The Jewish tradition claims that the Torah recounts historical events dating back to the Middle Bronze Age and Late Bronze Age (20th – 13th century BCE). However, there is wide consensus among modern biblical scholars that the earliest texts of the Hebrew Scriptures could not have been written before the 10th century BCE (with many scholars suggesting the 8th century BCE or later as the earliest date).
By revealing trends in the adoption rate of theophoric names with regards to their purported redaction timeline, this onomastic study suggests that there may be more to the Jewish historical claims than anticipated.
When reading the KJV Bible, one is immersed in literary English of the 17th century CE. The classic syntax and vocabulary are highly distinctive of the period. On the one hand, it offers a unique and palatable experience, but on the other, it makes it virtually impossible to detect and date the many Hebrew, Aramaic, and Koine Greek sources it originated from. This said, one thing likely did not change much since the core form of the Hebrew Scriptures: personal names. There are well known exceptions, but whether these stories were initially written or passed down orally, it is probably fair to assume that their onomastic dataset has remained, for the most part, largely unchanged since they first formed
Among personal names, we find theophoric names. These are names containing a deity as prefix or suffix. Three major deities were worshipped during the Middle and Late Bronze Age as well as Iron Age in Ancient Israel: El (אל), Ba׳al (בעל), and Yahweh (יהוה). For instance, the name Daniel (דניאל) means “El is my judge”, Emmanuel (עמנואל) means “El is with us”, Zechariah (זכריה) means “Yah remembers” (the particle “yah” (יה) is a diminutive for Yahweh)
Many onomastic studies have looked at specific theophoric names and their use in history to try and date texts. Instead of focusing on any particular name, this study looks at the overall trends in the adoption of theophoric names across the Hebrew Scriptures Historical Books (HSHB).
A Numbers Game
Thirty-four books of the Hebrew Scriptures refer to events that can be situated in time. These are the books considered for this study. Together, they include nearly thirty thousand references to personal names. Among those references, approximately two thousand unique names have been identified, of which approximately three hundred and seventy-five can be classified as theophoric.
As there is a lack of consensus around the classification of some personal names being theophoric or not, this study focuses on bulk adoption rate of these names over time, rather than detailed analysis of individual names. The sample size is deemed large enough to compensate for the occasional mischaracterizations and for the overall trends to remain unaffected.
Here are some potential issues that were taken into consideration:
- A simple occurrence count could distort data based on popularity. Some names were more popular than others over various period. To eliminate any popularity bias, this study only looks at the first occurrence of each name.
- As some books cover much longer period of history than others (and given it is not practical to identify when each individual chapter could have been written), the study assumes an even distribution of first occurrences of names found in a given book.
- To compensate for periods with many books/names vs. periods which may only include a few books/names, the total number of first occurrences is normalized so all periods be reported in %.
Here is a breakdown of the dataset used in this study:
- Two purported redaction timelines for the HSHB: One according to Jewish historical claims and one according to modern scholarship.
- Thirty-four HSHB – 5 Torah, 12 historical books, 5 major prophets and 12 minor prophets (poetry and wisdom excluded)
- 29,493 occurrences of personal names
- 2,007 (7%) unique names
- 378 (19%) unique theophoric names
- 174 (46%) names related to “el” (include “el” prefix or suffix)
- 176 (47%) names related to “yah” (include “jo” or “je” prefix or “iah” suffix)
- 28 (7%) names related to “baal” (include “baal” and “bosheth” prefix or suffix, as well the following related names belial, asherah, asherim, asheroth)
- 378 (19%) unique theophoric names
- 2,007 (7%) unique names
- A projection timeline extends from -1810 to -130 BCE and is subdivided in 28 periods of 60 years.
- Each HSHB book is assigned slots on the timeline that corresponds to its purported composition period.
- For each of the 378 theophoric names, a program traverses all the HSHB books in sequence, looking for the first occurrence of the name.
- The total number of theophoric names related to each deity is computed for each book.
- When a book’s purported composition extends across multiple periods, the number of first occurrences it contains is equally distributed across them.
- A 3-point moving average is applied to smooth the trend line.
- Results are normalized for each period, so that the total percentage of names between the three deities is always 100%
- The % of theophoric names for each deity is mapped over the timeline.
- The % of all theophoric names associated with each period is displayed as a dotted line.
- Projections were made for sections containing no data by extending trend lines.
Adoption of theophoric names in history offers a good indication of the worship and popularity of a given deity. And while we often find related names long after a deity was popular, we would not expect to find a theophoric name related to a particular deity before this deity was worshiped.
From an archaeological standpoint, we know that the earliest references to Yahweh (yhw3) date from Amenhotep III (14th century BCE). However, the first undisputed reference to the correct form yhwh is found on the Mesha stela (9th century BCE). Prior to that, Canaanites worshipped El, Baal, and Asherah. El was already worshipped in Canaan at the turn of the second millennium. And thanks to the Ugaritic texts, which date from the 14th and 13th centuries BCE, we know that Baal and Asherah were, by then, important deities in Canaan. And while the worship of El has been maintained through the worship of Yahweh Elohim, the worship of Baal and Asherah have been censored and abandoned over time.
Biblical archaeologists of the 19th century CE thought that some books of the Torah could have originated all the way back to the Bronze Age. However, this view has largely been abandoned over the last fifty years due to the lack of evidence and the confirmation that monotheism developed at a much later date. The current consensus among liberal biblical scholars is that the bulk of the HSHB were composed quite late.
The precise process by which the Hebrew Scriptures were composed, the number of authors involved, and the date of each author remain hotly contested among scholars.
Late Composition Timeline (Scholarship Consensus)
If the HSHB books had been composed as a historical retro-projection of the Israelite history (as many scholars now believe), it is hard to conceive how such late authors would have been able to avoid casting characters whose personal names could not have existed at the precise time they were trying to portrait them. We should therefore not anticipate any particular trend.
However, it was previously verified that the book of Genesis does not contain any theophoric names containing the “yah” (יה) particle. This fits Exodus 6:13, where we learn that Yahweh was not known to Abraham and suggests that either the authors of Genesis carefully avoided using those personal names or that the core Genesis stories truly originates from a time when Yahweh was not yet worshiped in Israel
When plotting the HSHB according to such a Late Composition timeline, we obtain a graph that mostly fits the expectations:
We find theophoric names from all three deities all along, with peak and valleys, but no clear trend. El-related names starts strong and increase until the Exile (~500 BCE), after what it decreases and stabilizes. Baal-related names are somewhat constant throughout, with a substantial increase towards the very end (~130 BCE). There is an odd first peak of yah-related names prior to the Exile (~670 BCE), with the bulk peaking up almost two centuries after the Exile (~300 BCE). Hard to explain why yah-related names would fall in popularity at the expense of el and baal during the Exile. Indeed, if the worship of Yahweh was already in full swing during and shortly after the Exile, why don’t we find more yah-related names earlier on
Early Composition Timeline (Jewish Historical Claims)
Whether one gives any credence to traditional dating or not, it is easier to find a consensus for them. Dating is simply achieved by using the internal chronology provided within the biblical accounts. In the timeline below, however, I have applied a 6/10 multiplier for all dates preceding the construction of Solomon’s temple (964 BCE). This compresses the firsts part of the graph but does not distort it. I argue in my book that dates predating Solomon have most likely been recorded in sexagesimal and suffered a failed conversion to decimal at the turn of the first millennium. I argue that the 6/10 multiplier restores the proper dates, which enables us to map biblical history against known historical facts and archaeological evidence.
Plotting the HSHB according to this Early Composition timeline, we obtain remarkable results:
This graph shows that el-related names rule uncontested until baal-related names make their appearance (~1500BCE) and rise in popularity until they undergo a sharp decline (~1100 BCE). Yah-related names appear (~1300 BCE) and reach a peak in popularity (~950) that is then maintained.
Instead of random data, this graph shows surprising correlation with Jewish historical claims. What is even more surprising is that it also perfectly aligns with archaeological data. This graph suggests that the composition of the HSHB could be as old as what Jewish tradition claim. Of course, this does not negate the fact that these same books might have been redacted until much later times. However, it does suggest that these stories were inherited from much older “original” sources that have long escaped us and of which only personal the names have survived unaltered.
The Early Composition timeline supports the idea that the worship of Baal began a few generations after the covenant made with Abraham in the 18th century BCE (according to Jewish Historical Claims). The archaeological site of Tel Balata in Nablus was indeed erected at that time (it is referred to as the temple of Baal Berith – Judges 9). Baal name rose in popularity until the name was formerly censored and proscribed.
As for Exodus, most biblical scholars would likely agree that “if” this event had ever taken place, it would have been during the reign of Ramses II (13th century BCE). In the bible, this event marks the beginning of the adoption of the name Yahweh. Looking at Figure 4, we can indeed clearly see the rise in adoption of yah-related names coinciding with the reign of Ramses II. From there on, one can then observe a constant rise in the adoption rate of yah-related names, until it dominates.
It is probably safe to say that authors and redactors of the bible would have had a hard time to introduce names a posteriori in the Hebrew Scriptures at a rate that precisely aligns with known archaeological data. And while these observations do not change the fact that the HSHB show clear signs of late redaction, we might have gained new insights on just how old the underlying material might be.
Perhaps the irony of this onomastic study is that it shows stronger support for Jewish historical claims than for that of modern scholars.
NOTE: If you would like to propose alternative composition timelines for these 34 Historical Books, I will gladly generate the associated theophoric graphs.
 See Jerubbaal and Ishbaal turned Jerubosheth and Ishbosheth in the bible
 Dividing the books by chapters would open the door to endless discussions.
 The precise date, number of authors involved and process by which the Hebrew Scriptures were composed and redacted over time remain hotly contested among scholars.
 Although technically not theophoric names, belial, asherah, ashteroth, and asherim are understood in this study as related to baal worship.
 This division is somewhat arbitrary, but many more periods would introduce gaps between books.
 Three-point averages are calculated by taking a number in the series with the previous and next numbers and averaging the three of them.
 There is lot of evidence suggesting Baal and Yahweh were not only worshiped at the same time, but that they shared many characteristics, including a consort named Asherah.
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