Pulling some devastating punches: a review of The Bible Unearthed

In his book Did Jesus Exist?, Bart Ehrman defends the claim that there was a historical Jesus… but that, contrary to what most Christians have believed throughout history, the historical Jesus was a failed apocalyptic prophet. Ehrman offers a rebuke to anyone who tries to remove Jesus’ moral teachings from their apocalyptic context, or invoke him in modern political disputes.

But… in spite of all this, Ehrman tells us that Jesus was a “great moral teacher” and a “religious genius,” and insists he isn’t attacking Christianity, just fundamentalism. I find that quite bizarre. Ehrman may be correct that some self-identified Christians have managed to accept the views he defends in Did Jesus Exist?, but they seem to be confined to a small number of Biblical scholars. Most Christians–even liberal ones–would reject Ehrman’s view of Jesus and ignore his warnings about taking Jesus’ moral teachings out of their apocalyptic context (for more, see here).

My experience reading The Bible Unearthed, by Neil Asher Silberman and Israel Finkelstein, was similar only more so. I sketched the basic issues in a post I wrote before finishing the book, but now I want to go into greater detail, with a few exact quotes to show how Silberman and Finkelstein portray the origins of the core of the Old Testament (namely, the majority of Genesis through 2 Kings).

What they argue, in chapter after chapter, is that these books of the Bible make the most sense as coming out of a seventh-century (BC) context. Genesis, for example, is full of references that would have been anachronistic for the time they supposedly took place, but make sense as the product of seventh century authors. It’s rather obvious reading the stories that the stories of Lot’s daughters and Jacob and Esau must have in some way reflected the tribal tensions, but Silberman and Finkelstein present archaeological evidence that suggests these were tensions specific to the seventh and eighth centuries.

Ahistoricity is the verdict for every Biblical story up until David and Solomon. There, the authors are inclined to say that those kings existed, mainly because of an inscription in which the king of Damascus brags of having killed Ahaz “of the House of David.” That doesn’t strike me as conclusive evidence–it only shows that that dynasty was known as the “House of David” at the time it was made–but it’s certainly plausible that there was in some sense a historical David and Solomon.

However, the historical David and Solomon were probably even less like their Biblical counterparts than you might guess, even if you ignored the most obviously exaggerated and mythical-sounding bits. It turns out that there’s basically no archeological evidence for their supposed activities than can be dated to the time when they supposedly lived (as opposed to the “House of David” inscription, made at a time when they would have been dead already).

Commenting on one piece of evidence once thought to support the historicity of Solomon, Silberman and Finkelstein say:

Archaeologically and historically, the redating of these cities from Solomon’s era to the time of the Omrides has enormous implications. It removes the only archaeological evidence that there was ever a united monarchy based in Jerusalem and suggests that David and Solomon were, in political terms, little more than hill country chieftains, whose administrative reach remained on a fairly local level, restricted to the hill country. (Emphasis added.)

This means that the idea that David and Solomon were kings over both Israel (the northern kingdom) and Judah (the southern kingdom, where Jerusalem was), the so-called “united monarchy,” is mythical. While the difference between Israel and Judah is something non-Bible buffs won’t even be aware of, it ends up being very, very important for the thesis of The Bible Unearthed.

To understand that, we need to fast forward to the end of 2 Kings to Josiah, a Biblical king who most people have never heard of (because seriously, who reads 2 Kings?) But Josiah is at the center of a strange little story in 2 Kings 22:8-12:

Hilkiah the high priest said to Shaphan the secretary, “I have found the Book of the Law in the temple of the Lord.” He gave it to Shaphan, who read it. Then Shaphan the secretary went to the king and reported to him: “Your officials have paid out the money that was in the temple of the Lord and have entrusted it to the workers and supervisors at the temple.” Then Shaphan the secretary informed the king, “Hilkiah the priest has given me a book.” And Shaphan read from it in the presence of the king.

When the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, he tore his robes. He gave these orders to Hilkiah the priest, Ahikam son of Shaphan, Akbor son of Micaiah, Shaphan the secretary and Asaiah the king’s attendant: 13 “Go and inquire of the Lord for me and for the people and for all Judah about what is written in this book that has been found. Great is the Lord’s anger that burns against us because those who have gone before us have not obeyed the words of this book; they have not acted in accordance with all that is written there concerning us.”

Josiah ends up doing everything the book says to do. This story of suddenly discovering a supposedly ancient holy book is suspicious. Could it be that this “Book of the Law” was the Torah, the first five books of the Bible?

Not exactly. Rather, there are clues that the Book of the Law in 2 Kings 22 was specifically an early version of Deuteronomy (there are good reasons to think the Torah is the product of many different authors). Specifically, the things Josiah is said to have done after finding the “Book of the Law” are things commanded in Deuteronomy, but not other Biblical books.

Furthermore, there’s evidence that the books from Joshua through (most of) 2 Kings are the product of the same people behind Deuteronomy, hence these books being called the “Deuteronomistic history.” Silberman and Finkelstein frankly refer to their account of the history of Israel as “propaganda.” According to their thesis, Joshua’s invasion of Canaan while mythical expresses “a seventh century vision of future territorial conquest.” And the “united monarchy,” the idea that Israel and Judah were once one kingdom, was “political propaganda” to support “Josiah’s ambition to expand to the north and take over the territories in the highlands that once belonged to the northern kingdom.”

This explains one of the most tedious parts of the Bible, the long recounting of the kings who ruled after David and Solomon, a few of whom, it is said, did what God wanted and were rewarded, but most of whom disobeyed God and were punished. This too, Silberman and Finkelstein argue, was political propaganda. Especially when it comes to the Omrides (the dynasty that included the infamous Jezebel):

The writer of the book of Kings… wanted to delegitimize the Omrides and to show that the entire history of the northern kingdom had been one of sin that led to misery and inevitable destruction. The more Israel had prospered in the past, the more scornful and negative he became about its kings.

Omri and his successors earned the hatred of the Bible precisely because they were so strong, precisely because they succeeded in transforming the northern kingdom into an important regional power that completely overshadowed the poor, marginal, rural-pastoral kingdom of Judah to the south. The possibility that the Israelite kings who consorted with the nations, married foreign women, and built Canaanite-type shrines and palaces would prosper was both unbearable and unthinkable.

This becomes all the more disturbing when you consider the contents of Deuteronomy, which include a program of religious and ethnic cleansing. Military expansionism and religio-ethnic cleansing. That’s the program of the king whose reign the Bible was serving as propaganda for. It’s ugly stuff.

Aside from not saying much about the more horrifying commandments in Deuteronomy, Silberman and Finkelstein are pretty frank about all of this. “Propaganda,” again, is their word not mine. I’ve given two substantial quotations from the book to give a sense of the writing style, and was tempted to give more.

Yet in the Epilogue, we suddenly get passages like these, which I frankly found nauseating:

Nowhere else in the ancient world had such a powerful, shared saga been crafted: the Greek epics and myths spoke only by metaphor and example; Mesopotamian and Persian religious epics offered cosmic secrets but neither earthly history nor a practical guide to life. The Hebrew Bible offered both, providing a narrative framework in which every Jew could identify both family and national history. In short, the saga of Israel that had first crystallized in the time of Josiah became the world’s first fully articulated national and social compact, encompassing the men, women, and children, the rich, the poor, and the destitute of an entire community…

The power of the biblical saga stems from its being a compelling and coherent timeless themes of a people’s liberation, continuing resistance to oppression, and quest for social equality. It eloquently expresses the deeply rooted sense of shared origins, experiences, and destiny that every human community needs in order to survive.

Now I have no problem with seeing the the Greek epics as important works of literature in the Western canon, in spite of the barbaric values they frequently express, and would have no problem treating the Bible the same way. But Silberman and Finkelstein aren’t content with that position. They need to insist the Bible is the bestest mythology of all mythologies, which did all manner of wonderful things.

As I read this stuff, I’m thinking, “did they forget what they just spent most of this book arguing? You know, the stuff about a lot of the Bible being royal propaganda? For a king who wanted to expand his empire through conquest? I dunno, maybe they think the desire to invade your neighbors up north and make them be part of your kingdom is a deep human need which makes perfect sense to include alongside the desire to be free from oppression, but otherwise I have no idea. I don’t know what else to say about this; it’s just really, really weird on the face of it.

That dissonance is my main reason for writing this post. I’m not an Old Testament buff, so I can’t state with total confidence whether Silberman and Finkelstein’s theses are actually right. But if they are right, it’s just devastating to all the Abrahamic religions.


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  • Greg G.

    How do their ideas fit with the Documentary Hypothesis? If Israel and Judah were never unified, how could their stories have been merged and redacted if they had diverged fairly recently?

    • Andrew G.

      “diverged fairly recently”? not sure what you mean there.

      The general assumption is that the Pentateuch as it currently stands was assembled after the Babylonian exile, possibly with more than one stage of redaction. Finkelstein and Silberman don’t, as I recall (I lent out my copy, unfortunately) take the story much past the fall of Judah to the Babylonians.

      They do discuss the relationship between the early (E and J) source material and the archaeology, establishing that the stories of the patriarchs, exodus, and so on are not consistent with any of the evidence, either in terms of specific events, or in terms of tribes, cities, etc., or in terms of general social features (such as which animals had been domesticated). The social features and the human geography of these stories places them in the context of the Iron Age rather than a millennium earlier as would be required for a literal history. (Just to take one specific point, the Philistines arrived in the region around 1200BC, so any mention of them – and there are several – in stories of the patriarchal period is a glaring anachronism.)

      They also cover what the archaeology tells us about where the Israelites really did originate – which is nothing at all like anything mentioned in the Bible.

      As I recall, nothing that F&S cover is inconsistent with any of the commonly accepted variations on the DH, and they don’t rely on any details of the DH to any significant extent (their focus is on the archaeology, not textual criticism).

      If you’re interested in these things then I strongly recommend the book.

  • MNb

    There is a little more to the historicity of David and Solomon:


    An professional interpretation of this news can be found here (alas in Dutch):


    Equally important, the conquest of Israel has been debunked definitely (alas also in Dutch)


    “It’s ugly stuff”
    This is too judgmental for a skeptical brain like yours. Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great committed genocide and ethnic cleansing as well – it was standard practice in Antiquity. Of course that’s exactly the reason why we should be very careful learning lessons from that time. But thát should hardly be controversial.
    Just dismiss the whole idea of the Bible being divinely inspired.

    “They need to insist …”
    I think this is a misinterpretation. I think Finkelstein and Silberman correctly point out that the story was very instrumental in unifying the Israelites culturally and politically. After all that’s what propaganda is for – and it was successful propaganda.

    “the desire to invade your neighbors”
    A quite common desire in that time – and long, long after.

    “if they are right, it’s just devastating… ”
    The wish is the father of the thought here. It’s devastating for fundies, not for liberals.

    • Chris Hallquist

      I wonder. Yes, liberals have reconciled themselves to all kinds of historical inaccuracies in the Bible, and to a lesser extent have reconciled themselves to the presence of some morally awful stuff. But can they reconcile themselves to finding out a central part of the Bible is royal propaganda? I wonder.

  • MNb

    Oh, and given the skill of fundies to switch on denial mode (evolution anyone?) I am pretty sure they will remain unaffected as well.

  • Pseudonym

    My wife is doing a degree in ancient history, and one of her subjects was ancient Israel. The Bible Unearthed was one of the recommended reading books, and they went through a few of Finkelstein’s papers.

    As an aside, she pointed out that the book is ten years old, and there’s been a lot more solid research (including by Finkelstein et al) in the intervening time. For example, we have a lot more evidence about the House of David than we did then. I digress.

    One of the things that she reports (and she noted that all of the atheists in her class that she spoke to felt much the same way), is that she always dismissed the Hebrew sacred texts as barbaric and pointless, but going through them in some academic detail in the light of the best modern research gave her a newfound respect for it.

    I didn’t do the class, so I can’t explain it either, but that’s not going to stop me from trying.

    We can’t put this down to “dissonance”. There is something real going on here. Those who have put in the hard work and studied this stuff in detail really do seem to end up appreciating the material for what it is.

    I guess there’s a general rule here: reality is always far more interesting, and far more compelling, than prejudice. It is prejudice that makes people think that the Hebrew sacred texts are a divinely-dictated perfect work. It’s also prejudice that makes people think that it’s pure distilled barbaric evil. Discovering, in all of its messy detail, what they actually are is liberating.

    It’s easy to judge an ancient culture from the remote comfort of your modern armchair. It’s quite something else to look them straight in the face and see them on their own terms. If you do that, it’s hard to avoid seeing the humanity.

    Most of the books we’re talking about were probably written during exile in Babylon. They are the record of a people fighting hard to retain their unique identity from disappearing into the superpower culture around them, to give them an identity. It would be more correct to say that the Bible created the Hebrew people rather than the other way around; before they had that, they were not a homogeneous culture, and after it, they has something that they could unify around.

    And you know what? It worked. The Hebrews still retain their identity today. The Babylonians, not so much. How is that not totally awesome?

    The Bible is a monument to how successful humans can be if they have a specific goal in mind and carry it through.

    Compare this with Greek mythology. The Greeks didn’t have an identity crisis. They were never in danger of being lost in someone else’s culture; on the contrary, precisely the opposite happened with Rome. The Greek myths were not about why you should be Greek. That was obvious. They were a celebration about how great it is to be Greek.

    Hebrew mythology may not be the “bestest” (a word I’ll wager Finkelstein et al didn’t use) amongst the ancient world’s, but it is unique. No other cultural identity, as far as I know, has ever been created by a book. That it’s the most popular mythological text in the world today (who saw that coming?) is some kind of evidence that it still resonates with people, even if they don’t really understand it.

    Yes, much of it is propaganda. So is the one about Columbus supposedly setting out to prove the Earth was round. Find me a national myth which isn’t.

    • http://thebronzeblog.wordpress.com Bronze Dog

      It’s easy to judge an ancient culture from the remote comfort of your modern armchair. It’s quite something else to look them straight in the face and see them on their own terms. If you do that, it’s hard to avoid seeing the humanity.

      Most of the books we’re talking about were probably written during exile in Babylon. They are the record of a people fighting hard to retain their unique identity from disappearing into the superpower culture around them, to give them an identity. It would be more correct to say that the Bible created the Hebrew people rather than the other way around; before they had that, they were not a homogeneous culture, and after it, they has something that they could unify around.

      And you know what? It worked. The Hebrews still retain their identity today. The Babylonians, not so much. How is that not totally awesome?

      I really don’t understand how you feel. I can see how someone would find it interesting, but not “awesome.” I also see something of a potential contradiction there: They didn’t have a unified identity, being disparate tribes, and were thus afraid of being assimilated, so instead of being assimilated, they invent a new identity, presumably killing off their old one of being disparate tribes. Kind of feels like that would be a discontinuity, though I don’t know much about cultural evolution.

      As for the modern-day reverence for the Bible, I don’t really get the sense that most of those stories resonate with modern people. Sure, there are some like the common “lost golden era” trope in the garden of Eden, and many people are drawn to stories like that. For things like the various genocidal campaigns, many are ignorant of those stories and many who do know are repulsed or at least apathetic, and I find it horrifying that there are some modern people who do feel a resonance.

      • Pseudonym

        First, let me be clear on one point: I have not put in the hard work to understand the ancient Hebrews in the required detail. These are not my feelings that I’m trying to relate, but rather distill the feelings of those who have as best I understand them. I tried to make that clear, and I apologise if I didn’t get that rather important point across successfully.

        As for the latter paragraph, I’m a bit of a Joseph Campbell nut, so I can certainly get how archetypes from all mythologies resonate with people. I was thinking more like the “promised land” imagery.

        As far as the genocide goes, I obviously can’t speak for those who believe it actually happened, since it most likely didn’t.

        However, even if you do believe it happened, there is certainly precedent. Most people who are descended from new world colonists, for example, probably don’t think very hard about the likely treatment their land’s indigenous people. Yet many people in the United States probably do resonate with the whole “manifest destiny” thing.

        • Annatar

          I think I agree with Pseudonym. I certainly feel “drawn” to a lot of the Biblical narrative, even though I’m an atheist. I’m also a Jew, so to me these stories are part of my ancestry/cultural heritage, and how historical they are isn’t of tremendous concern to me. I do think that some of it is historical, so I’m skeptical of the “Kingdoms of Israel and Judah didn’t exist” thesis, but that’s tangential. It’s part of my cultural mythology (in the Campbell sense).

    • Beau Quilter

      “No other cultural identity, as far as I know, has ever been created by a book.”

      I would argue that Sikhism fills the bill. Though a younger religion by comparison, with roots in the 15th century, Sikh culture is defined by the Sikh canon, the Siri Guru Granth Sahib. In Sikh tradition, there were 10 Sikh gurus whose actions and writings, each in succession, are considered the “light” of Sikhism. The writings (and writings about) the 10 Sikh gurus are gathered together in the Sikh canon of scriptures, which was declared by the 10th guru to be, in perpetuity, the 11th Sikh guru.

      This would be roughly equivalent to the apostles declaring that the Bible is the “13th apostle.”

  • Beau Quilter

    There is another “telling” distinction in Deuteronomistic literature:

    Most biblical prophecies are vague and imprecise (i.e. they must be “interpreted” by later generations). Not so in the case of Josiah. Generations before his birth, a “man of God” appeared to the King Jeroboam as he was making a sacrifice, and this is what this unnamed prophet did.

    “By the word of the LORD he cried out against the altar: “Altar, altar! This is what the LORD says: ‘A son named Josiah will be born to the house of David. On you he will sacrifice the priests of the high places who make offerings here, and human bones will be burned on you.’”” 1 Kings 13:2

    Knowing, as we do, that the deuteronomistic “histories” are filled with anachronism and are clearly written at a later time than they claim, it is obvious that in 1 Kings 13:2, King Josiah is writing a prophecy to legitimize his own claim to and expanded monarchy.

  • http://carnedes.blogspot.com Carneades-Skeptic Griggsy

    The Tanakh is ahistorical with barbaric commandments. Mean-minded misanthropes of misguided ideas just made up what they thought would do the trick. And it did with all those like WLC who accept the uncorroborated writers of uncorroborated tall tales, telling tales of stupidity.

  • William T.

    You wrote “It turns out that there’s basically no archeological evidence for their supposed activities than can be dated to the time when they supposedly lived (as opposed to the “House of David” inscription, made at a time when they would have been dead already).”

    Ah yes, the absence of evidence is evidence of absence fallacy – that and the ‘this represents consensus’ fallacy are the two that make this claim true.