What Did the Biblical Writers Know & When Did They Know It? What Archaeology Can Tell Us about the Reality of Ancient Israel
Reviewed by Ilan Sharon
The contest for ancient Israel grows fast and furious. The battle between the “maximalists” and the “minimalists” is about nothing less than the historicity of the Bible. The minimalists—centered mainly in Sheffield, England, and Copenhagen, Denmark—deny, in a nutshell, that the Old Testament is a historical document and claim that it is basically a work of theological fiction, composed not in the Iron Age (12th-6th centuries B.C.E.) but in the Persian or Hellenistic period (fourth-third centuries B.C.E.). It contains, they argue, little or no reliable information about the period it ostensibly describes.
The minimalists may have scored a knockdown with the publication of Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman’s The Bible Unearthed (reviewed in BAR 27:02). But now a heavyweight from the other camp has stepped into the ring: William G. Dever—doyen of Syro-Palestinian archaeology, battle-hardened veteran of many intellectual campaigns and Biblical archaeology’s ablest spokesman and defender.
Judging by the words of praise on the jacket of his latest book, Dever has a scholarly “dream team” squarely in his corner, each an acknowledged champion in his own right: Seymour Gitin, Amihai Mazar, Lawrence E. Stager, David Noel Freedman and Baruch Halpern. Dever’s opponents stand ready in the other corner, equally determined to win: Philip R. Davies, Thomas L. Thompson, Keith W. Whitelam, Niels Peter Lemche and Israel Finkelstein. The heavyweights are in the ring, the gloves are off and no holds are barred. We’re in for quite a spectacle!
But before we get to the blow-by-blow, a few preliminary comments:
Though Dever’s book has been 35 years in the making, it was actually written, with great urgency, in just 23 days. It is meant to be a popular book, which its author admits is “polemic, and over-simplistic at times.” The book’s publication coincides with Dever’s retirement after more than 25 years of teaching at the University of Arizona, where he created, practically by himself, a prominent school of Syro-Palestinian archaeology.
Throughout, Dever’s homiletical (as he himself puts it) prose is witty and charismatic, impassioned, sometimes vicious, always coming from, and reaching to, the heart and the gut. More of a battle cry than a detached analysis, the book is anything but “the most reasonable… well balanced… evaluation of the historicity of the Biblical narratives,” as Mazar claims on the book’s jacket.
If you are looking for new data (or even new insights) regarding archaeology or the Bible, you won’t find them here. The examples and arguments presented are textbook cases that can be found elsewhere—principally in Dever’s own previous work, which is liberally quoted throughout the book; furthermore, the abundant references to the work of others point mainly to textbooks and anthologies rather than to primary research. For long-time Dever fans like myself, the fascination of this present book is in seeing how the diverse topics he has covered during his career—not to mention his sometimes seemingly contradictory ideas, such as his crusade against the term “Biblical archaeology” on the one hand, and his obvious passion for the Bible and archaeology, on the other—come together to form a unified tapestry.
But Dever’s book could have done with much more critical editing. In one passage he discusses a large storage jar from southern Palestine. The pot, however, belongs not in the Iron Age IIC period, but in Iron Age IIB. It is from Tell Beit Mirsim and not from Lachish, though identical pots were found in great numbers in Lachish. The 062stamp impressions on some of these jars read mmst and not mmslt. The jar pictured in the text has a larger capacity than the five gallons Dever claims. This is but one example of the book’s sloppiness.
Nevertheless, Dever comes out of his corner swinging, in classic Dever style. In the very first chapter, the opposition is described as “bankrupt,” “mean spirited” and “perilously close to anti-Semitism.” By round two he has really gotten going—he administers a crushing blow to each of his opponents, one by one. Davies is “an example of British eccentricity,” Thompson “an ‘outsider’ for many years, never accepted by the… establishment.” Whitelam’s “statements border dangerously on anti-Semitism.” As for Lemche, Dever writes: “Don’t bother [him]… with facts…. [His] mind is made up.” Finkelstein is characterized as someone who “changed his mind not on the basis of empirical data, but simply out of an inherent iconoclasm [and]… a sense of political correctness.”
Dever then whacks all of his opponents as a group: “All the revisionists, in my opinion, are rapidly becoming: philologians—with no pertinent texts; historians—with no history; theologians—with no empathy with religion; ethnographers—with no recognizable ‘ethnic groups,’ no training and no field experience; anthropologists—with no theory of culture and cultural change; literary critics—with little coherent concept of literary production; archaeologists with no independent knowledge or appreciation of material culture remains.”
These blows are not all above the belt. And if Dever believes that it is facts and reasoned argument that eventually lead to the discovery of objective truth, he should perhaps bind himself to a different etiquette. Of course, he is quite right when he says that he didn’t start the fight with the minimalists. After all, Dever writes, it was Lemche and Thompson who alleged that Avraham Biran’s “House of David” inscription is a forgery; it was Thompson who characterized Dever as a Christian fundamentalist and accused him of deliberately falsifying archaeological data; it was Whitelam who charged American and Israeli archaeologists with colluding in an “elders of Zion” conspiracy to “dispossess Palestinians of a land and a past.”
In the core of his book, Dever describes what he calls convergences between Biblical text and archaeological finds, and in so doing hopes to demonstrate that the only possible Sitz im Leben (setting) for that text is in the Iron Age. Again, all of the case studies are well known and have been argued back and forth in previous literature. Also, remember that the author forewarned the reader that the issues would be simplified for the sake of the argument. And though Dever does not exactly cover up the deficiencies some critics have pointed out in some of his arguments, he does not call attention to these deficiencies, either.
Take, for example, Dever’s discussion of the well-known city gate and walls of Gezer, which Yigael Yadin compared to nearly identical gates and walls at Hazor and Megiddo. Yadin believed that 1 Kings 9:15–17 referred to these structures; the passage describes how Solomon fortified Gezer, Hazor and Megiddo. Dever, however, neglects to caution the reader that Yadin’s attribution of these gates to Solomon is greatly undermined by the finding of similar gates in later contexts—at Lachish and Tel Ira.
Dever uses ceramic evidence to date the Gezer gate to the tenth century B.C.E., but his argument over-simplifies matters, for pottery cannot provide a stratum with an absolute date. At most it can provide a context within a sequence of changing stylistic periods. There is no intrinsic evidence to support Dever’s argument that the destruction of stratum VIII at Gezer was caused by Pharaoh Sheshonq I (the Biblical Shishak) in 925 B.C.E., during his famous campaign through Judah and Israel.
And what of the evidence concerning the raid of Shishak mentioned in 1 Kings? Can a convergence be established in this case 063between Biblical text and archaeological fact? Shishak’s commemorative relief and text at Karnak lists 154 towns destroyed by the Egyptian army. Following Yohanan Aharoni, Dever reconstructs the route of Shishak’s raid and comes up with his own list of 14 strata that were probably destroyed during this raid. But of the 154 places named on Shishak’s list, only three or four (the reading of Gezer on this list is disputed) appear in Dever’s table as having relevant strata presumably destroyed by the pharaoh. At two sites (Megiddo and Beth-Shean), the excavators noted no destruction debris in the relevant phases (c. 930–925 B.C.E.). As for the remaining ten strata that Dever calls ostensibly “Shishakite” destructions, none of these places is mentioned by Shishak. Some (for example, Hazor, Tel Abu Hawam, Tell Keisan and Tel Mevorakh) are not even on the campaign route Dever reconstructs. Might all of this be taken as evidence of divergence rather than convergence?
One significant question is missing from Dever’s overall argument: Why, as the minimalists claim, are the Persian and/or Hellenistic periods not appropriate Sitze im Leben for the writing of the Bible? Only briefly does Dever refer to this question; as this discussion is central to his argument, he perhaps should have amplified it.
But returning to our bout. We are in the last round, and Dever goes on the attack again, dismissing Biblical minimalism as a postmodern phenomenon. Here we need to digress a little for the sake of those of us not up to date on Foucault and Derrida. The term “postmodernism” is a play on words. Modernism here refers not only to what is novel but also to the belief in modernity. Throughout most of the 19th and 20th centuries, many intellectuals in Europe and the United States clung to the notion of progress. Mankind was believed to be advancing from a primitive past to an enlightened future; the disparate cultures of the old world were destined to merge into an inclusive modern culture. Two world wars and one hole-in-the-ozone later, we are deeply skeptical. Caught in the whirlwind of technological advancement, we are suspicious of where all this progress is leading us. Alternative medicines, anti-globalism, Dadaism and Surrealism in art and literature, conspiracy theories, the rise of the conservation movement—all these disparate phenomena are part of postmodernism.
But what does a popular intellectual movement have to do with Biblical minimalism? Plenty, Dever argues. According to him, the minimalists, like the postmodernists, refuse to take any authoritative voice at face value. They reject any hegemony. They search constantly for hidden agendas and power plays. They believe that the work of literary criticism is more valid and important than the literature being examined. They accept any interpretation of a text, Dever writes, no matter how absurd or even atrocious, as long as it champions some marginalized racial, ethnic or sexual minority. In this way, the minimalists seek to undermine both the Biblical writers and the dominant schools of Biblical and archaeological research, which are viewed as middle-class-American-Jewish-fundamentalist-sexist conspiracies.
The best of postmodernism, however, is by and large missing in the Biblical minimalist literature. Deconstruction, metaphor and humor all have their place in scientific discourse. But the sense of deep irony that characterizes much postmodernist thinking is lost on most minimalists. For the most part, these minimalists are a dour and pompous lot.
But now we get to the main question: Is a literary slugging match the proper way to settle the debate between those who believe in an Iron Age setting for the Hebrew Bible and those who reject this notion? Perhaps. But for those who crave empirical evidence, rhetoric has its limits. Given two opposing theories, one should devise critical tests—testable hypotheses the results of which would refute one of the challenging theories and vindicate the other—and then go out into the field to collect fresh data with which to settle the issue. It is through this empirical approach that archaeology can make its greatest contribution to the historical sciences. When challenged by the minimalists, archaeologists should have gone back to the drawing board—the excavation pits, the pottery shed, the records office. Of the veritable deluge of papers written on this subject in the last ten years (my running bibliography has over 100 entries, at least six of them book-length), precious few have as much as a pottery plate of new archaeological evidence, not to mention new methodologies and analyses. Calling someone a “triumphalist” or “Zionist” (or, alternatively, a “nihilist” or “anti-Semite”) is simply not enough.
So, if you have a hankering for intellectual blood sport, this book is definitely for you. If you want to know what the fight between minimalists and maximalists is all about, this is a good introduction (but make sure you read a defense of the other side, too). And for the archaeologists among us: How about going out and collecting—and publishing—some new evidence?
Reviewed by Ilan Sharon