Excavating the Truth

What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It?by By William G. DeverWm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 275p. $25

Anyone who thinks that biblical scholarship is a dry academic discipline, dealing with ancient texts whose privileged position has long been accepted and whose interpretation over the centuries is pretty well established, should read this book. The interpretation of the Bible is in fact in ferment—meltdown is perhaps not too strong a word—as methods developed in other fields have come into conflict with traditional approaches, and new archaeological data challenge long-established conclusions. William Dever is a professor of Near Eastern studies at the University of Arizona and has been a practicing field archaeologist in Israel for nearly four decades, and in this book he offers an angry attack on a group of minimalists, who have argued ancient Israel was a historical construct of the Hellenistic period, and that little if anything in the Bible accurately reflects historical reality of earlier times.

The book contains a lucid overview of the history of archaeology in the Holy Land and its relationship to, and frequent neglect of, archaeological theory as developed by practitioners in other regions. The heart of the book is a careful and illuminating catalogue raisonnée of the evidence pertaining to the Iron Age, the 12th to the 6th centuries B.C.E.in biblical chronology, from the time of the judges to the destruction of Jerusalem in 586. (Concerning earlier periodsthe times of, say, Abraham and MosesDever, like those he criticizes, is somewhat skeptical that any authentic historical memory is preserved.) There are no monumental or other ancient nonbiblical texts that mention David and Solomon, the 10th-century kings of Israel, and independent correlations of biblical and nonbiblical sources are relatively rare for the next several centuries. The great powers of Egypt and Mesopotamia, and later Greece and Rome, had little interest in what was taking place in the political and cultural backwater that was ancient Palestine.

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But there are data, generally mundane, and in the hands of an expert like Dever, these data can be correlated with the biblical traditions. This requires interpretation of both texts and archaeology, and that is no easy task. Few archaeologists are competent to discuss biblical interpretation, and few biblical scholars are competent to deal with the archaeological record. But when the data are carefully studied, there is a compelling convergence of probabilities. To take just one example, hundreds of stone weights, some inscribed with their unit of measurement, have been found at sites in Judah in late eighth- and seventh-century contexts. These connect nicely with the biblical writers’ description of political and religious reforms under Kings Hezekiah and Josiah at the beginning and the end of that period. One of those reforms may well have involved establishing royal standard measurements, so that the practice of using deceitful weights (Mic. 6:11) would be replaced by a full and honest weight...and measure (Dt. 25:15). In this way, archaeological discoveries both illustrate and help establish the historical validity of details of the biblical text.

Other discoveries force a reevaluation of the biblical writers’ own views. This is especially true in the case of religion. Hundreds of fertility figurines, also from the Iron Age, make it clear that monotheism was at best a theoretical ideal, that other deities were worshiped along with Yahweh the god of Israel, and that in popular religion, at least, Yahweh himself, like all other gods of antiquity, probably had a divine wife (perhaps the Queen of Heaven of Jer. 7:18).

Because of Dever’s very narrow view of history, he eliminates from consideration both the narrative and legal material of the Pentateuch and the wisdom literature and poetic books other than the prophets. Yet using his methods, these too can be shown to contain authentic details pertaining both to social history and to the history of ideas. But with the limits he has set, the evidence shows that the minimalists are wrong. Although most biblical texts were edited after the sixth century, many of them do reflect what was going on in the periods in which the narratives are set.

Much of this material is set in a polemical context, a somewhat superficial and intemperate attack on the minimalists in particular, and on postmodernism, chaos theory, surrealism and just about anything else that seems to annoy Dever. Dever relishes controversy, and in the fray, by his account at least, he is the stable, reasonable, even omniscient center. But surely not everything with which he disagrees is wrong, and most of his adversaries are not as wrong as he suggests. Newer methodologies do provide insight, and trenchant critiques can lead to salutary reconsiderations of one’s presuppositions.

The very qualities that Dever disparages in his opponentsthey are ideologues, polemicists, condescending, even vicious (all on one page!), who engage in rambling diatribesare found in this book. Readers may ignore the polemics, or enjoy them. Fortunately, there is much that is important in this book.

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