The Claim: The Patriarch Abraham is mythical.
“Those three religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, are often grouped together as the ‘Abrahamic’ religions, because all three trace back to the mythical patriarch Abraham, who is also revered as the founder of the Jewish people.”
Richard Dawkins, Outgrowing God, Chapter 1: So many Gods!
Have you ever had the privilege of visiting a world-renowned museum or a national archives anywhere on the globe? If you visited the Royal Archives in Rome, Italy, did you happen to see a glass display case with that famed red cape belonging to Little Red Riding Hood? Or, how about any of the brick remains from the home of the wisest of the three architects among those pigs in the National Archives of the UK? No? Okay, what about any relics belonging to centaurs or Cyclopes or maybe Poseidon’s Trident in the National Museum of Greece? No, again? Okay. One last question: Any ancient scrolls or cuneiform tablets depicting anything at all to support the actual existence of any of the Greek gods or mythical characters we have read and learned about while growing up? Same answer?
One ‘mythical’ figure, so-called by Dawkins, whose life and times have been documented, is the Biblical patriarch Abraham. Unlike the lack of evidence that we have for the reality of Red Riding Hood (or Poseidon, or the three little pigs), there is amble reliable evidence for his existence that reveals that Abraham is hardly a mythological invention.
It would be unreasonable to expect to find physical or extra-textual evidence to establish the existence of a single person who was, at the time, not particularly significant. Instead, the reality of Abraham’s existence would be affirmed through reliable, and often ancient, textual evidence - which is exactly what we have today.
Reliability of the Biblical Narratives
The Biblical narrative of Abraham’s life is the most detailed one about Abraham that we have on record. We have evidence to believe that the account of his life that is in our Bibles today is the same today as it was when it was first written down.
Preservation of Biblical Manuscripts
The accuracy of today’s Old Testament was confirmed in 1947 [with the discovery of the ‘Dead Sea Scrolls’]…The Scripture contained within these (mostly papyrus) manuscripts proved to be 1000 years older than any other extant manuscripts. When these scrolls were compared to our current manuscripts, scholars found a 99.5% agreement between the two with the .5% difference not at all compromising the meaning of the text.
Because of this incredible accuracy, this discovery shows that the Bible we have today is an accurate reflection of the original Greek, Hebrew and/or Aramaic source.
In this article on the validity of the Old Testament, Sheri Bell says that “the Bible is THE most vetted document in the history of the world.” She lists 7 sources (5 Hebrew and 2 non-Hebrew) to validate that claim:
The Masoretic Text was written sometime between the seventh and tenth centuries and is universally accepted by both Jews and Protestants alike to be the authentic Hebrew Bible. This text originates from well-preserved oral tradition and the best available manuscripts of the original Hebrew text.
The Dead Sea Scrolls is a collection of more than 800 religious documents, thought to be written between 150 B.C. and 70 A.D. on animal skin, papyrus, and copper, and discovered in Qumran in 1947. The scrolls contain parts of every book of the Hebrew Old Testament with the exception of the book of Ester.
The Samaritan Pentateuch is also known as the Samaritan Torah. It is a text of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible written in Samaritan script. It is worth noting that the paleo-Hebrew language used in the Samaritan Pentateuch is an older form than what appears in the Masoretic Bible.
The Nash Papyrus is a second century BCE fragment that contains the text of the Ten Commandments, as well as the Shema from Deuteronomy 6: Hear, O Israel. The LORD is our God; the LORD is one. This prayer, still recited today by Jews everywhere, is a declaration of faith in one God.
The Silver Amulets were found in 1979 by an Israeli archaeologist while on a dig of the Hinnom Valley. Contained inside the amulets was an ancient Hebrew text of Numbers 6:22-27, the priestly blessing from God given to Moses for the children of Israel.
The Septuagint is a Koine Greek version of the Hebrew canon. According to Ryan M. Reeves, one of the authors of KNOW How We Got Our Bibles , says “[The Septuagint] does not refer to a single text. Rather, it refers to a collection of Greek translations produced by numerous scribes over the course of a few hundred years and in all likelihood, composed in different locations”.
The Hexapla is a 6-columned comparison of the original Hebrew scriptures and the Greek Septuagint translation written by Origen sometime before 240 CE. Only fragments remain.
The Mari Tablets were found during a dig that took place between 1933 and 1938. The dig centered around the royal palace of King Zimri-Lim in the ancient city of Mari, located in Northern Mesopotamia, which is modern-day Tell al-Hariri in eastern Syria.
This excavation yielded over 15,000 Mari Tablets and letters that include such names as Abraham, Jacob-el and Benjamites. Though not referring to the Biblical people or tribe, they nevertheless show these names were known and used in this time. The Biblical account of the war between the five kings against the four kings from Genesis 14 was recorded. The tablets also give a very detailed account of the history, geography, legal, economic, political, religious, military and social landscape of that day that lines up with the Biblical accounts.
Another find was the Nuzi Tablets. These are ancient documents discovered, at the city by the same name in Iraq, which is known today as Al Ta’amim. The information recorded in these tablets and archives is consistent with the Patriarchs’ history and accurately reflect the socioeconomic practices and customs as recorded in Genesis.
The Ebla Tablets
The Ebla Tablets were discovered by Italian archeologist Paolo Matthiae and his team in 1974-75 in Ebla, Syria. They list both personal and location titles such as Ashdod, Sidon, Hazor, Lachish, Megiddo, Gaza Sinai, Ashtaroth, Joppa, Sodom and Gomorrah and others, revealing great congruency with the Biblical patriarchal accounts.
Transforming These Finds into Evidence for Abraham’s Existence
From these discoveries, we can determine three things:
1. The accounts we have today reflect what was originally written.
Because the Old Testament has been more accurately transmitted to us than any other writings of antiquity, with both sufficient and corroborating evidence to support the Biblical narrative, we have no reason to doubt the existence of Abraham or to be suspicious regarding the authenticity of the Biblical narrative.
2. The accounts themselves, due to their pervasive nature, are prima facie evidence for Abraham’s existence.
Given the preponderance of the literature and the consistency with which stories about Abraham are told, there is no reason to believe that he was ever regarded as a mythological figure or should be regarded as one today.
3. If compared with literature from the same period, Biblical accounts are accurate depictions of what life was like in that culture during the time they were written.
If anything, the Biblical records match remarkably well with what has been discovered about the times, culture and society in which Abraham lived.
Dawkins’s book does not respond to any of the three objections, each of which casts his claim that Abraham is a mythological invention into serious doubt. Indeed, if we consider the ample evidence for his existence, it’s clear that the most rational conclusion is that Abraham has always been and should continue to be regarded as a historical figure.