Bamboozled by the Bible

The World’s Greatest Literary Fraud and Why it Matters

By Dominic Kirkham

From The Fourth R
Volume 31, Issue 5
September – October 2018
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I write on a momentous day, May 14, the day that the new American embassy is to be opened in Jerusalem. Controversial? Certainly. The context? Complex and confusing. It comes at a time when the whole of the Middle East has become a cockpit of conflict after more than a decade of devastating wars that have reduced Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria to ruin and now seem poised to escalate further as Iran threatens to restart its nuclear programme. Israel has already responded to missile strikes on its territory with overwhelming force, destroying seventy military sites operated in Syria by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard in conjunction with Hezbollah. For now a marker has been laid down: the next time it will be Iran.

To this maelstrom the American President has now contributed in his own inimitable way

To this maelstrom the American President, Donald J. Trump, has now contributed in his own inimitable way. While promising to withdraw American presence, he has— perhaps not untypically—done the opposite by needlessly moving his embassy to Jerusalem, the historic capital of the Jewish people, thusfurther inflaming an already combustible situation. From walls and lamp posts, large banners proclaim his words and policy: “Make Israel Great Again”. Note that last word, “Again”, for as Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu never tires of saying, this is the historic capital of the Jewish people, the city of David. And if many of its inhabitants have their way, the next step will be clearing the Dome of the Rock, one of Islam’s holiest sites, and rebuilding the temple of Solomon. Then we will truly be marching toward Armageddon!

If the context of this event is massive, the back story is even more monumental. It is 3,000 years of history; it is the story of Judeo-Christianity; it is the seminal element of Western Civilization; it is the golden thread that weaves together a vast historical tapestry. This is the story on which we have all been brought up: of King David, of David’s Royal City, of an iconic kingdom, of the messianic future and salvation history. It is how billions have come to understand life, religion, destiny—everything.

This is the story on which we have all been brought up, it is how billions have come to understand everything

I would like to pause here for a moment to mention another historic figure: the Pharaoh Sheshonq. He is not among such famous pharaohs as his predecessors Khufu (builder of the Great Pyramid) or Rameses II (megalomaniac builder) or iconic Tutankamun. As the founder of the Twenty-second Dynasty, he ruled in the tenth century BCE, after a period of some confusion in the historical records and the turmoil of the Late Bronze Age, and during which Egyptian domination of its surrounding territories along the Mediterranean coast had crumbled. It seems that the core strategy of Sheshonq was to revive the Egyptian empire in Canaan and thus control strategic trade routes. When he had done so, he not only erected a large victory stele (an upright stone slab with inscription) in Megiddo in northern Israel but, more significantly, he also commissioned a monumental relief depicting his accomplishments in the temple of Amon at Karnak, a copy of which I now have in front of me.

The relief shows a gigantic image of Sheshonq smiting his enemies and leading off a large group of prisoners of war. Each figure is identified in a cartouche (a carved oblong figure enclosing hieroglyphs) by the name of the place the pharaoh claimed to have conquered. These are organised into three groups: the villages and towns of the coastal plain of Canaan and hill country beyond, the Negev highlands, and the southern coast. I can count some 130 cartouches (though some have decayed and been eroded by the weather), each bearing a place name. Alongside these appears the usual effusive bombast describing the success of the campaign.

Recently I was discussing the relief with a friend who has visited Karnak and has an interest in hieroglyphic records and their significance beyond their place as a record of Egypt’s history. One of the several aspects worthy of note, we observed, is how little has changed in the past 3,000 years. One can easily picture the destruction of the towns and surrounding countryside from contemporary newsreels of Syria. Back then it was thousands of displaced people, now it’s millions. Then the region was being transformed by the advent of iron weaponry, now it is poised on a nuclear threshold. In 3,000 years humanity has progressed from iron swords to ballistic missiles and unmanned killing machines directed by artificial intelligence. Such progressive development is bringing us to the brink of total annihilation. If this is ‘progress’ then, if there is to be a future for our species, we urgently need to reappraise our understanding of what that word denotes.

If this is “progress” then we urgently need to reappraise our understanding of what that word denotes

Another noteworthy aspect of the relief is that it contains one of the earliest nonbiblical references to Israel, and the first that can actually be cross-referenced to a specific biblical text. In the Bible Sheshonq appears as Shishak when, in the fifth year of the reign of King Rehoboam, the Bible records that Shishak came up against Jerusalem and “took away the treasures of the house of Yahweh and the treasures of the king” (1 Kgs 14:25–26). This would indicate a possible date of 926 BCE, a time when the Bible also records the existence of a significant city and temple at the centre of the kingdom created by David and Solomon. And this, of course, is the time of greatness to which the banners—“Make Israel Great Again”—around the new US embassy refer in the hope of that greatness becoming real ‘again’.

But there is a problem in all of this, something that gives the relief of Sheshonq its real significance: it never mentions Jerusalem. This is startling, and a number of explanations have been offered as to why this should be so. One is that the cartouche has simply been eroded. But this is unconvincing for several reasons. The rows of cartouches that designate the places captured in the nearby highlands are in good condition, and it is hardly likely that such a prominent city would not be mentioned as an example of how the all-conquering pharaoh had subdued a formidable state like the kingdom of Judah. The most realistic but perplexing solution is that the city of Jerusalem was not mentioned because at that time it did not exist. As my friend noted, this is an almost blasphemous if not ridiculous assertion, since it challenges all we know, or claim to know, about this period of history.

These scholars referred to “Near Eastern” archaeology to look at what was on and in the ground, rather than through a prism of biblical texts

Except that it doesn’t. Rather, it merely confirms what the wider field of biblical archaeology has been discovering over the last fifty years. During this period a revolution has been taking place in biblical archaeology prompted partly by the opening up of the West Bank after the Six Day War and by the capture of Jerusalem which made possible a whole new range of excavations. Amongst the new wave of archaeologists was the University of Arizona’s William Dever, who led a charge to rid the profession of the very idea of ‘biblical’ archaeology. These scholars referred instead to ‘Near Eastern’ archaeology and attempted to look at what was actually on and in the ground rather than peer through a preconceived mental prism of biblical texts to find what one ought to be looking for. The name change was recognised in 1997 by in the American Schools of Oriental Research, which changed the name of its journal accordingly.

Also of note amongst the new wave of ‘second generation’ archaeologist was Israel Finklestein, now perhaps the most distinguished Israeli archaeologist, whose work in Meggido began to raise problems over the traditional dating of the remains. The so-called ‘stables’ together with the remains of other monumental gates and palaces once attributed to the reign of Solomon (c. 961–922 BCE), both there at Meggido and at Hazor and Gezer, were found to be from the ninth century, decades after his reign. The significance of similar architectural styles found in Jerusalem also had obvious consequences for the dating there. Finkelstein and his colleague Neil Silberman explored those implications in detail, concluding that, “essentially archaeology misdated both ‘Davidic’ and ‘Solomonic’ remains by a full century” (The Bible Unearthed, p. 142).

Essentially, archeology misdated both “Davidic” and “Solomonic” remains by a full century

This is a seismic shift of understanding. This new dating means that the first significant period of state building, what Finkelstein and Silberman call, “Israel’s Forgotten First Kingdom”, occurred during the reign of the Omride dynasty. This dynasty from the ninth century features perhaps the most despised character of the Bible: its founder King Omri (884–873 BCE), who was almost completely written out of the story with the words, “He did what was displeasing to God” (1 Kgs 16:26). Yet the archaeological record indicates his was a powerful state centred in Samaria with lavish building projects, a recognisable architectural style, a court with a hierarchy, a literary class, and a professional army. Here indeed was a significant monarchy, but it was not David’s, and it was not centred on Jerusalem.

So what on earth is going on? The key to understanding the biblical text, as distinct from the archaeological record, lies in recognising ‘the stratigraphy of heroic tales’. This is the process of accumulating cycles of oral traditions which, over centuries, are exaggerated and transformed according to successive layers of political and theological interpolation. It is not a natural process but a manipulative one. In this case the key texts were written more than two centuries after the events. Those texts came to constitute a kind of national epic, now called by academics the Deuteronomic History.1

By the time of the Deuteronomic texts, the Northern Kingdom of Israel had been destroyed by the Assyrians and Judah had become a vassal state. Indeed, features of the Book of Deuteronomy, such as the covenant between Yahweh and the people of Israel, bear a strikingly similarity to early seventh-century Assyrian vassal treaties with their outline of rights and obligations. The challenge for the religious leadership was therefore to provide a credible theological and ideological explanation for what had happened or, rather, what God had permitted to happen. The core of this explanation was that sin and apostasy are punished by destruction, but faithfulness to God is rewarded. Clearly, it was the faithlessness and idolatry of the Omrides that brought about their destruction, whereas the faithfulness of the righteous kings of Judah would ensure God’s blessing on the nation.

History would now be written—or rewritten—to justify this uncompromising and zealous ideology. The Omrides and their varied temple cults were demonised, and the focus became centred on the cult of Yahweh, the God of Judah based in Jerusalem. Even reprobate Judean kings like Rehoboam were reproached, and that may well be why Sheshonq’s invasion was situated in his reign. Events were manipulated to fit a theological template that would provide the key not only to understanding the past but also to ensuring the future.

Events were manipulated to fit a theological template that would provide the key to understanding the past and the future

Ironically, in 610 BCE in a battle inspired by religious zealotry that he seems to have needlessly provoked, the zealous and righteous King Josiah, the great Deuteronomic hope, would be killed at Meggido (the place which the Book of Revelation refers to as Armageddon) by another pharaoh, Necho II, the founder of the Twenty-sixth Dynasty (2 Kgs 23:29). The second book of Chronicles adds more detail in what was a moment of both mournful tragedy and shocked incomprehension (see the inset box). In the end Josiah was killed as brutally and mercilessly as any apostate monarch. Ultimately, the eschatological hope of Judah was thwarted not by divine abandonment, but because it was an illusion and its rendition of history a fiction.

The scale of the Deuteronomic distortion of history is breathtaking. As Finkelstein and Silberman state,

The ‘Court History’ of David thus offers a whole series of historical retrojections in which the founder of the dynasty of Judah in the tenth century is credited with the victories and the acquisitions of territory that were in fact accomplished by the ninth-century Omrides.
David and Solomon, p. 112

It is no coincidence that the reign of Josiah provided the context for stories such as the defeat of Goliath (who was dressed in Greek, not Philistine, armour!), a tale also ‘retrojected’ onto the mythical David. As Finkelstein and Silberman eloquently summarize,

the mystique of the Davidic dynasty was suddenly, dramatically transformed from a collection of dynastic legends into a messianic faith that would long outlive the independence of a tiny Iron Age kingdom to become the irreducible basis for Judeo-Christian belief.
David and Solomon, p. 186

But does any of this still really matter? And if so what is its significance? Quite apart from the issue of veracity I think all this still matters for a number of reasons. One is that the Bible has been, and remains, one of the most seminal texts for self-understanding in history and the understanding of history. As early as the sixth century BCE David and Solomon had become models of righteousness and wisdom as well as symbolic icons of political resistance. For example, with the purpose of fomenting resistance to the ruling Hasmoneans, the Dead Sea Scrolls refer to David in this manner.2 Some scrolls refer to David as the eternally elected leader with whom God had established a covenant that “he would be like shepherd, a prince over your people” (4 QS 505); other scrolls promise that a Branch of David would arise to destroy Israel’s enemies. Such thinking is essentially timeless and ‘Branch Davidians’ remain a potent political force. Indeed, some 80% of evangelical Christians voted for Donald Trump (as distinct from 17% who voted for Hillary Clinton), which helps to explain why he has now acted as he has.

These biblical texts have taped post-Roman Europe and what became known as Christendom

As tribal leaders sought a more exalted role for themselves and the consolidation of their authority, these biblical texts, with their view of divine election and eschatological destiny, have shaped post-Roman Europe and what became known as Christendom. They provided the foundational texts and seminal ideas manipulated by the newly converted Merovingians in the eighth century to lay the foundations of Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire, a new Davidic order of kingship. The bejewelled imperial crown of the Holy Roman Emperor Conrad II (990–1039) would carry inlaid images of David and Solomon. And bishops and popes would hold monarchs to account on the basis of these same texts which also fed the subliminal roots of supposed millenarian thinking, of thousand year reichs. In the Reformation and cataclysmic wars that followed, the biblical texts provided the arguments adduced by uncompromising zealots to justify the overthrow of ungodly tyrants.

In our own time we have seen the rebirth of the same uncompromising zealotry that drove the Deuteronomic reform of Josiah. Not only do nations seek to reorder the past for ideological expediency, but groups like ISIS take things one step further, destroying all evidence of the past in order to rely solely on the supposedly unmediated sacred text and direct divine intervention. Yet the cry Allahu akbar is always a hollow cry in the darkness, an unanswered echo in the abyss. No pattern or promise unfolds.

At the opening ceremony of the American embassy in Jerusalem, Benjamin Netanyahu exultantly proclaimed that by recognizing history we make history. The reality is that in repeating historical distortions we run the risk of perpetuating the cycles of destruction. And the grim evidence is all around to see. If we cannot bring ourselves to more truthfully reappraise the past and to change our way of thinking about the world, we will be fated to keep on repeating its fictions in endless cataclysmic cycles. Again, and again. And again.

Copyright © 2018 Westar Institute. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

Dominic Kirkham was ordained in 1997 into the Norbertine (Premonstratension) Order which he left some twenty-five years later, undertaking a variety of community and welfare projects that he still leads and promotes. He is the author of two books forthcoming from Polebridge Press: From Monk to Modernity: The Challenge of Modern Thinking (revised edition) and Our Shadowed World: Civilization, Savagery and Belief.


1. These are the books of Joshua, Judges, First and Second Samuel, and First and Second Kings, which comprise a comprehensive ‘history’ of the Israelites from the death of Moses to the fall of Jerusalem. Scholars refer to this extended narrative as the Deuteronomic History because its final editors edited and organized it to reflect the theology found in the Book of Deuteronomy.

2. Also known as the Maccabees after Judah Maccabeus, who led a national revolt against the Greek Selucid rulers in 167 BCE and whose descendants ruled Judah until the Romans made it into a client state in 63 BCE.


Finkelstein, Israel and Neil Silberman, The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of its Sacred Texts. Free Press, 2001.
_____ In Search of the Bible’s Sacred Kings and the Roots of the Western Tradition. Free Press, 2006.

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