The Patriarchs and Contemporary History Part 1 -- By: Merrill F. Unger

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 110:438 (Apr 1953)
Article: The Patriarchs and Contemporary History Part 1
Author: Merrill F. Unger


The Patriarchs and Contemporary History
Part 1

Merrill F. Unger

Under the influence of the Wellhausen School of Biblical criticism it was very common among scholars in the first part of the present century to deny the historicity of the Hebrew patriarchs. Various theories were advanced to dissolve these Biblical characters into mythical or legendary figures. They were sometimes viewed as lunar or astral representatives or personifications of clans and tribes, or sometimes as fictitious characters in cycles of legends.1 Julius Wellhausen himself was inclined to view Abraham “as a free creation of unconscious art.”2

The patriarchal narratives scarcely fared better than the patriarchs themselves. Wellhausen’s dictum was docilely followed by the majority of critical sdholars: “From the patriarchal narratives it is impossible to obtain any historical information with regard to the Patriarchs; we can only learn something about the time in which the stories about them were first told by the Israelite people. The later period…was unintentionally projected back into hoary antiquity, and is reflected there like a transfigured mirage.”3

This “later period” which Wellhausen and his disciples imagined as being projected into the patriarchal narratives was the eighth and ninth centuries B.C., when the narratives were alleged to have been composed. But were this Biblical

description of the patriarchs’ lives a late invention, there would exist the greatest difficulty in finding an adequate explanation of its origin, since it does not agree at all with conditions in any part of Palestine from 1200-900 B.C., to say nothing of a later period.4 “Wellhausen and his followers did not even recognize the difficulty, because of their ignorance of modern Palestine and adjoining lands.”5

Although die-hard radical theories echoing Wellhausen’s skepticism have persisted till quite recently,6 archeological discoveries, particularly of the last quarter of a century, have dealt a fatal blow to extreme views. “It is safe to say that the general effect of the discoveries of the last decade has been to confirm the substantial accuracy of the picture of life in Canaan in the second millennium B.C. as described in the patriarchal narratives of Genesis.”7 The great service archeological research is performing in thi...

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