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What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It?

What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It? [1] is a book by biblical scholar and archaeologist William G. Dever detailing his response to the claims of minimalists to the historicity and value of the Hebrew Bible.


Dever's book is a response to recent trends in biblical scholarship and biblical archaeology which question whether the bible can be used as a reliable tool for interpreting history.

The book begins with Dever's explanation of the "minimalist" position, which holds that the bible is a product of the Persian or even Hellenistic periods, composed at the very earliest after c. 500 BC, and therefore unreliable as a record of earlier periods. The minimalists do not deny that the biblical books are based on genuinely old material, but they view the task of extracting that material from layers of revision and accretion is virtually unachievable. At the other extreme are the "maximalists" who take the bible at, or almost entirely at, face value. In his first two chapters Dever reviews and rejects both minimalism and maximalism. Dever nevertheless evidently regards the minimalist position as more dangerous than the maximalist, because it tends to eliminate altogether any study of ancient Israel prior to the Persian period.

Dever then turns to Syrio-Palestinian archaeology, as the former discipline of biblical archaeology is now known, and reviews material discoveries to demonstrate that they can in fact be linked to the biblical narrative. The central chapters therefore offer a detailed discussion of the major archaeological discoveries of the twentieth century and relate them to the Deuteronomistic History (Joshua-2 Kings), "correlat[ing] text and artifact to demonstrate that significant material in the narrative plausibly derives from Iron Age II (ca. 1000-600 BCE) and not from later periods."[2]

Dever makes clear that he positions himself in the middle ground between minimalists such as Thomas L. Thompson (with whom Dever has had a long running and acrimonious public dispute) on the one hand, and maximalists on the other. "While the Hebrew Bible in its present, heavily edited form cannot be taken at face value as history in the modern sense, it nevertheless contains much history." For Dever, this historical core is concentrated in the period from David onwards; the Torah and the period of the conquest of Canaan he regards as essentially mythical. The final chapter sums up the argument of the book, stating that there was an ancient Israel, that the bible was written from a genuine historical core, and that archaeology can identify this core and prevent Israel from being "written out of history".[3]

Reception and reviewsEdit

The book received mixed reviews. Conservative scholars commended Dever for his critique on minimalism but were disappointed by his failure to defend the historicity of the bible prior to the age of David and Solomon. Others chided his inability to distance himself from his obsessions:

"[Dever's] agendas are that (a) a coordinated team of 'minimalists'/'revisionist' biblical historians are conspiring to deny the existence of ancient Israel (and even of historical 'facts' at all!); (b) Dever has been, and remains, the guardian of truth in matters archaeological; and (c) archaeology can confirm the reliability of Biblical history. The first two of these issues obscure the central thesis."[4]

The archaeological journals were frequently the most scathing, noting his dismissal of contrary evidence without argument and his failure to engage with detail as against wider cultural context:

"If Dever’s attempts to link narrative biblical history and archaeology represent mainstream thinking (as he claims), then the field is indeed in deep trouble. It is the kind of blind acceptance of traditional (unsubstantiated) 'synchronisms' espoused by Dever that has provided the very fuel for the minimalists’ criticisms. In short, Dever may prove to be his own worst enemy."[5]


  1. ^ William G. Dever, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, US/Cambridge, UK, 2001
  2. ^ John Barclay Brown (May 2002). "[Review". Biblical Theology Bulletin. 32: 107–108. doi:10.1177/014610790203200210.
  3. ^ William G. Dever (10 May 2001). What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It?: What Archeology Can Tell Us About the Reality of Ancient Israel. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. p. 298. ISBN 978-0-8028-2126-3.
  4. ^ Davies, Philip R. (2002). "What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It? What Archaeology Can Tell Us about the Reality of Ancient Israel [review]". Shofar. 21 (1): 158–160. ISSN 0882-8539.
  5. ^ Review by Peter James, Palestine Exploration Quarterly, 134, 2 (2002).