The Book of Genesis tells the story of ancient heroes from Israel’s distant past. It describes the adventures of men and women who struggled to define their relationship to divinity, as well as their place within a hostile world. But were the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob real historical figures? From the perspective of historians, that is a question we simply cannot answer. Unlike other biblical stories, the patriarchal narratives contain almost no connection with known historical events that historians can substantiate through other sources.
So when it comes to a person such as Abraham, we simply don’t have any empirical evidence that he was real.
Now, I’m certainly not suggesting that he wasn’t, but I believe it’s important to note that there is a real difference between history and the past. The patriarchs in Genesis may have been people from the past, but if so, they are completely lost to us in terms of history. History requires evidence. And historians do not possess any of it beyond the traditions in Genesis. For this reason, scholars cannot show that men such as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob actually existed.
There’s little doubt that the stories concerning these figures, at least in part, derive from oral tradition. The written sources that appear in Genesis cannot be dated earlier than the 9th or 8th centuries B.C.E. (some perhaps even much later). These sources were originally written in Hebrew, and Hebrew did not exist as a written language until the 10th or possibly 9th century B.C.E. The internal chronology of the Bible indicates a date of around 2100 B.C.E. for Abraham and approximately 1876 for his grandson Jacob’s move down into Egypt. If Abraham was a real person from the past, this would mean that the stories about him derive from oral traditions that circulated for basically a thousand years before they were eventually put to writing.
This observation explains why, for example, the Philistines are mentioned in the Genesis stories (Genesis 21:32-34; 26:1, 8, 14-15), even though the Philistines did not appear in the land until the twelfth century. Likewise, the Arameans assume a prominent role in the Genesis account concerning Jacob, but they are only attested in the eleventh century B.C.E. Abraham’s story mentions the town of Beersheba, yet we know from archeological evidence that Beersheba was not settled before the twelfth century. These types of anachronisms appear throughout the Book of Genesis. They certainly call into question the historical reliability of its stories.
The question is sometimes asked whether it is reasonable to assume that Israelites would have told stories about imaginary ancestors. Why would ancient Israelites have accepted traditions about these people if they were not in fact real? The truth is, however, that we have plenty of examples in the ancient world where mythological figures (including divinities) were understood to be real, even though we know that they weren’t.
Moreover, as historians, we have absolutely no way of determining how many Israelites knew anything about Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob at the time the Genesis material was written. We simply have no idea what most Israelites believed about the past. The Genesis sources were produced by a small subset of Israelite and Judean scribes. We would have to assume that the religious and historical views of the general population were quite different from what this small group of elite court officials believed.
Taking this into consideration, some biblical scholars maintain that the traditions concerning the patriarchs were originally independent ancestral stories that were combined in the Genesis sources in order to define the relationship of the people of Israel to one another. According to this theory, the patriarchal history may have been developed as a way to link the people of the land together for political reasons.
Some scholars theorize that the ancestor stories were created in such a way to connect the origins of Israel with Mesopotamia, Abraham’s original homeland, rather than the land of Canaan. Genesis insists on distinguishing Israelites from Canaanites (who are defined throughout the Hebrew Bible as slaves and sexual deviants). The archeological record, however, tells a different story.
The Israelites were Canaanites. There is really not any archeological evidence to support the idea of an intrusion of a different material culture into the land of Canaan at the time of the Israelite conquest. The Bible’s constant effort to disparage Canaanites may have been an attempt to deny origins and create a new history. According to this reading, by defining certain well-known tribal ancestors in the region as “family,” while excluding other groups, the biblical story creates a bond between the people of Israel through an invented genealogical succession.
Reading the patriarchal stories from this perspective provides scholars who adopt this view with a whole new meaning to the biblical traditions. Since the narratives about each patriarch in Genesis are connected with very clear geographical regions, some scholars have looked at this evidence to uncover historical clues for each story’s original place of origin. Abraham, for example, typically appears connected with southern Canaan. His primary residence in the Genesis stories is in the southern region at a place known as the “oaks of Mamre” near Hebron (Genesis 26:32; 13:18; 14:13; 18:1). Isaac appears linked specifically with Beersheba (Genesis 26:32-33) and Beer-lahai-roi (Genesis 24:62; 25:11). In contrast, the stories in Genesis connect Jacob with the north, primarily with Shechem (Gen 33:18-19) and Bethel (Genesis 28:18-19; 35:1-8), although he also appears connected with Gilead (Genesis 31:43-50, 32:2-3; 32:30; 33:17).
By using this evidence, some biblical scholars maintain that the traditions about Abraham derive from stories about an early patriarchal ancestor told by the people of the Judean Hill country. The Isaac narratives may be traditions regarding an ancient figure recounted by the people who inhabited southwestern Judah and the Negev. Jacob, in turn, may actually be the earliest of these ancestor traditions. His stories were perhaps told over the centuries by a group of people from the central Ephraimite hills.
This theory, often called “The History of Traditions,” makes sense of the fact that Jacob’s name was also known as Israel, and this is the title by which the people who occupied the heartland of the country were known. According to this historical reading, the patriarchal stories that connected these separate legendary figures as a single family group may have been created to increase cohesiveness between the population of Canaan, a people that eventually came to be known as Israel.
Thus, trying to make sense of the history conveyed through Genesis is much more complicated than simply asking the question, “why would biblical authors have made-up patriarchal figures who were not real people of the remote past?”
When it comes to history, scholars cannot use the Book of Genesis to understand whether or not its central characters such as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were real people. They certainly might have been, and their authenticity is important for many religious views. But if they were real, this fact has been lost to historians. The patriarchal stories belong to the genre of “legend” rather than “historiography.” Hence, from an academic perspective, the Book of Genesis tells historians much more about the time period in Israelite and Judean history when its sources were created than it does about the Patriarchs themselves.
Religious readers who wish to make sense of biblical figures such as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as real individuals from the past must recognize that they hold this perspective as a matter of faith. This view cannot be established through empirical evidence. And that’s OK (at least it should be). Whether such a view is necessarily to sustain a religious connection to the text is another issue entirely.