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Camels and the Book of Genesis

Something different. A long time-member of the blog, Ron Taska, has sent this along to me. Biblical scholars for years have argued that the camels one finds in the patriarchal narratives of Genesis (Gen. 12-50) are anachronistic, since camels were not yet domesticated in the times in which the Patriarchs allegedly lived. (I’m one of those scholars who doubts whether the Patriarchs of Genesis are historical figures at all; but that’s another question.) Here is some recent scientific evidence that appears to support this older scholarly claim. (For reference: Abraham, the “father of the Jews” is usually dated to the 18th century BCE. If he lived.) If it’s right, then this is one more piece of evidence (among many) that the narratives of Genesis are not historically accurate and were not composed any time near the dates of the alleged events they discuss, or even in the time of Moses (if he lived: 13th century).

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TEL AVIV (Press Release)–Camels are mentioned as pack animals in the biblical stories of Abraham, Joseph, and Jacob. But archaeologists have shown that camels were not domesticated in the Land of Israel until centuries after the Age of the Patriarchs (2000-1500 BCE).

In addition to challenging the Bible’s historicity, this anachronism is direct proof that the text was compiled well after the events it describes.

 

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    TomTerrific  February 6, 2014

    “By analyzing archaeological evidence from the copper production sites of the Aravah Valley, we were able to estimate the date of this event in terms of decades rather than centuries.”

    These techniques are amazing in both the simplicity of the physics and the complexity of actually performing the analyses.

    A really interesting blog, Dr. E.

  2. Avatar
    Joel_Lisboa  February 6, 2014

    I was really happy to see this news today. The thing is that where I currently study archaeology (that I don’t like), one of the arguments of conservatives to support the historicity of the narrative of the Pentateuch is arguing that THERE is evidence of camels before the second millennium BCE. So they point to figurines in the 7th from Assyria, Tell Halaf Stele, the Camel Petroglyphs in Wadi Nasib from 1500 BCE, Syrian Cylinder Seal from 1800 BCE, and the Aswan Camel Petroglyph from 2423-2263 BCE. But it seems that the evidence presented today prove that assertion wrong. Camels may have been domesticated in other parts of ANE, but not on the biblical lands that the narrative supposedly takes place. So I’m happy that this counter-argument used with much bragging here to “embarrass critical scholars assumptions” will come to an end (hopefully).

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 6, 2014

      I’m not an expert, but having images of camels does not mean that the camels imaged were domesticated.

  3. Avatar
    gabilaranjeira  February 6, 2014

    Great post. Interesting to see how a text, when carefully analyzed, can reveal information that the author himself wanted to hide.

  4. Avatar
    J.J.  February 6, 2014

    Funny that you posted this on Wednesday…

  5. Avatar
    Yentyl  February 6, 2014

    Camel is only mentioned 5x from Gen 26:24 to Zech 14:15, “gamal,” which the Gesenius Lexicon says could have adopted the significance of the cognate (aramaic) “to carry.” None before that, none that I can find to do with Abraham, etc. The verse in Genesis is regarding Rebekah. Two of these say, “these shall you not eat.” Another is talking about a plague that will strike the horse, mule, camel, and ass. One is about not leaving any of Amalek’s possessions alive, including the camel. So that leaves the one about Rebekah. One.

    Sometimes it just seems people try TOO hard to discredit the Bible.

    Mentioning “gamal.” In Matthew 19:24 where it says “It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle,” we’re told the word rope in Aramaic and camal are close. Gamel – camel and gamel – rope. Makes more sense. I don’t know aramaic so I can’t say for sure. Maybe someone here does.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 6, 2014

      Not sure where you got your information on camels from. But see my post today.

      Yeah, the rope idea has been around a long time — so too that the “needle” was a reference to a small gate in jerusalem, too small for a camel to get through. My view is that Jesus wanted to show how ridiculously impossible it was. But who knows!

      • Avatar
        Yentyl  February 6, 2014

        Whoopsi! Only searched for “camel” singular. Now searched camels pleural and voila! Blueletterbible came up with Strong’s #1581 fifty-four times! Sheesh!

        You didn’t discuss what Gesenius said on the aramaic.

        Anyway, read the post today. Thanks.

        It WAS said by stupidity that there was a “chuck e cheese” door in the wall by the gates of the city that were closed at night. If you came to the city after dark, you had to unload the camels, etc., and go through a smaller door beside the city gates. You’ve been to Israel several times. No chuck e cheese doors.

      • Avatar
        Yentyl  February 6, 2014

        That is 54x in the entire OT. Sorry.

  6. Avatar
    RyanBrown  February 6, 2014

    Fundamentalist response: “Radiocarbon dating is unreliable.” (Unless it seemingly corroborates a claim in the Bible).

  7. Avatar
    willow  February 6, 2014

    In my very best Dory, from Finding Nemo: “Just keep digging. Digging.”

  8. Brad Billips
    Brad Billips  February 6, 2014

    Thanks for sharing the article Dr. Ehrman.

  9. Avatar
    SpaceCoast  February 6, 2014

    Given recent events, I can’t help but read this and immediately think, “Ah, more evidence for Ken Ham and ilk to resoundingly ignore as they see fit.” 🙂

  10. Avatar
    EricBrown  February 6, 2014

    I have no doubt that Genesis was written long after the purported events described in it. However, if I recall correctly, there is some evidence that some of the stories must have been passed down from different periods (stratified in time) before they were set down together. Lord, it must have been 20 years ago now, but I recall an article in BAR that described certain elements in the patriarch stories that did align with non-biblical sources for different periods, roughly corresponding in at least the same order as some of the events in Genesis. These were the literary structure of covenenants (which correspond to non-biblical treaties at reasonably appropriate times) and the cost, in silver, of a slave (one of the stories being the sale of Joesph by his bothers at a different price than some previous slave trade at another time in “history”).

    This might suggests that some of the stories did come down, perhaps orally, from different historical periods, because of course an ancient composer would not have have access to materials to make such “historically accurate” distinctions after the fact. Interesting stuff, in any case.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 6, 2014

      Good points. See my post today.

      • Avatar
        john.paver  February 7, 2014

        Maybe I’ve missed something in the article, but how do they know when the camel was domesticated? I’m guessing that any saddles and things would have rotted away long ago?
        John.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  February 9, 2014

          I don’t know! But it’s the sort of thing scientists do all the time (e.g. to determine when horses were tamed in the Americas, etc.). It’s a good question!

        • Avatar
          SpaceCoast  February 13, 2014

          There are a lot of clues archeologists use to determine when and where certain animals became domesticated. Between wild and domestic populations there are differences in: body morphology (shape and size), how the animals are buried, their diet, the way human settlements have been assembled, the ages and genders in a given animal population.

  11. cheito
    cheito  February 12, 2014

    DR Ehrman:

    YOUR COMMENT:

    (I’m one of those scholars who doubts whether the Patriarchs of Genesis are historical figures at all; but that’s another question.)

    MY COMMENTS:

    To the Apostles the Patriarchs were historical people. Peter believed Noah was a real man. He also believed God destroyed the ANCIENT WORLD by water and burned to ashes Sodom and Gomorrah with fire and brimstone. He mentions that God saved Lot. Etc.

    1 Peter 3:20-
    because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water.

    2 Peter 2:5-7
    if he did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly; 6-if by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly; 7-and if he rescued righteous Lot,…

    Paul calls Abraham ‘our forefather’. (Romans 4;1)
    Paul states that God made an oath to Abraham to bless His descendants
    Romans 4:17-18-In hope against hope he believed, so that he might become a father of many nations according to that which had been spoken, “SO SHALL YOUR DESCENDANTS BE.”

    The scriptures above are enough to make my point that the Apostles who were ‘eyewitnesses’ of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ clearly believed the patriarchs were real men. If Jesus did rise from the dead and is who the Apostles proclaimed him to be- The Son of God- then their assertions that the Forefathers were real individuals who were literally called by God and had promises made to them and their descendants by God, are also reliable and true.

    ~ Cheito

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  February 14, 2014

      Yes, the apostles thought that the Patriarchs were real, historical figures. They also thought that if you could elevate above the clouds you’d be in the throneroom of God. I don’t think we should base what we think on what they thought.

      • Avatar
        Ethereal  July 7, 2014

        Yes most probably subject to the usual limits of human intellect… Except what indicates that idea about the throne room in the Bible- when there were obviously stars even higher? The emphasis of Son of man in the clouds of Heaven was simply to suggest supernal imagergy- not a gnostic science. Most languages like latin are descriptive. Hyperbolic Metaphor- that is the nature of Hebraic language.

  12. Avatar
    sawalsh07  March 28, 2014

    I read your Salon.com excerpt from your new book How Jesus Became God today. I was surprised when I read “father of the Jews, Abraham (who lived eighteen hundred years earlier)…” I assume that wasn’t the time or place to bring up the historicity of the patriarchs? As the previous commenter discussed, I’m sure the characters in the gospels thought of the patriarchs as real historical figures and moreover would never have doubted the historicity of the entire Torah.

    -Steve

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 28, 2014

      Right — not the time to talk about historicity. Personally I don’t believe Abraham existed; but the Jews questioning Jesus in the Fourth Gospel would have! And that is the main point.

      • Avatar
        MatthewAMcIntosh  May 23, 2014

        Scholastically that’s not a problem usually. But when you make statements like that you propagate a false belief about what you personally, and by extension others, feel to be accurate. Someone could easily say, “Dr. Ehrman, you did say that Abraham did indeed exist,” pointing to this article. You then have to explain that it wasn’t the time or place to address it, but that will not work well for those in popular readership. We have to be careful with the words we choose. It would have been easy to simply add “had he existed.” It still wouldn’t require branching off into that discussion, but it would at least prevent misconceptions. A few words in the moment saves the need for many more later.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  May 23, 2014

          Maybe so. But then again, no one *has* said that! 🙂 And the problem with writing is that you simply *can’t* explain in detail every short hand thing you say or — well, or it gets really boring really quick!

  13. Avatar
    MatthewAMcIntosh  May 23, 2014

    This is true, and I hope you understand I was not speaking ill of you or the article. Anyone who has read your works and watched your debates should from established familiarity easily know the intent. I cite you quite often, and this is simply a case of being overly sensitive to word choice. It is easy to be an “armchair editor.”

  14. Avatar
    Ethereal  July 5, 2014

    Perhaps domesticated Camels were exclusively limited to higher echelon? The English word for camel comes from the Latin camelus, relative to the Greek kamelos (καμελος), relative to the Hebrew gamal (גמל). The Hebrew gamal is closely associated with another Semitic form, the Akkadian gammalu. Many Akkadian words have their origins in the Sumerian language, and gammalu is one of the words which contains a Sumerian ancestor in its logograms. It is the 3rd letter denoted to “rich giver”, loft, prosperity or pride I.e.”Gadowl”- Magnitude, or “Gibbor”- Mighty.

    Many archaeologists regard the date for domestication of the camel to be sometime in the 3rd millennium BC. Scarre states that “both the dromedary (the one-humped camel of Arabia) and the Bactrian camel (the two-humped camel of Central Asia) had been

    domesticated since before 2000 BC.” Saggs sees evidence for an early camel domestication date by “proto-Arabs” of the arid regions of the Arabian

    Peninsula. Macdonald’s research in southeast Arabia caused him to argue that based on archaeological remains, camels were probably first domesticated for milk, hair, leather, and meat, and subsequently travel across

    previously impassible regions in Arabia as early as the 3rd millennium BC.

    Heide regards evidence from multiple areas of the ancient Near East to demonstrate the presence of domesticated camels by at least the 3rd millennium BC. For those who adhere to a 9th century BC or even 12th century BC date of domestic camel use in the ancient Near East, archaeological and textual evidence must be either ignored or explained away. Bones, hairs, wall paintings, models, inscriptions, seals, documents, statues, and stelae from numerous archaeological sites all suggest the camel in use as a domestic animal in the ancient Near East as early as the 3rd millennium BC, and certainly by the Middle Bronze Age. The wide geographical and chronological distribution of findings related to camel domestication further strengthen the argument that the camel was domesticated far before the Iron Age, and with new excavations and analyses, additional evidence will likely reinforce this theory.
    http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2014/02/17/the-date-of-camel-domestication-in-the-ancient-near-east.aspx

  15. Avatar
    Ethereal  July 7, 2014

    Heide regards evidence from multiple areas of the ancient Near East to demonstrate the presence of domesticated camels by at least the 3rd millennium BC. For those who adhere to a 9th century BC or even 12th century BC date of domestic camel use in the ancient Near East, archaeological and textual evidence must be either ignored or explained away. Bones, hairs, wall paintings, models, inscriptions, seals, documents, statues, and stelae from numerous archaeological sites all suggest the camel in use as a domestic animal in the ancient Near East as early as the 3rd millennium BC, and certainly by the Middle Bronze Age. The wide geographical and chronological distribution of findings related to camel domestication further strengthen the argument that the camel was domesticated far before the Iron Age, and with new excavations and analyses, additional evidence will likely reinforce this theory. http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2014/02/17/the-date-of-camel-domestication-in-the-ancient-near-east.aspx

  16. Avatar
    Mark  October 5, 2014

    You mentioned somewhere that some scholars believe that the reality of the creation of the Hebrew Bible is more complicated than the explanation given in works based on the Documentary Hypothesis. Is there a non-scholarly introduction to this view?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 5, 2014

      Good question! None that I know of. You might ask Michael Coogan.

  17. talmoore
    talmoore  October 15, 2015

    If seems significant to me that the first time we read about a heavy trade with the Arabs in the Hebrew Bible is during the reign of Solomon, who is said to have traded with Sheba (the Sabaeans of southern Arabia?) for gold and spices. It would make sense that such heavy trade wouldn’t or couldn’t really open up until the domesticated camel made caravans through the Arabian desert possible. Therefore, there may be a clue within the Bible itself that confirms that the camel was not introduced into the Levant until roughly the 9th century BCE, or the traditional date of Solomon’s rule.

  18. Avatar
    Theonedue  June 18, 2016

    Bart, when it says in Genesis 2:18 “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” do you think that is somewhat contradictory with the notion that God created everything very good? If everything was very good, by definition nothing would be lacking, so it would not be a problem for Adam to be alone (i.e It would not be not good for him to be without Eve).

    If you could also tell me the literal Hebrew meaning of “not good” in this passage that would help. Thanks.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 19, 2016

      Good point. yes, the word “good” is the same in 2:18 as throughout ch. 1 where God saw the whole creation was “good”

  19. Avatar
    Theonedue  June 19, 2016

    Why do you think God did not make Adam and Eve perfect in the sense that he was (incapable of sinning)?

    Does the New Testament teach that God later sealed the holy angles in righteousness (making them incapable of sinning)?

    Do you think the apostles of Jesus believed that everyone was totally deprived of God’s grace like John Calvin believed?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 20, 2016

      I don’t believe in Adam and Eve.

      Nope

      I don’t think they thought of it the way Calvin did many, many centuries later.

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