O! ROT! Introduction

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The reliability of the Old Testament is at once a fascinating subject and a contentious issue.  It is maligned by some for its historical inaccuracies, while at the same time it is praised by others as being a valuable primary source for ancient history.  Needless to say, it is also held by those within the church to be the very word of God.

If the Old Testament is not historically accurate, if it is riddled with inconsistencies and contains fables that have been dismissed by other ancient sources, then it seems the faith on which it is based is on shaky ground.  Indeed, if the veracity of its historical claims is suspect, why should the supernatural claims be trusted?  Doesn't it seem likely that the one book in all the world that faithfully sheds light on the supernatural should be extremely reliable historically as well?  If on the other hand, it is historically reliable, shouldn't it be considered a valuable source of history and its supernatural claims seriously considered, rather than simply being dismissed?

Those are the stakes.  The debate has often taken place in popular culture.  With films like Noah and Exodus coming to theaters this year, there will likely be a flurry of discussion.  Once in a while some new archaeological discovery finds its way to the front pages of newspapers and magazines, and the question is submitted to the American public once again: Is the Old Testament reliable?

Because two blockbuster films will soon be hitting screens and no doubt causing quite a stir, I thought it would be good to get started on a series tackling the historical reliability of the Old Testament.  Further, in apologetics courses the historicity of Jesus, the resurrection, and the early church are often given some time.  The reliability of the Old Testament, on the other hand, is rarely covered.  And from the pulpit its reliability is simply assumed.  In Christian literature, it is quite easy to find numerous books on the historicity of the resurrection (and for good reason!), but there is little on the subject of Old Testament historicity.

Old Testament historical study is very different from that of the New Testament. As Kenneth Kitchen puts it, "New Testament scholars need stray little beyond a single century (the first century A.D.), ha[ve] only four main languages to deal with (Greek and Latin from Europe; Hebrew and Aramaic in Palestine), and but two basic cultures: Greco-Roman and Jewish.  Doing equal justice to the Old Testament mean[s] a minimum span of two thousand years overall (three thousand for full background), ability to draw upon documents in vast quantity and variety in some ten ancient Near Eastern languages, and a whole patchwork quilt of cultures."1  This may be part of the reason for the paucity of teaching on the subject in the church.

This series will rely heavily on a rather enormous and aptly (if not originally) titled book: On the Reliability of the Old Testament, by Kenneth Kitchen, Personal and Brunner Professor Emeritus of Egyptology and Honorary Research Fellow at the School of Archaeology, Classics, and Oriental Studies, University of Liverpool, England.  It's a 500 page work with 142 pages of end notes, maps, and diagrams as well.  This isn't some obscure work by some crackpot; Wikipedia tells me that Kitchen has been credited by The Times as being "the very architect of Egyptian chronology" and that he has written over 250 books and journal articles over a 60 year career as a historian.  And the book isn't endorsed on the back by unknown professors with honorary degrees but by professors from Yale and the University of Chicago.

Kitchen's motivation for writing the book is two-fold.  Firstly, he and his mentor - I. Howard Marshall - felt the need for a book on the Old Testament similar to F.F. Bruce's famous work, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?  Secondly, he wanted to write the book because of the recent (last few of decades) surge in the "minimalist" approach to the Old Testament (i.e., nothing in the Old Testament is really true; it was just made up in the 2nd century BC).  To quote Kitchen,

In the service of these views, all manner of gross misinterpretations of original, firsthand documentary data from the ancient Near East itself are now being shot forth in turn, to prop up these extreme stances on the Old Testament, regardless of the real facts of the case.  Ideological claptrap has also interfered with the present-day situation.  It has been said that "political correctness" has decreed a priori that the Old Testament writings are historically unreliable and of negligible value.  Even if this judgment were proved correct, it is no business whatsoever of the politically correct to say so, merely as ideology.  Such matters can only be assessed by expert examination of the available facts, and not by the ignorant pronouncements of some species of neo-Nazi "thought police."2

My summary of the book will be necessarily too short, often oversimplifying the issues and even leaving some interesting facts out.  Otherwise, the series would go on forever.  Nonetheless, I think a lot of valuable information will be gleaned by the reader over the course of the series.  I should mention this series is called "O! ROT!" because that is what Kitchen himself suggested his detractors call it.  Despite being a dense work on ancient history, his dry sense of humor often emerges.

There are two more things to note before jumping into chapter 2 (which beings the historical study) in the next post.  The preface makes it clear that the book deals only with historical aspects of the Old Testament; there is no discussion of theology.  Obviously, this means the book draws heavily from Kings and Chronicles, as well as some of the passages in the prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, the earthquake mentioned in Amos, etc.).  He'll obviously cover much of the Torah, but many of the laws and such will not be relevant.  Finally, the book covers the Old Testament in reverse-chronological order; this series will follow that pattern.  The reason is that the more recent events in the Old Testament have left behind more archaeological information, while the very early events have less in the way of archaeological information.  This should be no surprise.  The early parts of the Old Testament were considered ancient history even to those in exile in Babylon.  After thousands of years, much of history is lost forever.

1.  Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament, p. xiii
2.  Ibid., p. xiv
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