Currently reading: The Bible Unearthed

Hopefully I’ll have a full review later, but I want everyone to know that I’m currently about halfway through the book The Bible Unearthed by Neil Asher Silberman and Israel Finkelstein. I decided to pick it up after seeing it recommended by Richard Carrier as doing for the Old Testament (mainly just Genesis through 2 Kings) what Bart Ehrman does for the New Testament.

Some of the conclusions aren’t surprising: to anyone who reads the early books of the Bible without religious blinders on, it’s obvious that Genesis and Exodus are mythology, and that if David and Solomon existed, the glory of their reigns was greatly exaggerated (the Bible describes Solomon’s empire as extending to the Euphrates, i.e. into modern day Iraq). Close reading also makes it clear that some of the myths were meant to rationalize tribal hatreds at the time they were written; see the stories of Noah’s sons and Lot’s daughters.

However, Silberman and Finkelstein make the case that these myths show signs of being put into their final form in a very specific political context, namely the militaristic and expansionist aims of the Judahite king Josiah (or perhaps rather his court officials, since Josiah was supposedly eight years old when he took the throne). Among other things, there was probably never a time when Judah and Israel were united under a King David or Solomon. That was a fiction created to justify Judahite ambitions in Israel.

Silberman and Finkelstein cloak their presentation in quite a bit if euphemism, but the picture they paint of the Bible’s origins is an ugly one: not only does the Bible command genocide, this turns out to be part of an actual kingdom’s program for conquest, a program which a lot of the mythology in the Bible was shaped to support.

  • eric

    this turns out to be part of an actual kingdom’s program for conquest, a program which a lot of the mythology in the Bible was shaped to support

    This is not surprising. If you think about it, Joseph Smith did the same thing – wrote a religious justification for the conquest of native peoples into his holy scripture. They were sinful lamanites.

    In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if many other holy books had similar material in it too, i.e., justifications for the political and military actions planned or committed by the people writing it. Because there are a lot more historical conquests than there are scriptures, we do not typically see a correlation between the two things. But it may be the case that many or most scriptures support a conquest.

  • Achrachno

    This is a spectacularly good book and one that should be much more widely read. Full of information but fascinating and hard to put down. I read it several years ago and should do so again to fill in everything I’ve forgotten.

    I’d love to see a public discussion of it with believers involved. I have a hard time imagining how any reasonable literalist could read it, or otherwise be confronted with its contents, without backing off to a “sometimes the Bible is right” position.

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