Archaeology and the early Old Testament

writings of and commentary inspired by Charles Pellegrino

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Part I : Introduction and "From Creation to a Watery Grave"

While my background does lie in the sciences I do have an interest in religion and archaeology (as evident by the contents of my web page). When I come across a book which combines both of these interests, written by a scientist, my interest is naturally aroused. The book in question is Return to Sodom and Gomorrah by Charles Pellegrino. I typed up a summary of the book for some interested friends and rather than waste all that effort I'll stick it in here. Before I get into the summary I should emphasise that while there is much in the book that is reasonable (IMO) and well worked out, I don't necessesarily agree with all of his conclusions. After all, as with everything religious and much of history, it is just one person's interpretation of what may have happened. It's not The Truth, rather just a possible theory (hopefully that will blunt the flames of any biblical literalists). Finally, as with all good books, it raises more questions than it answers. If what I have here whets your interest, please go and get the book! It's only a few years old so you should have little trouble finding it.

With apologies to Pellegrino, I have interspersed with material and conclusions from the book along with information I've found elsewhere and comments of my own. Thus not all the possibly false claims are his. Oh, and copyrite remains with the original author (Pellegrino).

My introduction and background

The author is a professional archaeologist, but has a background also in astronomy, geology, paleontology and rocket proplsion amongst other things. The list of people who helped with the book is VERY extensive and includes scientists, writers, historians, archaeologists, theologians (from RC and protestant and Jewish and muslim). Perhaps most importantly, he is an agnostic, but one who refuses to rule out the existence of God as there is "no proof" to do so. This is important as he does not have a hidden agenda to prove or disprove the existence of God or the accuracy of the Bible.

As the writer says, the book is an examination of the bible "legends" and an attempt to show that some of the more "fantasic" events were actually based on historical events by the use of archaeology. In reply to creationists and the like who maintain the universe is 6000 years old and that anything older that that isn't "real", he says "I can't really prove that the universe was not created 6000 years ago ... but under these same guidelines I cannot prove that it [was not created] 6 seconds ago." Never quite heard it put that way. Interesting.

What he doesn't say, but does is show that the OT, up to Abraham (or even Moses) is NOT the record of the Jewish race, but rather it's the record of people who lived in the Tigrus-Euphrates River system, abiet brought down as an oral history by the race who became the Jews. Thus everything before Abraham happened in what is now Iraq ... be it the creation record, Adam and Eve, Noah and the flood and so forth ... and is more correctly called "Sumerian" or pre- Sumerian history (or legend) and NOT Jewish. It's actually something that the bible makes quite clear, but you never hear mentioned in christian circles, that Noah and Abraham were, what is broadly called, "Babylonians". So, one should be looking to Sumerian histories and records and archaeological evidence from that region to ascertain the historical accuracy of the 1st half of Genesis. And quite a lot is known of sumerian mythology and history (they were the people who invented writing, after all).


In his introduction Pellegrino covers a few points about creation and the universe and dating systems. Plus some other interesting trivia. Ever wondered where the 12 months of the year came from and the 7 days of the week? The Sumerians split the year up into 12 lunar months and the 7 days of the week were for each of the observable planets, sun and moon and the 7 "days" of creation - including one of rest. This kinda puts a dent in the idea that the bible is all "literally divinely inspired" as many claim ... I mean, if something as controversial and basic as the "7 days of creation" was actually borrowed, stolen, wotever from Sumerian mythology... In fact almost the whole biblical creation account can be thus attributed (Near Eastern Mythology, by John Grey, late prof. of Hebrew and Semitic languages) to Sumerian mythology (that's from their written records). Pellegrino doesn't go too much into the creation story, just to say that the OT version is preceeded by very similar, but much older, Sumerian versions, the oldest known written one being dated at 2500BC (and that was a recording of a much older oral record). The "Garden of Eden" is a Sumerian legend. At the time, the Earth was seen as a very small patch of land, a "C" shape stretching from Kuwait thru' Israel and down the Nile, a fertile land surrounded by seas, mountians or deserts (hence the name "fertile cresent"). Over this was a "vault" (tent), low enuf in Sumerian legend that it could be reached by a sufficiently high building (hence the tower of Babel). Actually, a literal interpretation of the bible indicates that the earth is flat and the stars and planets and sun and moon are merely objects embedded within a great "tent" sitting on top of the Earth. This is true of the NT too, which perhaps explains the long held belief in a flat earth by the church.


The ancient Sumerians varyingly put human origin at 500,000 to 60,000 years BC (that was in 2500BC or thereabouts). Curiously, 500,000 BC is about when they think primitive homo sapiens first appeared (Neanderthal Man), 200-300,000 when modern man first appeared and 60-100,000 when the modern man reached the Tigrus region. Whether this means the Sumerians were lucky guessers or wot, who knows.

Anyway, the ancient Jews weren't happy with this dating and around 500 BC during the Babylonian exile a new date of 3761BC was "discovered". More recently, christian tradition has variously put the beginning (based on refinements of the Jewish date) at 9am, 17th Sept. 3928 bc (that was in 1642), and then, in 1658 some archbishop put it at 23rd Oct 4004 BC - the "now traditional" date.

Using two historically and archaeologically verified dates Pellegrino has re-estimated the traditional dating system, using the same system that was used in 1642 and 1658. The two exceptions he uses are a major flood during 2800 BC that covered the whole Tigrus-Euph. river basin, presumably covering all human settlements (during which Sumerian legend says a man was commanded to build an ark by his god and stuff it with animals) and the volcanic explosion of the Agean island Thera in 1628 BC, which left ash layers and historical records. [Yes, I know both of these events are archaeological "hot potatoes" and that, for instance, many believe Thera exploded more recently than 1628 BC.] He comes up with the following dating system (which, to me, shows the glaring errors of the traditional system). Biblical and some non-biblical items are included.

4456 BC      : Creation (in october)
4456-4436 BC : Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden
4300-4200 BC : 8 generations after this war "invented"
3526 BC      : Adam dies (930 yo)
3400 BC      : Noah born
3300 BC      : "The Iceman" dies in the Swis Alps, discovered 1980's.
2800 BC      : Massive floods in Tigrus-Euphrates plain. Noah 600 yo.
2800-2700 BC : Shem's descendents "occupy" Tigrus-Eup. and Arabia to
	        become the semites (arabs and Jews).
2507 BC      : Abraham born (2166 in traditional chrono)
2450 BC      : Noah dies (950 yo)
2300 BC      : Sodom destroyed (biblical)
1950-1925 BC : Hammurabi creates early version of "Moses' laws"
1895 BC      : City of Mashkan-shapir destroyed in fire (historical
1872-1800 BC : Semite peoples (hyksos) enter egypt and sieze control
	        (Jacob and tribe tradition came to Egypt in 1876)
1720 BC      : Egyptians regain control and oppress semites
1628 BC      : Thera explodes, Egyptian records mention plagues and the
	        exodus of the Semites (Jews and others; tradit. 1446)
        	Refugees from Minoa settle in Canaan (Philistines).
1450 BC      : Jericho destroyed (Joshua; tradit. c. 1400 BC).

The interesting date is the flood, if one takes the revised biblical dates as literal (and ages) then some of Noah's ancestors were still alive at the time of the flood. Tracing back the dates in the bible (using 2800 BC as the flood), we know Noah was 600 at the flood, he was born to Lamech at 182 yo, who lived another 572 yrs, Lamech was born to Methuselah at 187, who lived another 782 years. Thus we get:

3769 BC : Methusela born to Enoch
3582 BC : Lamech born to Methusela
3469 BC : Enoch "taken to heaven"
3400 BC : Noah born to Lamech
2828 BC : Lamech died.
2800 BC : Methusela dies
2800 BC : flood

So, according to the bible, it's probable that Methusela died in the flood. Yet, if this was the case you would expect the bible to have made mention of it! Else it's a coincidence or someone was careful editing the numbers. *grin*

The explaination for this is that the family "history" as recorded in Genesis is telescoped, that is, assuming that the names mentioned actually existed then instead of Lamech being born to Methusela, there were an unknown number of (normal length) generations between them. There is precedent for this .. it happens quite frequently with oral records elsewhere (and this was an oral record for a long time, at least until c.1620 BC, more than 1000 years after Noah). It's also evident elsewhere in the bible .. the different family trees of Jesus in the gospels, showing that they are missing some unknown fraction of the generations between adam and Jesus.

The moral here is that, even taking the dates etc in the bible and using no other evidence, it can be shown that the chronology so devised and so favoured by creationists is inaccurate (ie biblically inconsistent), let alone archaeologically. Mind you, he's not saying the above chronology is right, merely that if one takes a literal view of the OT record and combine it with two verified dates, then that is what you get (the early OT doesn't give any absolute dates for noah etc, just relative ones, so a reference point is needed).

So, this is the first shock, so to speak. Not only can the early part of genesis NOT be a literal record of events, but it may be nothing more than borrowed mythology (ie: fiction loosely based on fact, aka Hollywood style). Good bye Adam and Eve, goodbye Noah ... And where does that leave the idea of the original temptation and sin? Was that real, or was even that figurative? I don't know.

Evolution of land and humans

Pellegrino then goes on for two sections about each of the above topics. Not strictly relevant to this thread, so I'll leave them out .. but for mention of one thing.

He says that the reason human legend is so full of dragons is that it's a genetic memory back to the time when human ancestors were small furry things scurring amongst the feet of dinosaurs and later, and where their most dangerous foe was the snake, some with legs back then. The furry things that had an instinct for fearing snakes survived, those that didn't, well, they just got et. When the dino's mostly died out the snakes and furry critters over-ran the world and kept up their running battle until one not-so-furry critter realised thumping a snake on the head with a rock is a safe way of killing it. Of course genetic memory in humans is not very reliable so they came to mix the "genetic fear" with dragons, "giant snakes".

As a dragon fan I just could not resist adding that bit. I guess it's just as plausable as any other theory on that topic. As for what the dragons think, well that's another matter. *grin*


When was the bible written? Tradition has it that Moses wrote the first few books (1620-1420 BC). True or not? Phonetic writing (as in an alphabet ... abcdefg ....) appears to have been invented by the Canaanites. The oldest sample dates to 1650 BC and the alphabet (22 letters) probably is several 100 years older. Around 1000 BC, give or take a century, this alphabet became the Phonecian and Hebrew alphabets (as distinct from language, which was older. The Jewish language was apparently borrowed/stolen from the Canaanites around the time "Abraham" first settled there) and the Jewish oral record was written down, starting around 950-750BC - the oldest sample is c.750 BC and reaching it's final form in 550BC during the Babylonian captivity. By this time it's impossible that the original "Jewish" oral tales (of, say Moses and before, that's 600 plus years prior) had remained pure, since "Israel" was on the crossroad between Egypt and "Babylon". Many of the "tales" in the early OT mirror those told in each of those other two areas from the years since Abraham (2300 BC). In addition to the trade of goods, no doubt stories were exchanged as well.

Cain and Abel? That may be nothing more than just a reflection of the very ancient distrust and hatred that existed between "Cain" - the settled farmers and the wandering nomads with their flocks ("Abel"). The farmers viewed the nomads as barbarians and uncivilised and the nomads saw the farmers as opressors ... hence Cain and Abel? If nothing else, what sets the early part of the OT apart from any other record is that is was the only major written record by the wandering nomads. Hence the bad rap famers get in the early OT. Incidently, God put a mark on Cain so that other people might not also kill him, but the other children of Adam would have needed no warning, so that implies that there were people around who were NOT of Adam's line. As if there wasn't already enough evidence for that.

Flood and Ruin

Dig practically anywhere in the Tigrus-Eupr. plains and you will find ruins built on ruins built on ruins .. going back to 2800 BC. At that level, instead of more ruins, one finds clay, 12 feet of it or more in places. Clay so widespread that it came from a flood (or more likely series) so large that the whole "world" of the Tig-Euph rivers would have been covered from "horizon to horizon" (it's VERY flat land). Only a few natural outcrops seem to have escaped above the flood. And below that 2800 BC layer? The ruins of an entire civilisation that came to an end at that time. When it was said "the whole world flooded", that was no doubt the same exageration that lead to claim that "Alexander the Great conquered the whole world", when he only took 4% of the earth's land surface. There were many floods, but the 2800 BC flood was the "daddy of the all", flooding over 100,000 sq km of land. [Note to any archaeologists, yes, I know this is another debatable topic, but I don't know enought to agree or disagree with the theory.]

The "Chaldean flood tablets" record the legend of Ut-Napishtim who survived a "universal" flood sent by the gods to punish mankind for it's evil. He was commanded by his god, Ea, to build an ark and load it with animals. He even sent forth a dove to find dry land once his ark had run aground. The legend dates beyond 2000 BC. The germ of truth in all the legends may be the few isolated hill tops that survived the floods, where people and their animals sought sanctuary, looking around and seeing a vast sheet of water stretching to the horizons. Ea was the Sumerian god of water and wisdom ... so unless one is to assume the ultra liberals are right and all gods are the same ... then Ut-Napishtim's god (if the guy existed in the first place) was not the biblical God, and since that guy was Noah ... Where does that leave the Noah tale and God's covenant with him?


Comments on Part I

I should point out, as the author did, that while the archaeological evidence may be fact, any interpretation, conclusions etc that are drawn are just that, interpretations. He doesn't claim that his theories are right, just that they are a logical conclusion from the evidence that he has seen.

And while I may balk at some of his conclusions and opinions (what I am presenting here is only a fraction of the book), others I cannot dismiss since they are so suggestive from the evidence - and it's those that I've mentioned here. Still, the conclusion that one draws from all of this is that the connection between the early OT and reality as it happened appears to be no more than that between real life and a hollywood movie "based on real events". Pellegrino even suggests that the whole "Noah" story was merely just the first "best seller" work of fiction, loosely based on the known fact that there were big floods happening ... sorta like MASH, the tv series. The Korean war happened, but not the particular details or people as seen in the series.

As a historical document, everything that is mentioned in the bible before it was first written down (c.900 BC) has to be viewed sceptically - not disbelieved, but rather coming with the caveat that it "may" contain exagerations, "contamination" from other cultures and religions, fictionalisation of true events (eg: his idea with Noah - there was a flood but no "Noah") and so forth.

As I said at the beginning, it throws up more questions than answers.

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