Untangling Biblical Tales

Sunday, April 1, 2007

The Bible is full of smashing stories of derring-do -- David slaying Goliath, Jonah swallowed by a whale -- but how much of it is true? While some believers answer, "Everything, of course," scholars have long been poking around in the historical and archaeological record to determine fact from fiction. Three new paperbacks continue that exploration.

DAVID AND SOLOMON In Search of the Bible's Sacred Kings And the Roots of the Western TraditionBy Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman Free Press. 342 pp. $14

David and Solomon have become "timeless models of righteous leadership under God's sanction," write Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman in their archaeological take on two ancient kings of Israel. David's kingdom stretched from the Euphrates to Egypt; Solomon's reign was a "golden age of prosperity, knowledge, and power for all the people of Israel." Or so the Bible says. Finkelstein and Silberman argue that it is "highly unlikely that David ever conquered territories of people more than a day or two's march from the heartland of Judah. . . . Solomon's Jerusalem was neither extensive nor impressive, but rather the rough hilltop stronghold of a local dynasty of rustic tribal chiefs." But knowing the historical origins of these stories about biblical kings should not diminish their power: "The question of how and why their legends survived the vicissitudes of antiquity to become one of the strongest images of western civilization -- and what values and dreams they reflected in every successive period -- is . . . a story no less fascinating than the biblical narrative itself."

JESUS AND YAHWEH The Names DivineBy Harold Bloom Riverhead. 238 pp. $15

"Doubtless the historical Jesus existed," writes literary critic Harold Bloom, "but he can be recovered only in shards." Bloom sets out to separate the identities of "a more-or-less historical person, Yeshua [or Jesus] of Nazareth; a theological God, Jesus Christ; and a human, all-too-human God, Yahweh." He finds the three "totally incompatible," which indicates to him the "irreconcilability of Christianity and Judaism," as he titles one of the later chapters in Jesus and Yahweh:"Yahweh declares his unknowability, Jesus Christ is totally smothered beneath the massive superstructure of historical theology, and of Yeshua all we rightly can say is that he is a concave mirror, where what we see are all the distortions each of us has become."

MURDER AT GOLGOTHA A Scientific Investigation Into the Last Days of Jesus' Life, His Death, and His ResurrectionBy Ian Wilson St. Martin's Griffin. 191 pp. $13.95

"Today more than at any time in history we have forensic technologies that can reveal so much of what truly happened" to Jesus, claims Ian Wilson in Murder at Golgotha. "Even after such a long time lapse, the Golgotha of around A.D. 30 has far from gone entirely cold as a crime scene." Inspired by what he calls the "lurid, hyperimaginative fantasies" of Mel Gibson's film "The Passion of the Christ," Wilson embarks on "a searching revisit to the original events" in which he examines, among many other things, the gospels "as 'witness' statements" and researches "how the Romans conducted their executions by crucifixion, how they fastened the victims to their crosses, and how long these might endure such an ordeal."


· Daniel Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness (Vintage, $14.95) "may be one of the most delightfully written layman's books on an academic topic," according to Lisa Zeidner. "Gilbert translates and makes sense of a vast array of scientific literature on perception, memory and imagination."

· John Barlow described Sweet and Low: A Family Story (Picador, $14), by Rich Cohen, as a "wildly addictive, high-octane narrative . . . a highly personal history in which the most intimate family details are seen in the context of the Sweet 'N Low empire."

· The memoir Untold Stories (Picador, $20), by "History Boys" author Alan Bennett, "possesses a kind of Anglican quietness, refusing the histrionic or grandstanding while still managing to be humorous, surprising, disarmingly human," wrote Michael Dirda.

Rachel Hartigan Shea is a contributing editor of Book World.

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