Review of The Bible Unearthed
The Bible Unearthed by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, Free Press, 2001
By Heather Campbell
"The historical saga contained in the Bible -- from Abraham's encounter with God and his journey to Canaan, to Moses' deliverance of the children of Israel from bondage, to the rise and fall of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah --was not a miraculous revelation, but a brilliant product of the human imagination."
So begins the Prologue of The Bible Unearthed, a book which summarizes and interprets very recent Biblical archaeology for the general public. Although much of the Hebrew Bible (the "Old Testament" to Christians) purports to be a history of the people of Israel from the beginning of time to a couple of hundred years BCE, archaeology and modern scholarship have made the case that the Biblical account is less like history and more like legend. Moreover, scholars have even been able to build an argument as to when and why this saga was composed.
It seems that around 630 to 600 BCE, in the court in Jerusalem, a national epic was compiled as a propaganda tool, to unite and energize the population with tales of past glories. This epic was woven together partly from oral traditions that may have preserved some dim memory of actual persons or events, but because it was written hundreds of years after the times it purports to chronicle, and also because it addressed issues current at the time of writing, there are telltale anachronisms and inconsistencies with the findings of archaeology.
Among the problems:
According to the Biblical chronology, Abraham and the patriarchs of Genesis were active roughly 2000 BCE. The stories make repeated mention of camel caravans. However, archaeology has shown that camels were not domesticated until much later; camel caravans were no earlier than 1000 BCE.
There is no evidence for the Exodus as the Bible describes it. The Bible does not give an exact date for the Exodus, nor refer to the pharaoh of the time by name. There is a stele of Pharaoh Merneptah mentions a people named Israel living in Canaan by 1200 BCE, so the Exodus should have occurred some time before that. However, there is no Egyptian documentation of any large group of slaves of any ethnicity leaving Egypt during a likely time frame. The population of Egypt was not over 5 million at the time, and it is out of the question that nearly 1 million people could leave without some kind of record or evidence.
There is no evidence for a swift, decisive military conquest of Canaan by Israelites by 1200 BC. And it does seem implausible that a ragtag group of slaves, however numerous, could have managed a well coordinated attack on an entire region after 40 years of wandering in the desert.
According to the bible, King David and his son Solomon reigned over a large territory, from Mesopotamia to Egypt, and had the wealth to build impressive temples and palaces. This monarchy would have had to have ruled in the range of 1000 to 900 BCE or so. Yet archaeologists have not found any monumental architecture at all dating to this time in Judah. Apparently Jerusalem was a rather small village at the time.
Most of the second half of The Bible Unearthed demonstrates how these problems can be explained by proposing a date of about 620 BCE for compilation, with later editing and additions. The Biblical account does accurately reflect the social and geopolitical situation of this period. In fact, the Bible does mention the story of the "discovery" of the book of Deuteronomy in the walls of the Temple during rebuilding at around 620 BCE. Deuteronomy passes itself off as a part of the history of Moses (who would have lived before 1200 BC as mentioned above). Yet, surprise, surprise, Deuteronomy confirms the religious reforms that King Josiah was pushing hard before his death around 600 BCE. King Josiah gave his platform credibility by ascribing its principles to the heroes of yore. Past history was written to serve the present.
Authors Finkelstein and Silberman show that Israel formed out of the indigenous Canaanite population, probably in the early Iron Age. The people were originally probably nomadic sheep and goat herders who settled in the hill country between the Jordan river to the east and the lowlands along the sea to the west. Until around 900 BCE the area seems to have been quite rural, at times forgotten by or subjected to the major civilizations of the Near East. The Israelites were divided into two kingdoms, Israel to the north and Judah to the south. These two siblings vied with each other for about 200 years, until the north was overrun by the Assyrians around 730 BCE. Refugees from the north swelled Judah's population and contributed to its rise as a "fully developed" state, with monumental architecture, trade-based economy, etc. Eventually Babylon came to dominate the region; Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem in 586 BCE and carried off Israelite elites to Babylon (the "Exile"). Persia conquered Babylon in 539 BCE and allowed the Israelites to return. The dramatic Biblical epic helped maintain an ethnic identity and national unity that lasts today.
The Bible Unearthed is intended for a non-specialist audience, and the authors do a remarkable job of marshaling arguments from history, archaeology, and biblical criticism in a way that can be readily understood by the layman. On the other hand, I found myself wishing for endnotes. There is actually a bibliography given, divided by chapter, so documentation is certainly provided. Also, the main text works through the arguments fairly carefully. I know it can be difficult to strike a balance between scholarly authority and widespread appeal, and I commend the authors for doing as well as they have, but to me endnotes just seem more impressive.
One very helpful feature (for those of us who didn't get gold stars in Sunday school) is a concise but thorough summary of the Biblical version of the time period in question at the beginning of each chapter. Then, for most chapters, the authors discuss pre-1980 archaeology which until recently had been interpreted as supporting the Biblical account. The balance of each chapter presents the latest findings of archaeology which almost invariably shred the historicity of the Biblical version.
Although the authors do explicitly undermine the historical accuracy of the Bible, they are careful to pay homage to its value. They conclude by saying "we can at last begin to appreciate the true genius and continuing power of this single most influential literary and spiritual creation in the history of humanity". I find it somewhat puzzling that people who know best that the Bible is not what it claims to be are still enamored of it. Perhaps they are trying to cushion the blow for the faithful, or perhaps they cannot bring themselves to denigrate the object of their life work. I think the genius and power lie with the scientists and scholars who have painstakingly put together what really happened, based on real evidence, even though it goes against what they have been told is holy and authoritative. This book is a testament to what the human mind can discover when it does not delude itself.