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The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of its Sacred Texts

Neil Asher Silberman

Few among the lay public know the real state of scholarly consensus about the Old Testament as a source of history. What is true? What isn't? Is it reliable? Is it unreliable? A book that aims to get the common man and woman up-to-date about this subject has been long overdue, but now such a book exists, written by a prominent archaeologist and a historian and journalist of archaeology. This book is well-written and easy to read, and is an excellent introduction to the field of Old Testament history, as well as a nice short history of Biblical Israel drawn up according to an appropriate "archaeology first, Bible second" approach. It charts a believable middle ground between the wild claims of literalists and mythicists, and is not afraid to say where the Bible gets it right, as well as where it gets it wrong.

As an introduction aimed at the general public, however, it may be too simplistic for some, although it does introduce one interesting and novel theory, while at the same time touching on several existing disputes in the scholarly community about the true history of Israel, which will interest even the expert. By and large, however, the conclusions reached and the picture painted is mainstream, representing the general consensus of objective scholars in the field. Nevertheless, this consensus flies in the face of standard Evangelical apologetic, and this book is an excellent launching point for any debate between believer and unbeliever, who can both pursue the authors' references and thus slowly work their way into objective Biblical studies. Indeed, the bibliography is very useful for the beginner, or as a reference for the experienced layman, and is broken down by chapter (and thus historical period) as well as by subjects within each chapter. The authors took their intended audience to heart and deliberately limited their references as much as possible to works in English that are available to most everyone, which are the most recently published and authoritative.

The book reaches its conclusions from a huge array of archaeological evidence of different kinds, some quite clever, such as the analysis of camel bones; others representing new trends in field archaeology, such as settlement surveys. The Biblical narrative is always interpreted in the light of this physical evidence, producing the clear conclusion that the Bible was almost entirely written in the seventh century B.C., and revised or added to later, by a new political party, only sporadically in power over a polytheistic society, espousing a novel religious idea of monotheism and a unified kingship based on this. Most of the Bible is found to be legend or propaganda favoring that party or its agenda. The Israelites did not come from somewhere else, neither Ur nor Egypt, but are the same people who had been living there for millennia, not much different from any of their neighbors, like the Canaanites. This is pretty much accepted as fact by most experts.

The authors add to this, however, the more controversial position that in fact there was never even a united monarchy: according to their view, this was a deliberate invention serving the interests of some of the kings of Judah (spearheaded by the ambitious Josiah, whom the Bible depicts actually "discovering" the book of Deuteronomy) who dreamed of conquering the northern territory of Israel. Finally, the authors make sense of this theory by advancing their own addition that Judah was an undeveloped rural backwater throughout its history until after the downfall of Israel to the north at the hands of Assyrian conquerers. According to this view, had Israel, which was a far more developed and sophisticated civilization, survived to tell its own version of Jewish history, we would have a very different story. This theory is not entirely new, for Finkelstein has been arguing it in the peer reviewed journal Levant since 1996, and it has merit, since it is based on sound archaeological evidence and arguments. But only time will tell if the scholarly community will find it persuasive, and expand upon it or demonstrate or refute it with further evidence. As to the other material, readers are advised to pay attention when the authors point out and discuss the different sides of various continuing debates, so as not to assume too readily that this is all cut-and-dried. But apart from that caveat, the evidence and arguments are persuasive and written in terms that anyone can understand.

The organization of the book clearly has the lay reader in mind. The authors do not even assume readers will be acquainted with the Bible and its stories, but instead follow a pattern whereby within each chapter they summarize what the Bible says (those of us who already know this like the back of our hands can simply skip these sections), then present the evidence for the earlier view, held even through much of the 20th century, that archaeology had confirmed the Bible in most respects. Then they present the findings of archaeology since the 1970's, and especially ground-breaking work in the 1990's, that has totally overturned most of these earlier beliefs. However, along the way they are careful to note what in the Bible has actually been proven or is most likely true, reminding us that there is some history in there amidst the myths and tales. This pattern is more or less repeated for each epoch or historical period from the time of the patriarchs up to the construction of the second temple in 440 B.C. Consequently, almost nothing is said about the history of Israel (or the rewriting of the Bible by new parties with new interests) in the intertestamental period, and that is a story still in need of telling to general readers. But for the Biblical period this book touches on all the most significant archaeological discoveries in the past thirty years that have shattered previous conceptions, which alerts us not to trust apologists who still cite works on Biblical history written before 1970. Recent archaeology has rendered almost all such works obsolete.

Rebutting a Naysayer

Biblical Archaeology Review has published a review by William Dever of this same book (27:2, Mar/Apr 2001, pp. 60-2). Dever's review is irrationally hostile, and at points dishonest in my opinion. In response to it, I wrote the following letter to the editors of BAR, and Secular Web readers may be interested to compare the actual book, if not my review and following comments, against Dever's scathing critique available at the BAR website.

Dear Editor,

There is a disturbing trend in scholarly book reviewing that I have encountered several times now: reviewers aren't actually reading the books they review, or else they make no effort to understand them. Your own reviewer William Dever is guilty of this unacceptable crime.

First, Dever attacks the book for saying nothing new, yet he cites not even a single book aimed at "general readers" that advances a complete synthetic history of Israel based on key archaeology completed since the 1990's. There is none. And can Dever be unaware that the intended audience of the book (the lay public) is certainly ignorant of all this material? If not, he would discover this by asking anyone on the street a few probing questions. Therefore the book serves a purpose, one that Dever himself paradoxically admits is "much-needed." This book is reaching out to a new audience to reveal what we scholars take for granted but which is certainly revolutionary to the average individual. Hence their idiom is well-suited to their audience and does not deserve Dever's elitist disdain.

Second, Dever claims that they "mention few scholars by name and include not a single footnote or specific reference" apart from "a general reading list at the end." This is a very irresponsible and inexcusable lie. First, books for laymen rarely have footnotes or endnotes. Dever is betraying his elitism again, or else his ignorance of what non-scholars like to read. But I count no fewer than ninety scholars mentioned by name in the body and appendixes. That is hardly a "few," and this considering the fact that the authors overtly declare their desire to name as far as possible only authors published in English (appropriate, considering their lay audience). And the "reading list" (a derogatory term for what an unbiased person calls a bibliography) is hardly "general" but divided by chapter and hence by period, and even further by subject heading within each chapter. Every author named in the text has his or her book or article carefully cited in the corresponding chapter's bibliography for further reading, and almost every general topic discussed has a specifically-identified "reading list" there as well. This is hardly "general." Altogether, over 300 works are cited, usually the best or most up-to-date English works that establish a certain point made in the text. I had no trouble figuring out which readings supported which claims in the text. Indeed, the authors did an admirable job of making this clear without mystifying lay readers with the arcana of cross-cited footnotes and endnotes. Dever should be ashamed of himself for misrepresenting this. Indeed, contrary to his claim that readers are not directed to the "crucial" archaeological evidence, this is in fact the primary occupation of the bibliography, at least a third of which is comprised of references to specific archaeological research (see p. 365 for the clearest example).

Third, Dever accuses the book of being "an ideological manifesto, not judicious, well-balanced scholarship," yet the two main "bold" claims of the book (the late date of the Bible's composition and its composition by a new monotheistic party with particular propagandistic aims) Dever admits "are almost certainly right." He even goes on to agree that almost every other substantial point made by the book is correct. Indeed, how can it be an ideological manifesto if, as Dever claims, it says nothing new and "adds little to the discussion"? By far the vast majority of the book's claims are accepted by mainstream scholars, and of what remains the vast majority involve existing mainstream disputes which the authors portray as such, presenting both sides before stating their own conclusions. Only a tiny handful of points are truly novel (the redating of a few finds), and they are not simply stated as facts, but argued for at length (over ten pages are exhausted on the evidence and reasoning). And these arguments are not without some merit. Dever apparently could not name a single scholar opposed to them, but chose instead to say that no other scholar has defended them--even though the arguments were previously published in a peer-reviewed journal and thus are hardly spurious or pseudohistorical. But this contradicts his accusation that this book contains nothing novel, and in fact contradicts the point of that accusation: for if Dever expected novel things to be argued in such a book, why does he also attack the book for arguing novel things? This is a sad case of Catch 22 if ever I saw one. Finkelstein and Silberman can't win against this sort of irrational hostility. What justifies Dever's vitriol? In Dever's own words the book is "modest," "avoiding the extremes," yet to be discounted because it is an unscholarly manifesto; the book offers nothing new, but argues for a novel redating of some key finds. Something other than fairness and reasoned judgement is guiding Dever's pen.

Fourth, Dever accuses the authors of not informing readers of the novelty of their redating arguments, apparently not bothering to read their introduction, where they say on p. 22 that "we" (as in the authors) take a different stand than all "textual scholars and archaeologists" on the dating of these crucial finds. Thus, their admission of novelty is right there in their very thesis statement. The authors never "downplay" this as Dever charges, but always argue it as a new theory, in need of the most careful analysis of evidence of any point made in the entire book.

Fifth, Dever seems to miss the entire point, argued at length by the authors, that there is a difference between a tribal "kingdom" and a developed kingdom called a "state." Thus, he accuses the authors of contradiction in accepting a king list for Judah for when they claim there was "no real kingdom," but this betrays the fact that Dever did not read the book but only skimmed it. The authors take great pains to draw a distinction between having kings and having a fully-developed state or "kingdom," throughout the entire book. There is no contradiction in their position here.

Sixth, Dever seems to think the authors claim that Dever himself "espoused" the "peasant revolt" model of ancient Israel's emergence. This again betrays the fact that he skimmed and did not read the book, for the authors do not claim this at all. They never once say that Dever espouses the theory. Rather, they simply cite on p. 337 Dever's research (easily found on p. 362, in the context of the main chapter that discusses the matter, rather than the appendix referred to there) as supporting one single element of Gottwald's theory (continuous sedentary Israelite population). They say his conclusions provide an ideal context for the theory, not that he advanced that theory himself. They could have been more specific and stated that Dever does not support the theory, but I wonder how they would know that. It seems to me that the authors simply wrote what they knew and did not speculate further on the secret opinions of one minor author out of hundreds. At any rate, Dever is issuing a trivial egocentric criticism that hardly justifies the charge of "outright misrepresentations" (note the plural--Dever is unreasonably generalizing from a single, trivial, ambiguous case).

Seventh, Dever says the authors use the term "Israelites" despite "rejecting" the label, apparently not having read their introduction which explains their use of this term. And finally, Dever attacks the authors for not addressing the relevance of their history to the role of the Bible as the foundation of a religion. Since the authors are writing history, not theology, this charge is wholly inappropriate and rendered all the more absurd by Dever's hyperbolic classification of it as "the most damaging weakness of the book." What the hell is he talking about? It is not the historian's job to worry about how religions will be affected by the truth--it is only their job to seek the truth. The rest is the task of preachers.

I shall never be able to trust anything Dever writes in the future, given his shamelessly biased, false, and useless review of this book, and you should think twice before using him as a reviewer again.

Richard C. Carrier, B.A., M.Phil.
Ph.D. candidate in ancient history
Columbia University, NY

Editions (via Amazon):

  Archaeology, Bible, Bible: Old Testament, Judaism

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