Greatest story ever told

February 11, 2000

Are ancient Israel, Solomon and David fabrications of a not-so-Old Testament? Karl Sabbagh talks to Philip Davies, who believes the Bible is more fiction than history

Sitting in his Sheffield living room Philip Davies has no qualms about describing his department of biblical studies at the city's university as "sexy". You may think he is straining too hard to sell his academic field. But then he lays out a subject that encompasses politics, literature, feminism, colonialism, archaeology and history - mentioning religion only in passing. Any undergraduate interested in overturning received ideas would surely find biblical studies at Sheffield a wow.

Last month, Davies got a new label - "biblical minimalist". The American journal Science, which coined the description, says that Davies has "brought to life" the debate over the influence of the Bible on archaeology - and in the process furiously fanned the flames of the long-running Arab-Israeli conflict. The biblical empire of the Old Testament kings David and his son Solomon, physical and spiritual founders of the Israeli nation, "has not the faintest echo in the archaeological record", Davies says.

In his view, the Bible has been treated by archaeologists as a guidebook to a real place, when in fact it peddles a fictional view of an "ancient Israel", created in order to sustain and legitimise the Jewish community in Jerusalem a few centuries before Christ.

Davies's tools are ones that have conventionally been used to interpret literary works, which is what he believes the Bible to be anyway. He has applied textual analysis to the Bible, disregarding the possibility that the Bible's words might have been divinely dictated. How original this is becomes apparent only when you start to read conventional historical or archaeological texts and find biblical references cited cheek by jowl with academic references as equally valid data. No peer review here.

Davies's ideas are summarised in his book In Search of "Ancient Israel". A few quotes give an idea of the uncompromising conclusions he comes up with:

"It is a moot point whether, in the absence of the biblical literature, archaeology would have discovered any 'ancient Israel' at all."

Or: "The inhabitants of (Iron Age) Palestine can be regarded as the historical counterpart to those of biblical Israel, but one of the two is an archaeologically attested population about whom we know very little while the other is the literary concept about whom we know everything (since everything that pertains to them falls inside the Bible)."

The firebrand who comes up with these crisp conclusions is a tall, grizzled academic with wire-framed spectacles and a Wyatt Earp moustache, who stretches out in an easy chair and talks, sometimes in a loud rush, about his explorations of biblical texts over the past 30 years. He shows the detailed textual knowledge of a rabbinic scholar, but for an entirely different end.

Both seek understanding, but Davies uses his knowledge of the ancient world to understand the Bible, whereas theology students try to understand the Bible as if it were a source of knowledge about the ancient world. In one sense it is, but of a narrow slice of the ancient world, a few hundred years before Christ, rather than the 1,500 years or so the Old Testament claims to depict.

The tone for Sheffield's department of biblical studies is set by Davies and his colleagues. "In scholarship it's probably the most radical department in the country. Our natural academic neighbours are philosophy, history and English literature and we therefore always try to follow the intellectual trends that we observe and apply them to our own discipline. So we've tended to be deliberately non-theological."

Davies is critical of other approaches to biblical studies, which he describes as "pseudo-scholarship". "So long as the discipline remains theological there will be no search for the history that no one thinks is missing: instead there will persist that great reluctance to look hard for 'ancient Israel' in the life of Iron Age Palestine for fear that it might not be there."

He says that there has always been a major strand of biblical scholarship eating away at the historicity of the Bible, "much of the work by German scholars. All that I am really doing is continuing to chip away and say things such as, 'The Book of Genesis is not regarded as serious history; bits of Exodus are not: where do we stop?' There are people who are worried about going too far. We will stop, I suppose, when we get to the Book of Kings because we know that the kings mentioned there did exist. Whether they did any of the things that are attributed to them is another matter.

"Without the Bible we'd know nothing about David and Solomon. We wouldn't know that they existed. We would know that there was a kingdom called Israel in the northern part of the central Palestinian highland, which disappeared in the middle of the 8th century BC and never came back. There are kings mentioned there. Ahab is one, Omri, king of Moab, is another. We'd know there was a kingdom called Judah just to the south of that, but that's really about it. We would know very little, as much as we know about any other small kingdom in ancient Palestine that thrived briefly before the Syrians and Babylonians and Persians imperialised that part of the globe."

There is no doubt that there are heavy political overtones to any archaeological data that claim to refute the biblical picture of ancient Israel that has been used as a justification for modern Israel. Davies says that modern Jews are "very worried about the debate about the existence of David and Solomon. That's where the battle is being engaged and it is particularly fraught because of the importance of David for Zionists." One sign of this is the recent Zionist celebration of 3,000 years since "Jerusalem was founded by David".

Davies points out that the return of the ancient Jewish exiles from Babylon to Jerusalem and what they saw as a "land without people" has similarities with the late 19th-century Zionist rationale for Jews wanting to live in Palestine. Another of his concerns is that an excessive focus on "ancient Israel" to the exclusion of the many other societies that existed over the 2,000 years before Christ, can actually lead to the destruction of knowledge.

"One of the worst things is that there have been digs where material from after the Iron Age was thrown aside in the archaeologists' anxiety to get down to the Iron Age. They weren't interested in the people who lived after that I although most Israeli archaeologists are quite good about that now. But an older generation was only interested in proving through archaeology that Jews were here before and therefore deserve a land. Any trace of other occupation was somewhat embarrassing. More than a thousand years of Arab occupation was not something they wanted to publicise."

Students expecting a course that will help them in their theology studies are surprised, sometimes shocked, when they come to Sheffield. "Most of the shocked ones keep it to themselves," Davies says, "and don't come and confront me. In examination papers they put 'this is what I've been told but I don't believe a word of it'."

The Bible: Philip Davies edition

"There were people who came back into Judah in the 5th century BC. There's archaeological evidence for settlements, for the repopulation of the area. The Bible claims that these were Judeans who'd been in exile and were coming back again and were therefore the rightful occupants of the land. There certainly was a population movement - whether or not the people were Judeans I don't know.

"The Persians might have said, 'You and your family are going to Palestine tomorrow.' 'But we've never been there,' the exiles might have said. 'We know you haven't but your father comes from there.' 'No, my father comes from Lebanon.' 'No, you're Judeans - off you go.' In two generations they would have been Judeans for ever.

"Did these people know or think they were Israelites? They certainly came to believe it. What were the interests of these people who were now assuming control of the country in which they weren't born and in which there were many other people who had been born there? How would they establish the right to be there?

"They decided that they would say they were descended from the earlier inhabitants of that area and would try to construct a history.

"Some of that history has ended up in the Bible."

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