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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