Artefacts and the articles of faith

The Oxford History of the Biblical World
December 10, 1999

Detail from reliefs, palace of Assyrian King Sennacherib showing capture of Judean city of Lachish, 701 BC Of making many lavishly illustrated books about the Bible there is no end. This one is fully up to standard in terms of production and presentation, as one might expect from its publisher, but the obvious first question has to be, in what way is it distinctive?

The answer lies in the range of its subject matter, the breadth of its scholarship and the judicious balance of its conclusions. I know of no other book that draws together in such a concise and readable way the huge amount of information now available from archaeology and other historical sources about the world in which the Bible is set. The 13 lengthy chapters,each by a different contributor, are arranged chronologically and span the period from the pre-history of the Near East to the Christianisation of the Roman Empire under Constantine, and the final capture of Jerusalem by the Muslims.

Each provides an outline of the history and culture of its period, drawn as far as possible from non-biblical sources. The book is closer to being a popular guide than a work of scholarship in its own right, but I can warmly recommend it to anyone wanting an up-to-date overview of scholarly opinion in this field. All the contributors, including the editor, are American academics specialising in archaeology, religion or Near Eastern studies.

How far do these disciplines succeed in throwing fresh light on the Bible,and how far do they confirm its witness? The first question is easier to answer than the second. Some of the evidence is very striking.

A clay seal found among the debris resulting from the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in the early 6th century BC bears the name "Berechyahu the son of Neriyahu the scribe". The shortened form of the name is "Baruch the son of Neriah", familiar to Bible readers as the scribe who wrote down the words of the prophet Jeremiah and rewrote them when the king of Judah chopped up and burnt his first draft. An equally direct contact with the Bible story was unearthed in 1990 when an ossuary was found in Jerusalem bearing the name Caiaphas. Such tangible links with named individuals bring the essential historical basis of the biblical narratives vividly to life.

But such direct evidence is rare. For the most part historical reconstruction bears a strong resemblance to forensic science in which tiny indications of many different kinds, often insignificant in themselves, are gradually pieced together into a plausible picture.

Take the story of the Exodus. The mismatch between the biblical account and the available archaeological evidence has long been known. The only inscription containing an indisputable reference to Israel before the 9th century BC is on the Merneptah Stela (late 13th century BC), which records,somewhat prematurely, the people's total demise. There is no equivalent event mentioned in the Bible, which is in any case silent about the strong Egyptian influence in Palestine during the patriarchal period. Excavations in Palestine itself show no signs of any sudden change of culture through conquest, but have revealed a rapidly increasing population during the 12th and 11th centuries BC, particularly in the hill country. Studies of the distribution of Midianite painted pottery indicate a strong link between western Arabia (then known as Midian) and southern Palestine during the immediately preceding period. This is also the time most favoured by historians for whatever escape there might have been from Egypt in the century or so following its own brief experiment with monotheism. Moreover the emphasis in the biblical account on the relationship between Moses and the Midianite priesthood strongly suggest that "God's mountain" was located not in Sinai but in Midian, and that this is where the worship of Yahweh began.

The Midianite hypothesis is an old one, but recent archaeological evidence has revived it. It also fits reasonably well with the interpretations favoured by those biblical scholars who see the book of Judges as providing more reliable evidence than the idealised account of events in the Pentateuch and Joshua. There are thus internal and external reasons for a radical reconstruction of the exodus narrative, not by dismissing it altogether, but by interpreting it in terms of a much smaller migration of people whose distinctive beliefs and practices gradually infiltrated the larger population of Canaanites and others among whom they settled. The actual arguments used are much fuller and more complex than I can summarise in a sentence or two. The main point, however,is that in this instance radical historical reconstruction can make sense of many of the anomalies and improbabilities in the biblical account without destroying all belief that something happened of sufficient importance to give rise to it.

From the reign of Solomon onwards, historical evidence is more abundant. It is also clear that those who wrote the history of the monarchy had very different perceptions of the main actors from those of other Near Eastern chroniclers. The Philistines, for instance, were on the whole a much more civilised people than their present reputation suggests.

The glory days of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah may have been signs of God's favour, but they also coincided with a power vacuum in the Eastern Mediterranean after the collapse of Egypt's 20th Dynasty and before the beginnings of Assyrian expansionism. Even Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who is continuously vilified by the Deuteronomic writers, may simply have been restoring the Northern kingdom to the ancient worship of El, as in the patriarchal narratives and in the name Isra-el. Ahab, another villain well known for his disastrous encounters with Elijah, appears in quite a different guise in a report by the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III, as having contributed 2,000 chariots and 10,000 infantry towards the defeat of the Syrians at the battle of Qarqar in 853 BC. Ahab was also criticised for dwelling in an "ivory house", and ivory has duly been excavated from his palace.

The pattern of alternative perspectives and incidental bits of confirmatory evidence runs all the way through the story as told in this book. I found the earlier chapters more interesting than the later ones, partly because the weight of available material is so much greater and more familiar for the later periods that commentary inevitably has to become more selective and superficial. By contrast, the fact that virtually nothing is known about Jesus outside the pages of the New Testament has, in my view, led the author of this section to an unduly dismissive attitude towards all attempts at historical reconstruction. It was also a mistake to try to continue the story beyond the formation of the biblical canon. A potted history of various Roman emperors does not contribute much to biblical understanding, and the pace of the narrative accelerates to an absurd degree as the nemesis of Jerusalem approaches.

It will be clear that the book as a whole sharpens up some longstanding questions about the sense in which a religious interpretation of historical events can be regarded as valid. Interpretation of one kind or another is inseparable from the writing of history, and the biblical writers had obvious religious and moral motives. On the other hand, they claimed to discern the works of a God who acts through history. Hence what actually happened is not irrelevant to their message, except in books such as Daniel, Jonah and Esther, which reveal their character as fiction as much by their style as by their content. Perhaps the best clues to the interaction between faith and history lie in the prophetic books, where the initial interpretation of events is direct and explicit. The multi-layered character of these books can also reveal how interpretations developed as they were applied to successive historical situations. In the traditions thus generated it is possible to trace how minds attuned to God could respond to events in ways that were historically creative or even revolutionary. It is not as though there was a series of events that might be interpreted this way or that, but that event and interpretation were inseparable in the minds of those who responded to them. A better understanding of the history of the biblical world can help in the understanding of this process, and can relate the Bible more securely to our own world. But it cannot replace the story of faith, nor does this excellent introduction seek to do so.

The book contains an added bonus in the many excellent maps, which are a model of their kind: clear, uncluttered and containing just enough information to illustrate the events and archaeological sites referred to in the adjacent text. Each chapter has a short list of books for further reading, but there are no footnotes, so a general readership is clearly in mind.

The Rt Revd Lord Habgood is the former archbishop of York.

The Oxford History of the Biblical World

Editor - Michael D. Coogan
ISBN - 0 19 508707 0
Publisher - None
Price - £30.00
Pages - 643

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