Yet another atheist blogger has come upon the book “The Bible Unearthed” (Israel Finkelstein and Neil Silberman, 2001) and swallowed it (almost!) wholesale. Chris Hallquist posted Pulling some devastating punches: a review of The Bible Unearthed at on October 22, 2012. He admits that he has not verified the book’s thesis, “But if they are right, it’s just devastating to all the Abrahamic religions.”

Hallquist summarizes the hypothesis of Finkelstein and Silberman, that the majority of Genesis through 2 Kings is the product of seventh century authors working for King Josiah during the final 13 years of his reign (ending in 609 BC). That is an accurate summary of the Josiah Hypothesis, but then Hallquist makes this outlandish claim:

Ahistoricity is the verdict for every Biblical story up until David and Solomon.

Nope! Finkelstein and Silberman don’t say that. What F&S do say, with a lot of hedging and weasel words, is that the Josiah corpus was based on earlier material, and was skilfully woven together from earlier sources (pages 23, 33, 69-70, 284). The Bible Unearthed does not claim that the Exodus never happened, for example. (Between Migdol and the Sea, page 220)

Tel Dan Stele, referring to the House of David. Wikimedia Commons, by yoav dothan.

Tel Dan Stele, referring to the House of David. Wikimedia Commons, by yoav dothan.

Chris Hallquist repeats the common error of concluding that if current archaeology cannot find direct evidence for the “supposed activities” of David and Solomon, then those activities of the United Monarchy never happened. This same error is prevalent in Wikipedia articles about the Exodus. Hallquist also thinks that most people have never heard of King Josiah, the famous reformer who found the long-lost Book of the Law in the Temple and tore his clothes.

The punches are really not so devastating

“The Bible Unearthed” is about as devastating to Abrahamic religions as the creationist claims of Answers in Genesis are devastating to Darwin’s theory of evolution: not at all. And here’s why: Many of us who adhere to one of the Abrahamic religions have learned the skills of critical thinking. More specifically, when we hear a series of claims we investigate what the other side has to say. (Acts 15:1-35) Here are two detailed rebuttals to The Bible Unearthed:

  • On the Reliability of the Old Testament, by Kenneth Kitchen (2003), pages 464-468. The alleged anachronisms are no such thing, and the date markers for the Exodus point to the reign of Rameses II (1279 – 1213 BC).
  • Between Migdol and the Sea: Crossing the Red Sea with Faith and Science, by Carl Drews (that’s me) (2014), Chapter 9 Confronting the Minimalists. The Josiah Hypothesis of Finkelstein and Silberman simply makes too many wrong predictions, doesn’t explain the evidence, and would be discarded under the Scientific Method.

The most interesting part of Chris Hallquist’s post comes at the end, where he discusses the Epilogue of The Bible Unearthed. Hallquist is struck by the dissonance between using the biblical saga of liberation (alleged by F&S) as an excuse to “invade your neighbors up north” and de-liberate them. He says:

As I read this stuff, I’m thinking, “did they forget what they just spent most of this book arguing? You know, the stuff about a lot of the Bible being royal propaganda? For a king who wanted to expand his empire through conquest? I dunno, maybe they think the desire to invade your neighbors up north and make them be part of your kingdom is a deep human need which makes perfect sense to include alongside the desire to be free from oppression, but otherwise I have no idea. I don’t know what else to say about this; it’s just really, really weird on the face of it.

Testing the Josiah Hypothesis

Scientists test hypotheses by experimentation, by pushing the implications of their hypothesis to its logical conclusions and seeing if any contradictions arise. If the earth is flat, then it must have an edge all around; nobody has ever found such a thing, so the earth must not be flat. If the Old Testament expresses “timeless themes of a people’s liberation,” then King Josiah would be an idiot to order its creation as propaganda for his planned wars of conquest. If the purpose behind the Deuteronomistic history is to glorify the United Monarchy, then why do Kings David and Solomon have so many obvious flaws? Why is David an adulterer and a murderer, and why does Solomon marry so many foreign wives? (1 Kings 11:1-8) Why does the genealogy of Judahite Kings pass through the messy episode of Judah and Tamar? (Genesis 38) Yes, it is really weird.

The logical conclusion does not seem to have occurred to Chris Hallquist: The Josiah Hypothesis is wrong. The hypothesis is testable, and it fails those tests. Finkelstein and Silberman’s book The Bible Unearthed is fatally flawed. The Old Testament is not a fabricated history dreamed up by creative scribes to justify some national war of liberation. Instead, the Old Testament is an authentic record of the Hebrew people who described events from their own point of view, valued their history, refused to worship their ancestors, and saw the hand of their God in bringing them through many struggles. Archaeology cannot verify all the details of that narrative, but archaeology’s limitations do not mean that those events never happened.

That’s why I say that Chris Hallquist almost swallowed the book wholesale. He was on the right track, realizing that The Bible Unearthed has some major logical flaws in its thesis. Yes, Chris, you were not the only one who recognized that dissonance. You may not like the answer, but those are the results. The Josiah Hypothesis fails the scientific method.

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