Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Book Review: The Bible Unearthed

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.

Wikipedia on this book
Wikipedia on Tel Megiddo, one of the coolest places ever, also known as "Armageddon"

Find a Dig:  You can volunteer to help on a dig and get academic credit!


Chatpilot said...

I actually have the video series on dvd. I love it and it basically dispels a lot of the biblical tales regarding the Patriarchs, the Exodus, etc. I will try to get a hold of the book soon. I agree it's always better to read the book.

I love it when theists tell me in online debates that archaeology confirms the biblical narrative. One guy told me that they had found the ruins of the city of Jericho. I replied that all that says is that the city existed but not that a bunch of Hebrews were tooting horns on Gods command and brought the walls down. Some theist are just not too bright.

Cyc said...

I may have to find this book now, thanks for the review.

shreddakj said...

I found out about this book through wikipedia and bought it quite some time ago. You seem to have covered all the bases!

I actually just lent my copy to a friend who is an ex-Christian and from what I've heard he's enjoying it as much as I did.

LadyAtheist said...

Chatpilot, this book says they've found Jericho and... it never had walls! Curious!

I didn't realize there was a whole series. I'll put it on my wishlist. The interviews with archaeologists in the one that I saw were very inspiring. They are so passionate about their work.

Shreddakj, my one regret about buying it for kindle is that I can't share it. Good for you for passing it along.

Chatpilot said...

I have it in 4 one hour parts each covering different aspects of the O.T. they are titled the Partriarchs, The Exodus, The Kings and The Book. The fact that Jericho had no walls is just one of many reasons why the bible is not reliable as an historical book. It's a combination of fiction, myth, and a smidgen of distorted history.

B.R. said...

This seems like a pretty cool and well-sourced book. I may need to check it out in my spare time. Does it deal exclusively with the OT, or does it ever go into NT locales and events?

LadyAtheist said...

Nope, except tangentially when it talks about the first century. And that part is very very brief. The focus is on the history portrayed in Kings & Chronicles, mainly, which they say was written or edited with a view toward portraying Josiah as a messianic king. Everything after Josiah's death is geared toward trying to explain how the most righteous king could have died and whether his spiritual housecleaning had any lasting impact (it didn't).

James K. Collins said...

If you're still seeking that book on biblical textual criticism, you might check out Misquoting Jesus, by Bart D. Ehrman.

Haven't read it yet, but it's on my shelf, it reviews well, and some of his talks (on Youtube) are fascinating.

Or, you know, wait a couple weeks, and I'll review it for you.

Anonymous said...

If its all so inaccurate then why have they now found Pharohs Chariots at the bottom of the Red Sea. Google Red Sea Crossing and see the evidence for yourself

LadyAtheist said...

There has been a lot of pseudo-archaeology and outright lies from people who want desperately to believe the O.T. was literally true. Even if there are chariot wheels in the Red Sea, is the Moses story the only possible explanation. Even WorldNet daily doesn't believe the chariot claims:

LadyAtheist said...

See also:

Anonymous said...

Well here he is, the Christian that you wished for.... i don't need the Old Testament to be 100% actual in historic accounts. The old Testament was written by people who were (as i believe) inspired and wrote what had been revealed to them. That they could not have comprehended exactly what was shown to them is no problem to me. What was written is wat it is and it provides enough to learn from. The only thing i find missing in your review is the notion that the findings in this book are also thoughts concerning the whole puzzle based on only a few fragments found. So as challenged as my Christian perspective should be by this book, i can only hope that atheïsts don't fall for the same illusion as Christians often do.... and that is that they have all the answers to everything!!
Where all trying to solve the puzzle and some work their way from what they can't see outwards to what they can see... and others work from what they can see inwards (i hope) to find unsolved misteries that they just can't solve.

Willard said...

I am 71 now, but I rejected the Bible as true starting at age when I finally reached by mother;s Methodist Sunday school class in Lacey,Iowa. I already saw so many unbelievable claims. Jesus, for instances had no medical knowledge and believed people were sick because they were possessed by demons, whichby magic words and laying on of hands we are told he could heal people. No reason to believe such fantastic claims. My bbrother joined the Marines in 1958 and so I bought a big notebook and went through the Bible systematically and filled this notes with a huge amount of critiques and errors of facts and inconsistences. A huge number of commandments that were too crazy to follow anymore. No more mention of over 660 some! Totally unbelieveable. But as we can tell today people from other countries are taught what they are to believe from entirely different books and they believe as their culture demands that they should just as here. I was lucky to have a strong personality and able to fight if needed and was was able to survive as an outspoken atheist. Willard Bolinger lifelong activist on many issues!

Willard said...

I am 71 and grew on Iowa farm on 63 hwy a mile west from the Lacey School and Methodist Church where mt mother, Lou Ella Bolinger, taught Sunday school. I reached her class when I was 7 in 1949 and no Mom I do not believe the Bible stories as truthful. Jesus believed people were possessed by demons when sick and by using magic words and laying hands on he could "heal" them. I bought a notebook in the summer after my sophomre year and went all the way through the Bible. Amazing anyone could possibly believe this stuff! But people around the world prove they will believe what they are taught and that they better and should believe if they want to be liked and accepted and considered a good person. Most do not read their books and certainly do not take extensive notes. In U.S. only 5% of Christians even "claim" to have read the Bible! I am renting my west bedroom to a Muslim from Saudi Arabia, 25, with a businesss degree studying English and a "true believer" everything in Koran came from God and no errors etc. Did a computer search for "scientific inaccurraties in the Koran". Happy Atheist, Willard Bolinger