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The Historicity of Abraham

Christians may consider validating their faith through the historicity of Jesus, but this could be considered myopic; much of Jesus’ teachings refer to an earlier time in scripture, and the historicity of these events could be viewed with equal importance. Beyond Christianity, Abraham, is considered the patriarch of the other great monotheistic religions, so the impact of any investigation would be far reaching if a definitive conclusion could be met. What questions arise when we evaluate the evidence for his existence? Nahum Sarna, whilst remaining a believer, writes of the difficulty to fit any of “the Patriarchal age” into a historical framework, “[there is] no known synchronism between a single biblical event and a datable occurrence recorded in extra-biblical sources.” So, the investigation must take an inductive approach and look to other sources, which are culturally and geographically appropriate to the time. The archaeological and epigraphical discoveries at Mari, a principal centre of Mesopotamian life in the Bronze Age, predate the Hebrew Bible, so are of prime significance.

Is Abraham used as a literary device?

The Biblical authors employ numerology throughout scripture to convey hidden meanings or to add significance to people and places. This gives rise to the first question: is Abraham merely a literary device used to express deeper theological themes? The lifespans included in his genealogies, and that of his ancestors and descendent, appear to be idealised formulae. Couple this with the extraordinary lengths of the lifespans, it makes it impossible to ascertain accurately what period he lived in, if at all. Biblical chronologists place his year of birth anywhere between B.C 2166 and B.C 1996, depending on differing calculations used to develop their timelines. The latter date, which yields the best archaeological evidence,[1] is reached by an interpretation of the Masoretic text of Exodus 12:40 and adjusted to include the life of Jacob. This text states the people of Israel lived in Egypt for 430 years before the Exodus (taken here to be B.C 1446)[2]. This is further confirmed by Paul in Galatians 3:17, where he states that 430 years lapsed between the Abrahamic Covenant and the Mosaic Law. Could the use of 430 here also be part of a literary design or does it reflect actual time? This cannot be known. Expanding on the idea of hidden significance, the names of places or people are used often for this same purpose. Avram is a Hebrew word meaning “father of many nations” or perhaps “father of the exalted”, so it could equally be in use here as allegory. Perhaps, as suggested by some scholars, it shows the crafting of a polemic by later Jews to justify claims to land within Canaan. It is impossible to separate which numbers in scripture are documentary, and which are used to express deeper meaning. We do, however, find evidence of the components of the name Abraham in other texts dated to the middle bronze age. An example of which includes a 19th century BC Egyptian Execration Text (list of Enemies), which uses the name Aburahama. We also find evidence of the names Isaac and Jacob in use at Mari, Ebla, Ugarit, Cyprus and Dilbat from the same 19th century BC period. This does not prove anything definitively; however, it goes some length to qualify the given names of the patriarchs beyond theological significance.

Are there anachronisms in the Abrahamic Narrative?

There are, seeming, anachronisms present in the narrative that require further scrutiny. The patriarch is asserted in Gen 11:32 to have left from Ur of the Chaldeans, yet the tribes of the Chaldeans did not exist until around the 5th and 6th century B.C, Abraham predating them by some 1500 years. This gives credence to the idea of the legendary story being a later addition, as both Ur and The Chaldeans existed when the Iron Age Jewish scribes began to write their oral traditions down. The use of Camels surprisingly caused issue too. A radiocarbon study of Camel bones by Tel Aviv University indicated that Camels, widely mentioned in Genesis, were not domesticated until between B.C 1200- B.C 550. However, Dromedary Camel bones were used in the study, whereas Bactrian camels were domesticated in Asia from B.C 5500. Interestingly, there existed another city named Ur, in Sumer (modern day Iraq) which modern scholars now point to as Abraham’s starting point. This would align with the use of Bactrian camels.

Do the Geopolitical issues in The Abrahamic Narrative attest to reality?

There are several examples of political reality within the narrative attested to by extra biblical documents. The Kingly coalition of Gen 14:1-3 mentions the King of Elam, Scholars indicate Elam was only politically active between BC 2000-1700.[3] The treaty drafted between Abraham and Abilmelek[4] is strikingly similar to a Mari text found at Tel-Leilun in the way in which it is structured.[5] Further administrative texts from Mari are often concerned with water rights and problems with transient populations, both of which are found in the Abraham narrative. The use of slaves as surrogates, a recurring theme for the Patriarchs, is attested as a widely practiced cultural norm in the event of infertility, by clay tablets found at Nuzi. Trade routes were established throughout the ancient near east; there is wide evidence to suggest people travelled from Egypt to Canaan freely, entering, and exiting Egypt under escort. Gen 12:20 parallels The Tale of Sinhue, a story of a refugee fleeing to Canaan and meeting a tribal pastoralist, dated B.C 1944. Finally, radiocarbon dating of vegetation also strongly point to various occurrences of minor droughts and famines around the middle bronze age, a driving factor in Abraham’s migration to Egypt.


From inductive reasoning, and use of extra-biblical sources, we can establish much of the detail of a man named Abraham. The experiences of a nomadic pastoralist in a time of famine, during the middle bronze age are relayed by contemporary documentation sources and back the tensions found in Genesis. Thus, reflecting the possibility of such a man existing within that cultural context. To refute the idea of a polemic constructed at a later date, we can suggest that much of the geopolitical reality, reported accurately, could not be known by the people accused of its construction. The sources remained lost until the advent of modern archaeological methods, therefore, would not be available to the Iron Age scribes. Was Abraham of the line that led to Jesus? That remains a matter of faith.

[1] Archaeological work has proven that settlements found in the Abraham narrative: Shechem, Bethel, Hebron and Gerar, were indeed occupied by the Middle Bronze age circa 19th century BC. [2] The date of Exodus could also be 1250 as developed by other Scholars. [3] Kitchen. K, Reliability of the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids: Cambridge) 2006 p321 [4] Gen 21:22-33 [5] God as witness, oath swearing, stipulation, ceremonial act, curses.

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