Nowadays, the very phrase "biblical archeology" is regarded by some scholars as an oxymoron. For an archeologist to sink a shovel-blade in the soil of the Holy Land with the specific goal of validating the events and personalities described in the Bible, the argument goes, is both anti-historical and anti-scientific. The better approach is to leave the Bible on a bookshelf and let the chips--and the shards and the ostraca--fall where they may.
A brutally honest assessment of what archeology can and cannot tell us about the historical accuracy of the Bible is presented with both authority and panache in "The Bible Unearthed" by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman. Deftly summarizing several thousand years of history, and drawing on the very latest findings of archeologists at work in the Near East, they cast the Bible in a sharp new light.
"By the end of the 20th century, archeology had shown that there were simply too many material correspondences between the finds . . . and the world described in the Bible to suggest that the Bible was late and fanciful priestly literature," argue Finkelstein and Silberman. "But at the same time, there were too many contradictions between archeological finds and biblical narratives to suggest that the Bible provided a precise description of what actually occurred."
In fact, the authors go considerably further than the measured words quoted here might suggest. Based on the findings of modern archeology, they say, "the most famous stories of the Bible did not happen." The biblical narratives about the Patriarchs, Joseph, Moses and the events of the Exodus are "powerful literary achievements," but they are not history. Archeology proved decisively that the battle of Jericho as reported in the Bible "was, to put it simply, a romantic mirage." Indeed, the core of the Hebrew Bible was first composed only in the 7th century BC, they insist, and thus "is a product of the hopes, fears and ambitions of the kingdom of Judah."
Understanding the role of the tribe and kingdom called Judah, as it turns out, is the key to decoding the origins and meanings of the Bible. Only briefly did the 12 tribes of Israel unite under David and Solomon, according to the Bible, and the united monarchy split into a northern and a southern kingdom upon Solomon's death. The northern kingdom was conquered by Assyria and the "Lost Ten Tribes" were dispersed in the 8th century BC, and only the southern kingdom of Judah survived. Or so the Bible says.
In fact, the glorious reign of David and Solomon that is described in the Bible cannot be corroborated by archeological evidence. Rather, Judah appears to have been sparsely settled, and Jerusalem, supposedly the royal capital of the united monarchy, was only "a typical highland village." So the biblical account can be understood as an effort by the chroniclers of Judah to invent a history worthy of their own king, a white-hot religious reformer named Josiah.
"It is not just that King Josiah is seen in the Bible as a noble successor to Moses, Joshua and David," the authors insist. "The very outlines of those great characters--as they appear in the biblical narrative--seem to be drawn with Josiah in mind."
"The Bible Unearthed" is the most recent contribution to a growing body of work on the subject of archeology and the Bible, which includes "The View From Nebo" by Amy Dockser Marcus, and "The Mythic Past" by Thomas Thompson. But the authors also bring something unique to their book--Finkelstein is the chairman of the Department of Archeology at Tel Aviv University, the director of the excavations at a site called Tel Megiddo (Armageddon) and one of the leading figures in contemporary archeology.
Thus, Finkelstein himself was a firsthand witness to the dramatic changes in archeology that followed the Six-Day War in 1967. "A young generation of Israeli archeologists," the authors explain, "took to the field with a new method of investigation: Their goal was to explore, map and analyze the ancient landscape of the hill country--rather than only dig." As a result of their energy and enterprise, the new generation "revolutionized the study of early Israel."
"The Bible Unearthed" does not ignore the spiritual dimension of the Bible. Indeed, the authors acknowledge that the Bible has always served "as the main source of identity and spiritual anchor for the people of Israel as they faced the many disasters, religious challenges and political twists of fate that lay ahead." But Finkelstein and Silberman embrace, above all, the spirit of modern archeology, which insists on approaching the Bible as an artifact to be studied and evaluated rather than a work of divine inspiration that must be embraced as a matter of true belief.
Jonathan Kirsch is the author of "King David: The Real Life of the Man Who Ruled Israel."