Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Bible Unearthed

The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts by archaeologists Neil Asher Silberman and Israel Finkelstein is a highly readable synthesis of discoveries of archaeology with Biblical scholarship.

I particularly appreciated the appendices at the back, which provide informative discussions of the development of scholarship and evidence.
As with Friedman, Silberman and Finkelstein see the demands of religious and state-building agendas in the kingdom of Judah after the Assyrian destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel in 722BC as crucial in understanding the content of the Bible for the period up to the establishment of the Second Temple. Unlike Friedman, they accept (in passing) the common scholarly view that the writings of the Priestly source are mostly after the Babylonian destruction of the kingdom of Judah in 586BC. Ironically, their discussion of the period from 722BC to 586BC, and the advance and retreat of the monotheist agenda, provides an alternative explanation to the internal inconsistency in Leviticus between passages which prescribe the death penalty for various transgressions, such as Leviticus 18:22 (which merely requires them to be outcasts), and those, such as Leviticus 20:13 which prescribes death for two men having sex. An obvious explanation for the inconsistency is that it reflects differences between when the enforcers of priestly taboos had judicial power and when they lacked it: such as during (no) and after (yes) the Babylonian exile. Alternatively, it could reflect whether strict monotheism held sway in Judah—so priestly anathemas were backed by judicial power—and more syncretic periods, when they weren’t

But Silberman and Finkelstein’s concern is with the historical claims in the Bible and whether the expanding archaeological evidence sustains them. Regarding the Egyptian captivity, the Exodus, the conquests of Joshua, David and Solomon ruling a powerful kingdom uniting Israel and Judah, their conclusion is that the archaeological evidence provides no reasons to support claims that such things happened and considerable evidence against.

So, they argue, the early “history” of the Bible is extremely unreliable. Silberman and Finkelstein argue that such “history” is a poor reflection of the realities of the region when they were supposed to have occurred, but have very strong resonances with the realities of the region after 722BC: particularly during and after the reign of Josiah.

It is hard to judge these claims without the requisite background knowledge. K. A. Kitchen has powerfully and, at times, very acerbically, attacked their use of evidence and their main conclusions.

Some of the Biblical history fares better in Silberman and Finkelstein’s analysis. The king lists seem accurate, for example, and although the extent of the deportation of the population of Judah after the Babylonian conquest in 586BC seems to have been exaggerated, most of the Judahite elite does seem to have been deported.

Silberman and Finkelstein argue that what the early books of the Bible reflect is the concerns of the monotheist priests and their hopes of support from the Davidic dynasty of Judah plus trying to deal with the disaster of 586BC by telling a theological story to make sense of it all: the Bible as mythos (in Karen Armstrong’s terms) rather than logos.

Silberman and Finkelstein provide a very readable history of the period, though their tendency to write as if military and diplomatic reasons for events preclude religious ones is mildly irritating. It is highly readable and somewhat informative, but not a book to judge without looking at other analyses.

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