Tag Archives: Merneptah Stele

The Great Divide in Biblical Studies

Leaving aside intellectually fraught efforts to argue that ancient Israel is an epic fiction manufactured in the Persian or Greek era — an effort that will forever stumble over the Merneptah stele— . . . . .

Jonathan Bernier, Re-Visioning Ancient Israel, 23rd March 2019

Such statements (this is but one example) mystify me. They are made by professional scholars yet they are tiresomely unscholarly, certainly unprofessional, on several levels.

To infer that the works of Thomas L. Thompson, Philip R. Davies and Niels Peter Lemche are “intellectually fraught efforts to argue” a thesis is not a scholarly statement but a condescending value judgement. It is a tactic to justify a choice to simply ignore the challenges to the foundational assumptions and methods underlying one’s own viewpoint or argument.

It would be more professional (demonstrating respect for one’s peers at the least) to say something like “Leaving aside the argument that Israel is an epic fiction…. — see challenges to this position at …..”.

The second point is even worse from a scholarly perspective. To declare that an entire thesis of a significant minority of one’s peers founders upon one solitary datum (as if that thesis fails to address that datum in a scholarly manner) is somewhat mischievous. In fact it is not the Merneptah stele that falsifies the thesis at all. The real point on which Bernier and those on his side claim that the view that “biblical Israel” is a fiction is the inference or assumption that the Merneptah stele confirms the essential reality of “biblical Israel” — an inference that is the conclusion of circular reasoning. Because the stele mentions Israel it is simply assumed that it must in some way be an indicator of “biblical Israel”, thus it is the assumption that biblical Israel was a historical entity that is used to conclude that the Merneptah stele refers to that “historical entity”.

It is misleading and the dogmatic apologetics to claim that the stele itself disproves the thesis that biblical Israel was a late fictional creation. It is Bernier’s assumptions and circular reasoning in relation to the stele that prevents him from referring to the hypothesis as if it is a genuinely scholarly enterprise. He writes as if any other interpretation of the stele is hopelessly (he says “forever”) invalid. That is not scholarship. That is dogmatics. It is not worthy of a serious scholar.

Here is an outline of the argument Bernier’s statement erases from any existence in his own intellectual world:

The earliest record of the name ’’Israel”

The name “Israel” first appears in a text at Ugarit (on the coast just south of modern Turkey, in modern Syria) and dates around 1500 bce. It is the name of a chariot warrior! Probably no connection with our ancient Israel!


The next find of “Israel” – but is it a People? a Place?…. ?

Merneptah Stele

The name “Israel” next appears around 1200 c.e. on an Egyptian stone monument (known as the Merneptah stele) commemorating victories of Egypt’s Pharaoh Merneptah in Palestine. However it is not clear from this monument whether Israel refers to a group of people who do not live in cities or to a city-less area in Palestine. The name may also refer to a people living in a highland area of Palestine but there is no way of knowing if they are named after the name of the place they inhabit. But we cannot simply assume that this will be our starting point for an extra-biblical history of Israel. We have no way of knowing whether these people called themselves “Israel” or if they were the ancestors of those who later formed the state of Israel.

If you think this is being picky, consider:

• Scotland takes its name from the ancient Scots who crossed the Irish Sea and settled m Ireland, leaving the Irish today being the descendants of the Scots.
• Britain today (and the British) take their name from a people (the Britons) who are now mostly limited to Wales and Cornwall after the Germanic tribes of Angles and Saxons settled there, and later the Danes and the Scandinavian-French Normans.
• Neither are the Dutch really Deutsch.

The same can be said of many other peoples. Populations in the Middle East, even today as in ancient times, also change a lot. Compare the peoples of Palestine and Israel today: The modern Israel occupies mostly the area once known as the land of the Philistines, while the centre of ancient Israel (the West Bank) is currently populated mostly by Arabs. It is most doubtful that any modern Israeli – actually ethnically descended from Asian and European races — can trace an ancestry back to the ancient land of Israel. So we need a bit more information than this ambiguous reference in an Egyptian monument before we can be confident we are looking at Israel in any sense that the Bible knows it.

From The Archaeological Evidence for Ancient Israel (notes on Philip R. Davies’ In Search of Ancient Israel)

Now the above argument is a scholarly one, it is evidence based, it is careful to avoid gratuitous assumptions, yet anyone is free and even encouraged to disagree with it as long as they do so on valid scholarly principles. Bernier is quite free to disagree with Davies’ reasoning and conclusion. But a professional scholar ought to be able to do so without dismissing it as fundamentally intellectually invalid, or by simply asserting that there can be no valid disagreement with his (Bernier’s) own interpretation.