Digging Up the Bible

By David Hazony

Published August 13, 2004, issue of August 13, 2004.
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With Jerusalem’s future forever a subject of contention, many who care passionately about the Golden City have missed the new debate that has emerged over its ancient past. A new cadre of Bible scholars and archaeologists, some with an overtly political agenda, has argued that the great Israelite kingdom, depicted in the books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles, never really existed. As Israel Finkelstein, chairman of Tel Aviv University’s school of archaeology, has put it, the biblical David and Solomon were not really emperors at all but “little more than hill-country chieftains,” while the fabled Jerusalem was in truth “a poor village.”

For Jews and sensitive Westerners, this is no small matter. The era of David and Solomon is the classical, formative period in Jewish political history, analogous to the eras of Athenian democracy or the early Roman Republic in the history of the West. Jewish tradition has always viewed the biblical Jerusalem as a symbol of hope — the hope that the Jewish people might again become united and independent, yet at the same time morally and culturally elevated, at peace with man and God. A challenge to the historicity of ancient Jerusalem casts doubt on the dream upon which the Jewish national revival of the last century was based — and undercuts one of the central icons of Western hope through the ages, from Augustine’s “city of God” to Reagan’s “shining city on a hill.”

This is not, of course, the first time that scholarship has challenged the Bible. In the 19th century, scholars in Germany concluded that the text as a whole was essentially mythological — a “glorified mirage,” as Julius Wellhausen put it. It was largely in response to this that archaeologists descended upon the biblical lands in the 20th century. From the late 1920s through the mid-1980s, they uncovered a remarkable number of finds that confirmed the biblical narrative.

It is this overwhelming evidence that has made the new claims seem almost bizarre. The crucial fact is that there have been no new discoveries in the field of archaeology that cast doubt on the authenticity of the kingdom of Solomon. Rather, the new challenge has taken the form of a kind of post-modern “paradigm shift,” an effort to deconstruct the traditional view by focusing on ambiguities in the data, and by showing that it can be reread through a different lens — but without proving why this way should really be scientifically preferred.

Mainstream archaeologists, for now, are not buying it. Some, such as Hebrew University’s Amnon Ben-Tor and Amihai Mazar, and the University of Arizona’s William Dever, have challenged the new theory point by point, convincing the majority of their colleagues that the conventional dating is in fact correct. Baruch Halpern of the University of Pennsylvania, who worked closely with Finkelstein in the excavation of Megiddo that served as the basis for the theory, has dismissed it out of hand. “In history, the issue is probability, not absolute proof,” Halpern told one newsmagazine recently, “and probability is overwhelmingly on the side of the traditional dating.”

Yet one would never know this from the media coverage of the controversy, where the new archaeology has dominated the field completely. While revisionist scholars have made their case through articles, interviews and best-selling books, their opponents have restricted themselves almost exclusively to the scholarly realm — showing a surprising apathy, and even impatience, for the questions of greatest interest to the layman. Ben-Tor, for example, is baffled that archaeology might have any impact on the beliefs of the broader public. In his view, any effort to find out whether the biblical stories really happened is “the root of all evil as far as the discipline of biblical archaeology is concerned,” because it undermines the objectivity of the scientific quest.

The result of this attitude has been to move the field as far as possible from thinking about the Bible at all. Biblical-era excavations in and around Israel have more or less ground to a halt. In Jerusalem, where momentous First-Temple-era finds were uncovered in the two decades following Israel’s conquest of the Old City in 1967, not one major biblical-era excavation has been undertaken since the late 1980s.

Perhaps the most important development in recent years is not the emergence of skeptical theories on biblical history — in academia, such movements are dreadfully predictable — but the loss of nerve among classical biblical archaeologists. All but abandoned the field’s original aim of turning artifacts into a coherent history of the origins of Western civilization, they have turned their eyes elsewhere, investing their energies in non-biblical excavations and the publication of meticulous, uninspired catalogs. Here the apathy of mainstream archaeologists dovetails with the aims of the revisionists: The former stop looking for biblical-era remains, and the latter seize upon the lack of new discoveries to conclude that “after 70 years of digging,” anything that has not yet been discovered never will be.

Such an attitude is tragic. It was barely a decade ago that the most important archaeological discovery in a generation was found: The first-ever inscription bearing the name of King David, found at Tel Dan in 1993. The lesson of the Tel Dan discovery, and others like it, is that the great deal of biblical history probably still remains buried, waiting to be found. Underneath the surface in dozens or hundreds of sites around the Middle East, there remains a vast archive of history, which only a renewed archaeological effort by scholars and volunteers, with spades and shovels in hand, will begin to tap.

David Hazony is editor in chief of Azure (www.azure.org.il), where a longer version of this essay appeared.

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