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No Camels; No Problem

In a fairly typical case of scholarly overreach, a news story has spread recently announcing that camels did not find their way into domesticated use in the Biblical lands until around 1000 BCE, while the Abraham narrative and other Genesis stories mentioning camels is supposedly set hundreds of years earlier.

New archeological evidence is throwing cold water on the biblical image of Abraham, Jacob and Joseph riding camels through the desert.

A team of Israeli archaeologists has studied the oldest-known camel bones from this ancient period and the results are in — camels reportedly started plodding around the eastern Mediterranean region centuries after the Bible tells us they did.

Later in that news article, a token defense of Bible is offered by the apparent go-to scholar on this topic, Duke’s Carol Meyers, who is also quoted in an NPR story on the same topic:

If the biblical writers are not interested in the facts, but rather in getting a message across, then people of faith can concentrate, instead of trying to verify every last item in the Bible, on what the overall message of the story is, not whether it is historically true.

Why do I call this story and its conclusions overreach? That’s easy. Archaeologists have found 3000-year-old camel bones that show evidence of being used as pack animals. So far, so good. They have carbon dated those camels to around 30 centuries ago. Fine. But then they conclude that, because they haven’t found any older evidence of domesticated camels, the ones they found are the earliest ones. And therefore, the Bible’s accounts of camels before 1,000 BCE are anachronistic.

No so fast, Bubba. These so-called scientists–and to be fair, I’m not sure who is taking the logical leap–are moving from “there is no evidence for camels before 1000 BCE” to “there weren’t any camels before 1000 BCE.” Are they suggesting that there simply could not be any remains out there still to be found? Even the story quoted here that repeats the leap notes that the archaeologists studied the “oldest known” bones, suggesting that there might be older, unknown bones still in the desert.

When science takes what it can and does know and then projects that knowledge to draw conclusions that it simply cannot know, it ceases to be science, something of which scientific thinkers are always quick to accuse religious thinkers. One wonders how Professor Meyers would change her response if much older camels were uncovered next year. My guess is that she would not change it at all, since the conclusion she drew reinforced her established view on the nature of scripture.

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