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The Bible Unearthed

Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts.

By Israel Finkelstein & Neil Asher Silberman

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The Bible UnearthedBook Review

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  • Authors argue no compelling archaeological evidence exists for many biblical stories

  • First Chapter:
    'The Bible Unearthed'
    God's Ghostwriters

    Two archaeologists raise new questions about the origins of the Bible.

    By Phyllis Trible
    February 4, 2001

    If history is written for the present, not the past, then the quest for the historical Bible becomes an unending endeavor subject to the vicissitudes of times, talents and testimonies. Since the 18th century, with its emphasis on reason as the way to truth, the endeavor has stirred no small controversy.

    Verbal warfare often enlists the armor of archaeology. By the middle of the 19th century, discoveries in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia also illuminated lands between them, especially that corridor known as Canaan, Palestine, Israel, the Holy Land or the land of the Bible. Geographical explorations of Palestine, conducted by Edward Robinson, an American, identified many mounds or ruins (tells) with biblical sites. Excavations of them, pioneered by another American, William Foxwell Albright, came in the 20th century. These labors enabled scholars to connect the Bible with outside sources and to construct a context for verifying its historicity. But by now, goals, judgments and conclusions depart strikingly from those of earlier generations.

    The departure is the subject of ''The Bible Unearthed,'' a fascinating book written by two Jewish archaeologists, Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman. With an irenic spirit they join the debate, at times ugly and vicious, about the historicity of the Bible (by which they mean the Hebrew Scriptures, also known as the Old Testament). To this battle they bring an arsenal of scholarly research, field experience and well-chosen words artfully used. They also claim a ''new'' archaeological perspective, but it may be somewhat less than new. Parts of the proposal have been available for decades. Yet their particular thesis, as well as the impressive development of it, can only lead the reader to think anew.

    Near the end of the seventh century B.C. a young prince named Josiah, descendant of King David, acceded to the throne of Judah after his father's assassination. Described in the Bible as the most righteous of all the kings, he in time renovated the Temple in Jerusalem. The renovations turned up a scroll (perhaps the world's first archaeological discovery) that began a religious reformation. Called ''the book of the law'' in II Kings, it was probably an early version of Deuteronomy. How it came to be, and to be in the Temple, remains a disputed topic, though Finkelstein and Silberman believe it was written in the seventh century B.C. Obeying the commandments of the scroll, Josiah ordered a thorough purification of the cult of the Hebrew god YHWH (Yahweh). He abolished from the Temple, and throughout Judah, all idolatry and fusions of different types of worship, and extended this activity into parts of the land of Israel, for his plan included territorial conquest. Under his leadership a reform group in Judah declared the purified Temple as the only legitimate place of worship and YHWH as the only deity to be worshiped. The seed of monotheism took root.

    This great reformation, inspired by a book, itself inspired the composition of a national epic for seventh-century-B.C. Judah. A small nation with big plans could use a grand story. In constructing it, authors and editors drew on many diverse and conflicting traditions, which they embellished and elaborated. The intent was ideological and theological -- not to record history (in the modern sense) but to appropriate the past for the present. The epic that emerged was edited and added to in subsequent centuries to become the powerful saga we know as the Hebrew Bible. Unequaled in the ancient world, it articulated a national and social compact for an entire people under God. Finkelstein and Silberman leave no doubt of their reverence for it. In their view, however, it is ''not a miraculous revelation, but a brilliant product of the human imagination.''

    Two sections of the Bible constitute the core of the epic. The first contains the five books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Its stories about Israel begin with the ancestors (the authors regrettably use the old label ''patriarchs''), continue with the sojourn and bondage in Egypt, the Exodus and the wanderings in the wilderness, concluding with Israel poised to enter the promised land. The second section includes the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings. It tells of the conquest of Canaan, the rule of the judges, the establishment of a united monarchy, the division of the monarchy, the destruction of the northern kingdom (Israel) by the Assyrians, the destruction of the southern kingdom (Judah) by the Babylonians and the beginnings of exile in Babylon. This second section is often called the Deuteronomistic history because it reflects the language and ethos of the book of Deuteronomy, judging events by the criterion of obedience to the law, with the result of blessing or punishment by God.

    In expounding their view of the Bible as a national epic that shaped and sustained a people, Finkelstein and Silberman juxtapose this narrative with the discoveries and interpretations of archaeology. They say their predecessors tended to use archaeology to argue for the historicity of the biblical record. By contrast, they use archaeology as an independent source to reconstruct the history of ancient Israel. Yet respect for earlier scholarship, especially when they reject it, lends integrity to their own work. It sends the salutary message that the new vision of today inevitably becomes the old vision of tomorrow. Drawing on new methods, excavations (even of old sites) and assumptions, they turn the traditional argument on its head. Archaeological studies, they argue, undercut rather than support the historicity of biblical traditions about the origin and rise of Israel. Their detailed analysis yields conclusions that are startling to the uninitiated: the search for the historical ancestors has failed; the Exodus did not happen as described; the violent, swift and total conquest of Canaan never took place; the picture of judges leading tribes in battle against enemies does not fit the data; David and Solomon existed in the 10th century B.C. but as ''little more than hill country chieftains.'' There was no golden age of a united kingdom, a magnificent capital and an extended empire.

    These conclusions do not lead to historical nihilism but open up alternative understandings promoted in the thesis of the book. In bringing together the Judean patriarch Abraham and the Israelite patriarch Jacob, the ancestor stories serve well the needs of seventh-century-B.C. Judah for a unified kingdom. The pastoral landscape of these ancient stories resonates with the way a large portion of the later Judahite population lived. The Exodus traditions also serve this setting. Josiah's efforts to establish Judah's independence and reclaim territory of the destroyed kingdom of Israel conflicted with a revival of Egyptian power that encroached on Judah and Israel. The challenge of Moses to an unnamed Pharaoh mirrors Josiah's to Pharaoh Necho II. Similarly, the conquest narratives fit the setting. Like Joshua, Josiah fought in the name of God and commanded his people to stay faithful to YHWH, apart from the surrounding world. His agenda was a second conquest of Canaan. David and Solomon also reflect the age of Josiah, the sole legitimate heir of the dynasty. Like David, Josiah sought a united kingdom, territorial expansion, military conquests and the centralization of cult and politics in Jerusalem. Thereby this seventh-century B.C. king could nullify the transgressions of Solomon and restore the glorious past that never was but can be.

    Finkelstein and Silberman propose that from the beginning two distinct Hebrew societies lived in the highlands of Canaan. Both were originally Canaanite -- irony of ironies,'' the authors comment. (Biblical diatribes against the Canaanites suggest this common origin; after all, the Israelites protested too much.) The original division between these societies lingers in the phrase used even for the so-called united monarchy, ''the kingdoms of Israel and Judah.'' Furthermore, contrary to the biblical record, Judah was always the poorer, weaker, more rural and less influential. Its prominence came only after the fall of Israel to Assyria in 722 B.C. Then, as heir to the northern traditions, Judah determined which would become part of its national epic and how they would be interpreted. Caveat lector.

    A classic case of Judean bias involves the Omride dynasty of the ninth century B.C. Noting only that its founder, Omri, built at Samaria a new capital for the kingdom of Israel, the Deuteronomistic historians dismiss him (in eight verses of the books of Kings) as the most evil of kings. Yet his dynasty endured some 40 years, and archaeological evidence, from hostile witnesses at that, attests its greatness. An inscribed stone called the Mesha stele, found in 1868 east of the Dead Sea, reports that, to the consternation of King Mesha of Moab, Omri and his son Ahab controlled extensive land in Transjordan. The ''House of David'' inscription, discovered in 1993 in the biblical city of Dan, implies even larger holdings, extending south from near Damascus through the highlands and valleys of Israel to Moab. The Monolith Inscription, found at ancient Nimrud in the 1840's, describes the participation of Ahab the Israelite, with 2,000 chariots and 10,000 foot soldiers, in an anti-Assyrian coalition that tried in vain to resist the Assyrian monarch Shalmaneser III.

    In addition, excavations of northern cities attest the greatness of the Omride dynasty. Samaria, called ''the house of Omri'' in Assyrian records, consisted of a royal acropolis of five acres that included a large and beautiful palace unrivaled in its time. Similarly, the ninth-century sites of Megiddo, Hazor, Dan, Jezreel and Gezer all show architectural achievements of the Omrides. An earlier generation of archaeologists, eager to confirm the biblical narrative, tried valiantly to assign these cities to the Solomonic era. To the contrary, neither Solomon nor David of Judah but Omri of Israel founded the first true kingdom, with all its splendors.

    As Judah maligned Israel in its national epic, so it presented a skewed picture of itself. Archaeological data show that the traditional religion of this isolated and sparsely populated nation consisted of local shrines (''high places'') for the worship of YHWH alongside other deities. These syncretic practices prevailed also in Jerusalem. Demographic growth, social transformation and the desire for a unified land came only in the late eighth century B.C., and they were probably related to the struggle for national survival under the shadow of the Assyrian empire. Sensing the threat of syncretic worship to unification, certain unidentified circles in Jerusalem condemned the local Judean shrines as a Canaanite evil and pushed for something new: a ''YHWH-alone'' religion centered in Jerusalem. Ironically, they labeled this new religion the traditional one and so turned the traditional religion into heresy. Their work prepared the way for Josiah's Deuteronomic reformation in the next century.

    But Josiah's violent death at the hands of Pharaoh Necho II put the lie to Deuteronomistic theology. Obedience to YHWH-alone by the ideal king did not prevent Egypt's return to enslave the people of Israel. Even Egypt's defeat a few years later by Babylon brought not relief but destruction to Judah. By 587 B.C. the inevitable was complete. The Babylonian devastation of Judah, from outlying cities to proud Jerusalem, and the subsequent exile of its aristocracy are both biblical and archaeological realities.

    Yet the story did not end. To account for the unaccountable -- the violent death of the pious Josiah and the total destruction of eternal Jerusalem -- the exiles revised their national saga to produce a second edition of the Deuteronomistic history. It claimed that the destruction of Judah was inevitable because of the evil of an earlier king named Manasseh. Though Josiah's righteousness delayed the ending, it could not prevent it. So the exiles altered their theology to make the unconditional promise of YHWH to David and his dynasty contingent on the conditional covenant made between YHWH and the people at Sinai. In this version, if the people obey the commandments, they yet have a future. This rewritten past spoke to the present; it served the needs of a defeated and dispossessed people.

    With the demise of the Babylonian empire in 539 B.C., the new conqueror, Persia, for its own political reasons, allowed the exiles to return home. Those who did constituted a province known as Yehud, its citizens called Yehudim, or Jews. In this setting the ancient traditions acquired new relevance. Abraham's journey from Mesopotamia to Canaan mirrored the return of the exiles. The bondage in Egypt followed by the Exodus also mirrored exile and return. The old conquest of Canaan offered hope for the return to the promised land; ancient warnings not to assimilate with the Canaanites became guides for how to live in Yehud. The covenant of obedience made at Sinai provided the way back to glory, centered not in the Davidic dynasty but in a rebuilt Temple. Although the promises did not materialize, the epic saga called the Bible became the enduring book for the survival of a people.

    Finkelstein and Silberman have themselves written a provocative book that bears the marks of a detective story. In juxtaposing the biblical record and archaeological data, they work with tantalizing fragments of a distant past. Assembling clues to argue their thesis requires bold imagination and disciplined research. ''The Bible Unearthed'' exhibits both in abundance. Imagination invariably exceeds the evidence; research makes plausible the reconstruction. Fortunately, the book does not achieve its goal: ''to attempt to separate history from legend.'' It is better than that, for it shows how intertwined they are. What ''actually happened'' and what a people thought happened belong to a single historical process. That understanding leads to a sobering thought. Stories of exodus from oppression and conquest of land, stories of exile and return and stories of triumphal vision are eerily contemporary. If history is written for the present, are we doomed to repeat the past?

    Phyllis Trible is a professor of biblical studies at the Wake Forest University Divinity School.


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