Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s new vision of ancient Israel and the origin of its sacred texts

First published in 2001, Archaeologists Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman's fine book will challenge people with an orthodox view of the Bible because, as the archaeological record shows, many of the events recorded in it,did not take place quite as the narrative says.

As Finkelstein and Silberman – both archaeologists – show, the archaeological record tells a very different story from the traditionally accepted one. Their story is more believable and, as it turns out, more accurate than the orthodox view of the Bible is historically pretty accurate, and events like Joshua’s battle against Jericho, the Exodus, and the great kingdoms of David and Solomon were true. Archaeology shows that they could not be, because there is no record of them where and when there should be.

“The power of the biblical saga,” they write “eloquently expresses the deeply rooted sense of shared origins, experiences, and destiny that every human community needs in order to survive” (page 318). The biblical saga is woven together from myth, folktale, origin and hero stories, songs and poetry from different times creating a story that met the political needs of specific times. “The authors and editors of the Deuteronomistic History and parts of the Pentateuch gathered and reworked the most precious traditions of the people of Israel to gird the nation for the great national struggle that lay ahead” (page 283). What was needed was “a great national epic of liberation for all the tribes of Israel, against a great and domineering pharaoh, whose realm was uncannily similar to its geographical details to that of” pharaoh Pammetichus, who reigned during the 7th century BCE.

The archaeological record shows conclusively that the great events of Hebrew history (the Exodus, the origins of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob/Yaakov, the great kingdoms of David and Solomon) did not happen as written, and that there was no place in geography called “Eden” where God once wandered in the forest. Biblical history “was not history writing in the modern sense. It was a composition simultaneously ideological and theological” (page 284). In other words, the Deuteronomistic History and the Bible itself are compilations woven together over time to tell the religious and cultural story of a people, much in the way that the Popul Vuh (Book of the People) – a collection of mythistorical narratives of the Post Classic Quiché kingdom in Guatemala's western highlands – were collected.

This is not a point of view that will go down well with fundamentalists who insist on making science conform to their literalistic reading of the Bible as accurate history. But it makes the Bible – these ancient stories – more acceptable to people like me because it makes the narrative more real and “true” as myths are “true”. And in ancient times, myth and factual events were more often interwoven than not. George Washington, for instance, didn’t have to actually chopped down a cherry tree for me to understand the “truth” of the story – that George Washington could be trusted because, when asked about the tree, he told the truth.

Reading the Bible this way, it is easy to place various parts of the narrative within their historic context (such as specific dress and dietary rules) rather than having to see them as truths-for-all-time-and-all-people, as the literalists see them. I found the book both fascinating and a joy to read. It was published by Touchstone in 2002. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As someone interested in archaeology I found your piece most interesting. We have archaeologists in dozens on our land each year (I have a sheep and arable farm in north Northumberland) and the last dig they did unearthed confirmation that a lake was once part of the land thousands of years ago. History at it finest. The Bible is something I find difficult to understand though.

I came to your blog after finding you on Night Reading.