Excavating the Bible:
New Archaeological Evidence for the Historical Reliability of Scripture

I first heard of this book through a review in 2014 in the pages of Biblical Archaeology Review. The title piqued my interest, but it wasn’t until a month or so ago that I actually acquired the book to read it. My overall take on the book is that it is a very impressive shot across the bow of the biblical minimalists. Though it has been several years since the book was first published, from what I can tell from my vantage point outside the field, most of the arguments the author presents still hold water today.

In Excavating the Bible, author Yitzhak Meitlis drives home the point that what is presented in archaeological publications is generally not raw, objective data, but rather interpretations of the data. As he writes, “Interpretation stems from a broad knowledge of the field and the experience of the interpreter…Certainty and uncertainty are often interwoven and defy attempts to unravel them.” He begins the book by showing that over the last few decades an assumption has settled into scholarly circles that the Bible offers little accurate historic information and that it is not reliable in any way when it speaks of history. This reminded me of an interview with Dr. Lawrence Stager back in 2010. Dr. Stager was discussing the problem of a younger generation of archaeologists who “either ignore Biblical material completely or don’t really have the facility or ability to deal with it.” He continued, “There are some archaeologists who don’t want to deal with the Bible at all, even though it contains the most important group of texts we have.”

Contrary to these critics, Meitlis argues that the Bible is overwhelmingly accurate when it speaks of historic matters, and sets about in this book to show that many of the arguments made against the biblical record do not rest firmly on data but rather depend on a particular interpretation of the data. Meitlis offers his own interpretations that he believes better fit the facts and also line up with the Bible.

He continues in the next chapter by offering an in-depth geographic survey of the Judean hill country. This is key to his overall argument in the book, as he believes that the Intermediate Bronze Age lasted longer in the Judean hill country than in the plains and coastal regions and that the Iron Age began earlier there while the lowlands were still in the Late Bronze Age. Further he argues that settlements in different areas of the Judean hills developed at different times due to geography and population.

After a review of past studies and excavations in the relevant areas, he begins his study of the Bible, and the main goal of his arguments for differing cultural developments in different regions becomes apparent. He argues that the archaeological findings in the Judean hills for the time of the patriarchs fit the Biblical data very closely despite the argument of many secular academics that the descriptions in Genesis seem to fit more closely with the Iron Age than the Middle Bronze Age. He argues that evidence of intermingling between a widespread nomadic culture and a more settled culture of towns and rulers only exists during the Middle Bronze Age, the age of the patriarchs, which is pictured in the Bible as a time of just such mingling. He argues that the widespread literacy of later Jewish eras contrasts sharply with the limited evidence of writing in the time of the patriarchs, suggested that at the time writing was restricted to a small group of professional scribes. This too fits what we know from archaeological excavation of Middle Bronze Age sites.Many archaeologists discredit the idea of the nomadic patriarchs playing a large role in the region during their purported time as

The next section of the book deals with the conquest of the land. He shows that archaeological evidence suggests that the Iron Age began in the Judean hill country sooner than it did in the western areas of Israel, and that a new culture apparently penetrated the land from the east during the 14th century BC. This, of course, fits not only with the Biblical picture of the conquest but also with the biblical date for the conquest, the early 14th century rather than early 12th century as many scholars prefer.

He then turns to the period of Israelite monarchy and in great detail describes the archaeological record of various sites throughout the northern and southern portions of Israel, reconstructing what we can learn of the political situation from these finds. The most interesting information in this part of the book for me was his lengthy discussion of how population estimates are customarily arrived at and how he believes this process should be altered to account for the presence of nomadic groups and undiscovered towns and villages outside the major cities. His arguments for a different method for the calculation are extremely persuasive, and his population estimates are far larger than those of his colleagues and more in line with the numbers given in the Bible.

Finally he ends with a chapter on excavations and findings in Israel and how they relate to the thesis of his book. This section is dense and data-focused. For those readers who have already been convinced of the thesis of the book and who aren’t interested in the heavy lifting, this section could probably be skipped. However, if you skip this section you are missing out on some fascinating information. In particular, his discussion of settlement patterns and what they can tell us about the system of government in a region and the relationships between settlements and the nearest cities presents a compelling argument for the idea that Jerusalem has long been an important city in the region, earlier than many archaeologists have believed. It is in this section, likewise, that he goes into detail about the contradictions between Egyptian sources, Babylonian sources, and excavation data from the 15th century BC. In the many years I’ve been following archaeology as an interest, I had never actually heard these discrepancies so clearly pointed out, let alone discussed in detail. It is here that Meitlis offers one of his most radical propositions in the book, that currently accepted chronology for the area be shifted about 90 years bringing it in line with both the Bible and the archaeological data.

Though Meitlis writes with great clarity, this book is not written at a popular level or for a popular audience. For one thing, the book was originally written in Hebrew, and in the English interpretation many of the place names retain their Hebrew form rather than the forms English readers are more used to: Bet-El for Bethel, Hatzor for Hazor, Be’er-Sheva for Beersheba, Menashe for Manasseh, and so on. This is something you get used to quickly as you’re reading. Secondly, to read this book is to push through a dense forest of information and footnotes: surface survey results, pottery studies, burials, dwelling structures, settlement distribution, population statistics. It’s easy to become overwhelmed with the sheer volume of data Meitlis utilizes to come to his conclusions. It would be easy to breeze through this book picking out the main points, but a slow reading with attention to detail is helpful for seeing the full force of the author’s arguments.

Finally, if you’re interested in reading this book, and I highly recommend that you do, you might find it helpful to read the rather negative review published in BAR magazine by Itzhaq Shai. Follow this up by reading Yitzhak Meitlis’s response and you should have a good framework for the book before you ever pick it up, which in turn should help you in keeping the major points in mind while you read.