The Cities That Built the Bible
By Robert R. Cargill
(New York: HarperOne, 2016), 352 pp., $29 (hardcover)
Review by Cynthia Shafer-Elliott
The “Holy Land” is a common entry on travel bucket lists. People are fascinated with seeing and experiencing the settings of what may be the most influential book of all time—the Bible. Many are eager to visit historical and archaeological sites that are connected with their faith traditions. Unfortunately, such a trip is often beyond people’s reach due to money and time constraints. Even the sheer number of possible places to visit in Israel, Jordan and Palestine can be overwhelming. Without an experienced guide, many wonderful sites are overlooked or, if they are visited, their history and importance remains bewildering.
To remedy this situation, many people join a tour group or venture out alone with a guidebook in hand. Robert Cargill’s new book, The Cities That Built the Bible, would be an excellent travel companion. An archaeologist and Biblical scholar, Cargill is Assistant Professor of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Iowa. He has also hosted numerous television documentaries, such as the History Channel’s series Bible Secrets Revealed. What better guide to have in the lands of the Bible?
In The Cities That Built the Bible, Cargill serves the reader as both an expert guide and teacher. He focuses on 14 influential cities related to the Bible: Tyre, Sidon, Byblos, Ugarit, Nineveh, Babylon, Megiddo, Athens, Alexandria, Jerusalem, Qumran, Bethlehem, Nazareth and Rome. But this is no ordinary guidebook. Cargill focuses on these 14 cities because of the important role they played (directly or indirectly) in the composition, redaction and canonization of the Bible. Instead of examining the people and events that helped form the Bible as we know it today, Cargill guides the reader through the important cities that helped build the Bible. Each city’s background, history and archaeology are summarized, followed by its significance to the development of the Bible. Some of these cities may be familiar to the reader; others may not. Not to fear, as Cargill introduces the reader to each ancient city and its importance to the Bible’s development as only an experienced teacher and guide could.
Importantly, Cargill also provides examples to illustrate the complicated development of the Bible and explores the inclusion and interpretation of some of its more challenging verses. He approaches these topics with sensitivity, but he also does not shy away from covering the views of current scholarship concerning these verses—which are often at odds with more traditional readings. For instance, in the chapter on Qumran (the site associated with the Dead Sea Scrolls), Cargill introduces the topic of redaction criticism, which he defines as “[t]he science of identifying changes to copied and translated texts and then attempting to identify a reason for these changes.” In one example, Cargill examines the discrepancy of the height of the infamous Philistine champion, Goliath, as found in 1 Samuel 17:4. The Hebrew Masoretic Text states that Goliath was 9 feet, 9 inches tall, while the Greek Septuagint states that he was 6 feet, 9 inches. The copy of 1 Samuel found in Qumran Cave 4 helps solve this discrepancy (no spoiler alert needed; you will have to read the book). The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls—the oldest known copies of parts of the Hebrew Bible—is imperative to helping scholars study which Biblical manuscript tradition is the earliest—and, dare I say, most accurate. These types of analysis are then used in contemporary Bible translations.
Interested in the history and meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls? In the free eBook Dead Sea Scrolls, learn what the Dead Sea Scrolls are and why are they important. Find out what they tell us about the Bible, Christianity and Judaism.
To help the reader along the journey, Cargill includes a map with the location of the cities, a list of abbreviations that will be used throughout the book and lists of books within the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, the Apocrypha and the Christian New Testament. The book’s website (citiesthatbuiltthebible.com) even offers a virtual tour of the cities and sites covered.
In his introduction, Cargill explains how to read his book, including helpful notes on his choices of formatting, abbreviations and the book’s structure. Additional notes, citations and a detailed bibliography can be found at the end of the book. As the book introduces a complicated discussion on the formation of the Bible, a glossary of terms would have been a helpful addition to the hardback version. (The eBook version of Cities That Built the Bible does contain links to websites and definitions.)
This book is well worth reading, whether or not one is planning a trip to cities of the Bible. As a geographical, historical and archaeological approach to the formation of the Bible, Cargill delves into difficult topics with humor and ease and without seeming to pander to any particular audience. Biblical scholars and archaeologists often note how little their research is being publicized. Perhaps that is at least partly due to the fact that they don’t generally venture outside of the academic realm to share the research with a wider audience. Kudos to Cargill for attempting to bridge that gap, especially with such a complicated topic!
Cynthia Shafer-Elliott is Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible and Archaeology at William Jessup University in Rocklin, California. Specializing in the socio-historical context of ancient Israel and Judah, she is also an experienced field archaeologist and is on staff at the Tell Halif archaeological excavation in Israel.