What Did the Biblical Writers Know
and When Did They Know It?

Author: William G. Dever

William G. Dever is the son of a fundamentalist preacher. From a small Christian liberal arts college in Tennessee he went to a Protestant theological seminary that exposed him to "critical study" of the Bible, a study that at first he resisted. In 1960 it was on to Harvard and a doctorate in biblical theology. For thirty-five years he worked as an archaeologist, excavating in the Near East, and he is now professor of Near Eastern archaeology and anthropology at the University of Arizona. In his book What Did the Bible Writers Know and When Did They Know It he tells where scholarship regarding archaeology and the Bible has been in past decades and where it is now.

William Dever criticizes those archaeologists called revisionists, among them the celebrated Israel Finkelstein. He faults them for dismissing entirely the Bible as a source of what happened in biblical times. He writes:

I could easily write a 1000-page, richly documented history of an 'ancient Israel' in the Iron Age and early Persian period. None of the revisionists, working with their methodology and data, could produce more than a handful of pages. That is why I say that they are, practically speaking, nihilists.

Dever associates himself with what he calls the new archaeology, something more than thirty-years old and devoted to good field work, use of the latest and most reliable dating methods and interdisciplinary analysis. His conclusions about what this archaeology tells us about the Bible will not be accepted by fundamentalists. I gather that Dever and his colleagues of high standing dismiss fundamentalists who want to consider themselves scholars without accepting that which good scholars must do: engage in extensive critical analysis.

Dever writes that the central proposition of his book is very simple. "While the Hebrew Bible in its present, heavily edited form cannot be taken at face value as history in the modern sense, it nevertheless contains much history." He adds: "After a century of exhaustive investigation, all respectable archaeologists have given up hope of recovering any context that would make Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob credible 'historical figures.'" He writes of archaeological investigation of Moses and the Exodus as having been "discarded as a fruitless pursuit." He is not saying that he believes that the biblical Moses never existed. He is talking about what can be gathered from archaeological evidence.

About the historical Moses he writes:

…the overwhelming archaeological evidence today of largely indigenous origins for early Israel leaves no room for an exodus from Egypt or a 40-year pilgrimage through the Sinai wilderness. A Moses-like figure may have existed somewhere in southern Transjordan in the mid-late13th century B.C., where many scholars think the biblical traditions concerning the god Yahweh arose. But archaeology can do nothing to confirm such a figure as a historical personage, much less prove that he was the founder of later Israelite region.

About Leviticus and Numbers he writes that these are "clearly additions to the 'pre-history' by very late Priestly editorial hands, preoccupied with notions of ritual purity, themes of the 'promised land,' and other literary motifs that most modern readers will scarcely find edifying much less historical." Dever writes that "the whole 'Exodus-Conquest' cycle of stories must now be set aside as largely mythical, but in the proper sense of the term 'myth': perhaps 'historical fiction,' but tales told primarily to validate religious beliefs."

What Did the Bible Writers Know and When Did They Know It is not easy reading. But Dever recommends an anthology by the Biblical Archaeology Society, published by Prentice Hall titled Ancient Israel, edited by Hershel Shanks – a book that is very readable.

Those testifying for Dever's book (on the back cover) are: Paul D. Hanson, Professor of Divinity and Old Testament at Harvard University; David Noel Freedman, Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at the University of Michigan; Philip M. King, Professor at Boston College and author of Jeremiah; William W. Hallo, Professor of Assyriology and Babylonian Literature at Yale University; and Bernhard W. Anderson, Professor of Old Testament, Boston University and Professor Emeritus at Princeton Theological Seminary. Like Dever, these are not a bunch of radical revisionists.