Customer Reviews: Ancient Israel: What Do We Know and How Do We Know It? (T&t Clark)
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on July 25, 2008
Lester Grabbe is not a household name in the Western hemisphere. However, in Europe, he is a highly respected scholar of Ancient Israel and Second Temple Judaism. He is a brilliant and disciplined historian and a noted textual critic. In the mid-nineteen nineties, he founded the European Seminar on Methodology in an attempt to foster academic consensus in this contentious area of scholarship. Under Grabbe's leadership, this Seminar has been very productive, and its work well received. And, by his own admission, it has failed to bring about the consensus that he sought. Members of the Seminar represent a variety of scholarly opinions from conservative to minimalist. Biblical literalists have chosen not to join this group, however, over time they have become less and less a factor in the academy. Commendably, Grabbe in this work considers all positions from those of William Albright in archaeology and John Bright in history to those of Niels P. Lemche and Thomas L. Thompson.

The book is arranged in three sections, an introduction to methodology, historical investigations, and a conclusion. Also, included is a massive bibliography heavily weighted to archaeological studies as well as three indexes which cover ancient sources, modern authors, and subjects. It should be noted that the author's working title for this project was "Prolegomena to a History of ancient Israel..." Therefore, this is but a prelude to the writing of a history of ancient Israel. This is a reference and analytical work covering all the currently known sources of information on the topic. Primary sources contemporary with the actual events are considered paramount followed in importance by secondary sources, such as the Bible, from antiquity, and then lastly modern scholarly works. However, any future scholar who might wish to disregard this work would do so at his own peril. The author's exposition of what we know at present coupled with his analysis of this material acts as a massive delimiter on any future history of ancient Israel barring new discoveries of primary and/or secondary sources.

Chapter one is a prolonged discussion of "Principles and Methods." This is primer on how history is done. It also discusses some of the particular problems facing the historian of ancient Israel including high versus low chronologies, forged artifacts, and ideology. On one hand, Grabbe finds very little common ground with the American schools of Biblical archaeology and Biblical history epitomized by Albright and Bright and their successors. But on the other hand, he is critical of the minimalists. And, he loathes the general lack of methodological rigor displayed in far too much of what passes for scholarly production coming out of religious studies programs and schools of theology. Furthermore, Grabbe especially decries the shallow imposition of social science methodologies and models on ancient history which is so prevalent in much of modern liberal scholarship.

The historical investigation section is divided by chronology into chapters and displays an evenhanded approach towards both the sources and previous scholarship. In short, Grabbe finds no verification of the patriarchal narratives, and that there may be some basis for the exodus story which is currently unknowable. The traditions of Saul, David, and Solomon have historical value but not in the form presented in the Old Testament, and there is no support in the sources for the unified monarchy or the Solomonic empire. It is only with the advent of the Omri dynasty in Israel around 850 BCE that our knowledge of some events becomes verifiable. Our knowledge of Judah based on the primary sources is even later and dates to the mid-eighth century BCE at the earliest. However, as one approaches 586 BCE the terminus of the history of ancient Israel, we know more and more about Judah. And, much of this can be cross referenced into the Biblical accounts with confidence. The synthesis section at the end of each chapter compliments the facts and the analysis preceding them. The conclusion is but a short synopsis of the synthesis materials. If you are anything but a most advanced scholar of the history of ancient Israel, I commend this book to your attention. There is much to learn here regardless of your theological predilections.
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on December 14, 2007
I found this to be an interesting book. Given that histories of ancient Israel have often been highly political works, it is good to see someone attempt to simply discuss what sort of evidence we have as a starting point. The result is a cautious book in which the author hesitates to speculate on the answers to some fundamental questions about the history of the region, but that's okay. After all, this book is not supposed to be a history of ancient Israel but a guide to the relevant evidence that one ought to consider were one to try to write such a history.

Only when we get to the reigns of Omri and Ahab are we on relatively solid ground about the names of the rulers and the rough timing of their rules. And Grabbe discusses at some length some of the major historical events described in the Old Testament and the extent to which they have been confirmed or refuted by other sources.

What about the existence of earlier kings, such as Saul, David, or Solomon? Did they exist at all? Did Israel exist back then? Even according to the cautious Grabbe, the best guess is that they did. We have the Merneptah Stele which appears to date from a little before 1200 BCE which refers to Israel. And while the Biblical accounts of the reigns of Saul, David, and Solomon may be very untrustworthy, it is reasonable to surmise that these rulers existed. I think it is certainly a more rational approach to make such a guess than reject it solely because one does or does not like monotheists, Jews, or the Israel of the twentieth century!

What happens when we go further back? After all, there is a question: where do the Ten Commandments and the tradition of celebrating Passover come from? Were they simply made up out of whole cloth on the spur of the moment by a single individual on the first day that we can prove they were written about? Here, Grabbe simply gives up and only explains that some of the wilder aspects of the Exodus story are not true! A really huge slave revolt did not happen when and where the story says. Nor did the miracles happen! But that is not the question, and Grabbe seems to miss this point. One question ought to be whether the Ten Commandments actually came from someone who had been in the Pharaoh's court in Egypt, and was said to never in fact have been in the land of Israel. Another might be whether the story of people having been slaves in Egypt had anything to do with the actual Hebrews of the Levant. No matter how skeptical one may be, one can not safely assume that Moses never existed, nor that the story of the Exodus had no connection whatsoever with reality. Grabbe does try to discuss evidence that the origin of the word Yahweh may date to the time of Moses, but this isn't the main question.

As a matter of fact, the stories about the Patriarchs suggest that there may have been an Abrahamic tradition among the Hebrew people followed by some sort of Mosaic tradition. Once again, being a total skeptic does not completely work: you can't be sure of getting the answer right just by saying that nothing about this has a connection to truth. Needless to say, the Patriarchs are far enough back so that Grabbe can't make much out of the stories about them. The best he can do is say that there's no serious evidence to show what time period these stories refer to. I can't blame him for that, but once again, he not only fails to answer the main question but also fails to seriously discuss it.

I'm a very skeptical person. But this book made me imagine having a discussion with someone whose study of Christian texts was limited to everything written since the very first Gutenberg Bible. What if that person said that Christianity was invented by Gutenberg, who wrote the whole Bible, invented the entire history of Israel as well as Jesus, and invented the existence of Jews and Christians as well? Grabbe does warn us that we can't just toss out evidence and that we need to consider all sources on their merits. But I would want to be very careful about coming up with hypotheses which are so cautious that they might look as preposterous as the one about Gutenberg inventing the entire story of Jews and Christians.

I think this book is pretty good, and I like the fact that the author is cautious rather than prone to wild speculation. As such, it puts some of the history of ancient Israel in a valuable perspective.
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on December 11, 2013
Ancient Israel: What Do We Know and How Do We Know It? by Lester Grabbe is an overview of archeological, ancient inscriptions, and in general, extra-biblical evidence for the events depicted in the Bible.

For years, Europeans took the bible as the inerrant word of God, as history in the largest and broadest sense. Beginning in the Age of Enlightenment, this view gradually eroded.

Advances in philology enabled scholars to see the bible as a patch-work of sorts, a book composed of many documents stitched together by some unknown redactor.

As a consequence, over the years, the historicity of the bible has been rolled back. Geology and evolution destroyed the notion of Adam, Eve, Eden. The pre-flood events in the bible were viewed simple folk stories. The patriarchs survived for a while, as did the exodus from Egypt, but eventually they succumbed to a lack of evidence. Without extra-biblical confirmation, events in the bible can’t be viewed as indicative of any verifiable historical event.

This brings us to Grabbe’s book. He gets us up to speed on all those elements. Taken simply on raw data, Israel, as an entity, can only be verified from evidence outside the bible. What we get is rather slim. Take the first outside reference to Israel in the the Merneptah Stele, about 1203 BCE. The next mention of Israel is of King Omri, who ruled the Northern Kingdom of Israel, often known as Samaria, in the Mesha Stele, set up around 840 BCE.

In those 363 years, there is no mention in external sources of a Kingdom of Judah, a united Kingdom of Israel and Judah, David and Solomon. Grabbe’s intent is clear: without extra-biblical support, it appears that Omri’s Kingdom of Israel-Samaria became a nation before Judah to the south. This is a complete turnaround from the biblical text!

Grabbe gives you this and more. He shows the reader that what can be proved as reasonably accurate in the biblical text, and what is conjecture or legend, is often miles apart.
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on July 5, 2016
Definitely a lot of interesting material in this book with great scholarly authority. But as "lay-person" I would have appreciated some maps to help guide me. And maybe some pictures---but I guess that was not the intent of the book. I am fairly knowledgeable about the Bible and the Holy Land but really missed seeing some maps. There was some listing of the Kings of Israel and Judah, but again, it was quite sketchy and seemingly the book is written for scholars who would know the material. I was impressed by how many other sources have been found and also by the many, many shortcomings of the Bible for accuracy.
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on September 16, 2015
Excellent read!!
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on April 15, 2010
I needed this book for a class and the school bookstore was all out and I found it on Amazon for a much better price and it got to me in only 3 days and I got a confirmation hours after I ordered it. The book itself looks brand new and has no markings or scratches or anything in or on it. I haven't read the whole thing yet, but so far, it's very informative about the ways of historically analyzing archaeology in ancient Israel. It's a little hard to understand at first and has a lot of dates and events that are very specific, but it's a really great book to work from with my class on ancient Israel.
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