Friday, February 18, 2005

I am reading a rather good book by William Dever called What did the Biblical Writers Know and When did they Know It?. Not much of a title, I grant, and neither is Dever much of a stylist but the content is fascinating and highly informative.

Most recent books about biblical archaeology (like The Bible Unearthed and It Ain't Necessarily So) have been aimed at debunking traditional religious claims about the historical accuracy of the bible. I am going to hold off on that topic until I have seen some evidence from the traditionalists' side, but Dever really takes it for granted. He wastes no time in saying that we can know nothing about the Patriarchs and the Exodus, as we read about it in the bible, did not happen. His guns are aimed squarely at the so-called minimalists who claim the whole Old Testament was written too late to contain any history at all. Thus, as far as the minimalists are concerned, neither King David nor Solomon existed, and neither did many of the kings listed as rulers of Judah down to the eighth century. Their main evidence for this is that archaeology is silent on the events depicted in the bible.

Dever's reply appears devastating. Whereas the minimalists are not archaeologists and do not appear to be familiar with much of the field, Dever is an experienced field archaeologist of great repute. When he says the evidence is there, you have to sit up and listen. And his book is full of fact after fact after fact. He marshals huge amounts of archaeological data to find convergences with the biblical record and declares we can get at the history. Yes, the bible is biased and has a theological agenda, but we can get past that by using external evidence and factoring out the bias. Nor is Dever a naive positivist as he also has a great deal to say about schools of archaeological theory.

Much has been said about how bad tempered the debate between Dever and the minimalists has been. I actually found the book quite restrained most of the time. However, Dever is certainly pissed off that non-archaeologists are presuming to write books about what the subject does and doesn't say when they do not appear to have the necessary expertise. Also, Dever claims that Thomas Thompson, a leading minimalist, has accused him of unethical practices and falsifying results. If this is true, then Dever's anger is justified. Another criticism leveled at Dever is his dismissal of post-modernism. In fact, the entire third chapter of the book is given over to theory and Dever's complaints are not against post modernism per se, but against using literary criticism to try and do history. In this, he is absolutely right as I have repeatedly been saying about new wave studies of the New Testament.

Celsus, of Ebla Forums, is a supporter of the minimalists and has recommended Niels Peter Lemche as their most credible spokesman. So, I also have got his The Israelites in History and Tradition out the library and will report back on whether it really is as baseless as Dever alleges.

1 comment:

Celsus said...

Good to hear you're reading Dever, Bede. I hope you have time to post your comments at Ebla as well. What you've written so far is rather too vague to say anything as yet.