from a NY Times introduction to the book The Bible Unearthed by Finkelstein and Silberman (2/1/2001):
"Archaeology and the Bible
The story of how and why the Bible was written — and how it fits into the extraordinary history of the people of Israel — is closely linked to a fascinating tale of modern discovery. The search has centered on a tiny land, hemmed in on two sides by desert and on one side by the Mediterranean, that has, over the millennia, been plagued by recurrent drought and almost continual warfare. Its cities and population were minuscule in comparison to those of the neighboring empires of Egypt and Mesopotamia. Likewise, its material culture was poor in comparison to the splendor and extravagance of theirs. And yet this land was the birthplace of a literary masterpiece that has exerted an unparalleled impact on world civilization as both sacred scripture and history.
More than two hundred years of detailed study of the Hebrew text of the Bible and ever more wide-ranging exploration in all the lands between the Nile and the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers have enabled us to begin to understand when, why, and how the Bible came to be. Detailed analysis of the language and distinctive literary genres of the Bible has led scholars to identify oral and written sources on which the present biblical text was based. At the same time, archaeology has produced a stunning, almost encyclopedic knowledge of the material conditions, languages, societies, and historical developments of the centuries during which the traditions of ancient Israel gradually crystallized, spanning roughly six hundred years — from about 1000 to 400 BCE. Most important of all, the textual insights and the archaeological evidence have combined to help us to distinguish between the power and poetry of biblical saga and the more down-to-earth events and processes of ancient Near Eastern history.
Not since ancient times has the world of the Bible been so accessible and so thoroughly explored. Through archaeological excavations we now know what crops the Israelites and their neighbors grew, what they ate, how they built their cities, and with whom they traded. Dozens of cities and towns mentioned in the Bible have been identified and uncovered. Modern excavation methods and a wide range of laboratory tests have been used to date and analyze the civilizations of the ancient Israelites and their neighbors the Philistines, Phoenicians, Arameans, Ammonites, Moabites, and Edomites. In a few cases, inscriptions and signet seals have been discovered that can be directly connected with individuals mentioned in the biblical text. But that is not to say that archaeology has proved the biblical narrative to be true in all of its details. Far from it: it is now evident that many events of biblical history did not take place in either the particular era or the manner described. Some of the most famous events in the Bible clearly never happened at all.
Archaeology has helped us to reconstruct the history behind the Bible, both on the level of great kings and kingdoms and in the modes of everyday life. And as we will explain in the following chapters, we now know that the early books of the Bible and their famous stories of early Israelite history were first codified (and in key respects composed) at an identifiable place and time: Jerusalem in the seventh century BCE.
What Is the Bible?
First, some basic definitions. When we speak of the Bible we are referring primarily to the collection of ancient writings long known as the Old Testament — now commonly referred to by scholars as the Hebrew Bible. It is a collection of legend, law, poetry, prophecy, philosophy, and history, written almost entirely in Hebrew (with a few passages in a variant Semitic dialect called Aramaic, which came to be the lingua franca of the Middle East after 600 BCE). It consists of thirty-nine books that were originally divided by subject or author — or in the case of longer books like 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, and 1 and 2 Chronicles, by the standard length of parchment or papyrus rolls. The Hebrew Bible is the central scripture of Judaism, the first part of Christianity's canon, and a rich source of allusions and ethical teachings in Islam conveyed through the text of the Quran. Traditionally the Hebrew Bible has been divided into three main parts.
The Torah — also known as the Five Books of Moses, or the Pentateuch ("five books" in Greek) — includes Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. These narrate the story of the people of Israel from the creation of the world, through the period of the flood and the patriarchs, to the Exodus from Egypt, the wanderings in the desert, and the giving of the Law at Sinai. The Torah concludes with Moses' farewell to the people of Israel.
The next division, the Prophets, is divided into two main groups of scriptures. The Former Prophets — Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings — tell the story of the people of Israel from their crossing of the river Jordan and conquest of Canaan, through the rise and fall of the Israelite kingdoms, to their defeat and exile at the hands of the Assyrians and Babylonians. The Latter Prophets include the oracles, social teachings, bitter condemnations, and messianic expectations of a diverse group of inspired individuals spanning a period of about three hundred and fifty years, from the mid-eighth century BCE to the end of the fifth century BCE.
Finally, the Writings are a collection of homilies, poems, prayers, proverbs, and psalms that represent the most memorable and powerful expressions of the devotion of the ordinary Israelite at times of joy, crisis, worship, and personal reflection. In most cases, they are extremely difficult to link to any specific historical events or authors. They are the products of a continuous process of composition that stretched over hundreds of years. Although the earliest material in this collection (in Psalms and Lamentations) may have been assembled in late monarchic times or soon after the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE, most of the Writings were apparently composed much later, from the fifth to the second century BCE — in the Persian and Hellenistic periods..." more
see also links at the right of this post.