By Aviva Lori Archaeologist Israel Finkelstein and his colleagues are stirring controversy with contentions that many biblical stories never happened, but were written by what he calls `a creative copywriter' to advance an ideological agenda. Prof. Israel Finkelstein sees no contradiction between holding a proper Pesach seder and telling the story of the exodus from Egypt, and the fact that, in his opinion, the exodus never occurred. The Hebrew edition of the book by Finkelstein and his American colleague, the historian and archaeologist Neal Asher Silberman, "The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts" has just been published. The English edition was published in the United States in January 2001 and a French edition appeared last year. In both countries the book spent many weeks on the best-seller lists and generated considerable public interest. The New York Times dubbed the biblical authors of the seventh century BCE "God's ghostwriters" in a lengthy review of the book. Next month the University of California in Los Angeles will hold an event on the archaeology of David and Solomon, with the participation of Finkelstein and Prof. Lawrence Stager of Harvard. On the same occasion Arte, the Franco-German culture channel, will start to film a four-part documentary based on the book, which is scheduled to be broadcast next year. What is it about "The Bible Unearthed" that has stirred such interest? Finkelstein, who is director of the Sonia and Marco Nadler Institute of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University, observes that this is the first "comprehensive book in which archaeology is the queen of battle and not some tawdry ornament of Bible scholars." And Finkelstein is indeed ready to do battle. In addition to the periods of the patriarchs and the exodus, about which most scholars agree that there is only the most tenuous connection between the stories in the Bible and the historical reality, Finkelstein and Silberman place a large question mark over the period up to and including the time of the United Monarchy. "Did it happen or not?" he asks at the end of each chapter, and proceeds to explain why it did not, based on his research and archaeological findings, including the discoveries at Megiddo, a site that is considered the jewel in the crown of biblical archaeology. An additional innovation in the book is the reverse point of view the authors adopt. "The book does not examine the history chronologically, from earlier to later," he explains. "It goes from the later to the earlier, and at the end of every chapter there is a "punch line" that examines the authors' intentions." The authors, in this case, are those who wrote the biblical account in question, and the authorial intention refers to the theological and ideological foundation of the seventh century BCE, the period in which most of the Bible was written, according to Finkelstein. He deconstructs this foundation only in order to reconstruct it according to the logic that guided the ancient authors, and arrives at the conclusion that the stories about the conquest of the Land of Israel, the settlement period, the United Kingdom and the attempt to enhance the prestige of the Kingdom of Judah at the expense of the Northern Kingdom (Israel) are part of an ideological - religious and political - manifesto, a master stroke by a creative copywriter. The village of Jerusalem The Bible talks about the great and magnificent united monarchy of David and Solomon in the 10th century BCE, which split into two kingdoms, Israel and Judah, because of the demand by Solomon's son, Rehoboam (Rehavam), for excessive tax payments from the tribes of the northern hills and Galilee, which thereupon angrily seceded from the united monarchy. The result was two centuries of strife, wars and fraternal hatred. The Scriptures treat Israel as a secondary kingdom of no importance, a place of incorrigible sinners, whereas Judah is considered the great and just kingdom whose capital is Jerusalem, where King Solomon established a splendid temple during the glorious era of the united monarchy. Finkelstein is dubious about the existence of this great united monarchy. "There is no archaeological evidence for it," he says. "This is something unexampled in history. I don't think there is any other place in the world where there was a city with such a wretched material infrastructure but which succeeded in creating such a sweeping movement in its favor as Jerusalem, which even in its time of greatness was a joke in comparison to the cities of Assyria, Babylon or Egypt. It was a typical mountain village. There is no magnificent finding, no gates of Nebuchadnezzar, no Assyrian reliefs, no Egyptian temples - nothing. Even the temple couldn't compete with the temples of Egypt and their splendor." Then why was it written? "For reasons of ideology. Because the authors of the Bible, people from Judah at the end of the seventh century BCE, in the period of King Josiah, had a long score to settle with the northern kingdom, with its splendor and richness. They despised the northerners and had not forgotten their dominance in forging the Israelite experience, in the competition for the sites of ritual. Contrary to what is usually thought, the Israelites did not go to pray in Jerusalem. They had a temple in Samaria (today's Sebastia) and at Beit El (Bethel). In our book we tried to show that as long as Israel was there, Judah was small and frightened, militarily and internationally. Judah and Jerusalem were on the fringes. A small tribe. There was nothing there. A small temple and that's all." And the kingdom of Israel? "The archaeological findings show that Israel was a large, prosperous state, and was the main story until its destruction in the eighth century. Its geographic location was excellent, on the coast, near Phoenicia, Assyria and Syria. It had a diverse demographic composition: foreign residents and workers, Canaanites, Phoenicians; there was an Aramean population in the Jordan Valley, and there were mixed marriages. It was only 150 years after Israel's destruction that Judah rose to greatness, becoming self-aware and developing the monotheistic approach: one state, one God, one capital, one temple, one king." What is the root of the tension between archaeology and the text, and what happened during Josiah's reign? "We think these ideas of Judah, that all the Israelites have to worship one God in one temple, and live under the rule of one king, sprang up in the seventh century BCE. If anyone had raised such ideas aloud before 720, he would have been beaten to a pulp by the northern monarchs. Everything started to come together after the destruction of the kingdom of Israel, and it also had a territorial aspect: from 734 to 625 BCE the Assyrian Empire ruled here. Today's American empire is negligible in comparison, in terms of its power and its crushing strength. For example, if someone in Judah had talked about expansion into Assyrian-dominated territories in 720, that would have been the end of him. King Hezekiah tried, and we saw happened to him. Sennacherib, king of Assyria, arrived with a huge army and decimated him.