Camels and Fundamentalism

There have been a bunch of headlines at various sites over the last day or so about an Israeli story that scientists have concluded that domestic camel bones found at copper mining sites in southern Israel date only to the ninth century B.C.E.  The headlines sensationally claim that this disproves the historicity of the Bible or that it proves that the Bible is made up.  See here and here, for instance.  (The original story seems to have been in Hebrew in a Tel Aviv journal. There is both a Tel Aviv Journal and a Tel Aviv Journal of Archeology.  I can’t tell which one is meant.)

The finds apparently suggest that no domestic camels existed in Israel before the 9th century, whereas domestic camels appear in the narratives about Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph.  Those stories all take place before the Iron Age–in other words before about 1200 B.C.E.  In fact they are set quite a long time before that.

The first thing I would say about this is that this argument did not just come up this week.  I have heard the argument that camels were domesticated late for a long time.

Second, from reading the articles I can’t tell how archeologists concluded that the camel bones they found were of domestic camels.  They did find some camel bones dating back to the Stone Age, but think those were from wild camels.  Do they think that the bones from the ninth century were of domestic camels because they were more numerous and  near to the mining settlements?  Moreover, how does a positive find of domestic camels in a ninth century setting prove the negative that there were no domestic camels in Israel before that?

It seems that the claims about disproving the Bible come more from the headline writers than from the scientists.  What the authors of the study seem to have claimed is that their find suggests that the stories of the patriarchs were written after the ninth century.  I have no problem with that.  The camel stories may be anachronisms.  That is, camels may have appeared in the stories because travel by camel was common at the time the story was written.  The authors told their stories in a way that related to people in their own time.

There is a story in the gospels about a man who sought healing from Jesus.  His friends tore up the roof of the house where Jesus was and lowered the man on a pallet.  In Mark 2:4 they made an opening in what would have been a mud-thatch roof in Israel.  But in Luke 5:19 they remove tiles in order to lower the man.  Tile roofs were common in Roman and Greek cities.  So Luke seems to have adapted his story to readers who were familiar with tile roofs.  This does not mean that the story was not true.

If Abraham, Jacob and Joseph rode donkeys instead of camels, but the authors mentioned camels because camels were the mode of long-distance travel in their day, that has a trivial effect on the accuracy of their stories.  They were not writing history, in our sense, anyway.  They were passing on traditions.  Those traditions could have been pretty accurate even if the camel detail was wrong.  So the argument here seems to be between two different kinds of fundamentalists.  The secular fundamentalists are playing a “gothcha game” with religious fundamentalists. But biblical faith does not depend upon the Bible being the equivalent of modern history.

Still, I think someone might someday find that there were at least a few domestic camels in Israel in neolithic times.  I don’t see how these discoveries preclude that possibility.  People used to think that Edom was uninhabited before the 10th century.  People used to think that writing developed much later than it did.  But those opinions have now been overturned.  So I am not yet ready to equate domestic camels before the ninth century with unicorns.

 

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About theoutwardquest

I have many interests, but will blog mostly about what I read in the fields of Bible and religion.
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