July 29, 2000
The Bible, as History, Flunks New Archaeological
By GUSTAV NIEBUHR
he Bible's account of King David is so well known that even
people who rarely crack the Good Book probably have an idea of his
David, Scripture says, was such a superb military leader that he
not only captured Jerusalem but also went on to make it the seat of an
empire, uniting the kingdoms of Judah and Israel. Thus began a
glorious era, later amplified by his son, King Solomon, whose
influence extended from the borders of Egypt to the Euphrates River.
Afterward, decline set in.
Yet what if the Bible's account doesn't fit the evidence in the
ground? What if David's Jerusalem was really a rural backwater -- and
the greatness of Israel and Judah lay far in the future?
Lately, such assertions are coming from some authorities on
Israel's archaeology, who speak from the perspective of recent finds
from excavations into the ancient past. "The way I understand the
finds, there is no evidence whatsoever for a great, united monarchy
which ruled from Jerusalem over large territories," said Israel
Finkelstein, the director of the Institute of Archaeology at Tel Aviv
University. King David's Jerusalem, he added, "was no more than a poor
village at the time."
Statements like these have earned Finkelstein -- who is leading
excavations at Megiddo, a vitally important site for biblical
archaeology in northern Israel -- a reputation as a fascinating but
controversial scholar. His reports from Megiddo that some structures
attributed to Solomon were actually built after his reign have touched
off fierce debate in Israel.
Within a larger context, what he says reflects a striking shift now
under way in how a number of archaeologists understand Israel's past.
Their interpretations challenge some of the Bible's best-known
stories, like Joshua's conquest of Canaan. Other finds have turned up
new information that supplements Scripture, like what happened to
Jerusalem after it was captured by the Babylonians 2,600 years ago.
In an interview by e-mail from the Megiddo site, Finkelstein said
that not long ago, "biblical history dictated the course of research
and archaeology was used in order to 'prove' the biblical narrative."
In that way, he said, archaeology took a back seat as a discipline.
"I think that it is time to put archaeology in the front line,"
said Finkelstein, the co-author with Neil Asher Silberman of "The
Bible Unearthed," to be published in January by The Free Press.
His reference to past practices can be illustrated by a remark by
Yigael Yadin, an Israeli general who turned to archaeology and who
once spoke of going into the field with a spade in one hand and the
Bible in the other.
Many archaeologists, both before and after the founding of the
modern state of Israel, shared a similar approach: seeking direct
evidence for biblical stories. This outlook was shaped either by their
religious convictions or their Zionist views, said Amy Dockser Marcus,
the author of "The View From Nebo" (Little Brown), a wide-ranging and
engaging book that describes in detail the shift in archaeology taking
place in Israel. The problem with that outlook, she said, is that "you
can't help but go in and look at material and interpret material in a
certain way." And that, she added, "led to certain mistakes."
In her book, Marcus -- formerly the Middle East correspondent for
The Wall Street Journal -- notes that Yadin believed he had unearthed
evidence in the ruins of a place called Hazor that corroborated the
biblical account of how that Canaanite city had been destroyed. The
Bible says Hazor fell to invading Israelites led by Joshua.
But these days, she said, an increasing number of archaeologists
have come to doubt that Joshua's campaign ever took place. Instead,
they theorize that the ancient Israelites emerged gradually and
peacefully from among the region's general population -- a demographic
evolution, not a military invasion. "And that would explain how their
pottery is so similar to the Canaanites', and their architecture,
their script," Marcus said.
Finkelstein makes the same argument: "Archaeology has shown that
early Israel indeed emerged from the local population of late Bronze
Canaan." In addition, he said, archaeology has turned up no physical
remains to support the Bible's story of the Exodus: "There is no
evidence for the wanderings of the Israelites in the Sinai desert."
Asked how such conclusions have been received in Israel,
Finkelstein replied that they have been producing a "quite strong and
negative" reaction. But the anger, he said, was coming not from
strictly Orthodox Jews ("who simply ignore us," he said) but from more
secular Jews who prize the biblical stories for their symbolic value
to modern Israel. "I think that the young generation -- at least on
the liberal side -- will be more open and willing to listen," he said.
Still, considerable disagreement exists among archaeologists on how
to interpret many recent finds. And the new theories about ancient
Israel are emerging against the backdrop of a raging dispute over the
biblical "minimalists," a group of scholars who argue that biblical
accounts of early Israel, including the stories of David and Solomon,
have little, if any, basis in history.
(This debate was recently fought out in a lively issue of the
Biblical Archaeology Review, a bimonthly magazine published in
Washington, in which one of the minimalists, the British scholar
Philip Davies, wrote that biblical accounts of early Israel were
purely theological, not historical. In response, a major critic of the
minimalists, the American archaeologist William Dever, wrote that
ample physical evidence pointed to early Israelites living in the
region's highlands 3,200 years ago, two centuries before the time of
David and Solomon.)
But if many archaeologists are far less interested in trying to
corroborate the exact biblical accounts than in how the area's ancient
history fits into the larger picture of the Middle East, that change
of perspective, Marcus said, reflects an intellectual shift among the
people doing the digging. Many current archaeologists, she said, were
born in modern Israel and don't need a link to the biblical King David
to think of themselves as part of the Israeli nation: "They see
themselves as part of the broader Middle East."
Yet while archaeology is challenging some of the biblical
narrative, it is also adding to it. At Megiddo, Finkelstein said, he
found that the period 2,900 years ago -- the century following the
rule of Solomon -- was a far more interesting and powerful time for
the Kingdom of Israel than the Bible says. Another tantalizing
discovery, in 1993, turned up a stele with an inscription referring to
the "House of David," the first real evidence that refers to the
biblical king. Still other recent excavations have provided compelling
new evidence about the lives of the residents of Jerusalem 2,600 years
ago, when they were besieged by the Babylonian army, and about the
nearby people of ancient Judah who did not go into exile in Babylon.
Marcus said that such discoveries illustrate how archaeology can
restore information "left on the cutting room floor," as it were, by
those who compiled the biblical narrative. "Archaeology is giving you
back all this history," she said. "So archaeology doesn't just
deconstruct the Bible, but reconstructs it."