Journal of Palestine Studies XXVI, no. 2 (Winter 1997)


The Invention of Ancient Israel: The Silencing of Palestinian History, by Keith W. Whitelam. London and New York: Routledge, 1996. viii + 281 pages, including notes, index, and bibliography. $59.95 cloth.

Reviewed by Edward Fox


This book has caused something of a controversy within the field of biblical scholarship. Whitelam, a professor of religious studies at the University of Stirling in Scotland, argues in it that the related fields of biblical history and archaeology are hopelessly contaminated by theological and political bias and that by focusing on ancient Israel exclusively they serve the political interests of the modern state of Israel and support its continuing suppression of the Palestinians.

The author makes this case in the form of an unsubtle, monotonous polemic, whose argument is based on repetition and a deliberately simplified view of his evidence. Whitelam has joined the Arab-Israeli conflict explicitly on the side of the Palestinians, but it is questionable whether Palestinian interests are really served by partisanship of this kind. The conflict has already generated more than enough distorted and partisan scholarship.

Whitelam originally set out to write a Braudelian history of ancient Palestine that took into account the various societies and countries that existed within it, including ancient Israel, which would be treated as but one society among many. This book can be read as a memorandum Whitelam addresses to himself about the point of view this projected Braudelian history of ancient Palestine should take. It describes this point of view in the negative, by highlighting the errors he sees in biblical history. His starting point is the application of Edward Said's critique of Orientalism to the whole of biblical history, seeing it as a Eurocentric, imperialist "discourse."

The authors whose work he examines are all guilty of one thing, which makes for a severely limited analysis. Nineteenth-century biblical historians saw ancient Israel as something like a European nation-state as it might have been conceived by Bismarck, and they consequently ignored the region's other societies. Twentieth-century biblical historians have seen ancient Israel as something like the modern state of Israel. Both projected into their historiography their own Western versions of what they wanted to see, with negative consequences for the Palestinians, who are written out of history. Palestinians means everyone else in the region not covered by the term Israel, conflating the Canaanites with the modern Palestinians.

Biblical historians were motivated by faith and were interested in the Holy Land as the setting of the story of their own religions -- that is, Christianity and Judaism. They looked at Palestine through the medium of the Bible and made what they saw fit what they read. For example, Whitelam extensively quotes the work of W. F. Albright, who saw no contradiction between his own religious faith and the scientific results of his archaeological work: Of all the world's regions, only in the Holy Land were faith and reason still in harmony in the twentieth century. Albright's The Archaeology of Palestine, a standard work of biblical archaeology, published by Pelican in 1949, ends with this extraordinary tub-thumping sentence: "To one who believes in the historical mission of Palestine, its archaeology possesses a value which raises it far above the level of the artifacts with which it must constantly deal, into a region where history and theology share a common faith in the eternal realities of existence" (p. 256).

Biblical archaeology focuses on what is called in archaeological terms "the transition from Late Bronze Age II to Iron Age I," which is significant because it is here that biblical historians look for the origins of ancient Israel. Whitelam cites two pieces of extra-biblical evidence for the existence of ancient Israel -- the Tel Dan inscription,

which contains a reference to "the house of David," and the Mernepteh stele, which refers to "Israel." He argues that they tell us practically nothing and that they certainly are not proof of biblical narratives. Archaeology does provide evidence of "settlement shifts" in the area, which suggest the possible emergence of Israel among the vaguely defined societies of ancient Palestine, but they do not support the biblical narrative either. Whitelam sees the Bible as a mythical narrative, reflecting the political and religious concerns of Persian and Hellenistic periods periods many centuries later than the events it claims to record. Ancient Israel was, there fore, a sort of pilgrim's hallucination.

Whitelam's demolition of the religious basis of biblical history fits into his political scheme, and it is subsidiary to it; this is unfortunate because it is the strongest theme in the book, wresting the history of ancient Palestine from the theologians' grip; otherwise, the reader must approach this book with caution.