Archaeology Find: Camels In 'Bible' Are Literary Anachronisms

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New research revealing when camels were domesticated by humans shows that many depictions of camels in scripture may be off by hundreds of years. Renee Montagne talks to Carol Meyers, a professor of religious studies at Duke University, about what such anachronisms tell us about the genesis of religious texts.


Camels as a means of transportation abound in the Old Testament. When Abraham sends a servant to look for a bride for his son Isaac, that servant chooses Rebecca. And why? Because of her kindness in offering to water the camels. That's just one of dozens of camel cameos in the Bible, mostly in the book of Genesis, but scholars have long suspected that those camel caravans are a literary anachronism. And now more evidence from two Israeli archaeologists. Their radio carbon technology dated the earliest known remains of domesticated camels. And yes, they came along after the time of Abraham. Carol Meyers is a professor of religious studies at Duke University, and she's been thinking about the meaning of camels in the biblical narratives.

CAROL MEYERS: It would be like someone owning a huge tractor trailer rig today - the interstate tractor. It's a very expensive item - camels - and very valuable for the economy of the ancient world. But they didn't become important for the economy of the biblical world until about the 10th century BCE.

MONTAGNE: So what are these findings giving more evidence for - that the camels, as depicted in the Old Testament, were actually not able to be there as they're depicted in the Old Testament?

MEYERS: Pretty much so. In other words, stories about Abraham having a lot of camels, figuring in the story of Rebecca at the well - those stories are purported to take place hundreds of years before the camel was around, was on the scene as a domesticated animal. The storyteller who's shaping those legends is using what information he knows, which is after the camels are domesticated. And if he wants to show that Abraham is a very important, wealthy figure, what better way than to say that he's got the most expensive vehicle available? It'd be like saying he has a fleet of Jaguars or something like that today. We know that Jaguars didn't exist 200 years ago. We have an idea of our history of technology, but somebody formulating the story in, say, the 7th or 6th century BCE, they wouldn't have known that camels didn't come on the scene until after the time when they thought Abraham and Rebecca and the others existed.

MONTAGNE: So from what you've said, it sounds like it's really good evidence for something that could be considered controversial, which is good evidence for the fact that the texts were written - or at least updated - long after the events they're describing happened.

MEYERS: You nailed it, yeah, absolutely. It's another piece of a very large set of data that leads us to understand that the kind of literature we have in the Bible is not history in the way that we think of the term history today.

MONTAGNE: And does it have any effect on the way we understand biblical text? Does it throw either new light or a shadow on the stories themselves?

MEYERS: I think it - I think it sheds new light, not a shadow. In other words, I think it alerts us to the fact that these stories have a very complex history of transmission and formulation. And it makes us think, well, what did the person who kind of collected this and put it in its final form, what was that person thinking? What was the message that that person was trying to get across by using all kinds of literary devices and including making Abraham out to be wealthy by giving him camels? It takes us away from asking is it factual and asking instead what does it mean.

MONTAGNE: Carol Meyers is a professor of religious studies at Duke University. Thank you for joining us.

MEYERS: A pleasure. Thank you.


MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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