Dr. Richard S. Hess

Old Testament Questions from the desk of Dr. Richard S. Hess

How should we evaluate the Old Testament’s history and reliability?  Can you provide an example from Moses and his family as far as historicity is concerned?

The historical issues of the Bible are an ongoing challenge. There are two general areas of consideration. First, there are those questions that lay more with the concerns of the empirical data and what it may suggest. Tied to this are the questions of how the material is interpreted in the larger picture of reconstructing the ancient biblical periods. Sometimes the interpretation is presented as the necessary conclusion from the data. Traditionally this data has been understood in terms of textual (biblical and non-biblical) and archaeological, where the latter focuses on the artifactual. However, there is more than this especially with the expansion of various technological means of data retrieval. One must evaluate the data and the extent to which it convincingly makes the case for a specific interpretation and excludes alternatives. Data is often selective and the reconstructions which it allows may provide for diverse and contradictory conclusions. I find it helpful to use a multidisciplinary approach and to take into account as much data as possible, as well as to be aware of the variety of interpretations. Sometimes this overview excludes some interpretations because of ignorance of certain data or due to faulty analysis.

Second, there is the larger question of how one approaches the sources. If one is given to a suspicious view of the biblical text, for example, that may predetermine the results. The same can also be observed where one may take a naïve view of the biblical text.

I cannot of course address every consideration that this may cover. There are useful tools that would tend toward an acceptance of the historical worth of the OT. Outstanding is Kenneth A. Kitchen’s On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Eerdmans, 2003). More recent discussions of various issues can be found in different works such as my Israelite Religions (Baker, 2007) and The Old Testament (Baker 2016). You may also wish to browse this website for some FAQs and other discussions.

Let me add that for any ancient source it is often difficult to “prove” its truthfulness but it is sometimes even more difficulty to “prove” its falsity. The nature of such data is that it relies on witnesses and on the degree to which one trusts those witnesses. Trust is built, as in all relationships, on a history of acquaintance with the witness and the degree to which it demonstrates truthfulness where it can be tested.

I take a view toward a greater reliability of the biblical text. This must often be established on a case-by-case basis.

Allow me an example. Yesterday there arrived Christian Frevel’s History of Ancient Israel (SBL, 2023). When I opened the book, the first page my eyes saw was p. 63. There at “ Moses’ Historicity,” the discussion appears as a single paragraph. In it we learn that Moses has an Egyptian etymology (not the folk etymology of West Semitic in Exodus 2:10), that his birth narrative follows that of the Sargon legend, and that the biography of Moses, including his family names (as in Exodus 6:18-20), are c. 8th century BC rather than 13th century BC. There is a bibliography at the beginning of the larger section but no footnoting to allow anyone to check the evidence behind these statements. The connection with the Sargon legend has long been noted but does not prove a late date or say anything about the question of historicity of Moses. The names of Moses and his family members are only cited in terms of their conclusions. Certainly, no careful study is cited, let alone someone whose conclusions might point in a different direction. One may consider the onomastic arguments made by me in “Onomastics of the Exodus Generation in the Book of Exodus,” pp. 37-48 in J. K. Hoffmeier, A. R. Millard, and G. A. Rendsburg eds., “Did I Not Bring Israel Out of Egypt?” Biblical, Archaeological, and Egyptological Perspectives on the Exodus Narratives (BBR Supplement 13; Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2016), especially pp. 39, 43, 46, and 47. There one will discover that Egyptologists (Kenneth Kitchen) and biblical scholars (David Noel Freedman) have proposed and preferred a Hebrew (or West Semitic) etymology for Moses rather than an Egyptian one. This is the case however Exodus 2:10 is understood. One should recognize legitimate alternative views. Further, all the names of Moses’ family in Exodus 6:18-20 include roots or vocables that can be found in earlier second millennium BC West Semitic names and usages. Even the Yahwistic initial element in Jochebed occurs in the name of Joshua. Many of these elements also appear in the first millennium BC. That is not true, however, of all of the names. Hebron, a familiar place name, does not occur as a personal name in or outside the Bible from the first millennium BC. However, close parallels do occur of the personal name Hebron in the early and mid-second millennium Amorite (West Semitic) personal names from Alalakh, Mari, and Taanach which occurs in the Southern Levant (later Israel). One can find the evidence and citations in my article. Therefore, the occurrences of these personal names fits best in the second millennium BC, whence the Bible traces their origins and not in the first millennium BC, contrary to Frevel’s claims.

This is a small example, but it demonstrates that claims made by historians sometimes do not stand up to careful scrutiny of the data and the arguments.

Go to top