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If the Old Testament is Not Accurate — Where Did Israel Come From?

Yesterday I argued that the Old Testament account found of the “Conquest of Canaan,” as found in the book of Joshua, cannot be historically accurate.  This is one of those matters that matter.   As we all know full well, the dispute over the land has been going on for millennia, and continues to create trauma and disaster, war and suffering, all the time — no matter which side you stand on.  And please, in your comments, do not make polemical political remarks that are hostile to those who disagree with your position; there are huge problems everywhere you look….

Our question here, for the purposes of this blog, right now, is not about legitimacy — who should own what, and on what grounds? — but history.  If Israel was not in fact a pre-existing entity that emerged out of Egypt at the Exodus and then entered the land God had promised the ancestors, wiping out the native population to take over what by divine right was theirs — then where then did Israel come from?   Historically?   At one time there was no nation in that part of the world; at a later time there was.  So where did it come from?

This question has intrigued and even plagued critical scholars for a very long time.  Here I explain some of the leading options commonly propose over fairly recent decades, taken from my textbook on the Bible.


Explanations for the Beginnings of Israel in the Land

Modern scholars have come up with a number of explanations for how the nation of Israel emerged within the land known as Canaan. The following are the four most popular.

This is a post that might actually matter for something other than antiquarian interests.  Even if you’re not an ancient history buff — well, you may want to know all this.  And if you do have antiquarian proclivities, you’re in the right place.  To read what historians have said, you gotta join the blog.  And why not?.  It won’t cost much and all your fee goes straight to charity.

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Who Wrote the Pentateuch? The JEDP Hypothesis
Did The Israelites Really Conquer Canaan?



  1. Avatar
    rdrstarbase@gmail.com  October 1, 2019

    Theory # 4, “Gradual Emergence” may be the prevailing academic view, but it is wide enough to drive a truck through. It’s mushy, vague and general. Hard to dispute something when it doesn’t say much.

    • Avatar
      castaway  October 3, 2019

      But it’s what the archaeological evidence supports

    • Avatar
      Theintegrator  October 6, 2019

      Such as? Examples would bolster your case and would be interesting to examine.

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    godspell  October 1, 2019

    So you’re saying marching around city walls blowing on horns isn’t necessarily sound siegecraft? I think it would be genuinely annoying. Might surrender just to get a good night’s sleep.

    What happened was probably chaotic, there were few if any written chronicles (none that have survived), and people tend to like to make a coherent narrative out of the past, when our daily activities are, if we’re honest, a bit helter-skelter at times, and certainly when we’re fighting.

    There really was a Trojan War (probably many). I remember one theory propounded on a PBS documentary I watched long ago, that the Trojan Horse symbolized Poseidon, who was connected in stories to both horses (like Pegasus) and earthquakes (which could make the walls of a city fall down, leaving it open to pillage). Why not just say Poseidon sent an earthquake to give victory to the Greeks? Because it’s not as good a story, and it would be too easy. The story as written gives the victory to Greek cunning and ingenuity, even though the gods are involved on both sides.

    But interestingly, the victory over Jericho is not achieved by Hebrew cunning, but by their faith in Yahweh, who actually does make the walls come tumbling down. In reality, maybe (I said maybe) they did use psychological techniques like keeping the besieged awake and on edge with marching and horn blasting.

    But in neither case was victory likely to have been achieved with one stroke. Never is.

    • Avatar
      Hormiga  October 3, 2019

      >So you’re saying marching around city walls blowing on horns isn’t necessarily sound siegecraft? I think it would be genuinely annoying. Might surrender just to get a good night’s sleep.

      Hey, it’s what the US used to get Noriega.

    • Avatar
      Eric  December 9, 2019

      Or the noise was intended to cover the sound of tunneling under a section of a wall (sapping) and that is what brought down a piece of the wall (all that would be needed).

  3. Avatar
    Nichrob  October 1, 2019

    When a fundamentalist argues God stopped the world (In Joshua) because “he can do anything”. I reply with “yes, he can do anything, but what is more likely; He stopped the Earth from spinning or he made humans who will believe anything they read?” (I’ll go with the later…)

    • Avatar
      Dom  April 27, 2020

      please visit FB of Gill Broussard he’ll explain you with details why earth stopped and why we have 365 days calendar now and why will be great drought now

  4. Avatar
    JayinHK  October 1, 2019

    The Bible Unearthed by Finkelstein and Silberman makes a thorough case for gradual emergence, and is loaded with fascinating archaeological facts and textual criticisms. I would highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in this topic. For those who don’t really like to read, there are 2 documentaries available: a 4-part European version, and a 90-minute History channel version that can be found on YouTube.

  5. Avatar
    fishician  October 1, 2019

    Do you have an opinion on whether Moses was a historical figure in some way, or just legendary? (Be careful; the mythicists will argue that if stories and laws could be built around a mythical Moses, so too could it have been done with a mythical Jesus!)

    • Bart
      Bart  October 2, 2019

      Yes, I think he’s a legend. And no, I don’t think the evidence for Moses vs. the evidence for Jesus is at all commensurate. Like every other historical figure, each case has to be decided on its own merits. Kinda like presidential candidates….

      • fefferdan
        fefferdan  October 4, 2019

        I like to distinguish between a person being “a legend” and being “legendary.” What I mean is, there may have been a person [or several people] that formed the semi-historical basis for the Moses myth. I’d say he’s legendary, but maybe not just a legend. This is similar to Bart’s idea that there may have been a real local hero who later became the Joshua of legend. It’s easy to see this principle at work in the case of King Arthur, who was probably a real local war-chief, but not the paragon of Christian chivalry that he became in the 13th century. I doubt that if there really was a Moses, he knew anything about the Torah that is attributed to him. But, just like Arthur, he’s become an archetype in our collective unconscious. Scholarship can debunk him intellectually, but archetypes don’t die easily, whether they are just legends, or just legendary.

  6. Lev
    Lev  October 1, 2019

    I vote for theory 4.

  7. Avatar
    Apocryphile  October 1, 2019

    Unfortunately, people don’t need to know history to have opinions on religion, politics, or anything else. Still, education is our best defense against repeating the mistakes and bloodshed of the past.

    Great thread – this is a topic of ‘biblical’ proportions. Our modern world would benefit immensely from a broader dissemination of what unbiased historical scholarship and archaeology of the Holy Land can tell us.

  8. Avatar
    Koryneaustin  October 1, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman, I didn’t know where else to ask this question. So I apologize to the irrelevance to your article above, although I thoroughly enjoyed it! Is it widely accepted that the Egyptian Book of the Dead influenced the Ten Commandments? And to your knowledge, what is the earliest practiced religion or do we know?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 2, 2019

      No, it appears not to have had any influence on the Ten Commandments. And no, we don’t know what the earliest religions were because they are very, very pre-historic.

      • Avatar
        Koryneaustin  October 4, 2019

        Thanks!! Another quick question (may be a stupid question)! But just so I understand- scholars know that Paul’s writings & the gospels were written in the first century, but those original writings have been lost and we only have copies from much later? If so, how do scholars know when the original was written? Or we have the actual manuscripts from the first century?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 4, 2019

          No, we don’t have manuscripts. That’s true of every book from the ancient world, the writings of Homer, Plato, Euripides, Julius Caesar, Cicero, Augustine, name your author. Their books are not dated on the basis of the dates of their manuscripts, which are invariable many centuries after the originals. They are dates based on lots of other factors, including internal references in them, historical situations they presuppose, what they authors mention, how they talk about it, how they themselves are mentioned by other authors, which works other datable authors attribute to them, and lots of other things. But the dates of, say, the books of the New Testament are not HUGELY debated (different estimates may very by years or a few decades, but not more than that)

          • Avatar
            Koryneaustin  October 4, 2019

            So is it fair to say that it is misleading when apologists say “the accounts were written within generations of Jesus’s life.” Although I am still learning on my recent quest for biblical truth, to me it seems like that’s still a lot of time between those written accounts & what scholars have for forgery & misconstruing the text. Also, I would think that preservation of the originals would be of utmost importance to the God of the Bible.

          • Bart
            Bart  October 6, 2019

            Are you referring to the Gospels of the NT? yes, they were written within 40-60 years of Jesus’ life. But if you’re referring to the accounts of the Patriarchs, say — no those are centuries later . But the manuscripts that *contain* those accounts, yes, those are later still. There’s a very important different between when an account was composed and when the book containing the account was produced (the Bible on my desk was produced in 1994; but the books in it were composed many centuries earlier)

          • Avatar
            Koryneaustin  October 4, 2019

            Also, would you recommend or give any merit to Robert Price’s “The Amazing Colossal Apostle: The Search for the Historical Paul”

          • Bart
            Bart  October 6, 2019

            If you’re looking for a book on the historical Paul — his life and writings — then no, this would not be the book I’d recommend. Lots of major scholarship out there on Paul. Bert Harrell has a recent biographical sketch; E P Sanders has a very short book; might start with my Peter Paul and Mary Magdalene?

  9. Avatar
    joks  October 1, 2019

    Dr Ehrman, two questions. What is your current thinking on the Documentary Hypothesis? What is your current thinking on where the Israelites crossed and the Egyptian army was destroyed, the Red Sea or the Reed Sea?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 2, 2019

      I think the DH is right in its basic assertions and conclusions, but that it’s probalby (much more) complicated than simply four sources JEDP. Still, that’s a good starting point. The Bible calls it the Sea of Reeds, definitely not the Red Sea. I don’t, thgouth, think it’s a historical account of something that actuallyhappened.

      • Avatar
        Hngerhman  October 3, 2019

        Dr Ehrman –

        In this vein, might there be a good state-of-the-question piece or compendium around the documentary hypothesis you’ve come across for someone who’s read Who Wrote the Bible (and Bible Unearthed; and who’s currently listening to John Barton’s A History of the Bible on audiobook). Lay level would be best, but I could probably tolerate it even if it veers into the technical. Thanks a ton!

        • Bart
          Bart  October 4, 2019

          Are you saying these don’t lay it out clearly enough? Have you tried Richard Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible?

          • Avatar
            Hngerhman  October 4, 2019

            They are indeed quite clear, and fun/great reads (or listens, as with Barton’s presently) – I’m just (overly?) keying off your prior comment that the JEDP model is a good start but not sufficiently reticulated, and wanting to go the next step down the road in the right direction. My gut is that next step is going to be more technical… Many thanks in advance.

          • Bart
            Bart  October 6, 2019

            Oh boy is it more technical…

          • Avatar
            Hngerhman  October 6, 2019

            Yipes – ok. Good to know before I wade too far off into the technical deep end without the requisite Hebrew language flotation device… Thanks!

      • Avatar
        Hngerhman  October 3, 2019

        And – “my Bible textbook” is an entirely legitimate answer!

        • Bart
          Bart  October 4, 2019

          Yes, I do lay it all out there, in its basic form, with the evidence.

          • Avatar
            Hngerhman  October 4, 2019

            Delivery of the new 7th Ed. of your freshly minted NT Textbook (finally!) comes tomorrow. With this, I am now compelled to have your Bible textbook follow it. Only fitting. Even if they won’t fit in my apt… Cmon Kindle version!

  10. Avatar
    Charlene  October 1, 2019

    Israel was never a nation in the Scriptures. The scribes are using nations to describe the nature of man who transitions from the ego self (Egypt) to his spiritual self ( Israel.) The Bible is full of allegories explaining this same concept. This particular literal interpretation and naming of Israel in 1948 has caused devastating consequences all over the world.

  11. Avatar
    mwbaugh  October 1, 2019

    I’ve seen a fair amount of popular writing disputing the idea that there were slaves in Egypt at all, though I don’t know what the evidence is. Could you comment on this?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 2, 2019

      There were definitely slaves in Egypt, going way, way back. They are in the records, though I don’t have any Egyptian references to hand.

  12. Avatar
    Euler  October 1, 2019

    Basically, we have no idea how it happened

  13. Avatar
    RRomanchek  October 1, 2019

    Currently reading “Who Wrote the Bible?” by Friedman. Fascinating. A book you recently recommended. Thanks Professor.

  14. Avatar
    Scott  October 1, 2019

    I am curious about Gradual Emergence: can we draw parallels between a gradual emergence of Canaanite Yahwehists and the gradual growth of Christianity as you describe in your book?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 2, 2019

      There may be some very broad analogies — I’ve never much thought about it!

  15. Avatar
    fedcarroll77  October 1, 2019

    Interesting set of posts Bart! The gradual emergence theory seems to be the most logical one indeed. I would take the side of Israel Finkelstein and William Devers about there was some internal events that caused a relocation into the hills/mountains. (See William Devers book about the Ancient Israelites snd ehere they Cane From). According to both archaeologists there was a dramatic drop in city state living (I believe in LBA) then a dramatic increase in hill dwelling (again I believe in IA1). Both agree that these “Israelites” were most likely Canaanites living in the city states then moved to the hills/mountains. The big question is why? Of course many theories are out there, but even I’m not confident enough to say why. I will wait until more evidence is presented.

  16. Avatar
    HawksJ  October 1, 2019

    **But within Canaan a cult of Yahweh emerged, then spread, and eventually a sizeable number of people adhered to it. Later they told stories about how they came to be a separate people from their neighbors.**

    I think a fascinating counter-factual to ponder is, what would have happened to that cult if “The Triumph of Christianity” had turned out to be anything but.

  17. Avatar
    Michael  October 1, 2019

    I agree that the emergence theory fits the model. There is a whole group of civilizations where conflict between War and Fertility cults. The most famous besides Canaan are the Norse. The Norse Myths talk of the War of the Aesir and Vanir. That war is seen by many as being based on the actual merging of various tribes in Scandinavia.

  18. Avatar
    wje  October 1, 2019

    Good evening, Bart. If Israel slowly emerged into a nation, is there any proof of a gradual mixing from native Canaanites into a new nation? Maybe a missing link of something that is not quite Israel and not quite Canaan?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 2, 2019

      I guess the proof is precisely that that there is no evidence of any major shifts in culture or religion at any one time.

  19. Avatar
    Colin P  October 2, 2019

    Hi Bart. I think you referred to Richard Friedman’s book “Who wrote the bible” in a recent post. Have you read his book “Exodus” in which he deals specifically with the issue of where Israel cam from? He argues that the Levites were actually a priestly class from Egypt that integrated with various tribes in Canaan. If you did read it what did you think of it? Must say I wasn’t entirely convinced.

  20. Avatar
    FocusMyView  October 2, 2019

    Just as fascinating to me is the idea that a late blooming Judah, which may never have been a part of the original tribes of Israel, whose written legacy (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel) identifies Judah as Israel. A political entity named Israel seems to have existed. But a thousand years after its demise in 722 BC, a people are clearly identifying themselves as Israel.
    A comparable example might be the idea of being Roman, espoused by the Byzantine and Holy Roman Empires, and even given as a root of the British Empire.

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