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The Bible:
What Did the Biblical Writers Know & When Did They Know It?

Book by William G. Dever

Review by Dr. Stephen C. Meyers

Chapter 1: The Bible as History

William Dever is upset about the attacks on the Bible by the minimalists or revisionists who say the history about ancient Israel are myths. Dever says that the search for "the historical Israel" almost exactly parallels the search for "the historical Jesus" (p.3).

This all started when Philip R. Davies wrote In Search of Ancient Israel in 1992. Davies proclaimed there was no ancient Israel. It was all made up by later writers during the Persian-Hellenistic era. A small vocal group of mainly European scholars have been pushing this new view of ancient Israel. Besides Davies, the other main leaders are Thomas L. Thompson, Keith W. Whitelam, Niels Peter Lemche, and Israel Finkelstein. Dever calls this nihilism, the denial of any real knowledge or truth.

In his book Dever puts forth the archaeological evidence to show how wrong these revisionists are. 


The first English critical study of historiography dealing with ancient Israel was In Search of History by John Van Seters in 1983. In 1988 Baruch Halpern wrote The First Historians: The Hebrew Bible and History. 

Dever states, "the revisionists have a point: it is no longer possible simply to read the Hebrew Bible at face value as 'history.' The Bible is, rather, a series of theological reflections by later Israel on its past experience, not a 'history of Israel.' Yet the fact does not mean that there is no history to be gleaned from the literature" (p.10).

Early archaeology wanted to prove the Bible was true, but by the 1980's "many of the 'central events' as narrated in the Hebrew Bible turned out not to be historically verifiable (i.e., not 'true') at all" (p.21). 

Chapter 2: Current School of Revisionists

In this chapter Dever discusses deconstructionism and the leaders of this postmodern ideology. Deconstructionism believes that the Biblical texts have no intrinsic meaning that is recoverable. 

Philip R. Davies

This controversy started when Davies wrote In Search of Ancient Israel in 1992. Dever charges that Davies ignores all the archaeological evidence. Davies attempts to discredit the Tel Dan inscription about the "house of David." Davies claims the Hezekiah tunnel inscription is only from the 2nd century BC. Dever states, "Davies is largely reacting against what may be his own Fundamentalist background" (p.30). 

Thomas L. Thompson

In 1974 Thompson wrote The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives which attacks the historicity of Patriarchs of Genesis. In Thompson's latest book The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology and the Myth of Israel (1999), he claims: (1) Our Bible is only a Hellenistic Bible like the Dead Sea Scrolls. (2) The Bible's Israel is a literary fiction. (3) There was never a united kingdom of Israel, and no preexilic prophets. (4) The Mesha Stele does not refer to a historical Israelite king. (5) The core of Biblical traditions are philosophical not religious. (6) Israelite ethnicity is fiction. (7) "Gods are created, but the true God is unknown" (8) The Biblical text does not speak to us (p.32).

Thompson claims that Dever went to Gezer in 1967 to deliberately find a Solomonic city gate by pulling large stones out of context and rolling down the hill, and pottery discrepancies were discarded. Dever denies this (p.33). 

Keith W. Whitelam

Whitelam is a revisionist of the University of Stirling. His latest book is The Invention of Ancient Israel: The Silencing of Palestinian History (1996). Whitelam claims there is a conspiracy by American and Israeli archaeologists to deprive modern Palestinians of their history (p.35). Whitelam charges Israel Finkelstein with creating a early Israel to validate modern Israeli claims to the West Bank (Ibid). Dever denies this, and claims Whitelam's statements border on anti-Semitism. 

Whitelam appeals to archaeology, but has no experience in fieldwork. He has to rely on second hand knowledge. 

Niels Peter Lemche

Lemche is of the University of Copenhagen. His latest book is The Israelites in History and Tradition (1999). He sees the United Kingdom as invented. He believes that the Bible was written during the Persian period. The Bible is seen as literature not history. 

Israel Finkelstein 

Finkelstein is of Tel Aviv University. Finkelstein's own work The Archaeology of the Israelite Settlement (1988) has caused much of the debate about Israelite origins. His survey revealed only 300 small settlements of the late 13th-12th/11th century BC mainly in the hill country of Israel. As a result of this data and many subsequent publications, "all archaeologists and virtually all biblical scholars have abandoned the older conquest model, or even 'peaceful infiltration' and peasants' revolt models, for 'indigenous origins' and/or 'symbiosis' models in attempting to explain the emergence of early Israel in Canaan (p.41).

Israel Finkelstein has questioned the proposed 10th century date for the city walls and gates or Hazor, Megiddo, and Gezer. He puts them a century later making the Solomonic kingdom a myth. Other leading Israeli archaeologists like Amnon Ben-Tor and Amihai Mazar strongly disagree with Finkelstein's lower dating. (See Levent 29 (1997) 157-67; IEJ 49 (1999) 1-42; IEJ 48 (1998) 1-38; TA 24 (1997) 258-88). See also Dever, "Archaeology and the 'Age of Solomon': A Case-Study in Archaeology and Historiography," in The Age of Solomon: Scholarship at the Turn of the Millennium edited by Lowell K. Handy (Leiden: Brill, 1997) pp. 217-55.  

Dever summarizes by stating, "The fact is that one of the revisionists' major fault is that they ignore, cite selectively and cavalierly, misinterpret, distort, or otherwise abuse modern archaeology and the rich data that it produces" (p.48). 

Chapter 3 - What Archaeology Is and What it Can Contribute to Biblical Studies

Dever gives a brief background to Biblical archaeology.

Beginnings: Modern Palestinian archaeology first began with the visits of American Bible Scholar Edward Robinson in 1838 and 1852. He was able to identify many of long-lost ancient sites. Actual excavations began with Sir William Flinders Petrie at Tell el-Hesi in Gaza in 1890. The first two decades of the 20th century is called the "golden age" of Syro-Palestinian archaeology by Dever (p.55). 

Between the world wars, the American School of Oriental Research under the direction of William F. Albright dominated the field. He was known as the "father of Biblical archaeology." Albright was followed by rabbi Nelson Glueck. G. Ernst Wright carried on Albright's tradition with the Biblical Theology movement in the 1950's into the 1970's. 

Other large secular excavations were carried out by the University of Pennsylvania at beth-shan (1926-1933), the Oriental Institute of Chicago at Megiddo (1926-1939), and Yale University at Jerash in Transjordan (1928-1934). 

After World War II, Biblical archaeology reached its zenith. Wright excavated Shechem from 1957 to 1968. James B. Pritchard excavated Gibeon in 1956 to 1962 and Tell er-Sa'aidiyeh from 1964 to 1967. Joseph A. Callaway excavated Ai  from 1964 to 1969. Paul W. Lapp at Tell er-Rumeith, Tel el-Ful, and Ta'anach from 1964 to 1969. Even with all these excavations they failed to prove the historicity of the Bible. 

British archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon led a stratigraphic revolution in archaeology with analysis by interdisciplinary specialists called New Archaeology. 

New Archaeology (1970's on): Biblical archaeology was dominated by pastors and professors of theology which resulted in amateurish fieldwork, and poor publication. New archaeology required professionals from a number of fields, and the cost of excavation went way up. Only large institutions could afford to excavate. 

New archaeology moved away from being Biblical to more anthropological in nature, the study of culture generally. It became interdisciplinary in character. Newer techniques for analyzing materials were discovered like radiocarbon dating, neutron activation analysis to find the source of clays, gas chromatography analysis to find residues present, electron microscopes to define manufacturing techniques, and finally DNA analysis. 

Post -Processual Archaeology: This group is anti-historical with no universal laws of cultural process. The leader of this group is Ian Hodder who has written Reading the Past: Current Approaches to Interpretation in Archaeology in 1986. He calls his approach "contextual." He sees written texts as artifacts which must be read properly. He makes history writing acceptable again. 

Dever suggests a holistic approach of General Systems Theory. Two books he recommends are  Amihai Mazar's Archaeology of the Land of the Bible, 10,000-586 BCE and Archaeology of Ancient Israel by Amnon Ben-Tor.

Dever sees the need for archaeologists to develop a hermeneutic, a theory and method for understanding the data. Dever refers to Binford's work For theory Building in Archaeology (1977). Dever states, "Often the assessment of excavated evidence is based on little more than intuition or on the competence of the excavator. Data of vary quality are categorized indiscriminately. Wide-ranging historical and cultural conclusions are drawn from the flimsiest of evidence or based on the cavalier citation of various 'authorities'" (p.77). 

As for Biblical scholars Dever states, "The point is simple: neither Ahlstrom nor Thompson is an archaeologist, so their use of archaeological data is arbitrary, often amateurish, and ultimately misleading" (p.79). 

Dever concludes, "archaeologists and biblical scholars continue to labor away in their little black boxes, largely oblivious of each other. In no case do we see real collaboration" (p.80). 

New hermeneutic-Structuralism: Structuralism goes behind the text to find the underlying mental construct. Similar to this is semiotics, a "science of how language works as a set of symbols" (p.84). Sometimes these approaches go under the banner of New Literary Criticism which emphasizes narrative history and the intent of the text. The basic tool is metalanguage, a special language of description focusing on signifiers like opposites that make meaning possible. 

Dever ends the chapter with a description of a storage jar, and what it can tell us about the Biblical story of Hezekiah. 

Chapter Four: Getting at the "History behind the History"

More to come!