History of Ancient Israel
- H. G. M. WilliamsonH. G. M. WilliamsonUniversity of Oxford
The history of ancient Israel is best known to most people from the narratives in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. There, however, the name “Israel” covers a wide diversity of social and political entities over the course of many centuries. The first attestation of the name outside the Bible (on the Egyptian stela of Merneptah, c. 1208 bce) seems to refer at most to some ill-defined tribal federation. It then served for at least two different monarchies and later again as a social or religious title for the people who inhabited the Achaemenid (Persian) province of Yehud. The value of the biblical written records varies considerably with regard to historical content, and this must further be evaluated on the basis of internal literary analysis and in the light of evidence that comes from archaeological research, including in particular from epigraphic sources both from Israel itself and from many near and more distant nations.
How to combine these differing forms of evidence has been the topic of lively and sometimes rancorous debate, which varies in its detail from one period to another, often depending on the extent to which external sources are immediately available. Solutions are not always available, but exploration into the nature of these problems and misunderstandings in the application of appropriate methods reveal where the problems lie and, in some cases, what are plausible solutions.
Until the 19th century, the history of ancient Israel was, for most people, coterminous with the familiar narrative of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible. No relevant external sources were known, and there was no reason to doubt its essential historical reliability, allowance made, of course, for those who could not accept the miraculous as historically factual.
Archaeological and epigraphical discoveries over the last two centuries or so, together with the introduction more recently of new and different historical methods, have led to aspects of this topic being fiercely contested in current scholarship. Taking a general familiarity with the outline “story” for granted, the following analysis will present some of the major topics on which new data have become available and on which opinion remains divided.