Camels and Biblical History
I don’t read much that the major media outlets report on religion or the Bible. The reason is that 99% of the time the report is either 1) an exaggeration, 2) a misrepresentation of actual findings, or 3) a report of something as “Breaking News” that biblical scholars or theologians have known about for quite a long time or that has actually been thoroughly discredited for a long time. And there’s always an agenda behind the report. The writers and reporters employed by BBC, CNN, Fox News, or whatever media outlet generally don’t exhibit intellectually honest thinking, let alone rigorous scholarly discernment and restraint. And if an expert is consulted, it is usually the expert who is willing to say what is most outrageous or most spectacular, regardless of the evidence and the general scholarly consensus. For these reasons, I generally just stay away from media reports.
Today, though, I happened upon a CNN article published in February of this year by Yale Old Testament professor Joel Baden about what a supposed “camel discovery” could mean for biblical historicity. To be honest, my expectations were low, since most recently Baden has made something of stir with his book The Historical David: The Real Life of an Invented Hero. The melodramatic title of Baden’s book doesn’t really do his book justice. While Baden is generally more predisposed than I am toward citing the lack of positive evidence for something as evidence against that something (a surprisingly common logical fallacy among biblical scholars), his book is actually a fine work of scholarship (I suggest reading Andrew Knapp’s perceptive review of Baden’s book at http://rbecs.org/2014/01/31/thd/).
I was relieved to see that the moral of Baden’s article about camels and biblical history was that it is unfair to call an apparent anachronism a “mistake” (the earliest evidence of domesticated camels in the region of Israel is the 10th century BCE, about 1000 years after Abraham is supposed to have lived). If it is indeed an anachronism to depict 2nd millennium BCE semi-nomadic peoples as possessing domesticated camels, then the anachronism is more akin, in Baden’s words, “to describing a medieval Italian as enjoying pasta with tomato sauce” (tomatoes being a New World crop) than it is “to importing semitrailers into the medieval period.” Quite right. The writers of Genesis (who likely lived in the mid-to-late 1st millennium BCE) were simply transplanting the lifestyle of the semi-nomads of their own time back into the time of the stories they were putting down in writing. Baden’s article does well to try and quell some of the hype surrounding this “discovery” and to refocus our dialogue about biblical historicity on the human element in the Bible’s creation.
There are, however, a couple of nit-picky points that I wish he had made, the lack of which rubs me the wrong way. First, the supposed “discovery” is nothing more than a slight re-confirmation of something we’ve already known about for a long time: positive evidence for the domestication of camels in the Near East of the early second millennium BCE is lacking. If part of Baden’s point was to say, “This really isn’t as big a deal as the media are making it out to be,” it seems to me that it would have been smart to point this out. Second, a lack of archaeological evidence for something is not logically equivalent to evidence against the existence of something. Just because radio-carbon dating of some camel remains, even a lot of camel remains, cannot be placed any earlier than the 10th century BCE does not automatically mean that no domesticated camels existed before that time. I’m not arguing that they did exist before that time, just that we are not in a position to say one way or another simply based on a lack of evidence. I wish biblical scholars realized sometimes how quickly their reasoning would be laughed out of a court of law or out of a forum for the discussion of the natural sciences.
Long before we get to the question of what the lack of evidence for camels in the 2nd millennium BCE means for biblical history, we as scholars need to be teaching the public what it means for archaeological evidence to be used responsibly. It doesn’t help near as much when we tacitly support the media’s tendency toward hyperbole and inaccuracy in their reporting of significant events in biblical scholarship.