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Like the nose of a camel under the tent, archaeological research has raised new questions about the Bible's version of ancient history.
Two researchers at Tel Aviv University (TAU) studied the bones of camels found in an area of ancient copper mines in the Aravah Valley, south of the Dead Sea. Using radiocarbon dating and other techniques, they determined that camels were first used in the mining operations near the end of the 10th century BC.
They state that this is the first evidence of domesticated camels in ancient Israel.
This would be almost 1,000 years later than the time of the patriarchs, when camels first appear in the Bible. The most memorable account is the story of Abraham's servant, Eliezer, in Genesis 24, who is sent by Abraham to find a wife for his son Isaac. He finds Rebecca, who not only draws water from a well to quench Eliezer's thirst, but also waters his 10 camels.
Their study was quickly used to claim that the Bible was written or edited long after the events it describes. Headlines included:
The Mystery of the Bible's Phantom Camels
Camels Had No Business in Genesis
Will camel discovery break the Bible's back?
Study of camel bones suggests Bible may be wrong
Camel archaeology contradicts the Bible
But evangelical scholars say the claims are overblown.
The use of camels for copper mining is an important discovery. "But to extrapolate from that and say they never had domesticated camels anywhere else in Israel in the 1,000 years before that is an overreach," said Todd Bolen, professor of Biblical Studies at The Master's College in Santa Clarita, California. "The conclusions are overstated."
While it has been difficult for archaeologists and historians to pin down the exact time and location when camels were domesticated, there is evidence to suggest that the Genesis accounts are not a biblical anachronism.
Two recent academic papers written by evangelical scholars—Konrad Martin Heide, a lecturer at Philipps University of Marburg, Germany; and Titus Kennedy, an adjunct professor at Biola University—both refer to earlier depictions of men riding or leading camels, some that date to the early second millenium BC.
Among other evidence, Kennedy notes that a camel is mentioned in a list of domesticated animals from Ugarit, dating to the Old Babylonian period (1950-1600 BC).
He concludes, "For those who adhere to a 12th century BC or later theory of domestic camel use in the ancient Near East, a great deal of archaeological and textual evidence must be either ignored or explained away."
In an interview with Christianity Today, Kennedy said that he noticed archaeologists who work in Israel and Jordan seem to date camel domestication later than those who work in Egypt and Mesopotamia.
"[Israel] doesn't have much writing from before the Iron Age, 1000 BC," he said. "So there aren't as many sources to look at. Whereas in Egypt, you have writing all the way back to 3000 BC and in Mesopotamia the same thing." Based on Egyptian and Mesopotamian accounts, Kennedy believes domestication probably occurred as early as the third millennium BC.
He also believes the TAU researchers not only ignored evidence from outside Israel, they also assumed too much about their own research. "All they really tell us is that at that particular place where they were working they found some camel bones that they interpreted as in a domesticated context between the ninth and 11th centuries BC," Kennedy said. "It doesn't tell us that camels couldn't have been used in other nearby areas earlier than that."
Archaeologists usually remember that "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." The absence of evidence for Hittites once fueled some 19th-century debates over the Bible—until the vast Hittite empire was discovered in Anatolia. Questions about the Book of Daniel once focused on the absence of the prominently featured Belshazzar from Babylonian king lists—until it was discovered that Belshazzar was actually the son of Nabonidus, and co-regent.
The many media reports which unquestionably accepted the TAU findings is also testimony to the fact that mainstream archaeologists and Bible scholars believe the Bible was written or assembled in the first millennium BC. They are highly skeptical of any historical information that predates that period.
Bolen also observed that archaeologists at TAU support a low chronology for the United Monarchy of Israel, which minimizes the importance of David and Solomon, and typically weights archaeological evidence more strongly than the biblical account.
"They're thinking of this in terms of strengthening their position on the low chronology," he said.
Ironically, one of the most-recent critiques of the low chronology came from another archaeologist working in the same Aravah copper mine area. He determined that the bulk of the industrial-scale mining probably occurred during the 10th century BC, the time of David and Solomon, and not later, as had been thought.