One can find in many books and essays a statement like this
It was once thought that the reference to the Hittites was a historical error. The Bible mentions the Hittite empire over fifty times in the Old Testament. Though they are treated as a powerful kingdom, secular history knew nothing of their existence. Hence the Bible was assumed to be in error when they were mentioned. In 1876 the Bible was vindicated. The English scholar A.H. Sayce discovered some writing that he related to the Hittites of the Old Testament. These people were called the Kheta by the Egyptians. In 1906 the ruins of the Hittite empire were discovered. The Hittites did exist as the Old Testament said - the critics were wrong in denying their existence.
Josh McDowell writes:
The Bible mentions the Hittites many times. But until recently scholars had found no other ancient writings which referred to them. Therefore the very existence of this civilization was often doubted. John Elder (Prophets, Idols, and Diggers) explains that "one of the striking confirmations of Bible history to come from the science of archeology is the 'recovery' of the Hittite peoples and their empires. Here is a people whose name appears again and again in the Old Testament, but who in secular history had been completely forgotton and whose very existence was considered to be extremely doubtful." (Evidence that Demands a Verdict, volume 2, p. 339)
These references all have something in common: they never indicate a single scholar who had said that the Hittites did not exist. Instead of any actual citation, there is only an anonymous, archetypal "liberal critic."
Trying to get to the bottom of this, I recently checked out one of the earliest books on the discoveries concerning the Hittites, a book titled The Empire of the Hittites
by William Wright (1884). He writes:
It is desirable that this investigation should be undertaken, because the casual references to the Hittites in the Bible have been used by the enemies of Divine revelation to discredit the historical accuracy of the book, and some of the weak friends of the Bible have begun to propagate doubt where they cannot disprove. (p. 88)
Two people are quoted by Wright, the Rev. T. K. Cheyne (in an article in the Encyclopedia Britannica
) and the polymath F. W. Newman (in his book History of the Hebrew Monarchy
). This is what Wright says about Cheyne:
They appeared chiefly as a nation of warriors in constant conflict with the great monarchies on their borders, but in almost every detail they corresponded to the Hittites of the Bible. Instead of at once admitting that the Bible references to the Hittites might be true after all, writers in Germany and England declared the story of the peaceful transaction at Hebron inconsistent with the warlike character of the Hittites, and pronounced the story of the panic at Samaria as "not containing a single mark of acquaintance with the contemporaneous history." These views were eagerly clutched at, and have been reproduced in many forms. They may now be seen in survival, in an article by the Rev. T. K. Cheyne, in the current edition of the "Encyclopedia Britannica." (p. ix)
Wright again on Cheyne,
the Rev. T. K. Cheyne, Fellow of the same College, writing on the Hittites in the new edition of "Encyclopedia Britannica," treats the Bible statements regarding the Hittites as unhistorical and unworthy of credence. Referring to the mention of the Hittites in the Book of Genesis, he says: "The lists of these pre-Israelitish populations cannot be taken as strictly historical documents," "they cannot be taken as of equal authority with Egyptian and Assyrian inscriptions;" and, carrying out his comparison, he adds: "Not less unfavourable to the accuracy of the Old Testament references to the Hittites is the evidence deducible from proper names." (p. 89)
On the point of whether the Hittites of Genesis are the same as those who are mentioned in the inscriptions, historians have sided with the skeptical. Here is an excerpt from The Anchor Bible Dictionary
In the biblical references to the Hittites two different groups may be discerned. One is a local people of Palestine, settled in the area around Hebron before Abraham’s arrival, the descendants of Canaan through the eponymous ancestor Heth. They lived in the heart of the land promised to the Israelites, so that God had to expressly command the Israelites to destroy them. That they were not eradicated but continued to inhabit southern Palestine, including the area around Jerusalem, may be seen in the references to Hittites in the Hebrew army, as forced labor conscripts, or as possible wives for the Hebrews, all the way through to the return from the Babylonian exile. Almost all of the references of Hittites in the OT fit into this picture of a local Canaanite people never quite eradicated in the Hebrew conquest of Canaan.
There are, however, five references to Hittites which do not fit with this picture (IDB 2: 613–14). The reference in Josh 1:4 to the area around the Euphrates as the Hittite country cannot be the Hittites of Hebron, but rather, depending on the dating of the Conquest, either the Hittite Empire’s territories in north Syria or the successor Neo-Hittite kingdoms in that region. See Boling, Wright Joshua AB, 122–23 for a different view. The reference in Judg 1:26 to the man who after betraying Bethel goes to the “land of the Hittites” could refer to southern Palestine or to north Syria. In view of the use of the phrase ˒ereṣ haḥattı̂m, “land of the Hittites,” the only other occurrence of this phrase besides the Josh 1:4 passage, it is quite possible that the Neo-Hittite area is meant. Boling Judges AB, 59, indirectly implies his understanding of his phrase as the area of the Anatolian-Syrian Hittites.
The references to the “kings of the Hittites” in 1 Kgs 10:29 and 2 Chr 1:17, where they are importing horses and chariots from Solomon, and 2 Kgs 7:6, in which their very name causes the Syrian army to flee, again imply a powerful and wealthy group of kings, not a local Canaanite people who had been reduced by the Conquest and enslaved by Solomon. Again the Neo-Hittite kingdoms fit perfectly; the chronology is right, they were in the same area as the Syrians and thus known to them, and the plural “kings” fits very well with the nature of these states, which were not unified into one polity, but consisted of a number of small kingdoms.
These five references to the Hittites which on the basis of context may be understood as the Hittites of north Syria, that is, the Neo-Hittites, are also the only five occurrences of the plural form ḥittı̂m in the OT. This may mean nothing, but it could be some indication of a distinction made in the text between the Hittites of Palestine, descendants of Heth, and the Hittites of Anatolia and north Syria, the men of Ḫatti.
We must then distinguish between the “sons of Heth” of Palestine and the “men of Ḫatti” of Anatolia and northern Syria (see already IDB 2: 614; POTT, 213–14; Speiser Genesis AB, 169–70). The similarity of “Heth” and “Hatti” may have led to the use of ḥittı̂ to refer to both (POTT, 214). This is not to say that these two groups called “Hittites” in the OT may not be related ancestrally from some period antedating our earliest records. Nor do we imply that there was never any confusion between the Canaanite Hittites and Hittites of the Anatolian or north Syrian kingdoms who may have migrated into Palestine and settled there. For the period covered by the OT, however, it is clear that the terms usually translated “Hittites” referred to two distinct groups of people.
Accordingly, Wright would be wrong to identify the peoples mentioned in the references in Genesis with the kingdom that produced the writings deciphered by men such as A. H. Sayce.
Here is what Wright quotes from Newman:
Professor W. F. [sic] Newman, in speaking of this narrative, says, "The unhistorical tone is too manifest to allow of our easy belief in it." He thinks "there was a real event at bottom," for Xenophon in his Anabasis speaks of dangeroujs night panics in the Greek and Persian hosts, and therefore the Syrian army may have fled in a sudden panic. "But," he adds of the Bible account, "the particular ground of alarm attributed to them does not exhibit the writer's acquaintance with the times in very favourable light." "No Hittite kings can have compared in power with the king of Judah, the real and near ally, who is not named at all." "Nor is there a single mark of acquaintance with the contemporaneous history." (The Empire of the Hittites, p. 116)
Wright says, "Professor W. F. [sic
] Newman casts discredit on the incident because he thinks the Hittites were too insignificant to have caused alarm to the Syrian hosts." (p. 117) It turns out that even the most negative of the criticisms in the nineteenth century was not that the Hittites had no existence but, rather, that the Hittites weren't as "significant" as the Bible indicates.
Thus, there is a legend here. It is the legend about "the liberal critics," those opponents of the Bible whose hammers fall in futility against the anvil of the Bible. When it comes to the nineteenth century opinion of critics who denied the existence of the Hittites, it is a legend that has developed because of its congeniality to apologetic concerns.