What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It?: What Archaeology Can Tell Us about the Reality of Ancient Israel

By William G. Dever
Grand Rapids : Eerdmans (2001). xiii + 313 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. William Barrick
13.2 (Fall 2002) : 275-279

 When a scholar, who openly declares his own secular humanism (x) and who denies biblical inerrancy (21, 62-63) and supernaturalism (46), raises an alarm over the infiltration of the Society of Biblical Literature by radical revisionists (7; “new nihilists,” 23) and deplores the deconstructionist tendencies of so-called literary criticism in the field of biblical studies (10-19), it is certainly high time that inerrantists wake up and remove their rose-colored glasses. In addition, one must remember that the author of this volume has been an open opponent of “biblical archaeology” for a quarter century (33). Dever associates the subject matter of his book with current issues in Jesus studies when he declares, “the malaise in the scholarly pursuit of ‘the historical Jesus’ parallels almost exactly the current crisis in the search for ‘the historical Israel.’ The same methodological issues are involved” (3). However, he does not reveal the parallels nor does he return to the topic again.

In an insightful summary of postmodernism (25), the author demonstrates that it is the latest contributor to the current historiographical crisis. As much as many evangelicals (including this reviewer) become nauseated with the overabundance of presentations, books, and essays on postmodernism, it is an enemy of biblical faith whose strategies conservatives must understand if they are to avoid its leavening influence. What is more sickening than the proliferation of essays on postmodernism is the inroads it has made even in the most evangelical of pulpits and podiums. The author’s main concern is with the neglect of archaeology and the way that its examination of the biblical world has been treated as irrelevant by the revisionists (26). Dever explains that the demise of history and historical exegesis is connected with the neglect of archaeology in institutions for biblical studies. He identifies Philip R. Davies, Thomas L. Thompson, Niels Peter Lemche, Keith W. Whitelam, and Israel Finkelstein (who is less radical than the previous four) as the key proponents of revisionism (27 , 28-44). The insidious nature of revisionists is best seen in their avoidance of terms like “deconstruction” and “new literary criticism,” or their denial that these terms describe their position. Seminary deans ought to keep in mind Dever’s sage observation: “I think that it is always instructive to pay more attention to what people actually do, than to what they say or think they are doing” (27). One may deny having any part in harmful aspects of literary criticism, but what have they been writing and teaching?

Granted, Dever sometimes may be an alarmist (by his own admission, 38), and he has written a clearly pejorative description of revisionists while claiming that he does not employ “revisionist” in “a necessarily pejorative sense” (47-48 n. 47). However, all faults aside, his warning is valid and solidly demonstrated.

In all honesty, however, the same standards must be applied to Dever’s volume. In some ways his discourse amounts to “the pot calling the kettle black.” What difference is there between the neo-nihilist’s denial of biblical historicity and Dever’s insistence that the biblical accounts concerning the patriarchs, the exodus from Egypt, and the Israelite conquest of Canaan are nothing more than “‘historicized fiction’ at best” (62-63; cf. 97-98, 121)? He denies any historical value to Ruth, Esther, Job, and Daniel since he has determined that they are merely “historical novellae with contrived ‘real-life settings’” (99). Indeed, though the author criticizes the revisionists for treating the Hebrew Bible as “‘pious fiction,’ in effect a literary hoax” (102), he is not far removed from that position himself. He sees the greatest historical value in 1 and 2 Kings (101) and Judges (122-23).

At what point will critics allow the text to stand as an independent historical witness produced by accurate ancient historians? Current revisionists and selfacclaimed historians (Dever included) manifest academic hubris and provincialism when they present themselves as more objective, more sophisticated, and far more accurate than the ancient biblical writers. What difference is there between the elite intellectuals whom Dever claims wrote the Bible (105) and “scholars” like Dever and Thompson? The writers of Scripture lived the very history Dever and the revisionists are attempting to rewrite on the basis of their self-proclaimed superior knowledge (what Dever himself calls “a curious conceit,” 265).

Dever laments that there has been no dialogue between biblical studies and archaeology (80). That would be like expecting the medical profession (here being compared to biblical studies) to dialogue with religious groups denying the reality of disease or of bodily existence (modern humanistic archaeology). Of what use would such dialogue be? To put it in biblical terms, “what has a believer in common with an unbeliever?” (2 Cor 6:15, NASB). When both biblical theology and biblical archaeology have been derided, demonized, and discarded unilaterally (83), where is there any room for dialogue? Obviously, the author is calling for dialogue among fellow secular humanists, the new elite, the new self-proclaimed authorities (no man of faith is a “scholar” according to Dever, 98 n. 1), claiming greater wisdom than God Himself (whom such humanists have conveniently fictionalized as a mere figment of ignorant human imagination). Ironically, the author himself recognizes that his attitude does not foster dialogue (88).

The symbiosis model of an indigenous origin of Israelites in the 13th–12th centuries B.C. in the central region north of Jerusalem is the current archeological fad (110-19). It ignores two factors: (1) Evidence for the 13th–12th centuries does not prove an absence of an Israelite presence in the 15th–14th centuries. (2) According to the biblical record, the invading Israelites were not to destroy everything in their path, but, to the contrary, were to take over and utilize existing residential structures, cisterns, presses (olive and wine), cisterns, and vineyards (Deut 6:10-12; 19:1)—and that is what the Hebrew Bible records that they did (Josh 24:13).

Speaking of the Merneptah stele, Dever announces that “one unimpeachable witness in the court of history is sufficient” (118). What about allowing Scripture to be that witness? Robert Dick Wilson ably defended the a priori nature of biblical evidence in his classic work, A Scientific Investigation of the Old Testament (Moody, 1959 reprint). By elevating the evidence of an Egyptian pharaoh over the evidence of Scripture, Dever betrays his prejudice. Sadly, he recognizes the problem in others, but does not see it in himself. Later in the book he asks, “How is it that the biblical texts are always approached with postmodernism’s typical ‘hermeneutics of suspicion,’ but the nonbiblical texts are taken at face value? It seems to be that the Bible is automatically held guilty unless proven innocent” (128).

In Chapter 4 (“Getting at the ‘History behind the History’: What Convergences between Texts and Artifacts Tell Us about Israelite Origins and the Rise of the State,” 97-157) the author presents a masterful defense of the historical accuracy of biblical descriptions of the Solomonic era. Throughout Chapters 4 and 5 Dever illuminates his discussions with archaeological evidence punctuated by maps, drawings, and photos. He demonstrates that the archaeological evidence confirms the city gates (131-38), the administrative districts (138-44), and the architecture of the Temple (144-57) in the Solomonic era. Dever argues that it strains credulity to claim (as the revisionists do) that writers in the Hellenistic period would be capable of inventing such a detailed record of the 10th–9th centuries B.C. (137, 157; esp. 275-77).

Chapter 5 (“Daily Life in Israel in the Time of the Divided Monarchy,” 159-243) discusses a number of historical issues including the synchronism of biblical king lists (160-67) and the Assyrian invasion in the days of Sennacherib and Hezekiah (167-72). In the latter, Dever fails to mention Isaiah’s detailed lists of cities affected by the Assyrian campaigns (e.g., 10:28-32 with 12 towns). His main emphases are on the folk religion that existed during the divided monarchy (173-98), fortifications (198-202), the presence of literacy in ancient Israel (202-21), and commerce (221-30). Rounding out the chapter are brief discussions of pottery (230- 34), art (especially as related to seals and ivories, 234-39), and secondary royal residences (239-45).

At times Dever seems to contradict himself. In the discussion of folk religion, for example, he repeatedly harps on how the Bible “almost totally ignores” (173) the existence of folk religion together with its various artifacts (like the “moldmade terra-cotta female figurines,” 193; or, the small altars, 188-90). In the matter of the small altars, he again largely ignores passages like Isa 27:9. However, he states that the biblical writers knew what they were talking about: “the religious situation about which they complained was real, not invented by them as a foil for their revisionist message” (195). Even at that, Dever still leaves the reader with the impression that he would be suspicious of and question the truth of any religious literature that is devoted only to that religion. That seems a bit simplistic and unrealistic. The Bible does present only one religion as true. That does not mean, however, that the Bible is inaccurate in its description of that religion or culture just because it does not describe any opposing cults in great detail.

Contrary to Dever’s antipathy to the historical authenticity of writing in texts like Deut 6:6-9 and Exod 17:14 (he deems them “anachronistic,” 204), there is far more evidence of alphabetic writing centuries before the divided monarchy than he admits. For example, the 16th–14th century graffiti at Serabit el-Khadem cannot be omitted from the discussion of early literacy. If these informal inscriptions were actually left behind by Semitic slaves to the Egyptians, it would demonstrate that the common people (about whom Dever is normally very concerned, cf. 105, 173-74) were literate even down to the lowest classes. Interestingly, championing the common folk is a charge Dever makes against the revisionists (262). Inscriptions like those at Sera bit el-Khadem should also be evaluated with regard to the Mosaic references to writing. When the revisionists dismiss evidence in this fashion, Dever asks, “What can one say when scholars resort to such desperate measures to deny or to suppress evidence that may threaten their cherished theories?” (208-9).

In the final chapter (245-94) Dever revisits some of the issues he had introduced in the beginning of the volume. He summarizes the relationship of postmodernism and deconstructionism to the revisionists and the impact it is having on biblical studies (245-66). While bringing his conclusions to bear upon the biblical record and its historicity as revealed through archaeology (267-74), Dever provides a very clear definition of what archaeology cannot do and what it can do (2 69; cf. 282). Next, he wrestles with the issues of secular history, theology, faith, and hermeneutics (281-90). Lastly, the author presents a brief essay on the impact of the Bible on Western tradition (290-93) and offers a final defense of his own secular humanism (293-94).

His answers to the questions within the book’s title are forthright: “They knew a lot; and they knew it early, based on older and genuinely historical accounts, both oral and written” (273). Among his many parting shots at revisionists, the author notes that they have not really addressed a key problem to their view—that of the Septuagint, a translation prior to the second century B.C. of the revisionists’ yet nonexistent Hebrew Bible (274).

Putting criticism of Dever’s own anti-biblicism aside, and granting that he is at times supportive of the Hebrew Bible in his own humanistic way, no serious student of the Hebrew Bible should ignore this volume. Every evangelical should read it and understand that we are in a battle for the Bible as the Word of God, inerrant and authoritative for doctrine and practice. Dever’s warnings make it crystal clear that it is time for evangelicals to re-evaluate ecclesiastical and academic leaders (pastors and teachers alike) who are enamored with the Society of Biblical Literature and attracted to secular humanism, liberal literary criticism, deconstructionism, and minimalism.

This volume proves that every evangelical seminary’s curriculum should include the requirement that all graduates not only be steeped in the biblical languages (3), but well-acquainted with the following archaeological finds that provide clear testimony to the authenticity and historicity of the biblical text: the Tel Dan inscription (29, 128-29, 166-67), Hezekiah’s tunnel inscription (30, 94), the Mesha stele (32), the Ekron inscription (39), Merneptah’s stele (42, 94, 118), and the ‘Izbet Sartah abecedary (114, 116). To neglect these things is to strip the biblical scholar of the weapons necessary to vanquish the revisionist approach to the Scriptures and to respond to Dever’s own form of deconstructionism.