Did events in The Bible really happen? Did David have a city? Did Exodus take place as written? What use are the texts of the Old Testament to modern archaeologists and how can we evaluate them without causing offence to a lot of people? These are some of the questions asked by two of the most celebrated Middle East archaeologists today.
Israel Finkelstein is Director of the Institute of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University. Neil Asher Silberman has a role in public interpretation in Belgium and is a regular contributor to Archaeology magazine. Their credentials then, are not in question but that hasn’t stopped the furore around this book erupting eleven years ago at its release. And it is not difficult to see why. Many people see The Bible as real historical documents steeped in history. But there are major flaws in the texts including a lack of continuity, some serious problems in dating events, an inability to tally events against other documents that agree with each other and many anachronisms.
It starts off evaluating the historicity of the Patriarchs and explaining how they were woven tightly into a narrative that would define the idea of Old Testament history. They are figureheads around which the entire narrative (and modern political problems) hinges so the authors give them a thorough and sobering evaluation in light of the evidence.
The most interesting chapter for me is rewriting or perhaps, reimagining The Exodus. I have discussed the problems of Exodus on my other blog but their chapter is keen to stress the political importance of the story at the time of writing and this too, is a very sobering chapter as we see Egypt as “the big bad” against which rising powers ought to be challenging supremacy. We see this today… in the Middle East the spectre of “Big Bad America” is the regular villain against which despotic powers seek to divert away from their own failings.
From there we move onto the Conquest of Canaan and questions about “Who were the Israelites?” and points to serious flaws in the texts about the origins of the people of Israel. It is unfortunate that this attempt to get serious about the history and archaeology has been hijacked by political opponents of Israel: unfortunate but not unexpected.
Part 2 goes on to demonstrate a very different origin of the kingdom of Israel and it is supported by a wealth of archaeological evidence and independent texts and this is where the volume is at its most devastating. I feel the evidence here fully and justifiable destroys the Old Testament and the concept of the kingdom of Israel so fully that the Old Testament could be considered completely worthless.
Finally, part 3 sums up why the Old Testament was so politically motivated, the reasons for compiling it and puts into context the notion that it was, in fact, not a historical document, but a long piece of propaganda on which a religion, political system and the concept of a nation was built. And this, suggest the authors, is the true value of the Old Testament: as a founding document of a nation determined to assert itself in an area that had at the time been subject to so many wars by conflicting tribes and the neighbour to the south (though at this point in terminal decline): Egypt. The pen is mightier than the sword.
I have been reading this book on and off for several years. Let me make it clear that you should probably not read it in a linear fashion, though it does read better than many academic texts, it is probably best to dip in and out. Read a chapter at a time, absorb it, possibly research a little more and contemplate on what you have read. In this way, you really should treat it like an academic text… as research rather than bedtime reading.