are grounded in literary myth, not history. Among the author’s startling conclusions are these: There never was a “united monarch” of Israel in biblical times — We can no longer talk about a time of the Patriarchs — The entire notion of “Israel” and its history is a literary fiction. The Mythic Past provides refreshing new ways to read the Old Testament as the great literature it was meant to be. At the same time, its controversial conclusions about Jewish history are sure to prove incendiary in a worldwide debate about one of the world’s seminal texts, and one of its most bitterly contested regions.



Biblical Archaeology and the Myth of Israel

The Mythic Past

Biblical Archaeology
and the Myth of Israel

Thomas L. Thompson

To all my children


and to their beautiful mothers

by the same author


Preface: the academic debate

At the moment of writing this preface, I am preparing to go to Lausanne for a meeting of the ‘European Seminar on Historical Methodology of the History of Israel’, and reading the papers to be discussed at the seminar. The topic is ‘the exile’ as a subject of history. The issues centre on how we are to correlate the many Assyrian, Babylonian and Persian texts relating to war, the destruction of cities and the deportation of peoples throughout their empires, the growing archaeological evidence from Palestine, and the wide variety of biblical traditions that deal with themes of destruction, exile and return, but rarely of a period of exile itself. Half of the papers produced for the seminar share much the perspective of this book. Each of them, in its own way, points out difficulties in reading the biblical narratives about deportation and return as if they were historical. They point to the lack of a story in the Bible which tells us of an Israel or a Judah in exile. While they express few doubts that an exile must have occurred, they question whether a history of this exile can be written. The other half of the papers disagree strongly and argue that a history of ‘the exile’ is at least possible. No one, however, proposes that the Bible’s traditions provide us with adequate evidence for that history. As I read through these papers, I cannot help thinking about the changes in our approach to the Bible and its relationship to archaeology that have come about over the past twenty-five years. Long past is the assumption that ancient history can, be written by merely paraphrasing or correcting the stories of the Bible. It has rather become quite difficult to understand these stories as recounting events from their authors’ past.

It would be ingenuous of me to pretend that this book on the subject is uncontroversial. For me, the debate began as early as in the late 1960s and was first voiced in a doctoral thesis started in 1967 at the University of Tübingen and completed in 1971. My original thesis stemmed from the idea that, if some of the narratives about the Hebrew patriarchs could in fact be dated historically to the second millennium BCE, as nearly all archaeologists and historians then believed, I should be able to distinguish the earliest of the biblical stories from a later expanded tradition.

When I first began this work, I had been so convinced of the historicity of the tales about the patriarchs in Genesis that I unquestioningly accepted parallels that had been claimed with the Late Bronze Age family contracts found in the excavations of the ancient town of Nuzi in northern Mesopotamia. It was therefore all the more upsetting when, in 1969, after more than two years’ work, it became clear that the family customs and property laws of ancient Nuzi were neither unique in ancient Near Eastern law nor implied by the Genesis stories. Many of these contracts had been misread and misinterpreted. At least one contract had been mistranslated with the purpose of creating a parallel with the Bible. The entire claim of Nuzi parallels to the patriarchal customs had been a thinly veiled fabrication, a product of wish-fulfilment. An entire social world had been created which had never existed.

This led to a discussion of the larger question of history and the patriarchs generally, I went on to review the central arguments that had been used to create and support the patriarchal period. The single most important argument had been a very complex ‘Amorite hypothesis’, asserting a nomadic migration of West Semites out of the Arabian desert, which disrupted the established agricultural civilizations of the fertile crescent late in the third millennium BCE and developed new settlements from Southern Mesopotamia to the Egyptian Delta. This related nearly every important text find from the third and second millennium to the Bible and to Palestine: whether from Ur, Babylon, Mari, Amarna, Ugarit, Egypt, Phoenicia, or from Palestine itself. These arguments for Amorite migrations and for the existence of a patriarchal period in the history of the ancient Near East also collapsed. They were often arbitrary and wilful. Scholars had taken for granted what they set out to prove. What was presented as the assured results of decades of science and scholarship amounted to careless assertions.

The dissertation was finished in late 1971. Reactions to it were strong. I found it impossible to get my PhD in Europe or to publish my book in the United States. As things worked out, the book was eventually published in Germany in 1974 and I was able to receive my degree from Temple University in Philadelphia in 1976.

The arguments against the historicity of the patriarchal narratives were strongly confirmed by the independent publication in 1975 of the Canadian scholar John Van Seters’ Abraham in History and Tradition. Van Seters’ book took the argument even further by showing that the biblical stories themselves could not be seen as early, but must be dated sometime in the sixth century BCE or later. In 1977, John Hayes and J. Maxwell Miller published. Israelite and Judaean History, a large volume of essays written by a number of younger scholars, in which current historical research on each successive biblical period was reviewed. It was now clear that the previous confidence in the view that the Bible was an historical document was collapsing. Widespread doubt was expressed about the historicity not only of the patriarchs of Genesis, but of the stories about Moses, Joshua and the Judges as well. These historians first felt confident in speaking of history when dealing with the period of Saul, David and Solomon.

While Van Seters’ late dating of the Pentateuch received strong support in Germany and his work led to radical changes in our understanding of these early books of the Bible, the mid-Seventies also saw the publication of a number of new and innovative journals that have changed the direction of research across the entire field of biblical studies. The Dielheimer Blätter published from Heidelberg was certainly the most radical and original. The Sheffield Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, however – publishing in English and providing an early forum for debate on a wide spectrum of controversial topics – was by far the most influential. The launching of Semeia by the Society of Biblical Literature supported the growing interest in the United States in reading the Bible with techniques developed in literary criticism. Research on the Old Testament entered a generation-long period of transition marked by rapid change and innovation.

Up through 1975, I continued my research on Bronze Age agriculture and the settlement history of both the Sinai and Palestine. In two books and a series of maps for the Tübingen Atlas of the Near East, I related archaeological to geological and ecological data in an effort to develop histories of the settlement and use of Palestine’s many regions. I employed a history of agriculture and technology, settlement patterns and change in climatic conditions as a basis for understanding long-term change in each region. This work was based largely on archaeological surveys that had been carried out by such Israeli scholars as Benno Rathenberg, Yohanan Aharoni and Moshe Kochavi, supplemented by the archives of the Israeli and Jordanian Departments of Antiquities. While my research on this atlas project was one of the earliest attempts to develop a regional history of agriculture for Palestine, it lacked the consistency of systematically collected data that has been developed by the Survey of Israel and by most archaeological surveys carried out since the early Seventies.

In 1975, I left Germany and returned to the States. The controversies over my book on the patriarchs shut me out of university teaching. I became a full-time house-painter and handyman. My weekends and evenings were given to the study of Old Testament narrative and the Pentateuch. After nearly a decade of such isolation, my exclusion from the field reached an unexpected end. I was appointed by the Catholic Biblical Association as annual professor to the École Biblique in Jerusalem for 1985. The climate of biblical scholarship had shifted. Sociology and anthropology had grown strong in historical studies. Palestinian archaeologists had become increasingly frustrated with the biblical framework for their work. The literary nature of the Bible had become the central focus of biblical studies, and the history of religions had come to compete with theology as a dominant context for the study of the Bible. My understanding of the patriarchal narratives was no longer controversial. It had become part of the mainstream of the field.

My trip to Jerusalem was to last nearly a year, during which I finished the first volume of my study of the Pentateuch and did some preliminary work with one of my colleagues at the École in historical geography. We eventually published this as a project proposal on regional histories with the title, Topmomie Palestinienne. After returning for a brief period to house-painting, I was awarded a National Endowment fellowship for 1987, which allowed me to begin a project on the history of Israel’s origins. This return to full-time research led to teaching appointments at Lawrence and Marquette universities in Wisconsin.

Much had changed in both history and archaeology by the late 1980s. In the development of my own re-education, two books were overwhelmingly important: the social-anthropological study from 1985, Early Israel, by a Danish scholar who was to become my colleague and close collaborator, Niels Peter Lemche, and the comprehensive synthesis of archaeological surveys of the Palestinian highlands from 1988 by the Israeli archaeologist Israel Finkelstein, The Archaeology of the Israelite Settlement, Both Lemche’s and Finkelstein’s research confirmed the basic analysis of settlement patterns and interpretation of social structures which had been central to my earlier studies of the Bronze Age. These two works convinced me that a history of this region was possible, though it would have to be a very different history than we had grown used to. Rather than attempting to write paraphrases of biblical narratives of unknown historical value, we had the chance to develop an independent historical perspective of the past. In 1987, I began work on the question of Israel’s origins in an effort to show that such a history was possible. In doing so, I retraced a line of argument I had originally set out in an article in 1978, under the title, ‘The Background of the Patriarchs’ (now republished in a book edited by John Rogerson). This article had located the origins of an historical Israel in the growth of centralization of the highlands north of Jerusalem during the ninth century BCE. This implicitly excluded any trans-regional political unity embracing most of Palestine. That is, there could not have been a ‘United Monarchy’ with a Saul, David or Solomon in Jerusalem during the tenth century BCE. I published my completed study in 1992 under the title The Early History of the Israelite People.

Reactions to this book were stronger even than those to my book on the patriarchs had been. Although the historical nature of the David stories had been doubted since the 1970s by literary scholars, and even though the Italian Semitist Giovanni Garbini had already questioned the historicity of the ‘United Monarchy’ in 1986, my finding no place for David or his empire in my history of Israel created a scandal. A review of my book appeared on the front page of the London newspaper, The Independent on Sunday. I was coming up for tenure at Marquette University, where officials were already very unhappy over my research. Publicity stirred up conservative theological dogma, and my work was found ‘incompatible with the Catholic mission of the university’. While this breach of academic freedom could have led to personal disaster, it proved to be an unequivocal blessing. I was called to take up a chair in Old Testament at the University of Copenhagen, where I have been now since 1993.

Since 1992, and fuelled by the publication of Philip Davies’ In Search of Ancient Israel, a broad debate has raged on the history of Israel and Palestine. The debate has been heated, but it has also been open, and the field as a whole is engaged in it, as the coming meeting in Lausanne witnesses. The long preoccupation of biblical studies with the question of origins has led to many distortions in our understanding of the tradition. Today we no longer have a history of Israel. Not only have Adam and Eve and the flood story passed over to mythology, but we can no longer talk about a time of the patriarchs. There never was a ‘United Monarchy’ in history and it is meaningless to speak of pre-exilic prophets and their writings. The history of Iron Age Palestine today knows of Israel only as a small highland patronate lying north of Jerusalem and south of the Jezreel Valley. Nor has Yahweh, the deity dominant in the cult of that Israel’s people, much to do with the Bible’s understanding of God. Any history we write of this people will hardly resemble the Israel we thought we knew so much about only a few years ago. And even that little will hardly open to us the Bible’s origins in history. Our history of biblical tradition has come topsy-turvy. It is only a Hellenistic Bible that we know: namely the one that we first begin to read in the texts found among the Dead Sea scrolls near Qumran, I have argued that the quest for origins is not an historical quest but a theological and literary question, a question about meaning. To give it an historical form is to attribute to it our own search for meaning. Biblical scholarship used to believe that we might understand the Bible if we could only get back to its origins. The question about origins, however, is not an answerable one. Not only is the Bible’s ‘Israel’ a literary fiction, but the Bible begins as a tradition already established: a stream of stories, song and philosophical reflection: collected, discussed and debated. Our sources do not begin. They lie already in medias res.

We can say now with considerable confidence that the Bible is not a history of anyone’s past. The story of the chosen and rejected Israel that it presents is a philosophical metaphor of t mankind that has lost its way. The tradition itself is a discourse about recognizing that way. In our historicizing of this tradition, we have lost sight of the Bible’s intellectual centre, as well as of our own. The question of origins which has dominated modern research into the Bible belongs to theology rather than to history. It asks after the meaning of the Bible in its beginnings. In this, it shares the same Hellenistic quest that was also the Bible’s: to trace our traditions of ourselves and God back to the creation.

Ever since the opening of the controversies over my Early History book, I have been encouraged to present my work on the Bible in its relationship to historical research in a comprehensive way. In particular, the support and ever-generous help from the archaeological journalist, David Keyes, my literary agent, William Hamilton, and my editor at Jonathan Cape, Jörg Hensgen, have been indispensable. This encouragement led me to write this present work in the way that I have. Part One discusses the literary qualities of biblical stories and tradition, and takes up the implicit argument that the Bible hardly intends to be read as if it were a history book. Part Two is based on my 1992 book and takes up many of the themes of my earlier work on the patriarchs and my studies in historical geography. Since I moved to Copenhagen, I have become more involved in the theological and intellectual significance of biblical texts. This, together with an interest in literary studies, gives the historical work a context it otherwise would lack. Part Three attempts to structure this context through a historical discussion of the social, literary and theological worlds that the Bible’s authors were part of.

The first half of the research that I had published in 1992 presents my view of the history of scholarship on ancient Israel. There is no need to repeat any of that here. There are a number of works, however, which, like those of Van Seters, Lemeche and Finkelstein, have influenced me a great deal. There are also many which I believe might be helpful to any who would wish to read further. The following list of works is offered with the hope of encouraging such reading.

Thomas L. Thompson, Copenhagen, 25 July, 1997

Recommended Reading

G.W. Ahlström, The History of Ancient Palestine (Sheffield Academic Press, 1993).

R, Albertz, Religionsgeschichte Israels, 2 vols (Neukirchert, 1992).

B. Albrektson, History and the Gods (Lund, 1967).

*W.F. Albright, From the Stone Age to Christianity (Garden City, 1946).

*A. Alt, Kleine Schriften, 3 vols (Munich, 1953).

H. Barstad, The Myth of the Empty Land (Oslo, 1996).

Bob Becking, The Conquest of Samaria, SHANE 2 (Brill, Leiden, 1992).

T. Binger, Asherah; Goddesses in Ugarit, Israel and the Old Testament, Copenhagen International Seminar 2 (Sheffield, 1997).

E. Blum, Studien zur Komposition des Pentateuch, BZAW 189 (Berlin, de Grayter, 1990).

T. Bolin, Freedom Beyond Forgiveness: The Book of Jonah Re-examined, Copenhagen International Seminar 3 (Sheffield, 1997).

*J. Bright, A History of Israel (Philadelphia, third edition, 1981).

J. and T. Bynon, Hamito-Semitica (The Hague, 1975).

R. Carroll, The Wolf in the Sheepfold (London, 1991).

R.B. Coote and K..W. Whitelam, The Emergence of Early Israel in Historical Perspective, SWABAS 5 (Sheffield, 1987).

F. Cryer, Divination in Ancient Israel and its Near Eastern Environment (Sheffield, 1995).

P.R. Davies, In Search of Ancient Israel (Sheffield, second edition, 1997).

—— and V. Fritz (eds), The Origins of the Ancient Israelite States (Sheffield, 1996),

D. Edelman, The Fabric of History: Text, Artifacts and Israel’s Past (Sheffield, 1991).

——, The Triumph of Elohim: From Yahwisms to Judaisms (Pharos. Kampen, 1995).

I. Finkelstein, The Archaeology of the Israelite Settlement (Jerusalem, 1988).

L.P. Fokkelman, Narrative An in Genesis (Assen, 1975).

W. Frey and H.P. Urpmann, Beiträge zur Umweltgeschichte des vorderen Orients (Wiesbaden, 1981).

H. Friis, Die Bedingungen für die Errichtung des davidischen Retches in Israel und seiner Umwelt, DBAT 6 (Heidelberg, 1986).

G. Garbini, History and Ideology in Ancient Israel (translated from the 1986 Italian version: London, 1988).

N. Gottwald, The Tribes of Yahweh (Maiyknoll, 1979).

L. Grabbe, Judaism from: Cyrus to Hadrian, 2 vols. (Minneapolis, 1992).

——, Can a History of Israel be Written? (Sheffield, 1997).

——, The Exile in History and Tradition (Sheffield, 1998).

A.F. Harding, Climatic Change in Later Pre-History (Edinburgh, 1982).

J.H. Hayes and J.M. Miller, Israelite and Judaean History (Westminster, Philadelphia, 1977).

I, Hjelm, Samaritans and Early Judaism: A Literary Analysis, Copenhagen International Seminar (Sheffield, forthcoming).

A. Horowitz, The Quaternary of Israel (New York, 1979).

E. Jamieson-Drake, Scribes and Schools in Monarchic Judah (Sheffield, 1991).

E.A. Knauf, Ismael (Wiesbaden, second edition, 1989).

——, Die Ummelt des alten Testaments (Stuttgart, 1994).

N.P. Lemche, Early Israel (Brill, Leiden, 1985).

——, Ancient Israel (Sheffield, 1988).

——, The Canaanites and Their Land (Sheffield, 1991).

—— Die Vorgeschichte Israels (Kohlhammer, Stuttgart, 1996).

——, The Israelites in History and Tradition (Westminster, Louisville, 1998).

*J. Neusner, From Politics to Piety (New York, 1979).

H. Niehr, Der Höchste Gott, BZAW 190 (Berlin, de Grayter, 1990).

F.A.J. Nielsen, The Tragedy in History, Copenhagen International Seminar 4 (Sheffield, 1997).

E. Nodet, A Search for the Origins of Judaism: From Joshua to the Mishnah, JSOTS 248 (Sheffield, 1997).

*M. Noth, The History of Israel (Westminster, Philadelphia, 1950).

B. Oded, Mass Deportation and Deportees in the Neo-Assyrian Empire (Wiesbaden, 1979).

G.W. Ramsey, The Quest for the Historical Israel (Atlanta, 1981).

D.B. Redford, Egypt, Canaan and Israel in Ancient Times (Princeton U. Press, Princeton, 1992).

R. Rendtorff, Das Überlieferungsgeschichtliche Problem des Pentateuch, BZAW 147 (Berlin, 1977).

J. Rogerson (ed.), The Pentateuch: A Sheffield Reader. The Biblical Seminar 39 (Sheffield, 1996).

H.H. Schmid, Der sogenannte Jahvist (Zurich, 1976).

J. Van Seters, The Hyksos (New Haven, 1966).

——, Abraham in History and Tradition (New Haven, 1975).

——, In Search of History (New Haven, 1983).

Th.L. Thompson, The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives, BZAW 133 (Berlin, de Gruyter, 1974).

——, The Settlement of Sinai and the Negev in the Bronze Age (Wiesbaden, 1975).

——, The Settlement of Palestine in the Bronze Age (Wiesbaden, 1979).

——, The Origin Tradition of Ancient Israel (Sheffield, 1987).

—— (with F.J. Goncalves and J.M. van Cangh), Toponomie Palestinienne (Louvaine la Neuve, 1988).

——, The Early History of the Israelite People (Brill, Leiden, 1992).

——(ed.), Changing Perspectives: Collected Essays of F.C. Cryer, N.P. Lemche and Th.L. Thompson, 3 vols (Sheffield, forthcoming).

E. Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible (Fortress, Minneapolis, 1992).

H. Weippert, Paläslina in vorhellenistischer Zeit, Handhuch der Archäologte (Munich, 1988).

*M. Weippert, Die Landnahme der israelitischen Stämme (Göttingen, 1967); Eng. trans.: The Settlement of the Israelite Tribes in Palestine (London, 1971).

*Julius Wellhausen, Prolegomena zur Geschichte Israels (Berlin, 1876); Eng. trans. Prolegomena for the History of Israel (London, 1883),

K.W. Whitelam, The Invention of Ancient Israel (London, 1996).

*Important works of traditional scholarship dominant in biblical studies through the 1970s.


Introduction to Part One1


On Sale
Aug 5, 2008
Page Count
432 pages
Basic Books

Thomas L. Thompson

About the Author

Thomas L. Thompson is one of the leading biblical archaeologists in the world. He was awarded a National Endowment fellowship, has taught at Lawrence and Marquette Universities in Wisconsin, and currently teaches at the University of Copenhagen, which has one of the most prestigious Biblical Studies programs in the world. His book, The Early History of the Israelite People, a famously controversial book at the time, is now a standard text in the field. He lives in Denmark.

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