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Archaeology and Biblical History
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins
A review of the book by Israel Finklestein and Neil Asher Silberman
The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts
(NY:  Touchstone (Simon and Schuster), 2001.  353p.)

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Archaeologists Israel Finklestein and Neil Asher Silberman reexamine the history of Israel and Judah in the Bible with a detailed analysis of the latest archaeological evidence of the region.  The book includes a set of excellent appendices on the history of various theories and special topics in the subject, which serves as a summary of the current state of studies on the history and culture of Palestine.

Comparative Approach
Referencing the latest finds of archaeology, these authors develop a detailed, articulate and critical reconstruction of culture, political relationships and religious trends in the history of Palestine.  They also compare the findings of various technical disciplines with biblical references to attempt a logical and consistent picture of ancient Israel and its surrounding territories.

The authors draw upon all the extra-biblical sources that seem to provide insights.  They have attempted to distinguish between symbolic and legendary story forms and objective scientific data that can be extracted from the ancient cultural forms.  They are more radical than some other scholars in what they accept as likely and reliable.

They write as archaeologists, and take a "secular" perspective, as scientists attempting to establish an objective history.  The question is how much can be definitively determined about an objective history of ancient Israel.  They write as Jews trying to reconstruct the history and culture of their people and land.

A friend to whom I gave this book commented that there was some good information in the book, but "these guys are very liberal."  I commented in turn that it seemed to me that these authors were not writing in a context where the terms "liberal or "conservative" apply!  They are not writing from a theological context on the continuum of what is commonly considered conservative or liberal in Christian biblical history or archaeology.

Finklestein and Silberman do not directly address faith perspectives.  They write as historical scientists.  Be sure that these scholars are not writing with the goal of "proving" the Bible, as tended to be the case in "Biblical Archaeology" (including both Christians and Jews) popular in the early to mid 20th century.  They are writing as academics, not from a faith perspective with a particular prior commitment to some predefined theological stance.

Radical Approach
That said, however, they still have a very radical approach.  They start with the assumption that the historical picture in the Jewish Bible (Tanakh) is only (or at least primarily) figurative or legendary.  They do, however, try to extract data that will provide information to develop a historical picture meeting modern scientific historical standards.

Most scholars recognize that the story forms and styles of an oral-relational culture, like that of the ancient Hebrews and other traditional cultures, will have figurative or symbolic ways of telling the old stories, unlike the modern rationalist analytical forms of literature.  But these authors come up with much less than some other critical scholars are willing to grant to the traditional perspective.

After their radical surgery on the biblical text, they are able in the end to grant a very minimal historical character to the major story of popular Judaism.  They do confirm a movement of people from Egypt (or somewhere), but find other biblical indications and other historical sources that indicate multiple origins for what came to be the 12 tribes of Jacob/Israel.*

Exodus Origins
The authors conclude that one group of the people that became the Israelites may have come from Egypt, but probably a small migrating group, rather than a huge conquering nation-army.  They figure that the standard conquest story was later written to provide a unifying identity.

One indication of this is the long-recognized discrepancy between the end of Joshua, which states that they conquered the whole land and all the peoples, and the beginning of Judges which details the areas and peoples they did NOT conquer.  Problems in this regard are that no archaeological findings have supported the main events, such as the destructions of Jericho or Ai in the time frame suggested by the biblical story.

A Useful Resource
Conclusions aside, these writers have gathered a stupendous amont of detailed information and they conscientiously try to sort and evaluate it.  We can savor, learn, criticize if we will, and evaluate this prodigious contribution.  They have laid it all here before God and the world!

They have done a commendable job of sorting the various clues in biblical literature that offer some glimpses into a mixed origin.  Historical information seems to support this minority biblical view, which is commonly overlooked in favor of a simplified, streamlined story.

Recovered Biblical Clues
But their conclusions will not satisfy many whose comfort and satisfaction in their faith is based on the story as they know it.  This book may upset many, who prefer only confirmation of what they already believe.  Others will be glad to learn that there were details in the Bible not covered by the simple stories they remember from their childhood.

I suggest a serious read, however, because these writers refer to a lot of the biblical text which is commonly ignored and offers us further detail and insights into the historical situations than devotional readers of the Bible are usually aware.  If you take the Bible seriously, you will want to look into these clues and details for yourself.

Scholarly Disciplines
Again I mention that these writers do not write as believers presenting or defending a particular faith perspective.  They are analyzing the biblical texts in light of current findings of archaeology, compared with findings in other disciplines of study.

Their non-believing (or unbelieving) perspective does affect the way they approach the data and the conclusions they are willing to make.  They, in the meantime, provide an excellent review of current archaeological knowledge and a commendable investigation of biblical clues.

The book includes an extensive bibliography of relevant sources, in a general list, then a specific list by chapters for each topic covered.  This makes a good reference for sources on specific points to consider in the history of ancient Israel and its neighbors in Palestine.
*The traditional number of the tribes of Israel was 12, a symbolic number for complete character or divine action.  The Biblical story tells us there were 13 tribes, since the priestly tribe was not allotted land other than some priestly cities.  Additionally, the biblical story portrays the loss of other tribes over the centuries before the major dispersals.  The tribe of Simeon, for instance, is never referred to again after the Joshua conquest stories, and it is likely that this (likely small) southernmost tribe was absorbed into Judah.  Additionally, the sister Dinah is never referred to again after the story of the massacre of Shechem.  Finkelstein and Silberman explore some of these minor clues in the Bible in their attempting to reconstruct a full history.  These ignored biblical components provide insights that help fill out the broad picture.  Many other authors have also dealt with these questions to a greater or lesser extent.

See related reviews and articles on this site:
[Review] Archaeology and the Biblical Texts
[Review] Refreshing Current Outlook on the Old Testament
[Review] Textual Themes and Language Variations in the late Prophets

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Initial reading notes written 31 January 2004
Expanded as a review and posted on Thoughts and Resources 2 May 2009
A version also posted on Amazon and Barnes and Noble 2 May 2009

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2009 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.

Email:  orville@jenkins.nu
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