Patriarchal age

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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 patriarchs). It is preceded in the Bible by the primeval history and followed by The Exodus.

Jewish tradition[edit]

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)[1] and place the death of Jacob in 2255 AM (c. 1506 BCE).

Early biblical archaeology[edit]

Out of this heated debate between the various 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 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.[citation needed] According to John Bright "We can assert with full confidence that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were actual historical individuals."[2]

Modern biblical archaeology[edit]

Following Albright's death, his interpretation of the Patriarchal age came under increasing criticism: such dissatisfaction marked its culmination with the publication of The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives by Thomas L. Thompson[3] and Abraham in History and Tradition by John van Seters.[4] Thompson, a literary scholar, argued on the lack of compelling evidence that the patriarchs lived in the 2nd millennium BCE, and noted how certain biblical texts reflected first millennium conditions and concerns, while Van Seters examined the patriarchal stories and argued that their names, social milieu, and messages strongly suggested that they were Iron Age creations.[5] Van Seter and Thompson's works were a paradigm shift in biblical scholarship and archaeology, which gradually led scholars to no longer consider the patriarchal narratives as historical.[6] Some conservative scholars attempted to defend the Patriarchal narratives in the following years,[7][8] but this position has not found acceptance among scholars.[9][10]

By the beginning of the 21st century, archaeologists had given up hope of recovering any context that would make Abraham, Isaac or Jacob credible historical figures.[11][12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Jewish Virtual Library: Abraham
  2. ^ John Bright, "History of Israel", 1972, p.91.
  3. ^ Thompson, Thomas L. (1974). The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives: The Quest for the Historical Abraham. Text.
  4. ^ Seters, John Van (1975). Abraham in History and Tradition. Echo Point Books and Media. ISBN 978-1-62654-910-4.
  5. ^ Moore & Kelle 2011, pp. 18–19.
  6. ^ Moorey, Peter Roger Stuart (1991-01-01). A Century of Biblical Archaeology. Westminster John Knox Press. ISBN 978-0-664-25392-9.
  7. ^ Kitchen, Kenneth (1995). "The Patriarchal Age: Myth or History?". Biblical Archaeology Review. Retrieved 2021-07-12.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  8. ^ Kitchen, K. A. (2006-06-09). On the Reliability of the Old Testament. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. p. 313. ISBN 978-0-8028-0396-2.
  9. ^ Dever, William G. (2001-05-10). What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It?: What Archeology Can Tell Us About the Reality of Ancient Israel. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. p. 98. ISBN 978-0-8028-2126-3. There are a few sporadic attempts by conservative scholars to "save" the patriarchal narratives as history, such as Kenneth Kitchen [...] By and large, however, the minimalist view of Thompson's pioneering work, The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives, prevails.
  10. ^ Grabbe, Lester L. (2007). Williamson, H. G. M (ed.). Some Recent Issues in the Study of the History of Israel. British Academy. doi:10.5871/bacad/9780197264010.001.0001. ISBN 978-0-19-173494-6. The fact is that we are all minimalists -- at least, when it comes to the patriarchal period and the settlement. When I began my PhD studies more than three decades ago in the USA, the 'substantial historicity' of the patriarchs was widely accepted as was the unified conquest of the land. These days it is quite difficult to find anyone who takes this view.
  11. ^ Dever 2002, p. 98 and fn.2.
  12. ^ Dever, William G. (2020). Has Archaeology Buried the Bible?. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. ISBN 978-1-4674-5949-5. All these stories reflect the geopolitical situation of the Israelite monarchy in the Late Iron Age, not any historical situation in the "Age of Abraham". To be sure, these stories have are set in an earlier theoretical context that may have some historical verosimilitude; but in their present form, they are clearly fictitious