A commenter Arkenaten states in the comments to this post that:
I am always mystified how highly intelligent people like yourself maintain a Christian worldview in the face of an ever-growing body of scientific evidence that has already refuted the Pentateuch; now generally accepted as historical fiction, and is busy dismantling the New Testament.
Thanks for coming over and expressing your point of view in a polite manner. Let me start by pointing out that you are making an Argument from Authority. Now there's nothing inherently wrong with that—none of us can be experts in every field, and usually when the experts all agree on something, they are right. But I do like to have some idea of what is the kind and quality of data (and the philosophical presuppositions) that the experts are basing their conclusions on, in order to have some idea about whether I should trust the conclusions. I am not a fundamentalist, and I am open to modifying my religious ideas based on whatever can in fact be shown scientifically, but I'd like to know that it actually has been shown!
In general, our knowledge of history comes from two complementary sources, written documents and archaeological finds. Archaeology generally tells us broad features of the movements of people and life in cities, while written sources are needed for more fine-grained biographical and cultural details. Sometimes our various sources of knowledge conflict, and it's not surprising that the farther back we go in history, the more frequently this happens, since things become harder to reconstruct.
My wife St. Nicole was a classics major; while she was in Ireland she took a class on Celtic languages in Britain. Apparently in that field, the linguists all swear that there have to have been pre-Celtic peoples on the British Isles, who were then conquered and assimilated by a massive migration of Celts from the continent, while the archaeologists are equally adamant that no such migration can have happened. (I don't know if the situation has been resolved since then, but that's not important to my point.) What this shows is that doing ancient history is HARD! Just as in Science, the different types of data don't always agree very well, and we have to put things together the best we can. I am not very shocked by most of the apparent contradictions involving biblical history, for the same reason that I'm not very shocked when seeming contradictions arise in other historical fields. I figure there's a lot of stuff we don't know, and it's easy to get confused.
Heck, cosmology is a more rigorous subject than archaeology, and there, until recently, we had this problem where many galaxies seemed to be older than the universe. (This issue has since been resolved due to the discovery of the cosmological constant, among other things.)
Now, as St. Scott points out (with many references) you can find experts with many different points of view on the subject of Biblical history. I can see why you would think that the religious scholars are biased towards finding that the Bible is historically accurate (and I agree that many of them are biased) but what I can't understand is why you think secular scholars would be un-biased! As St. Chesterton says:
Why should they be impartial, what is being impartial, when the whole world is at war about whether one thing is a devouring superstition or a divine hope? I do not pretend to be impartial in the sense that the final act of faith fixes a man's mind because it satisfies his mind. But I do profess to be a great deal more impartial than they are; in the sense that I can tell the story fairly, with some sort of imaginative justice to all sides; and they cannot. (The Everlasting Man)
If a person disbelieves in miracles and prophecy, it seems quite natural that they should discount any historical documents in which these things seem to occur. But this does not make them any more unbiased than a Christian. And I have frequently found that, when I go so far as to ask why e.g. biblical critics believe that various biblical documents were written at late dates and by other people, I usually find that there seems to be just as much naturalist assumptions in their work, as there is bias in the other direction in the scholarship of conservative Christians.
I do not consider Wikipedia to be generally a reliable source when it comes to highly controversial religious or political issues, but the article on "biblical minimalism" says that:
Although these debates were in some cases heated, most scholars stayed in the middle ground between minimalists and maximalists evaluating the arguments of both schools critically, and since the 1990s, while some of the minimalist arguments have been challenged or rejected, others have been refined and adopted into the mainstream of biblical scholarship.
This seems to contradict the claim of Philip Davies (relayed by Arkenaten in his original comment) basically saying that the minimalists have completely routed the scholarly opposition.
Now, to discuss the specific points. You have mentioned various time periods which even in the case of the Old Testament are a millennium apart, and I think the amount of evidence we have concerning different periods is wildly different. Even on a conservative point of view, the Patriarchs were hundreds of years before the Book of Genesis was written, and (unless Moses receieved supernatural revelation concerning them) we can expect that the vicissitudes of oral tradition would have taken its toll.
And I agree with you that there are some serious archaeological difficulties surrounding the Exodus and Conquest of Canaan. I'm not an expert in this area, but I gather that, although Jericho does indeed seem to have been dramatically destroyed sometime midway through the 2nd millennium BC, the most recent carbon dating suggests that it occurred around 1550 BC, approximately 150 years earlier than the traditional date of the Conquest. The error bars for this are supposedly considerably smaller than 150 years, but who knows what kinds of systematic errors there might be in the collection of artifacts to sample, etc? There is also little evidence of the large numbers of people migrating as described in the Pentateuch, although some have suggested that the census numbers have been inflated or misinterpreted somehow.
These are issues which should be taken seriously by archaeologists, and they do suggest the possibility of major problems with the biblical accounts, but as I said I'm used to the existence of apparent discrepancies when it comes to history. In the broad scheme of things, these are the types of problems which often get ironed out with more data.
And even taking all this data at face value, I don't think it necessarily implies that there was no such person as Moses, nor the Pentateuch was spun from whole cloth and not based on any historical sources, nor that there was no Exodus from Egypt with accompanying miracles. Of course, the Israelites have to have come from somewhere, and it is a bit surprising that, if they were making up an origin for themselves out of whole cloth, they would view themselves as the descendents of oppressed slaves in Egypt (not a very prestigious origin) if in fact they had always been in Canaan.
It seems perfectly consistent with everything we know (or at least, that I know; did I mention that this is not my area of specialization?) to say that most of the historical sources which went into the Torah predate the Monarchy and that its account of the Exodus is accurate in its broad outlines, perhaps with some significant distortions and inaccuracies due to later editing. (At least some editorial comments have to date from no earlier than the time of the Monarchy. As a Supernaturalist I'm fine with Moses prophesying the future Exile of Israel or legislating for a future monarchy, but comments like "These were the kings who reigned in Edom before any Israelite king reigned" (Gen 36:31) sure don't sound like prophecy to me!)
Also, there is some genetic evidence that (a decent proportion of) the Jews who claim to be descended from the first High Priest Aaron do in fact share a common patrilineal ancestor from around 3,000 years ago or so.
We don't have much archeological data regarding the nation of Israel until the Monarchy period, although there are extrabiblical references to an Israel starting in 1209 BC, as well as archaeological evidence for camps of a people group with new customs (e.g. circumcision and avoiding pork). Once we reach the Book of Kings there is a lot more data. For example, there are several extrabiblical references to King Omri, Ahab's father.
And it's hard for me to believe that the historical books about the life and reign of David are not essentially historical. They contain lots of boring mundane trivia (including lists of various temple servants that are skipped by all but the most avid Bible readers), realistic characterizations, are open about the flaws of the heroes in a way that is viewed as highly remarkable by the historical standards of the time, and they don't even contain very much in the way of overtly supernatural events (for those skeptical of such things). What can I say? It feels quite obvious to me from the feel, that I'm reading genuine history when I read it. (I feel much the same way when I read the Gospels, by the way, although they contain much more in the way of the miraculous.) Plus David left a bunch of poems with a characteristic style with a novel degree of subjective honesty, and founded a dynasty which we have later evidence for a few generations later. That's quite a lot.
I think only somebody who thinks that written sources are as nothing compared to archeological data should disregard this. (To be consistent one would also have to discard most of our written historical sources about ancient China and so on. One has to come to grips with the fact that most of our evidence about history comes from believing whatever seemingly sober written historical texts say happened. When skeptics talk about not wanting to believe a religious story just because it is written in a book, I start wondering where they think we get the rest of our historical knowledge from...)
But once we get to the people who think everything was made up during and after the Babylonian Exile, I think it is they who are departing from reality and common sense. The exiles returning from Babylon had to have had a pre-existing sense of national identity in order to overcome the obstacles needed to rebuild Jerusalem as a pitiful remnant. The idea that they could be given a new foundational text at this point, having no core religious identity beforehand, is ridiculous.
How was one and the same religious text (the Torah) foisted on both the Jews and the Samaritans, who hated each other? Recall that in the standard Biblical chronology the Northern and Southern kingdoms had been at odds for hundreds of years, since the time of Rehoboam, Solomon's son. I've never heard any of the biblical minimalists try to explain the Samaritan Pentateuch, but perhaps I just haven't found where they discuss it.
Or why does this text focus obsessively on the idea that there are exactly twelve tribes of Israel and that it is important to include all of them, when by this time most of the tribes had had their cultural identities absorbed into either Judah or Ephraim/"Israel". As I read through the Old Testament histories I get a strong sense of many cultural changes (the religious and cultural differences in tone from the patriarchs to Exodus, from Joshua/Judges to Monarchy to post-Exile are all quite striking to this reader). If the histories had all been made up in one time period, one would not expect to find this stratification of concerns, most of them rather anachronistic given the concerns of the post-exilic period.
What about the numerous references to the Exodus and the Law of Moses, not just in the History books but in the Psalms (many of which predate the Exile) and the pre-Exilic Prophets? These do not, of course, prove that these events really happened, but they do establish that they were already part of the national identity of Israel by the time of the Monarchy.
And how could archaeological evidence possibly show that Monotheism was a late invention among the Israelites? I suppose they could dig up evidence of people worshipping pagan gods instead of, or alongside, YHWH, but... surprise! The Bible says that the Israelites were constantly turning away from the true God to worship idols, and that it was only various revivals of prophets and kings which preserved the faith which came from Moses. So if anything, that would only support the Biblical narrative.
And the idea that someone like Ezra could have made up a literary masterpiece such as the Torah... well, no disrespect to the inspired word of God, but if the books of Ezra-Nehemiah are any example, the literary and cultural resources of the demoralized yet hopeful returning Israelites were simply not up to that level. Everything about the priest Ezra says methodical-revivalist, not creative-founder. That man couldn't have invented anything so original, but he could take what was already there and turn it into Judaism.
I'm not an expert biblical critic, but I can tell when what I'm hearing seems completely out of touch with the text they are trying to explain. These are just a few examples of the disconnect. My wife and my best friend St. Yoaav both went to the Chicago Divinity School (like the Ivy Leagues, it was full of generally skeptical or at best extremely liberal biblical scholarship) so I think I know from their reports something of how these people think. To a large extent I think they are pulling things out of their behinds, using anti-religious presuppositions, rather than actually following the data wherever it leads. (A lot of them talk about "methodological naturalism", the idea that History by it's very nature can't address any supernatural claims, so they are only allowed to consider naturalistic explanations. This is obvious circular reasoning if one then wishes to use their conclusions to refute Supernaturalism.) St. Lewis' essay on Fernseeds and Elephants is also relevant here.
I've been focussing on the Hebrew Scriptures here; I don't really have the time to address the New Testament in this post. But as a Christian, the Resurrection of Jesus is at the core of my faith in a way that the details of the Exodus are not. If I were a Jew (or a Hindu) I would be quite bothered that my religion was based primarily on events too far back in the past to have much good historical data for. But as a Christian, I can point to texts which claim to be based on eyewitness accounts to the Resurrection, at a time period for which we have much better historical data (yay for Greco-Roman culture!) than during the Old Testament period. (Yes, I know all about the arguments that the Gospels and Acts weren't really written by Sts. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and I don't find them convincing for reasons I've blogged about elsewhere.)
Then, after one accepts that there exists a God who does miracles, and who chose to send his Son to one highly peculiar monotheistic culture, then it seems reasonable, speaking as a Christian, to think that there must be some basis for that people's odd origin story: that God made their distant ancestor Abraham a promise, and then they were slaves, and then God rescued them with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, feeding them with the bread of angels. To prepare for that bread which later came down from heaven, for us men and for our salvation...