The Patriarchal Age is the era of the three biblical Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, according to the narratives of Genesis 12–50. (These chapters also contain the history of Joseph, although Joseph is not one of the Covenantal Patriarchs).
The Bible contains an intricate pattern of chronologies from the creation of Adam, the first man, to the reigns of the later kings of ancient Israel and Judah, at which point the Bible makes contact with known and dateable history. From these it is possible to calculate (strictly within a biblical frame of reference) that the birth of Abraham, the first of the Patriarchs, 1,948 years after the Creation, corresponded to 1812 BC.
Prior to the 19th century there was little interest in questioning the biblical chronology, but with the growth of biblical criticism and the wide popularity of the documentary hypothesis – the theory that the Pentateuch, including the Book of Genesis, was composed not by Moses but by unknown authors living at various times between 950 and 450 BC – it became increasingly urgent both to supporters of the traditional view (i.e., that Genesis was an accurate historical record written by Moses under the direct guidance of God) and the new (the documentary hypothesis) to find concrete arguments to support their respective views. Thus was born biblical archaeology, a form of archaeology different from all others in that it sought, not to discover and interpret mute evidence, but to validate (or for some, invalidate) a written book.
The most eminent of early biblical archaeologists was William F. Albright, who believed that he had identified the Patriarchal age in the period 2100–1800 BC, the Intermediate Bronze Age, the interval between two periods of highly developed urban culture in ancient Canaan. Albright argued that he had found evidence of the sudden collapse of the previous Early Bronze Age culture, and ascribed this to the invasion of migratory pastoral nomads from the northeast whom he identified with the Amorites mentioned in Mesopotamian texts. According to Albright, Abraham was a wandering Amorite who migrated from the north into the central highlands of Canaan and the Negev with his flocks and followers as the Canaanite city-states collapsed. Albright, E. A. Speiser and Cyrus Gordon argued that although the texts described by the documentary hypothesis were written centuries after the Patriarchal age, archaeology had shown that they were nevertheless an accurate reflection of the conditions of the 2nd millennium BC: "We can assert with full confidence that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were actual historical individuals."
But in the last quarter of the 20th century Albright's interpretation became increasingly untenable. Archaeology, far from reinforcing the reliability of Genesis, has demonstrated that it is rife with anachronisms. For example, the Philistines whom Abraham encounters did not settle in the Middle East until the 12th century BC, camels were not in general use as beasts of burden until the 7th century BC, and the genealogies of the Patriarchs and the nations supposedly derived from them represent "a colorful human map of the ancient Near East from the unmistakable viewpoint of the kingdom of Israel and the kingdom of Judah in the eighth and seventh centuries BC". Contemporary archaeologists have given up the attempt to find a historical reality behind the Patriarchs as individuals, and it is now generally accepted that "it is not possible to demonstrate the historical existence of the figures in Genesis."
- The situation is not quite so clear-cut as this implies, as there are variant manuscripts of the bible giving variant chronologies, differing by thousands of years: the description given here is from the Masoretic text, the basis of most modern English translations.
- John Bright, "History of Israel", 1972, p.91.)
- Sarah Belle Dougherty, Fiat Lux: Archeology and the Old Testament (review of Finkelstein and Silberman, "The Bible Unearthed", 2003).
- See review of Terrance Fretheim, "The New Interpreter's Bible", 1994.