Critical Thinking and Religion: Science, Genetics, and Israelite Origins

In my next religion and science class, we’ll be discussing Steven Schafersman’s “An Introduction to Science: Scientific Thinking and the Scientific Method.” This piece, which the author has made available online, is intended to do what some science textbooks skip, namely introduce the scientific method, which Schafersman considers to be applicable to all disciplines and domains, and which he identifies as the same thing as critical thinking. There is a certain degree of tension in the piece, as he seeks to emphasize scientific inquiry as the only route to certain knowledge, while also aware that in the social sciences and humanities those using this method can nonetheless reach different conclusions.

In my own teaching, I’m putting more emphasis lately on getting students to understand when there are differences of opinion among experts and why. If everyone apart from those committed to a particular ideology agree that the Book of Joshua cannot be considered a straightforward historical account, there is probably good reason. The reasons are of course that the cities that are said to have been destroyed in that book were not in fact all destroyed at the same time. That said, when it comes to interpreting the raw archaeological data, there are a number of interpretations that may be compatible with the evidence. On the one hand, it may be that the later Israelites composed stories to explain the origins of ruined cities standing in their time. On the other, it may be that Joshua simply compresses into a lifetime what were many waves of arrival in Canaan by outside invaders, over many centuries. If we have only the archaeological and textual data to work with, multiple configurations and explanations may be possible, depending on what weight is given to the various types of evidence available.

When data from the natural sciences are available, of course, this may change the situation and provide relatively more certainty. This seems to be happening in connection with the question of Israelite origins, as I have noted previously. It has long been hypothesized that the origins of the Israelites may have been (at least for the most part) within Canaan rather than from outside. Archaeological discoveries (including continuity in pottery types and other such evidence of cultural connectedness, plus the evidence from Ugarit of similar religious terminology and practices in earlier Canaanite society) could be combined with linguistic evidence (Hebrew is in fact part of the Canaanite family of languages), but for those most resistant to the conclusions of historians when they fail to support or match up with the Bible, this would not be felt to be sufficient proof.

Now, however, we have additional evidence from genetics. It is possible to compare the DNA of modern Jews with DNA from the Lebanese (descendants of the Phoenicians, one of the most famous Canaanite civilizations), from Palestinians, and even from unearthed remains in some instances. The results of these findings suggest that the Israelites and the Canaanites were in fact the same basic people group, who were separated or came to be separated by ideology, not biology, as one excellent documentary put it (Ancient Evidence).

Some of the relevant studies are going to be controversial in the modern political context. The title of one of these studies is “The Origin of Palestinians and Their Genetic Relatedness With Other Mediterranean Populations”, and it will take little explanation to see why this will be controversial, although the small excerpt from a larger tree of genetic relationships given below may help:

On the one hand, the suggestion that the Israelites actually originated in the land may be welcomed by some who wish to bolster the Jewish claim to the land as belonging to them. On the other hand, the Palestinians appear to be able to make the same claim. From the perspective of historical studies, however, it becomes clear that the gulf between a straightforward reading of the Biblical texts and all the available data from archaeology and now genetics is as wide as ever.

None of this is news to historians and Biblical scholars, but there is a long-standing gap between those ‘in the know’ and others who either do not read and inform themselves or simply choose not to accept the evidence. The gap is between poorly informed lay Christians on the one hand, and not scholars and archaeologists (who make this information readily available), but pastors who studied all of this material yet choose to pretend it does not exist and do not pass it on to their congregations. It is in the pulpit that accurate information about Biblical studies, history and archaeology seems to bottleneck and stop flowing.

Those interested in the genetic evidence may also wish to take a look at another online article, “The Y Chromosome Pool of Jews as Part of the Genetic Landscape of the Middle East”.

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  • James,
    I am doing a little study for my Ramayana series and remembered reading about Israeli from Canaan theory.  I searched, and your blog came up.  Yeah, someone I know.
    But this post is 2007, is it still considered consensus that Israel did not come from UR but just some locals who made a story to justify their rule?

    Hope this comment gets to you.

    • Sorry for the delay in replying. The WATSA series might be worth checking (What Are They Saying About…) to get a concise perspective from someone whose research is in this area. As a primarily NT person, my impression is that it is something of an emerging concensus. I think that most would at least acknowledge that a significant part of those who made up later Israel had their origins in the land known as Canaan. Whether it was all, most, some, or few is something that I suspect there is still some debate and disagreement about.

      Hope this helps!