Most Ways of Dating the Old Testament Older than 300 BCE are Flawed

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by Neil Godfrey

This post continues a series I began with The Hebrew Bible - Composed only 300 years before Christ

In my opening post setting out the initial grounds for thinking that the biblical literature was no older than 300 BCE I noted with only minimal explanation that the current mainstream view of the far greater antiquity of the Bible was logically invalid — it was grounded in circular reasoning. I mentioned that simple fact only as an introductory explanation for why a new approach to dating the biblical texts was warranted. I wrongly assumed that there would be little need for a fuller discussion to justify the claim of circularity. But one of the forum members picked it up and challenged it. So I found myself setting out a more detailed justification for the claim that the primary mainstream way of dating the Bible’s books was indeed logically invalid. I began by quoting at length from P. R. Davies’ In Search of Ancient Israel.

Before I post my forum reply here I want to add another scholar’s observations about serious flaws in much of conventional biblical scholarship. His words sum up a point I have made often over the years on this blog. There is too often precious little in common between the fundamental methods of biblical historians and historians of “non-biblical” inquiries:

Modern scholarly histories of Israel are written for two main purposes: in order to understand the place of Israel within the actual history of the ancient Near East or in order to understand better the Hebrew Bible. The second reason has predominated, and it is no accident that many authors of the standard histories of Israel have also written biblical commentaries. Large-scale histories of Israel are not typically written by individuals whose primary training is in general historical method or in ancient Near Eastern history. It should not be surprising, then, that biblical histories show so little agreement with the canons of modern historiography, especially concerning the use of evidence, specifically the evaluation of source material before using it for reconstructing the past. (Brettler, pp 140f – my bolded highlighting in all quotations)

Amen to that. The same applies to New Testament studies, both with respect to the gospels and to the epistles. Approach those sources by the same “canons of modern historiography” and one soon finds oneself with very little in common with the reconstructions of most historians of Christian origins.

Here is the initial reply that I posted to justify my point that the ways of dating biblical texts are logically invalid. I have added subheadings in underlined italics to my original post to enable quick scanning.


Here is what Davies wrote in 1992, and I think it deserves a response:

So far, historical research by biblical scholars has taken a different and circular route, whose stages can be represented more or less as follows:

Assume the authors were doing their best to write a real history

1. The biblical writers, when writing about the past, were obviously informed about it and often concerned to report it accurately to their readers. A concern with the truth of the past can be assumed. Therefore, where the literary history is plausible, or where it encounters no insuperable objections, it should be accorded the status of historical fact. The argument is occasionally expressed that the readers of these stories would be sufficiently knowledgeable (by tradition?) of their past to discourage wholesale invention.

Assume a story set in a particular past originated in that particular past

2. Much of the literature is itself assigned to quite specific settings within that story (e.g. the prophetic books, dated to the reigns of kings of Israel and Judah). If the biblical literature is generally correct in its historical portrait, then these datings may also be relied upon.

If we can link some details in a story to a historical time created by the story,
then we can use that story setting to interpret the story

3. Even where the various parts of the biblical literature do not date themselves within the history of its ʻIsraelʼ we are given a precise enough account in general to enable plausible connections [to] be made, such as Deuteronomy with the time of Josiah, or (as formerly) the Yahwist with the time of David or Solomon, Psalms with a Jerusalem cult. Thus, where a plausible context in the literary history can be found for a biblical writing, that setting may be posited, and as a result there will be mutual confirmation, by the literature of the setting, and by the setting of the literature. For example, the Yahwistʼs setting in the court of Solomon tells us about the character of that monarchy and the character of that monarchy explains the writing of this story.

I’ll interject here to add to what I originally wrote.  Contrast the assumption of a historian of ancient times (that we must acknowledge the readiness of ancient writers to make things up) with that of the biblical historians (that we must assume they had reliable sources).

Where did [ancient historians] find their information? No matter how many older statements we can either document or posit – irrespective of possible reliability – we eventually reach a void. But ancient writers, like historians ever since, could not tolerate a void, and they filled it in one way or another, ultimately by pure invention. 

The ability of the ancients to invent and their capacity to believe are persistently underestimated. . . (Finley, p. 9)

If it is clear that an editor lived in more recent times it is assumed that his knowledge of past events was derived from sources originating at the time of those early events

4. Where the writer (ʻredactorʼ) of the biblical literature is recognized as having been removed in time from the events he describes or persons whose words he reports (e.g. when an account of the history of ʻIsraelʼ stretches over a long period of time), he must be presumed to rely on sources or traditions close to the events. Hence even when the literary source is late, its contents will nearly always have their point of origin in the time of which they speak. The likelihood of a writer inventing something should generally be discounted in favour of a tradition, since traditions allow us a vague connection with ʻhistoryʼ (which does not have to be exact) and can themselves be accorded some value as historical statements of the ʻfaithʼ of ʻIsraelʼ (and this will serve the theologian almost as well as history).

Each of these assertions can be encountered, in one form or another in the secondary literature. But it is the underlying logic which requires attention rather than these (dubious) assertions themselves. That logic is circular. The assumption that the literary construct is an historical one is made to confirm itself. Historical criticism (so called) of the inferred sources and traditions seeks to locate these in that literary-cum-historical construct. The placement of sources and traditions in this way is then used to embellish the literary account itself. This circular process places the composition of the literature within the period of which the literature itself speaks. This is precisely how the period to which the biblical literature refers becomes also the time of composition, the ʻbiblical periodʼ, and the biblical literature, taken as a whole, becomes a contemporary witness to its own construct, reinforcing the initial assumption of a real historical matrix and giving impetus to an entire pseudo-scholarly exercise in fitting the literature into a sequence of contexts which it has itself furnished! If either the historicity of the biblical construct or the actual date of composition of its literature were verified independently of each other, the circle could be broken. But since the methodological need for this procedure is overlooked, the circularity has continued to characterize an entire discipline—and render it invalid. The panoply of historical-critical tools and methods used by biblical scholars relies for the most part on this basic circularity. (Davies, pp. 35-37)

Some cynicism was expressed in response so I gave specific examples to illustrate how even notable names like Julius Wellhaussen and William Dever do exactly what Davies described — use the setting in the  story’s narrative to date the narrative, thus turning a narrative setting into a historical one to explain the narrative! (You are forgiven for feeling dizzyingly confused.)

Here is what Julius Wellhausen wrote in Prolegomena:I.II.2

The Jehovistic Book of the Covenant lies indeed at the foundation of Deuteronomy, but in one point they differ materially, and that precisely the one which concerns us here. As there, so here also, the legislation properly so called begins (Deut. xii.) with an ordinance relating to the service of the altar; but now we have Moses addressing the Israelites in the following terms: “When ye come into the land of Canaan, ye shall utterly destroy all the places of worship which ye find there, and ye shall not worship Jehovah your God after the manner in which the heathen serve theirs. Nay, but only unto the place which the Lord your God shall choose out of all your tribes for His habitation shall ye seek, and thither shall ye bring your offerings and gifts, and there shall ye eat before Him and rejoice. Here at this day we do every man whatsoever is right in his own eyes, but when ye have found fixed abodes, and rest from your enemies round about, then shall the place which Jehovah shall choose for His habitation in one of your tribes be the one place to which ye shall bring your offerings and gifts. Take heed that ye offer not in every place that ye see; ye may not eat your holy gifts in every town, but only in the place which Jehovah shall choose.”

The Law is never weary of again and again repeating its injunction of local unity of worship. In doing so, it is in conscious opposition to “the things that we do here this day,” and throughout has a polemical and reforming attitude towards existing usage. It is rightly therefore assigned by historical criticism to the period of the attacks made on the Bamoth by the reforming party at Jerusalem. As the Book of the Covenant, and the whole Jehovistic writing in general, reflects the first pre−prophetic period in the history of the cultus, so Deuteronomy is the legal expression of the second period of struggle and transition. The historical order is all the more certain because the literary dependence of Deuteronomy on the Jehovistic laws and narratives can be demonstrated independently, and is an admitted fact. From this the step is easy to the belief that the work whose discovery gave occasion to King Josiah to destroy the local sanctuaries was this very Book of Deuteronomy . . .

In a later response I explained the reasoning behind assigning the Book of Deuteronomy to the period of King Josiah and I will elaborate on that in another (next?) post.

William Dever even appeals to archaeological finds of the presence of pagan objects to “support” the biblical story of Josiah getting rid of pagan objects!

First, Dever reminds us of the importance of archaeology in assessing the historicity of the biblical accounts:

[A]rchaeological data are primary because an external witness is required to lend support to the historicity of the biblical narratives, if possible, and archaeology is, by definition, the only candidate (including, of course, the texts that it may recover). Archaeology is primary because it provides an independent witness in the court of adjudication, and when properly interrogated it is often an unimpeachable witness. (p. 18)

Agreed 100%.

But then compare that noble statement with how he actually uses archaeological data to “confirm” a biblical narrative:

It is the reign of Josiah (648–609) that is best correlated with the archaeological evidence that we now have. His reputation as a reformer, a restorer of tradition, comports especially well with the more favorable situation that we know obtained with the decline of Assyria . . . (p. 611)

Correlation is not a proof. Dever lists in a table what is explicitly proven by archaeology at the time of Josiah:

“Poly-yahwism”; Asherah cult; Yahu names; Philistia attacked (p. 609)

In the same table he lists as “Probable; Evidence Ambiguous”

Josiahʼs attempted reforms; consulted temple scroll; maintained Judah even if vassal; Josiah slain in battle, (p. 609)

So archaeology, according to his own analysis, does not confirm the historicity of the Joshua narrative. Nonetheless, he proceeds to set forth a list of correlations with the biblical account — as if correlations can ever be anything more than correlations. (Compare the correlations with historical data of any historical novel.)

He begins on page 11:

It is the reign of Josiah (648–609) that is best correlated with the archaeological evidence that we now have. . . .

Numerous studies of these intriguing reform measures attributed to Josiah have been published, but few have paid any attention to possible archaeological correlates—that is, to a possible real-life context in the late seventh century. Most scholars have focused on whether the reform was successful, many assuming that the reforms claimed are simply too fantastic to be credible. The fact is, however, that we have good archaeological explanations for most of the targets of Josiahʼs reforms. For instance, we know what high places (bāmôt) are, and we have a number of examples of them, perhaps the most obvious example being the monumental one at Dan.

No-one denies the biblical authors were familiar with the various popular cults of the day. Simply finding evidence of these brings us no closer to finding any support for the historicity behind the narrative of Josiah and the discovery of Deuteronomy.

We have many altars in cult places and private homes, large and small. We even have an example of the altar on the roof in the debris of a building destroyed at Ashkelon in 604.

The sacred poles and pillars are easily explained, even in the Hebrew Bible, as wooden images or live trees used to represent the goddess Asherah symbolically. The tree iconography has now been connected conclusively with the old Canaanite female deity Asherah, whose cult was still widespread in Iron Age Israel, in both nonorthodox and conformist circles (above).

The weavings, or perhaps “garments” or even “curtains,” for Asherah (Hebrew bāttîm) remain a crux. Renderings by the Septuagint, the Targumim, and later Jewish commentaries suggest a corrupt Masoretic Text, but woven garments for deities and tent-like hangings for sacred pavilions are well known in both the ancient and modern Middle East.

The phrase “heavenly hosts” needs no archaeological explanation, since it clearly refers to the divine council well documented at Ugarit and in the Hebrew Bible. The reference to the “horses and chariots of the Sun” recalls examples that we have of terra-cotta horse-and-chariot models from the Late Bronze and Iron Ages. In the Ugaritic texts, Baal is the “Cloud Rider” who flies across the heavens daily as the great storm god, imagery that is even applied to Yahweh in Psalms.

The Topheth in the Kidron Valley (a rubbish dump and place of abomination in any case) is readily explained by the famous sanctuary of Tanit at Carthage, where infant sacrifice was the usual rite, and there the Phoenician god was indeed Molech.

Of the various “pagan” deities condemned—Baal, Asherah, Ashtoreth of Sidon, Kemosh of Moab, and Milkom of Ammon—all are well known, as is their iconography and to some degree their cult practices.

It is not only the description of the specifics of the religious situation in Josiahʼs time that is realistic in the light of the current archaeological data. The general context of cultural and religious pluralism in the seventh century is an amalgam well illustrated by the archaeological data that we have summarized above, beginning already in the eighth century. That context helps to answer the question raised above about whether the Deuteronomistic Historiansʼ original version fits in the actual historical-cultural setting of the seventh century in Judah. It can be shown in many ways that it does but in other ways that it does not, even though the written version could have been almost contemporary (the question of an older oral tradition cannot be resolved).

It is instructive to set the central themes and ideals of the Deuteronomistic program as summarized above alongside a general description of the realities of life in seventh-century Judah as illuminated by the archaeological evidence here. (pp. 612f)

And that’s it. All Dever’s archaeological evidence has managed to do is to tell us that there is no evidence for Josiah’s reforms as per the biblical narrative. No-one has questioned the polytheistic/poly-Yahwist cult prevalent throughout Judah/Samaria/Negev/Syria. The biblical narrative assumes that most of the population did not practice “biblical Yahwism”. The whole point of the narrative is to give some historical context to the book of Deuteronomy.

One may reply that the biblical narrative was exaggerated and the reforms were not so successful after all, but it won’t really do to imagine all sorts of reasons why we still do not have the evidence for the historicity of the narrative. We will always need independent evidence to confirm the narrative. Until we have it we cannot validly work on the assumption that we will one day find the evidence we know “must be there somewhere” to justify our dating of the sources.

Dever’s words above are a classic instance of the very problem Davies was addressing. The archaeological evidence is interpreted through the assumption that there is a historical core in the biblical narrative. Without the biblical narrative there is simply no grounds in any of the evidence cited by Dever that would lead anyone to suspect the event of Josiah’s reforms.


Unfortunately there were no critical responses worth mentioning here. The only responses were summary assertions to the contrary and constant attempts to avoid addressing the problem illustrated by Wellhausen, Dever and countless other unnamed scholars in between. In other words, the only response was to attack by means of blanket assertion and denial, not to actually engage with the specific  arguments presented.

But soon another forum member entered the discussion (the moderator himself, no less!) and then things got “pretty wild”. That’s for another post.

By the way, I titled this “Most Ways”. There are some other methods used to tie some texts to pre-Hellenistic eras and I’d like to address those, too. But the fundamental point of this post even applies to some extent in those cases. The independent evidence introduced usually is deployed to “verify” an invalid construct as per above.

Brettler, Marc Zvi. The Creation of History in Ancient Israel. London: Routledge, 1998.

Davies, Philip R. In Search of “Ancient Israel.” Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1992.

Dever, William G. Beyond the Texts: An Archaeological Portrait of Ancient Israel and Judah. SBL Press, 2017.

Finley, M. I. Ancient History: Evidence and Models. ACLS History E-Book Project, 1999.

Wellhausen, Julius. Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel. Blackmask Online, 2002.

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Neil Godfrey

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