"The Bible Unearthed": Review

Everything we hear is an opinion not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective not the truth.

- Marcus Aurelius

Why a review of this book (hereafter referred to as TBU)? Here are some links to glowing online reviews:

review 1
review 2
review 3
review 4

Also, the book is a Quality Paperback Book Club selection. Here's what the editor-in-chief of QPB wrote: "Surveying the latest archaeological finds, the authors set out to answer some of the biggest questions about the historicity of the Bible. Curious readers will find this book a revelation: I certainly did!" Publishers Weekly exclaimed, "Fresh, stimulating, and highly engrossing."

How I feel about this is partly illustrated by a Tom Clancy story (the best-selling author). He showed a picture of a scary Soviet ship to US Navy people. Their reaction was simply, "That is a target!"

Disclaimer: I am neither an archeologist nor historian. However, I have college degrees with a strong scientific and philosophical background. I have studied and am studying philosophy for many years now.

The first paragraph of the book's prologue sets forth without any further ado the central thesis of the book:

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. The historical saga contained in the Bible -- from Abraham's encounter with God and his journey to Canaan, to Moses' deliverance of the children of Israel from bondage, to the rise and fall of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah -- was not a miraculous revelation, but a brilliant product of the human imagination. It was first conceived -- as recent archaeological evidence suggest -- during the span of two or three generations, about twenty-six hundred years ago. Its birthplace was the kingdom of Judah, a sparsely settled region of shepherds and farmers, ruled from an out-of-the way royal city precariously perched in the heart of the hill country ...

The authors go on to add, "Our goal will be to attempt to separate history from legend." I don't know about your reaction to this sentence, but I thought of a winnower who says, "My goal will be to attempt to separate the grain from the chaff." In part, the book can be said to be an accusation that the Bible often includes deliberate distortions, if not mere spin doctoring, of orally transmitted folklore to serve the political "needs" of the ruling classes of Judah starting with those under King Josiah's reign (the authors did not write so baldly).

The book lacks photographs, drawings and figures, so that the reader must draw on the resources of a top-notch library to see some of the evidence for himself, as he should. The book does have a big section of end-notes, which may help with that endeavor. However, he would need some weighty background in archaeology to make sense of some of the references, I guess. Wouldst thou happen to read French or German easily? Still, what do you expect from a book that was written for the general public?

Following are some commentary on specific items. Numbers that start paragraphs are those of the respective pages in the book.

3 - The book's prologue ends, ". . . Our purpose . . . is to share the most recent archaeological insights -- still largely unknown outside scholarly circles -- not only on when, but also why the Bible was written, and why it remains so powerful today." The authors often write as though archaeology was that abstruse and unanimous. I don't think it is. Indeed, for one thing, the book often discusses long-running (and still ongoing?) disputes among scholars. Moreover, consensus in archaeology has shifted as much as Saraha sand dunes do. Once upon a time some archaeologists scoffed at the notion that the Hittite people and culture once existed; today many museums display Hittite artifacts. Does the reader know about Thomas Kuhn's notion of paradigm shifts? Consensus in science should never be taken to be fact; that is especially true in archaeology. Consider the next paragraph.

5 - The following quote is illustrative:

But that is not to say that archaeology has proved the biblical narrative to be true in all of its details. Far from it: it is now evident that many events of biblical history did not take place in either the particular era or the manner described. Some of the most famous events in the Bible clearly never happened at all.

Archaeology has helped us to reconstruct the history behind the Bible, both on the level of great kings and kingdoms and in the modes of everyday life. And as we will explain in the following chapters, we now know that the early books of the Bible and their famous stories of early Israelite history were first codified (and in key respects composed) at an identifiable place and time: Jerusalem in the seventh century B.C.E.

If that doesn't put you off, dear Reader, then I wouldn't put you off by presenting the following opinion as though it were bedrock fact: History teaches us that whenever an eminent archaeologists say that such-or-another event in the Bible did not happen or happened in some other way, it's a safe bet that eventually most archeologists will disagree

The authors often present the theories of other people. Note in particular Appendix A and Appendix C. What I expected was a presentation of a particular theory (clearly presented as such) and a defense against the most likely objections. I didn't expect to get so much of the history of Biblical archeology. That sometimes made it hard to determine just what the authors' theory is. On page 11, the authors said that many scholars doubted that Moses had any hand in the writing of the Bible. Well, do the authors themselves doubt or do they not? (Interested readers may want to read the related Tektonics essay linked here: Moses and the Pentateuch ) To be sure, one should discuss rival theories, because they are in a way objections to one's theory, but do we have to read about discredited or clearly unsound theories often?

247 - Passages like this one may show what the attitude of the authors towards the Bible is like: "Aside from the memories of the strident preaching of figures like Elijah and Elishia, the anti-Omride puritanism of Jehu, and the harsh words of prophets like Amos and Hosea, ..."

268 - The authors go so far as to ask whether King Joshiah's cultural contacts and economic ambitions inspired the story of Queen Sheba's visit to Solomon.

I'm quite sure that if the authors would honestly study Tektonics and respect it seriously, they would never write such nonsense as the following passage [page 11]: "A careful [hee, hee, cough*cough*cough] reading of the book of Genesis, for example, revealed two conflicting versions of the creation . . ., two quite different genealogies of Adam's offspring . . ., and two spliced and rearranged flood stories . . ." Yes, the Bible often presents different accounts, but we could hardly conclude from that fact that the Bible is much less than truthful. One of the authors may indeed be an eminent archaeologist and the other an eminent historian, but sound Biblical scholars they are not. JP Holding would hardly notice them had people not brought them to his attention.

The authors' theory that King Josiah and his followers were being politically manipulative has at least two problems. Let me use a modern analogy to illustrate the first one:

British Prime Minister Claims USA For Queen Elizableth

(Wacko Press Association) -- In a press conference British Prime Minister Tony Blair announced that he is formally laying claim to the United States of America and their possessions in the name of Queen Elizabeth. He said that he discovered an ancient document while vacationing in Bermuda that validates British rule over the USA According to him, it was a report by Christopher Columbus of an encounter with a prophet who was native to what is now called Great Bermuda. Blair quoted parts of his prophecy: "Charles, son of Sovereign Elizableth the Second of what then will be called the United Kingdom, shall be installed as ruler of the United States of America . . ."

What do you think, folks? Would the resulting furor amuse Queen Elizabeth?

It seems as though the authors think that a society that is, say, 95% illiterate must be poorly educated. Not necessarily. Oral transmission of folklore, history and proverbs may have been rather effective in the Ancient Near East. Indeed, I suspect that in some areas we moderns are poorly educated compared to King Josiah's subjects.

As evidence for that suspicion, I submit TBU itself. The authors recapitulated passages from the Bible so much they must have assumed that most readers would not be familiar with it. Even if it were not so, the world is indeed largely ignorant yet of its greatest literature; likely far more ignorant than King Josiah's people were of what Scripture they had available then.

Moreover, the authors seem to think that Ancient Near East people would not preserve memories of historical events quite well through oral transmission and memorization techniques. Also, apparently they think memories eventually transmute to myths so that the historically real memories eventually evaporate completely. What archaeological evidence do they have for that? None. If they can claim nonexistence of a thing on the basis of the absence of evidence for it, then, why, I can equally well claim the nonexistence of myths that are transmutations of memories.

A point of all those ramblings: If anyone attempted to fob off a book or scroll on King Josiah's people and the contemporaneous people of the Kingdom of Israel that took considerable liberties with their body of folklore, history, poetry, proverbs, etc., I think he would lose whatever influence he had. I can't believe Josiah and his court (including the priests) would dare to con people in the way that the authors accuse them of taking. But, suppose the king and his court did. They would lose power, so much that they couldn't have done as much as they apparently did.

The second problem is that the ANE remained illiterate by our standards right up to Gutenberg's time. The authors do not seem to appreciate what a revolution the printing press and paper (much less expensive than writing media had been before) have wrought. Written documents in Josiah's time would not have had the influence the authors seem to think they did: "For the first time the authority of written texts, rather than recited epics or ballads, had an enormous effect" (page 248).

281 - On this page the authors wrote as follows:

The discovery of hundreds of personal signet seals and seal impressions inscribed in Hebrew from this era attests to the extensive use of writing and written documents. As we have mentioned, such relatively widespread evidence of literacy is an important indication of that Judah reached the level of a fully developed state in this period. It hardly had the capability of producing extensive biblical texts before.

Did the authors really believe that the evidence mentioned just above meant that the whole population of Judah were, say, 85% literate yet largely uneducated in Biblical history, poetry, law, etc.? Or that the ruling classes thought that they could achieve their ends without the backing of the people, who couldn't read the revised folklore/history/etc.?

The following quotation indicates yet another problem with the book: "The inescapable conclusion is that Judah suddenly cooperated with and even integrated itself into the economy of the Assyrian empire." This is in the context of a discussion of archaeological evidence for the explosion of wealth and population in Judah in the reigns of Tiglath-pileser III and Ahaz. Surprisingly, the authors apparently have not thought of the possibility that Judah's population and wealth exploded because people from Israel fled the conquering Assyrian soldiers.

My surprise and puzzlement grew after I read the following passage (page 248):

. . . some biblical scholars have suggested that this [YHWH-alone] movement originated among dissident priests and prophets in the last days of the northern kingdom who were aghast at the idolatry and social injustice of the Assyrian period. After the destruction of the kingdom of Israel, they fled southward to promulgate their ideas. . . . refugees from the north and Judahite priests and royal officials worked together.

Incidentally, do you see what I mean by being puzzled as to what the authors' theory is exactly? My surprise is that the authors already know the idea that refugees from the Assyrian conquest of Israel had a big hand in the composition of the Bible, contrary to my earlier impression the book made that the Pentateuch and the "Deuteronomistic History" was essentially the doing of Josiah and his followers. Why would the authors not then know the idea that refugees also had something to do with the explosion in Judah's population and wealth? If they do know it, the book does not show why the authors reject that idea.

296 - On this page the authors wrote as follows:

. . . the people of Israel developed new modes of communal organization and worship in Babylon and Jerusalem during the sixth and fifth-centuries B.C.E. that formed the foundations of Second Temple Judaism and thus of early Christianity. The events and processes that took place in the century and half after the conquest of the kingdom of Judah -- as we can reconstruct them from the historical sources and archaeological evidence -- are therefore crucial for understanding how the Judeo-Christian tradition emerged.

(That passage is in the opening paragraph of the chapter on the Babylonian exile and the return from it.) So it was the exilic Israeli that gave rise to what become the Jewish culture in Jesus' time . . . right? But, why did we spend so much time on the ruling classes of Judah before? What were their contribution to the formation of the culture of Jesus' people? And how did the people of Judah manage to get the Israeli to swallow their version of the Bible, if this is what happened? I am not saying that it could not have happened that way, but the TBU authors seem to be glossing over the complexity of their theory (perhaps extremely complex when worked out in detail).

JP Holding told me that he is reviewing a book with many corrections to TBU. Before releasing the reader's focus to him, let me conclude with a theory of my own about the authors' aspirations when they wrote TBU. However, I don't want to seem totally negative on the book. I did enjoy reading the book, despite the authors' lack of respect for YHWH and His special people. I think I learned much and came to see some things from new perspectives (hardly ones that the authors would like!).

Ready for my theory? That Jesus was well versed in the Scriptures of his people (i.e., the Hebrew Bible) is evident from the New Testament. If the TBU authors could manage to discredit the Hebrew Bible, that would go a long way to discredit Jesus or what He taught.

Not only was Jesus evidently knew the Scriptures well, He seemed to accept the historical reality of Moses and David; consider Luke 20:37-44, for instance. Moreover, He also seemed to accept the historical reality of the Bible authorships of Moses and David.

If Moses and David were not real people or else they were inflated into mythical heroes by politically conniving people, that would suggest strongly that, while an extraordinary person, Jesus could not be God's Son. The authors would prefer to believe that. They hate Him in fact. So much do they want to destroy faith in Jesus that -- need I complete the sentence?

What if the authors accuse me of being cynical? Perhaps not. It might get people to suspect that TBU was so.

Why would anyone want to read this book? Perhaps he wants to see what the authors are up to. Or she wants a fairly pleasant way to pass the time and can get TBU at the library. If none of these reasons applies to you, just save your money/time for one of JP Holding's recommended books.

Over to you, JP.