The Old Testament in Archaeology and History

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Jennie Ebeling, J. Edward Wright, Mark Elliott, Paul V. M. Flesher
  • Waco, TX: 
    Baylor University Press
    , October
     686 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Partially in response to long stated wishes by archaeological luminaries such as William Dever, this new volume fulfills a widely recognized need for a primarily archaeological and historically based introduction to the Old Testament. The editors assembled a group of eighteen contributors that includes conservative, moderate, and highly skeptical approaches regarding many historical issues. The list of authors includes some easily recognizable scholars, but they are not always writing in their focused area of expertise. Other contributions, while offered by authors less well known in the archaeological community, are equally welcomed. The editors divide the book into five parts. Part 1, “Archaeology, the Bible, and Epigraphy” deals with introductory topics and sets the stage for the historically based sections that follow. Gary Arbino introduces Near Eastern geography and archaeology. Mark Elliott and Paul Flesher summarize the general content and historical character of the Old Testament in a fine essay that successfully recounts the ongoing quest to determine the historicity of the biblical texts. The authors rightly conclude that the assembled data for early biblical history remains “ambiguous.” In other words, scholars and laypeople alike can choose to view the glass of evidence as either half empty or half full. Victor Matthews and Rachel Hallote chronicle the rediscovery of the Holy Land and the rise of the term “biblical archaeology” during the nineteenth century, followed by William Dever’s critique of this well used moniker. Dever restates some previously published declarations, noting that archaeology provides the only source of genuinely new information to complement and interpret the biblical narrative. While archaeology provides the potential to answer contextual questions (what, where, when, how and sometimes who), Dever correctly concedes that discoveries in the field cannot offer firm conclusions about interpretive or faith questions. Part 2, “Israel before the Settling in the Land” covers Bronze Age Canaan (K.L. Noll and Jill Baker), ancestral traditions in Genesis (Elliott and J. Edward Wright), as well as the Egyptian sojourn (Wright, Elliott, and Flesher). Part 3, “Israel Settles in the Land of Canaan” offers three essays that in turn cover the archaeological data (J.P. Dessel), biblical texts (Flesher), and the Philistines (Ann E. Killebrew). The six chapters of Part 4, “The Kingdoms of the People Israel” treat the United Monarchy (Baruch Halpern), Israel (Randall Younker), Judah (Aren Maeir), daily life (Jennie Ebeling), Assyrian domination (Wright and Elliott), and the religions of the Levant (Richard Hess). Halpern’s historical treatment of David and Solomon, heavily supplemented with archaeological data, is largely supportive of the biblical record. Halpern argues that these sources include contemporary material, which accurately reveal the geo-political environment of the tenth century BCE, such as David’s intentions to ally the various peoples and nomadic groups throughout the Negeb in order to control the lucrative trade routes. Halpern also detects clear evidence of state formation behind the use of a similar script, closely related pottery assemblages, as well as strategically placed border forts in the Shephelah. Younker’s summary of the northern kingdom includes a suggestion that Shishak launched two raids into the southern Levant; the first strike against Israel in 931 BCE and the second aimed at Judah five years later. His argument that Hazael approved of, if not orchestrated Mesha’s expansion north into the Madaba Plains, which Halpern raised earlier, seems to fit well within the geo-politics of the ninth century BCE. Maeir’s discussion of Judah is a carefully worded and authoritative survey of the relevant epigraphic and archaeological evidence that provides a critical, but cautiously supportive evaluation indicating that the “general framework of the Judahite Kingdom as reflected in the biblical narrative can be corroborated using (these) other sources” (392). Maeir’s essay is easily one of the best in the book and admirably displays the appropriate way to correlate biblical and archaeological sources, fulfilling Dever’s oft cited wish for an archaeologically based history of Israel/Judah. For example, Maeir rightly identifies the late Iron IIA site of Kuntillet ‘Ajrud as a caravanserai, which follows earlier refutations by Rainey and Schniedewind of the erroneous “religious site” theory some scholars follow. Similarly, his recognition that Jerusalem’s growth during Iron IIA-B resulted not from a sudden influx of Israelite refugees from the north, but rather due to gradual expansion is nearly foundational for understanding the nascent kingdom of Judah during from the tenth to the early eighth centuries BCE (following Barkay). Part 5, “Judah as a Province” has two chapters related to the Babylonian and Persian Periods. Bob Becking discusses Judah’s destruction and the exile to Babylonia, challenging readers to rethink old (and a few not so old) interpretations of events surrounding the exilic and early post-exilic period. Finally, Charles Isbell writes on life in the Persian province of Yehud. In addition to a helpful list of suggested reading sources presented as short annotated bibliographies at the end of each chapter, a glossary, a time (and space) saving general bibliography, as well as gazetteer and indexes complete the book.

This volume will undoubtedly be a popular supplementary text for Old Testament/Hebrew Bible introduction courses for undergraduate and seminary level students. All of us actively involved in teaching courses in Old Testament/Hebrew Bible and giblical archaeology should express our appreciation to the editors for providing this timely book. This volume will undoubtedly bolster public and student interest in and support for this exciting research field that combines biblical studies and ancient Near Eastern history with carefully evaluated and properly interpreted material-cultural data recovered from excavations in the field. The sustained outlook for this scientific endeavor looks bright indeed.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jeffrey P. Hudon is Staff Research Associate and Adjunct Professor at Andrews University and Administrative Director at the Tall Hisban Cultural Heritage Project in Jordan.

Date of Review: 
March 28, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jennie Ebeling is Associate Professor of Archaeology at the University of Evansville.

Mark Elliott is Adjunct Professor of Judaic Studies at the University of Arizona.

J. Edward Wright is Professor of Hebrew Bible and Early Judaism at the University of Arizona.

Paul V. M. Flesher is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Wyoming.


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