I was inspired by the video I reviewed awhile ago, The Bible's Buried Secrets, to look for a readable book on the findings of Biblical Archaeology, or more properly, Middle East archaeology that happens to include places mentioned in biblical stories. I wanted to dig into the details a bit. The video is very vivid, as you'd expect, but the details fly by too fast to catch them, and anyway the book is usually better than the movie!
Refreshingly, it begins with a review of the main stories of the Bible, not assuming the reader has studied the Bible enough to know even that much. Next they review biblical scholarship, also assuming no prior knowledge. They don't get into the weeds here, just enough to set the stage for The Big Questions that archaeologists will tackle.
One of the first chinks in the armor of biblical inerrancy was when people realized (or dared to point out) that Moses couldn't possibly have written the story of his own death. This took about 2500 years. Then, scholars noticed that there were duplicate stories of many of the "early" stories in the first books of the Bible. They teased apart the minds behind the words based on stylistic analysis and deduced that there were two traditions, one from Judea and one from Israel. This makes sense. The two parts of Judaism were separated for a long time as two kingdoms.
Curiously, the authors are against the theory that there was an original version of all these stories that dates to the unified period of Judaism. I don't know how the two halves of the religion could have come up with the same stories (varying in details) independently, but rocks don't lie and that's what I was reading the book for. If I can find a readable book on Biblical textual criticism, I'll post a review here.
So anywho... after a summary of the main points in the "history" contained in the Bible, they give a run-down of all the findings of archaeology and history that point to the eighth century BCE as the likeliest time of the writing of the "history."
Archaeology disproves some of the Bible through anachronisms uncovered in digs. Camels are domesticated in the Bible long before they are domesticated in reality. Capital cities are capitals in the Bible when they are still only tiny towns. Products are traded before trade routes are established. People are mixing before they meet. And the only time period for these references to make sense was about the eighth century.
My first thought, and apparently this is what everyone thinks, is that some eighth century editor threw in some touches for realism. Nope, it turns out that after the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel, Judah ... at just this time... was consolidating power and establishing itself as the heart of the Jewish people. References to place names associated with the historic kings was a way to include the various segments of the population within their realm.
The book goes through the "history" as presented in the Old Testament, compared with the history that archaeologists are discovering. Over and over the eighth century seems to be the period of the final edit, if not the wholesale writing, of the Old Testament.
Particularly interesting is the contrast between the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Israel, to the North, experienced periodic migrations and "exodus" based possibly on climactic changes. When the situation was good, the people settled down and farmed. When not so good they became nomads and traveled with their animals. The design of settlements reflects the lay-out of the tent cities they set up as nomads, and which nomads still use today. Later, the kingdom grew in numbers and land mass, culminating in a great kingdom, the Omri dynasty, headed by Ahab, husband of Jezebel. Yes, those two! They erected fabulous walled enclaves for palaces and administrative buildings, dating from the ninth century BCE. This is about 100 years after Solomon's rule over his "great kingdom" headquartered in Jerusalem to the South. In contrast to Ahab's accomplishments, Solomon's Jerusalem was a small town without much of a building program. And yet the Old Testament portrays just the opposite: Solomon's kingdom was rich and well built. Could someone.... say, 8th-Century BCE King Josiah... be rewriting history to portray his kingdom as having more historical merit than the competition?
The book weaves the archaeology together with the Biblical stories (sometimes too much of the stories) and makes the history of the royal lineages of Israel and Judah much more interesting than the Bible makes them!
All of this stuff was new to me, so I appreciated the authors' assume-nothing approach and his overview of both the Bible and the history of "digs" around the "Holy Land." People have been looking for proof of Biblical accuracy for almost 200 years, and at times they thought they'd found it. This book tells you who did the digs, who is currently working a site, and what the scholars think about it all. So while not scholarly, you can track down further information from scholarly sources with names and sites right at hand for searching.
I have two complaints. One complaint is that some of the maps and charts are hard to read on a Kindle, which is a pretty minor thing but they are helpful because of the large number of names and places that come and go, and some come back. The other is that they frequently refer to "ages" such as Bronze Age I or Iron Age, as if everyone knows when those are, and doesn't give a chart to line those up with the findings discussed in the book.
Searching the web to find cool pix for this blog entry has been a real adventure, making me appreciate this book even more. The "Biblical Inerrancy" literalists of course want all the archaeology to go their way and they're quite upset by scholars who claim the writers of the Bible may have gotten a few details wrong... or even *gasp* made stuff up!
I also appreciate honesty of the archaeologists who have to be feeling heavy pressure to throw the data in the direction of the Bible. It's not just the Christians who want the Bible to be 100% true. Israel's very existence is predicated on the belief that this is historical land that belongs to the Jews. And yet they support the archaeology that's undermining some of that "history."
This book could be used as a textbook in college level Bible history courses, but I suspect it's not being used that way. That's a shame. Christians are so good at rationalization that they could certainly incorporate the truths uncovered by archaeology and yet still believe that God doesn't lie to them. I would respect a Christian that could do that much more than the ones who insist it's 100% true despite being riddled with errors, inconsistencies and as it turns out, political propaganda perpetrated by Josiah and later kings to justify their ambitions and unify the people of Israel.