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The Bible Unearthed

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Publication date  2001
Pages  385 pp
OCLC  44509358
Genre  History
Subject  Archaeology
4.1/5 Goodreads

Language  English
Media type  Print (Hardback)
ISBN  978-0-684-86912-4
Originally published  2001
Publisher  Free Press
Country  United States of America
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Authors  Israel Finkelstein, Neil Asher Silberman, ʻAdi Gintsburg
Similar  Israel Finkelstein books, History books, Old Testament books

The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts, a book published in 2001, discusses the archaeology of Israel and its relationship to the origins and content of the Hebrew Bible. The authors are Israel Finkelstein, Professor of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University, and Neil Asher Silberman, an archaeologist, historian and contributing editor to Archaeology Magazine.



The methodology applied by the authors is historical criticism with an emphasis on archaeology. Writing in the website of "The Bible and Interpretation", the authors describe their approach as one "in which the Bible is one of the most important artifacts and cultural achievements [but] not the unquestioned narrative framework into which every archaeological find must be fit." Their main contention is that:

On the basis of this evidence they propose

As noted by a reviewer on the approach and conclusions of The Bible Unearthed are not particularly new. Ze'ev Herzog, professor of archaeology at Tel Aviv University, wrote a cover story for Haaretz in 1999 in which he reached similar conclusions following the same methodology; Herzog noted also that some of these findings have been accepted by the majority of biblical scholars and archaeologists for years and even decades, even though they have only recently begun to make a dent in the awareness of the general public.


Early biblical archaeology was conducted with the presumption that the Bible must be true, finds only being considered as illustrations for the biblical narrative, and interpreting evidence to fit the Bible. Some archaeologists such as Eilat Mazar continue to take this "Bible and spade" approach, or, like the journal Bible and Spade, attempt to treat archaeology as a tool for proving the Bible's accuracy, but since the 1970s most archaeologists, such as prominent Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen, have begun instead to interpret the evidence only in the light of other archaeology, treating the Bible as an artifact to be examined, rather than as an unquestioned truth. This approach has led to results both in favor and against the historicity of the old Testament.

Ancestors and anachronisms

The Bible Unearthed begins by considering what it terms the 'preamble' of the Bible—the Book of Genesis—and its relationship to archaeological evidence for the context in which its narratives are set. Archaeological discoveries about society and culture in the ancient Near East lead the authors to point out a number of anachronisms, suggestive that the narratives were actually set down in the 9th–7th centuries:

  • Aramaeans are frequently mentioned, but no ancient text mentions them until around 1100 BCE, and they only begin to dominate Israel's northern borders after the 9th century BCE.
  • The text describes the early origin of the neighbouring kingdom of Edom, but Assyrian records show that Edom only came into existence after the conquest of the region by Assyria; before then it was without functioning kings, was not a distinct state, and archaeological evidence shows that the territory was only sparsely populated.
  • The Joseph story refers to camel-based traders carrying gum, balm, and myrrh, which is unlikely prior to the first millennium, such activity only becoming common in the 8th–7th centuries BCE, when Assyrian hegemony enabled this Arabian trade to flourish into a major industry. Recent excavations in the Timna Valley discovered what may be the earliest bones of domesticated camels found in Israel or even outside the Arabian peninsula, dating to around 930 BCE. This is seen as evidence that the stories of Abraham, Joseph, Jacob and Esau were written after this time.
  • The land of Goshen has a name that comes from an Arabic group who dominated the Nile Delta only in the 6th and 5th centuries.
  • The Egyptian Pharaoh is portrayed as fearing invasion from the east, even though Egypt's territory stretched to the northern parts of Canaan, with its main threat consequently being from the north, until the 7th century
  • The book comments that this corresponds with the documentary hypothesis, in which textual scholarship argues for the majority of the first five biblical books being written between the 8th and 6th centuries. Although archaeological results, and Assyrian records, suggest that the Kingdom of Israel was the greater of the two, it is the Kingdom of Judah which is afforded greater prominence by Genesis, whose narratives concentrate on Abraham, Jerusalem, Judah (the patriarch), and Hebron, more than on characters and places from the northern kingdom (Israel); the Bible Unearthed explains this pre-eminence of Yahwist text as an attempt to seize the opportunity, afforded by the destruction of Israel in 720 BCE, to portray the Israelites as a single people, with Judah having (always) had primacy.

    Origin of the Israelites

    The book remarks that, despite modern archaeological investigations and the meticulous ancient Egyptian records from the period of Ramesses II, there is an obvious lack of any archaeological evidence for the migration of a band of semitic people across the Sinai Peninsula, except for the Hyksos. Although the Hyksos are in some ways a good match, their main centre being at Avaris (later renamed 'Pi-Ramesses'), in the heart of the region corresponding to the 'land of Goshen', and Manetho later writing that the Hyksos eventually founded the Temple in Jerusalem, it throws up other problems, as the Hyksos became not slaves but rulers, and they were chased away rather than chased to bring them back. Nevertheless, the book posits that the exodus narrative perhaps evolved from vague memories of the Hyksos expulsion, spun to encourage resistance to the 7th century domination of Judah by Egypt.

    Finkelstein and Silberman argue that instead of the Israelites conquering Canaan after the Exodus (as suggested by the book of Joshua), most of them had in fact always been there; the Israelites were simply Canaanites who developed into a distinct culture. Recent surveys of long-term settlement patterns in the Israelite heartlands show no sign of violent invasion or even peaceful infiltration, but rather a sudden demographic transformation about 1200 BCE in which villages appear in the previously unpopulated highlands; these settlements have a similar appearance to modern Bedouin camps, suggesting that the inhabitants were once pastoral nomads, driven to take up farming by the Late Bronze Age collapse of the Canaanite city-culture.

    The authors take issue with the book of Joshua's depiction of the Israelites conquering Canaan in only a few years—far less than the lifetime of one individual—in which cities such as Hazor, Ai, and Jericho, are destroyed. Finkelstein and Silberman view this account as the result of the telescoping effect of the vagaries of folk memory about destruction caused by other events; modern archaeological examination of these cities shows that their destruction spanned a period of many centuries, with Hazor being destroyed 100 to 300 years after Jericho, while Ai (whose name actually means 'the ruin') was completely abandoned for roughly a millennium "before the collapse of Late Bronze Canaan. ... Like Jericho, there was no settlement at the time of its supposed conquest by the children of Israel."

    David and Solomon or the Omrides?

    Although the book of Samuel, and initial parts of the books of Kings, portray Saul, David and Solomon ruling in succession over a powerful and cosmopolitan united kingdom of Israel and Judah, Finkelstein and Silberman regard modern archaeological evidence as showing that this may not be true. Archaeology instead shows that in the time of Solomon, the northern kingdom of Israel was quite small, too poor to be able to pay for a vast army, and with too little bureaucracy to be able to administer a kingdom, certainly not an empire; it only emerged later, around the beginning of the 9th century BCE, in the time of Omri. There is little to suggest that Jerusalem, called by the Bible David's capital, was "perhaps not more than a typical hill country village" during the time of David and of Solomon, and Judah remained little more than a sparsely populated rural region, until the 8th century BCE. Though the Tel Dan Stele seems to confirm that a "House of David" existed, and "clearly validates the biblical description of a figure named David becoming the founder of the dynasty of Judahite kings in Jerusalem", it says nothing else about him.

    There are remains of once grand cities at Megiddo, Hazor and Gezer, with archeological evidence showing that they suffered violent destruction. This destruction once was attributed to the 10th century BCE campaigns by Shishak, these cities therefore being ascribed to David and Solomon as proof of the Bible's account of them, but the destruction layers have since been redated to the late 9th century BCE campaign of Hazael, and the cities to the time of the Omride kings.

    The Tel Dan Stele, the Mesha Stele, the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser, and direct evidence from excavations, together paint a picture of the Omride kings ruling a rich, powerful, and cosmopolitan empire, stretching from Damascus to Moab, and building some of the largest and most beautiful constructions of Iron Age Israel; by contrast, the Bible only remarks that the Omrides 'married foreign women' (presumably to make alliances) and upheld Canaanite religion, both of which it regards as wicked. The Bible Unearthed concludes that the biblical writers deliberately invented the empire, power, and wealth, of Saul, David, and Solomon, by appropriating the deeds and achievements of the Omrides, so that they could then denigrate the Omrides and obscure their accomplishments, since these kings held a religious viewpoint that was anathema to the biblical editors.

    Hezekiah and monolatry

    The Book of Kings, as it stands today, seems to suggest that the religion of Israel and Judah was primarily monotheistic, with one or two wayward kings (such as the Omrides) who tried to introduce Canaanite polytheism, the people occasionally joining in this 'apostasy' from monotheism, but a close reading and the archaeological record reveals that the opposite was true. Iron Age remains show that in the time of the setting of the Book of Kings, sacrifices continued to be offered at hilltop shrines (which the Bible terms "high places"), incense and libations were being offered throughout the land, and clay figurines of deities were still being used in homes everywhere in the land as household gods. Inscriptions from "the early eighth century site of Kuntillet Ajrud in northeastern Sinai" as well as "in a late-monarchic inscription from the Shephelah of Judah", even seem to refer to "the goddess Asherah as being the consort of YHWH".

    The world changed for Judah when the kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrians in 720 BCE. Judah was flooded with refugees; the population of Israel had been nine times larger than that of Judah, so many small Judean villages suddenly became cities, archaeology evidencing that the population of Jerusalem itself expanded by about 15-fold, turning it from a small hilltown into a large city. The social and religious struggles, which obviously would occur with such a large influx of population, are not mentioned by the Bible. Finkelstein and Silberman argue that the priests of Jerusalem began to promote Yahweh-based monolatry, aligning themselves with king Hezekiah's anti-Assyrian views, perhaps because they believed that Assyrian domination of Israel had caused social injustice, or perhaps because they just wanted to gain economic and/or political control over the newly wealthy countryside; Hezekiah advanced their agenda, banning the worship of deities other than Yahweh, destroying the hilltop shrines, actions which The Bible Unearthed views as preparation for rebelling against Assyria.

    By 701 BCE, the Assyrians had captured most of Judah, and then they besieged Jerusalem; the Bible's coverage of the events leading up to the siege is sparse, briefly listing only a few refortifications of Jerusalem, giving a passing mention to the Siloam tunnel, and briefly admitting to the loss of most of Judah's cities, but archaeology gives much more detail. For example, the fortifications of Lachish were heavily strengthened by Hezekiah, but it was besieged, fell, and was then burnt to the ground; according to an illustration on the walls of the Assyrian palace at Ninevah, the Assyrians deported the city's population and religious objects before they burnt it.

    The Bible claims that nearly 200,000 men in the army besieging Jerusalem were slaughtered one night by an angel, causing the Assyrian king Sennacherib to relent and return to Assyria; it immediately goes on to state that Sennacherib was killed by his sons, while he was praying to his god, implying that this was shortly after the battle. However, as The Bible Unearthed points out, this contrasts with the Assyrian record on the Taylor Prism, in which Hezekiah's mercenaries abandoned him, and he only then convinced the Assyrian army to leave by handing over not only vast amounts of money, jewels, and high quality ivory-inlaid furniture, but also his own daughters, harem, and musicians, and making Judah into a tributary state of the Assyrians. Additionally, although Sennacherib was clearly murdered (by person(s) uncertain), it was in 681 BCE; he had lived for over 19 years beyond the end of the siege, conducting several military campaigns elsewhere, and rebuilding and refurnishing his palace entirely.

    Hezekiah predeceased Sennacherib, dying just a couple of years after the siege. His successor (and son), Manasseh, reversed the religious changes, re-introducing religious pluralism; Finkelstein and Silberman suggest that this may have been an attempt to gain co-operation from village elders and clans, so that he would not need so much centralised administration, and could therefore allow the countryside to return to economic autonomy. According to the archaeology there must have been a deliberate expansion of agriculture into the Judean desert, and the rich finds from this period suggest that much profit was gained from Judah's now peaceful position in the middle of many of the caravan routes between Assyria's allies; the state certainly increased its administration of trade to levels that far exceed those before.

    Hezekiah's actions had given away the gold and silver from the Jerusalem Temple, impoverished his state, lost him his own daughters and concubines, and reduced his territory to a small region around Jerusalem, most of the people elsewhere in Judah being deported; Manasseh had brought peace and prosperity back to the country, but because the Book of Kings bases its decisions on theological prejudice, it condemns him as the most sinful monarch ever to rule Judah and hails instead Hezekiah as the great king. The Bible Unearthed suggests that the priesthood and populace outside Jerusalem may well have held the opposite opinion—that Hezekiah's imposition of monolatry was blasphemous, and the disasters that befell the country during his reign had been punishment from the gods.

    Josiah and the birth of the Bible

    As recorded in the Book of Kings, Manasseh's grandson, Josiah, enacted a large religious reform soon after he became king; he ordered renovations to the Jerusalem Temple, during which the High Priest 'found' a scroll of the law, which insisted on monotheism with sacrifice centralised at a single temple—that in Jerusalem. Finkelstein and Silberman note that most scholars regard the core of Deuteronomy as being the "scroll of the law" in question, and regard it as having been written not long before it was 'found', rather than being an ancient missing scroll as characterised in the Bible; Deuteronomy is strikingly similar to early 7th century Assyrian vassal-treaties, in which are set out the rights and obligations of a vassal state (in this case Judah) to their sovereign (in this case, Yahweh). Josiah imposed this scroll as the new religious orthodoxy, and, like Hezekiah before him, destroyed the old cult centres; Josiah even went so far as to slaughter the priests of these shrines, burn their bodies, and bury their bones in the tombs near them, upon the old altars.

    The sudden collapse of the Assyrian Empire in the last decades of the 7th century BCE offered an opportunity for Josiah to expand Judah's territory into the former kingdom of Israel, abandoned by the Assyrians. It was now that the author of Deuteronomy, working in Josiah's court, reworked older legends, texts, and histories into a single national history; with the message that it had been the non-Deuteronomic practices of the Israelites that had led to their downfalls, and implied that Joshua, as well as David in some respects, was a foreshadowing of what Josiah could achieve.

    Archaeology suggests that Josiah was initially successful, extending his territory northwards towards Bethel, a cult-centre of the kingdom of Israel; however he then rode out to meet the Egyptian Pharaoh—Necho—at Meggido. Necho had been merely 'passing through', leading an army to join the Assyrian civil war on the side of the Assyrian (rather than Babylonian) faction, but Josiah was killed; the circumstances of his death are uncertain, though the Book of Chronicles claims that despite Necho's lack of enmity for Josiah, Josiah insisted on attacking him. Finkelstein and Silberman suggest that Necho may have objected to Josiah's expansionist policies, which could have threatened the Egyptian dominance of the region to the west of Judah (the Philistine lands) or of the strategically important Jezreel Valley to its north, or could equally have objected to the effect of the new (deuteronomic) social policies on the caravan routes, which ran through southern Judah.

    With Josiah's death Egypt became suzerain over Judah. The new king, Egypt's vassal ruler, undid Josiah's changes, restoring the former shrines and returning the country once again to religious pluralism. But when the Babylonian faction eventually won the Assyrian civil war, they set out to forcibly retake the former Assyrian tributaries. Judah, as a loyal Egyptian vassal-state, resisted, with disastrous consequences: the Babylonians plundered Jerusalem in 597 BCE and imposed their own vassal king; these events are described in the Bible and confirmed, with variations, in the Babylonian Chronicle. A few years later, the king of Judah rebelled against his Babylonian masters, and the Babylonians returned to destroy all the cities in Judah, burning Jerusalem to the ground in 587 BCE.

    In 539 BCE, the Achaemenids conquered Babylon, and, in accordance with their Zoroastrian perspective, allowed the people deported by the Babylonians to return; this is described by the Cyrus Cylinder, which also indicates that the Persians repaired the temples in these conquered lands, returning any sacred artifacts to them. According to the archaeological record, no more than 25% of the population had actually been deported; according to the Book of Ezra and its parallel passages in the First Book of Esdras, when the deportees began to return, their leader—Zerubbabel—refused to allow the undeported Israelites to assist them in reconstructing the Jerusalem temple, apparently believing that only the former deportees had the right to determine the beliefs and practices which could count as the orthodoxy. Although the undeported majority then tried to stop the reconstruction, Darius, the new Achaemenid king, eventually allowed it to continue.

    The conflict between the returnees and those who had always been in Judah evidently required resolution; the two groups had to be reintegrated. Finkelstein and Silberman argue that the Deuteronomic law advanced by parts of the deported elite (the ancestors of the returnees), and the laws and legends of the inveterate inhabitants, were melded together into a single Torah so that it could form a central authority able to unite the population. Artaxerxes, Darius' grandson, commissioned Ezra to take charge of Judah, following the divine laws which Ezra was holding in his hand; The Bible Unearthed comments that academics like Richard Elliott Friedman propose that Ezra himself was the final redactor of the Torah, noting that the Bible identifies him as the scribe of the law of the god of heaven.


    The Bible Unearthed was well received by some biblical scholars and archaeologists and critically by others. Baruch Halpern, professor of Jewish Studies at Pennsylvania State University and leader of the archaeological digs at Megiddo for many years, praised it as "the boldest and most exhilarating synthesis of Bible and archaeology in fifty years", and biblical scholar Jonathan Kirsch, writing in the Los Angeles Times, called it "a brutally honest assessment of what archeology can and cannot tell us about the historical accuracy of the Bible", which embraces the spirit of modern archaeology by 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". Phyllis Trible, professor of biblical studies at Wake Forest University, concluded her review in The New York Times by pointing out the importance of understanding the truth about the biblical past:

    Kenneth Kitchen was critical, writing that "[A] careful critical perusal of this work—which certainly has much to say about both archaeology and the biblical writings—reveals that we are dealing very largely with a work of imaginative fiction, not a serious or reliable account of the subject", and "Their treatment of the exodus is among the most factually ignorant and misleading that this writer has ever read."

    A review of the book by fellow archeologist William G. Dever published in the Biblical Archaeology Review and subsequently in the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, resulted in heated exchanges between Dever and Finkelstein. Dever's review noted that the book had many strengths, notably archaeology's potential for re-writing the history of "Ancient Israel", but complained that it misrepresented his own views and concluded by characterizing Finkelstein as "idiosyncratic and doctrinaire"; Finkelstein's reaction was to call Dever a "jealous academic parasite," and the debate quickly degenerated from that point.

    The book became a bestseller within its field. In February 2009, ranked it as the 8th most popular in the fields of Old Testament Christian Theology, and the Archaeology of Christianity, as well as being the 22nd most popular book on the history of Israel. In 2006, the popularity of the text led to a four-part documentary series upon it, which was subsequently broadcast on The History Channel.


    The Bible Unearthed Wikipedia