Historiography is the topic of debate for most historians who work in the field today. Historiography is the writing of history by individuals using beliefs, experiences and biases to emphasize their own belief system. For undergraduates and graduate students in the field the true task is to decipher why certain facts are emphasized and some downplayed. One can look at the Bible and ask the same questions.
We must agree that Judaism is the undeniable precursor to Christianity, so one must trace the history of the faith back to the very foundations of Judaism: the Exodus from Egypt and the settling of Canaan. The Exodus itself brings up many points that historians have discussed to show how unimpressive the development of Judaism truly is in the grand scheme of world history. The polytheistic people who wandered into the area of Canaan, the slave from Egypt, wiped out the people who were in the immediate area with devastating force and absorbed beliefs from the people who were fortunate enough not to be destroyed by these newcomers to the land. The freed Egyptian slaves, who were still very much polytheistic until a few hundred years after the Exodus soon began to worship only one god, who was a local god in one of the many regions that these new Israelites controlled. This god was Yahweh. Why did this local deity rise to prominence? The answer can come from any number of historical references.
Any person vaguely familiar with any number of different societies through world history can look to power gained by using the “Mandate from Heaven.” This is an idea that many Chinese, African, European and even Middle Eastern emperors used to keep the mindless rabble of commoners in check. The fear of the king is mirrored in the adherence of the people to the ruler’s religious system. The region of Canaan is no way an exception to this phenomenon. Around 1100 BCE, before the rule of Saul, a local and historically unnamed ruler brought the many different regions of Israel under his shaky yet influential command. The prophets of his region had been calling for the prominence of Yahweh and when he took control over the area he used the belief and fear of Yahweh to bring the people of the region under his control. The rest, as they say, is history. After the settling of this area and the primary expansion by local rulers, Biblical kings like David led the way for militaristic rule.
The large armies of the Biblical David wiped out the surrounding regions spreading David’s sphere of influence. The historians and spiritual leaders under his command constructed the earliest forms of the Torah and, in turn, a more streamlined state religion. So what if another local ruler would have taken up arms and forced his local religion on the surround areas? Would that religion have gained prominence on a local and eventually world scale? No one with an appreciation for history could accurately answer that question. The only thing that made that local precursor to Judaism more prominent than the other local religions that escaped from Egypt is the possibility of economic expansion which every nation or city-state throughout history has lusted after.
This goes back to the Bible. The people who put the Bible together strongly imply, if not explicitly say that the one god of these Egyptian slaves was Yahweh from the moment they left the harsh Egyptian rule, if not before. However, historical records show that the people who entered the region and then controlled the majority of the area in a shattered regional rule were polytheistic with a major god in each major town or city. These local gods shared stark resemblances to the local gods of the Egyptians and of the Canaanites. Both of these ethnic groups held these belies for hundreds, if not thousands of years before Israelite influence. Many historians argue that Yahweh is just a reimagining of one of the gods that the Canaanites or Egyptians worshipped. The ruling class and the Israelites just adopted them for their own needs.
The particular need was military expansion of empirical rule in which these new Israelites soon excelled. After the region was brought under tentative control the line of Biblical kings (Saul, David, Solomon), they expanded the sphere of influence to incorporate more area and people for the ruling class to tax and, in turn, accumulate wealth. When they controlled a large enough expanse of land, a large number of people soon adhered to the kingdom’s national religion. This religion than evolved over time and the ‘chosen people’ propaganda that was found in the Torah exacerbated the religious devotion of the people. Judaism is a religion that was used to dominate and control an empire, not to offer salvation from an unjust world. If the secular history of Judaism points to a polytheistic past that was only converted to monotheism to gain prominence through military success, then the foundations of Christianity stand on shaky ground, making it at least debatable that it is the right path for humans. Why do Christians point to the peace that Christianity offers when their own roots are covered in the blood spilled by rulers who were seeking taxes and wealthy expanses of land? The historical facts put the primacy of Judaism, moral or otherwise, in doubt. If Judaism is the precursor to Christianity, than Christianity is equally in doubt.
“Israel and Judah.” In Tignor, Robert, et al. Worlds Together, Worlds Apart: A
History of the World, 2nd ed., p. 164. New York: W.W. Norton, 2008