Abraham is undoubtedly one of the most important Biblical characters. His relevance in terms of shaping Christian thought has been significant. Beyond Christianity, Abraham finds a crucial role in two other monotheistic religions of Islam and Judaism. Notwithstanding his importance to monotheistic traditions, Abraham’s exact history and origins remains obscure. The fact that Abraham’s life and work preceded that of Christ by a few centuries has made claims on historical accuracy rather dubious. This essay will argue that, despite crucial theological merit in the conception and attributed preaching of Abraham, a study of the historicity of origins gives no concrete proofs.
Preliminary research on the debate surrounding Abraham’s historicity has thrown a few interesting leads. Liberal historians seem to take a dispassionate look into available data and present a realistic picture of Abraham’s legend. On the other hand, conservative theologians and scholars attempt to preserve the orthodox view. It is apparent from cursory investigation into their research material that the liberal historians are gaining ground. Certainly, the location of Abraham’s said life in ancient history, preceding even that of Jesus Christ, has made conclusive evidence impossible to gather. However, to the extent that rational discourse places the burden of proof on the claimant, the traditional Christian position on Abraham is on weak ground.
Two research scholars who have helped clarify the historicity of Abraham are John Oswalt and Edwin M. Yamanachi. But they take opposing positions with respect to the issues emerging from the debate. For Oswalt the historicity of Abraham and other Biblical characters have implication on the attendant Biblical concepts. In other words, he reckons that one cannot detach fundamental Biblical concepts from their purported revelators in the form of legendary personages. In his own words, “if we argue that the person did not exist and did not experience those things, then we cannot explain where those biblical concepts came from.” (Rosenthal, 2012)
Yamanchi, on the other hand, makes a vehement defense of the existence of Abraham. His critics have argued that the book of Genesis is full of factual contradictions and anachronisms which make it a weak historical document. They point out how the domestication of camels, the existence of Ur of the Chaldees and the presence of Philistines were inaccurate in their temporal location. In his defense, Yamanchi cites latest archaeological research, which seem to suggest “that the camel was indeed domesticated by the time of Abraham, the Philistines were present in the area, and Ur of the Chaldees, as we now know from the Mari archives, goes way back to the 18th century BCE.” (Rosenthal, 2012) But what is missing in Yamanchi’s defense is the link between these descriptive facts and the proof of existence of Abraham. In other words, even if the Genesis is confirmed to be a historically truthful document, “the fact that the Jewish people in their spiritual wanderings arrived at the monotheistic faith is not evidence that any one person was responsible. And would not Moses be the more plausible preacher of monotheism?” (Rosenthal, 2012)
Taking a broader view of the scriptures, it has become common knowledge now that many of its basic premises are at odds with discernible facts. Excepting for a few skeletal facts, the bulk of descriptions suffer from want of conclusive evidence. For example, with respect to the history of ancient Israel and Judah, the prevailing scholarly consensus posits that “much of the Pentateuch and the narratives of the Former Prophets represented the basic outlines of ancient Israel’s history.” (A, 2003) Acknowledging this basic accuracy, scholars promptly point out that the Pentateuch in its literary form as we know it was not written before the tenth century. Likewise, scholars generally agreed with the rudimentary facts of history presented therein, especially in relation to the kingships of Saul, Solomon and David. However, they added the disclaimer that these histories were written with their own historiographical agenda. (A, 2003) Israeli scholar Finkelstein is another who is unwilling to accept the historicity of Abraham in its entirety. According to him, “history is constructed to support Josiah’s program, i.e., the patriarch Abraham is a Judean figure who asserts southern parentage and dominance over the northern tribes of Israel/Jacob” (A, 2003)
Scholar Killebrew too is sceptical of the historicity of Abraham and similar important figures. Acknowledging that Israel’s origins were a complex, multidimensional and heterogeneous process, Killebrew goes on to question the authenticity of some biblical accounts, especially those pertaining to Joshua and Judges. On the other hand, “she accepts the accuracy of tribal allocation boundaries in the biblical record. In her opinion, archaeological evidence trumps the biblical narratives, since only Dan and Hazor provide any potential support for some events in those narratives.” (Barrick, 2007) Just as Killebrew questions the reliability of the biblical text concerning the Israelite conquest of Canaan, “she is suspicious of biblical accounts concerning Abraham’s association with Philistines. On the archaeological side, she excludes anthropoid coffins from evidence relating to the Philistines, arguing that the coffins are Egyptian.” (Barrick, 2007)
Hence it is fair to claim that barring a few fundamental facts related to Abraham, much of the socio-political detail surrounding his legend borders on the myth. The main motivation for pursuing the said thesis has been the fact that Abraham had profoundly influenced Christian doctrine. Further, much of the debate surrounding the interpretation of the scriptures could be resolved based on the veracity of his particular history. If, for example, the legend of Abraham were proven to be a retrospective imaginative construct, then the faithful can be allowed the freedom to interpret the scripture (at least those sections pertaining to Abraham) metaphorically. If, on the other hand, there is proof beyond reasonable doubt affirming the historicity of Abraham, then a more literal reading could be warranted. It is only fitting that the figurativeness or literalness of a particular Biblical idea is equated with the hard historical facts surrounding its origins. The most important of these facts happens to be the very existence of the author(s) and the character(s) involved in the passage of the text. Now that the character of Abraham is shown to be largely imaginary, it indicates a less literal approach to reading Biblical texts. It also reminds all concerned that research on any subject, including those falling under the domain of theology, is an ongoing and emergent. In the spirit and ethic of Christian values, it is imperative that the faithful give due consideration to the latest developments on a particular debate. The following observations serve as a fitting concluding thought on the import of the historicity of Abraham:
“The fact that the historical foundation of a myth remains wrapped in mystery becomes the symbolic embodiment of the mystery with which the myth is concerned. For many people the mysterious is an essential quality of the religious experience. In even the simplest religious myth at least some part remains obscure or beyond rational comprehension. Myths like those of Abraham at the founding of Jewish history or of Jesus at the founding of Christianity have become powerful to the extent that they have deeply influenced and shaped the entire subsequent history of both the Jewish and the Christian world. The influence of myths, even religious ones, may extend beyond the groups to which they are immediately relevant, and this is the case with Abraham and Jesus.” (Arieti, 1981, p. 10)
Works Cited (with annotations)
- Arieti, Silvano. Abraham and the Contemporary Mind. New York: Basic, 1981. Print.
This book is very useful due to its analysis of Abraham in the modern philosophical context. Though the language is difficult at places, the rigor and candor of presentation makes the arguments convincing.
- Barrick, William D. “Biblical Peoples and Ethnicity: An Archaeological Study of Egyptians, Canaanites, Philistines, and Early Israel 1300-1100 B.C.E.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 50.2 (2007): 377+. Print.
This work gets down to the nuts and bolts of Abraham’s historicity. Although the descriptive parts can be tedious to read, they nevertheless offer the most tangible proofs (or lack of existence) of Abraham’s existence.
- Bass, Alden. “Abraham Affirmed”, Apologetics Press. Retrieved from <http://www.apologeticspress.org/apcontent.aspx?category=13&article=1220>, Published in 2003. Web.
As the title clearly proclaims, this is one of the unabashed apologetics for Abraham’s historical existence. In the research is rather superfluous and unconvincing.
- A, Marvin. “The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts, by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman.” Shofar 21.2 (2003). Print.
This journal article is a review of a book by Finkelstein and Asher. It neatly highlights the major findings by the scholar team while offering a critique. The fact that the original book is a comprehensive research helps greatly in the quest for Abraham’s veracity.
- Moberly, R. W. L. The Bible, Theology, and Faith: A Study of Abraham and Jesus. Cambridge, England: Cambridge UP, 2000. Print.
A very broad-based work, it eschews archaeological and historical research. Instead the focus is mainly on the theological argument.
- Rosenthal, Gilbert S. “Perspectives on Our Father Abraham.” Midstream Winter 2012: 33+. Print.
This journal article offers fresh perspectives in understanding Abraham. It reinforces the view of the faithful toward the subject. It does not offer any key insights in terms of Abraham’s historicity, but the lack thereof is in itself an evidence for the proposed thesis.