Author: William G Dever
Details: (c) 2001 Wm B Eerdmans Publishing Co; Pub William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001; ISBN 0-8028-4794-3
Verdict: What did the Biblical writers know & when did they know it? contains a few gems of interesting information hidden in piles of irrelevant polemic.
Reasons for reading it / How it came into my hands: I was chatting to RS' husband, and the topic of Biblical archaeology came up. I showed an interest out of general geeky interest in everything, which led to him insisting that I should borrow this book.
What did the Biblical writers know & when did they know it? is a very odd book. It contains four chapters plus some supplementary material of rant about how terrible post-modernism is, and two chapters which actually contain some information about archaeology, although they are not altogether free of the same repetitive rant. This makes WdtBwk&wdtki very unbalanced indeed. I ought to be in sympathy with Dever's position, because basically I do prefer rigourous scholarship and empiricism to theory and post-modernism. However, his ill-informed and excessive rant put me off a great deal. I couldn't help thinking that the liberation of women, Palestinians and other marginalized groups is perhaps a little more important than the exact dating of some potsherd.
Not to mention that he is making some very strange assumptions: the authorities he refers to are accused of distorting history for Zionist ends, and I don't know whether this is true or not, but in any case, simply stating that they are secular is not a defence against that accusation. So not only am I expected to believe that a secular Israeli could never possibly have any interest in twisting the evidence to shore up a Zionist myth or in being less than scrupulously fair to Palestinians, he also argues (repeatedly) that his opponents are unscholarly post-modernists, which means they are really nihilists, which means they are probably half-way to being fascists, and the fact that they cast doubt on the Bible as a historical document just clinches it, they must be anti-semites. As a result of his taking this line (not to mention claiming that chaos theory is an example of how evil post-modernism is infiltrating even the hard sciences), I find it hard to take any of Dever's statements in the least bit seriously.
That said, I don't get the impression that he, personally, is a fanatical Zionist trying to use the Bible as a justification for misogyny and racism, he's just naive about the effects of modern politics on what he likes to imagine is pure, untainted scholarship. When he actually remembers to talk about archaeology in between trying, badly, to discredit everyone who disagrees with him, he's very interesting. His theory that there was a lot of syncretism going on throughout the history of Israel is really fascinating, particularly the evidence he brings to support that. Both texts and images portraying Asherah as the consort of Yahweh, for example. Interestingly, the Israelite God, whether named as the tetragrammaton or as El, is very clearly incorporeal from all the archaeological evidence, but seems to appear as an empty space within a pantheon of gods who can be represented physically. And his assertion that Solomon's temple very likely existed, but that it was one of several architecturally (and presumably theologically) similar temples scattered throughout the region, seems pretty plausible.
He's arguing that ancient Israel did exist, and that the Bible is based on an oral tradition that was contemporary with the events it describes. This is based on very close correspondences between objects that archaeologists have found and detailed textual descriptions; it sounded convincing, but I don't know enough to judge how much he's just cherry-picking examples which happen to fit and ignoring evidence that doesn't fit. He makes the point, obvious to me but perhaps not to everyone who thinks about the question of whether the Bible is historical, that the narrative structure as it was eventually redacted does contain a lot of propaganda, both glorifying Israel and the political strand that the tradition favoured, and trying to fit the facts to an artificially monotheist framework, whereas historical reality was at best henotheistic and probably fairly polytheistic in practice. The speculative bit, where he suggests there might be a connection between the cult of Asherah / Astarte that existed in Biblical times, with later concepts of the divine feminine, such as Sophia, the Virgin Mary, and the Kabbalistic idea of the Shechinah, the in-dwelling presence, is a really interesting concept, but it's not developed beyond fun speculation.
I enjoyed the fragments of discussion of how to reconstruct history from archaeological data, particularly how to deal with an ancient literate culture. I would have liked lot more descriptions of what he thinks the archaeological evidence shows about ancient Israelite society, and a lot less stupid rant about post-modernism and all the nasty mean anti-semites who don't accept his views. If you skim the rant and just read the bits where he's talking interestingly about his area of professional expertise, people like wychwood and lethargic_man might get something out of this.