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THE BIBLE UNEARTHED by Israel Finkelstein


Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts

by Israel Finkelstein & Neil Asher Silberman

Pub Date: Jan. 10th, 2001
ISBN: 0-684-86912-8
Publisher: Free Press

A highly readable introduction to ancient archaeology and what it can teach us about the Bible.

What do the digs of the last three decades tell us about the Old Testament? In short, they tell us that most of the Hebrew Bible is bunk. The patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (along, presumably, with their matriarchal wives, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah)—never existed. There’s no real evidence for the Exodus from Egypt, either. The evidence for the battle Joshua heroically fought with Jericho is “weak.” Digs in Jerusalem haven’t produced any evidence of a glorious reign of David. But archaeology does more than destruct biblical stories—it also offers new hypotheses. Just who were the Israelites if not the literal descendants of a literal guy named Abraham? Clues to their origins lay, the authors claim, in their earliest settlements, which have been excavated. The site of Izbet Sartah, for example, is laid out in an oval, indicating that the dwellers were pastoral. All this archaeological evidence, say Finkelstein (Archaeology/Tel Aviv Univ.) and Silberman (The Hidden Scrolls, 1994), adds up to a major revision of the literary history of the Bible. We can no longer believe that the so-called Book of J was written around the tenth century b.c. On the contrary, argue the authors, it was probably written in the seventh century b.c., and the stories of the patriarchs, the Exodus, and so forth are really expressions of a “religious reform movement” that swept the kingdom of Judah then. The authors are to be commended for not overestimating the importance of historical fact—so what, they ask, if Abraham and Isaac never really existed? They are still important “spiritual” and “metaphorical” figures, “more powerful and timeless than the fleeting adventures of a few historical individuals herding sheep” ever could have been.

Believers won’t much like this new look at the Bible through an archaeological lens, and scholars won’t find anything new, but everyone else will find Finkelstein and Silberman amiable guides.