Faith vs. Science: did Abraham have camels?

The latest news in the Faith vs. Science debate is claim by researchers that the domesticated camel dates only to 900 BC

Fox News: Camel bones suggest error in Bible, archaeologists say
Camels are mentioned as pack animals in the biblical stories of Abraham, Joseph and Jacob, Old Testament stories that historians peg to between 2000 and 1500 BC. But Erez Ben-Yosef and Lidar Sapir-Hen of Tel Aviv University’s Department of Archaeology and Near Eastern Cultures say camels weren’t domesticated in Israel until centuries later, more like 900 BC.

The researchers reached their conclusions by examining the soil layers in archaeological digs. Each layer can be dated based on carbon dating and any artifacts found in the layer. The oldest layers they could find with bones from the domesticated camel were from about 900 AD. Fine. Believers should have no problem accepting the fact that this team found domesticated camel bones dating no earlier than 900 AD. Then the researchers draw two conclusion from that fact:

“In addition to challenging the Bible’s historicity, this anachronism is direct proof that the text was compiled well after the events it describes,” reads a press release announcing the research.

Several points are in order here.

First, Biblical scholars have long understood that many stories in the Bible were handed down verbally for many generations, before being written down. This research on camel bones does not offer a new insight on that point.

Second, the fact that they did not find domesticated camel bones does not imply that no such bones exist in older soil levels. Archaeologists as a groups have dug up a very small portion of the soil. As for the presence of wild camel bones in some older layers of soil, it is a logical certainty that, for some number of generations after wild camels were domesticated, their wild cousins still roamed in open areas. Humanity could not have domesticated all wild camels all at once. So the negative finding — no domesticated camel bones in older soil layers — does not justify the conclusion that no domesticated camels existed in prior centuries.

Third, civilization in Egypt, in the form of a unified kingdom, began about 3000 BC. Prior to that time, the peoples of that region were divided into communities with many various leaders. But these were not hunter-gatherers. They had an extensive agricultural system and they used domesticated animals, for food and as beasts of burden. Even the lushest areas of Egypt are not so far from the desert, and the entire country is hot and dry. It is reasonable to conclude that such a society would make use of camels to carry loads and to transport people.

Fourth, the Bible itself stands as evidence that camels were used in ancient times. When two sources of evidence conflict, there should not be an automatic assumption as to which is correct. The research on camel bones only offers negative evidence; the argument from silence is weak. By comparison, the Bible offers positive assertions on the subject.

Fifth, some other ancient texts also testify to the use of domesticated camels, including The Antiquities of the Jews by Flavius Josephus. Outside of Jewish society, The Rig Veda, an ancient India sacred text, also mentions domesticated camels. Hymn 46 of Mandala 8 describes domesticated horses (steeds), cows (kine), and camels.

“22. Steeds sixty thousand and ten thousand kine, and twenty hundred camels I obtained” [Wikisource]

Different portions of the text have been assigned different ages. The text was developed over a long period of time. But some portions of the hymns mentioning camels (Mandala 8) have been dated as among the oldest parts of the Rig Veda.

“It is one of the oldest extant texts in any Indo-European language. Philological and linguistic evidence indicate that the Rigveda was composed in the north-western region of the Indian subcontinent, roughly between 1700–1100 BC (the early Vedic period). There are strong linguistic and cultural similarities with the early Iranian Avesta, deriving from the Proto-Indo-Iranian times, often associated with the early Andronovo and Sintashta-Petrovka cultures of c. 2200 – 1600 BC.” [Wikipedia]

As for the date of Abraham’s life, biblical scholars do not agree on even a broad time frame. Some chronologists date his life as early as 2100 BC, and others as late as 1750 BC.

So, all things considered, it is quite a stretch to say that the Bible’s historical accuracy is challenged by the findings of researchers on camel bones.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

Noah’s Flood: Literal or Figurative?
available in print (paperback) and in Kindle format

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