everybody…put the camel bones down and step away before someone gets hurt

Camel bones and the Bible have made the news lately, as in this online article, which is pretty sober and worth reading.

The scholarly article that started all this recent hubbub can be found here, which sports the perfectly boring scholarly title “The Introduction of Domestic Camels into the Southern Levant: Evidence from the Aravah Valley.”

Some media outlets, however, have (surprise) gone for the jolt factor, claiming that this is a “new” discovery that reveals that the Bible is a pack of lies, God no longer exists, and portends various apocalyptic scenarios, like the Cubs winning the World Series this year.

Sometimes archaeological finds are unfortunately reported in an exaggerated manner because (1) news outlets are sometimes ridiculous, and (2) archaeological digs need serious funding and without showing some sort of results funding may dry up.

The jolt factor is unfortunate, not only because it can bury truly interesting finds under a blanket or hype, but also because it encourages conservative responses that likewise are geared more to responding to hype than the scholarly issues behind it.

For example, the quick response to the camel bone “discovery” at Christianity Today claims to lay all this camel nonsense to rest, counseling that we shouldn’t jump to conclusions and that evangelical scholars have our back on this one.

I think we just need to take a step back here and calm down.

The article itself (linked above, written by Lidar Sapir-Hen and Erez Ben-Yosef), is a scholarly article that doesn’t claim to expose the heretofore unknown issue of camel domestication in the Patriarchal period, which is an almost universally understood anachronism in Genesis. The authors claim, rather, to have found further evidence for supporting this claim.

Of course, the authors’ argument can be contested, and archaeologists do that–a lot. But responses to the article should not treat this one scholarly study in isolation from what archaeologists have studied and concluded for quite some time: the presence of camels in Israel in the 2nd millennium BC is a problem, and this joins other anachronisms (like the presence of Philistines in Genesis) to suggest strongly that whatever history there is in the Patriarchal stories must also account for the clear 1st millennium BC coloring of those stories.

This point is not in the least controversial and to suggest that it is–either by those reporting the findings or those wishing to contest the findings–is bad form, and misleading.

In this respect, the CT response is a bit disappointing to me, for a couple of reasons.

First, its readers will not gather from it just how well ensconced in the academic study of the Bible (including by evangelicals) the notion of anachronisms in Genesis is. It suggests that all this camel business is just the latest attempt on the part of a sensationalistic media to discredit the Bible. That is false.

Second, the article also suggests, not too subtly, that the archaeologists who did this field work aren’t very good at their job. One problem, we are told, is that they limited themselves to one small geographic area and didn’t consider the full range of evidence of camel domestication elsewhere.

But their study was intended to focus on the Levant–where the Patriarchs were–not “elsewhere.” I’m willing to bet that the authors of the article know very well what is out there beyond the patch of real-estate they were working on and how to interpret their findings in light of that larger scope.

We are also told that, “Archaeologists usually remember that ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.’” “Usually” subtly implies that these archaeologists have forgotten this dictum of archaeology, but I seriously doubt that is the case. I’m sure this isn’t their first rodeo, and we should assume they are weighing a lot of evidence in drawing their conclusions.

Also this slogan can become–and in fact has become, in my opinion–a clever way of evading difficult conclusions by holding things perpetually at bay. After all, sometimes absence of evidence IS evidence of absence. But the CT article subtly suggest that evangelical scholarship takes the more rigorous academic high ground of not jumping to conclusions like Lidar Sapir-Hen and Erez Ben-Yosef are.

Anyway, bottom line as I see it:

  1. Camel domestication in the Patriarchal period (early 2nd millennium BC) in general is a problem with or without this recent article.
  2. It is perfectly OK to hope that perhaps more evidence will be forthcoming to support the Bible’s depiction of 2nd millennium life, but as it stands the presence of anachronisms in general in Genesis is not seriously disputed and cannot be tabled simply by “refuting” this one article.
  3. The presence of anachronisms does not in and of itself render Genesis historically valueless, but it does likely tell us something about the time when these stories were written and the perspective of the writers. A helpful analogy I first heard from Daniel Fleming at NYU is that Genesis is like a Renaissance painting of Madonna and Child: Mary and Jesus look like Italian nobility.
  4. Any credible defense of the historical accuracy of Genesis needs to take seriously anachronisms and other indications of later authorship rather than feel the pressing need to hang historical accuracy on 2nd millennium authorship. To try to make that case in essence undoes several centuries of biblical scholarship, which I feel is highly ill-advised.


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First of all, there is no conspiracy. A review of “Patterns of Evidence: Exodus” (1)
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  • Lisa

    I don’t understand why it’s so hard to understand that the God who could make a full-grown man (Adam) is the same God who could make a full-grown earth (complete with dinosaurs!).

    • BL

      I’ve never seen anyone argue that He *couldn’t*. The question is whether He *did*. He gave us brains to use and evidence to examine, and the reasonable conclusions drawn by science in no way undermine my faith.

    • Luke Breuer

      It is very hard not to see your model of God as intentionally deceiving us. This is because when we assume (i) uniformitarianism; (ii) evolution, we make new, cool discoveries. They lead to safer buildings (against earthquakes and more) and medical technology which saves lives. Why would God create a reality where believing in falsehoods lead to excellent things that he would seem to value (safety and health)?

      Can you give an example of God deceiving us for our good in the Bible? I cannot. I do think it’s accurate to use the word ‘deceive’, here. If beliefs cannot be tested by evaluating the actions they lead to in real life (judge a tree by its fruit), then we are stuck with Gnosticism; the early Church was very much against Gnosticism, [as I recall] because of its bad fruit!

      • ctrace

        >This is because when we assume (i) uniformitarianism; (ii) evolution, we
        make new, cool discoveries. They lead to safer buildings (against
        earthquakes and more) and medical technology which saves lives

        Thus demonstrating the difference between education and indoctrination.

      • ctrace

        Are you deceived because Adam was created as a grown man? Is God to be put on the stand and accused of deception by you because Adam was created as a full grown man? Did Jesus deceive when He turned the water into wine? Did He deceive when He did any of His miracles?

        You (and your theory of evolution) can’t even answer which came first, the chicken or the egg, and you would dismiss God’s supernatural act of Creation (from nothing) by calling it deception?

        • Dorfl


          There were animals laying eggs long before anything evolved that you would recognise as a chicken.

          • ctrace

            I don’t know if it’s sad or hilarious that you got 11 likes on that response. These are the types of things (teleological reality) evolutionists could blithely pass over when evolutionists thought cells were mere blobs of protoplasm. It was flat-earth theory from the beginning.

        • Pete

          By equating a miracle of Jesus with God creating the universe you are linking totally different events together to support your belief. Obviously Jesus did not decieve when he turned water into wine, thats just hyperbole to make your argument look credible. God has revealed himself to us in two books, namely the Bible and his Creation.
          There is no biblical evidence to support that God created the earth with the appearance of age, to make that assumption is to read your own interpretation into scripture. If Occam’s razor is applied, the burden of proof rests firmly on you to prove that the light of dead stars we see millions of lightyears away is actually God giving an old appearance to nature to fit with the Bible. Logically, biblically and scientifically that doesn’t make any sense.

          • ctrace

            The pure analogy is the first one I cited, which you self-servingly ignored: the creation of Adam as a full grown man. Was God being deceptive in that act?

  • Shaun

    Pete, any chance you could quickly highlight some of the other most notable anachronisms and other indications of later authorship in a follow up post?

    • Carlos Bovell

      From what I recall, Pete talks about this some in his Exodus commentary. You might start there…

  • herewegokids

    Hahaha… yes, step away everybody! Thanks for being a voice of reason!

  • John Shakespeare

    ‘Genesis is like a Renaissance painting ofMadonna and Child: Mary and Jesus look like Italian nobility.’ Excellent analogy. Lots to explore in that comparison. Very, very helpful. Thank you.

  • Luke Breuer

    Relevant as ever: The Science News Cycle.

  • Dan

    I was really surprised not to see something about how this works fine with an incarnational model of scripture ;)

  • Carlos Bovell

    Leadership Journal (sister publication of CT) has a companion article entitled,

    “Don’t Let Abraham’s Nonexistent Camels Destroy Your Faith”

    How stressful to be an inerrantist Christian! Evangelical students should not have to live like this!

    • ctrace

      History suggests it’s the those who think they keep finding error in the Bible who are the ones having the problems. Archaeology tends to disappoint them over and over. But their side has never been overly remorseful at being wrong.

      • Carlos Bovell

        When an error pops up that can’t be controverted, just move the goal posts and say that the Bible is being read wrong. Then the “history” you refer to (of interpretation?) can always be made to look however you need it to look in order to keep the faithful convinced that history’s always on their side.

        Another point is this: you seem awfully nervous about the prospect of being wrong, about making a mistake, about having the Bible have a mistake, about not having reliable (= no errors allowed anywhere?!) source of knowledge (as your apologetic schema has you setting things up). Can you see the artificial asymmetry you are imposing on your belief structure?

        Generally speaking, if archaeology is wrong, then it’s wrong and we’ll seek to correct it. If evolutionary theory needs to be modified, then let’s modify it. Exciting stuff! If the history of ancient Israel needs to be rewritten, then let’s re-write it. How much we’ll learn along the way! If the documentary history of scripture has to be adjusted, then let’s adjust it. It’ll be interesting because the Bible’s compositional history is so convoluted, it’s might even be too difficult to map.

        But if the Bible’s inerrancy gets threatened–like (and for the record this is a ridiculous situation inerrantists put themselves in) by those camels that may never have belonged to Abraham–well, that’s it then! we should call it quits because our faith has been destroyed. Don’t you see how absurd this is?

        Even if, for whatever reason, you can’t see it, can’t you at least empathize (hypothetically or whatever) with students who can’t go on with a life of “faith” so feeble as this?

  • John Hawthorne

    Pete: I was going to address the CT Camels story in my Tower of Babel post because it fit the idea of wall-building so well but I was running long so I skipped it. I did write a tweet to them that at best they could say “some scholars disagree.” But they were too busy defending turf, so it’s easier to just dismiss the scholars.

  • ctrace

    “The first mention of camels in Scripture is in Genesis 12, after
    Pharaoh took Sarai into his palace. “He treated Abram well for her sake,
    and Abram acquired sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, male and
    female servants, and camels” (12:16). Job, widely regarded as living
    around the same time as Abram, had 3,000 camels at the beginning of the
    book, and twice as many at the end. He lived in Uz, which was in Arabia. So the biblical evidence is that there were camels in Arabia around 2000 BC,
    and that Pharaoh had some too. This matches what we see from the
    archaeological record. A paper titled ‘The Camel in Ancient Egypt’
    stated, “The proposed time of camel entry into Egypt after its
    domestication in Arabia was found between 2500 and 1400 BC”.
    So not only did domesticated camels exist, they were in Egypt when
    Abraham was there. So this fits the biblical account perfectly.”


    • ctrace

      Oh, my. Just went over to that Christianity Today article and found out the scientists (love that word, coined in 1830, has such a crazy hat sound to it these days) used *radiocarbon dating* to make their claims. With such dating methods what happens is they get usually wildly different results; so they tend to go with what best fits their preconceptions and deligate all the other results – famously – as ‘noise.’

    • Muff Potter

      I much prefer he asses and she asses. The Elizabethan text (Gen 12:16) has soooo much more penache.

  • C. Bauserman

    It just makes sense. People write according to what they know, in their time. And if they write concerning a past time, they write about what has been passed down through oral tradition or from what they know (or think they know) about that historical period, most likely committing anachronisms as they go. It’s no different than the book of Daniel most likely being written during a later date and trying to compare one empire (Babylon) to another (possibly Greece?) through heightened theological rhetoric, an old story carried down from a timeless tradition being used to reflect a more current political reality.

  • elcalebo

    What respect I had for CT is almost totally gone by now. Often, simply following the links from their news reactions shows that the paragraphs in which the links appear are seriously misrepresenting the facts. (they’ve also deleted a couple of my comments calling them out on that)

  • Andrew Dowling

    Well, the media headlines seemed to assume that most Christians adhere to a more literalist, inerrant position . . .which is the only ‘faith’ that would be shaken by such a minor finding. Then CT, which may be the most widely read Christian publication in the U.S (I’m just guessing)., basically gives the alarmists their ammunition and then some with their ridiculous and juvenile response,

  • Brain P.

    Is something on something else being not newsworthy more or less not newsworthy than the not newsworthy thing itself? (And what does that say about my lameness of a comment.)

  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Censorship Censored

    Archeology shows the OT is mythological folklore until the time of King Hezekiah, 700BCE or so, roughly the time that it was written, and then it begins to maintain some historical accuracy.

    • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Censorship Censored

      > the historical record

      It’s not. Nice try.

      • ctrace

        Brian, I don’t think you understood his question.

        • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Censorship Censored

          I understood it. /wiki/Loaded_question‎

          • ctrace

            He was asking you about the dividing point determined between real history and the mythological folklore you mention. It wasn’t a loaded question.

  • Hanan
    • Carlos Bovell

      The point is not that camels won’t break the Bible’s back (clever!) because there actually were camels after all (maybe there were, maybe there weren’t), but rather that we should come to a place in our spiritual journeys where we don’t have to fear what they conclude about the camels because our account of biblical authority is not vulnerable to being broken that way.

      • ctrace

        Who’s fearful? This is a strawman. Do you understand faith? I mean, just even a systematic theology definition of faith? We enjoy seeing the world hitting their head against the Bible like hitting an anvil.

        • BT

          Kind of a horrible analogy. I don’t think the vision of someone’s head on an anvil is enjoyable in the least.

          I think that reflects a certain narcissism in our evangelical culture today.

          • ctrace

            Maybe what you enjoy isn’t what you need to hear.

          • BT

            Or maybe the evangelical world has lost a heartfelt concern and respect for the lost. We should not rejoice in someone’s banging their head on the bible. Rejoicing should be reserved for those that find God, not in those who fail to.

        • Rick Presley

          Answers in Genesis represents the most visible view of “the fearful” who insist on a literal interpretation. This “discovery” pretty much undermines their presuppositions.

  • Seeker

    Hmmm… Are you afraid of something? Because your tone makes you sound very fearful and defensive. If your faith depended more upon the person and work of Jesus – rather than on the Bible being inerrant – perhaps you wouldn’t feel the need to be so defensive in this case. Pete is pointing you to examine what Biblical scholars (even Evangelical scholars!) have recognized already for a long time, and yet it seems you just want to plug your ears and pretend you can’t hear. Why? Why is your faith so dependent on inerrancy? What are you worshiping? The Bible, or the One the Bible seeks to point you toward?

    • Carlos Bovell

      I like your question. I think it’s very helpful. Perhaps we can agree that it’s not a stark either-or situation because as readers so far removed from the life and times of Jesus, it takes a good amount of imagination on our part and on the part of biblical scholars to understand and interact with the Jesus of the Bible at all. What do you think?

      • Carlos Bovell

        Thank you for your thoughtful response. Yes, there is a tendency toward stubbornness that can keep our hearts from Jesus. We must always keep this in mind. Still, I think you are missing my point. Let me approach this from a different direction.

        The Bibles we read are in English. Jesus never uttered a single word in English. There is nothing having to do with “opposition to God” in making this observation. Do you agree? [I am not trying to be a smart alec--please, don't think I'm trying to be a wisenheimer.] I’m saying this to try to bring to our attention the very real “distance” I speak of. Jesus is being “presented” to us through the work of others, right?

        Another point connected with this but that is more to the point I want to make is this: we must appreciate that the “Jesus of the Bible” is also being presented to us through the work of yet others–the evangelists, right? And thus this “Jesus of the Bible” you speak of is conceptually different from the “Jesus of history.” Don’t you agree?

        • Carlos Bovell

          Two things:

          1) With the admission that the gospels are written in a dead language comes also the likelihood that the gospels, as a form of discourse, are partaking in a culture and mental outlook that is also dead, or the very least, extremely far removed from us. What do you think?

          2) I have heard the gospels being compared to “paintings of Jesus’ life and ministry.” The Jesus in a painting would not be the “real” Jesus, would it? The painting of Jesus (the gospels in my analogy) would be merely be “pointing to” or “trying to draw our attention to” Jesus; they themselves aren’t the real Jesus. What do you think of that?

          [BTW, yes, I agree, our natural inclination is NOT to love Jesus as Jesus teaches us and wants us to love.]

          • Carlos Bovell

            I think there’s one too many “Jesus” in that last sentence…

          • Carlos Bovell

            1) But can you see that in a way that’s exactly the point of Pete’s post! The Bible speaks of ancient times and cultures as if they belonged to the time and culture during which scripture was written: anachronism. Now I’m not sure what you mean by saying that Jesus was not a multiculturalist. But I do notice that when you looked to comment on some common aspect that belongs to all cultures, you immediately turned to spiritual matters. This is a position I would have some sympathy with; some call it “infallibility”: Where the Bible is authoritative is restricted to the domain of spirituality, particularly as it centers on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, whose new commandment is to love one another.

            2) Now in terms of “reliability,” we can begin to talk about what the Bible might be reliable for. Is the Bible given to us as a reliable statement of history? This is not what we come to the Bible for, is it? I don’t come to scripture to learn about ANE myths. Is it a reliable explanation of scientific questions? This is not what we come to the Bible for either. We look elsewhere for that. Is it a reliable guide to Christ? Yes, this is what we come to the Bible for, for help in seeking out and understanding Christ. How is the Bible “reliable” for this process of seeking out and coming to know Christ? Here we do not automatically grant the Bible historical “reliability.” The Bible doesn’t get a free pass in its historical narratives simply because it is inspired. Instead, we apply a faithful criticism that keeps the Bible in front of us as a spiritual source of instruction and refreshment through which the Holy Spirit points us to Christ, while in the meantime we strive to better understand the techniques used by biblical tradents as they wrestled in their own ways to understand themselves and help others understand, search for and spiritually find Christ.

          • Carlos Bovell

            Yes, I very much want evangelical students to understand that “Bible-believing” Protestants are just as capable of promoting a culture of fear as any other religious group, and that many contemporary evangelical groups and institutions who are inerrantists are perpetuating one even now as we speak. Don’t be too selective in your church history lesson, though, as if the Reformation saved the world. I understand that the witch hunts, for example, were primarily a Protestant affair.

            You bring up another good point, though: something can be historical and be spiritual at the same time. I like that. But then you say that Christ’s resurrection is historical and not spiritual. So we both are going to have to try to help each other express what we mean as consistently as we can. But let’s see if we can make such a great a mystery as the resurrection elucidate our present discussion regarding the claim that parts of scripture do not present actual history.

            I think here that “historical” in your last comment is now being used in a sense that somehow goes beyond the meaning I intended, and the same goes for “spirituality.” The cases you cite are indeed “events” that seem to me to have certainly happened (or in the case of the advent is still going to happen) but are still somehow not historical or somehow not typically historical or perhaps “publicly historical” would be better (this gets tricky). What I mean is that Christ was in fact resurrected, this actually happened. Still, not all things that really happen automatically qualify as “historical” simply because they happened. I’ll try to explain.

            There is a type of event, a certain class of miracle (and I hesitate to use the word “miracle” here) that causes a merging or superpositioning of this world with the next world, so to speak. [Trying to explain the "super"-natural is beyond my ability, so whatever I say is going to sound foolish, but I'm still going to try for the sake of our discussion, even if I look foolish.] This kind of event, then, I would consider to be happening “outside” history so to speak, or “beyond the limits of” history. It would be “extra”-historical or “supra”-historical or something. There’s some difference it seems to me between something that’s “supra-historical” and “ahistorical,” where in the former instance that event can be said to have happened but in the latter that kind of event we would say did not happen. So although I struggle to express (or understand!) what happens at a resurrection, I can say with some confidence that I don’t think it’s a good candidate to serve as a model that believers can indiscriminately use for conceptualizing as “historical” what we read in the OT historical narratives or the gospels, for example.

            Let me just say, WBC (whoever you are), I am very happy you’re asking these questions because you’re reinforcing for me the observation that there is a kind of parity of reasoning happening in the inerrantist approach to faith where it really is an all-or-nothing affair. Somehow the all gets inextricably tied to Christ’s resurrection and from there can be made to cover whatever the inerrantist deems defensible. Then anyone who disagrees gets pushed for all their worth into the nothing category. This all-or-nothing strategy, unfortunately, will almost definitely cause some spiritual casualty to Christ’s church, especially to believers personally impacted by the strategy, because they will feel compelled to spend an inordinate amount of energy fighting off the nothing category both as a culture and as individuals (fear) or they will ultimately succumb and give up faith (despair). It’s a lose-lose situation. A real spiritual tragedy.

          • Carlos Bovell

            I’m sorry, that was too long. I think this is too much to squeeze into comments…

  • http://littlegreenfootballs.com/pages/freetoken freetoken

    I too was a bit surprised about the brouhaha trying to make the camel story out as something new.

    Not only is the camel anachronism not new in academic circles, it is not new in the popularizations of OT archeology. E.g., look in Israel Finkelstein’s books and popularizations by his associates.

  • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

    In your point #2 when you say “It is perfectly OK to hope” seem to support the desperation to protect the historicity of the Jewish scripture. Maybe it was a hat tip to those not fully on board with skepticism.

    It is obvious, as you write, that the scriptures were not written anywhere near the time they report and it is clear that most of it is contrived to make their literary points. Do you think the authors had camels in their area of the world at that time. I can’t imagine they injected animals from distant lands into their stories. But I certainly can imagine them inventing Patriarchs to accomplish their literary goal.

  • Gregory Peterson

    Sort of reminds me of people who think that Native Americans have always had horses.

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