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Old 08-04-2001, 09:06 AM   #1
Bill
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Arrow "Believer" Archeologist Admits Bible Exagerates

From The New York Times comes this article:
Quote:
August 4, 2001

Q&A

Balancing Bibical Faith and Archaeological Facts

William G. Dever has done extensive archaeological work in Israel and is the author, most recently, of What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It? (William B. Eerdmans Publishing). Gustav Niebuhr spoke with him.

What was biblical archaeology and why did it die?

Biblical archaeology wasn't really a subbranch of archaeology; it was a subbranch of theological studies. Most of the practitioners were seminary professors, and some were clergy. It was an attempt to use archaeology in an amateur way. The money came out of seminaries and church circles. The questions being raised were questions of faith and history. The movement collapsed somewhere in the 70's for a variety of reasons. It never proved the history of the patriarchs, for example. The movement failed to reach its agenda. Basically, the field became more professionalized and more secularized. No serious archaeologist today would attempt to prove the Bible in the old-fashioned sense.

But you're concerned now that some biblical scholarship has gone too far in trying to refute the Bible as history. You say that the so-called minimalists now lean toward a deconstructionist approach to Scripture.

The basic tenet of most deconstructionists is, the text doesn't have a central meaning, or any meaning that can be agreed upon. What you do is take the text and tear it apart, and fail to put it back together again. What it really means to do is discredit major texts, and the Bible is a major target of deconstructionism.

To approach an ancient text, you need to approach it with some empathy, to understand it from the inside out. What if we read the classics that way, or Shakespeare that way? I went to see "Hamlet" recently, and I'd rather see "Hamlet" not deconstructed.

Some critics have called you a religious fundamentalist, even though you explicitly say you approach the Bible from a secular, historical perspective.

I try hard to keep any latent theological concerns out of my work. I started in a fundamentalist home. I went to a very conservative church school. But I went to a liberal theological school, at Harvard. And then I converted to Judaism. I'm not a theist. I don't have any faith issues at stake. That's not what it's all about. Recently, a European biblical scholar called me a Zionist because of my long association with Israel. This name-calling doesn't illuminate the issues, but it shows you what happens when you try to take a middle-of-the-road approach. I'm conservative in the proper sense: I want to preserve what we know about the past. But that's conservative with a lower-case c. I think all good historians are conservative.

What do you mean when you say that the early biblical stories do contain a "core of truth?"

In the stories of the rise of Israel, there are a lot of stories that have the ring of truth about them, especially in the Book of Judges, which tells of a long, drawn-out struggle with the Canaanites. The way I look at the core of history is to use archaeology as a control. I think that's the real contribution of the book, to show how an archaeologist would read these stories. People will be disappointed by my core history. It's very modest. King Solomon didn't have 900 wives, and everything he touched didn't turn to gold. But he did exist, and he was fairly wealthy by the standards of his day. So instead of dismissing Solomon as mythical as the revisionists want to do, I reduced his proportions somewhat.

What is the academic value of taking a moderate approach to the Bible as a historical document?

The extreme views turn out to be faddish and short-lived. I'm always a supporter of what I call consensus scholarship. Once in a while, a maverick comes along who starts a revolution. By temperament and training, I belong somewhere in midstream. The history of archaeology is strewn with absurd theories, idiosyncratic theories. I want to preserve a sane and sensible and balanced middle ground where people can stand.

Do you think people are prepared for a public debate on the historical accuracy of events described in the Bible?

It is true that archaeology is creating a revolution in the way scholars and lay people look at the Bible. Almost every day now, I get some new indication that all this is about to burst into the open. That can be dangerous. It can almost be too radical for many people.

How do you respond when people ask you if the Bible is true?

It all depends on what you mean by true. I try to explain, yes, it's true in some of its historical dimensions. But the biblical writers are interested in truth in some larger dimension. I do have a deep love for the Bible and its ability to instruct us ethically and morally. I really am a secular humanist historian. By the way, there is no word "history" in the Bible. The Hebrew Bible writers were not writing objective history. For them, the word truth meant religious truth. Archaeology cannot legislate belief. The archaeologist can tell us what happened. The biblical writers can tell us what they think those events meant.
On the Amazon.Com site is an excellent review of Dever's book:
Quote:
Two books in one, this awkwardly titled volume contains (i) the best introduction to the archaeology of Iron Age Palestine (biblical Israel) yet written, and (ii) a devastatingly trenchant critique of the scholarship and methodology of the "biblical minimalist" school.

William Dever is perhaps the preeminent American Syro-Palestinian archaeologist of his generation. He has extensive field experience (Shechem, Khirbet el-Qom, Tell el-Hayyat, Beth Shean, and especially Gezer), has served on the editorial board of several major journals, has received several prestigious awards and grants, has a remarkable publication record, and is an accomplished teacher. He also has written many articles for nonspecialists in journals such as "Biblical Archaeology Review". He writes with great force and clarity.

In What did the Biblical Writers know and When did they know it?, Dever skewers biblical minimalists who insist that the Hebrew Bible is essentially a postexilic fabrication devoid of historical validity. At times Dever's polemic is so bitter it is difficult to reconcile with his reputation as a first magnitude scholar. To those who are unfamiliar with the challenges posed by the minimalist camp (e.g. Thompson, Lemche, Davies, Whitelam, Vikander-Edelman, et al.), Dever's acidity may seem bewildering and even off-putting. The cognoscenti who are familiar with the current debate no doubt will expect a wild ride, and those who are not embarrassed by Dever's diatribe will likely be delighted by his pyrotechnics.

Ensconced in the central chapters of this book, however, is an outstanding introduction to the archaeology of the "land of the Bible" during the Iron Age (1200 - 586 BCE). The Late Bronze (ca. 1550 BCE - 1200 BCE) and Iron I (1200 BCE - 1000 BCE) periods in particular were formative ones for early Israel. Dever's general thesis is that the so-called "Deuteronomistic History" - Joshua, Judges, I-II Samuel, and I-II Kings - has its "sitz im leben" rooted in the Iron Age, even if much of the DH ultimately was redacted during the postexilic period. Dever argues this point most persuasively, and brings to bear an overwhelming array of archaeological data. The book contains many fine pictures and illustrations of important artifacts which vivify Dever's analyses.

Dever is a self-identified "neopragmatist". Theologically, he is atheist/agnostic. He would vigorously agree that Genesis 1-11 is aetiological myth, that the patriarchal tales are of dubious historicity, that there is hardly a shred of evidence for the exodus, that Moses is as historical a figure as Odysseus, etc. Yet, equally vigorously, he asserts that the Deuteronomistic History (DH) contains many real historical data which are clearly supported by elements of the material record. Thus, he has as much contempt for the naive, theologically tendentious methodology of fundamentalist "scholars" as he does for their politically tendentious polar opposites, the minimalists. Indeed, in the introductory chapter of his earlier book, "Recent Archaeological Discoveries and Biblical Research" (1990), Dever provides an articulate history of the field of "biblical archaeology", which largely was influenced by the American scholar William Foxwell Albright, who envisioned that archaeology would ultimately "prove the Bible". It was only through dispassionate adherence to sound scientific methodology, coupled with the advent of modern analytical techniques, that the field of biblical archaeology matured, replacing biblical credulity with guileless objectivity. Correspondingly, Dever re-Christened his field "Syro-Palestinian Archaeology". However, just as the dragon of scholarly biblical credulity was being slain, a new beast was arising - that of biblical minimalism. At best, minimalism is hyperskepticism of a variety which, if applied to other areas of historical and anthropological research, would erase much of what is commonly accepted as fact by a large majority of scholars. At worst, it is transparently political, seeking, for example, to redress perceived modern sins of Zionism (or the Christian right) by attacking the historicity of the Hebrew Bible - a ludicrous agenda which is unforgivably appalling from a scholarly point of view.

Dever's mastery of the archaeological record and his breadth of scope are remarkable. His discussion touches many areas of relevance - economics, historical geography, literacy, popular religion, social movements, government and politics, military affairs, etc. While the anti-minimalist rant is a bit submerged in these middle chapters devoted to archaeology, Dever often trenchantly points out how many details of the biblical account, while likely exaggerated, are clearly rooted in an Iron Age setting, and how the DH would likely read very differently had it truly been of Persian and Hellenistic provenance, as the minimalists contend. For example, in one particularly compelling section Dever identifies about a dozen architectural attributes of the Solomonic Temple described in I Kings and then, point by point, discusses how the specific description fits extremely within an Iron I/early Iron II framework.

In the final chapters of the book, Dever returns to the sociology of biblical minimalism, and aptly contextualizes it within a broader postmodernist framework. Again, Dever is as unrestrained in his attacks as he is insightful.

I am conflicted in giving this book a five star rating. On a first reading, I was disappointed by the extreme polemic in the opening chapters. This is really two books in one, and I'd have preferred Dever to begin with his discussion of what archaeology can tell us and then proceed on to the meaty core of the book, leaving the anti-minimalist diatribe for the second half. So acrid is the discussion in the first 100 or so pages that one might doubt Dever's objectivity as a scholar. However, I found Dever's arguments to be persuasive and well-founded on all issues discussed, and having read a fair amount from the minimalists, I think Dever's laser-guided criticisms overwhelmingly are justified.

Finally, I would also recommend highly the recent book by another leading archaeologist, Israel Finkelstein, entitled "The Bible Unearthed" (written in collaboration with Neil Asher Silbermann). While Finkelstein is no minimalist (e.g. he accepts the legitimacy of the Tel Dan stele and concurs that King David was an historical figure, though his Biblical exploits are greatly exaggerated), he often is invoked by the minimalists, and he himself apparently finds much merit in their arguments, judging from his recent tendency to refer to their work in his own scholarly articles. Finkelstein's book also is a good read, and it provides a valuable additional perspective by another first-magnitude scholar.
Personally, I think I'd agree with Dever's view of the Bible, as described by this reviewer.

== Bill
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Old 08-04-2001, 10:00 AM   #2
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Personally, I think I'd agree with Dever's view of the Bible, as described by this reviewer.
So would I. He sounds like a very sensible chap. But why did you say he was a 'believer' in your heading when he specifically describes himself as a non-theist?

Yours

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Old 08-04-2001, 10:29 AM   #3
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Question

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Originally posted by Bede:
<STRONG>So would I. He sounds like a very sensible chap. But why did you say he was a 'believer' in your heading when he specifically describes himself as a non-theist? </STRONG>
I guess that I'm confused about where he also says that he converted to Judaism. How would you read that?

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Old 08-04-2001, 11:05 AM   #4
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My appetite has been whetted. I'm already foaming at the mouth. Borders, here i come!

~WiGGiN~
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Old 08-04-2001, 11:28 AM   #5
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For those who may not remember, this is the same scholar/archaeologist who wrote the scathing review of The Bible Unearthed in Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR) which Richard Carrier responded very negatively toward.

While Dever is a good scholar, there are many conservative scholars that disagree with his positions. I lean toward the more conservative scholars' conclusions though Dever usually brings up excellent questions and challenges.

He does not appear to be a believer as stated in the "National Enquirer" style title to this thread... Perhaps someone can find a clarification of his beliefs...

Ish
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Old 08-04-2001, 12:24 PM   #6
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Quote:
Originally posted by Bill:
<STRONG>I guess that I'm confused about where he also says that he converted to Judaism. How would you read that?
</STRONG>
He decribes himself as not a theist, which I would interpret to mean that he does not believe in a god who intervenes in the world, and as a secular humanist. This is compatible with some varieties of Judaism, but usually describes people who are born Jewish and want to retain their culture and moral stance without the mythology that goes with it.

He teaches in a department of Judaic studies and has gotten honorary awards from Jewish institutions. Converting may have been part of just fitting in.

Just a guess.
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Old 08-04-2001, 12:29 PM   #7
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Dever's wife is Jewish. He may have converted for social/marital reasons. At any rate, as I emphasized in my review of his book (I am Ploni Almoni), he's got no theological axe to grind.
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Old 08-04-2001, 01:03 PM   #8
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Apikorus, I just wanted to say that your review of Dever's book was excellent, well-written, and informative as I've noticed your posts here to be as well.

Ish
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Old 08-04-2001, 04:35 PM   #9
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Quote:
Originally posted by Apikorus:
<STRONG>. . .he's got no theological axe to grind.</STRONG>
But it sounds like he has a political axe to grind.
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Old 08-04-2001, 07:28 PM   #10
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Ish, thanks for your kind words. I enjoy reading your posts as well.

Toto, Dever apparently feels it necessary to defend what he sees as the broad middle ground of his field from a postmodernist assault. If this means he has a political agenda, then so be it. I was dismayed to read his review of Finkelstein and Silbermann in BAR, but overall this doesn't change my highly positive opinion of him and his research. Incidentally, Dever recently lost an adult son (early 30's), who had cancer (though he died of an aneurysm).
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