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. Based on this chronology and the Rabbinic tradition, ancient Jewish sources such as Seder Olam Rabbah date the birth of Abraham to 1948 AM (c. 1813 BCE) and place the death of Jacob in 2255 AM (c. 1506 BCE).
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History known and dateable independently from the Bible first makes contact with the Scriptures during the era of the first Jewish kings. As such, the events before this period came to be disputed with the advent of biblical criticism in the 19th century. Little interest in questioning the biblical chronology existed before then, but with the development 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 view (the documentary hypothesis) to find concrete arguments to support their respective views. Other events such as the publishing of Darwin's On the Origin of Species brought further challenges to the Bible and intensified the debate.
Early biblical archaeology
Out of this heated debate between the various (usually anti-religious) theories of biblical criticism and traditional, religious interpretations was born biblical archaeology, a form of archaeology different from others in that it sought not to discover and interpret mute evidence, but to validate (or for some,[who?] invalidate) the historicity of the Patriarchs and the events surrounding their lives, as described within the Bible.
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."
Modern biblical archaeology
Albright's interpretation came under fierce criticism as archaeology unearthed apparent anachronisms in the biblical accounts of the Patriarchal Age, in some cases suggesting that some of the texts were written later than the traditional dates. For example, in Genesis 21:32, Abraham apparently encounters Philistines, who (according to archaeology) actually did not settle in the Middle East until the 12th century BCE. However, usage of future place names had been a known Scriptural phenomenon to Jewish scholars for centuries prior to the biblical criticism movement.
Excavations in the Timna Valley from 2014 discovered what may be the earliest domesticated camel bones found in Israel or even outside the Arabian peninsula, dating to around 930 BCE. This has been described as evidence that the stories of Abraham, Joseph, Jacob and Esau were written after this time. Albright himself saw camels in the Bible as an anachronism. However, earlier excavations have uncovered other domesticated camel bones in a house dating from ca. 2400 BCE, and that there exist written records and pictorial depictions of camels as pack animals much before 930 BCE, even from prior to ca. 1700 BCE, and again on a cylinder seal dating stylistically from ca. 1400 BCE or earlier. Although these older findings were not in Israel itself, they remain suggestive, coming from Bahrain, Minoa, Babylonia and even as close as Syria.
- Jewish Virtual Library: Abraham
- John Bright, "History of Israel", 1972, p.91.
- For instance, the classic tenth-century commentator Rashi notes that the Bible sometimes refers to places according to the names that later peoples created for them, as in his comment on Gen. 2:14: "Cush and Assyria: As yet they did not exist and Scripture wrote [using] their future names." Similarly in chapter 21, the Bible never actually calls Abimelech and his subjects "Philistines," but only says that they returned to "the land [that would become that] of the Philistines."
- Hasson, Nir (Jan 17, 2014). "Hump stump solved: Camels arrived in region much later than biblical reference". Haaretz. Retrieved 30 January 2014.
- Sapir-Hen, Lidar; Erez Ben-Yosef (2013). "The Introduction of Domestic Camels to the Southern Levant: Evidence from the Aravah Valley" (PDF). Tel Aviv 40: 277–285. doi:10.1179/033443513x13753505864089. Retrieved 16 February 2014.
- Heide, Martin. 2011 "The Domestication of the Camel: Biological, Archaeological and Inscriptional Evidence from Mesopotamia, Egypt, Israel and Arabia, and Literary Evidence from the Hebrew Bible." Ugarit-Forschungen 42: 368.
- Bromiley, ed. Geoffrey W. (1982). E - J. (Fully rev., [Nachdr.]. ed.). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans. p. 442. ISBN 978-0802837820.
- Bulliet, Richard W. (1990). The camel and the wheel (Morningside ed.). New York: Columbia university press. pp. 63, 64. ISBN 978-0231072342.