Monday, 2 January 2012

The Bible Unearthed

Happy New Year everyone.  I trust 2012 is a better year than 2011 or, if 2011 was the best year of your life so far, that at least the comedown is unspectacular.

In between eating, sleeping and watching cricket I've been reading The Bible Unearthed, an earlier book by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, authors of David and Solomon.  This book operates on a broader canvas, providing an overview of the latest (at least up to their time of writing in 2001) archaeological evidence about the times in which the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament, are set.

Finkelstein and Silbermann are serious and distinguished historians and archaeologists, not eccentric amateurs like Tony Bushby or Stephan Huller.  They carefully cite and sift their sources, build their arguments from evidence and are careful to avoid overclaiming.  Nonetheless it is important to remember that archaeological evidence is intrinsically partial.  In a country which has been continuously occupied for millennia, there is little that is undisturbed, and many key sites can't be excavated because they are still being used.  For instance, there is little archaeological data available about the Jerusalem temple because the site is currently the second holiest mosque in Islam and digging it up would be considered sacrilege.  Another major discovery, or another decade or two of patient research, could turn the whole thing on its head.

Still, there's a surprising amount of evidence.  The absence of any trace of the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) doesn't tell us much, because a small band of nomadic pastoralists would be unlikely to leave much evidence.  However, the absence of any independent verification of the Exodus is more telling.  The cumulative failure to uncover any evidence of a mass emigration from Egypt, a large group of people wandering in the Negev, or a sudden devastating conquest in Canaan,  types and scales of events which would leave an imprint on the landscape and on the cities of the time, provides a much stronger suggestion that the exodus and invasion are not actual historical events.

Other bits of evidence are more positive.  For instance, a comparison of the locations of events in Genesis with archaeological data reveals that the historical setting of the partiarchal tales is not the world of the Bronze Age where the Biblical chronology would place them, but of seventh century Canaan.  Whatever the origin of these stories, the authors of Genesis have placed them in their own world, in the places their readers would know and recognise. 

It's also fascinating to get a picture of the social conditions in the time of the Israelite kingdom.  According to their best evidence, the settled population of Israel and Judah in the time of David and Solomon would have been around 50,000 people.  The peak population of the kingdom of Israel in the time of Jereboam II would have been around 350,000, while that of Judah in the time of Hezekiah would have reached no more than 100,000.  Of these, most were illiterate peasants, with a small population of "elites" - soldiers, priests and royal officials.  These two kingdoms at their peak were closely integrated, economically and politically, with the empires of the Near East, particularly the Assyrians and later the Babylonians.

These are just samples of the wealth of evidence the authors bring to bear.  The picture that emerges from their combination of archaeology and biblical scholarship is strongly at odds with the literal view of the Bible.  The core of the Old Testament history as we know it - what biblical scholars call the "Deuteronomistic history" including the early versions of the books of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings as well as edited versions of the rest of the Pentateuch - was created in seventh century Judah, especially the time of King Josiah.  This is not to say that the stories themselves were created then - they are almost certainly drawn from pre-existing oral and in some cases written accounts.  But the stories were adapted and retold to fit the purpose of Josiah's court, to tell a story which united the Hebrews as a nation, justified Josiah's territorial ambitions (and those of his grandfather Hezekiah) and their religious reforms which centred the worship of Yahweh in Jerusalem and outlawed alternative religious practices. 

What is presented in these stories is not so much a history as a theory of history.  According to this theory, Yahweh chose the Hebrews to be his own special people and gave them the land of Canaan.  However, in return the people and leaders needed to remain faithful to Yahweh.  In the times they were faithful - during the time of David, for instance, and in the reigns of Jehosophat, Hezekiah and Josiah - Yahweh blessed them and protected them.  When they were unfaithful he punished them by allowing them to be invaded by the surrounding nations, particularly the great empires.  The conclusion was that Israel should remain faithful to Yahweh, obeying His law, keeping separate from the surrounding peoples and forsaking all other gods.

Unfortunately, on Finkelstein and Silberman's reading the evidence is at odds with this theory.  The glories of David and Solomon are at best exaggerations, contradicted by the archaeological evidence of a poor, sparsely populated region with no evidence of widespread literacy or centralised rule.  The most prosperous periods in the Northern kingdom were those of the Omride kings, particularly the notorious Ahab.  The eras of greatest prosperity in Judah were those of the "bad" Davidic kings Ahaz and Manasseh, whose cooperation with the Assyrians led to increased wealth and booming populations.  By contrast, the kings most highly praised by the Deuternomistic authors - Hezekiah and Josiah - followed a course which led to disaster.  Hezekiah managed to avoid the destruction of Jerusalem but the rest of Judah was devastated as the Assyrians put down his revolt.  Similarly Josiah's ambitions led to the invasion and ultimate destruction of the kingdom. 

The Deuternomists said Israel should isolate itself from the surrounding nations, pursue ambitious territorial goals, and rely on Yahweh for military assistance.  The lesson of the archaeological evidence, on the other hand, is that if you want your kingdom to prosper you should integrate with the surrounding peoples, appease the great powers and trade to your heart's content.  This is not, of course, without its dangers for a small kingdom.  You can back the wrong imperial power, as the later northern kings did.  If the empires change their policy, you are powerless to resist.  You can lose who you are.

This is where the genius of these stories lies.  Of all the peoples conquered and dispersed by the Assyrians and Babylonians, how many retain their identity to this day?  The ideas of the Deuternomists were disastrous as political strategies, but as strategies for cultural survival they were brilliant, motivating the return from exile, the creation of an enduring Jewish identity, and the spawning of a set of religious ideas that sit at the base of the two largest world religions today.  It doesn't have to be history to do that.

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