Ziony Zevit, «Three Debates about Bible and Archaeology», Vol. 83 (2002) 1-27
Three significant debates affecting perceptions of Israelite history, the Bible’s historiography, the relationship between this historiography and archaeology, and the dating of parts of the Bible’s literature have occupied Biblicists and archaeologists for the last 25 years. This article distinguishes the debates by analyzing the issues involved, the terminologies employed, as well as the professions of the protagonists engaged in each. It considers each within its own intellectual context. In light of these analyses, the article proposes a positive assessment of the contribution of these debates to the study ancient Israel’s history.
Temple Judaism, such as the importance of reading the Torah publicly and observing its charges faithfully, abstention from work and commerce on the Sabbath, avoiding intermarriage, tithing, maintaining Temple sacrifice through a self-imposed tax (cf. Neh 10,30-40), appear is during the Persian period. Then, Ezra and Nehemiah — both Jewish, both empowered by the Persian court at different times during the fifth century BCE to determine civil and religious policy — wielded power in Jerusalem. They also determine, on the basis of their reading of Ezra and Nehemiah, that the population of Yehud, the Persian province centered around Jerusalem, contained a large admixture of foreigners, forcibly settled in the area as a result of ancient Near Eastern politics.
Posing the abovementioned historian’s questions about the Bible in this socio-historical setting, minimalists conclude that the books of the Hebrew Bible were written during the Persian (or Hellenistic) period. The historical books actually contain made-up stories (that may have exploited some vague, ancient legends) through which the local organized refugee population provided itself with a mythic cover-(hi)story that linked it to the land and to a religion. This conclusion has two important corollaries: (1) Bible narratives about the political, social, and intellectual world of ancient Israel from Abraham to the temple’s destruction lack probative value. (2) Any narrative about what actually happened to the real people living in the central mountain areas of ancient Israel during what archaeologists call the Iron Age must, accordingly, be based on archaeological data alone. No other authentic sources for their history are available.
Lending credulity to minimalists is a broad consensus among liberal students of the Bible and archaeologists that no archaeological data or any data external to the Bible itself confirm the patriarchal or exodus stories as narrated in Genesis and Exodus. The same consensus recognizes that only with some fine tweaking and very qualified explanations can archaeological data be drafted to support some elements in the Joshua-Judges narratives. Finally, the consensus maintains that the proto-historical and the epic exodus-conquest narratives, whether truthful or not, were first set down in writing between the ninth and sixth centuries BCE on the basis of oral traditions, ancient but unverifiable. For narratives about events that occurred after the ninth century, however, Israelite writers had access to court and temple records so that more credibility adheres to their contents. There is no consensus, however, about the time of the final editing of the historical books. Some argue for the late exilic period