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The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology?s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts

Authors argue no compelling archaeological evidence exists for many biblical stories.

By Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman

    The Bible Unearthed is our attempt to formulate a new archaeological vision of ancient Israel in which the Bible is one of the most important artifacts and cultural achievements?not the unquestioned narrative framework into which every archaeological find must be fit. As readers will see, we are deeply interested in what the historical books of the Bible have to say, how they say it, and how they relate to the archaeologically indicated history of the land of Israel.

    Our main contention is that the historical narratives of the Pentateuch and the Deuteronomistic History can be convincingly linked to the ideological and political program of the Judean kingdom in the 7th century BCE. That seems, from archaeological, sociological, and historical perspectives to be the likeliest era in which the biblical epic crystallized in recognizable form. Readers will see how we lay out the argument for this contention by examining how weak is the archaeological evidence for the patriarchs, Exodus, conquest of Canaan, and United Monarchy of David and Solomon.

    Yet in asserting that there was no single exodus, no unified conquest of Canaan, and no glorious, vast kingdom of David and Solomon, we certainly do not intend to dismiss the Bible as a fact-less fairy tale, a late ideological confection whose unmasking is meant to serve some ?hidden? political agenda. We join generations of biblical archaeologists and scholars in the belief that the Bible provides an important testimony for early Israel; it is not just another ancient literary source about ancient heroes, kingdoms, and adventures. It is neither an Israelite Mahabarata, nor a Judean Avesta, nor a Jerusalemite Iliad or Odyssey. For Jews and Christians?and to a certain extent for Muslims?the Hebrew Bible is not just another ancient text, raw material for never-ending doctoral dissertations and a solid foundation for academic careers.

    The Bible is everybody?s concern. It contains our story of creation, our founding principles of monotheistic religion, and some of our western civilization?s most powerful prophecy, poetry, and religious laws. In a word, it contains our spiritual legacy. And that legacy has a thousand shades of meaning and wealth of insight to give. But is it history? Is it an accurate chronicle of a sequence of events, arranged in chronological order? Is that where its power lies? While hardly anyone these days gets exercised over the suggestion that the Mahabarata?s Hindu Prince Arjuna might be a powerful literary creation rather than a specific historical figure, or that a particular Achaean named Achilles might not have slain a particular Trojan named Hector, something strange and emotional seems to happen when doubt is cast on the historical character of the kingdom of David and Solomon.

    But why should this be so? For the last two centuries archaeologists and biblical scholars have been engaged in a continuous struggle to separate the purely theological or mythic narratives of the Bible from those that contain what might be regarded as reliable history. The Creation stories of Genesis were the first field of combat. In the 1830s, Charles Lyell?s epoch-making geological studies were branded as heretical, and Charles Darwin was condemned a few decades later by respected religious leaders as a nihilistic deconstructionist (more than a century before anyone had ever heard of postmodernism). Of course today, the scholarly disputes over the historicity of a seven-day creation of the world, of the Garden of Eden, and the story of Noah?s Ark are over?even though some nasty skirmishing occasionally flares up at school board meetings and in the scripts of sensationalist documentaries on cable TV.

    But the battle line dividing the Bible?s history from its metaphorical symbolism has been constantly moving, pressing relentlessly on from the opening chapters of Genesis. At each landmark a pitched battle was waged. And when the matter was decided, the opposing forces trudged on. Sixty years ago, many leading scholars?the legendary W.F. Albright among them?argued forcefully that the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were historical characters who lived in the Middle Bronze Age. Today, most scholars deal with the patriarchal traditions as powerful and influential literary creations; and they consider them no less powerful or influential in the absence of conclusive proof of their historicity. Long gone also are the serious scholarly attempts to trace archaeologically the progress of the Exodus of 600,000 Israelites across Sinai toward Canaan. The Bible offers us a powerful expression of liberation, peoplehood, and covenant painted in the most searing Hebrew prose and poetry the world has ever known.

    Forty years ago, reliable biblical history was said to begin with Joshua. The blackened destruction levels of Late Bronze Age tells across the Land of Israel, were confidently believed to be evidence of the military action of the massed Israelite tribes. But here too a battle was waged and the frontline of history shifted. The extensive surveys carried out in the West Bank by Israeli archaeologists during the 1970s and 1980s showed that the settlement of the Israelite Tribes in Canaan was not a lightning invasion but a complex process of social transformation. And it was a process in which population groups both inside Canaan and outside were deeply and not only violently involved.

    Today, the frontline has come to rest in the era of David and Solomon. Indeed there is now an ongoing scholarly free-for-all debate over the historical reality of the Kingdom of David and Solomon in which tempers have sometimes flared, names have been called, and sneering accusations of hidden political and religious agendas have been tossed back and forth. But what exactly is at stake?

    The Second Book of Samuel describes how David was anointed King of Israel and established his capital in Jerusalem. From there, according to the biblical narrative, David led the armies of Israel on distant campaigns that resulted in the establishment of a huge territorial entity, stretching from the southern deserts to northern Syria. The First Book of Kings describes how under David?s son, Solomon, the vast extent of the kingdom ? at least much of it ? was maintained and a magnificent temple and palace were built in the royal capital and holy city of Jerusalem. The tremendous importance of these events?variously dated between c.1000 and c.925 BCE are obvious: The Davidic Dynasty and the sanctity of Jerusalem, then established, formed the basis for later prophecies of a messianic redeemer from the House of David and the divine restoration of the greatness of united Israel.

    Until recently no one seriously doubted that the Bible?s stories about David and Solomon were basically historical. Although the archaeological remains of David?s rule were?and are?elusive, the sudden appearance of monumental architecture, city walls, and city gates in levels dated to the 10th-century BCE at the Israelite cities of Gezer, Hazor, and Megiddo?precisely those cities reportedly fortified by Solomon according to First Kings 9:15?seemed irrefutable evidence that archaeology, history, and the biblical accounts were at this point fully synchronized. But it is really that easy? Recent stratigraphic analysis of the ?Solomonic? gates at Megiddo and Hazor and carbon-14 dates from relevant strata suggest that these imposing monuments may have nothing to do with Solomon at all.

    In The Bible Unearthed, we invite you to follow our line of argumentation, first an archaeological analysis of the patriarchal, conquest, judges, and United Monarchy narratives, showing that while there is no compelling archaeological evidence for any of them, there is clear archaeological evidence that places the stories themselves in a late 7th-century BCE context. We then go on to propose an archaeological reconstruction of the distinct histories of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, differing dramatically in environment, population, economy, and religious forms. We highlight the largely neglected history of the Omride Dynasty and attempt to show how the influence of Assyrian imperialism in the region set in motion a chain of events that would eventually make the poorer, more remote, and more religiously conservative kingdom of Judah the belated center of the cultic and national hopes of all Israel.

    This occurred in the 7th-century BCE and reached a culmination, we argue, during the reign of King Josiah (639-609 BCE)?and the primary history of the Pentateuch and the Deuteronomistic History are the greatest achievements of this complex historical process. But they are not ?history? in the modern sense.

    So where is the boundary between biblical past and present, between biblical history and myth? Archaeology?the study of fragments of past societies?inevitably takes us into the realm of interpretation, and when it comes to the conquest of Canaan and the Kingdom of David and Solomon, the archaeological facts are not as unequivocal as they once seemed. It is time to stop the name calling and bitter polemics between ?maximalists? and ?minimalists.? It is our hope that The Bible Unearthed will provide an opportunity to debate and intelligently discuss new directions in the archaeology of the lands of the Bible?and to see past archaeological theories about biblical history as valuable foundations and the starting points for future research, not confrontational lines drawn in the sand.