Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Reflections on The Bible Unearthed

I just finished reading The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman. This isn't a full review, just a few reflections on the book overall.

Provocative thesis. Engaging narrative that carries the reader along, convincingly arguing that provocative thesis must be correct. Strangely absent, evidence. Broad generalizations interspersed with standard textbook facts about the archaeology of Palestine propel the narrative to its controversial conclusion.

The book is at the same time thought-provoking and frustrating. The former because some of their interpretations make a lot of sense. The latter because of the lack of interaction with other interpretations and the general lack of hard data for the most controversial parts of their thesis.

As far as the thesis goes, it appears they want to locate most of the production of the Hebrew Scriptures - at least, the main historical narrative of Genesis-2 Kings - in the time of Josiah and connect the history and geography of the Exodus and Conquest to an idealistic retrojection of Josiah's hopes for an expanded territory and a purer Yahwistic cult back into the hoary past. The glory days of David and Solomon are no more real and just as legendary as King Arthur and Camelot.

The composition of the Hebrew Bible can then be understood in a quasi-messianic trajectory - some passages reflecting the hopes and dreams for the nation pinned on a special Davidic king (Josiah) and later passages responding to the theological crisis of failure (Josiah's death at the hands of Neco in 605). [This messianic pattern is well-established in millenarian movements. See Wise 1999 for background.]

I find elements of this thesis compelling. I think Josiah and the late 7th century was a pivotal time for the composition of the Hebrew Bible. In fact, it makes sense that a lot of literary activity was going on from 722-586 BCE as Judah saw the cultural destruction of Israel and absorbed many of her refugees. However, I think Finkelstein and Silberman have overplayed the evidence with their thesis. Unfortunately, it's hard to tell for sure unless one has a thorough command of the evidence apart from reading their book. The main weakness of the book is that they prefer to assert their conclusions rather than demonstrate their evidence. You have to take their word for it because they're not going to give you any help in retracing their steps with the evidence.

Further, I know that many of their conclusions based on archaeology are hotly contested, especially concerning the dating of possible 10th century structures and the identity of the early Israelites. But they don't acknowledge any doubt or alternative opinions in their narrative. Since they don't use footnotes or endnotes, they couldn't engage the scholarly literature there either. The only semblance that they are even aware of the scholarship on the subject is a detailed bibliography at the very end listed according to chapter. Ironically, the present alternative interpretations for some subjects in the back in a series of appendices, but their rebuttal of the evidence sometimes seems to undermine the argument they were trying to make in the rest of the book - about Josiah's program of expansion, for example.

In the main, I think it's well worth reading if only because it raises important questions about who wrote the Bible, when did they write it, and why? At every turn, the authors challenge the simplistic traditional answers to these questions. I'll end here with a quote from the last page (p. 318) about the issue of the Bible's historicity.
Yet the Bible's integrity and, in fact, its historicity, do not depend on dutiful historical "proof" of any of its particular events or personalities, such as the parting of the Red Sea, the trumpet blasts that toppled the walls of Jericho, or David's slaying of Goliath with a single shot of his sling. The power of the biblical saga stems from its being a compelling and coherent narrative expression of the timeless themes of a people's liberation, continuing resistance to oppression, and quest for social equality. It eloquently expresses the deeply rooted sense of shared origins, experiences, and destiny that every human community needs in order to survive.

Finkelstein, Israel and Neil Asher Silberman. 2001. The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts. New York: Free Press.

Wise, M. O. 1999. The First Messiah: Investigating the Savior before Christ. HarperCollins.


  1. Respectfully, I can't agree at all with the revisionist thesis of this book. Carefully (painfully) researched books like Edwin Thiele's Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings contains a wealth of evidence as to just how historically accurate the Hebrew Scriptures are. There is so much recent historical and archaeological evidence now for the historicity of the Hebrew Bible, that it is painful to see another attempt to rewrite Bible history.

  2. you should try to get hold of the film which was made along the lines of the book. it's fantastic.

    a bit of info here if you like-

  3. Hebrew Student,

    I think the historical accuracy of the chronology is a different thing from the historical perspective of the writers/editors. Many people tend to confuse the historical setting of the biblical account with its time of composition. Why do they have to be the same? If Moses wrote Genesis, then he's recording things much later. The Books of Kings constantly refer to other works that can be consulted for further information. It seems they may have had sources for some of their information.

    Finkelstein has pushed for a revised chronology in other publications, but here he mostly just works with the standard accepted chronology.

    I'd never heard of Thiele's work, but very few scholars challenge the fact that starting with the period of Kings, the Bible provides externally verifiable historical data. The arguments about the historical and archaeological evidence vs. the biblical account focus more on the period before Iron II about which we know very little.

    I happen to think that the Bible is valuable as a historical source, too. I don't see the conclusion that much of it was written between 722-586 BCE necessarily undermining its historicity.

    Just to be clear, I don't buy into Finkelstein's whole argument or the minimalist approach to biblical history in general for that matter.

  4. Jim, I'll try to track down a copy of the documentary. Thanks.