An Essay about Hypotheses relating to Ancient Biblical History
As a result of my ongoing research on the Minoan civilization, and my project translating the bible from the original sources, I have come to spend a lot of time thinking about the timeline of events in the bible, and how it compares to the archaeological record. I believe that if the Catholic faith is true, then both the bible and the archaeological record must be true. However, reconciling the two is not an easy task! It is made possible though, through what I feel is an accurate and effective biblical hermeneutic that is steeped in tradition, and appropriate simultaneous assessment of archaeological sources. By doing this, we can come to a better understanding of what parts of the bible correspond to actual historical truth, and what are approximations made based on finite knowledge of science, what is poetry, and meant to be symbolic, and what are objectively miracles that defy science. After many years of grappling with these issues, I feel like I’m starting to come to a better grasp of what this kind of biblical hermeneutic may entail.
A first problem when trying to reconcile the bible to science is juxtaposing creation with scientific evidence of the origins of humans and the planet. Creation itself is not a problem, as God could have created the things in the world from a gradual process, such as evolution. The problem is trying to fit the sequences and details of creation into the process described in the bible. One particular problem is the creation of humans. Science and the study of human-like fossils points to a gradual development of what we call “anatomically modern” humans (1), and scientists hypothesize they came from Africa. In the biblical account, however, humans are created instantaneously, and they came from Eden.
Now the location of Eden can actually be rather well determined based on the bible and modern maps alone (Fig 1). The bible states that Eden is at the origin of 4 rivers, two of which are well known, and are still existent with practically their original names, and the other two which no longer exist with the same names. Doing a google search of the names of the two rivers suggests various hypotheses of which rivers they should be. With that information, coupled with the Catholic tradition that Eden was Armenia, using modern maps and following the course of the Euphrates and Tigris, we can show that tradition was likely right. Since Africa is so close to that location in Armenia, it actually wouldn’t be too far a stretch to suggest that the bible is actually right, and that from Armenia the first humans moved directly into Africa. However this pattern of migration doesn’t match what is in the bible, and the archaeological evidence suggests that the first humans were hunter gatherers, whereas in the bible, Adam and Eve were immediately agriculturalists and dwelt with other humans in a habitation type setting.
So given that Adam and Eve coexisted with other humans that could interbreed with their offspring, I feel that it is likely that Adam and Eve were anatomically modern humans among a fairly large population of other anatomically modern humans. The creation that God achieved then, was the creation of the soul. St. Thomas Aquinas believed that the soul of animals ceased to exist after death (2), but that the soul of humans was immortal. He believed this probably based on the psalms, where in psalm 48 (49), it states that animals are destroyed (and presumably their soul is destroyed also). So, if God had created the first human immortal soul in Adam and Eve, then they would have been a new creation indeed! This explanation neglects that God is portrayed directly creating their body tissues as well, in one account by His word, and in the other by physically taking dirt “adam” and creating a “dirtling” “Adamah.” Still, I think that the right hermeneutic here is to take some of these particular details more poetically, since they reveal information about our human nature. It is also hard to reconcile the two creation accounts, since the timeframe of similar events is so different between the two.
So, given all this, I propose that what really happened is that God first created the immortal soul, and humans first became aware of the existence of God, with the creation/existence of two particular humans, who we now call Adam and Eve, who lived in what is now Armenia. The fall, their first sin, was a real first sin, and was the genesis of what we call “original sin,” and their expulsion from Eden in what is now Armenia was real. As a result, they had to go live in what today we call Mesopotamia, which is what the bible calls Ur.
Shows the location of Armenia relative to the known locations of part of the Euphrates and Tigris watersheds. The Pishon watershed is hypothesized to be the run of the Sefid-Rud river, and the Gihon watershed is hypothesized to be the run of the Kura/Aras rivers. Map of Armenia obtained from Google maps, information about the watersheds from Wikipedia, detailed in the Sources section.
Aging the Oldest Biblical Ancestors
Now another problem is the reconciliation of the ages of the heroes of the old testament with what science tells us about human durability. Presumably the ages were passed on orally, and they are not usually symbolic numbers, so if what the bible tells us is true, then they should have corresponded to actual ages. However, science has developed a theory that I think is reasonable, that humans never really lived longer than 120 years. (3)
The answer to this quandary for me comes from how the ancients actually tracked months. Very few ancient civilizations actually had a 12 month year. In fact, the Romans initially had a 10 month year, to which the other two months were added later (4). The 12 month year poses some problems to a civilization that cannot adjust calendar days and months, and is just relying on the moon. The main problem being, that solar years have never perfectly aligned with a 12 month lunar cycle. To fix this problem, most ancient civilizations started the first month when plants started to sprout (which the Romans called “Aprilia” or “opening”), and they stopped counting after the harvest. This allowed them to track times accurately and plan events according to the phases of the moon. Of course, every year would be a bit different, but they would never end up “out of sync,” and the fact that there was apparent time that wasn’t really accounted for wasn’t really bothersome to them. That means that for many early civilizations, the year only really lasted 6 or 7 months. However, up until the 12 month calendar was adopted by the Romans, we see variation in the length of calendar in different civilizations at different times. So for ancient people, what made most sense to track ages was to use months. Given that everyone was living together, the resulting sum would be similar to sums of their contemporaries, so they could use it to track age of a sort. That also meant that any celebrations of age and so forth happened when it wasn’t too cold and hard to live. Anyone who was born in the “cold times” typically died (it would be hard to have a newborn cold and wet baby in the winter), but those who did make it could be added to the first month somehow, similar to how most Koreans consider the first of the year to be their actual birthday. (5)
Of course, this would present a problem to Hebrews living in a time when the year started being the means of measuring age, particularly if they were moving around (since a civilization they encountered could well have a different system, which wouldn’t sync with theirs). So, at some point, they probably started adjusting the ages of the bible as the story progressed so that the ancient ages starting with Adam gradually got smaller, until they equalled less than 120. That solved the problem that the ages of the ancients didn’t match their current ages then, in another culture that used years to track the same thing.
Nimrod and the Tower of Babel.
Now, another problem is how do we reconcile the person the bible calls “Nimrod” with the archaeological record? Now, the bible states he was the first of the “mighty men” of old, which suggests he was the first warrior king that established an empire. Given where Adam and Eve were, this must have also have been somewhere in Mesopotamia, making the Sumerians or Akkadians the likely first. (6) I’ve read some theories online that he may have been the first king of Akkadia (Sargon), however, the name is too different, and the fact is that the Sumerians were warrior kings and a civilization prior to the Akkadians (so he wouldn’t have been the first).
However, the first recorded king of the Sumerians, Eridu, is a better fit. At least, the R and D are there, which would linguistically be the parts least likely to change (and may have been considered the whole name by the Hebrews). Languages like Hebrew were often adding letters at the beginning or end (the beginning may have been an honorific, and the end a conjugation), and considered the consonants to be the most important, so changes to the vowels may not have mattered as much. It also tracks to the present, where “rod” is a symbol of power. Now, the Akkadians seemed to be the first to build “ziggurats,” or the first colossal buildings, however the Sumerians lived on many of the same sites as the later Akkadians, so it may well be that the Sumerians were the first, only the Akkadians later expanded them (7). That would make the tower of Babel a likely Sumerian structure, though may be identified precisely with a later Akkadian ziggurat as well. I’ll explain soon another theory as to why there may no longer be a remaining Sumerian ziggurat.
Noah and the Flood
So the next problem then is locating the date of the flood. I had read previously some hypotheses that the “flood” was the flooding of the black sea following the existence of a dam across the Bosphorous strait or “Bosphorous Sill.” (8) However, the problem is that Eridu and the Uruk period of the Sumerians is dated to ~4100 BC, and the flooding of the Black sea is dated to ~7400 BC, that is more than 3000 years before (6,8). Further, the water level of the “Black Lake” prior to the overcoming of the sill was only about 30 meters below the sea level (8). So that wouldn’t have been much of a flood at all. New evidence also appears to suggest that it was rather more gradual than many initially believed (8). So it would have been a nice waterfall vacation spot!
Now, a flood is mentioned in the epic of the Sumerian king Gilgamesh, of which the initial story is dated to around 2900 BC (9). However, the flood account appears to have been added later to the account, and not until ~2000 BC at the earliest (but more likely after ~1600 BC)
Now, there was a rather large natural disaster, which is well attested to in the archaeological record, which occurred right around the time that the flood portions of the Gilgamesh epic were added, and that is the eruption of Thera (now Santorini) in ~ 1600 BC (11). This natural disaster created a huge subduction tsunami that flooded and destroyed a significant amount of human habitation around the Mediterranean. For instance, the pyramids in Thebes, built during the 16th dynasty of the Egyptians, were destroyed, and had to be rebuilt by their successors (12). Likely the tsunami/flood swept large swaths of coastlands of the mediterranean, destroying practically every coastal settlement, and likely also many settlements further up that were in the path of the water. The north of ancient Sumeria in particular was in the path of destruction in a bad way, and if you look at the map of the mediterranean, and in particular the aegean, you see the west coast of Anatolia is right in the path of destruction from Santorini, with northern Sumeria just below. Northern Sumeria at the time was a broad plain that went all the way to Armenia (and the Hebrews later did say they found the Ark in a plain near the mountains of Armenia, the plains of Yearim).
So, presumably, Noah was living among the Sumerians in the north when Thera erupted and the tsunami flooded the whole of Mesopotamia. Where the tsunami would have flooded included practically all of Sumeria, and a very large proportion of its drainage would have drained along the Tigris and Euphrates, emptying in the Persian gulf. Since Noah built an Ark like God directed him to, he and his family survived and were swept towards Armenia. When the waters drained (which would have taken a while if there was so much water), then they would have observed a lot of destruction, seeing basically all settlement in the area destroyed by flood, and likely piles of drowned people and animals. If Eridu had constructed the first Ziggurat, it too would probably have been destroyed. Even if Noah had gone to the coast, he would have found practically all coastal towns and cities destroyed, and likely none of their inhabitants would have survived unless they were on boats at the time of the tsunami.
So thinking from the perspective of a late bronze age human in the area, it would be quite reasonable to conclude that Noah’s descendants would have been the progenitors of many nations, because of the founder effect. The fact they had brought not only every domesticated animal, but also all the animals they could think of (including worms and bugs) means they could have gotten set up for farming again very quickly, which would have been highly advantageous in an environment where most soil organisms were destroyed, and there is a layer of salty sediment everywhere! Interestingly, around this time the soil in Sumeria developed much increased salinity, which caused the Sumerians to have to start developing different crops, such as Barley, which was more salt tolerant (6). There was also a very large scale depopulation of Ur and Akkad around this time, which coincides with the flood narrative very well (6).
But then we reach the problem of the Gilgamesh accounts - with some of the flood accounts dating Gilgamesh’s flood to before Thera. But if you recall, if there was a big tsunami flooding Sumeria, this would have meant significant erosion and mixing of existing sediments, and remember that the tablets talking about Gilgamesh would have been excavated from right in the middle of the Sumerian plain’s drainage. In fact, Thera has probably messed up dating in general, but carbon dating in particular, because that part of the carbon dating calibration curve is considered to not be very accurate.
So then what would have caused an Uruk in the 1600’s BC to decide to suddenly build a 30 meter long, multi story boat in the middle of Sumeria? Well, the eruption of Thera wasn’t exactly a surprise. It had erupted previously, though probably not that badly in human memory, and before the tsunami it was showing signs of erupting soon for quite some time. Also, Noah would have been a religious outsider in a pagan society, so more likely to engage in activities that deviate from what is expected socially. Also, he would have lived in the north, which means he would have been closer to Thera at the time, so it may have been easier for news of Thera to reach him. Still, enough of Sumerian society survived the flood that the story was also integrated into local Sumerian legends, and typically Sumerian heroes were deified kings, so that may be why it was also preserved in the Gilgamesh epic.
Sodom and Gomorrah
Now, one event that should be able to be added to the chronology from around this time is the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Now, the names Sodom and Gomorrah mean “Burning” and “Submersion,” (16) so presumably they were already destroyed by the time they were named, and the names they had previously had been forgotten. It is possible to think of them as having been destroyed by Thera, especially given the name of Gomorrrah, but that doesn’t fit the bible timeline. Rather, the text seems to indicate that the area was struck by a meteorite (as the words “fire” and “resin” from “heaven” seem to imply) (16). There was a paper in 2021 published in Nature Scientific Reports that claimed to have found a meteor impact (or “air burst”) in the area (17), however the dates don’t line up (since it would have happened before Thera), and there was a critique calling into question the veracity of their methods (18), and a later retraction (19). After reviewing the critiquing paper, I would say it is unlikely that the evidence produced is convincing that a meteor impact was the cause.
However, the text of the bible itself also presents a clue as to what might have happened. After the inhabitants of the Negev were defeated in battle by a coalition of kings, they are said to have escaped over a field of tar pits, into which many of them had fallen in. Now, tar pits are known to be dangerous. They typically overlie large deposits of hydrocarbons, from which Methane gas can be an important constituent. If the conditions are right, there can be a detonation of large amounts of the gas that can cause destruction (20). As well, if there is an anticlinal trap below the area, it can erode to the point that it collapses, causing large amounts of methane release, subduction of existing sediments, and possibly even a tsunami if there is a lake or other body of water involved (which there was in biblical times). There isn’t a lot of current evidence of tar pits in the Negev, so presumably whatever structure was causing them to form was destroyed at some point in the past. This isn’t conclusive that such a subduction occurred at the time, but at least it is an interesting possibility. Also, examination of the data in the correction paper of the Scientific Reports does make it seem as though there was a pretty significant disaster in that area at that time, that caused significant fire related damage (19). There is documentation of a Methane gas explosion that occurred in a department store near the La Brea tar pits in California in 1985, related to methane gas release from the pits, that injured 21 people (20)
The Egyptian Exile
Now, after Thera, the next date that has to be arrived at empirically is the arrival of Joseph and his family in Egypt. Now, I believe the most likely candidate around this time is probably Ahmose (Ahmosis) I (13). He was an Egyptian Pharaoh who consolidated power by defeating the Hyksos rulers who were ruling the North of Egypt up to his time. Once he defeated them, he ushered in a time of political stability, with the last 7 years of his life being the most fruitful for building and developing the area. Now, it was not unusual at the time for there to be famine in times of war, and the campaign of Ahmose I against the Hyksos lasted from the 11th year of his reign to about the 18th (we don’t have an exact date for the end). So, if Joseph had met Ahmose I in his 4th regnal year, and the war started at the 11th, that would be 7 years of plenty, and the 7 years of famine would have been the 7 years of war. Interestingly, this was also followed by a further 7 years of plenty. Now, at the time of Ahmose I, he had a Chief Treasurer who was named “Neferperet,” (13) which means “Perfect Emergence (or perfect growth),” who I hypothesize to have been Joseph (14,15). He was responsible for organizing a lot of the building campaigns during Ahmose I’s reign, and is recorded as opening a quarry in the archeological record (13)
So if Ahmose I is thought to reign from 1550 to 1525, and Thera is hypothesized to have happened around 1600, is that enough generations to make it from Noah to Joseph in the bible? Genesis recounts that there are 14 generations between Noah and Joseph. One solution is that from Noah to Joseph there are 14 generations, which is a highly symbolic number, so it may not not have necessarily corresponded exactly to the number of generations between the two events. Still, you would expect that there should be at least as many generations as are numbered (assuming some links may have not been included), and even if it had been 14 generations, assuming all of them had children at age 12 (which is roughly the age of male fertility), that is still 168 years. Again though, remember that Thera has messed up dating significantly in that area and that time period, and that presumably most people would have gotten married and had children soon after fertility at the time. So it may be an argument against this chronology, but I don’t think it is.
There is also the problem that Ahmose I is recorded as the monarch who commissioned the “flood stele” commemorating a flood or rainstorm that has been supposed to be Thera. However, he could have had the stele made some time after the flood actually happened, particularly if he and his predecessors for generations were occupied by the hyksos occupation of much of Egypt. Again, the mixing of sediments during Thera in much of the area probably confuses matters quite a lot, and it is probably what has led to the many different estimates of when Ahmose I reigned.
Exile to Exodus
Now, the Pharaoh that likely triggered the Exodus is hypothesized by many to be Rameses II, and I agree with this assessment (21). Rameses II executed a very ambitious building campaign throughout his life, which was very long (living to around age 90), and would have required a lot of labour to construct (21). Therefore, I hypothesize that the Hebrew people must have been present at that time. The Hebrews are known to have left from Rameses, which was only a capital city during the reign of Rameses II (22). Then, when his successor Merneptah took the throne after him, he was already 70 years old, and had already 12 siblings and heirs to the throne that had died (23). That means that it is possible that Rameses II’s first born had died prematurely. Then, on Merneptah’s “Victory Stele,” an archeological artifact connected to his reign, it states that “Israel is laid waste and his seed is not” (though I think it is better translated “Israel is in the wasteland with no grain”) (24).
As the website "biblearchealogy.org" notes in its winter 2006 issue of “Bible and Spade,” It’s unlikely that the Hebrews actually crossed the Red Sea (22). The Hebrew word “Yam Suph” actually means “reed sea,” and the probable location of the reed sea crossing is hypothesized to have been Ballah lake, which was a large lake that was drained as part of the construction of the Suez Canal (25,26). At the time, Rameses had an operational canal built at the time of the Pharaoh Sesostris I (1971-1926 BC) that allowed traders from the Mediterranean to cross to the Red Sea (26). This canal was used as an Eastern fortification, as it was difficult to cross it at most points, and the only bridges were heavily defended (22).
Ballah lake itself is in an interesting position (27), as the ocean on both sides is usually about the same level, but anything that would temporarily cause the ocean on either of the two sides of the canal to drop significantly would cause the lake’s drainage in the direction of the sea level drop. It wouldn’t have been very deep if it had been filled with a large collection of reeds. Indeed, what is stated in the bible is that Pharaoh’s army was stalled primarily because the chariot wheels got clogged up, and fell off (16). The Egyptians could have escaped as the lake refilled after the temporary change in sea level, but those that chose to stay with their chariots ended up drowning in the lake. It is probable though that there was a significant number that did desert their chariots and retreat, as Rameses II’s successor is not recorded as having had a much weaker army than before (though who would put that on a carving!) (23). Since the lake wasn’t very deep, presumably the next time it drained, the valuable parts of the chariots were plundered by treasure seekers (who were well known to steal artifacts even from the Pharoah’s tombs!). Rameses II’s reign is dated to 1279-1213 BC (though again, it is hard to trust those dates too much because of Thera). The strong wind that blew all night that is recorded in the bible may well have drained the lake, as it could have caused evaporation of the Great bitter lake, or the relative pushing of water away from it, which favoured drainage of Ballah lake. In fact the Suez Canal currently has no locks, yet there is a relative and reversing flow in it from day to night because of differences in tide in the north relative to the south (26)
Exodus to the Kingdom
Now, the next event that should be able to be documented in the timeline is the conquest of Jericho. The archeological record of Jericho shows that it did appear to be destroyed around 1550 BC, though again the destruction by Thera correlates pretty closely with that destruction (28). Being in the Jordan watershed on a flood plain, presumably a lot of sea water was directed that way (and may be part of the reason why the dead sea is so saline). There was apparently a settlement during the time that the Israelites would have been moving into the area, however there is not much left of the archeological layer now, so not much evidence could be gleaned from it (28). The city was not appeared to have been rebuilt until the 10th to 9th centuries BC, but even after it was, it was again destroyed by the Babylonian conquest of Judah in the 6th century (28). However, it is known that the Hebrew people did in fact take control of the area, as numerous archeological evidence is present for their time there (29)
Some evidence from archeology again can posit what may have happened. Archaeological evidence of the walls themselves suggest that there was evidence of multiple times that the walls were destroyed by alluvial flows, and therefore needed to be rebuilt (30). Thera, of course, could have been one of the flows, however the existence of more and its position below a mountain range and on a flood plain suggest there were other causes. Also, when the Israelites crossed over the Jordan not even 5 kilometers away from Jericho (31), they noted that the Jordan appeared to dry up before them. This meant that there was probably some kind of event that had dammed up the water above them, which means there was probably going to be a flooding event soon after (as used to occur, for instance, at the Yellow River in China (32)). What a coincidence, however, that this occurred exactly when the Israelites needed it! The Israelites would have crossed over in the spring most likely, as this gave them the whole summer to set up and cultivate farms, and this is exactly when an alluvial event would be most likely to occur. What would have caused such an event? A possible cause could be a rock slide upstream, creating a temporary lake (of which there are many lakes in the Jordan Valley) (31). Once that lake eroded through the blockage, it would unleash a flood in the Jordan Valley, with the existence of multiple lakes in the valley that may have been created precisely by that mechanism. Just as it had multiple times in the past, the flood eroded the base of Jericho’s walls and caused their collapse, allowing the Israelites to sack the city.
After the walls of Jericho, most of the rest of the bible’s timeline is pretty straightforward. At least, what I have gone through helps to explain that the narrative accounts of the bible area actually a fairly accurate account of the actual history. What was mythologized was done so to make the story more interesting without actually sacrificing important details, as I think mythology should do. This is not to argue, however, that miracles cannot happen. In fact, I believe that the story of Jesus in particular contains many miracles for which there is no possible scientific explanation, the greatest of them being the cases where Jesus resurrected people from death. The point of this essay is to help to show the process of determining what is a miracle, and what must have really happened. Also, while the miracles described before like the crossing of the reed sea could be explained by naturally occurring phenomena, the fact that these occurred exactly when they needed to in order to save the Israelites is in itself miraculous. Also, the relatively more “naturalistic” nature of miracles in the old testament stands to a greater contrast with the new testament, showing more precisely the astounding reality of who Jesus is. So, I hope this essay helps to inform scriptural study, and show that while having mythological elements and bona fide miracles, the bible is still also grounded in history and in general a reliable historical narrative.
Tigris/Euphrates map - Karl Musser
Sefid-Rud (Pishon) Drainage map - Karl Musser
Kura/Aras (Gihon) river watershed map - Shannon Chan
Map of Armenia - Google
"Roman Mythology" Stuart Perowne. 1969. Paul Hamlyn and OGAM Verona.
Olive Tree Bible Software: ESV Greek-English and Hebrew-English Interlinear Text