The Bible Unearthed
Here is my original review in its entirety:
The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts
By Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman
New York: The Free Press, 2001
Pp. x + 385. $26.
Students of the Bible are currently hard pressed to find an up-to-date synthesis relating the biblical narrative to the history and archeology of ancient Israel. Archaeology and biblical studies are separate specialties now, which struggle painfully to interconnect. Compounding this difficulty, passionate disagreements over basic questions currently frustrate attempts to form a consensus about biblical history.
Our modern zeitgeist forces the question of the Bible’s historical truth, nevertheless, and the Bible itself requires historical understanding. It articulates a real human story, immersing itself in earthly history. A new synthesis of Bible and archaeology, along the lines of Finkelstein and Silberman’s new book, is a definite desideratum at the beginning of the new millennium.
The Bible Unearthed has much to commend it. Although Finkelstein uses his own new system of dating pottery forms, which departs from the standard chronology of other archaeologists, he is a respected, senior archeologist (currently co-director of the Megiddo excavation). In this new book, he has developed a coherent, sophisticated “new vision” of ancient Israel based on thorough research and much thought. Along with Silberman, he has made the uncommon effort to present a lucid overview of Israel’s archaeology to non-specialists. The book is well written—accessible.
Despite its strengths, however, this book is not the new synthesis of Bible and archaeology that we need.
First, the authors’ vision of the Bible is flawed by their overemphasis on the role of ideology and imagination in scripture’s origin. Their basic thesis is that, far from “miraculous revelation,” the Bible’s core narrative provides an “ideological validation” of the political dreams and reforms of late monarchic times, particularly the time of King Josiah.
I doubt that the political concerns of late biblical editors were the decisive factor in the formation of Hebrew Scripture. Despite the authors’ persistent belittling of such considerations, I would maintain, in contrast, that a theological dynamic played the pivotal role in the Bible building process. By overplaying ideological concerns in the work of biblical editors and authors, Finkelstein and Silberman fail to adequately appreciate the impact and authority of Israel’s sacred traditions in the canon’s creation. They severely undervalue the role of the biblical writers as bearers and preservers of authentic theological traditions and historical memories.
Finkelstein and Silberman’s treatment of the period of the united monarchy (c. 1025-931 bce) is a key part of their project, and a good example of their conclusions. They prove simultaneously skeptical and iconoclastic about the kingdom of David and Solomon. They admit that extra-biblical inscriptions establish the historical reality of David and his royal successors. Nevertheless, noting that a vision of an original golden age of Israel would make great propaganda at a later period, they contend the Bible’s picture of tenth-century Israel is “mythical.” Specifically, it is a seventh-century visionary expression of King Josiah’s dream of creating a glorious kingdom. Whereas this vision is appropriate to Josiah’s time, it does not fit the society of dispersed villages amidst rural farms that formed the historical Judah of the tenth century.
Readers should know that this “new vision” of tenth-century Judah as a remote and undeveloped region is not a consensus among archaeologists. Although the biblical narratives about early monarchic Israel are not lacking in anachronisms, scholars have good reasons to draw connections between them and an actual tenth-century state centered in Jerusalem. In fact, archeology provides remarkable confirmation of the Bible’s recollections about this period.
King Rehoboam of Judah was besieged by Pharaoh Shishak according to 1 Kings 14:25-28, and archaeology corroborates the text’s recollection of Egyptian conflict with an historical, tenth-century Judean state. Shishak’s incursion against Solomon’s son and successor left behind destruction layers at several sites in Palestine—including a destruction layer at Gezer, a city fortified by Solomon in buttressing his kingdom (1 Kings 9:15-17). Two extra-biblical artifacts, a triumphal relief of Shishak (the Egyptian Sheshonk) at Karnak and a fragment of a stele at Megiddo, assure us that these destruction layers connect to the Pharaoh’s campaign into Palestine in 926 bce.
Monumental city walls and gates at Gezer from King Solomon’s period further document the rise of the monarchy in the tenth century. They attest to Solomon’s royal fortification efforts before Shishak’s raid. Although Finkelstein and Silberman want to move the date of these fortifications some decades later than Solomon’s time (to the early ninth century), Gezer’s excavator, William G. Dever, maintains their tenth-century provenance in a just-published book. According to Dever, excavation at Gezer revealed clear evidence that Shishak destroyed the fortifications soon after Solomon’s death. Confirming this dating, the Shishak destruction layer lacks the wheel-burnished pottery that became common in the early ninth century.
Other evidence of a tenth-century state, administered from Jerusalem, comes from recent archaeological campaigns at the Judean city of Beth-shemesh. These excavations show that Beth-shemesh was a fortified administrative center of the united monarchy (cf. 1 Kings 4:9), not an obscure, undefended village. Among the finds from the site is a game board inscribed with the name of its owner in tenth-century Hebrew script. Tenth-century Judean society was becoming at least partially literate as well as centralized.
It is misleading for Finkelstein and Silberman to argue that centralized state power only evolved in Judah in the seventh century bce. However, it is worse than misleading—downright wrongheaded—for them to argue that monotheistic, biblical religion (“Deuteronomism”) was a product of this emergent centralization.
If Finkelstein and Silberman are correct that Deuteronomism expresses the surging dreams of monarchic Judah, how can we explain the deep suspicions of centralized monarchy in programmatic texts in the Deuteronomistic History (e.g., Deuteronomy 17:14-20; Judges 8:23; 1 Samuel 8:7; 10:19; 12)? If they are right that Deuteronomistic ideology burned most passionately in Jerusalem’s aristocracy and priesthood, how do we account for the hostility of precisely these circles to Deuteronomy’s greatest prophetic defender, Jeremiah (e.g., Jeremiah 26:8, 21)? If Deuteronomism’s main opposition came from the traditional clans of the countryside, why do we find the prophet Micah, an old-style clan elder, defending Deuteronomism against the opposition of Jerusalem’s rulers, priests, and prophets (e.g., Micah 3:9-12)?
I recommend this book if you like to be rattled—if you enjoy a provocative, polemical read. Finkelstein and Silberman tell us there were no patriarchs, no Exodus, no conquest of Canaan, and no united monarchy. Such assertions challenge any complacent acceptance of conventional views. They force biblical scholars to recheck the evidence behind their own visions of the Bible and Israel’s history.