Calling all Old Testament buffs: some claims I’d like to confirm/disconfirm

As I’ve said before, I don’t know as much about the Old Testament as I do the New Testament. Thus, I found The Bible Unearthed really interesting, but wasn’t sure how much stock to put in some of its claims (see posts here and here). I’ve attempted to dig deeper into OT scholarship on my own, but am not real satisfied with my work so far. For example, so far I’m disappointed with Thompson’s The Mythic Past (see post here). 

I’ve decided it would be helpful to narrow it down to a few key claims and the case Silberman and Finkelstein make for them, so here they are:

No United Monarchy: “United” here means uniting Israel and Judah; according to the Bible these two nations were one under David and Solomon, but split afterwards. But Silberman and Finkelstein argue that while David and Solomon probably existed, they would have been local Judahite chieftains. The idea that they also ruled over Israel was later propaganda.

The evidence: Silberman and Finkelstein list several lines of archaeological evidence in support of this conclusion, but probably the most important one is the archaeological evidence regarding Jerusalem:

Not only was any sign of monumental architecture missing, but so were even simple pottery sherds. The types that are so characteristic of the tenth century at other sites are rare in Jerusalem. Some scholars have argued that later, massive building activities in Jerusalem wiped out all signs of the earlier city. Yet excavations in the city of David revealed impressive finds from the Middle Bronze Age and from later centuries of the Iron Age— just not from the tenth century BCE. The most optimistic assessment of this negative evidence is that tenth century Jerusalem was rather limited in extent, perhaps not more than a typical hill country village.

They also argue that archaeological sites once linked to the United Monarchy are really from a different era, though that doesn’t seem to matter as much: even if those other sites were the right era, it seems unlikely they were part of an empire ruled from Jerusalem (as the Bible claims), given the state of Jerusalem at the time.

7th century date for Joshua: This one’s pretty simple. Specifically, the claim is that Joshua was (mostly?) written during the reign of King Josiah. As Silberman and Finkelstein explain:

Perhaps most telling of all the clues that the book of Joshua was written at this time is the list of towns in the territory of the tribe of Judah, given in detail in Joshua 15 : 21 –  62 . The list precisely corresponds to the borders of the kingdom of Judah during the reign of Josiah. Moreover, the placenames mentioned in the list closely correspond to the seventh-century BCE settlement pattern in the same region. And some of the sites were occupied only in the final decades of the seventh century BCE .

Silberman and Finkelstein also argue for a 7th century date for Joshua based on the similarity of its ideology to that of Deuteronomy, which brings us to the third claim I’m interested in…

7th century date for Deuteronomy: In 2 Kings 22, King Josiah suspiciously “discovers” a Book of the Law. Many scholars believe this was not the whole Torah, but specifically Deuteronomy:

Deuteronomy is the only book of the Pentateuch that asserts it contains the “words of the covenant” that all Israel must follow (29:9). It is the only book that prohibits sacrifice outside “the place which the Lord your God will choose” (12:5), while the other books of the Pentateuch repeatedly refer, without objection, to worship at altars set up throughout the land. Deuteronomy is the only book to describe the national Passover sacrifice in a national shrine (16:1–8). And while it is evident that there are later additions included in the present text of the book of Deuteronomy, its main outlines are precisely those that are observed by Josiah in 622 BCE in Jerusalem for the first time.

They also argue that this dating of Deuteronomy fits with the rise of widespread literacy in Judah at the time.

Deuteronomy resembles an Assyrian vassal treaty: I’m throwing this one in because it’s interesting, but I don’t know what you could say about it without knowing quite a bit about Assyrian vassal treaties.

So, what should I read to find out if these claims are true? Fundamentalists, of course, will hate all of them, but I don’t care what the fundamentalists think. My impression is that there are some moderates who would be OK with the dating claims, but opt for slightly more glorious reigns for David and Solomon. And I understand that extreme “minimalists” might opt for a much later date for Joshua and Deuteronomy. How do I navigate all this?

  • smidoz

    I don’t think there’s much consensus on OT scholarship between liberals and fundamentalists, but this is what you’d expect. Since you’re not much interested in fundamentalist claims, I’d suggest maybe giving The living World of the Old Testament by Bernard W Anderson a look. Written by a labieral who believes in supernatural claims like the resurrection, but who rejects most, of not all, the Old Testament supernatural claims as simply natural phenomena happening (divinely) at the right time. He would probably disagree with the idea that the book found was only Deuteronomy, but that it would have included parts of Genesis; Exodus and numbers, although without the P and E edits. He interestingly rules out the red sea as being simply the crossing of a shallow lake where the wind blew the water off the sea (I’m sure you’ve heard this theory). Reading his account makes it sound quite ridiculous that you’d probably write it off as ridiculous as the story we now have. The water cames back and the Egyptian chariots got stuck, and that’s how Israel escaped. One has to wonder why the Egyptians didn’t just hop out of their chariots and chase on foot, and why the water needed to come back to stop them getting stuck in the first place. Anyway, this is a digression, perhaps you can find a cheap second hand copy, it was recommended reading for pastors of many denominations, so there should be a few floating around.

    • RobMcCune

      I think Chris is asking purely historical questions, so ideally it shouldn’t be a matter of theology at all. A “liberal” OT scholar has a worldview to justify like a fundamentalist. Theologically liberal doesn’t mean more objective.

      • smidoz

        The Living World of the Old Testament doe actually focus a lot on hiatory and archeology. Although from a ligeral perspective. Unlike the fundamentalist postion, it goes along with accepted archeology and historical timelines. I don’t endorse what it says, just figures it is an interesting thing to look a in light of the questions he’s asking. Your point is correct, the liberal still has a position to defend/justify, but an attempt is made by Anderson to fit his theology into modern historical thinking and literary criticism. This is why I thought it would be useful.

        By the way, I didn’t mention in the original post that the suzerain/vassal type agreement used in the covenant relationship is aparently found in cultures much earlier than the Assyrians. So it could. Be an earlier part of the Jewish theology than implied here.

  • cory

    I haven’t studied this too much but I have a few books on the subject: Who Were the Early Israelites and Where did They Come From? by William Dever, A History of Ancient Israel and Judah by Maxwell Miller and John Hayes, and Ancient Near Eastern History and Culture by William H. Stiebing. Dever is pop-history, the other two are textbooks.

    Dever doesn’t mention the united monarchy, the other two accept it.

    Stiebing 287-288 says that Joshua was compiled by the Deuteronomist historian in the time of Josiah based on older traditions. His sources for this are Richard Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible, and the article in the Anchor bible dictionary.

    Dever on Joshua: p 7: “The Deuteronomistic history, on the other hand, is almost certainly the work of qa school of Mosaic reformers … under Josiah (650-609 B.C.), with final additions concerning the end of Judah added during the exile in the 6th century B.C.” p. 38 says that “mainstream scholars” put it in the time of Josiah.

    Miller and Hayes don’t mention the date Joshua was written, but they reject the historicity of the account. They don’t even start their history until the time of the Judges.

    Dever on Deuteronomy: p. 37 “It is universally agreed that the book of Deuteronomy is a later addition to the Pentateuch (probably it was inserted not earlier than the late 7th century B.C.)” He skips it totally when trying to reconstruct the history of Early Israel.

    Steibing 287 says that “almost all modern biblical scholars” identify the book of Deuteronomy with the Book of the Law, but he doesn’t mention whether it is older than Josiah or written at the time

    Miller and Hayes spend a few pages on the date of Deuteronomy p. 393-397. They say it is related to the Book of the Law but probably not identical. They parts of it to the time of Hezekiah or as a consequence for his reforms (ch12-16). They note that those chapters are not covenants and don’t claim to be written by Moses.

    They date another part to the time of Josiah (4:44-11:32, 28:1-35, 38-36). This claims to be written by Moses and is similar to Assyrian treaties. “While not speaking directly about Assyrian presence or the existence of Assyrian “civil religion” in the land, it pointed in directions that would have left no doubt about how its laws should be applied in the context of seventh-century Judah. It insisted that Yahweh, not the Assyrians or some other ruler, should be the true overlord of the people.” (Note from me: Compare Alexander Campbell’s remark that the Book of Mormon resolves every theological dispute in early 19th century America.) They also date parts of it to after the exile (28:36-37, chs 29-30)

    Miller and Haves have a parallel column comparison between parts of Deuteronomy and Esarhaddon’s Vassal Treaty (p. 395-297). They focus mostly on ch 28 of Deuteronomy, but mention parts of ch 5 and 6. The Assyrian treaty is given in order but skips some stuff, the bible parts have a few sequential verses in order but many out of sequence. The passages do seem very similar to me. He doesn’t mention any controversy over the comparison.

    So according to these books the only point where you will find serious controversy among non-literalists/maximalists is the bit about the united monarchy.

    • Ray

      One comment:

      “It is universally agreed that the book of Deuteronomy is a later addition to the Pentateuch (probably it was inserted not earlier than the late 7th century B.C.)” seems to me like an awful way to describe the date of Deuteronomy. The date is right, but according to the standard version of the Documentary Hypothesis, The P material, which is nearly all of Leviticus and Numbers and a significant portion of Genesis and Exodus, hadn’t been written yet — that material is usually dated to the Persian period ca 500bc. Thus in the 7th century when D was written, there was no Pentateuch– there wasn’t even a “tetrateuch”; the closest thing was the redacted JE, which may not have been conceived of as being part of a unified document with D.

      • cory

        It’s a poor phrase, but not as bad in context. Dever goes over the documentary hypothesis earlier in the book and places the P source in the 6th-5th centuries (he dates J-E to the 8th-7th centuries). So I think using “Pentateuch” as shorthand for “Somewhat fluid mix of oral and manuscript traditions that would eventually come together as the Torah” is acceptable, if not ideal.

        • Ray

          Fair enough. It really is a nitpick. I wouldn’t have made such a big deal about it, except for the fact that it was something that really confused me when I was first looking into this sort of stuff. A lot of sources, Finkelstein included, tend to focus on the reforms of Hezekiah and Josiah, while not really going into how and why the whole collection came together later on.

          I didn’t really figure out what was up with the Priestly source until I was reading Plato’s Timaeus and couldn’t for the life of me figure out why it reminded me so much of Genesis I (in particular the bits about “and God saw that it was good.”) Direct Jewish influence seemed unlikely, since the Greeks barely knew the Jews existed at that point, so it had to be a common influence. The Babylonian influences on Genesis I are pretty well known, but there’s not much in Timaeus reminiscent of the Enuma Elish. I ended up concluding that the common influence was Persian (and indeed the Avesta is big on the goodness of Ahuramazda’s creation, and imagery involving light and darkness to boot.) Anyway, if I had been more familiar with the context of the priestly source (a bunch of exiled priests trying to get permission from the Persians to rebuild the Temple) this would have been obvious. Likewise, Deuteronomy makes a lot more sense as a stand alone law code than as an addition to a national epic.

  • Ray

    Most of the claims you’ve listed are pretty standard biblical scholarship:

    That Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings were largely composed during the 7th century and reflect the concerns of the court of King Josiah has been standard Biblical scholarship since before Wellhausen. Now, there is some controversy regarding the extent to which this Deuteronomic Material draws on early sources. Clearly some of Kings must draw on earlier records, because it gets too many names and dates of kings right (as confirmed by Assyrian, Moabite and other inscriptions) to just be oral tradition. (And in any event you’d expect that in a literate kingdom with continuity of central government, like Judah under the house of David.)

    That Deuteronomy has a similar form to Assyrian Vassal treaties is similar if not identical to claims made in these online Lectures. It’s from a course taught at Yale, which I would assume is about as mainstream a source as you can get:

    The controversial claim is the one regarding the United monarchy. This is Israel Finkelstein’s own pet theory (or at least it was when he wrote “The Bible’s Buried Secrets.” I saw some hearsay on the internet saying he recanted in 2010. Haven’t tracked it back to a source. Sorry.)

    It’s discussed briefly in this PBS documentary (only available online as a transcript as far as I can tell.) — the upshot is that the Carbon Dating isn’t quite precise enough to reliably distinguish between the reigns of Omri and Solomon (they’re only a few decades apart.)

    A more thorough discussion of the controversy is in these compiled lectures from Israel Finkelstein and Amihai Mazar:

  • MNb

    You might want to ask this professional scholar:

    You highly probably won’t find the answers on this site, but chances are real that he knows what to read and/or whom to contact.

  • Chris Hallquist

    Thanks Cory and Ray! Very helpful!

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