Dever, William G. What Did The Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It? Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001.
Aside from the seemingly odd and over-promising title, Dever’s book What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It? is an important contribution to the issue of OT archaeology and its recent trends in scholarship. Although it is written at a lay-level, some readers will find this book challenging to get through, especially since the material covered is dense and unfamiliar.
Dever has a two-fold goal in this book, one polemical and the other persuasive: (1) to counter the revisionist school of interpretation and (2) to offer a positive presentation of Palestinian archaeology. While Dever describes himself as neither an theist or atheist, he nonetheless seeks to defend the historicity of OT Israel as it unfolds on the pages of the Hebrew Scriptures, arguing against modern revisionist critics who have maintained that the early history of Israel as a nation is merely a “social construct.” In chapter one Dever examines the Bible’s presentation of itself as history, literature, and theology.
One of the most helpful discussions comes in chapter three as Dever examines what archaeology is (and isn’t) and how it should dialogue with biblical studies. Often archaeological findings are set over and against the biblical data as if it were a more objective and clear guide. But as Dever notes, archeology itself is in need of interpretation. Historically, archaeology was viewed as a sub-discipline of biblical studies rather than as a fully autonomous historical discipline. Instead, he suggests archaeology and the biblical texts should be in dialogue with one another, allowing room for what calls “convergences” (91).
The next two chapters constitute the bulk of the book. In chapter 4 Dever unpacks the period of Israelite origins and the rise of the modern Israelite state, while in chapter 5 he describes “daily life” in the period of the Divided Monarchy. In each of these instances, there is a vast amount of “convergences” between the biblical data and archeological finds thus giving a probable reason for one to assume that either the biblical writers had access to reliable historical memories or reliable historical texts.
In the final chapter entitled “What Is Left of the History of Ancient Israel, and Why Should It Matter to Anyone Anymore?” Dever recapitulates what he covered in the introductory chapters on the Enlightenment and the impact of Postmodernism. He then seeks to present a historical core of the OT and argues against any Hellenistic background to the writing of the OT. Interestingly, he draws up a dichotomy between historical and theological questions.
There is much to commend in this book. For one, there is a clear affirmation and convincing presentation that archeology has served as a handmaiden of biblical studies. While in one sense independent from the OT, archeological finds can serve to further elucidate a text and its meaning. Another helpful contribution in this book is the survey of thought, especially on the impact of postmodern thought and categories on recent scholarship. Sadly, there has been a complete reversal in recent years and it is the Revisionist school which Dever so ably refutes.
That said, there is a polemical tone in this volume which I found off-putting, however much warranted. For example, in the concluding chapter Dever says of the revisionists:
[They] are demagogues. Their agenda, if it could be carried out, would in my opinion see not the advent of a secular Utopian “Brave New World” but rather of anarchy, chaos, and ultimately those conditions of despair that have often historically led to Fascism. That is why I abhor revisionism in all forms. (291)
While sympathetic to his concerns, I would perhaps make the criticisms more about the views than the persons voicing them. It is an easy temptation in life, whether in the school playground or in the scholarly guild, to take differing views as personal affronts or slights. Sadly, Dever at times easily slides into this over-reaching polemical mode. I think it would have served his overall argument to concentrate his points on the revisionists’ arguments.
While helpful to recognize the autonomous nature of archaeology, as a Christian I come to the biblical texts with an a priori commitment to the text’s historicity and integrity. This is no modern imposition but an honest recognition of the OT’s self-witness and the church’s historic understanding of the Bible as God’s self-revelation that is true in all historic matters, not just those of faith. Dever unfortunately is content with drawing a separation, however brief, of archaeology and the biblical text, as if they were on par with one another. There is no doubt an interplay here, but it is better in my opinion to see the OT as a reliable historical witness, and when archaeological findings do not immediately support certain details, then realize the fluid nature of archaeology. No doubt in stating this there is a danger of blind naïveté when a better explanation would be that we’re reading the text wrongly. But as a whole, we do the OT witness justice when we read the Bible with a Christian predisposition to take it as it is: the Word of God.
This contribution by a scholar is a gift to the church. Dever’s seasoned understanding of OT archaeology and recent trends in scholarship are of great use to those both in the academic guild and in the church pew. Admittedly, the book is more geared for scholars, although an informed layman will profit much from it. The overly polemic tone, while off-putting at first glance, can be tolerated since it demonstrates a man who cares deeply about these matters and believes the trickle-down effects of certain views reach out and do greater harm. This is a wonderful contribution to one of the most important discussions currently taking place in OT scholarship. One can be grateful for this clear and prophetic voice.