The Bible Unearthed, by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Silberman (LentBooks 2010 #2)

This is why I shun fiction during Lent — so I can finally get around to all those serious, important nonfiction books that have been gathering virtual dust in my e-reader while I skip through fun and easy novels instead.  I’ve been meaning to read The Bible Unearthed for quite awhile, and now I finally have.

It’s a look at Biblical archeology, another subject I know far too little about.  Specifically, it’s a look at Biblical archeology that pushes the boundaries of “how much of the Old Testament is historically accurate” even farther, making conservative Christians (and I presume conservative Jews who have a vested interest in believing in the concept of a Promised Land) even more uncomfortable than we already are.

We already know that most people outside conservative Christianity read the first eleven chapters of Genesis as mythology rather than history, and we’re well aware, I think, that historians and archeologists also have some difficulty substantiating the stories of the patriarchs, the Exodus, and even Joshua’s conquest of Canaan.  But surely by the time we get to the  united monarchy under David and Solomon, we’re on fairly firm historical ground that is supported by archeological discoveries?

Not so, argue Finkelstein and Silberman. 

The premise of this book is that most of the Deuteronomic History (the books of  Deuteronomy through 2 Kings) was written during the reign of Josiah in the 8th century BCE — that the priests of King Josiah’s time didn’t so much discover an ancient and forgotten law book (Deuteronomy) in the Temple, as they wrote one, and a history to go with it, to support Josiah’s political aims.  While Finkelstein and Silberman concede that David and Solomon may have been historical characters, they posit no united monarchy, no great palace or Temple in Jerusalem during their alleged era.  The first great kings of Israel were during the period of Ahab and Jezebel, who come off very badly in the Bible, at which point any “kings” of Judah were pretty much just chieftains of a bunch of scattered tribesman in the sparsely-settled south.  The entire story of the united monarchy, as well as the stories of the Exodus and conquest of Canaan, were a later creation crafted to fit a particular political agenda.

They marshal plenty of archeological evidence to support these sweeping (and, to some, shocking) claims.  But even a neophyte like me who knows next to nothing about archeology can recognize the extent to which they’re shaping the available evidence to fit the storyline they’ve already committed to — just as those who are deeply committed to archeology supporting the Bible also do.  I guess nobody just reports on what was dug up without putting interpretations on it — there’s always an agenda.  The Bible Unearthed was intriguing: its main side effect was not to challenge my faith in the Bible but to make me want to read more about archeology.

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2 Comments

Filed under LentBooks, Nonfiction -- general

2 responses to “The Bible Unearthed, by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Silberman (LentBooks 2010 #2)

  1. Tim

    Hello there!
    In your review you state the evidence was shaped to match a pre-established time line instead of simply reporting what was found.
    Do you happen to have any examples where they deviated from the dating reports usually used to establish archeological time lines?

    While one can understand the need to validate core spiritual beliefs the opposite makes less sense.

    Thanks very much and happy holidays,
    Tim

  2. Oh man … I wish I’d gotten this great question right after I read the book. I will have to do some thinking and maybe look back at it to remember now … but I will try to answer!

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