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The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts (2001)

by Israel Finkelstein, Neil Asher Silberman

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1,3052414,372 (3.96)31
In this groundbreaking work that sets apart fact and legend, authors Finkelstein and Silberman use significant archeological discoveries to provide historical information about biblical Israel and its neighbors. In this iconoclastic and provocative work, leading scholars Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman draw on recent archaeological research to present a dramatically revised portrait of ancient Israel and its neighbors. They argue that crucial evidence (or a telling lack of evidence) at digs in Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon suggests that many of the most famous stories in the Bible--the wanderings of the patriarchs, the Exodus from Egypt, Joshua's conquest of Canaan, and David and Solomon's vast empire--reflect the world of the later authors rather than actual historical facts. Challenging the fundamentalist readings of the scriptures and marshaling the latest archaeological evidence to support its new vision of ancient Israel, The Bible Unearthed offers a fascinating and controversial perspective on when and why the Bible was written and why it possesses such great spiritual and emotional power today.… (more)
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Showing 1-5 of 22 (next | show all)
Good intro to a particular view of the real history behind the bible (up to the return from the Babylonian exile). Summary-ish

- Most of the major stories that happened before 800-700BC contain many significant historical errors that make it clear that they're written from a later context - sometimes it's likely the errors are intentional to create a greater parallel with the current story of Judah, other times it's simply ignorance (eg the story of Abraham is attempting to write about a pastoral history but includes camels which didn't exist for hundreds of years afterwards)
- Therefore the patriarchs didn't exist, at least not in the story the bible suggests. Parts may have been based on folk tales
- The Exodus didn't happen. There's no evidence of anything even vaguely like it and Egypt controlled the areas the Israelites supposedly escaped to the whole time period anyway. It's possible there was an initial basis in particular anti-Egypt experiences due to the occupation and certain conflicts (eg the Hyksos and Apiru) but the story itself is fiction.
- The Israelites were always Canaanites and although the circumstances of the initial separation are murky the bible's insistence on total division is nonsense. Interestingly our first evidence of Israelite cultural separation is the lack of pig bones in their refuse in the ~1200s BC
- There was no invasion as portrayed in Joshua - most of the places supposed to have been destroyed were either destroyed much earlier or later than the timeframe the story demands. Jericho was settled at the time but was a small settlement with no walls.
- The bible is incredibly biased against Israel, which was far richer and more powerful than Judah. Because it's written retrospectively after the Assyrian destruction of Israel it's easy for the authors to present any successes of Israel as a temporary reprieve while the trading and cosmopolitanism that made them wealthy is used as a reason for their destruction, because they didn't keep their purity to God.
- There was likely no United Monarchy of Israel and Judah and this was a later propaganda invention to justify Judah's dreams of conquest of Israel's former territories. If there was any sort of United Monarchy it had a very limited territory.
- The golden age of Solomon is a total myth. Archaeology makes clear things that were previously attributed to Solomon were mostly the product of Israel's Omride dynasty, who were rich and involved in many building projects across a large territory. The Solomonide golden age is again a later propaganda creation likely based on the stories of the great wealth and trade that Israel experienced before the Assyrian destruction (and possibly partly the new status as a wealthier nation Judah gained as an Assyrian vassal on a major trading route during Josiah's reign)
- The first 5 books of the bible and the whole Deuteronomic history of Joshua, Samuel and Kings was likely first compiled in the reign of King Josiah. Most of the historical details in it match up to that era and the whole narrative is presenting Josiah as an ideal messianic character who'll finally restore a great kingdom through devotion to God, who always rewards the truly faithful. Later, there were edits that changed the emphasis somewhat to the holiness of the whole *nation* of Israel to recover from his unceremonious death in an obscure meeting with an Egyptian army, paving the way both for the dominance of the priesthood as well as helping retain the faith among the whole people even after the major losses. (Worth nothing he only touches on the composition of the Pentateuch in general, which is fair, because it's an absurdly complicated subject)
- The Babylonian Captivity only carried away a small percentage of people, not even all the upper classes, but they later were able to impose their particular views of worship and "pure" identity on those who remained due to being backed by the power of the Persians.

There's obviously stuff in this book that's hotly contested - history always is and especially stuff like this, which is heavily emotive and the evidence is complicated - so to be clear it's just one particular "school"'s idea of what happened from the evidence at the time (the evidence base is constantly moving too, obviously). There's also maybe a bit too much recounting of what the bible says before leading into what the evidence says, which is maybe a bit of a waste if you're already familiar. Sometimes it does get a little bit dry while detailing the various archaeological finds, which are fascinating but very hard to picture and a bit repetitive due to the similar architectural styles. However, if you have an interest in the topic you'll definitely be fascinated anyway and I can recommend it if the topic of the actual history behind the bible and the region is interesting to you. ( )
  tombomp | Oct 31, 2023 |
very interesting, well written scholarly work, yet accessible to a non archaeologist. the idea that the pentateuch is just one of many historical artifacts that we can use to reconstruct the bronze and iron age near east. the idea that the pentateuch was primarily a propaganda piece for king Josiah, and it was setting him up to be the Savior, creating and embellishing the older stories just to point to Josiah. fascinating and very different point of view of the Bible.
remember that there are historical, semi historical, and non historical verses in the Bible, sometimes right next to each other, so you can neither take the entire thing to be absolute history, nor can you throw it all out as fable. ( )
  zizabeph | May 7, 2023 |
"The Bible Unearthed" compares the earlier books of the Old Testament of the Bible with the many archeological findings in the Mideast, and infers what the differences may teach us about what actually happened there and also about the sources, motivations, and times of the writers of those books. This is the best exposition I have read on this subject. It is also a way to learn a little Bible without having to wade through some duller stuff in it such as details of rituals and lists.

The account seems balanced and without any intention either to justify or to undermine any religious ideology. Previous historical criticism assumed that the biblical narrative is true and then used archaeological investigation as a tool to prove the narrative. Practices over the last 40 years, based on more recent and extensive findings, constrain the Bible to serving as one of the artifacts to be examined.

Two reflections. The more un-historical the biblical accounts are, the more we learn thereby about the motives of the (mostly seventh-century BCE) writers, who were intending to fashion not an accurate history but rather, retaining the wisdom of the ancient laws but freely adapting the echoes of a history long past, a foundation tale in support of political aims. Knowledge of the true nature of the development of the Old Testament is surely more important to the western world today than the corresponding historical facts themselves, even as the former rests upon the latter.

The book has been well received by biblical scholars. Limited professional disagreement with the authors appears to emerge from fundamentalist tendency.

Highly recommended. Wikipedia has an excellent summary of this book. If you don’t have time for the book, then check out the article.
( )
  KENNERLYDAN | Jul 11, 2021 |
I found this book through a referral on, of all places, /r/AskHistorians on reddit, and, more to the point, the "How Much of the Bible is Historical" question linked to in the subreddit's FAQ where it was referred to as a decent reference. Having not read much Biblical Archeology in a while and finding the book in Amazon's Kindle Store, I downloaded it to my Kindle.

The Bible Unearthed is a dry, fairly technical text dealing with matching Archeology with books of the Old Testament, mainly Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, 2 Kings and pieces of Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and lesser Prophets. Working from the beginning with Abraham and concluding at the Exile into Babylon, the authors methodically dissect the Old Testament chapter by chapter and, in some places, verse by verse and compare it to the known archeological evidence to prove their core supposition: the Old Testament and the Torah were compiled, and in no small part written, in the mid-to-late 7th Century BC in Judah for a combination of political and religious aims by likely two Kings: Hezekiah and, later, Josiah. These are not historical recordings of mid-Bronze Age wanders but of Iron Age Kings under the Assyrian yoke who were trying to forge a national identity through myths, tales, stories of various tribal peoples, and political propaganda, stamp out the local religions and create a theocratic state.

Although the book is a little out of date, as it was written in 2000, the evidence presented is pretty plausible stuff if one can slog through chapters based on the settlement patterns of Iron Age bedouins and their village layouts or read 100 pages on pottery sherds at different strata.

The authors present:

* No historical record of the patriarchs in any form;
* Moses's Pharaoh is far more the Pharaoh of Late Period 26th Dynasty and not a New Kingdom Monarch;
* Joshua conquers cities that do not exist in the 12th century BCE but certainly do in the 7th, and those that did exist likely collapsed in the Bronze Age Collapse at different times over a hundred years;
* No sign exists of David's Kingdom and all that remains is that of a small hill fort and David's name in secondary sources;
* No sign exists of Solomon or his works;
* The Omrides, who kindly left heaps of archeological evidence and secondary sources, were likely quite good Kings;
* Israel was likely a victim of its enduring financial success making it a tempting target for a sack;
* Deuteronomy written in the format of an Assyrian legal document to a vassal describing the rules and rights therein;
* Etc... it goes on like this for ~400 pages.

All signs point to a 7th century BC compilation of books, tales and sources into one unified whole, smoothing over the lumps and presenting the people -- many suddenly pouring into Judah from the sack of Samaria -- a new complete identity with their One God. One shouldn't besmirch the power of an enduring document that managed to forge a people, see them through the Babylonian Exile, and then become the root of three major world religions. But no archeological evidence points to the Old Testament being a reliable historical document, either.

For me, it's fascinating book showing the pressures and the prejudices of a people who were living in uncertain times with two crazed superpowers (the Assyrians and the Late Egyptians) on their borders and smaller enemies all around them and just before the Phoenicians would become "a thing." These were Kings who wanted to reconquer Israel back from Assyria and return it to its once financial glory, and they saw the way forward was to unite all these people pouring into their tiny kingdom filled with bedouins under One God and One Temple. The plan didn't work out because sticking a finger into the side of a crazed kingdom loaded with mercenaries and a religion that tells them to kill and bathe in blood _never_ works out well but the legacy of that time endures.

It's doubly fascinating to think this: in the 7th Century BCE, the great Egyptian Kingdom of Ramesses II, the Hittites, the fall of Sumeria and founding of Assyria, were as far away from them as the /Fall of Rome is from Modern Day/. The time of great civilizations and great kings was destroyed by the Bronze Age Collapse and left huge mounds where cities once stood -- and no one of Iron Age II knew why. No one read those languages. No one did satellite-based archeology. This is something to think about -- the time of Moses and Joshua and Judges were all distant myth at a time when real 7th century enemies were on the doorstep. Why _wouldn't_ there be stories about how those ancient dimly remembered cities? Why _weren't_ there be ancient kings and great heroes and an explanation of how those civilizations of the great antiquity fell? Why wouldn't those stories be forged in one narrative of one God who destroyed them in the past and will destroy them now?

Not for the highly religious, obviously. Interesting if one wants to read the constant debates on reddit, though.

ALSO: if you have no time to read the book, the BBC did a 4 part series with the authors which is available on Youtube some years ago.



( )
  multiplexer | Jun 20, 2021 |
2012 (my brief review can be found on the LibraryThing post linked)
http://www.librarything.com/topic/138560#3562435
  dchaikin | Sep 26, 2020 |
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Finkelstein, Israelprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Silberman, Neil Ashermain authorall editionsconfirmed
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The world in which the Bible was created was not a mythic realm of great cities and saintly heroes, but a tiny, down-to-earth kingdom where people struggled for their future against the all-too-human fears of war, poverty, injustice, disease, famine and drought.
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In this groundbreaking work that sets apart fact and legend, authors Finkelstein and Silberman use significant archeological discoveries to provide historical information about biblical Israel and its neighbors. In this iconoclastic and provocative work, leading scholars Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman draw on recent archaeological research to present a dramatically revised portrait of ancient Israel and its neighbors. They argue that crucial evidence (or a telling lack of evidence) at digs in Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon suggests that many of the most famous stories in the Bible--the wanderings of the patriarchs, the Exodus from Egypt, Joshua's conquest of Canaan, and David and Solomon's vast empire--reflect the world of the later authors rather than actual historical facts. Challenging the fundamentalist readings of the scriptures and marshaling the latest archaeological evidence to support its new vision of ancient Israel, The Bible Unearthed offers a fascinating and controversial perspective on when and why the Bible was written and why it possesses such great spiritual and emotional power today.

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