The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of its Sacred Texts (review)
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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: Free Press, 2001. 385 pp. $26.00.

Biblical scholars will hardly be surprised at the basic premise of The Bible Unearthed, i.e., that the historical claims of the Hebrew Bible and the results of archaeological investigation of the land of Israel and surrounding areas are frequently at odds. For well over one hundred and fifty years, modern critical scholars have attempted to weigh the results of archaeology and the historical-critical study of the Bible in an effort to reconstruct the history of ancient Israel and Judah as it “actually” happened. By the mid- to-late twentieth century, the reigning scholarly consensus posited that much of the Pentateuch and the narratives of the Former Prophets represented the basic outlines of ancient Israel’s history. Although the literary composition of the Pentateuch began only in the tenth century, it reflected historical memories of the so-called “Patriarchal period” period to the emergence of a full-fledged Israelite state in the twelfth-tenth centuries B.C.E. The books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings represented a basically historical account of the history of Israel and Judah from the time of the settlement or conquest under Joshua through the Babylonian exile. Of course, scholars recognized that these so- called historical books had their own historiographical agenda, but the basic parameters [End Page 183] of the history, the emergence of Israel in the twelfth century, the rise of kingship under Saul, David, and Solomon, and the general course of the history as presented in Kings was fundamentally correct. Archaeology, particularly in American and Israeli circles, provided the hard evidence to support the basic historicity of the biblical text.

Israeli Finkelstein, Professor of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University, and Neil Asher Silberman, Director of Historical Interpretation at the Ename Center for Public Archaeology and Heritage Presentation in Belgium, combine their talents in an attempt to present a new understanding of Israel’s history. In short, they argue that the basic history presented in the Pentateuch and the Former Prophets was written during the reign of King Josiah of Judah during the late seventh century B.C.E. in an effort to support Josiah’s attempts to reunite Israel and Judah under the rule of the Davidic dynasty in the aftermath of the collapse of the Assyrian empire. In this respect, history is constructed to support Josiah’s program, i.e., the patriarch Abraham is a Judean figure who asserts south ern parentage and dominance over the northern tribes of Israel/Jacob; the Exodus narrative reflects Josiah’s attempts to free Israel of outside control by the seventh-century alliance of Assyria and Egypt; David and Solomon reflect the ideal of Davidic/Josianic rule over a united twelve tribes of Israel centered around the Jerusalem temple. This is hardly a full scholarly treatment of the issue—the volume is after all written for the general reading public—but it draws heavily on current scholarly discussion concerning the composition of the biblical narratives and the interpretation of archaeological evidence.

Scholars have long noted anachronisms that raised questions about the historicity of the Pentateuch, e.g., the presence of camels despite the fact that camels were only domesticated and widely used after 1000 B.C.E. or the presence of the Philistines who entered the land after 1200 B.C.E. But Finkelstein and Silberman point to even more telling evidence, such as the historical background of the Edomites. Genesis dwells upon the conflicts between Esau, ancestor of the Edomites, and Jacob, ancestor of Israel, but archaeological evidence indicates that the territory of Edom was settled only in the eighth century B.C.E. and later, which indicates that the Jacob-Esau narratives reflect conflicts between Israel and Edom in a period long after the “Patriarchal” era. Likewise, archaeological evidence indicates that places visited by Israel in the Exodus narratives, such as Kadesh-barnea as well as the kingdom of Moab (and Edom), came into existence only during the eighth and seventh centuries. Scholars have...