What is the definition of “objective” history?

I received a couple of comments regarding yesterday’s post linking my JWR article about Ezra’s return to Israel from Babylon – one was polite and respectful; the other was … less so.  Here are some thoughts about historical veracity:


A difficult matter involves the resolution of inconsistencies between Torah and secular sources.  Secular historians date the arrival of Alexander the Great in the Middle East somewhat earlier than Torah sources, and they question whether the conqueror ever visited Israel at all.  They believe that the First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BCE, where Torah sources date the destruction in 422 BCE; they believe that the Second Temple stood for 589 years, where Torah sources clearly state that it stood for only 420.

Although many such questions remain questions, others have fallen away.  From Thomas Hobbes in 1651 through Julius Wellhausen in 1886 to the middle of the 20th Century, secular theologians insisted with unanimity upon the “Documentary Hypothesis,” that the Torah is in fact a synthesis of four separate documents of independent origins edited during the leadership of Ezra the Scribe, sometime after 539 BCE.

In 1941, however, Umberto Cassuto published his refutation of the Documentary Hypothesis, leaving the theological community deeply divided with Wellhausen’s defenders very much on the defensive.

As recently as 2001, the historians Finkelstein and Silberman insisted that camels were not domesticated earlier than the late second millennium BCE, thereby refuting the biblical account that Abraham possessed domesticated camels around 1800 BCE.  Since these assertions are based on a lack of supportive evidence rather than empirical counterevidence, they hardly constitute a refutation of the Torah or, indeed, proof of anything.  In any event, the historians Bulliet and Zeuner have marshaled evidence showing that camels were domesticated no later than 1900 BCE, and perhaps as early as thousand years before that.


By and large, archeology has begun to support, rather than challenge, the historical accuracy of Torah.  The Egyptian papyrus of Iphoar (translated into English by Egyptologist Alan Gardiner) describes the desolation of Egypt with remarkable similarity to the biblical account of the ten plagues.

In 1999, archeologists Avraham Biran and Gila Cook uncovered in a northern Israel excavation a flattened basalt stone bearing an Aramaic inscription commemorating a Syrian military victory over the “king of Israel” and “the House of David.”  This followed decades in which historians and archeologists insisted that there was no evidence whatsoever to substantiate the existence of King David.

In 2003, Shimon Ilani of Israel’s Geological Institute declared as authentic a 2800-year-old sandstone tablet inscribed with instructions from King Joash to the Temple priests consistent with the biblical record in 2 Kings 12.

Nevertheless, bewildering and seemingly irreconcilable differences persist, most notably with regard to the duration of the Second Temple era.  In the heavily documented world of the 21st Century, it is difficult for us to imagine how chasms of discrepancy could have formed in the historical record.  However, during most of human history there was no universal calendar.  Dates were recorded according to the year of the local monarch, and in many of these dynasties, kings were named after their grandfathers, creating a chain of alternating names which in turn creates confusion for historians trying to piece together events hundreds or thousands of years later.

Furthermore, “history” changed from place to place.  Royal historians recorded only those events that met the approval of their rulers, and presented them with the most flattering editorial spin.  When Egypt defeated Syria in war, Syrian historical records mention nothing about war with Egypt.  When Syrian history begins to describe its army’s victories, Egyptian military history falls silent.

History, therefore, becomes a patchwork that often degenerates into educated guesswork, with the cultural, religious, and psychological preconceptions and biases of the interpreters inevitably shaping their historical conclusions.


In contrast, Jewish history has never shied away from unpleasant truths.  The Torah, the prophets, and the sages have shown meticulous concern for preserving accurate chronology, as well as brutal honesty in portraying unflattering events.  The authorities that invalidate a Torah scroll if even one letter has been altered prove their reliability as defenders of historical accuracy.  The sages that indict Jacob for complaining about his life before Pharaoh, Moses for overzealously rebuking the people, and Gideon for taking too many wives testify to their own objectivity as honest interpreters of the historical record.

Ironically, from the perspective of historical accuracy, oral tradition may have advantages over written history.  Written errors, whether intentional or inadvertent, eventually become accepted as facts with the passage of time.  What may have seemed clear at one point in history may later be unclear or, even worse, may be interpreted to mean something contrary to what was originally intended.  An oral tradition dependant upon face-to-face interaction between teacher and student preserves an integrity of transmission impossible through the one-way medium of writing.

Most significantly, perhaps, is the general historical community’s rejection of divine intervention.  Just as secular scientists cannot accept any explanation of the origins of life and universe that involve a deity, neither can secular historians accept any fact or analysis that implies the guiding hand of a higher power.  Consequently, they reject the Torah-based historical record as “religion” and considered themselves compelled to search elsewhere for their understanding of history.

Postscript:  Here are some thoughts about the Documentary Hypothesis from Rabbi Gil Student at Hirhurim.

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  1. #1 by Ted on August 1, 2008 - 5:09 pm

    “In the heavily documented world of the 21st Century, it is difficult for us to imagine how chasms of discrepancy could have formed in the historical record.”

    It shouldn’t be all that difficult. This is the world in which, despite all evidence to the contrary, over seventy percent of Americans believe that JFK was killed in some sort of conspiracy, and in which Elvis Presley is alive and well and gorging himself as we speak at a lunch counter in Elmira, Ohio.

    If we can’t get our facts straight after a few decades, what possible chance do we have of making definitive statements about events from which we are removed by millennia? The best we can do is to go with the source we trust. You’ve made a good case for yours.

  2. #2 by Prof. Michael Anbar on August 2, 2008 - 12:54 pm

    Dear Rabbi Goldson:

    I guess I was the one who gave you a hard time yesterday.

    First let me answer your query regarding Baruch ben Neriah – it is in Jeremiah 43 starting in verse 2 through verse 7. This is followed by a series of prophesies about the Jewish Diaspora in Egypt in Ch 44 1-30. Those prophesies were most probably recorded by Baruch in Egypt just like he did for the previous prophesies of Jeremiah. Consequently, it is quite likely that the whole book of Jeremiah was compiled in Egypt and later brought back to Judea during the Persian period. In any case, Baruch did not reach the age of 200+ and traveled all the way from Egypt to Babylon, just to satisfy some Midrashic tradition that was written 600+ years later! Why should Rabbinic Judaism writings supersede and invalidate, or even just put in question (“there is another tradition…”) explicit authentic biblical texts? Yelamdenu rabeinu.. Seriously, I would like to receive your answer on this issue, which reflects also on the chronology you espouse.

    Your write-up shows that you sincerely believe in the superiority of Jewish Rabbinical chronology over that of the rest of the world. You also show that you have read some non-religious books on the subject. Yishar Koach. However you seem to be a non-critical reader. For one, the validity of Wellhausen’s hypothesis on the authorship of the Torah has nothing to do with the chronology of Jewish history. Can you please show me how it does? I did enjoy Prof. Cassuto’s lectures at the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus, before there was a State of Israel, and am quite familiar with his arguments – are you just as familiar with his thesis on the Canaanite origins of the Book of Genesis story about the beginnings of our world and on the effects of Canaanite poetry on the style and content of Biblical writings (not just in the book of Genesis!). An please do not cite Finkelstein’s writings to validate your chronology – they do not! Please show me where I am wrong.

    You state that 1000 years ago people believe that the earth is flat and now they know better – actually you missed that chronological fact by some 1500 years, as the Athenians knew already in the 5rd Century BCE that the Earth is spherical! But let us follow YOUR logic – if now we know better, we must accept that the world around us exists for longer than about 6000 years, which is the basis of your chronology! Where am I going wrong?

    Finally, if you read pertinent literature you would have realized that historical chronology, including that of the Jewish nation, is based on the well documented INDEPENDENT chronologies of Assyria, Babylon, Persia and Egypt which may differ by a year or two but not by 200 years!

    To be Jewish may mean to be different but it does not mean to be stupid.

  3. #3 by torahideals on August 31, 2008 - 4:44 pm

    Dear Dr. Anbar:

    I don’t quite understand your insistance that talumdic and midrashic traditions contradict scripture. The passage you cite from Jeremiah only states that Baruch ben Neriyah emigrated to Egypt after the destruction of the First Temple. The tradition that he later emigrated to Babylon is hardly in contradiction. It merely describes later events that were not included in the scriptural record.

    According to biblical chronology, Baruch would have died 74 years after the events in Jeremiah. That would have made him over 100 (not unheard of, especially in biblical times), but nowhere near the age of 200 you claim.

    My reasons for quoting Wellhausen and Finkelstein were not to bring proofs for traditional Jewish chronology but to demonstrate that the historical and scientific communities are often just as dogmatic as they claim the religious community is. Assumptions based on inconclusive research are treated as fact, then either used as a basis to refute contradictory research or else simply disregarded in favor of new hypotheses without any recognition or admission that the new assumptions are equally uncertain.

    Your quibble about the Athenians’ belief that the world is round has no relevance, except to advance my point. The majority of the world at that time believed the world was flat. Had you been there, would you have argued that the Athenians were unscientific because they rejected the conventional scientific world view?

    The evidence for and logic behind the oral tradition present too vast a topic for the moment, but I will say that any understanding of scripture is impossible without it. What are tephillin (phylacteries)? How is livestock ritually slaughtered? How are the laws of Shabbos observed? The Written Torah was designed to be accompanied by an oral component, as I have already explained, to keep the law and the tradition alive and vibrant, and to force students of Jewish tradition to eschew simplistic answers to complicated questions. It was not invented by the rabbis; it was created by the Almighty for the nation.

    As for the age of the universe, there are a number of easily understood answers. The Almighty may have accelerated the natural process of geological and biological evolution during the first six days of creation. And although many prefer this answer because it allows reconciliation of the literal text and modern science, others have no objection to the possibility that the first six “days” of creation may each have been eons-long, with a “day” defined as a unit of creation rather than a period of 24 hours. Since you argue against any interpretation not explicit in scripture, will you argue against this, too?

    I don’t claim expertise in ancient history. But the colleagues with whom I consulted seem to have rather less confidence in the reliability of the historical records than you do. They tell me that the ‘well-documented, independent chronologies’ of other ancient Middle Eastern societies are not well-documented, do not coordinate and are not coherently in step with each other. (In particular, the famous chronologies of Egypt are well known to be undependable.) We do not have reliable dates for many ancient occurrences, even of the most notable occurrences, say the Trojan War or the Battle of Kadesh, the most famous battle of the ancient world. I have been refered to M.I. Finley’s Ancient History and Lefkowitz’s Not out of Africa which, I am told, deal extensively with how much is unknowable in the ancient past. Scholars of later historians, say Herodotus or Thucydides, insist that a great deal of the histories were written without any pretense to accuracy.

    Your eagerness to sweep so much philosophy and tradition into the intellectual garbage bin while dismissing out of hand opposing, educated opinions forces me to wonder whether you are truly interested in answers to your questions. Calling scholars with different points-of-view “stupid” in defense of your own arguments hardly advances your case. Civility goes a long way toward achieving a meeting of minds.

    R’ Yonason Goldson

  4. #4 by Alex Ozar on October 10, 2008 - 1:14 pm

    First off, if someone finds within himself a genuine, basic belief in the Torah and Rabbinic literature as dvar Hashem, and thus accepts as true any and all statements therein, it is notoriously difficult to show that he is perpetrating any epistemological infelicities. I can’t elaborate here, but in my opinion, and in that of an increasing number of the worlds greatest analytic philosophers (take Alvin Plantinga as a good example), there’s just nothing wrong with it. Classical Foundationalism is still prominent, but it’s grown seriously ill.
    That said, I wanted to make a few comments.
    The issue of dating the bayis sheini and the mystery of the almost two centuries gone AWOL has I think been decidedly settled by the evidence from numerous Persian cuneiform inscriptions, which consistently list 10 Persian in the period in which the Rabbinic chronology has 4. Herodotus and friends were not the most critical historians, but fooling both the contemporary locals and vitually all subsequent historians would have been quite a feat.
    About the Documentary Hypothesis. It’s not on the defensive. Perhaps it should be, but it’s just not. Virtually all respectable institutions of higher learning teach it, and no academic with any hopes for holding a position can ignore it. That said, this does of course support Rabbi Goldson’s message. Academics are often not quite as fair and objective as they make themselves out to be.
    About Torah she’bal peh. I don’t want to go into the subtelties of what I call the “Argument from Necessity.” I do want to point out that however it is explicated, it certainly won’t justify acceptance of all Rabbinic statements. And as an aside, according to the Rambam, and in my opinion certain statements of Chazal, even the majority of Halachic statements found in Chazal are not of explicit Sinaitic origin.

    A wonderful Shabbos and year to all,
    Alex Ozar

  5. #5 by torahideals on October 10, 2008 - 3:09 pm

    Alex, could you elaborate on your comments concerning the Persian cuneiform inscriptions — preferably with as few quadrasyllables as possible?


  6. #6 by BH on October 23, 2008 - 11:46 pm

    R. Goldson,

    Thank you for this essay which argues for, and buttresses the Mesorah.

    Regarding the chronology discrepancy, I link below a Hakirah article(I am not familiar enough with the issues to comment on it, but I link it FYI).


    R. Gottleib disagrees with F. Margolese and implies that to disagree with mesorah is “irrational”(see link http://www.dovidgottlieb.com/comments/correction-to-off-the-derech.htm. ; R Elchanon also implies this, but there is also a contemporary essay by R. C.P. Sheinberg citing the Chasid Yavetz which adds some nuance and perhaps disagreement to the Kovetz Mamorim).

    Blogger’s note: the commenter requested that I delete the remainder of this comment on the chance that his remarks might be misconstrued. I have honored his wishes, but have kept my response to his original observations in my own comment below.

  7. #7 by torahideals on October 26, 2008 - 8:36 pm


    Comments? You’ve provided enough material for a doctoral thesis. And thank you for your observations.

    Let me begin with a few observations of my own, without claiming that I will be doing justice to all your points.

    I saw many different types of ba’alei tshuva in my own journey to toward observance. Many could have ended upon in any cult — Boruch HaShem they found Torah Judaism before they found the Moonies, Scientology, or Jim Jones.

    Nevertheless, just because Yiddishkeit harbors some who cannot handle complex and seemingly contradictory concepts does not mean that Yiddishkeit itself is narrow or two-dimensional. Implicit in the concept of 70 facets to the Torah and eilu v’eilu divrei Elokim chaim is that we are supposed to grapple with problems of our belief system, sometimes without finding answers.

    Consider that Shlomo HaMelech failed to understand the Parah Adumah, but handfuls of acharonim come along and explain its meaning. If Solomon could not do so, how dare they?

    I think it’s fair to say that Shlomo would have thought of their answers, but recognized the inadequacy of those answers. However, that they are inadequate does not mean they are lacking in truth or merit. Every mitzvah should be performed because HaShem commanded us to do it, without asking for or requiring explanation. But every mitzvah should also have meaning for the performer, and that requires understanding.

    In short, I agree with your concern that we should not insist we have all the answers. The mind of the Almighty is infinite, and we will never grasp any mitzvah in its entirety. Nevertheless, we have to explain every mitzvah as best we can, first to ourselves and then to others. To say “we just believe” may result in a colossal chillul HaShem if we are perceived to adhere to the Christian and distinctly un-Jewish concept they call “leap of faith.”

    For many decades, the first perek of Chovos HaLevovos has not been learned because it raises questions concerning the existence of HaShem that were considered better unasked. Nowadays, when so many are asking those questions already, there are those who suggest that we need to return to studying the answers.

    Of course, some answers work for some and other answers for others. One person’s compelling proof leaves another unimpressed. Therefore, to insist that any answer is definitive and absolute is to tread on very thin ice.

    There’s plenty more to say, but that will have to do for now.

  8. #8 by torahideals on October 27, 2008 - 12:54 pm

    Blogger’s note: the following was emailed to me by Professor Michael Anbar, who is reponding to my response (#3) to his comment (#2). I waited to post his remarks until I had time to phrase my next response, but the demands of the holiday season distracted me until now. My rebuttal will appear in the following comment.

    Dear Rabbi Goldson:

    Let me respond first to the last statement you made. I am open-minded to whatever any SCHOLAR states as long as they meets the universal rules of logic and self consistency. Faith, however, is not scholarly. Faith does not have to be logical or rational. What you seem to do is to make faith a science very much as certain Christians are trying to do – using Biblical writings as dogmas (which are supposed to be above any rational analysis). Muslims consider ANY criticism of the Koran heresy, punishable by death. Classical communist have been doing this even with the writings of Lenin, which were supposed to include answers to all problems of life.

    If you told me that you BELIEVE in whatever is written in Talmudic scriptures including the chronology you espouse to, I would have respected your BELIEF, since belief does not require any proofs. But then please don’t challenge science or critical history by your BELIEF. Certain fundamentalist Christians have been trying to equate belief with science and I hope that even you disagree with them. Communist Stalinist Russians tried to develop a biology based on Lenin’s writings (Lenin was not a biologist) and ended up with a devastated hungry country (this was when biological scientists were committed to psychiatric wards for not seeing the true light in Lenin’s writings). For some reason, I see that you follow a similar pattern, which truly worries me.

    Let me repeat – I do respect people who have faith and I surely respect scientists who follow rational thinking, but I cannot accept faith disguised as science, which it is not and never has been. Faith is not science!

    Coming to specifics – where do you have a record of any Israelite who liven loner than 100 years, except in the semi-legendary prehistoric period of Judaism (before the period of the Judges, 800 years before Jeremiah)?

    If I lived in Athens 3500 years ago I would have readily accepted that the Earth is spherical because this notion was based on a series of well documented observations as pointed out by Athenian scientists (not theologians). The flat Earth hypothesis (it was never a religious belief, as I have never heard of a flat Earth deity) was based on earlier more limited observations, and that hypothesis was replaced by a more refined and more precise one. On faith you can still believe that the sun was put up in the sky AFTER there was light! and that the moon was put there by God to illuminate the earth at night. Please show me a scientist who accepts this today.

    My dear Rabbi, science is NOT dogmatic. A scientist can come up with a hypothesis which NEVER becomes a theory unless independently proven by MANY supporting facts, whereas a single established fact that contradicts a hypothesis invalidates it forever. Even a theory is not immune from revision or even abandonment, if found faulty. This is absolutely different from faith which cannot be affected by even a million contradictory facts. Faith cannot be faulty!

    You should first learn to distinguish between faith and science before trying to confuse your readers. JWR is addressing people who know to distinguish between faith and science and this is why I am addressing this response also to its editor and publisher.

    Respectfully yours,
    Michael Anbar

  9. #9 by torahideals on October 27, 2008 - 12:55 pm

    With all due respect, one can see in Dr. Anbar’s response a degree of confusion even greater than usual concerning the concepts of faith and belief. Most often, people err by confusing faith with “blind faith,” but generally have an appreciation that believe is more intellectually based. I believe in atomic theory, even though no one has ever seen a proton, neutron, or electron. (Indeed, until last year, no one had even seen an atom.) I believe in the force of gravity, even though I don’t have the slightest notion why the mass of one body should exert an attraction toward the other. In both cases, my belief is rational, since it is based on an abundance of evidence and the universal opinion of credible experts.

    On the other hand, I have faith that, if I drop a hammer, it will fall to the ground. That faith is based upon my belief in the principle of gravity and my experience that gravity is a reliable force. I have faith that, when I ask my students to turn in their homework, certain students will have the assignment completed competently and on time, based on my experience with their past performance. I’m not sure whether Webster’s would agree, but it seems to me that belief is directed primarily toward the present and the past, where faith is directed toward the future.

    The confusion generally stems from the Christian concept they call “leap of faith,” which I understand to mean that, since G-d is infinite, everything concerning Him is so far beyond the comprehension of human beings that, like an ant standing before the Empire State Building, we cannot begin to fathom even the tiniest fraction of His essence or His works. Therefore, we have no choice but to abandon reason, “leap” into faith (although, I confess that I have no idea how this is done by one who has not already done it), and then struggle to understand what we can, working backward from the premise of G-d’s existence.

    In contrast, as I once heard Rav Nota Schiller remark, Judaism teaches that G-d does not require a great leap of faith at the beginning but a short step of faith at the end. Empirical evidence and human logic are the bases for recognizing the universe as a creation of the Almighty. Ultimately, we can’t know anything with absolute certainty. But we can evaluate evidence and ascertain probabilities.

    There is no explanation for how Big Bang happened. Therefore, secular scientists declare the question of what came before Big Bang an invalid question. There are gaping holes in the so-called theory of evolution. Therefore, secular scientists posit space-seeding by aliens or organic evolution “riding on the back of crystals” to explain how life came into existence. Dark matter and dark energy are terms invented to “legitimize” phenomena that contradict conventional models of science and have no explanation.

    But if they call it science then, abracadabra, it is scientific. Call it intelligent design and you’ll never get a job in academe. After all, science is, well, scientific. Isn’t it? (If you haven’t seen it already, check out Ben Stein’s documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, as evidence of the scientific community’s frenzy not to disprove intelligent design, but to discredit it by “scientific” fiat, without debate or counterargument.

    It’s much the same with history. Since any historical interpretation accepting the existence of a Diety is axiomatically impossible, all the problems involved with the alternatives are overlooked, always under the guise of objectivity. The unwillingness of secularist scientists and historians to engage in either substantive discourse or debate is the most compelling evidence of their true agenda and the dubious veracity of their beliefs, which are often the most self-serving of faiths.

    And so, my dear Dr. Anbar, I reject your distinction between faith and science. I assert that my faith is far more logical than your science. But you shouldn’t take my word for it, and neither should anyone else. There are plenty of orthodox scientists who can make the case much more articulately and credibly than I can. If you’re really interested in the truth, go hear what they have to say. As I have.

  10. #10 by torahideals on November 16, 2008 - 11:46 pm

    Here’s some interesting information about recent archeological discoveries from this week’s aish.com:

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