Book Review: On The Reliability Of The Old Testament

On The Reliability Of The Old Testament, by K.A. Kitchen

This book is a 500-page tour de force of scholarly work from ancient Near East texts that sets the dividing line between faith and evidence. If you believe in the reliability of the Hebrew scriptures to a greater degree than the author (and I do), you do so because you are a person of faith. If you believe in the reliability of the Hebrew scriptures to a lesser degree than this author, you do so because of insufficient rationality and understanding of the evidence. The fact that this book comes from a perspective that is not faith-based, but rather evidence-based, from someone who knows the relevant Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Levantine textual and archeological evidence, makes it even better. The dry humor makes it an extremely worthy read for someone who has a love of very scholarly books about the Bible that go down very smoothly (unless you’re a minimalist or a disciple of Wellhausen, in which case you would probably be insulted by this weighty tome).

The book is supremely well-organized–the author clearly knows what he is about. It opens with a statement of its goals and scope–to examine the reliability of the Hebrew scriptures as historical texts in light of the relevant knowledge we possess about the Near East at the time of the book’s publication (2003). The book then starts in the divided kingdom era, then the period of the exile and return, the united monarchy, the tribal confederation period, the Exodus, the patriarchs, biblical prophets, biblical “prehistory,” and a few saucy and biting conclusions (in that order). Despite the variability in order from a strict chronological one, the author remains in full command of the evidence (and his ironic and dry sense of humor) throughout.

This is not to say that I agree with all of the book’s conclusions (I don’t), but merely that my disagreement with him exists from the standpoint of someone friendly to his approach to the scriptures and respectful of his credentials as an expert in the relevant texts and archeology of the Near East. Where the author makes conjectures (as he does a lot of in the book’s least satisfying chapter, on biblical prehistory), he says so, to his credit. He happens to believe in a 13th century Exodus, but gives some worthwhile reasons for his position that, while I disagree with on balance, I respect, as it still is an open question.

On the plus side, the book is full of tables, maps, and charts that provide a compelling picture of the biblical world and that demonstrate over and over again that the biblical material begins at a very early date (possibly as early as the third millennium) and that the Pentateuch, except for some very minor updates on terms like Dan for Laish and Ur of the Chaldees, is no later than the 13th century. Most notably, these grounds are not made with on the grounds of faith, but on a variety of independent evidence, including the price of slaves at various eras, the format of contemporary near eastern treaties, the type of shrine used in the tabernacle, and so on. This evidence is widely available (if not widely studied–I myself was familiar with most of it, but not all of it), and makes minimalist and broadly anti-biblical claims untenable from the point of view of fact and reason.

If you read this book and get nothing else out of it, you should understand that the Bible is a genuinely very old book (with its origins going back at least 4000 years, if not longer) with a genuinely historical, fact-based approach, written within contexts of cultural influences at appropriate locations, where they ought to be based on the content of the message. The biblical authors are shown to be broadly aware of contemporary norms of theological history, and are shown to be less given to exaggeration than their peers. By providing a great deal of context, this author, though not an obvious “believer” himself, provides a great service to apologists who have an eye towards historical examination. If you (like me) happen to be that kind of person, this book will make an excellent addition to your library, for demolishing arguments with pointed evidence about the existence of David in three near-contemporary ancient inscriptions, the known existence of Israel as a recognized independent culture from the 13th century in the promised land, and many other worthy areas of study. Suffice it to say, the “legendary” numbers of the Bible will look a lot less legendary to the history student who can compare Solomon’s wealth to that of Orsokon (much of it stolen by his father Shoshenq (better known as Shishak) from Judah and Israel. In short, if you’re friendly to the historical value of the Bible, you will find this book a pleasant read (though it is a fairly long one). If you’re hostile to the truth claims of the Bible, don’t bring weak a priori arguments into examining this book, lest you be found wanting.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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