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.