The Bible After Twenty Years of Archeology

In 1895 and 1896 W. H. Rosters and C. C. Torrey began their onslaughts on postexilic history, followed by S. A. Cook and others. Torrey started by denying the authenticity of the Ezra Memoirs and went on to reject that of the Book of Ezekiel and finally that of the Book of Jeremiah.

Professor of Semitic Languages at The Johns Hopkins University? Baltimore, Maryland


In 1895 and 1896 W. H. Rosters and C. C. Torrey began their onslaughts on postexilic history, followed by S. A. Cook and others. Torrey started by denying the authenticity of the Ezra Memoirs and went on to reject that of the Book of Ezekiel and finally that of the Book of Jeremiah. Continuing with remorseless logic (given his totally unacceptable premises), he denied that there had been a thoroughgoing devastation of Judah and Jerusalem by the Chaldeans in the time of Nebuchadnezzar, that there had been any real Exile or Restoration, and that there was an Ezra, The figure of Nehemiah he regarded as obscure and unimportant.

In 1923, G. Holscher, followed twenty years later by W. A, Irwin, with a train of scholars holding mediating positions, reduced Ezekiel, previously considered as the most solid foundation of the Wellhausen structure, to a tiny nucleus of allegedly authentic verses, all the rest of the book being treated as much later than the sixth century B.C. Torrey, of course, rejected Ezekiel entirely. The theological implications of these views are very extreme. Having eliminated this major series of crises in Old Testament history, the predictions of the Prophets are automatically nullified, with respect both to the coming doom and to the consequent Restoration of Israel. The Old Testament loses most of its majesty, and its meaning for our day is reduced immeasurably.

The views of these scholars have been categorically disproved by the archeological discoveries of the past twenty years. Excavation and surface exploration in Judah have proved that the towns of Judah were not only completely destroyed by the Chaldeans in their two invasions, but were not reoccupied for generations often never again in history. This is solidly demonstrated by the evidence of pottery (which serves the archeologist as fossils serve the geologist in dating periods), confirmed by a steadily increasing number of inscriptions from the last years of the Kingdom of Judah. Vivid light is shed on these events by the Lachish Ostraca and other recently discovered documents.

For instance, several stamped jar handles bearing the name of "Eliakim, steward of YWKN," have been found in the ruins of the last occupation of two towns of Judah before the final catastrophe. YWKN was at once identified with King Joiachin, in spite of certain apparent difficulties in the form of the name. A few years later (1939) E. F. Weidner published several ration lists of Nebuchadnezzar excavated by the Germans at Babylon, in which one of the recipients appears repeatedly (in the year 592, six years after Joiachin had been exiled to Babylon) as "Yawkin, king of Judah." It would be difficult to find more clear-cut evidence of the time of the destruction and the authenticity of Joiachin's exile in Babylon. Incidentally, Torrey asserted that no Jewish gardeners can possibly have been taken as captives to Babylon but we have in these same rationlists, among other captive Jews, a Jewish gardener! The attempt by Torrey and Irwin to show that there was no Jewish dispersion in Babylonia to which Ezekiel can have preached assuming that he existed at all has collapsed entirely. That neither language nor content of the Book of Ezekiel fits any period or place outside of the early sixth century B.C. and Babylonia, has been proved in detail by C. G. Howie (1950).

If we turn to the Book of Ezra, recent discoveries have vindicated the authenticity of its official documents in the most striking way. Here again Torrey and others have insisted that the language of the book is late, dating from the third century B.C., after Alexander the Great. The publication of the fifth-century Elephantine Papyri (1904-1911) from a Jewish colony near Assuan in upper Egypt had already made Torrey's position difficult, but subsequent discoveries by Mittwoch, Eilers, and others have dealt it the coup de grace. For example, Torrey insisted that certain words, among them pithgama, "matter, affair," were of Greek origin and could not, therefore, have been taken into Biblical Aramaic before 330 B.C. In the last twenty years these very same words have turned up in Egyptian Aramaic and Babylonian cunei form documents from the late fifth century, that is, from the very time of Ezra! The forced Greek etymologies which he proposed are now mere curiosities. The great ancient historian, Eduard Meyer, fifty-five years ago insisted on the substantial authenticity of the Persian decrees and official letters preserved in Ezra; during the past twenty years strong additional evidence for them has been published by H. H. Schaeder and Elias Bickerman. If it were practicable to quote from still unpublished Aramaic documents from fifth-century Egypt, the weight of factual evidence would crush all opposition. . . .

The Gospel of John

Passing from the end of the Old Testament period to the New Testament, we immediately encounter the problem of the Gospel of John. Since the School of Tubingen in the first half of the nineteenth century and the Dutch School in the second half of the century, radical critics have placed John's Gospel about the middle of the second century A.D., or even a little later. There was a reaction over a generation ago against this extreme view, which is now excluded by striking finds of Greek papyrus fragments of the Gospel itself and of a secondary compilation based partly on it (both published in 1935), both of which must date before about A.D. 150. At present, however, it is safe to say that most "liberal" New Testament scholars date the Gospel between A.D. 90 and 130. Many insist with R. Bultmann on its alleged Gnostic back ground. All these scholars, even including many moderately conservative students, separate the Gospel from the authentic tradition which is believed to underlie the Synoptic Gospels, and treat it as an essentially apocryphal document of interest only to historians of later Christianity and systematic theologians.

There can, of course, be no doubt that the Gospel of John is largely independent of the Synoptic tradition and that early Christian tradition dated it later than it dated them. Nor can there be any doubt that the Gospel of John was a favorite book of many Gnostics, including particularly the Valentinians. Yet this is no more a reason for regarding the Gospel itself as coming from a Gnostic milieu than for treating Plato as a Gnostic because Valentine's metaphysics was strongly influenced by him.

But the recent discoveries of Gnostic books in Egypt have completely changed the picture with respect to Gnosticism. We now know that the Church Fathers did not appreciably exaggerate their accounts of Gnosticism, and that the gap between Christianity and any form of second-century Gnosticism was tremendous. The efforts of recent historians of religion to picture a Gnosticism which resembled the Gospel of John more closely than anything known from Patristic tradition have been nullified by the discoveries at Chenobosciurn, briefly described above. And Bultmann's attempt to derive the thought of John's Gospel from the Mesopotamian Gnostics known as Mandeans has been disproved by the demonstration of a late date for Mandeanism (fifth century A.D. and later) by E. Peterson, F. C. Burkitt, and H. Lietzmann. The coup de grace to the Mandean hypothesis came after the publication of three Manichean codices in 1933-1940, as described above. Yet there remains a faint suggestion of Gnostic ways of thinking in our Gospel, which will be discussed below.

A very important step forward in the historical interpretation of the Gospel of John was taken when several Semitic scholars recognized that the Greek of this Gospel reflects an Aramaic background. It is not the vernacular (Koine) Greek of the contemporary papyri discovered in Egypt, but a vernacular Greek with very strong Semitic coloring, both in vocabulary and in syntax. Few would go as far as C. C. Torrey, who insists that it is a translation from a written Aramaic original. But every scholar with comparable knowledge of both Greek and Aramaic has recognized the Aramaizing quality of the language. Hence Torrey makes the Gospel earlier than the Synoptics, and he was followed in this respect by the late A. T. Olmstead, who maintained in his Jesus in the Light of History (1942) that the narratives of the Gospel were written before A.D. 40, while the "sermons" were later (though not as late as believed by other New Testament scholars).

In the writer's Pelican Archeology of Palestine (1949) he demonstrated with numerous examples that the references to places, persons, and things in John went back to before the first Jewish Revolt in A.D. 66-70, which ended with the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of the Christians from Western Palestine. It be comes hypercritical to insist on a second-century date for material which goes back so clearly to Aramaic informants in Palestine before A.D. 70.

In 1945, Erwin Goodenough, Yale historian of religion and authority on Philo, the great Jewish contemporary of Paul, pointed out with great emphasis that there is nothing specifically Gnostic in John's Gospel. On the contrary, Good enough held, it is "a primitive Gospel," going back to the very beginnings of Christianity. He pointed out that the currently accepted critical order, Paul's Epistles, the Synoptic Gospels, and John, does not do elementary justice to the fact that there is much more in common, in some respects, between Paul and John than between either of them and the Synoptics. Goodenough did not touch on the linguistic or archeological aspects of the question, but limited himself to ideas and their development.

There remained, however, a serious weakness in the position of Goodenough there was no extant literature illustrating the climate of ideas assumed by him as antecedent to John's Gospel. Nor could the present writer's earlier position (From the Stone Age to Christianity, 1940) be directly confirmed, that there were proto-Gnostic influences behind John's Gospel, which, with out being in any way specifically Gnostic, provided the soil in which Gnosticism could grow in the second half of the first century A.D.

Contribution of the Dead Sea Scrolls

With the publication of the Dead Sea Scrolls since 1948, this is entirely changed, and we now have remarkably close parallels to the conceptual imagery of John in the new Essene documents from the last century and a half before Jesus' ministry. To be sure, parallels had been noted in the earlier sectarian Jewish literature from intertestamental times, such as the Book of Jubilees, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, and Enoch, probably all dating in the main from the early decades of the second century B.C. But in our new scrolls we have much closer contacts with both John and Paul, especially with the former. Most striking is the simple cosmic dualism common to both: God against Satan; light against darkness; "truth, right," against "falsehood, deception, error"; "good, holy," against "evil, wicked"; "flesh" against "spirit," etc. On the other hand, the Gospel of John does not reflect the use of "mystery" and "knowledge" (gnosis) which is common to the Dead Sea Scrolls and to Paul. As A. D. Nock has lately shown, the use of these concepts in the New Testament has little in common with the conceptual world of the mystery religions or Gnosticism; it goes back to intertestamental literature. The new scrolls confirm and illustrate Nock's demonstration.

In other words, the thought content of John's Gospel reflects the Jewish background of John the Baptist and Jesus, not that of later times. Sayings and deeds of Jesus, narratives and sermons are all of one piece and cannot be separated from the person of our Lord. To be sure, the order in which the memories of the Beloved Disciple were transmitted to posterity by a pupil or secretary is no longer historically exact, and the boundaries between happenings in the flesh and events in the spirit have sometimes been dissolved, but the Gospel of John carries us straight back to the heart of Jesus. No valid distinction between a suprahistorical Christ and a historical Jesus can be made on the basis of misleading historical assumptions, and there is no room for existentialist Entmythologisierung in the mode of Bultmann. There is no reason to date the Gospel after A.D. 90; it may be earlier.

In conclusion we emphasize the fact that archeological discovery has been largely responsible for the recent revival of interest in Biblical theology, because of the wealth of new material illustrating text and background of the Bible. As the reader will have seen from this article, new archeological material continues to pour in, compelling revision of all past approaches to both Old and New Testament religion. It be comes clearer each day that this rediscovery of the Bible often leads to a new evaluation of Biblical faith, which strikingly resembles the orthodoxy of an earlier day. Neither an academic scholasticism nor an irresponsible neoorthodoxy must be allowed to divert our eyes from the living faith of the Bible.

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Professor of Semitic Languages at The Johns Hopkins University? Baltimore, Maryland

March 1953

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