Was the Bible’s Abraham a real person or only a fictional character?

Was the Bible’s Abraham a real person or only a fictional character? October 3, 2016


Liberal biblical scholars say Abraham never lived and was a literary invention of “priestly” writers in exile in Babylon. Since we have no archaeological data on him, how do we know he really lived?


The patriarch Abraham is all-important as the revered founding forefather and exemplar of faith in the one God, this not only for Jews and Christians but Muslims, whose Quran parallels some of the biblical account on him in Genesis 11 – 25. Islam believes Abraham was a prophet in the line that concluded with Muhammad. He is also Muhammad’s ancestor, just as the New Testament lists Abraham in the genealogy of Jesus.

For Orthodox Judaism, traditional Christianity, and the entirety of Islam, it’s unthinkable that Abraham would have been a fictional character. The stakes are high for the Bible, which presents the Abraham material in extensive narrative history, not obvious mythology. Even scholars who see Genesis 1 – 10 as mythological may think actual history begins with the patriarchs while, as Mark states, liberal religious and secular scholars question his existence.

In pondering such questions, the archaeologist’s well-worn maxim is that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” Yes, no texts about Abraham apart from the Bible survived. The “Aburahana” in Egyptian texts from 1900 BC(E) is thought to be someone else. But that doesn’t prove he never lived. Remains from such a long-ago epoch are necessarily scattershot, even for grand potentates with court scribes much less Abraham, a relatively obscure figure during his lifetime and a semi-nomad who moved among locations.

A preliminary consideration is where and when writing originated relative to Abraham’s time of 1900 to 1700 BC(E). The Encyclopaedia Brittanica tells us crude record-keeping existed in Iraq thousands of years before Abraham’s era, with advanced cunieform (stylized picture-writing) from at least 3100 BC(E), then Egypt’s more sophisticated hieroglyphics. The 2nd millennium BC(E) provides our oldest evidence for the alphabet, which extended writing skill to larger populations and fostered narrative history. This crucial invention first appeared with Semitic languages in the Holy Land region, providing a clue to the culture that produced the Bible.

Did biblical writings preserve traditions about Abraham’s life that had been passed along by memorized word of mouth through prior centuries? Were scriptural accounts written on papyrus that naturally decayed, with copies and re-copies maintained through the centuries? Where does the burden of proof lie when it’s impossible to prove yes or no apart from the Bible itself?

Mark refers to the influential 1875 “documentary hypothesis” of Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918). He thought that during the Exile era long after Abraham “priestly” editors combined older literary strands to finalize the Bible’s first five books. Wellhausen asserted flatly that the Bible has “no historical knowledge of the patriarchs.” Instead, the story was projected back “into hoary antiquity and is reflected there like a glorified mirage” as “a free invention of unconscious art.”

(LIke other liberal German intellectuals of his day and during the ugly half-century that followed, Wellhausen was strongly dismissive toward the Jewish heritage. That caused President Solomon Schechter of Jewish Theological Seminary to declare in a famous 1903 speech that such “higher criticism” of the Bible was “higher anti-Semitism.”)

A later school of experts reassessed the evidence and found substantial historicity though not perfection in the details, among them: Willliam F. Albright (1891-1971) of Johns Hopkins University, Nelson Glueck (1900-1971) of Hebrew Union College, E.A. Speiser (1902-1965) of the University of Pennsylvania, and Roland de Vaux (1903-1971), head of Jerusalem’s Ecole Biblique.

That thinking was challenged in the mid-1970s by younger researchers who followed Wellhausen in obliterating Abraham, in particular John van Seters of the University of North Carolina and Thomas L. Thompson of the University of Copenhagen. Subsequent pro-Abraham arguments have come from the likes of University of London Assyriologist Donald Wiseman and two University of Liverpool Egyptologists, K.A. Kitchen and A.R. Millard. Kitchen’s “On the Reliability of the New Testament” (2003) gave non-scholars a readable rundown. The Bible defenders offered elaborate information about ancient texts from Ebla, Mari, and Nuzi, and other knowledge about those times and places to present Bible history as plausible.

Like them, the skeptics do not mainly argue from the lack of ancient inscriptions but weigh the circumstantial evidence. These intricacies are beyond the capacity of this article but, for example:

Skeptics say we lack evidence as far back as Abraham’s time for a number of ethnic and place names in Genesis such as “Philistines.” Conservatives say either they existed despite lack of surviving evidence, or later scribes inserted names that would be understood by readers in their day. The Bible may have called Abraham’s hometown “Ur of the Chaldees” to distinguish it from later towns also named Ur.

There’s particularly fierce skepticism about the battle among nine kings in Genesis 14. But to Millard, to disprove this account would require far more knowledge “than anyone possesses.” A famous case of anachronism cited by skeptics is the occasional use of domesticated camels by the Bible’s patriarchs. For Religion Q and A’s detailed update on that dispute see www.patheos.com/blogs/religionqanda/2014/03/the-latest-bible-ruckus-camels.

Note: Readers keenly interested in the latest debates over Old Testament history should subscribe to the non-sectarian Biblical Archaeology Review of Washington, D.C., which is cleverly designed for a non-academic readership: www.biblicalarchaeology.org/magazine.

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