The Lives of Ordinary People in Ancient Israel: When Archaeology and the Bible Intersect

The Lives of Ordinary People in Ancient Israel: When Archaeology and the Bible Intersect

by William G. Dever

ISBN: 9780802867018

Publisher Eerdmans

Published in Christian Books & Bibles/Biographies, History/Ancient

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Sample Chapter

Chapter One

On History and History Writing

What is history? Who writes it, how, and why? We must begin our inquiry about ancient Israel and Judah with these difficult but fundamental questions.

Defining History

First, what do we mean by the term "history"? There are as many definitions as there are historians. Clearly history is about the past but not, however, about reconstructing, much less reliving, the past, since that attempt would only create illusions. And it is equally clear to all except a naive few that history is also about the present. That is because we are the ones telling the story and doing so in part to define ourselves over against that past, real or imagined.

One way of defining history is to compare it with antiquarianism. For our purpose here that means asking whether the ancient writers of the Hebrew Bible were at least purporting to recount actual events or were simply antiquarians uncritically collecting and preserving old traditions.

One of the great historiographers of our times, Arnaldo Momigliano, has made the distinction clear. Antiquarians are engaged in "erudite research, "while historians from the time of Thucydides on have attempted to put great political events in chronological order, to make sense of them, and to explain these facts in order to instruct the reader.

For our task here, the primary source is the Deuteronomistic History (abbreviated "Dtr." below), the book of Deuteronomy plus Joshua through Kings. But are the writers, editors, or schools who produced this source storytelling, or attempting to "tell it as it was"? To put it another way, are the biblical texts facts or fiction?

There is a mind-numbing literature on the question of biblical and other historiography. But here I will assume that in the Deuteronomistic History, as also in the relevant prophetic literature, our major sources have a mixture of fact and fiction, but a "core" of historical information that can be sifted out. Critical scholarship can never be completely unbiased in this effort, but we shall try our best.

This effort is compatible with a much-quoted definition of history by Johan Huizinga: history is "the intellectual form in which a civilization renders account to itself of its past." Yet such an account can never be complete or completely accurate. That is due largely to our own biases and the limitation of our sources, even at best. But our inquiry can also be hampered by inadequate methods. So let us address in more detail what we have implied thus far about issues of sources, goals, and methods in history writing.

Sources for History Writing

A history is no better than the historian's sources. For most histories, the sources are texts, written records of past events that are supposedly factual (sometimes supplemented by oral histories). For our work here we possess written sources as well as archaeological artifacts, both assumed to be trustworthy witnesses to the past that we wish to portray. Each source, however, must be evaluated in terms of its validity, then compared with the other sources similarly evaluated.

Textual Sources

It is obvious that the texts at our disposal include both pertinent biblical texts and other texts, some of them contemporary, especially the Neo-Assyrian annals. We shall subject all these texts, however, to the same critical evaluation. That is to say, we shall read the Hebrew Bible not as Scripture, preferentially treated, but simply as another written record. In the use of all texts, the following principles will be observed.

1. Texts are artifacts, too, so they must be treated just as archaeological artifacts so as to sort out reliable facts that can become useful data. It is now clear that texts and artifacts can be "read" in much the same fashion, interpreted on the basis of similar principles, once we learn the grammar, vocabulary, and syntax of material culture. That is an enormous breakthrough in the attempt to create a dialogue between our two disciplines. But few biblical scholars are aware of the potential, and thus they continue to repeat the mindless description of archaeology as "mute."

2. In using all ancient texts we must take into consideration obvious shortcomings: miraculous stories that defy reason; biases either political or, in the case of the Hebrew Bible, theological; and contradictions either internal or in comparison with external data (such as archaeological data).

3. The dating of all our texts is crucial. Ideally texts should give us contemporary or eyewitness accounts. But even so, their reliability cannot be assured, for reasons noted above. And with the biblical texts, we have a unique problem: most texts, including the Deuteronomistic History we shall utilize here, are later than the events they purport to describe, in some cases centuries later (below). Thus it is sometimes argued that the biblical texts are not reliable sources for writing any history of ancient Israel.

The specific biblical texts upon which we are dependent here constitute what is called the Deuteronomistic History (above). This is a composite work that includes the book of Deuteronomy plus Joshua through Kings. Most scholars date its original composition to the 7th century B.C.E., but it is clear that it was finally edited in the exilic period (6th century B.C.E.) or perhaps even later.

Scholars may differ about the authorship and date of this epochal work, but its intention is clear: to portray in a grand sweep the history of a people united in a monotheistic faith and living a covenant life in a land promised to them by Yahweh. The question, however, is whether this scheme of things is history or myth. And in our case, we must ask further whether a work dated so late can have any relevance for our inquiry about the 8th century B.C.E. These are fundamental issues.

Again, the literature is too vast to survey here, but I shall follow in general the views of the distinguished Israeli historian Nadav Na'aman. He reads the biblical stories as "historiography" rather than historical fiction, primarily because the writers were concerned with what had really happened in their view. But this is a didactic literature, which does describe the past, but which has a greater intent to use that past to impart certain moral lessons. Thus, despite postdating the biblical era, and having an agenda, the stories in the Deuteronomistic History may be cautiously used for historical reconstructions.

This is where we disagree with the revisionists (Chapter II), who hold that there is no real history in the texts of the Hebrew Bible. We also reject the opposite extreme of fundamentalists, for whom the Bible must be literally true. Thus we regard both the biblical and the nonbiblical texts as genuine and equal sources for history writing, when used critically.

Archaeological Sources

There are as many definitions of archaeology as there are archaeologists. But an archaeologist can be regarded simply as someone who "writes history from things." I shall argue throughout that things — archaeological artifacts—now constitute primary data for writing new histories of Israel and Judah.

I have already argued above that archaeological evidence is similar to textual evidence and must be critically evaluated using similar methods of interpretation. But why might archaeological data be considered superior?

First, artifacts often have a more tangible character than texts, which seem to present an ideal world. We can approach artifacts more directly: there is no need to translate them, at least at first glance. Of course, artifacts don't come labeled, so ultimately they, too, must be interpreted to give them meaning. But whereas an ancient text may seem inscrutable, the idea that it may contain a mystery, an ancient cooking pot can speak for itself. An artifact may thus seem closer to reality than a text.

Second, even though proper interpretation is required before an artifact reveals its full meaning, it is easier to control the interpretation. Both texts and artifacts contain encoded behavior. But ancient texts have been edited and reedited endlessly for centuries, so that what we now have is an interpretation of an interpretation of an interpretation. Finding any eyewitness information seems almost impossible.

By contrast, when an ancient artifact is first brought to light, it is pristine. Of course, interpretation begins the minute we touch it. Nevertheless, we do not have to cut through the accretions of centuries. So if "primary" means contemporary, artifacts trump our texts.

Another advantage of artifacts is that a group of them, when properly excavated, will have an original physical context. They then constitute what we call an assemblage. And when properly compared with other assemblages, they can be placed in an overall cultural context. With biblical texts, however, it is difficult if not impossible to know their original context.

The date of any written text also poses a problem. We have already noted the difficulties of dating the biblical sources. There are, of course, difficulties in dating some archaeological evidence as well (as biblicists are fond of pointing out). But while biblicists may differ by as much as several hundred years in dating some texts (like the Deuteronomistic History), archaeologists today scarcely differ more than fifty years about even the most controversial finds, and the margin of error is usually much narrower. In any case, our dates are almost always sufficient for the broad-based history here.

Finally, the number of biblical texts we have, and always will have, is limited. The canon is closed. Even fantastic discoveries like the Dead Sea Scrolls do not change that picture much. But the number of archaeological discoveries is expanding exponentially. Twenty years ago, an archaeological history like this one would have been impossible. But I predict that twenty years from now, such histories will eclipse text-based histories. The sheer weight of the archaeological evidence will prevail.

The Goals of History Writing

No one writes history out of idle curiosity. The way people write history depends to some degree not only on sources but also on what they expect to accomplish. And that expectation in turn depends largely on personal motives, that is, ideology. Many claim that it is improper to question another scholar's motives. On the contrary, I contend, it is often necessary to do so if we are to evaluate the history in question adequately. The only requirement is that our characterization is accurate and fair, that our argument is not simply ad hominem.

I shall define ideology here as "an overarching set of ideas in defense of a cause, claiming exclusive hegemony." Obviously everyone has a set of ideas, and most have an agenda in investigating the past. What then is wrong with ideology? I would suggest that ideology is a problem only when it becomes an obsession: going to extremes, ignoring all contradictory evidence, and escalating the polemics to demagoguery.

Much of the recent discussion of "maximalists" versus "minimalists" has to do with competing ideologies. The biblical revisionists, scholars on the far left, insist that mainstream scholars, and evangelicals in particular, are ideologues and thus put forward bogus arguments. Ironically, they seem blind to their own ideologies.

In the next chapter, I shall survey the work of the biblical revisionists, where ideology is rampant and often seems like the only goal. Here, in speaking of the goals of history writing in general, let us define ideology as above, a set of fixed ideas. But one might substitute "agenda" for "ideology." And since everyone clearly has an agenda, what is wrong with that?

The problem lies in the adjective "fixed." The ideologue is one whose agenda has become so obsessive that his or her mind is closed to all data that might be contradictory. In that case, ideology trumps scholarship, the defining characteristic of which is genuine open-mindedness. The historian, in particular, must be open-minded, since history writing is not a science, and the outcomes of the human enterprise are not predictable.

The most adequate histories, I would argue, are humanistic and positivist histories. Here there are, to be sure, subjective (i.e., ideological) factors at work; but not only are they up front, they are generally benign. For instance, mainstream history is usually written from a broad, liberal, humanistic perspective. It is neither reductionist nor determinist, but open-minded. More old-fashioned positivist histories are typically somewhat more theory-driven, but they nonetheless attempt to address facts, even though interpreting them in a maximalist fashion. But in contrast to these histories, ideological histories do not hesitate to ignore or even distort facts when they appear to be inconvenient for their cherished theory. Marxist histories (and some anti-Marxist histories) would be examples of the latter.

All this is not to say that any of our imagined historians are charlatans, only that all history writing is to some degree subjective, that ideology really does matter. So does motive; and some motives are better than others — better in terms of both practicality and the moral high ground. The lesson to be learned, however, is that we must constantly examine our own motives as well and be candid about our intentions. And above all, we must seek a balanced judgment.

In three recent popular books I have described my personal background and set out my own presuppositions at the very beginning. In the present work, I duly note that I am a secular humanist, with no intention whatsoever of defending the Bible (or discrediting it). I am simply trying to be a competent archaeologist and an honest historian. Using all the tools at my disposal, I hope to grasp something of the reality of the lives of ordinary people in ancient Israel and Judah. I have tried to put aside my own worldview, in order to understand theirs. Where I do have an ideology, I can only hope that it is transparent and that it will not prevent me from seeing the full implications of the data I present.

Method in History Writing

If the outcome of our history writing depends on the sources we have at our disposal, on the feasibility of the goals that we have set for ourselves, and finally on a defensible ideology, all will depend ultimately on the methods we adopt.

Whether we are dealing with texts or artifacts, sound scholarly method is the same. It requires first of all appealing to facts rather than rhetoric, that is, a preference for statements that do not go beyond the empirical evidence, however caught up we may be in our subject. That means avoiding the extreme, which is the clue that inevitably unmasks the ideologue — the half-truth elevated to certainty.

Related to that modesty is a genuinely open mind, a willingness to go wherever the facts may lead. That seems obvious and simple, but it is an enormous challenge. The lack of this openness is another mark of the ideologue, whose conclusions are usually presuppositions. Thus many text-oriented biblicists are oblivious to new archaeological data that might threaten their cherished notions about ancient Israel.

Finally, the historian must exercise critical judgment, recognizing what we can and cannot know. That often means living with uncertainty, with partial truths, and with what several scholars have called "the balance of probability."

Given the sources we have, the goals we seek, and the most appropriate methods we can employ, we shall try here first to examine each of our sources separately, reserving the biblical evidence until the last. Then we shall compare all our data to see where we can find what I call "convergences" between texts and artifacts. It is here, where independent witnesses agree, that we are most likely to find, if not the truth, at least a reasonable and satisfying portrait of ancient Israel. That may be a modest goal, but it is attainable.

Ernst Axel Knauf, an extremely skeptical scholar, concludes of extracting information from texts: "I think, with the majority of historians past and present, that it can be done. Data from literary sources, though, have to be sifted as rigorously as data from archaeology; some are useful and others are not." Knauf also makes an astute observation on the relationship of archaeological and textual data. To separate the two and to privilege philology will have a "devastating impact on archaeology and furthermore will guarantee that we will not understand what happened in the past." Knauf concludes that we need to demonstrate that "history can be written on the basis of archaeology, and, if need be, on the basis of archaeology alone; and also [to demonstrate] what kind of history would emerge from such an endeavor."

Equally revealing are the observations of a distinguished biblical scholar, Lester L. Grabbe—founder of the "European Seminar," which has showcased so many of the revisionist biblical studies. He has produced a prolegomenon for any future history of Israel, in which he argues that the archaeological data, not the textual data, must be our primary source. His Ancient Israel: What Do We Know and How Do We Know It? (2007) is in uncanny agreement with my What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It? What Archaeology Can Tell Us about the Reality of Ancient Israel (2001).


Excerpted from "The Lives of Ordinary People in Ancient Israel: When Archaeology and the Bible Intersect" by William G. Dever. Copyright © 0 by William G. Dever. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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