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Alleged Anachronisms in the Bible

The concern of this mini-essay is a class of alleged "errors" or problems in Scripture involving anachronisms, or statements out of accord with either the time the events recorded happened, or with the date of writing of the given document. Links to specific Scriptures are given below as samples.

Our response to these charges may take one of these three forms, depending on the available data:

  1. The anachronism is intentional -- it is done so that later readers will have a clearer idea of what is being said, or else will not be puzzled or confused by archaic terminology.
  2. The anachronism is a later scribal gloss -- it is done for the same reason.
  3. The "anachronism" is not an anachronism at all -- the critic is simply incorrect.

Re #2: How do we know they didn't make other changes we don't know about?

Without evidence of a specific change, including a reasonable motive, and supporting background data (not necessarily including textual evidence), this is a meaningless argument. Our case provides a specific and legitimate motive for such changes: aiding the understanding of later readers. It also corresponds with a cognitive necessity for allowing continued understanding of the text. As Glenn Miller has ably pointed out:

Now, it should be obvious that any later changes to the originals should (probably) not materially change or substantially change the original content. But note that, theoretically, God COULD remove outdated material if He chose to do so--there is nothing requiring Him to maintain all of the material! He certainly changed the requirements of the Law as Israel's situation changed. Several laws given in Exodus/Leviticus are modified from their migratory-basis to a settlement-basis in Deuteronomy. And, in the case of explanatory glosses or location-name updates, nothing in Moses original material is changed whatsoever.
And actually, it can certainly be argued, in my opinion, that Mosaic content would be 'lost' if the names and glosses were NOT added--the very meaning of the words and sentences and paragraphs might be lost! Had translators and interpreters (such as Ezra and company) NOT been around, the meaning of Mosaic original composition might not be preserved (cf. Neh 8.8: "They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read.")

Further he adds:

Lexical changes are where word stock is updated--again, to preserve the meaning. In the Pentateuch this generally occurs in place names. The only way that a simple word-for-word substitution could make any difference, would be in the situations where there may be a word-play on the original word, like a place name. So, for example, in Genesis 21.22-34, Abraham digs a well and makes an oath with a ruler concerning it; hence, the city is called "Beersheba" (lit. "well of the oath").

This ties the place name to the events of the text, so we would be able to detect any topographical changes in these kinds of texts. And no problems show up. And in cases where BOTH are important (name-meaning and locale-identification), the author is careful to leave everything in! Cf. Gen 28.18: "So Jacob rose early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up as a pillar, and poured oil on its top. 19 And he called the name of that place Bethel; however, previously the name of the city had been Luz."

It is important to realize how sacred these texts were to the Hebrews...they left untouched some extremely old and variously confusing elements--out of sheer respect for the sacredness of the text. Changes to lexical stock were made only when necessary, only when transparent, and if there was the slightest doubt--they put it in as an annotation (like the comment on Luz).

In order to defuse the implied claim that we are somehow demanding "special treatment" for Biblical cites, we may provide a variety of legitimate examples of this specific practice over a wide span of time and from a variety of sources:

  • Josephus Antiquities Book 1, Chapter 9. This chapter alone reveals two geographic anachronisms. Relating events of the time of Abraham, Josephus refers to it as a day "when the Assyrians had the dominion over Asia." The geographic term "Asia" was derived from the Greeks who called the east asu and was not used at the time of the Assyrians.

    In the same book, Josephus refers to the five kings battled by Abraham, who are said to have "laid waste all Syria." The name "Syria" was also a Greek import, first used by Herodotus in the 5th century BC, long after the time of Abraham. Would a skeptic complain to Josephus that the kings couldn't lay waste to a land that didn't yet exist?

  • The Samaritan Pentateuch. From a commentary by Lightfoot, who states:
    Sometimes there are names of a later date used, and such as were most familiarly known in those days. Such are Banias for Dan, Genesis 14:14, that is, Panias, the spring of Jordan: Gennesar for Chinnereth, Numbers 34:11; Deuteronomy 3:17: not to mention Bathnan and Apamia for Bashan and Shepham, which are so near akin with the Syriac pronunciation: and Gebalah, or Gablah, for Seir, according to the Arabic idiom.
  • An article from Biblical Archaeological Review about the recovery of the oldest "book," a 14th century BC wooden folding tablet has a relevant tidbit. Note how this "anachronism" in Homer was handled up until the discovery of this book:
    It was George Bass who first made the connection between the Uluburun diptych and the reference to a "folding tablet" made by Homer. In Book VI, line 169 of the Iliad, we learn that Bellerophon carried a "folding tablet" containing "baneful signs" to Lycia. This is the only reference to writing in Homer and, until the Uluburun discovery, scholars regarded this reference to a "folding tablet" as an anachronism, added to the text at a late date.

    The scholars who thought this would clearly have assumed that prior to the insertion, there was some other word for an archaic type of writing receptacle in this place. Note as well that they did not go "late-dating" all of Homer because of this single word, but assumed that the word by itself was the work of a redactor.

    Critics who quote Thomas Paine's dictum in this regard ("New York used to be called New Amsterdam until 1664. So if we read an undated story that refers to New York as New York, we know it was written after 1664.") are only verifying that it does not pay to consult unauthoritative sources unfamiliar with the principles of historical-textual study.

  • R. A. Stewart MacAlister, in The Philistines: Their History and Civilization [37], explains an anachronistoic reference to the king of Ashkelon as a raider of Sidon -- as recorded by Justin from another work of history -- by suggesting that the original record referred to a "Zakkala" as the raider of Sidon. Thus he says, "Some later author or copyist was puzzled by the forgotten name, and 'emended' a rege Sacaloniorum to a rege Ascaloniorum."

    Those who refer to copyist-error explanations as a "gimmick" or "excuse" should pay heed to MacAlister's own admonition: "Stranger things have happened in the course of manuscript transmission."

  • MacAlister also notes [88] that a passage in the OT refers to a Philistine "king" (1 Samuel 27:2) although the Philistines actually had a set of military lords rather than kings (other than perhaps Abimelech in Genesis 21, 26).

    MacAlister doesn't think this is an anachronistic error, but rather, the OT writers "are obviously merely offering a Hebrew word or periphrasis as a translation of the native Philistine title." And he adds: "The same is true of analogous expressions in the Assyrian tablets." This sort of thing was normal praxis for the ancients.

    The next few entries are given courtesy of a classical scholar I consulted.

  • "The first great Greek writer to deal in depth with the East was Herodotus. He consistently uses Greek measurements such as 'talents' and 'stades' to tender weights, currency, distances etc which would not have been so measured by the people of the places concerned - and he does this even when supposedly translating inscriptions made by the people in question. Numerous references could be given, including: 1.14, 1.50, 1.183, 2.125, 2.149."
  • "Personal names are also regularly rendered into Latinized or Hellenicized forms. The most famous example of this is the rendition of a Germanic chief called something like 'Hermann' as 'Arminius' in Tacitus' Annals."
  • "This happens to place-names, too. The most famous example: in Homer, 'Hellas' notoriously refers only to a small area of northern Greece (a fact obvious to anyone who reads Homer - that the ancients were aware of this is also proved beyond doubt by the early chapters of Thucydides 1, which alludes to this), but in later literature it refers to the whole of Greece, even in literary texts which specifically treat of Homeric/heroic times (such as Attic tragedy)."

If changes or anachronisms like this were made, then it's still an error in the text.

As "error" is defined as something that is incorrect or false. However, intentional anachronisms such as these are not incorrect or false, because when they are done, they are implicitly accompanied by the understanding of the author/scribe, transferred to the reader, that the change is being made for a reason -- and the "explanation" for the change comes inextricably attached to the anachronism.

A modern writer who refers to the Romans crossing the "English Channel" (which the Romans called the Litus Saxonicum) into "Great Britain" (Brittania) writes to their reader with the implicit knowledge that both geographical terms are anachronisms from the perspective of his writing subjects. A modern writer who says that Alexander the Great "weighed 165 pounds" or notes that Roman wine jars held "7 gallons" isn't considered in error because he uses modern units of measurement.

There is a "semantic contract" between reader and writer to the effect that the anachronisms are purposeful -- and no one could reasonably regard such instances as "errors".

In closing, a note should be made of a charge from an issue of a Skeptical publication: "If a history of the Civil War made references to aerial bombardments and said that Thomas Jefferson was the president at this time, these would be anachronisms, because airplanes didn't exist then and Jefferson was president 50 years earlier."

The comparison is inapt, because this does not involve elements which are contiguous through time (i.e., geographic locations and money), which is what the majority of alleged anachronisms constitute.

We will now provide brief answers for examples of the first two sorts of anachronisms. For the second sort, we must obviously show that the anachronism is an exception rather than a rule in a given book; for these purposes, the reader should consult any applicable articles concerning the dates of Bible books, under their names. For the third sort of "anachronism" we will link to larger articles as needed.

  1. The anachronism is intentional. These fall under the rubric of the "semantic contract" between reader and original writer.
    • 1 Chronicles 9:27 -- the daric. The Chronicler describes King David as collecting ten thousand darics for the construction of the temple in Jerusalem (1 Chron. 29:7). Critics note that the daric was named after king Darius of Persia, who lived over five hundred years after David. This is obviously no more an error than it would be for Herodotus. The daric, of course, would have been known to the writer of Chronicles in his time.
  2. The anachronism is a later scribal gloss. These involve a semantic contract between the reader and the transciptionist or preserver of the text.
    • Genesis 14:14. The city of Dan. This appears to be a geographical updating like those in the Samaritan Pentateuch. (cf. Judges 18:29, which says, "And they called the name of the city Dan, after the name of Dan their father, who was born unto Israel: howbeit the name of the city was Laish at the first." The switch in name was a known factor that editors and copyists would need to deal with.)
    • The king list of Gen. 36. Genesis has already started listing the kings of Edom; why should not later generations have finished the listing in this place as well?
    • 1 Sam. 9:9 -- the reference to "those days" when a seer was referred to.
  3. The "anachronism" is not an anachronism at all. These are simply places where critics are wrong in seeing an anachronism.
    • Genesis 26:1 -- the Philistines. Mentions of them before Judges are thought to be anachronistic.
  • For further detailed analysis, see also this item by Glenn Miller.