Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Autumn 2002

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

reviewed by Dan O’Hara

Some 35 years ago, one of my fellow theology students was surprised to find on an Old Testament final honours exam paper a quotation from one of his own essays (with attribution) and an invitation to comment: “What price a theology of history if you have to make up the history to get the theology?” Needless to say, the student concerned got a first!

If such far-sighted candour could be found in a supposed intellectual backwater like Nottingham, England, almost two generations ago, why all the current fuss about archaeological discoveries (by no means all of them very recent) that demonstrate that much of the biblical history of the Patriarchs and the early monarchy of Israel and Judah is little but politically – and theologically – motivated fantasy? For me – though never an Old Testament specialist (my specialisms were New Testament, Church History and Philosophy of Religion) – this has been a commonplace for as long as I can remember. So it puzzled me to find one reviewer of this book, quoted on the dust jacket, stressing its “controversial ... challenge [to] much of the received wisdom and confident assumptions of many in this discipline”. Where have they all been for the past thirty-five years?

The authors of this book, two American scholars with impeccable Jewish credentials, do indeed provide an admirable, well-written and up-to-date survey and analysis of the archaeological evidence that would be difficult to improve upon. Though it should more than suffice to dispel the illusions of any fundamentalist Christian or Jew with the courage to read it, the authors’ intentions are hardly polemical. Rather, they aim to provide the educated general reader with a comprehensive understanding of the settlements and peoples of the Levantine region in the period from about 1200 to 400 BCE. Their particular focus is, of course, the emergence of Israel and its religion; but, if the book is not exactly an easy read, that is more a reflection on the complexity of the material than any fault of the authors. They have succeeded much better than the American Catholic scholar and Professor of Old Testament at Copenhagen, Thomas L. Thompson (whose 1999 book, The Bible in History: How Writers Create a Past, I reviewed at the time for New Humanist) in clearing away the myths and revealing the actual circumstances and motives of those responsible for creating the Jewish scriptures. For those with the interest and perseverance to read it, their book is truly a revelation.

URI of this page :
Created : Sunday, 2002-11-03 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
Brett Humphreys :