What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It?
A recent trend in Syro-Palestinian archaeological study known as minimalism or revisionism suggests that Israel was created in the Hellenistic period. This movement is precisely what Dever attacks. He is professor of Near Eastern archaeology and anthropology at the University of Arizona at Tucson. One of the most erudite archaeologists in North America, he launches a fusillade of criticism against revisionism, pointing out the flaws within the movement and outlining a more reasonable reconstruction of Israel’s past.
The six chapters of the book divide nicely into three sections, each formed around an argument. In the first section, chapters 1 and 2, Dever scrutinizes the revisionist movement, which he calls “new nihilism,” because of its blatant disregard for traditional beliefs and unwillingness to take most archaeology seriously. In doing so, he argues, revisionists are guilty of specious reasoning such as a false caricature of previous scholarship, a refusal to incorporate evidence that does not fit their agenda, and an artificial dichotomy between maximalism and minimalism; therefore, he argues, revisionism is more of an ideology than it is scholarship.
The second section, chapter 3, describes the methodological role of archaeology. Dever argues that it ought to be interdisciplinary and seek rapprochement with all the available branches in Near Eastern studies. His treatment of the history of archaeology from the early nineteenth century to the postprocessual era orients the reader to the discipline and shows how his method differs from that of scholars such as Albright, who used archaeology to prove the Bible. Instead Dever opts for what he calls “convergences,” places where the Sitz im Leben of the Bible blends with archaeology.
In his third section, chapters 4–6, his most important contribution, Dever draws from a massive amount of archaeology, cogently showing that Israel enjoyed a robust existence. Particularly helpful are his discussions on the Solomonic temple, Lachish, the house of David inscription at Tel Dan, and the gates of Gezer. The cumulative data he provides sufficiently answer the inherent tension and ambiguities associated with studying ancient history. He leaves little room for doubt that ancient Israel existed from the thirteenth to the seventh centuries B.C.
The most valuable aspect of this work is Dever’s critical assessment of ancient archaeology. His vast and detailed knowledge allows him to weave a variety of details and evidence into seamless accounts. Although more than a little suspicious of the biblical text, he successfully defends a historical Israel. However, his distinction between a theological Israel and a historical Israel prevents him from adequately accounting for Israel’s earliest history. His academic prowess is clear; he interacts with nearly all the salient literature in archaeology. His research is comprehensive but clear, exploratory but not abstruse, convenient but not ordinary. It is worth reading, although he mitigates his scholarly contribution by a pugilistic tone and blunt writing style.