This book presents new discoveries and ways of looking at previous discoveries in the area of archaeological research and the origins of the Bible. This is one of the latest contributions of major scholars to the continuing quest for clarity and understanding of the development and meaning of the biblical texts. 'We believe that a reassessment of finds from earlier excavations and the continuing discoveries by new digs have made it clear that scholars must now approach the problems of biblical origins and ancient Israelite society from a completely new perspective.
The book is divided into three main sections. After a brief introduction and prologue, the three main sections are 'The Bible as History?', 'The Rise and Fall of Ancient Israel', and 'Judah and the Making of Biblical History'. There follows an epilogue and several appendices that address particular key questions.
Prologue and Introduction
Finkelstein and Silberman begin with a small 'snapshot' of Jerusalem in the time of king Josiah. Josiah is a very important figure, as it is thought by many that it was during his reign (circa 639-609 B.C.E.) that much of the Torah and other major biblical texts came into the beginning forms of what we have today.
Following this brief glimpse into the past, the authors explore key definitions of the Bible (what is meant in this book, for the sake of archaeological research in to ancient Israel, is the Hebrew Bible, a book that contains the same material as the Christian Old Testament, in a different order, without apocryphal or deuterocanonical additions), historical periods, archaeological and anthropological ideas, and set the stage for the authors' main thesis:
Many scholars believe that elements of the Bible were written hundreds of years before this time. Thus, the authors have a task to prove their case.
The Bible as History?
The modern idea of history is a foreign concept to the biblical authors. One of the major problems that arises in biblical interpretation today is the application of twentieth century standards of history, epistemology, and ethics to a set of writings whose origin is upwards of 3000 years earlier. The very ideas of individuality, family, tribal and ethnic identity, economy, justice, and good and evil have undergone major developments through time. While it is true that there are timeless elements of the Bible that continue to speak, this is not due to a parallel sense of history between biblical writers and modern readers. We must always take great care to understand that our interpretations (and yes, 'taking it literally' is an interpretation, one that was most likely never intended by the original authors) are rooted in our modern times and owe more to that culture than to biblical integrity.
The Rise and Fall of Ancient Israel
In this section the authors investigate the historical record as presented both from biblical sources and archaeological data. Finkelstein and Silberman do not see a unified kingdom as a likelihood during the Davidic/Solomonic period. The archaeological record, they claim, does not support such a conclusion. While many biblical scholars and archaeologists have taken the postulated progression of the kingdom of Israel from one of tribal cooperation to royal unity to division to disintegration as a given, the authors here argue that the northern and southern split was always greater in sociological and political terms than the Bible presents.
Judah and the Making of Biblical History
The key to understanding these writings in the Bible is to understand Judah, the place and people who produced it. Judah is not presented in unambiguously glowing terms, but there is a theme of faithfulness and favour that preserves the inheritance of Abraham for Judah. Judah had always been a small and isolated kingdom in relation to the northern kingdom of Israel, without its population, resources, wealth, and international contacts. However, with the fall of the northern kingdom, the importance of Judah increases, and, as it is the origin of the survivors of the tradition, those looking back on the history rate the relative importance in perhaps less than objective fashion.
After examining the development under several kings, the authors come to the reign of Josiah. Josiah institutes religious reforms, based on a 'found' book in the Temple. This 'found' volume is most likely much of the book of Deuteronomy as we have it today. Many scholars believe that this 'found' volume was actually written at the request of Josiah or his advisors, to provide a standard model for history and worship that would serve as a more firm foundation for his rule. Likewise, and important from the standpoint of Finkelstein and Silberman's argument for the seventh-century origins of the biblical text, archaeological evidence shows a widespread and sudden increase in literacy throughout Judah, with extensive use of writing, signet rings, seals, and other literary pieces that speak to the ability of the people to produce an extensive literary text like various books of the Bible.
Epilogue: The Future of Biblical Israel
The authors give a brief essay on the importance of the people after return from exile, the brief periods of freedom (yet always under the domination or influence of some foreign power), and the continuing importance of the Bible as formative document for Jews, then later Christians, then later other cultures that tap into the narratives as part of the collective cultural heritage of the world.
The authors are Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman. Finkelstein has a position at Tel Aviv University, as director of the Sonia and Marco Nadler Archaeological Institute, and is currently working on excavations at Tel Meggido (better known to modern readers as Armageddon). Silberman is director of historical interpretation for the Ename Center for Public Archaeology and Heritage Presentation in Belgium. Both are frequent contributors to major scholarly and popular archaeology magazines and journals, and each has published a number of noted books in the field of Syro-Palestinian archaeology.