Those Sources the Bible Cites

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Here I bring together different scholarly views on the sources cited in the Old Testament books of Kings directing readers to other writings for further information about a particular monarch. I conclude with a new perspective on one of those sources (the chronicles or annals of the kings of Judah) that would actually subvert the biblical narrative it is meant to support. This new interpretation comes from Russell Gmirkin’s chapter, “‘Solomon’ (Shalmaneser III) and the Emergence of Judah as an Independent Kingdom”, in the Thomas L. Thompson festschrift, Biblical Narratives, Archaeology and Historicity.

So the Lord routed them before Israel, killed them with a great slaughter at Gibeon . . . And it happened, as they fled before Israel . . . that the Lord cast down large hailstones from heaven on them . . . . There were more who died from the hailstones than the children of Israel killed with the sword. Then Joshua spoke to the Lord in the day when the Lord delivered up the Amorites before the children of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel: “Sun, stand still over Gibeon; And Moon, in the Valley of Aijalon.”

So the sun stood still, And the moon stopped, Till the people had revenge upon their enemies. Is this not written in the Book of Jasher? So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and did not hasten to go down for about a whole day. And there has been no day like that, before it or after it, that the Lord heeded the voice of a man; for the Lord fought for Israel. . . .

But these five kings had fled and hidden themselves in a cave at Makkedah. And it was told Joshua, saying, “The five kings have been found hidden in the cave at Makkedah.”

So Joshua said, “Roll large stones against the mouth of the cave, and set men by it to guard them. . . . And afterward Joshua struck them and killed them, and hanged them on five trees . . . . So it was at the time of the going down of the sun that Joshua commanded, and they took them down from the trees, cast them into the cave where they had been hidden, and laid large stones against the cave’s mouth, which remain until this very day.

Joshua 10:10-27

For other references to landmarks that are said to be visible “to this day” see Josh 7:26; 8:28, 29; … Judg 6:24; 15:19; 1 Kgs 8:8; 10:12; 2 Kgs 10:27; 2 Chr 5:9. — Stott, Why Did They Write This Way? p, 55

The Hans Christian Andersen citation

Given that Gmirkin uses “methods allied to those of Thompson, although [his] efforts rely more heavily on documentary sources” (p. 76), let’s open this post with Thompson’s view on particular attempt by a biblical author to “prove the truth” of his account by pointing to external evidence:

In Joshua 10, Jerusalem’s king, Adonizedek, the leader of five Amorite kings, was defeated by Joshua and his army in a running battle. Yahweh killed more enemies than Joshua did by throwing huge stones down on them from heaven. The kings were captured hiding in a cave and executed by Joshua. To endorse this story, the author tells us that five of these large stones are laid at the entrance of the cave ‘to this day’.

The humour of this closing ought not be missed. The author is very aware of the audience’s critical sensibilities. Just as Yahweh is hurling the large stones down from heaven, killing the enemy, the dead are described as having been killed by ‘hailstones’. After all, everyone knows – even the minimalist – that God sends hailstones. And this is where the author traps his listeners! The memorial set up at the cave, five of Yahweh’s stones, is an obvious argument for the story’s historicity. Such an argument is a common folktale motif, quite like the closure of Hans Christian Andersen’s story of ‘the princess and the pea’ with its historicizing details that the pea is still in the museum . . . ‘that is, if someone hasn’t stolen it’.

(Thompson, Mythic Past, 44)

Are they not written in the book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah?

Before his more detailed discussion of “the book of the deeds of Solomon” Gmirkin ties the “the book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah” with the Temple in Jerusalem (see the recent post Reconstructing the History of “Biblical” Israel and Judah). The particular reference is 2 Kings 21:17

3 [King Manasseh] rebuilt the high places . . . he also erected altars to Baal and made an Asherah pole, as Ahab king of Israel had done. He bowed down to all the starry hosts and worshiped them. He built altars in the temple of the Lord . . .In the two courts of the temple of the Lord, he built altars to all the starry hosts. He sacrificed his own son in the fire, practiced divination, sought omens, and consulted mediums and spiritists. . . . He took the carved Asherah pole he had made and put it in the temple,  . . .

17 As for the other events of Manasseh’s reign, and all he did . . . are they not written in the book of the annals of the kings of Judah? 


Regular readers of posts on this blog about Gmirkin’s views on Pentateuch and historical books of the Hebrew Bible will know that he dates their composition to the Hellenistic era. But let’s look at the range of views before concluding with Gmirkin. The scholarly works I address have been taken from the bibliography in Katherine Stott’s Why Did They Write This Way? Reflections on References to Written Documents in the Hebrew Bible and Ancient Literature.

Nadav Na’aman finds no room for Greek influence on the author of Kings:

Nadav Na’aman

We must recall that the author of the book of Kings (the Deuteronomistic historian) did not practice source criticism of the kind developed in Greek historiography from the fifth century B.C.E. on. He did not try to analyze the historical value of each source in an effort to establish its authenticity and historical accuracy. Rather, he was trying to collect as many sources as possible and to integrate all of them – with no “discrimination” – into his historical composition. That this was the author’s standard procedure is evident from the way in which he combined all kinds of sources (i.e., verbal and written narratives, chronicles, king-lists, etc.), in the history of the monarchial period. He did not try to decide which source was the most reliable or to analyze the sources so as to dismiss those that were not reliable. His work was directed at minimizing the contradictions between conflicting sources, in order to include all of them in his work. This was the procedure all over the ancient Near East, and in this respect the Deuteronomist was no different from all other scribes of his time and place.

Na’aman, Nadav. 2004. “Sources and Composition in the Biblical History of Edom.” In Sefer Moshe : The Moshe Weinfeld Jubilee Volume : Studies in the Bible and the Ancient Near East, Qumran, and Post-Biblical Judaism, edited by Chaim Cohen, Avi M. Hurvitz, and Shalom M. Paul, 313–20. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns. (The full article can be found on N. Na’aman’s academia.edu page.)

Katherine Stott comments on Na’aman’s claim with elaboration on differences between the Greek and biblical historians:

It is true that Kings, in contrast to Greek historiography, lacks explicit critical engagement with the sources upon which it depends. Whereas Greek historians frequently indicate the existence of alternative accounts, often to supplement, but also to verify or correct other sources, biblical historians do not directly acknowledge the existence of different/conflicting versions. Furthermore, in contrast to the common procedure of classical historians, the author of Kings does not comment on the truthfulness/reliability of his sources. This tendency is perhaps in keeping with the general absence of the historian’s voice in biblical historiography and does not preclude the possibility that biblical historians were concerned about the “truth” of their sources. Nevertheless, the lack of overt discussion in this regard represents a significant difference between biblical and classical approaches to source material.

(p. 53)

Recall the emphasis placed on the vital importance of eyewitness testimony among Greek historians — at least when writing of events within living memory.

“The literary citations in Kings reflect a “document-mindedness” that is perhaps more comparable to classical historiography dealing with non-contemporary events, and other non-historiographical classical genres, rather than historiography about the recent past, which tended to focus more heavily on oral sources.” – Stott p. 59)

Stott points to another significant difference between Greek and Hebrew historiographical practice:

While classical historians, especially the early Greek historians, tend to support their claims by reference to oral sources, the [Hebrew Bible] appeals to written tradition.

(p. 54 — see note in side-box)

Whence the interest in “written tradition”? Stott looks to Arnaldo Momigliano for an answer:

In Jewish post-exilic historiography the liberal use of documents reflects, directly or indirectly, the importance that the Persian state and its successors attributed to documents for establishing rights. . . . 

Contrast M’s observation of the Greek historians:

The origin of the use of documents in Greek historiography of the fifth century B.C., however, is still an open question. The first Greek historians who have come down to us appear to have been little interested in the use of archival documents to reconstruct events in Greek history.

(Momigliano, Essays in Ancient and Modern Historiography, pp. 31 f. — Momigliano, incidentally, was a teacher of another scholar discussed on this blog, Anthony Grafton, another who wrote about changing perspectives on the nature of historiography through the ages and on the reliability or otherwise of sources.)

Thus far we see a plausible influence of Mesopotamian influence on Kings in the use of archival sources. There is a parting of ways from this point, however.

Stott’s discussion moves on to align with the perspective presented by Russell Gmirkin in a comment on the post Reconstructing the History of “Biblical” Israel and Judah when he (Stott) notes that an interest in citing written sources could well be linked to Assyrian and Babylonian influence:

However, it is also possible that the phenomenon was shaped by ancient Near Eastern literary tradition, where “preference” was similarly given “to written sources over oral testimony.” Although there is little precedent for the explicit citing of sources in Near Eastern literature, the surviving archives of both Babylon and Assyria provide evidence for the research into archives. Indeed, as the Nabonidus inscriptions, for example, attest, written records from the past were seen and used in the ancient Near East as a source of authority.

(Reading the Mesopotamian Chronicles — e.g. the Weidner Chronicle — one finds other similarities with historical narrative in our biblical book(s) of Kings: the listing of key acts by kings and whether or not they pleased the relevant deity and their ensuing fate, good or bad, according to their correct form of piety.)

Stott then turns to address one noteworthy similarity between the Hebrew Bible and Greek historians, a detail that is not found in Mesopotamian literature,

namely, the explicit citation of sources. (p. 54)

If Greek and biblical historiography is distinguished from other Near Eastern narratives by the explicit citation of sources, the next question to ask is whether Greek and biblical source citations share the same “nature and function”. To answer this question Stott turns to John Van Seters’ comparison of Herodotus’s Histories with the Hebrew Bible. Van Seters begins by disputing the idea among some big names in Old Testament studies that the appeals to “evidence” that could be seen “to this very day” are stock etiological devices. Similar appeals to such external evidence are found in the work of the Greek historian Herodotus and Herodotus uses the device to impress his audiences with “the confirming truth” of his historical narrative:

. . . . the formula may be linked with “historical” traditions and therefore intended to be secondary confirmation, but instead it could be simply a device to persuade his audience to believe a story that he invented . . . . [T]he landmarks themselves may or may not be real objects. An element of fiction within the witnessing statement itself cannot be ruled out. Although the witness formula is a historiographic convention, it is difficult to determine whether the “historical” material to which it is linked is received tradition that is merely being confirmed or part of an invented story. The formula thus falls in the same category as source citations, which have the function of raising the credibility of the writer.

(Van Seters, In Search of History, p. 50)

But to return to citations of written sources,

Yet these three sources [The Chronicles of the Kings of Israel, The Chronicles of the Kings of Judah and The Book of the Deeds of Solomon], whatever their exact nature may have been, cover only a small part of the actual narrative in Kings. Like Herodotus, the author used only a small amount of these chronicles to provide a political and chronological framework, so that the anecdotes, prophetic legends, and other story material must have come either from unwritten sources or from the author himself.

(Van Seters, p. 47)

Herodotus cited sources to impress audiences with the veracity of his account. There is evidence that he lied about seeing some of the sources he cited (see the posts What if the Gospels did cite their sources . . . and Ancient Historians Fabricating Sources) so it is reasonable for us to treat ancient claims about their sources with caution. The actual existence of the sources cited was less important than the point of citing them in the first place:

Also important and fruitful to consider is the question of why the author cited sources in the first place; a question that has relevance regardless of whether the documents existed or not, especially since the citing of sources was not always considered necessary in historiography from antiquity. In this regard, it is important to emphasize that source citations can function to authenticate a work, irrespective of whether they existed or not . . .

(Stott, Why Did They Write This Way?, p. 58 — from necessity rather than irony Stott also cites numerous sources in the scholarly literature, but in this case — if you can trust me — I have verified the existence of many of them!)

In addition to lending credibility to an account, . . . [o]ther uses of source citations in classical literature . . . are those that are mentioned when dealing with a contentious issue, or are used to shift the burden of proof when telling a story that may not be believed. Both of these cases might inform our understanding of the citations in Kings, particularly if this author’s portrayal of the reign of Solomon and the period of the divided monarchy was not shared by his contemporaries/members of his audience.

Another possibility worth considering is that the explicit citation of sources can be designed to conceal dependence on other undesignated material/sources or perhaps to authenticate “information” that the author has introduced himself. Just as classical authors sometimes give the impression that material copied from their predecessors is the product of their own “primary” research, the author of Kings might have decorated his history with references to these “official” chronicles to cover up/make up for a lack of data or dependence on “unofficial,” perhaps non-written, material.

(Stott, p. 59)

Stott’s concluding statement on the comparison of source citations between Kings and Greek historical works:

Close inspection of the source citations in Kings reveals various features of these citations that mirror tendencies in classical historiography. While the numerous citations in Kings might suggest that this author was more interested in documentary sources than the vast majority of classical historians, he was not necessarily exceptional in his treatment of this material. He may have used this material for information about the past, but his lack of critical engagement with these texts (though typical of biblical methods in general) is reminiscent of classical approaches. In fact, the way in which he cites these documents, often in the form of a rhetorical question, and without any explicit link between the account and the source cited for it, bears resemblance to the use of inscriptions in classical historiography as a confirmatory device.

(Stott, p. 60)

Having thus raised questions about citations of written sources in Kings let’s see what Russell Gmirkin proposes about the citation of the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah in 2 Kings 21:17.

Politically Incorrect Royal Chronicles?

Recall that we were discussing the geographical extent of the power of King Ahab of Israel: it extended far to the south of Jerusalem. At Kuntillet ‘Ajrud we find an inscription that indicates the existence of a cult centre dedicated to ‘Yahweh of Samaria and his Asherah’. Yahweh of Samaria, not Yahweh of Jerusalem. In the same post (and ensuing comments) the likelihood that the Jerusalem temple at the same time was likewise dedicated to ‘Yahweh of Samaria and his Asherah’, with priests sent from Samaria to administer the rites.

The question Gmirkin raises is the whether the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah (or Royal Annals of Judah) described a Jerusalem Temple that was an extension of the cult of Samaria’s Yahweh cult — complete with “asherah” (= Yahweh’s consort). Gmirkin hypothesizes that the Chronicles did exist and that they depicted a Temple cult that was alien to the interests of the Hellenistic-era author(s). Notice above that sources were sometimes cited when the author was addressing a contentious issue. Did the author cite a source in a way that was contrary to its original character in order to “verify” his own theological message?

Here is the pertinent passage in Gmirkin’s article:

Based on comparisons with Kuntillet ‘Ajrud, one may hypothesize that Jerusalem’s temple functioned primarily for the worship of Yahweh and his Asherah, but also accommodated the worship of other ‘Canaanite’ deities such as El and Baal (cf. Meshel 2012: 110, 131), and was likely operated by priests from Samaria (cf. Meshel 2012: 67-8) who incidentally brought with them the basics of temple scribal culture to Jerusalem (cf. Meshel 2012: 68, 102-3). The absence of cultic apparatus at Kuntillet ‘Ajrud, perhaps removed when the site was abandoned (Meshel 2012: 68-9), allows little inference about religious activities at Jerusalem, except to suggest the existence of a bamah and massebot (cf. Meshel 2012: 66). But a more complete picture may be provided by the Royal Annals [Chronicles] of Judah in 2 Kings 21-25, especially the description of Jerusalem’s temple under Manasseh, which was likely taken from our Iron II source. This described the house of Yahweh at Jerusalem as a high place with asherah and altars where incense was burned to Baal and other gods. The comparison of the religious practices at Jerusalem’s temple with those of ‘Ahab king of Israel’ (2 Kgs 21:3) seems particularly telling if this derived from the Royal Annals of Judah, suggesting the existence of an Iron II tradition that Jerusalem’s temple was founded by Ahab, and perhaps operated by cultic personnel from Samaria like Kuntillet ‘Ajrud. One may take the description of Jerusalem’s temple under Manasseh as typifying the cultic practices of the Iron II temple at Jerusalem throughout its existence from the time of Ahab to the destruction of Jerusalem’s temple in 586 BCE. The evidence for Jerusalem’s temple as a cultural outpost of Samaria as found in the Royal Annals of Judah scandalized the Hellenistic-era Jewish authors of Kings, who viewed the polytheistic and idolatrous practices in Jerusalem’s temple as having provoked the wrath of Yahweh and caused the fall of Jerusalem. One may discount the accounts of Hezekiah and Josiah as Yahwistic reformers as late, Hellenistic-era literary fictions in which idealized Davidic kings briefly overthrew the apostate religious practices imported there from Samaria.

(Gmirkin, pp. 82 f )

Last time I concluded with a promise to discuss Gmirkin’s take on sources for the biblical accomplishments of Solomon. Next time, . . . .

Glassner, Jean-Jacques. 2019. Le Devin historien en Mésopotamie. Brill. [I have not made explicit use of this work in this post but I list it here because it contains some very interesting material. It is found on the book-z site.]

Gmirkin, Russell. 2020. “‘Solomon’ (Shalmaneser III) and the Emergence of Judah as an Independent Kingdom.” In Biblical Narratives, Archaeology and Historicity: Essays In Honour of Thomas L. Thompson, edited by Lukasz Niesiolowski-Spanò and Emanuel Pfoh, 76–90. Library of Hebrew Bible / Old Testament Studies. New York: T&T Clark.

Momigliano, Arnaldo. 2012. Essays in Ancient and Modern Historiography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Na’aman, Nadav. 2004. “Sources and Composition in the Biblical History of Edom.” In Sefer Moshe : The Moshe Weinfeld Jubilee Volume : Studies in the Bible and the Ancient Near East, Qumran, and Post-Biblical Judaism, edited by Chaim Cohen, Avi M. Hurvitz, and Shalom M. Paul, 313–20. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns.

Stott, Katherine M. 2008. Why Did They Write This Way?: Reflections on References to Written Documents in the Hebrew Bible and Ancient Literature. New York: T&T Clark.

Thompson, Thomas L. 1999. The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology and the Myth of Israel. New York: Basic Books.

Van Seters, John. 1983. In Search of History: Historiography in the Ancient World and the Origins of Biblical History. New Haven: Yale University Press.


See also:

Posts on Mandell and Freedman’s Relationship Between Herodotus’s History and Primary History

Posts on Wesselius’s case for Primary History being based on Herodotus’s Histories

Posts on Wajdenbaum’s case for Biblical stories deriving from Greek tales

Correlations between the “Histories” of Herodotus and the Bible’s History of Israel

and others via word search

The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

2 thoughts on “Those Sources the Bible Cites”

  1. According to Edward Lipinski there was never a tribe called Judah. The name comes from ’eres yehūdã’ meaning “land of ravines” proposing that the word may have an Arabian background associated with Arabic whd/wahda “terre ravine.”

    E. Lipinski, ‘L’étymologie de “Juda”’, VT 23 (1973), pp. 380-81. Therefore the expression hdwhy Cr) would mean ‘terre ravinée’.

    Since in biblical texts ‘Judah’ refers to a geographical or topographical feature, as in ‘the wilderness of Judah’ (Judg. 1.16), ‘the Negev of Judah’ (1 Sam. 27.10), and ‘the hill country of Judah’ (Josh. 11.21; 20.7; 21.11), a geographical or topographical reference, later applied to the tribe and tribal eponym, seems to be the preferred option. If Judah was, originally, one of this group of proto-Arabian lineages, the etymology would in any case probably not be Canaanite-Hebrew; and in fact an Arabic derivation, from the verbal stem whd (wahda) referring to a topographical feature, has been suggested, referring to a gorge or ravine.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.