Skip to: Site Menu | Main content

The Death of the Biblical God

See Also:
What Jesus Didn’t Say (Polebridge Press, 2011)

By Gerd Lüdemann
Professor, Emeritus of the History and Literature of Early Christianity,
University of Göttingen, Germany
July 2011

From its very beginning, Christianity has seen itself as a religion based upon the historical deeds of God, spoken of in the Old and New Testaments. Up to now, most Christian theologians agreed with the formulaic statement “God brought Israel out of Egypt and raised Jesus from the Dead.” The resurrection of Jesus has long been a subject for critical comment, even in the public forum, whereas the issue of Israel’s exodus from Egypt remained untouched. Yet it is precisely the Exodus story and its related account of Israelite history through the time of the judges that has almost unnoticed undergone a complete revolution.

Historical-critical Old Testament research, which has been going on for more than 200 years, has led to a thorough winnowing of all the books of the Hebrew Bible. Although scholars early arrived at the relatively obvious conclusion that the Bible begins with two radically different Creation-stories, they generally hesitated to deal with one potentially disruptive issue that is central to the entire narrative of Israel. In the first five books of the Holy Scripture, they found an idealized picture of an ethnic group chosen by their God Yahweh to be his special people – a picture that included their enslavement in Egypt, Moses’ role in receiving the Ten Commandments, and the conquest of the Promised Land. And despite doubts about the historicity of individual elements of the account, the broad outline of this series of events remained unchallenged. The situation changed, however, when research made it clear that the Biblical portrait of Israel before the establishment of a united kingdom under Saul, David, and Solomon (that is, before 1000 BCE) was a theological invention of the priestly elite of the post-exilic era some five centuries later.

The combination of archaeological research and subtle textual observation has gained rapid and overwhelming acceptance for this paradigm shift. Scholars now agree that the earliest mention of Israel appears on the victory stela erected by Pharaoh Merenptah in 1208 BCE. The inscription on this column provides a powerful argument against the scripturally attested history because it identifies Israel as a group already living in Palestine at or before the time of Moses, and thus contradicts the Old Testament picture of an Israel made up of a united twelve tribes who fled Egypt and began a protracted invasion of Canaan at about this time. Moreover, despite an abundance of Egyptian documents going back to the 14th century BCE – when according to the biblical account Israel’s sojourn in that country began – we find not a single reference to Israel’s presence in or subsequent flight from Egypt, nor to Moses, who according to the Bible had important dealings with the royalty dynasty of the Pharaoh. All this obliges us to consider it likely that the Israelites originally were and long remained a sub-group among the Canaanites.

According to earlier research, worship of Yahweh had always been associated with the First Commandment, which noted the existence of other gods but ordered exclusive loyalty to the one divinity. Consensus reigned that neither Yahweh’s claim of exclusivity nor the assertion (implicit in what followed from the First Commandment) that other gods must not be worshipped stood at the beginning of the Yahwistic faith. Palestinian inscriptions during the eighth century BCE attest to a tolerant Yahweh-cult. Sources discovered only in the last decades mention numerous local Yahweh-gods and thus bespeak a poly-Yahwistic phenomenon. Furthermore, they name a divine couple – Yahweh and his spouse, Ashera. Thus an exclusive Yahweh-cult after the Mosaic pattern appears to have been foreign to the Biblical Israel and Judah of this time. Only after the fall of Judah in 587 BCE, it now seems, did resourceful theological minds formulate the First Commandment in the course of interpreting Israel’s history. In view of the oft-repeated biblical warning that Israel would suffer repeated ills as long as its people worshipped any other gods than Yahweh, one can reasonably conclude that the Biblical tradition represents the literature of a minority who in the end had prevailed.

Ultimately all this presents a problem for all three “Abrahamitic” religions. The Church, regarding herself as the New Israel, has always taken the Old Testament myth of Yahweh’s election and concern for Israel as a firmly established constituent of the Salvation history that culminates in Jesus Christ. But if the historical framework of the Old Testament is essentially fictitious, and both the biblical Israel and its exclusive God are theological constructs of exilic (beginning 587 BCE) or post-exilic (starting after 538 BCE) Judaism, then reading the Old Testament as the pre-history of Jesus and Muhammad becomes a whimsical affectation. And when these foundational assumptions dissolve into the mist, so do the resurrection of Christ and the divine calling of the Prophet, for the central tenets of Christianity and Islam are then seen to rest on a repudiated theology. Recognizing that the supreme and exclusive deity of the Hebrew Bible, which is to all intents and purposes the fictive creation of a cultic clergy who lived more than eight hundred years after the time of Moses, gravely and equally undermines the mythic foundations of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

The present essay is based on his Altes Testament und christliche Kirche: Versuch der Aufklärung, Springe: zu Klampen, 2006. He thanks Martha Cunningham for work on an earlier draft and Tom Hall for editing the manuscript.

Comments (6)

Unfortunately this is another poorly informed attempt to undermine the history of Israel by using not the biblical text but a hypothetical scholary construct to say the Bible is a myth. Few actual biblical or syro-palestinian archaeologists (and only the most radical) would say that the Merneptah Stele is pre-Moses! According to the two dominant views the the Exodus happened in the early 13th or mid 15th centuries BCE. There are an abundance of Semitic people living in Egypt during and previous to both those times. Also, according to the BIBLE most of the population of 9th-8th century Judah and Israel were tolerant of other gods. We would not have Hebrew prophetic literature if it were not so! There was an ideal held by some that most failed to meet!

Please dismiss this failed critique quickly as the anti-Christian/Jewish/Bible polemic that it is!
#1 - M Hiebert, faculty, Millar College - 07/22/2011 - 10:46

Ludemann has such hostility toward the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures as sources of factual history that he misses the role of literary myth in the decisions to take historical actions that either reinforce or fail the myth in factual history. The USA building of an empire on this continent that has been extended around the world glorifying the conqueror and ignoring the plight of the conquered is rooted in such myths.
#2 - Tim Solon - 07/23/2011 - 01:27

"There are an abundance of Semitic people living in Egypt during and previous to both those times."

Where do you get your information from? How are you defining "Semitic"?

Even if there was an Exodus, it makes no sense archaeologically since Egypt had bureaucratic control over much of Canaan when Moses and the Israelites supposedly "fled".

It would be like trying to escape persecution by the FBI in DC by fleeing to Utah.

Not only that, but the arrival of the Philistines c. 1150 BCE distrupted much of Egypt's control over the area. The Philistines' arrival was such a tremendous event in the area that soon after that time the Egyptians had lost control of the coastal areas. Reading the OT, the Philistines are an ever present threat; even present during the time of Abraham - a glaring anachronism. The fact that their arrival is never mentioned in the OT places a terminus post quem for these traditions well after the arrival of the Philistines.

Imagine an "Aztec" writing whose history had always included Spaniards, even as far back as 500 CE. That's the situation we have viz the OT and the Philistines.
#3 - J. Quinton - 07/27/2011 - 09:26

No disrespect to Mr. Hiebert, but it's clear that the "dominant view" is that the Exodus was (to borrow from Prof. Luedemann) a "theological invention" and that "the Israelites originally were and long remained a sub-group among the Canaanites." This is the view of a wide and weighty range of archaeologists and other scholars, no matter how unacceptable it may be to Fundamentalists.
#4 - M.Buettner - 07/27/2011 - 13:23

In response to #3 J. Quinton:
In use the 'Semitic' as equivalent to the Egyptian tern translated 'Asiatic' Which can be interpreted to include Canaanites, Moabites, Israelites, Edomites, Amorites, Arameans, etc. There are plenty of examples of Semitic names amoung the 14th and 15th (Hyksos) dynasty rulers of Lower Egypt (the Delta) during the 2nd Intermediate Period. A text of the 13th dynasty (mid-18th century BC) from Thebes lists more than 80 servants of which about 40 are called Asiatics. Many of the names are Semitic and include feminine parallels to the names Asher, Issachar (Sekratu) and Jacob ('Aqaba). Also, the entire culture of the city of Avaris (modern Tell ed-Daba) is permeated with Asiatic culture. This was the seat of the Hyksos' power base in Egypt and excavations have made it clear that the origin of the Hyksos was Canaan.

Just because Egypt claimed to rule Canaan from the 14th to 11th centuries BC, you overstate the evidence to say Egypt actually controlled any of the hinterlands. The hill country of Judea/Samaria (West Bank) was very poorly managed by even the Canaanite rulers put in place by the Egyptian authorites. Actually Egypt cared little about the hills as long as no one attacked their convoys on the major roads from there. The Amarna letters and Beth Shean stelae are our best written evidence for the period and both discuss the troublesome 'Apiru and others living in those hills. There was plenty of room for people to hide.

The arrival of the Philistines came at a point where Egypt was already losing its ability to administrate the area because of its own decline and therefore Egypt actaully claims the Philistine were settled in Egyptian garrisons after their defeat by Rameses III. Note that all sources, Egyptian records, archaeology and the Bible, show that the Philistines were unable to establish permanent control of the hill country of Canaan. If you read the account presented in Judges and do the math (even though there are a lot of ideal numbers) the Philistines don't become a problem until about half-way through the Judges period.
#5 - M Hiebert, faculty, Millar College - 07/27/2011 - 18:22

Humbug! A failed and bitter argument that only highligth non-confirmed sceptical academic hypothesis with dubious evidence to support.

Pollution in YHWH worship is highly documented in the Bible, specially the Prophets, the archaeological evidence only confirms that.

Also, aspects of the Deity may use different hebrew names in the same way the same person can have different titles/adjectives, e.g,: wise man,bitter man, nihilist,scholar, charlatan, apostate or anti christ. It is a mistake to think they are referring to different individuals as it cab be a matter of viewpoint.
#6 - Anderboy - 12/10/2012 - 13:53

Use the form below to submit a new comment. Comments are moderated
and logged, and may be edited. You must provide your full name.
Inappropriate material will not be posted. Please do not post inappropriate web sites, they will be deleted.

E-mail (Will not appear online)