Two books in one, this awkwardly titled volume contains (i) the best introduction to the archaeology of Iron Age Palestine (biblical Israel) yet written, and (ii) a devastatingly trenchant critique of the scholarship and methodology of the "biblical minimalist" school.
William Dever is perhaps the preeminent American Syro-Palestinian archaeologist of his generation. He has extensive field experience (Shechem, Khirbet el-Qom, Tell el-Hayyat, Beth Shean, and especially Gezer), has served on the editorial board of several major journals, has received several prestigious awards and grants, has a remarkable publication record, and is an accomplished teacher. He also has written many articles for nonspecialists in journals such as "Biblical Archaeology Review". He writes with great force and clarity.
In "What did the Biblical Writers know and When did they know it?", Dever skewers biblical minimalists who insist that the Hebrew Bible is essentially a postexilic fabrication devoid of historical validity. At times Dever's polemic is so bitter it is difficult to reconcile with his reputation as a first magnitude scholar. To those who are unfamiliar with the challenges posed by the minimalist camp (e.g. Thompson, Lemche, Davies, Whitelam, Vikander-Edelman, et al.), Dever's acidity may seem bewildering and even off-putting. The cognoscenti who are familiar with the current debate no doubt will expect a wild ride, and those who are not embarrassed by Dever's diatribe will likely be delighted by his pyrotechnics.
Ensconced in the central chapters of this book, however, is an outstanding introduction to the archaeology of the "land of the Bible" during the Iron Age (1200 - 586 BCE). The Late Bronze (ca. 1550 BCE - 1200 BCE) and Iron I (1200 BCE - 1000 BCE) periods in particular were formative ones for early Israel. Dever's general thesis is that the so-called "Deuteronomistic History" - Joshua, Judges, I-II Samuel, and I-II Kings - has its "sitz im leben" rooted in the Iron Age, even if much of the DH ultimately was redacted during the postexilic period. Dever argues this point most persuasively, and brings to bear an overwhelming array of archaeological data. The book contains many fine pictures and illustrations of important artifacts which vivify Dever's analyses.
Dever is a self-identified "neopragmatist". Theologically, he is atheist/agnostic. He would vigorously agree that Genesis 1-11 is aetiological myth, that the patriarchal tales are of dubious historicity, that there is hardly a shred of evidence for the exodus, that Moses is as historical a figure as Odysseus, etc. Yet, equally vigorously, he asserts that the Deuteronomistic History (DH) contains many real historical data which are clearly supported by elements of the material record. Thus, he has as much contempt for the naive, theologically tendentious methodology of fundamentalist "scholars" as he does for their politically tendentious polar opposites, the minimalists. Indeed, in the introductory chapter of his earlier book, "Recent Archaeological Discoveries and Biblical Research" (1990), Dever provides an articulate history of the field of "biblical archaeology", which largely was influenced by the American scholar William Foxwell Albright, who envisioned that archaeology would ultimately "prove the Bible". It was only through dispassionate adherence to sound scientific methodology, coupled with the advent of modern analytical techniques, that the field of biblical archaeology matured, replacing biblical credulity with guileless objectivity. Correspondingly, Dever re-Christened his field "Syro-Palestinian Archaeology". However, just as the dragon of scholarly biblical credulity was being slain, a new beast was arising - that of biblical minimalism. At best, minimalism is hyperskepticism of a variety which, if applied to other areas of historical and anthropological research, would erase much of what is commonly accepted as fact by a large majority of scholars. At worst, it is transparently political, seeking, for example, to redress perceived modern sins of Zionism (or the Christian right) by attacking the historicity of the Hebrew Bible - a ludicrous agenda which is unforgivably appalling from a scholarly point of view.
Dever's mastery of the archaeological record and his breadth of scope are remarkable. His discussion touches many areas of relevance - economics, historical geography, literacy, popular religion, social movements, government and politics, military affairs, etc. While the anti-minimalist rant is a bit submerged in these middle chapters devoted to archaeology, Dever often trenchantly points out how many details of the biblical account, while likely exaggerated, are clearly rooted in an Iron Age setting, and how the DH would likely read very differently had it truly been of Persian and Hellenistic provenance, as the minimalists contend. For example, in one particularly compelling section Dever identifies about a dozen architectural attributes of the Solomonic Temple described in I Kings and then, point by point, discusses how the specific description fits extremely within an Iron I/early Iron II framework.
In the final chapters of the book, Dever returns to the sociology of biblical minimalism, and aptly contextualizes it within a broader postmodernist framework. Again, Dever is as unrestrained in his attacks as he is insightful.
I am conflicted in giving this book a five star rating. On a first reading, I was disappointed by the extreme polemic in the opening chapters. This is really two books in one, and I'd have preferred Dever to begin with his discussion of what archaeology can tell us and then proceed on to the meaty core of the book, leaving the anti-minimalist diatribe for the second half. So acrid is the discussion in the first 100 or so pages that one might doubt Dever's objectivity as a scholar. However, I found Dever's arguments to be persuasive and well-founded on all issues discussed, and having read a fair amount from the minimalists, I think Dever's laser-guided criticisms overwhelmingly are justified.
Finally, I would also recommend highly the recent book by another leading archaeologist, Israel Finkelstein, entitled "The Bible Unearthed" (written in collaboration with Neil Asher Silbermann). While Finkelstein is no minimalist (e.g. he accepts the legitimacy of the Tel Dan stele and concurs that King David was an historical figure, though his Biblical exploits are greatly exaggerated), he often is invoked by the minimalists, and he himself apparently finds much merit in their arguments, judging from his recent tendency to refer to their work in his own scholarly articles. Finkelstein's book also is a good read, and it provides a valuable additional perspective by another first-magnitude scholar.