The New York Times of Saturday, March 9 reports that archaeologists digging in Israel over the last 25 years have found almost no physical evidence to back up the stories in the Old Testament. Abraham, the Jewish patriarch, probably never existed, and neither did Moses. The entire Exodus story as recounted in the Bible probably never happened. The same is true of the tumbling of the walls of Jericho. And David, far from being the fearless king who built Jerusalem into a mighty capital, was more likely a provincial leader whose reputation was later magnified to provide a rallying point for a fledgling nation.

These new theories have gained wide acceptance among non-Orthodox rabbis, but they have not attempted to inform their congregations about this until now. The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, representing the 1.5 million Conservative Jews in the U.S., has just issued a new Torah and commentary, the first in more than 60 years. Called ?Etz Hayim? (?Tree of Life? in Hebrew), compiled by David Lieber of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. It tells about the latest findings from archaeology, philology, anthropology and the study of ancient cultures, in an effort to introduce a view of the Bible as a human rather than divine document.

?Etz Hayim? contains the standard Hebrew text, a parallel English translation (edited by Chaim Potok, best known as the author of ?The Chosen?), a page-by-page explanation of the text, along with commentaries on Jewish practice and 41 essays by prominent rabbis and scholars on controversial historical topics.

These essays will surprise and shock many readers. For instance, an essay on ?Ancient Near Eastern Mythology,? by Robert Wexler, president of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, says it?s unlikely that the story of Genesis originated in Palestine. It?s more likely it arose in Mesopotamia, and this is most apparent in the story of the Flood, which probably grew out of the periodic overflowing of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in that area. The story of Noah was probably borrowed from the Mesopotamian epic of Gilgamesh.

In the essay ?Biblical Archaeology,? Lee I. Levine, a professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, says, ?There is no reference in Egyptian sources to Israel?s sojourn in that country, and the evidence that does exist is negligible and indirect.? The few indirect pieces of evidence, like the use of Egyptian names, he says, ?are far from adequate to corroborate the historicity of the biblical account.?

Levine also finds little evidence for the conquest and settlement of Canaan, the ancient name for the area including Israel. Excavations showing that Jericho was unwalled and uninhabited, he says, which ?clearly seems to contradict the violent and complete conquest portrayed in the Book of Joshua.? Also, there is an ?almost total absence of archaeological evidence? backing up the Bible?s grand descriptions of the Jerusalem of David and Solomon.

The notion that the Bible is not literally true ?is more or less settled and understood among most Conservative rabbis,? says David Wolpe, a rabbi at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and a contributor to ?Etz Hayim.? But some people, ?may not like the stark airing of it.? Wolpe says that ?virtually every modern archaeologist? agrees ?that the way the Bible describes the Exodus is not the way that it happened, if it happened at all.? He says archaeologists digging in the Sinai have ?found no trace of the tribes of Israel ? not one shard of pottery.?

In 1981, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the official arm of Reform Judaism, published a Torah commentary edited by Rabbi Gunther Plaut, that talked about the growing body of archaeological and textual evidence that called the accuracy of the biblical account into question. It stated that the stories of Genesis were a mix of ?myth, legend, distant memory and search for origins, bound together by the strands of a central theological concept.? But it still insisted that Exodus belonged in ?the realm of history.? Twenty years later, the weight of scholarly evidence questioning the Exodus narrative has become so great that the majority of scholars feel it?s a legend. However, Orthodox Jews continue to regard the Torah as the literal word of God.

Since the fall, when ?Etz Hayim? was issued, more than 100,000 copies have been sold. ?When I grew up in Brooklyn, congregants were not sophisticated about anything,? says Rabbi Harold Kushner, the author of ?When Bad Things Happen to Good People? and a co-editor of the new book. ?Today, they are very sophisticated and well read about psychology, literature and history, but they are locked in a childish version of the Bible.?

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