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This review is from: What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It? (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.