The Bible Unearthed

Every few years, new stories and rumors circulate about ground-breaking discoveries of the Ark of the Covenant, Noah’s Ark, the Garden of Eden, and other biblical legends. However, all these iconic finds seem to have been stumbled upon by amateur explorers in remote locations now conveniently forgotten or off-limits to public access. Still many of the faithful do hold such suspicious tales to be more than simple hoaxes. It is not difficult to see that there is a strong desire, especially in America, to confirm the bible as historical fact. Not surprisingly then, any book which seeks to put evidence before scripture in importance will be quite controversial.

Israel Finkelstein is the Jacob M. Alkow Professor of the Archaeology of Israel at Tel Aviv University, he served as director of the Sonia and Marco Nadler Institute of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University from 1996-2002, and co-directed excavations of Megiddo from 1992 to the present.1 Neil Asher Silberman is an archaeologist and historian trained at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, he is also a contributing editor to Archaeology magazine, and served as the director of historical interpretation for the Ename Center for Public Archaeology and Heritage Presentation from 2004-2007.

I. A Revolution in Archaeology

The Bible Unearthed, written in 2001, is a work that intends to set the record straight on an unbiased archaeological view of the Old Testament. To many Christians and apologists, this book may seem like the ravings of a couple fringe lunatics within the field, but Finkelstein and Silberman are not the only archaeologists taking issue with a literal and historical interpretation of the bible. This could rightfully be called a revisionist essay, because of how it criticizes the initially unscientific standards of biblical archaeology, and how it seeks to offer a parallel but very different view of the Old Testament events and stories. Instead of beginning with a conclusion and working their way backwards to find support, the authors of The Bible Unearthed simply let the evidence lead them wherever it may.

According to Finkelstein and Silberman, most archaeology of the last 30-40 years fell into making several assumptions about the bible’s place in history. Even respected scholars like William F. Albright assumed the literal truth of scripture in many matters that should have called for more objective analysis. Chapter one addresses some of the faulty reasoning and refuted declarations of Albright, Roland de Vaux, and other archaeologists who also seemed determined to use the bible as a roadmap reference for historical discoveries (p.35-36). This flawed perspective is a recurring theme throughout the book, as the authors build their case for a less religious and less politicized historical view of the biblical narratives.

The rejection of tradition is firmly rooted in the foundations of science, history, and even monotheism. Practically all great ideas and philosophies are born out of skepticism or discouragement with traditional views. Finkelstein and Silberman do not attempt to discard tradition altogether, but they do stress that it alone is not sufficient justification for assuming the historical truth of any claim. The evidence is what matters most, and in many instances, it speaks for itself.

II. Fitting the Pieces Together Again

Abraham and Moses are two of the most well-known characters in the history of literature, revered by Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike. Yet archaeology seems to have turned up little to no evidence of their existence or even for the major events surrounding them. There are no traces of a group of approximately two million Israelites leaving Egypt and wandering through the desert to enter Canaan after 40 years. No inscriptions in Egypt, no artifacts in the Sinai desert, and some puzzlingly contradictory evidence exists that Canaan was actually under formidable Egyptian occupation up to and long after the supposed time of the exodus (p.60-61). The explanation for all of this, according to our two authors, is not that these tales are completely fictional, but that they have been exaggerated and extracted from their proper time for other purposes.

Several anachronisms exist in the biblical stories which apparently suggest a later date of authorship for the Old Testament. One example is found in the mention of camels in the patriarchal narratives. As Finkelstein explains,

We now know through archaeological research that camels were not domesticated as beasts of burden earlier than the late second millennium and were not widely used in that capacity in the ancient Near East until well after 1000 BCE. And an even more telling detail – the camel caravan carrying ‘gum, balm, and myrrh,’ in the Joseph storyreveals an obvious familiarity with the main products of the lucrative Arabian trade that flourished under the supervision of the Assyrian empire in the eighth-seventh centuries BCE. (p.37)

Another anachronism is found in the references to Edom in Genesis, a region which was not developed enough to be any kind of threat to Israel until the time of the Assyrians in the late eighth century (p.40). Genesis 47:11 and Exodus 1:11 both mention the city of Rameses nearly two centuries before there was the first Egyptian emperor of such a name (p.56). Also, Finkelstein and Silberman claim that the great war of Genesis 14 describes geography that would not have been relevant until the seventh century BCE (p.42). Armed with a wealth of other similar evidences, the authors make quite a compelling case for putting the completion of the Pentateuch at about the seventh century.

What is the purpose of the Old Testament legends then? When Josiah became king of Judah in the mid-7th century BCE, several major reforms were made. The ‘scroll of the law’ was found by a high priest during renovations to the Jerusalem temple. Many scholars believe this was the book of Deuteronomy, which would be significant indeed, considering its rigid legal instructions and fervent advocacy of monotheism – both ideas that Josiah fully endorsed by burning down all the temples built to foreign gods and slaughtering the priests. Once Josiah reclaimed the former kingdom of Israel into Judah when the Assyrians began to weaken, it became critical for him to unite the peoples of both nations. According to Finkelstein and Silberman, Josiah did exactly this by collecting, editing, and reworking the older legends and texts into a single national history.

This history includes some characters, events, and traditions that date far back into antiquity, but certain settings and details are altered in order to be more relevant to the concerns of the seventh century Judahite kingdom. The urgent importance of unity is exemplified in the portrayal of the former Israelite kingdom as one that constantly angered God and ultimately fell because it did not adhere to the strict legal codes of worship and religious practice. A couple centuries later, the Babylonians conquered Judah and exiled many of its inhabitants. Later around 540 BCE, Persia overtook Babylon and allowed for exiles to return to their homelands and rebuild their temples (p.298). Returning from exile and reconstructing their nation, unity became a critical issue for the Judahites once more. At this point, according to Finkelstein and Silberman, the Torah, the books of the law (Deuteronomy and Josiah’s texts), the traditions and the legends were compiled to serve as a central authority and reunite the scattered peoples.

III. How Much Does the Bible Interest You?

Enjoyment of The Bible Unearthed will largely depend on how much the bible itself interests you. If you have little interest in the bible, you may find parts of this book to be quite dry and boring. It is undoubtedly written for academics, as each new section of discussion begins with a thorough synopsis of the biblical tale in question, and then proceeds to offer the alternate perspective provided by archaeology. The first several chapters are probably the most intriguing, I would say, because they cover the most popular narratives of the Old Testament. However, the remainder of the book involves more minute and complex details that do make it somewhat harder to want to continue reading for extended periods of time.

From my own account, I found this to be a very enjoyable read. Learning the current theories in biblical archaeology would be fascinating enough, but Finkelstein and Silberman do an excellent job of presenting their arguments persuasively, revealing the humble backstory to the bible that you’ll never hear in any church. With the Old Testament playing such a role today in political and ideological debates, it is important to try our best to understand just what it is that the text intends to communicate and what we can learn of it indirectly too. For anyone interested in archaeology’s modern vision of ancient Israel and its sacred texts, The Bible Unearthed is a wonderful resource.


Find on Amazon

1. Tel Aviv University. Prof. Israel Finkelstein. Department of Archaeology. Retrieved May 25th, 2009.