Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Unearthing the Bible's Hidden Treasures

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Unearthing the Bible's Hidden Treasures

Article excerpt

So long as the Bible remains the "greatest story ever told," it will continue to inspire plenty of spin-offs. The recent bumper crop of books on the Good Book focus, among other things, on how scripture has shaped society--and how society has shaped scripture.

FOLKS SERVING ON KANSAS SCHOOL BOARDS OR WRITING bestsellers on the "Bible code" may not know this, but scripture doesn't provide a good scientific account of the origin of the species or encrypted prophesies about upcoming catastrophes. Notwithstanding these limitations, the Bible has been the book of the Western canon for two millennia, and nearly 2 billion Christians and Jews think of it as the Word of God. The American Bible Association says nine out of 10 Americans have one in their home, and the Gideons have already delivered nearly a billion copies of this holy writ to hotels, hospitals, and prisons around the planet.

Not surprisingly, a bestseller this big has generated whole libraries of books explaining, interpreting, and commenting on its meaning, history, and importance--as well as monstrous concordances tracking and counting every jot and tittle appearing between Genesis and Revelation. Six recent books on the Bible look back at the people and places from whence the Good Book sprang, examine the ways we have interpreted these sacred writings, and ask how scripture has shaped our own language and politics.

The Bible is a story of religious pilgrims. Exodus follows the Hebrews' trek to the promised land, and Luke tracks Jesus' journey up to Jerusalem. In turn, scripture has inspired countless waves of Christians and Jews to pick up their staffs or carry-on luggage and set out for the land of the burning bush, the golden calf, and the empty cave.

Still, not all of us can afford a trip to the Holy Land, and many of those who can know little about the history of the places trod by Moses and Jesus. Fortunately, for both groups, Bruce Feiler has written an extraordinary travel guide and spiritual odyssey, walking us through the places made holy and famous by the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. In Walking the Bible: A Journey by Land Through the Five Books of Moses (William Morrow, 2001), Feiler joins forces with Israeli archeologist Avner Goren and sets out on a 10,000-mile trek from Mount Ararat (where Noah's ark supposedly landed) to Mount Nebo (where a dying Moses may have seen the promised land). Along the way the pilgrim and his guide visit the sites where Abraham could have brought Isaac to sacrifice and follow the trail of Joseph and his siblings into Egypt.

Meeting with contemporary residents and pilgrims of various faiths, Feiler reads the biblical stories in the places where they may have occurred and ponders the meaning and enduring power of these narratives. This is a book any Holy Land pilgrim should read before getting on the plane--and a terrific read for homebound tourists wanting a spiritual trek through the lands of the Bible.

We get a slightly different historical tour of the Bible from the two archeologists who wrote The Bible Unearthed: Archeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts (The Free Press, 2001). In the 19th and early 20th century, archeological discoveries in Egypt and Palestine were used to prove the historicity of the Bible--to show that the flight from Egypt took place largely as reported in Exodus and that scriptural accounts of the exploits of kings David and Solomon are fairly accurate.

But Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman argue that the evidence from mounds and ruins in the Holy Land do not support claims that the Bible is a good history book. Instead, like many contemporary biblical scholars, the two archeologists argue that the Hebrews and their ancient kingdoms of Judah and Israel had very different histories than those recorded in Hebrew scripture, that the Bible was written as a theological and not a historical text. …

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