Did the Exodus Never Happen?
"The actual evidence concerning the Exodus resembles the evidence for the unicorn," writes Baruch Halpern of Pennsylvania State University.
"The Book of Joshua is of no historical value as far as the process of settlement is concerned," contends Volkmar Fritz, director of the German Protestant Institute of Archaeology in Jerusalem.
"The period of the patriarchs, exodus, conquest, or judges as devised by the writers of Scriptures ... never existed," declares Robert Coote of San Francisco Theological Seminary.
The Genesis and Exodus accounts are "a fiction written around the middle of the first millennium," states Niels Peter Lemche at the University of Copenhagen, and, "The David of the Bible, David the king, is not a historical figure."
Welcome to the intellectual world of the biblical minimalists, a new breed of radical scholars who would turn Abraham, Joseph, Moses, and even King David into legends and myths by the stroke of their pens. As far-out as their pronouncements may sound, their work is filtering its way into our world through seminary textbooks and media soundbites. The effect is a wholesale rejection of the Bible's accounts of Israel's origins—a matter of no small concern to believing Jews and Christians.
Answering these skeptics, however, is not always so easy as one might expect. The fact is that not one shred of direct archaeological evidence has been found for Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob or the 400-plus years the children of Israel sojourned in Egypt. The same is true for their miraculous exodus from slavery. And remember those reassuring Sunday-school stories about archaeologists finding Jericho's walls lying outward just as the Book of Joshua suggests they fell? It turns out that the most respected archaeologist to dig at Jericho earlier this century, Kathleen Kenyon, differed.
But before anyone scribbles "Fiction" over the title page of the Old Testament, some scholars want to tell another side to the story, one that Kenneth Kitchen, James Hoffmeier, and a handful of others are meticulously piecing together. Through top university presses and in academic conferences, they are exposing a fundamental problem with the conclusions of the biblical minimalists: the skeptical, narrow lenses through which they read the Bible serve them a bit too conveniently—allowing them not only to dismiss uncritically the historical value of the Bible's texts but also to avoid certain bothersome details that get in the way of their own accounts of the origin of Israel.
Back to the future
In one respect, the current skepticism is nothing new. As early as the eighteenth century, some scholars using the then-new methods of higher criticism had dismissed the early biblical accounts as legends. By the end of the nineteenth century, Julius Wellhausen had unified decades of theorizing about the authorship of the Pentateuch into his now-famous (slightly modified) Jahwist-Elohist-Priestly-Deuteronomist grid. Known as the Documentary Hypothesis, this theory claimed to detect four different authors or documents behind the "Books of Moses." By distinguishing these various sources, one could understand the development and progress of Jewish religion from its primitive nomadic origins through the era of the Prophets onward to a religion of the Law. Thus, instead of believing the Law was given to Moses on Mount Sinai in the second millennium B.C., Wellhausen thought it was composed after the Jews had returned from their exile in Babylon only 450 years before Jesus.