29 March 2008

Book review: The Bible Unearthed

The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman

Is the Old Testament history or legend? It's clear to anyone with a functioning brain that the story of creation in Genesis has no relationship to anything that ever actually happened, but once the story reaches the time of Abraham, most people -- even quite a few atheists -- tend to assume that they're reading something fairly close to actual history, even if inevitably somewhat skewed to reflect the viewpoint of the ancient Israelites who, after all, wrote the narrative.

Wrong.

I've known for a long time that the story of Exodus was a myth. The Egyptian records of the time don't mention the Israelites or anything remotely resembling any of the events in the story. The whole story of the Israelite captivity in Egypt and their dramatic escape simply never happened in reality.

The Bible Unearthed looks at the rest of the Old Testament stories in the same light, comparing them with the known actual archaeological evidence and surviving records from the periods when the stories supposedly took place. In case after case, the record is clear: the "history" in the Old Testament bears little or no resemblance to what was actually happening during the periods it purports to describe. Instead, it appears to have been concocted in the sixth century BC as a heroic myth designed to bolster the interests of the kingdom of Judah and certain factions within it.

The Bible is full of anachronisms: camels are described as being in common use in periods long before the camel had actually been domesticated by humans, for example. Cities and states described as being large and important in the stories of Abraham and Moses either did not exist at those times or were insignificant -- though they were indeed large and important in the sixth century BC (by analogy, imagine a story set in the year 1500 in North America referring to Los Angeles as a huge city, or to the Cold War with the Soviet Union).

Archaeological evidence from cities where the Old Testament describes tremendous battles and destruction show no sign of such events having happened. At the time when Jerusalem was supposed to have been the glorious capital of David and Solomon, it was in fact a sleepy little town.

The verdict of the evidence is clear. Abraham and Moses are pure myth. The invasion of Canaan, the battle of Jericho, the conquest and resettlement of the land -- none of it really happened (as best we can tell, the Israelites originated as a dissident group within Canaanite society and gradually became a distinct people -- they were not invaders from without). David and Solomon may have existed, but if so, they were chieftains of a tiny and backward collection of hill tribes, not the monarchs of a mighty empire. Only with the Omride dynasty does the Old Testament narrative begin to fall into line with real history -- we know King Ahab existed because he's mentioned in contemporary Assyrian records, for example.

Perhaps most interestingly of all, the dominant theme of the Old Testament -- that the Israelites started off as monotheists but had to be repeatedly punished by God for backsliding into paganism -- probably isn't true either. There's evidence of typically Canaanite pagan worship at Israelite rural sites throughout "Biblical" times. The Bible stories were apparently written to strengthen the hand of the monotheistic camp in sixth-century Judah; there's no way of knowing how old the monotheist tendency among the Israelites really was, or how dominant it was in the centuries before the stories were written.

In hindsight, none of this should be considered surprising. Most primitive peoples have myths about their origins and ancient heroes, and no anthropologist would ever mistake such myths for literal history, though in most cases they probably do incorporate a few vague and distorted memories of actual events. It's just a historical accident that one such tribal myth got incorporated into a set of texts which, centuries later, was declared by powerful religious leaders to be the infallible word of God.

Thanks to Handmaiden for bringing this book to my attention.

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4 Comments:

Blogger reVAMPed said...

Yes, yes, the operative words here "primitive people" are what most present day people forget to focus on.

29 March, 2008 11:07  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

On primitivism and the Bible, I had some more to say here (see points 3 and 4).

29 March, 2008 17:24  
Blogger handmaiden said...

I'm glad you are enjoying the book. I found it a great source for explaining real Jewish history. The christian practice of using the whole Bible (O.T.& N.T.) as a source of credible history will never be anything but mind boggling to me.

30 March, 2008 13:41  
Anonymous Michael Scott said...

Outstanding read. Thanks Infidel.

30 April, 2011 06:26  

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