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Review of Is the Bible True: How Modern Debates and Discoveries Affirm the Essence of the Scriptures, by Jeffrey L. Sheler. HarperSanFrancisco/Zondervan, 278 pp. $24.00.
In the last century or so, the field of biblical archaeology has attracted both a great deal of brilliant scholarship and a great deal of nonsense. One of Jeffery Sheler's accomplishments in this popular, chatty, yet reliable summary of the current state of knowledge is to sort out which is which.
Sheler is an unusual combination, a journalist who is not only a religious man-in his case, Christian-but one for whom journalism is also a way of serving God. "I am a journalist because as a Christian I am committed to the truth," Sheler has said, and for more than a decade, he has covered developments in his own and other faiths as the religion correspondent for U.S. News & World Report.
So it is not surprising that Sheler's mission in this book is to explain how current archaeological findings, far from disproving the Bible, tend to prove its truth. He places his prejudices up front: though he is no fundamentalist, he is a believer, and his reading of the text and of the consensus of contemporary thinking leads him to conclude that "the Bible emerges affirmed but not unscathed, a credible but complex chronicle of humanity's encounter with God." Note that he chose the word "essence" in the book title rather than opting for affirming every detail of the Scriptures.
Sheler writes in the same vein as Hershel Shanks, the contemporary Jewish popularizer of the Dead Sea Scrolls and editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, but with a bit more grace and without Shanks' polemical edge. As Sheler depicts it, the generations-long battle over the Bible pits the "minimalists," who doubt that Moses and even King David ever existed and consider them no more than finely drawn characters in a pious novel, against the "maximalists," who accept each word of Scripture as literally true. Sheler accepts neither position fully and tries to steer a middle course, although his disdain for the extreme minimalist position comes through repeatedly.
One key moment in Sheler's quest for the Bible's truth comes when he recounts a discovery of an inscription from the ninth century BCE in 1993 found in Israel's Upper Galilee region. That inscription is now widely accepted as the first, and still the only, independent archaeological confirmation of the reign of King David. This was a scientific "bombshell," Sheler declares. But he is also careful not to make too much of the fragmentary reference, for as he knows, a faith that lives by the shard can die by the shard. After all, archaeology is "an evolving discipline, as much art as science, and its capabilities are limited," Sheler writes, and "its evidence is all too often equivocal and easily subjected to unwarranted interpretation." That's typical of Sheler's intellectual humility. He sets guideposts coercing the reader into accepting his views. And in the final analysis, belief counts as much as any evidence taken from pottery and stone.
Sheler is at his best when clarifying the endlessly convoluted scholarly disputes over the Dead Sea Scrolls, certainly the single most important twentieth-century addition to our knowledge of early Israel. It is almost certain, he writes, that additional scrolls will be found that are now "hidden and undisturbed in chambers yet undiscovered" and that the controversy will continue. Who were the people of Qumran who wrote these scrolls, and what light do they shed, finally, on the Judaism of the first century BCE? We don't yet fully know the answers.
For some non-Christian readers, Sheler's detailed discussions of the origins of Christianity will be less than exciting. But the fact that Sheler can so successfully maintain his dual commitments--as a man of faith and as a journalist committed to the truth--should inspire many of us.