William Foxwell Albright (1891–1971) revolutionized biblical archaeology by insisting that debates about the historicity of the Bible be resolved by objective evidence. Initially, Albright sought to counter the skepticism of 19th-century, German “higher critics,” who argued that the first five books of the Bible (the Pentateuch, or Torah) were composed by various sources hundreds of years after the events described—and not, as the Bible says, by Moses. This early generation of “biblical minimalists” concluded that the Pentateuch essentially consists of myths invented to give Israel’s past a note of distinction. Albright, on the other hand, whose intellectual roots were deeply embedded in American Protestantism, believed that the Bible does contain a core of historical truth, and he set out to find external evidence for the biblical accounts of the patriarchal age and the Israelite settlement in Canaan.

By the mid-1970s, however, it was becoming clear that most of Albright’s specific conclusions were not supported by the archaeological record—for instance, that the patriarchal age could only be located in the Middle Bronze Age (around 1800 B.C.E.). This failure to demonstrate the historical reliability of the biblical accounts of Israel’s ancestors has given ammunition to a more radical group of scholars, whose skepticism extends to the Bible’s account of the Israelite monarchies in the books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles. For these latter-day critics, the Bible may tell us something about those who put it into its final form between the fifth and second centuries B.C.E.; but its description of ancient Israel is a mere literary construction, a work of fiction.