In my post a couple of days ago I stated the fact, that I took to be a fact, that the historical Moses (if there was one) (which I doubt) could not have written parts of the Pentateuch (I don’t think he wrote any of the parts) (OK, since, among other things, I don’t think he existed) because of the mention of the people the “Philistines” and the city of Beersheba, neither of which existed in the thirteenth century BCE, when he must have lived, if he lived.   A reader asked me what the evidence for that is.  I include the question below.

It’s a great question.  I used to know the answer!  Off the top of my head, I couldn’t remember what that was, apart from a vague recollection of archaeological reports.   Moreover, at the time I was on the road away from my books (visiting my 89-year-old mother in Kansas!).  So not being able to look it up, I did the next best thing, which turns out not to have been the second best but the absolute best thing.  I asked a colleague who is an expert.

Joseph Lam is my colleague at UNC.  He has a PhD from the University of Chicago and is an expert on the languages and cultures of the Ancient Near East.  He reads (and teaches) everything from Hebrew to Aramaic to Ugaritic to Akkadian to … well, lots of other Semitic languages and cultures.  I envy people like that.  In any event, I asked him if he knew offhand the evidence about the Philistines and the city of Beersheba.

Oh boy did I ask the right person at the right time.  Below the question of the questioner, which I forwarded to him, and then Joseph’s reply.


QUESTION:  What evidence do we have for dating when the Philistines or the city of Beersheba came into existence? Is there evidence for actual foundings/beginnings, or is there a lack of evidence before a certain and suddenly evidence after such and such date?

If the latter, I could imagine some fundamentalists complaining that this is an argument from ignorance and pointing back to the commonly used example of “scholars once said the Hittites were made up by the bible and no such group could have existed because there is no evidence, then boom, we found evidence confirming their existence”. Any possibility that the Philistines or Beersheba existed before but we don’t have any evidence that survived?


JOSEPH LAM’S RESPONSE (when I forwarded to him the question):  The timing of your question is impeccable: I’m nearing the end of my time in Israel this summer, having visited several Philistine sites, a museum of Philistine culture, and with plans to be in Beersheba next week.

The archaeological evidence we have for both the arrival of the Philistines and the founding of Beersheba in the 12th century BCE is considerable. For the Philistines, extensive excavations conducted in 4 of the 5 major Philistine cities (Ashdod, Ashkelon, Ekron, and Gath–ancient Gaza is under the modern city and cannot be excavated), as well as other “minor” Philistine sites (e.g., Tell Qasile), have revealed a distinctive cultural assemblage (pottery, architecture, cultic remains, cooking styles and diet, etc.) that appears in all these sites around 1200 BCE (dating is based on fine-tuned pottery chronologies from countless sites in the Levant and around the Mediterranean). This cultural assemblage is sharply distinct from what existed at these sites before (i.e., the “Canaanite” occupation levels). This fits well with the references we find in texts from the Egyptian pharaoh Rameses III to the Sea Peoples (including a group called “Peleset”). The pottery development, in particular, is striking: the earliest “Philistine” pottery resembles Mycenean Greek styles, and gets merged more and more with local Levantine styles as time goes on. I would dare say that the Philistine phenomenon is one of the most secure examples archaeologically of a “foreign” group coming into a new place and settling there.

Ancient Beersheba is located just on the edge of the modern city, and was excavated by a Tel Aviv University expedition in the 1970’s. The settlement pattern they discovered (based on surveys of the site) was quite striking: some small Chalcolithic settlement (late 4th millennium BCE!), followed by NO settlement at all throughout the Bronze Age (I’m sure they looked!), and re-settlement beginning with a small village/huts in the mid-12th century, growing into a larger fortified administrative city in the later Iron Age II.gggg

All that to say, the archaeological evidence on these matters is direct and abundant.

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