Take Aways: The Bible Unearthed

(Because of my love for books and the profound insight I gain from them, I thought I would share some of this wisdom with the rest of you.  Not your typical book review, this series focuses more on the things I “take away” from a book)

In my last post I discussed some of the major turning points for my de-conversion from Christianity – resources that made me aware of facts and ideas previously unknown to me.  One such fact was learning that history, anthropology, and archaeology have all given us a very different understanding of the Middle East during the Bronze and Iron Ages than what is portrayed in the Bible.  To put it more bluntly – most of the accounts of the Old Testament, particularly in the Pentateuch, never happened as historical events, but are the stuff of myth, folklore, legend, and propaganda. 

I recently came across The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of its Sacred Text, which discusses this issue in great detail, explaining the history of the Israel and Judah from a scientific perspective.  The authors of the book, Israel Finkelstein (director of the Sonia and Marco Nadler Institute of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University) and Neil Asher Silberman (director of historical interpretation for the Ename Center fro Public Archaeology and Heritage Presentation in Belgium), “draw on the most recent archaeological research to present a dramatically revised portrait of ancient Israel and its neighbors.”  There overarching conclusion is that most of the stories in the Bible – the wondering patriarchs, the Exodus, Joshua’s conquest of Canaan, and David and Solomon’s vast empire – reflect the world of later authors rather than actual history.

Since the Bible’s inception most people have simply taken for granted that the Bible contained factual history and saw no reason to question it.  Even as recently as the 20th century, this was largely assumed in many circles.  However, during the Enlightenment, this view began to change.  As they explain at the end of the book:

“It was only when the Hebrew Bible began to be dissected and studied in isolation from the powerful function in the community life that the theologians and biblical scholars began to demand of it something that it was not.  From the 18th century , in the Enlightenment quest for thoroughly accurate, verified history, the historical factuality of the Bible became – as it remains – a matter of bitter debate” (p.318)

The reason for this understanding of the Bible as a source of literal history prevailed for so long was because of archaeologists  committing one of the “cardinal sins” of science – interpreting evidence only through the lens of a pre-determined hypothesis:

“…the archaeologists often took the historical narrative of the Bible at face value.  Instead of using archaeological data as an independent source for the reconstruction of the region, they continued to rely on the biblical narratives – particularly the traditions of the rise of Israel – to interpret their finds.” (P.21)

Unfortunately this still goes on today.  It’s not hard to find “biblical archaeology” groups out there claiming they have “proof” the Bible is true.  They latch on to what they consider evidence of the Bible’s accuracy, while ignoring any that contradict their views.

With the scientific advances made in recent decades (including carbon 14 dating) and new discoveries made in both archaeological digs and historical records, scientist are able to paint a more accurate picture of what went on in the Middle East during the Bronze and early Iron Age periods.  We’ll go through some of those now.

The book begins with the story of Moses and Israel’s captivity in Egypt.  The Egyptians kept meticulous records, many of which we have today.  From these records we can gather a few key facts:

  • There was no large group of people held for captivity and used for forced labor in Egypt during the Bronze age
  • There is no record of the Ten Plagues
  • There is no record of a large group of people fleeing Egypt
  • There is no record of the Egyptian army being wiped out in a single event.

The book focuses a lot on the Exodus, an event recorded in great detail in the Bible.  Some 600,000 men (plus women and children) wondering around the Middle East for decades.  But did this event actually happen?  As the book explains:

“Even if the number of fleeing Israelites (600,000) is wildly exaggerated… the texts describes the survival of a great number of people under the most challenging conditions.  Some archaeological traces of their generation-long wandering in the Sinai should be apparent.  However, except for the Egyptian forts along the northern coast, not a single campsite or sign of occupation fro the time of Ramessees II and his immediate predecessors and successors has ever been identified in Sinai.  And it has not been for a lack of trying. […] The conclusion – that the Exodus did not happen at the time and in the manner described in the Bible -seems irrefutable when we examine the evidence at specific sites where the children of Israel were said to have camped for extended periods during their wandering in the desert (Numbers 33) and where some archaeological indication – if present – would almost certainly be found. […] Yet repeated excavations and surveys throughout the entire area have not provided even the slightest evidence for activity int eh Late Bronze Age, not even a single sherd left by a tiny fleeing band of frightened refugees.” (p.62-63)

Israel’s conquest of the land of Canaan is also recorded in great detail and yet no solid evidence has been found to support these stories:

“As with the Exodus story, archaeology has uncovered a dramatic discrepancy between the Bible and the situation within Canaan at the suggested date of conquest… Although we know that a group named Israel was already present somewhere in Canaan by 1207 BCE, the evidence on the general political and military landscape of Canaan suggests that a lightning invasion by this group would have been impractical and unlikely in the extreme” (p. 76)

“In the Bible, no Egyptians are reported outside the borders of Egypt and none are mentioned in any battles with Canaan.  Yet contemporary texts and archaeological finds indicate that they managed and carefully watched over the affairs of the country.” (p.77)

Probably the most famous battle in the OT, one that any Sunday School child can recount, is the battle of Jericho.  The sight of Jericho has been thoroughly excavated and studied.  This is what was determined:

“In the case of Jericho, there was no trace of settlement of any kind in the 13th century BCE, and the earlier Late Bronze settlement, dating to the 14th century BCE, was small and poor, almost insignificant, and unfortified.  There was also no sign of destruction.  Thus the famous scene of the Israelite forces marching around the walled town with the Arc of the Covenant, causing Jericho’s mighty walls to collapse by the blowing of their war trumpets was, to put it simply, a romantic mirage.” (p.82)

Similar discrepancies between archaeology and the Biblical accounts  can be found in other ancient cities, such as Ai, Gideon, Arad, Heshbon, Bethel, Lachish, Hazor, and other Canaanite cities.

So, if Israel did not come on to the scene as refugees from Egypt, then where did they come from?  It turns out that the early Israelites were, in fact, Canaanites themselves and first appeared around 1200 BCE, as herders and farmers in the hills of Canaan.

“…the emergence of early Israel was an outcome of the collapse of Canaanite culture, not it’s cause.  And most of the Israelites did not come from outside of Canaan – they emerged from within.  There was no mass Exodus from Egypt.  There was not violent conquest of Canaan.  Most of the people who formed early Israel were local people – the same people whom we see in the highlands throughout the Bronze and Iron Age.” (p.118)

The history of Judea is similar in regards to there modest beginnings:

“As far as we can see on the basis of the archaeological surveys, Judah remained relatively empty of permanent population, quite isolated, and very marginal right up to and past the presumed time of David and Solomon, with no major urban centers and with no pronounced hierarchy of hamlets, villages, and towns. […] There is absolutely no archaeological indication of the wealth, manpower, and level of organization that would be required to support large armies – even for a brief period- in the field.” (p.132, 134)

“Despite Judah’s prominence in the Bible, however, there is no archaeological indication until the 8th century BCE that this small and rather isolated highland area… possessed any particular importance… it’s population was meager; it’s towns – even Jerusalem – were small and few. […] Until the late 8th century, there is no indication that Judah was anything more than a marginal factor in regional affairs.” (p.230)

In regards to the heroic tails of David and Solomon’s  great empire:

“David and his son Solomon and the subsequent members of the Davidic dynasty ruled over a marginal, isolated, rural region, with no sign of great wealth and centralized administration” (p.238)

“Despite the longstanding contention that the opulent Solomonic court was a scene of flourishing of belles lattres, religion thoughts, and history writing, evidence for widespread literacy is utterly lacking in Judah during the time of divided monarchy. Not a trace of supposed 10th century Judahite literary activity has been found.  Indeed, monumental inscriptions and personal seals – essential signs of a fully developed state – appear in Judah only two hundred years after Solomon, in the late 8th century.” (p.238)

There are also discrepancies regarding Judah’s history of holiness and devotions to God:

“The biblical picture of Judah’s history is therefore unambiguous in its belief that the kingdom had once been exceptionally holy but had some times abandoned the faith.” (p.234)


“…the archaeological finds of clay figurines, incense altars, libation vessels, and offering stands throughout Judah merely suggests that the practice of religion was highly varied, geographically decentralized, and certainly not restricted to worship of YHWH only in the Temple of Jerusalem.” (p.241)”

Monotheism came about much later than the biblical record would lead you to believe, “In a period of no more than a few decades in the late 8th and early 7th century BCE, the monotheistic tradition of Judeo-Christian civilization was born.”

Scholars in the 18th century determined that the Pentateuch was not written by Moses, as was previously thought, but was written centuries later and contains several different narratives pieced together.  The first such piece was most likely written during the time of king Jeroboam II.  Because of literacy rates prior to this time, Judah hardly had the capacity to produce extensive biblical texts:

“It is at the height of the prosperity of the northern kingdom under the rule of Jeroboam II that we can finally identify the full complement of the criteria of statehood: literacy, bureaucratic administration, specialized economic production, and a professional army.” (p.212)

King Josiah also contributed part of the Pentateuch:

“Josiah’s messianic role arose from the theology of a new religious movement that dramatically changed what it meant to be an Israelite and laid the foundation for future Judaism and for Christianity.  That movement ultimately produced the core documents of the Bible – chief among them, a book of Law, discovered during the renovations of Jerusalem Temple, in 622 BCE, the eighteenth year of Josiah’s reign.” (p.276)

“The book of Deuteronomy established the unity of the people of Israel and centralized the national cult place, but it was the Deuteronomistic History and parts of the Pentateuch that created an epic saga to express the power and passion of a resurgent Judah’s dream.  This is presumably the reason why the authors and editors of the Deuteronomistic History and part of the Pentateuch gathered and reworked the most precious traditions of the people of Israel: to gird the nation for the great national struggle that lay ahead.  Embellishing and elaborating the stories contained in the first four books of the Torah, they wove together regional variations for the stories of the patriarchs, placing the adventures of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob in a world strangely reminiscent of the 7th century BCE…” (p.283)

The book stresses the fact that when the earliest forms of the Pentateuch were taken form, the goal was not to record an accurate history (this would have been almost impossible), but to give the newly established nation a backdrop for their identity:

“The aims were not to produce an objective history of the northern kingdom but rather to provide a theological explanation for the history that was already known, at least in its broad detail.”

For anyone interested in history and archaeology, I would highly recommend this book.  The details can be a bit overwhelming at times, but it flows nicely and you never get too bogged down with unnecessary information.  There’s even several appendixes of additional details in the back for those who really want the whole story.

You never get the impression that Finkelstein and Silberman have a vendetta or are tying to “disprove” the Bible.  In fact, they seem to have a high regard for Scripture.  They are simply laying out the evidence as we have it and making determinations based on it – as any good scientist should.

The authors conclude the book by giving us this perspective of the Bible:

“The Bible’s integrity and, in fact, its historicity, do not depend on dutiful historical “proof” of any of it’s particular events or personalities… The power of the biblical sage stems from it being a compelling and coherent narrative expression of the timeless themes of a people’s liberation, continuing resistance to oppression, and the quest for social equality.  It eloquently expresses the deeply rooted sense of shared origins, experience, and destiny that every human community needs in order to survive.”

Thanks for reading.



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