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What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It? [Hardcover]

William G. Dever
3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)

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Book Description

28 Jun 2001
For centuries the Hebrew Bible has been the fountainhead of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Today, however, the entire biblical tradition, including its historical veracity, is being challenged. In this fascinating book noted Syro-Palestinian archaeologist William Dever attacks the minimalist position head-on. Assembling a wealth of archaeological evidence, Dever builds the clearest, most complete picture yet of the real Israel that existed during the Iron Age of ancient Palestine (1200-600 B.C.).


Product details

  • Hardcover: 324 pages
  • Publisher: William B Eerdmans Publishing Co; New edition edition (28 Jun 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0802847943
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802847942
  • Product Dimensions: 15 x 2.7 x 23 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 3,066,563 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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David Noel Freedman"Dever is one of the very best archaeologists of the Near East, and everything he writes needs to be taken with the utmost seriousness. . . . Required reading.""Library Journal""Dever provides a judicious analysis of archaeological data and shows how it squares with what much of the biblical text tells us. . . . Highly polemical (and for good reason), this book attempts to correct various recent assertions based more on feelings for the modern Israeli-Palestinian question than on any concern for honest history. . . . Dever's accessible book offers a sound critical examination of Israel's origins. An advisable purchase for all academic and most public libraries.""Publishers Weekly""A helpful introduction to the world of Syro-Palestinian archaeology and its possible interaction with biblical studies.""The Jerusalem Report""Meticulously detailed . . . very illuminating, well-informed and surprisingly balanced."Lawrence E. Stager"William Dever, a master of the world of Syro-Palestinian archaeology and history, has written a masterpiece." --David Noel Freedman --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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The Bible, including the Old Testament, or as we prefer here, the Hebrew Bible, is so familiar to those of us still steeped in the Western cultural tradition that it would seem to need little explanation, much less defense. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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3.3 out of 5 stars
3.3 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
25 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Who-What-When-Where-How? 1 July 2005
By Kurt Messick HALL OF FAME
Format:Hardcover
Even the title of this book, `What Did the Biblical Writers Know & When Did They Know It?' shows some of the key controversies that modern archaeologists deal with in their reconstructions and analyses of discoveries in relation to the Biblical texts. Among many archaeologists there is a love-hate relationship with the Bible -- it is not a history text in the modern sense, and requires varying degrees of translation and interpretation, as well as understanding that the texts have undergone considerable changes and development since first being committed to print, and that not all of these developments have been in favour of historical truth as it is defined by the moderns.
Enter the fact that in many instances, the Bible is the sole witness to many ancient practices, people, places, etc., and one can understand how it becomes a problematic document with which to deal in terms of modern historical reconstruction. Dever's subtitle: `What Archaeology Can Tell Us about the Reality of Ancient Israel' shows the direction of this volume -- what are the discoveries, and how do they relate to the realities?
`For centuries the Hebrew Bible has been the fountainhead of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Today, however, the entire biblical tradition, including its historical veracity, is being challenged. Leading this assault is a group of scholars described as the 'minimalist' or 'revisionist' school of biblical studies, which charges that the Hebrew Bible is largely pious fiction and that its writers and editors invented 'ancient Israel' as a piece of late Jewish propaganda in the Hellenistic era.'
Dever is concerned that revisionist scholars do not so much intend to 'revise' ancient history as to abolish it altogether.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Stirs the little grey cells! 21 Oct 2012
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
A visit to Israel led me to try to improve my knowledge of the Old Testament. My first purchase was The Bible Unearthed (Finkelstein)which is very interesting but left unanswered questions - in particular why and when did the Jews decide not to eat pork as this seems to have been a trait that separated them from wider Canaanite society from a very early stage - and what made them monotheistic in the first place?

Well I still don't know the answers to the above, but William Dever does answer many other questions about the Old Testament accounts and where and how they have been authenticated by archaeology. Dever also discusses the current academic debate about historical and archaeological methodology and how it can be validated intellectually which was a bit unexpected and quite hard going for a non-specialist to read about but it is nonetheless interesting. It would seem that Sheffield University's theological department has joined the fairies along with the meterological department of the University of East Anglia.

The end section, where Dever summarises his own thinking about the value of the Old Testament to the development of Western thought and political/social values was also challenging, as I found myself generally at odds with his ideas. This is probably because he is an American who is steeped in the Old Testament and I am English and am commited to the New Testament. Amongst other things, where Dever lists the cultural values of the Judaeo-Christian tradition which he considers most important for Western thought he totally excludes Christ's command that we should love one another - the command that led to so much social reform in Britain in the 19th century and underlies much British political thinking to this day.

I bought the Kindle version but I wish I hadn't - there are so many things I want to refer to it would be much more convenient to have the book book.
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3 of 13 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars What does W.G. Dever know? 18 Mar 2010
Format:Paperback
Oh dear. This book does not even begin to answer the question it poses on its cover. Unfortunately, instead of answering that question, the author engages in an extended rant against other scholars in different field over issues he doesn't appear to understand.

If you want to find out what the biblical writers knew and when they knew it, there are plenty of good introductions to biblical studies. This isn't one of them.
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Amazon.com: 4.0 out of 5 stars  41 reviews
171 of 182 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars trenchant, informative, and remarkably broad in scope 21 Jun 2001
By ploni_almoni - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
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.
49 of 52 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A philosophy of archaeology 18 Aug 2002
By Atheen M. Wilson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This is not a book about religion or one about the authors of the bible specifically. What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It? is a critique of traditional biblical, which he finds biased and slipshod, and "new" archaeology, which he feels is almost nihilist-you can't know anything so everything means whatever you want it to and so nothing about it even matters--with neither of which the author is in accord. It is also the author's attempt to write a philosophical treatise, a mission statement of sorts, for field archaeology. He outlines-he seems very fond of outlines-various issues that can be resolved by research into the material remains of humans living in the Levant and points out the limitations that are inherent to field. The work is so clearly written and well organized that it would make a good text on archaeological theory. His discussion of "meaning (p. 70)" and "proof (p. 71)" in archaeological interpretation are especially good, since I don't think that these points are all that apparent to the average person. He writes of the former, "Facts may be assumed to `speak,' but until meaning-a uniquely human quality-is supplied, there is no message....These inherent limitations of the facts brought to light by archaeology must always be kept in mind (p. 70)." And again, "I suggest that archaeologists ought rarely to use the word `proof,' because the kind of verification that is possible in sciences that investigate the physical world is simply not obtainable for material-culture remains, even though they are also physical objects....Ultimately... [archaeologists] are dealing with human behavior, and behavior cannot be replicated in the laboratory, nor is it predictable (p. 71)."
I found the book somewhat hostile at times. The author William Dever, professor of Near Eastern archaeology and anthropology at the University of Arizona Tucson, is pretty specific about the individuals with whom he disagrees, and although he helpfully points out the weaknesses in their arguments and is occasionally complimentary to those with whom he is in some agreement, his irritation with his detractors is a little more apparent than I'd have expected in a professional work. This seems fairly typical of works written in anthropology of late, and archaeology has become more and more aligned with that department as opposed to classics or history with which it had historically been classified. Having studied a little archaeology during the mid 60s and again in the late 90s, however, I did find his elucidation of the changes of interest. I also found his frustration with some of the tenets of the "new" archaeology validating, since I find some of it positively alienating.
The book is a little dry where it deals with the philosophy of archaeology; one has to be something more than just a little interested in the field to get through chapters 1-3. By chapter 4-5, however, the author begins to illustrate his main thesis by applying his methods to specific problems in the biblical narrative. While it does not "bring the bible to life" as a religious person might wish, it definitely brings clarity to the narrative, and a sense of reality to the life of the time period. Nothing and no one can "prove" the bible or the existence of God. That's a matter of personal faith. But I agree with the author, much can be learned about the life and character of the biblical period through a careful use of the biblical narrative as it exists and through a wary use of material data from the field.
An excellent text on archaeology.
18 of 18 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The Role of Archaeological Evidence in Biblical Studies 9 May 2014
By Jaime Andrews - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
There has been an ongoing debate for many years over how much of the Bible is based in historical fact and how much is fiction crafted with the purpose of supporting the overall message found therein. There is also a division between those who focus their biblical studies on historical data (such as texts) and those who focus on archeological discoveries.

In What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It?, William G. Dever delves into how archaeology can shed light on the historicity of the Bible. It is clear that he is a supporter of the archaeological perspective and has a great deal to say against Revisionists (like John Van Seters of Abraham in History and Tradition) although he is respectful about it.

If you are interested in gaining new knowledge on the historical basis of the Bible, there are some interesting chapters here and many intriguing questions are addressed: Is the Bible worth studying? What is the modern relevance? However, at times it can read as sort of a political commentary as Dever's passionate feelings become increasingly evident, so be prepared to do a bit of sifting as you read.

It might have been nice to have a little more of the focus placed on the archaeological aspects of study and less on the arguments against postmodern historians. But if this is a debate that interests you, then this will be right up your alley.
29 of 32 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A prize-winner! 17 Aug 2004
By Stephen A. Haines - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Dever deserves a blue ribbon for the most cumbersome title in many years. He should also garner an award for his blistering assessment of "postmodern" historians. While he has contested "minimalist" academics elsewhere, this book is an excellent compendium of the issues and evidence regarding the historical validity of the Hebrew Bible. Although the arena of biblical history is small, the issues dealt with are important. His conclusions will have lasting impact not only in biblical history, but archaeology and other disciplines. Although a serious subject, Dever's piercing wit keeps this book a lively and captivating read.

For generations, Dever tells us, the history and archaeology of Palestine have been restrained by biblical texts. Instead of scholars seeking for what is "there", they spent energy trying to verify what the Hebrew Bible related. A shift in attitude brought more detachment in reporting finds. In parallel with new textual analyses, field reseachers uncovered evidence that places and people named in the Hebrew Bible likely existed, but within a different context than related in "The Book". Regrettably, the "different context" attracted the attention of yet another academic element - the "postmodernist, deconstructionist nihilists" who simply abandoned any notion of historical veracity of biblical accounts.

Dever turns his scholarly attention and biting prose to counter this group of "critics". Apart from refuting slanderous charges of fabricating and destroying evidence, Dever shows how the postmodernists have little or no foundation for their judgements. They fail to recognise archaeological data. They dismiss or ignore history, and they make pronouncements based on misconceived notions. They even manage to fabricate some historical events of their own. All these faults lead Dever to categorise them as "nihilists" - a term borrowed from Nietzschian disillusionment. More than using selected evidence, Dever charges, this group works under an ideology affecting today's international politics.

Dever's book isn't just an academic search and destroy mission, however. He presents a profusion of recent work in excavation, social structure and imperial politics in the region. As part of his analysis, he wants due regard given to the "popular religions" prevalent in the time when the present Hebrew Bible was assembled. The biblical writers, he asserts, were The Establishment - male priests and scribes with their own elite agenda. Their purpose was the extinction of widespread "cults" adhered to by the majority population, particularly the elimination of the Ashereh cult likely prevelant among women. Ashereh, considered by some scholars to be Yahweh's consort, certainly commanded more adherents than the monotheist propogandists. However, this is the closest he comes to dealing with theology.

Dever's claim that the biblical assemblers "knew a lot and knew it early" in answer to the title's query may be contested. What cannot be challenged is his assertion that the Hebrew Bible has an historical basis. The chronology may be suspect, as is the classical portrayal of personages such as Solomon and David. While likely minor figures, someone in their image most likely lived. His conclusion stresses that a realistic view of the history of ancient Palestine will be far more productive for the future than will the hollow claims of the "deconstructionist" school". A fine, stimulating work and a rewarding read. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Who-What-When-Where-How? 4 July 2003
By FrKurt Messick - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Even the title of this book, `What Did the Biblical Writers Know & When Did They Know It?' shows some of the key controversies that modern archaeologists deal with in their reconstructions and analyses of discoveries in relation to the Biblical texts. Among many archaeologists there is a love-hate relationship with the Bible -- it is not a history text in the modern sense, and requires varying degrees of translation and interpretation, as well as understanding that the texts have undergone considerable changes and development since first being committed to print, and that not all of these developments have been in favour of historical truth as it is defined by the moderns.
Enter the fact that in many instances, the Bible is the sole witness to many ancient practices, people, places, etc., and one can understand how it becomes a problematic document with which to deal in terms of modern historical reconstruction. Dever's subtitle: `What Archaeology Can Tell Us about the Reality of Ancient Israel' shows the direction of this volume -- what are the discoveries, and how do they relate to the realities?
`For centuries the Hebrew Bible has been the fountainhead of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Today, however, the entire biblical tradition, including its historical veracity, is being challenged. Leading this assault is a group of scholars described as the 'minimalist' or 'revisionist' school of biblical studies, which charges that the Hebrew Bible is largely pious fiction and that its writers and editors invented 'ancient Israel' as a piece of late Jewish propaganda in the Hellenistic era.'
Dever is concerned that revisionist scholars do not so much intend to 'revise' ancient history as to abolish it altogether. They seek, Dever contends, to reduce the historical stories to nothing more than fables and legends that are incorporated at a later date into the historical core of the Hebrew Bible as fact to bolster later dynasties. These are a 'pious fiction' rather than historical fact. Figures such as Abraham, Moses and David, under this kind of reconstruction, never actually existed. They are figures with more in common with Hercules than with Rameses; they are invented to serve the purpose of building a cultural and national consciousness.
Dever deals with these issues, and the dangers associated with such revisionism, in great detail. Asking the question 'Is there any real history in the Hebrew Bible?' Dever proceeds to examine archaeological evidence and Biblical narratives to see what the core of truth may be. While fully acknowledging the differences between different kinds of history, Dever contends that there is a reliable core of actual events, people, and places that underpin the biblical narratives.
English has only one useful word for what we think of as history. The German language (in which much of modern historical method and philosophy has been formulated) has a more explicit division of types of history: Geschicte, or academic history; Historie, less formal narrative history; and Storie, which is history embellished with mythological and folkloric elements, but still with a connection to a core truth in the past.
Dever examines the revisionists (naming them by name, and analysing their methodologies and conclusions) one by one, and as such provides an interesting overview of the scholarship in the field of Syro-Palestinian archaeology over the past decade. After this brief summary, Dever gives a broader overview of archaeological method and intent, as well as some specific history over the past few centuries of Syro-Palestinian archaeology, and its varying focus over time. From fascination with Egypt and Mesopotamia to drives and well-funded digs with specific intent to prove biblical connexions to later 'objective' efforts to look beyond (or even without) biblical reference, Dever approaches the ideas of source, epistemology, method, and intention with clarity and insight.
His final chapter addresses both practical and ideological concerns with the revisionists (part of the general fallout against 'postmodern' academia that seems to be taking place in the past decade or so). The rejection of the Bible as a valid historical source because of its theological basis (instead of dealing with the theological basis as a part of the considerations to be addressed in considering it as an historical source) is part of the failure of postmodern revisionism to adequately address the history of ancient Israel and the neighbouring lands. Dever concludes with an interesting set of topics that include Faith and History, Faith and 'Meaning', Oral Traditions, Literary Traditions, Literary Reconstructions, and other topics of interest.
From the conclusion, Dever writes a good summary of the book's intention: `What I have attempted to do throughout this book is twofold. First, I have focused on methodology, in order to unmask the revisionists' ideology and the postmodern paradigm that lies partly hidden behind it, and in so doing to expose their faulty methodology in approaching the texts of the Hebrew Bible. Second, I have sought to counter the revisionists' minimalist conclusions by showing how archaeology uniquely provides a context for many of the narratives in the Hebrew Bible. It thus makes them not just 'stories' arising out of later Judaism's identity crisis, but part of the history of a real people of Israel in the Iron Age of ancient Palestine.'
William Dever is professor of Near Eastern archaeology and anthropology at the University of Arizona in Tucson. He is the author of numerous books and articles on archaeology and biblical studies, and is a frequent contributor to magazines, newspapers, and television programmes on archaeological and historical topics. Apart from this volume, his major works include a four-volume analysis of excavation projects at Gezer in Israel, and major books entitled Recent Archaeological Discoveries and Biblical Research and Recent Excavations in Israel.
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