Category Archives: Review

Steiner Jerusalem III

I just got a copy, fortunately at quite a discount, of M. L. Steiner’s Excavations by Kathleen M. Kenyon in Jerusalem 1961-1967, Volume III (Copenhagen International Series, 9. New York: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001). I’m quite disappointed with it. Firstly, it’s a measly xvi+158 pages [at full price that’s roughly $1/page], which breaks down into widely spaced front matter, only 116 pages of text, a first appendix with is a 1.5 line-spaced “complete survey” of objects, and the odd second appendix which is a discourse on how long it would take to have built the MB II wall (by “Dr. Ir. Diny Boas-Vedder” — why is this here?), and the whopping five page bibliography. No index of course.

The book is an attempt at providing a synthesis of Kenyon’s findings, which were left in complete disarray, as Steiner notes (p. 2):

The documentation of the excavations was of varying quality. Some field notebooks could not be used because the location of the excavated layers was not noted while Kenyon’s own notes were largely undecipherable. On many section drawings deposit numbers and levels were missing, and on some plans the arrow defining orientation pointed to the south. Apart from such slovenliness there are more fundamental erros [sic, delightfully]. In most cases Kenyon herself drew the main sections, but she often did so only at the end of the season, when the square supervisors had already left. As a result the connection between her drawings and the data in the field notebooks was lacking. In some cases, the supervisor classified something as ‘rubble,’ whereas Kenyon plotted a series of floors. The main plans were all drawn at the end of the season by a surveyor, who plotted every stone present, without having any notion if these had been part of walls or just rubble. Needless to say, there are no deposit numbers on these plans.

Okay! Well, so much for the reputation of Kenyon as meticulous. This only confirms, in spades, what I’d heard of her methods elsewhere, the hushed whispers of “shoddy work.” Yet, she was so formidable that criticism was discouraged. So, what Steiner has here to work with is a bunch of non-data, the control over which is lost. If anything, this should all be a lesson to archaeologists everywhere: publish, or die and have everyone find out how wretched your methods really were.

Steiner also belongs to the camp of the “no Amarna age Jerusalem” which instantly made me realize I’d just wasted the money I did spend on this farrago. While she claims to be aimining for a synthesis of the Kenyon (non-)data with that from other earlier and later published excavations, such synthesis is cursory, more on the level of summary. In the entire book there is only one full plan of the City of David area, which doesn’t show all the requisite sites of Macalister, Shiloh, and other excavations mentioned in the text. Reich’s discoveries around the Gihon Spring, which reveal the city defenses around the spring and indicate the presence of a city wall upslope, are ignored (probably because they contradict her insistence on an unwalled city in the Late Bronze Age). Perhaps the most annoying aspect of this “synthesis” is the drawing of sweepingly dogmatic conclusions from the Non-Data of Slovenliness.

My recommendation: save your money. I have no confidence in either the presentation of the insufficiently detailed, indeed shockingly inadequate primary data, nor in any set of conclusions based upon such, especially when such conclusions contradict those of others, based on solid data.

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In Search of Pre-Exilic Israel

I’ve just finished reading In Search of Pre-Exilic Israel, edited by John Day. For a fine-grained review of the book with summaries of the articles, see Joe Cathey’s review at RBL. These are just a few comments from off the top of my head.

Firstly, I have to admit that I was just a tad, a tiny little bit, disappointed by this book. Perhaps I was, entirely unrealistically I admit, expecting a bit more consistency than I should expect from a series of reworked papers originally delivered in a conference. This is a subject that really should be dealt with in detail, and which would benefit from the kind of consistency in approach that is really only possible in a work written by one author. That evenness of approach is lacking here, but, of course, is only to be expected due to the origins of the papers. If one of the authors of the works contained herein were to write such a book, based on the performances contained in this one, I would nominate, second, and inaugurate John Day for the duty.

In any case, I did find several of the chapters/papers to be especially outstanding in content as well as presentation: those of Ernest Nicholson “Current ‘Revisionism’ and the Literature of the Old Testament”, John Day “How Many Pre-Exilic Psalms are there?”, and W. G. Lambert “Mesopotamian Sources and Pre-Exilic Israel.” Day’s chapter is the prize of the book, I think. It is succint, well-argued, and, perhaps most importantly, not overburdened by too much unnecessary recapitulation of the secondary literature, a common problem in this book. Others that stand out in the Not-As-Stellar-But-Still-Pretty-Nifty Category were Graham Davies “Was there an Exodus?”, William Dever “Histories and Non-Histories of Ancient Israel: the Question of the United Monarchy”, and Katherine Dell “How much Wisdom Literature has its Roots in the Pre-Exilic Period?”

And then there are the rest of the articles, of which I only want to deal with a few in any detail. André Lemaire “Hebrew and West Semitic Inscriptions and Pre-Exilic Israel” suffers from the inclusion of non-provenanced materials from the antiquities market as “evidence.” That’s just tacky. Terry Fenton “Hebrew Poetic Structure as a Basis for Dating” suffers from a non-poet’s approach to poetry: fit the material into the appropriate pattern, everything else is extraneous. B. A. Mastin “Yahweh’s Asherah, Inclusive Monotheism and the Question of Dating” suffers from trying to avoid the explicit connotation in the pronominal suffix attached to Asherah in the Kuntillet `Ajrud and Khirbet el-Qom marking it as a noun, not a name. Gary Knoppers “In Search of Post-Exilic Israel: Samaria After the Fall of the Northern Kingdom” is a mixed bag, describing the mass depopulation of most of the northern kingdom, but somehow also trying to ameliorate it for some unknown and unstated reason. Perhaps most egregiously, Bernard Levinson “Is the Covenant Code an Exilic Composition? A Response to John van Seters” takes 54 pages to say “no”. I suppose it’s rather a pet peeve of mine that we are on occasion subjected to the odious original of a thing and then recapitulation of it ad nauseam whenever a response addresses it. Once is enough!

Overall however, the volume is certainly valuable, and I’m glad I’ve read it. I’ve found much of it to be of value, though definitely not as much as I expected. I recommend it to anyone interested or involved in the “maximalist” versus “minimalist” controversy. This book weighs in, a welterweight, in the maximalist corner.

A consistent drawback I’ve noticed shared by this volume with others is that unusual theories, in this case of extraordinarily, unrealistically late datings of the biblical texts, are given validation by interaction, even by refutation. Stupid ideas stupidly posed should rather be ignored. Has anyone taken the time to write a refutation of Velikovsky’s fantasies? Why should some of these other equally unlikely peculiarities be priveleged with response? It’s a waste of preciously valuable time, and original, creative research is thereby left undone because of this dead-ending of attention on second-rate foolishness. It would be refreshing to see the main tendency in biblical studies in general return to study of the primary texts involved, that is, the actual biblical books, rather than an absurd fascination with secondary/tertiary/quaternary texts. The two are not to be equated.

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Walking the Bible

I’m pleasantly surprised to find myself enjoying PBS’s Walking the Bible. Rather than the typical assortment of discordantly talking heads paired with sonorous narrative and anachronistic dramatizations or stock footage, host Bruce Feiler (author of a book also named Walking the Bible and some others) is producing here a new kind of first person biblical travelogue, and it is entirely refreshing. There are gems here: from Turkey’s Mount Ararat, where a tight-lipped Kurdish mountain guide refuses to divulge the secrets of the mountain, to a leisurely row across Egypt’s Lake Timsah in a boat whose fisherman explains that they call a certain fish “the Moses fish” because, when the waters of the sea were split, the fish were split and so on one side they are grey and one side white. Delightful!

Feiler is a fine host, peppering the program with biblical readings and not uninformed scholarly explanations and conjectures, yet still giving the upper hand to the story in its relation to faith. Such an approach is perfectly in keeping with the goals of this blog and its companion email list. So, I recommend to folks that they catch it on their local PBS station, or if you’re outside of the US, purchase the DVD (available here). Either way, it’s informative, fun, and commercial free! And while it appears that there are only three episodes, the overall quality is quite enough to compensate for the lack of quantity.

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Wiesehöfer’s Ancient Persia

In his Translator’s Preface to Pierre Briant’s From Cyrus to Alexander: A History of the Persian Empire (Eisenbrauns, 2002), Peter Daniels writes:

After not too many pages, the reader will discover that this is not a connected narrative history of the Persian Empire. Moreover, the reader is expected to be familiar with the narrative sequence of Achaemenid history, with the career of Alexander the Great, and with the entire Greek and Latin literature from which such histories have hitherto been drawn. The reader might find it useful to first turn to Joseph Wiesehöfer, Ancient Persia (English translation, 1996) 1-101, for an overview that is thematically and conceptually remarkably similar to this work, and to the Chronological Chart therein for the sequence of events, as far as they can be determined. Only then, I think, can this book (whose aim, superbly realized, is to show just how a historian must evaluate and extrapolate from the available sources) be used with profit.

So that sounds like Wiesehöfer’s volume might be rather useful, I thought something like a modern-day Olmstead’s History of the Persian Empire, with discussion of sources, etc. That’s what seemed to be implied by Daniels. But no. Daniels is right in that the book is thematically quite similar to Briant’s, but it is so similar and so brief that I simply didn’t find it useful. Aside from the sketchy chronological chart, there is no “connected narrative history of the Persian Empire” therein. I’m disappointed by that.

So, if anyone is thinking to purchase Josef Wiesehöfer’s volume Ancient Persia [note “…from 550 BC to 650 AD” is appended to the title only on the title page] (London: I. B. Tauris, 2004) in order to obtain a connected narrative presentation of Achaemenid history, don’t. If you want a brief overview of various disjointedly presented topics on Persian life from 550 BC to 650 AD, without all that fuss about kings and battles and all that “connected narrative of history” tosh, “bibliographical essays” instead of foot/endnotes, and some not very good b&w photographs, this is a book for you.

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