The Bible Icon

Institute for Biblical & Scientific Studies

Site Map | Contacts | Links | Newsletter |  

The Bible:
The Bible Unearthed

Book by Israel Finkelstein & Neil Asher Silberman

Reviewed by Dr. Stephen C. Meyers


The Bible UnearthedThe Bible Unearthed gives the latest scholarly views on the origins of the Hebrew Bible and the origins of Israel.

Who wrote the Pentateuch? In the 17th century some scholars began to question that all of the Pentateuch was written by Moses. How could Moses write about his own death (Deut. 34)? There were explanations of place names. Evidences were still visible "to this day." By the 19th century scholars doubted that Moses had any thing to do with the Pentateuch. It was seen as the work of later writers. There were two or three versions of the same story. For example, Genesis chapter one and two tell different creation stories. Scholars saw four major sources named J, E, D, and P. This theory was first articulated by Julius Wellhausen.

J source uses the name Jehovah, from Judah.

E source uses the name Elohim, from Ephriam.

D source the book of Deuteronomy.

P source from the Priests. 

Finkelstein and Silberman state, "In the last few decades scholarly opinion about the dates and authorship of these individual sources have varied wildly" (p.13). 

Some scholars (maximalists) say that under the United Kingdom Biblical texts were first composed. David is seen in the characters of Genesis (Bible Review February 2001).

At the other end are scholars (minimalists) who say all Biblical texts were written by priests and scribes after the Babylonian Exile down to the Hellenistic period. 

Finkelstein and Silberman conclude, "Yet all agree that the Pentateuch is not a single, seamless composition but a patchwork of different sources" (p.13). 

The Book of Deuteronomy is very different in terminology than the rest of the Pentateuch. Scholar suggest that the "book of the Law" discovered by Hilkiah the High Priest was the Book of Deuteronomy (2 Kings 22:8-23:24). Scholars say the Book of Deuteronomy was written at this time, and then claimed to be a discovery. It inspired the reforms during the reign of Josiah in about 622 BC. 

Everyone seems to agree that the Book of 1&2  Chronicles is post-exilic, written during the Second Temple Jerusalem. Chronicles favors the Davidic dynasty at Jerusalem while ignoring the northern kingdom of Israel. 

The books of Joshua, Judges, 1&2 Samuel, 1&2 Kings, are all closely related to Deuteronomy linguistically and theologically, and have been called the "Deuteronomistic History" since the middle 1940's. Finkelstein and Silberman posit that the Deuteronomistic History was mainly written during the time of king Josiah. Much of their book is spent on trying to prove this point with archaeological evidence. 

On the archaeological evidence, Finkelstein and Silberman conclude, "By the end of the twentieth century, archaeology had shown that there were simply too many material correspondences between the finds in Israel and in the entire Near East and the world described in the Bible to suggest that the Bible was late and fanciful priestly literature, written with no historical basis at all. But at the same time there were too many contradictions between archaeological finds and the Biblical narratives to suggest that the Bible provided a precise description of what actually occurred (pp.19-21). Until the 1990's the Biblical events beginning with David were seen as reliable. The events before David like the exodus and conquest were not reliable. Now the United Kingdom is brought into question by archaeology. 

Chapter 1-Searching for the Patriarchs

The great American Biblical archaeologist, William F. Albright, insisted that Genesis is historical. The French Dominican scholar Roland de Vaux stated, "if the historical faith of Israel is not founded in history, such faith is erroneous" (p.34). But is it? A parable conveys truth without being historical. 

The problems with the patriarchs are long life spans, and confusing genealogies. For example, Moses is the four generation descendant while Joshua is a 12th generation descendant from Jacob's sons. 

Albright argued that personal names, marriage customs, and land laws reflect the 2nd millennium BC. The search for the patriarchs was unsuccessful. The supposed "Amorite migration" did not happen. The laws and customs would also fit the 1st millennium BC just as well. 


Anachronisms are out of place words or phrases. For example, a story from the 18th century AD would not talk about computers, atomic power, or airplanes because they were not invented yet. 

In Genesis there is the repeated use of camels. Camels were not widely used until after 1000 BC. In the Joseph story there is a camel caravan carrying "gum, balm, and myrrh" which best fits the Arabian trade of the 8-7th centuries BC. Assyrian texts describe the use of camels in caravans in the 7th century. There is a large increase of camel bones in the archaeological record at this same time. 

In Genesis (26:1) the Philistines are encountered, but it was not until after 1200 BC that the Philistines settled on the coastal plain of Canaan. Gerar, a Philistine city is mentioned (Gen. 20:1), but excavations show this was just a small village in Iron Age I. 

The Arameans, Jacob's relatives, are not mentioned as an ethic group until 1100 BC. The Arameans did not become dominate until the 9th century BC. It is suggested that the stories of Jacob and Laban metaphorically express the stormy relationship between Aram and Israel. 

The kingdom Edom did not exist before the late 8th century BC. Edom became a serious rival of Israel only during the Assyrian period. Ammon and Moab were not nations at the time of Moses.

The descendants of Ishmael (Gen. 25:12-15), the Kedarites are mentioned for the first time in the Assyrian records in the late 8th century BC. Before this time they lived beyond Israel's interest. Tema and Sheba are mentioned in Assyrian records between 8-6th centuries BC. 

The war in Genesis 14 seems only to fit the geography of the 7th century BC. En-mishpat or Kadesh most likely refers to Kadesh-barnea, a great oasis which was mainly occupied in the 7th and early 6th century. 

The capitals of the Assyrian empire are mentioned, Nineveh (7th century) and Calah its predecessor (Gen. 10:11). Haran was prosperous during the Neo-Assyrian period. Assyrian texts mention towns near Haran resembling the names of Terah, Nahor, and Serug, Abraham's forefathers (Gen. 11:22-26). There is also a town called Ur. 

The German Biblical scholar Martin Noth posits that "the patriarchs were originally quite separate regional ancestors, who were eventually brought together in a single genealogy in an effort to create a united history" (p.43). The stories of Abraham center around Hebron. Isaac centers around Beersheba, and Jacob around the northern hill country. 

Finkelstein and Silberman posit that Judah was a small isolated kingdom until the Assyrians conquered Israel in 720 BC. Many refugees flooded into Judah which then developed complex state institutions. There was a need to unite all the Israelites together. Thus a united history was created with a united kingdom. The patriarchal narratives attempt to redefine the unity of Israel. Abraham builds altars at Shechem and Bethel, the two most important cult centers of the northern kingdom, and Hebron in the south. Abraham functions as a unifier of both northern and southern traditions (p.44).

Finkelstein and Silberman claim that all of these anachronisms indicate that Genesis was composed in the 8-7th century BC. It should be noted that scholars are still debating this. 

Chapter 2 - Did the Exodus Happen?

The Egyptian historian Manetho in the third century BC suggested that Hyksos who were driven out of Egypt, founded the city of Jerusalem and built a temple there. This happened about 1570 BC. Egyptologist Donald Redford thinks the Exodus echoes the Hyksos expulsion (68-9). For more information see The Date of the Exodus and The Archaeological Evidence for the Exodus.

Let me be so bold as to insert my opinion. I think the story of the Exodus is very loosely based on the Egyptian story about the expulsion of the Hyksos from Egypt. I think Moses may be loosely based on some of the stories about Ah-mose. Ah-mose's besiege of Sharuhen (ANET, 233-34), seems similar to Israel's futile attack on the Amalekites and Canaanites (Numbers 14:39-45, 21:1-3, or Exodus 17:8-16). For Ah-mose it took three years, for Moses 38 years of wandering. In  Josephus, Moses was said to be a general who made war with the Ethiopians or the Nubians as did Ah-mose (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book II, Chapter X). This story also explains why Moses married an Ethiopian. 

I think the conquest of Canaan is loosely based on Egyptian campaigns of Thutmose I into Canaan destroying the Middle Bronze Age cities. The period of the Judges is reflected in the Amarna Letters. The Hapiru who are mentioned in the letters is probably a derogatory label from which the word Hebrew originated. They were not an ethnic group. The local Hapiru formed a confederacy of tribes called Israel. The tribe of Dan may be the Denyen or Dannuna of the Sea People (Dothan, 1992, 215-19; Iliad, Book 1.56,87). For more details see The Archaeological Evidence for the Exodus. Back to the book.

In Exodus 1:11 the city of Ramses is mentioned. This is anachronistic. The first pharaoh to be named Ramses was in 1320 BC. Egyptian records report a city of Pi-Ramses was built under Ramses the Great (II, 1279-1213 BC) using Semites to build it.

In the Sinai there has not been found one shred of evidence that the Israelites camped there. If they wandered for 40 years there should be some evidence, yet nothing has been found. Israel is said to have camped at Kadesh-barnea, but when this site was excavated there was no evidence of any occupation in the Late Bronze Age. The children of Israel also stopped at Ezion-geber on the northern tip of the Gulf of Aqaba, but there is no Late Bronze Age occupation. The king of Arad is mentioned, but no Late Bronze Age occupation was found.

Egyptologist Donald Redford suggests that the geographical details of the Exodus come from the 7th century BC. The Saite Dynasty fits the background of the Exodus story. A large Jewish community was present in the delta by the early 6th century BC (Jeremiah 44:1, 46:14). The famous city of Pithom (Tell Maskhuta) was built in the late 7th century BC. Migdol was very important in the 7th century BC. and mentioned by Jeremiah. Goshen comes from Geshem which is a dynastic name in the Qedarite Arab royal family that came to the delta in the 6th century.

The Egyptian names mentioned in the story of Joseph reach their greatest popularity in the 7-6th centuries BC like Zaphenath-paneah the grand vizier of the pharaoh. There is also a fear of spies that might later invade the land. There was no such fear until the Assyrians attacked.

All the places mentioned in the wilderness wanderings were inhabited in the 7th century BC. Some were occupied only at this time.

Finkelstein and Silberman conclude, "All these indications suggest that the Exodus narrative reached its final form during the time of the 26th Dynasty, in the second half of the 7th and the first half of the 6th century BCE" (p.68). It seems that ancient traditions about the Hyksos was added with 7th century geography and political realities. The confrontation with Moses and the pharaoh reflects the confrontation between king Josiah and the newly crowned Pharaoh Necho.

Chapter 3 - The Conquest of Canaan

Finkelstein and Silberman contend, “Archaeology has uncovered a dramatic discrepancy between the Bible and the situation in Canaan at the suggested date of the conquest, between 1230 and 1220 BCE” (p. 76). I would agree, but I would not place the conquest at this time. The fall of the Middle Bronze Age cities of Canaan seems like a far better match with the conquest stories. The fall of Ai may even be a story from the Early Bronze Age destruction. Another possibility is the Late Bronze Age destruction, or a mixture of all of these. See more detailed information at The Archaeological Evidence for the Exodus.

At the beginning of the twentieth century Bible Scholar set out to prove the Bible was true by Archaeology. They dug of cities that were said to be destroyed by Joshua. The most prominent was William Foxwell Albright. His most famous expedition was at Tell Beit Mirsim (Biblical Debir) southwest of Hebron. Excavation revealed a poor unwalled town destroyed by fire which he took as Joshua’s destruction at the end of the Late Bronze Age. Destructions were found in other towns. It seemed that archaeology had proved the conquest of Canaan by Joshua, but then problems arose. There was no sign of destruction at Jericho or AI Gibeon was not occupied in the Late Bronze Age. This is why I relate most of the Middle Bronze Age destruction stories to Joshua, and the Late Bronze Age stories to the book of Judges. The rise of nations starts in the Iron Age.

Finkelstein and Silberman posit that the stories of the conquest fit better into the 7th century BC where Josiah was trying to take back land lost to the Assyrians who had conquered Samaria. The list of towns in Joshua 15:21-62 corresponds to the borders of Judah during the time of Josiah. Some cities mentioned were only occupied during the time of Josiah (p.92). Josiah’s mother came from the town of Bozkath (2 Kings 22:1). The only other time this town is mentioned is in Joshua 15:39. The Deuteronomistic history (Deuteronomy through 2 Kings) was probably written at the time of Josiah and formed the basis of his reforms. 

The battles of Jericho and AI were the first targets of Josiah’s expansion after the Assyrians withdrew from Samaria. The Joshua’s conquest of the Shephelah also parallels Josiah’s expansion (p.93).

Chapter 4 - Who Were the Israelites?

In the past scholars have identified the Israelites with the Apiru which is linguistically connected to “Hebrew.” They are mentioned in the Amarna letters. Another group called the Shosu or Shashu are also thought to be the Israelites. The Shosu were pastoral nomads. For more details see The Archaeological Evidence for the Exodus.

Finkelstein and Silberman believe that the Israelites were actually the Canaanites. Surveys of Israel reveal that there was no conquest, nor infiltration, but a revolution in lifestyle (107). There is a shift from earlier tent camps to villages to rectangular pillared houses. There was a shift from pastoral nomads to a permanent agricultural life (112-13).

Finkelstein and Silberman state, “The process that we describe here is, in fact, the opposite of what we have in the Bible: the emergence of early Israel was an outcome of the collapse of the Canaanite culture, not its cause. And most of the Israelites did not come from outside Canaan—they emerged from within it” (p.118).

Chapter 5 - Memories of a Golden Age?

The emergence of Israel into a central government was probably due to the threat posed by the Philistines who invaded the coastal plain of Canaan about 1200 BC.

Did David and Solomon Exist?

Thomas Thompson, Niels Lemche, and Philip Davies are called "Biblical minimalists." They believe the entire history of Israel was made up by priestly circles in Jerusalem in post-exilic or even Hellenistic times.

In the summer of 1993 at Tel Dan a fragmentary black basalt monument was found with the inscription of "House of David." This seems to prove that David was not a literary invention of post-exilic times.

There does seem to be an exaggeration of the wealth and buildings of Solomon in the Bible. The so-called stables of Solomon actually were built by King Ahab who had a great chariot force. The so-called Solomon's gates are not from Solomon's time (pp.139-140). Jerusalem was just an underdeveloped village.

Questions of Dating

  1. The distinctive Philistine pottery which was closely linked to David's conquest seems to continue long after David's death.

  2. The architectural styles and pottery forms that were thought to be from Solomon actually date to the early 9th century BC well after the time of Solomon.

  3. Carbon 14 dating now seems to make this certain (p.141). See Appendix D. Samples date well after Solomon. The supposed remains from the time of David and Solomon have been misdated by a full century.

Finkelstein and Silberman do not doubt the historicity of David or Solomon, but they do doubt the exaggerated claims about David and Solomon. The visit of the queen of Sheba seems better to reflect the Arabian trade of the 7th century BC. The building of Tamar and Ezion-geber were not inhabited in Solomon's time, but were important in the 7th century BC (pp.143-144).

Chapter 6 - One State, One Nation, One People

Finkelstein and Silberman state, "There is no archaeological evidence whatsoever that this situation of north and south grew out of an earlier political unity--particularly one centered in the south" (p.158). Jerusalem was just a modest village at the time of David. Elaborate palaces with ashlar masonry and stone capitals appear only in the 7th century BC in Judah.

Shishak known as Sheshonq in Egypt invaded Israel. This destroyed the Canaanite city-state system giving rise to a nation in the north.

There is an amazing prophecy in I Kings 13:1-2 about Josiah that seems to be political propaganda for Josiah to take over northern Israel.

Chapter 7 - Israel's forgotten First Kingdom

A new archaeological view sees Ahab as the first might king of Israel to be on the world scene. The Omrides' rule was the first golden age of Israelite kings. Finkelstein and Silberman state, "The Israeliteness of the northern kingdom was in many ways a late monarchic Judahite idea."

Chapter 8 - In the Shadow of Empire (Assyrians)

Jeroboam II is the earliest Israelite king for whom we have an official seal. Finkelstein and Silberman speculate, "It is possible that the later Judahite author, composing his history almost a hundred years later, romantically (and patriotically) ascribed the ruins of the great structures built by Jeroboam to the golden age of Solomon?" (p.209). Amos and Hosea reflect the heyday of Jereboam II.

Assyria finally puts an end to the northern kingdom of Israel. Many were deported. Others were brought in from Avva who settled around Bethel which was named Avvium in the 7th century BC Judah, but named in Joshua 18:23. Survivors still came with offerings to Jerusalem (Jeremiah 41:5).