Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Bible Unearthed / Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman -- NY: Simon and Schuster, 2002

In the 19th century, archaeologists began a concerted effort to uncover the remains of biblical places and events, and in the course of about 100 years, evidence began mounting to corroborate the historical accuracy of the Bible. Modern archaeological techniques have, however, cast doubt on these conclusions. A leading figure challenging the historicity of the Bible is Israel Finkelstein. His book The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origins of Its Sacred Texts is a persuasive summary of his main arguments. With his co-author Neil Asher Silberman, Finkelstein effective separates fact from legend regarding the patriarchs, the Exodus, Joshua's conquest of Canaan, the golden age of David and Solomon, and the subsequent history of Israel and Judah.

The argument against believing that the biblical stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob refer to historical individuals is based on numerous anachronisms. It was commonly thought that the patriarchs lived in the early second millennium B.C.E. However, camels -- a common pack animal in the stories -- were not domesticated until later in that millennium and were not commonly used in caravans until the first millennium B.C.E. Gum, balm, and myrrh were the common items of trade with the Arab world in the eighth and seventh centuries B.C.E. Isaac's encounter with the Philistines is particularly problematic in that the Philistines did not arrive in Canaan until after 1200 B.C.E., and the stories suggest that the Philistine city of Gerar was of some significance, but it did not become eminent until the late eighth century B.C.E. A conservative reading of the evidence would indicate that the patriarchs might have existed, but that the stories about them were not finalized until the seventh century and that much of what is said about them cannot be true. More likely, they were legendary figures in the mold of the Greek heroes of the Iliad.

Finkelstein points out that there is no evidence that the Hebrews ever lived in Egypt. Given the huge amount of historical evidence from the period of the Exodus, it is easy to accept that the lack of reference to the Hebrews means that the stories of in Exodus are purely legendary.

Some of the best analyses in The Bible Unearthed refute the invasion of Canaan by Joshua. Early evidence suggested a number of cities that might have been destroyed by Joshua, but Finkelstein demonstrates that the destruction layers could not be of the time purported to Joshua. Furthermore, settlement patterns and material remains indicate that the Israeli population in the highlands of Judea and Samaria were a natural development from a mixed population of farmers and herders that regularly moved between the lowlands valleys and the hills.

Finkelstien does not, however, understand the monarchies of David and Solomon as purely legendary, but the archaeological evidence that Finkelstein presents makes them out to be minor chieftains of a marginal hill people. Evidence would suggest that the first great Israelite Kingdom began with the Omri dynasty, which flourished not in Judea, but in the north during the 9th century.

Examining the archaeological remains and comparing it with the Bible would indicate that the Pentatuch and the Deuteronomistic histories (Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings) were largely composed (or at least substantially completed) in the seventh century during the reign of Josiah in Judah. Josiah's reign followed the collapse of Samarian Israel and was strengthened by a large influx of Israeli refugees. The strict "Yahweh-Alone" movement that characterized Josiah's time would have greatly benefited from a sweeping national epic that delegitimized all political and religious tendency that were not faithful to Yahweh and centered on the temple in Jerusalem.

The strength of The Bible Unearthed lies in its methodology. Instead of starting with the biblical texts and seeking archaeological support those texts, Finkelstien begins with the facts on (or in) the ground and compares the biblical text to these. What does not conform to the facts then must be reinterpreted. As iconoclastic as the arguments seem to be, they have come to be the orthodoxy among biblical archaeologists and provide a fascinating new story of the history that has been central to the Middle Eastern and European world views for millennia.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Constitutional and Political History of the United States, Vol. 1 / Hermann von Holst -- Chicago: Callaghan and Co., 1889

Von Holst describes his eight volume work The Constitutional and Political History of the United States as the work of a lifetime and after reading volume one and volume seven, I can say that it was a worthwhile life. The first volume, entitled State Sovereignty and Slavery traces the political currents of the period 1750-1833. Von Holst makes two clear and strong arguments. First, the fundamental constitutional question of the time was state sovereignty and second, either explicitly or implicitly, the status of slavery animated the dispute between federalists and states rights advocates. There is, however, a third mostly subtextual argument: specific political commitments usually trumped commitments to constitutional principles.

The volume begins by describing attitudes toward government and national identity in the colonial period through the period governed by the Articles of Confederation. The inadequacies of the Articles of Confederation led to the Constitutional Convention that resulted in the adoption of the Constitution. Von Holst's description of the negotiations leading to adoption is compelling.

The great bulk of the book, however, traces the political conflicts that strained the bonds of union. The imposition of a tax on wiskey led to threats of rebellion in Western Pennsylvania, which was suppressed by resolute proclamations from President Washington and a lessening of the tax. Later, in the wake of Genet's mission to the U.S., the "XYZ Affair," and the Alien and Sedition Laws during the Adams administration, Madison and Jefferson drafted the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, proclaiming the authority of the states to "interpose" (Madison) themselves between the federal government and the state or to "nullify" (Jefferson) federal laws. These resolutions served as the cornerstones for future secessionist arguments.

Seccessionist arguments came, however, from the federalists as well. During Jefferson's administration, the embargo against England rankled Northeastern commercial interests so much that talk of succession arose there. Jefferson needed to insist on the authority of the federal government to maintain the embargo against federalist objections. Later, during the War of 1812, anti-war sentiment rose so high in New England that Rhodes Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut sent delegates to a convention in Hartford to discuss seccession. The report of the convention asserted the value of establishing a separate league of states for self protection and implicitly recognized the right of secession.

Von Holst's treatment of the period following the War of 1812 tends to be more political than constitutional. In particular, he examines the disputes over slavery, in particular the extension of slavery to Florida, the Alabama territory, and the territory of the Louisiana purchase. However, his analysis inevitably returns to assertions of the right of states to secede and these assertions invariably come from those states that appear to be losing the battle for or against slavery.

Perhaps the greatest threat to the union prior to the Civil War came during Jackson's administration. Though ostensibly a states rights Democrat, Jackson opposed South Carolina's attempt to nullify the federal tarrif. Holst presents this conflict compellingly. The result was a political win-win which solved nothing. South Carolina insisted upon the right to nullify federal law, Jackson declared that federal troops would enforce federal law, and the tarrif that was the source of the conflict was reduced to a level that South Carolina could accept. Consequently, neither side needed to assert its claim in practice.

The tarrif nullification crisis demonstrated that federalists and states rights advocates were willing to use consitutional principles to assert their political agendas, but that in the end, a political compromise was always better than pushing the issue to civil war -- that is, of course, until 1861.

What is most clearly revealed in this volume is how tenuous the bonds of union were in the first decades of the nation's history. One is left with the impression that the bulk of opinion, among all parties, was that the federal government had no right to compell states to remain in the union, but that presidents appealed to the minority opinion in favor of federal supremacy to further their objectives. All that kept the union intact were political compromises sufficient to stay rebellion.