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This item ran in The Textbook Letter for March-April 2000,
accompanying an article that described how textbook-writers
promote religious stories as "history." The article accorded
particular attention to Making Thirteen Colonies, written
by Joy Hakim. Making Thirteen Colonies is the second volume
in A History of US, a series of American-history books issued
by Oxford University Press. Oxford promotes these books for
use in public schools.

It's About Time

Earl Hautala

In Making Thirteen Colonies, Joy Hakim devotes a long passage to promoting her personal religious beliefs in the guise of "history." Much of the passage consists of notions that she has derived from myths which appear in the first book of the Torah -- the Book of Genesis -- and which involve a patriarch who first is called Abram but later is called Abraham. Hakim depicts Abram-Abraham as a real person, she presents stories about him as if the stories were matters of historical fact, and she even claims that he lived in the Sumerian city of Ur "almost 4,000 years ago." This claim is reinforced by a photograph (on page 9 of Making Thirteen Colonies) which shows a piece of sculpture: The caption under the photo says, "Carved 4,000 years ago, this is the portrait of a man who ruled in Sumer around the time Abraham lived."

Hakim's belief that Abram-Abraham lived "almost 4,000 years ago" is not supported by biblical texts. It is an extrabiblical invention. We don't know why Hakim picked the number 4,000, but we can say this: Even if Abram-Abraham had really existed, the adventures ascribed to him in Genesis could not have taken place four thousand years ago. In Genesis, at least two stories about Abram-Abraham mention domesticated camels -- but historical evidence indicates that domesticated camels did not appear in the Middle East until the 11th century BC (i.e., about three thousand years ago) [see note 1, below]. Hakim's invention is an anachronism.

Hakim later characterizes Ur as a place where "people had learned to read and write" -- as if, 4,000 years ago, writing were something new. This is another anachronism. Writing began to evolve in Sumer circa 3500 BC (as a device for keeping track of goods moving in commerce), and a well developed system of writing was in use at least 5,000 years ago [note 2].

While we are considering anachronisms, we can note that the Torah itself contains anachronisms, and that some of these have been helpful to biblical scholars. For example: In the first verses that mention Abram-Abraham (Genesis 11:27-31), the city of Ur is not simply called "Ur" -- it is called "Ur of the Chaldeans" [note 3]. That name is an anachronism. Though other stories in Genesis depict Abram-Abraham as a figure of great antiquity, there was no "Ur of the Chaldeans" until the 7th century BC. That was when the Chaldeans completed their conquest of southern Mesopotamia, Ur included. Scholars value the "Ur of the Chaldeans" anachronism because it shows that Genesis wasn't composed until some time after the Chaldean conquest. In other words: The writers of Genesis knew Ur as a Chaldean city, so we know that Genesis is no more than 27 centuries old.

Notes

  1. See the second edition of Werner Keller's The Bible as History, especially pages 172 and 173. The second edition was published in 1980 by William Morrow (New York City). [return to text]

  2. This history has been summarized in several recent publications. One that will be especially useful to the general reader is How Writing Came About, by Denise Schmandt-Besserat, issued in 1996 by the University of Texas press. [return to text]

  3. In the King James Version, "Ur of the Chaldees." [return to text]


Earl Hautala is a chemist, now retired. As a research scientist with the United States Department of Agriculture, he specialized in the chemistry of plants and in the development of analytical methods. He is interested in library information systems, and he serves as The Textbook League's manager of research.

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