UK Headlines Claim Study “Disproves” the Bible

A bit of silly season Biblical fare from some British newspapers:

Bronze Age DNA disproves the Bible’s claim that the Canaanites were wiped out: Study says their genes live on in modern-day Lebanese people (Mail Online)

Study disproves the Bible’s suggestion that the ancient Canaanites were wiped out (Daily Telegraph)*

Bible says Canaanites were wiped out by Israelites but scientists just found their descendants living in Lebanon (The Independent)

The Bible was WRONG: Civilisation God ordered to be KILLED still live and kicking (Daily Express)

(*since amended)

Such stories are rarer than “X Proves the Bible” articles (such as recent coverage of the Schøyen Collection’s supposed “Tower of Babel” stele, as blogged here), but they are the flip-side of the same thing – the purpose is sensationalism rather than understanding, and a connection to the Hebrew Bible is allowed eclipse broader issues in the study of the Neolithic and Bronze Age Near East. The British newspapers appear to have picked up the story from reports in the US, although the American articles managed to avoid the crass “village atheist” tone adopted in the British headlines.

The reports all refer to an academic paper entitled “Continuity and Admixture in the Last Five Millennia of Levantine History from Ancient Canaanite and Present-Day Lebanese Genome Sequences“, recently published on open access by the The American Journal of Human Genetics. The article has 16 authors, led by Marc Haber (who has become “Marc Harber” in the Mail). The Bible is mentioned briefly twice:

…most of [the Canaanites’] history known today has been reconstructed from ancient Egyptian and Greek records, the Hebrew Bible, and archaeological excavations… Uncertainties also surround the fate of the Canaanites: the Bible reports the destruction of the Canaanite cities and the annihilation of its people; if true, the Canaanites could not have directly contributed genetically to present-day populations. However, no archaeological evidence has so far been found to support widespread destruction of Canaanite cities between the Bronze and Iron Ages: cities on the Levant coast such as Sidon and Tyre show continuity of occupation until the present day.

The findings suggest that

 …people from the highly differentiated urban culture on the Levant coast and inland people with different modes of subsistence were nevertheless genetically similar, supporting previous reports that the different cultural groups who inhabited the Levant during the Bronze Age, such as the Ammonites, Moabites, Israelites, and Phoenicians, each achieved their own cultural identities but all shared a common genetic and ethnic root with Canaanites.

The paper thus supports previous research about how ancient populations in the Near East – including the Israelites – were closely related, and it notes that archaeology has already identified a problem with the Biblical accounts of the destruction of Canaanite cities.

Where the authors erred was in their interpretation of “annihilation”. Presumably, this has come from Deuteronomy 20:

…in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the Lord your God has commanded you. Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the Lord your God.

However, this is presented as an ideal instruction rather than an account of what actually happened. The concept does not preclude Canaanites surviving in territory beyond the Israelites’ control, and despite the “do not leave alive anything that breathes” command, one can imagine women and children being taken as booty rather than killed, and conflicts ending with negotiated settlements rather than fights to the death.

But this is all beside the point anyway: Deuteronomy is a late work composed for ideological reasons in the seventh century BCE, whereas earlier parts of the Bible refer to Canaanites living among the Israelites, albeit in a subordinate position. Why refer to “annihilation” while ignoring these texts, which actually support the authors’ finding of genetic continuity? The problem for Biblical literalists is the continuing existence of the Canaanite cities – not Canaanite DNA in modern populations.

Religious websites have expressed irritation with the UK reports – here’s the Christian Institute:

Media challenged over “fake news” stories claiming Bible is untrue

… A spokesman for The Christian Institute said: “These reports prove nothing except the biblical illiteracy of UK journalists and American academics.

“The Bible does not claim that the Israelites wiped out the Canaanites entirely. In fact, the Canaanites lived among the Israelite people for generations after the initial conquest of the Promised Land.

“It is disappointing that media outlets as well established as The Telegraph, The Independent and the Mail Online would publish such blatant fake news.

“Instead of this, the media should be reporting how time and time again history and science demonstrate the reliability of God’s Word.”

The Bible is probably always going to be the hook by which journalists seek to interest readers in stories that shed new light on the ancient Near East, but making everything about whether the Bible has been “disproved” (as suggested by the newspaper headlines above) or proven reliable is to put things round the wrong way. There are archaeologists who are motivated by a wish to “prove” the Bible (mostly American evangelicals or Israeli nationalists), but this an outdated approach. (1) Instead, it is more sensible to see the Bible as one source among many that – if used critically – can help us to interpret and understand other evidence that comes to light.


(1) There are also of course outright pseudo-archaeologists, such as the late Vendyl Jones.