The Politics of Archaeology Unearthed

This just in from AP:

An Israeli archaeologist said Monday that ancient fortifications recently excavated in Jerusalem date back 3,000 years to the time of King Solomon and support the biblical narrative about the era.

If the age of the wall is correct, the finding would be an indication that Jerusalem was home to a strong central government that had the resources and manpower needed to build massive fortifications in the 10th century B.C.

Just dig a little deeper, however and the plot thickens even more. The researcher in question is Eilat Mazar (above), an old school Israeli archaeologist whose essential goal is to prove the historical veracity of the Bible.  She’s made no bones (sorry) about this over the years.  In a 2006 interview with Moment Magazine, she made this very telling comment:

One of the many things I learned from my grandfather was how to relate to the biblical text. Pore over it again and again, for it contains within it descriptions of genuine historical reality.  I work with the Bible in one hand and the tools of excavation in the other. That’s what biblical archaeologists do. The Bible is the most important historical source and therefore deserves special attention.

The only problem with this is that the Bible is not a history book – it’s religious literature.  There certainly may be kernels of historical fact to be found in these narratives, but I’d say it’s exceedingly problematic for an archaeologist to assume ipso facto the historical veracity of the Bible.  Mazar’s comment that she works with a Bible in one hand and her tools in the other speaks volumes about her fundamental bias.

It’s also noteworthy that Mazar worked until recently for the Shalem Center, a partisan Israeli think-tank.  Among other things, the Shalem Center believes archeology should support “the claim that the Bible can be viewed as a work whose historical narrative is in large part accurate, and (strengthen) the ancient connection of the Jewish people to the land of Israel.”

It’s striking to compare Mazar’s approach to that of Israel Finkelstein, who comes from a new school of Israeli archaeologists who are aren’t driven by political ideology and are willing to go wherever their research takes them.   In a nutshell, Finkelstein and his colleagues have argued convincingly that it’s impossible to say much of anything about ancient Israel until the 7th century BCE (around the time of the reign of King Josiah). This casts doubt on the historical veracity of the Biblical narrative from the period of the Patriarchs/Matriarchs through the reigns of David and Solomon. These claims have largely been accepted as normative by most mainstream archaeologists outside of Israel.

If you are interested the current thinking of Israeli researchers who are unfazed by nationalist bias, I highly recommend Finkelstein’s 2002 book (with Neal Asher Silberman), “The Bible Unearthed.” Also check out this 2001 piece from Salon, which explores the deeper socio-political implications of Israeli archeology.

17 thoughts on “The Politics of Archaeology Unearthed

  1. Anna Boswell-Levy

    Thank you for posts like this, Brant. They are so thoughtful, clear-headed, and timely. Just want you to know I am reading your blog, and appreciating it very much.
    your colleague and fan, Anna

  2. Yisrael Medad

    Your assertion “the Bible is not a history book” cannot be defended. For sure it contains religious imperatives, visions, etc. but it is also set in history. And if, month after month, year after year, archaeologists who are scientists, discover items that are from a specific time period and seem to confirm what is related in the Bible, while it doesn’t prove the existence of God, it surely does indicate that what the Bible has chronicled is at least partially true. Internal and external persons and events are being authenticated. Clear-headed? Far from it.

    1. Matt Planchak

      Month after month, year after year, archaeologists have been discovering evidence that very strongly contradicts much of the biblical narrative. Over the past three or four decades, there has been a paradigm shift with regard to archaeological findings. For the late 19th and most of the 20th centuries, when sites were discovered that corresponded to locations mentioned in the bible, it was taken that these confirmed, or at least lent credence to biblical accounts.

      At present, however, scientists are able to reconstruct living conditions of ages past around the globe with great accuracy. They are able to determine population sizes, what crops people grew, and even what foods they did and didn’t eat. Taken on its own, the evidence paints a drastically different picture than the bible does.

      I will agree with Yisrael, however, that the bible is, in fact, a history book. History is the story we tell. It’s the facts we relate, but even more so those we choose to omit and those that we choose to embellish. It’s the assertions we make when empiricism falls short. Above all, it’s the connection of factual dots into a shaped narrative.

      As such, the bible is indeed a history book. The Hebrew bible is the stories of a people, at a time and a place, from their point of view. It contains the hopes and aspirations and even political agendas of individuals within a nation. It is a map of the world drawn from a specific point of view.

      It’s my own personal belief that it is best taken as such.

  3. Dan Solomon

    Another book that is relevant to this discussion is “Who wrote the Bible” by Richard Friedman. It is actually about “Who wrote the Torah”. It is an excellent book and easy and fascinating to read. I would recommend reading this book before reading “The Bible Unearthed”. I have read both books and “The Bible Unearthed” seems to assume that the reader has some understanding of the information in “Who wrote the Bible”.

    All the best – Dan

  4. Yisrael Medad

    Look, there is a major argument going on (again) these past two decades or so. The new(er) attacks are by “minimalists” who claim ancient Israel accounts as reflected in Biblical accounts are basically myths. There is Philip R. Davies’ 1992 book, “In Search of Ancient Israel” and other writers/scholars including Thomas L. Thompson, Keith W. Whitelam, Niels Peter Lemche, and Israel Finkelstein.

    I spent three summers with Finkelstein when he excavated Shiloh where I live for his PhD. As you can readily find – Finkelstein argues that the traditional dating of many archaeological finds relating to biblical events is out by up to one-and-a-half centuries. His conclusion is that biblical stories are fiction. The exodus of the Israelites from Egypt never happened, and Joshua never attacked Jericho. He has a theory for the “conquest” that is almost the reverse of the Bible story.
    Later writers in the Persian-Hellenistic era made most of it up, or embellished it all.

    Nevertheless, these past 2-3 years have seen many discoveries which are in contrast to the expected finds a la Finkelstien and cohorts. So I feel that indeed Bible, history and archaeology and, yes, politics, go together and that the Biblical account is more confirmed than not.

    Try this short summary:

  5. YBD

    I can turn around everything you said here. What do you want to bet that Finkelstein and those who support him are far Leftists and post-Zionists? To say that Eilat Mazar is “partisan” and they aren’t is ridiculous. I can say they are driven by a partisan political agenda…I heard an Israeli archeologist say that is definitely the case. We also have “guilt by association”….. Mazar is affliliated with the Shalem Center which is, oy vavoy, a “right-wing think tank” and people associated with them, must, ipso facto, be liars and forgers. Maybe, instead, that is true of Leftists who identify with Left-wing think tanks.

    Matt’s claim that archaeologists have “proven” that what is described in the Bible is not “accurate” is not the case. It is not “proven” at all.

    RabbiBrant-Let me ask you a question—why does Mazar’s discovery bother you in the first place enough to write this piece? Is it because you are afraid for the purity science of archaeology which you claim now has charlatans who twist facts in order to carry out a political agenda? Or are you afraid that it will make Israelis realize the importance of Jerusalem and make them more reluctant to hand it over to the Palestinian state you dream of?
    You don’t even question the accuracy of her discovery, which in any event, she will have to defend in front of her colleagues, you go directly to an attack on her motives.

  6. Rabbi Brant Rosen Post author


    I didn’t accuse anyone of being “liars or forgers.” I simply pointed out that Mazar admittedly pursues archaeological research in order to prove the historicity of the Hebrew Bible – and that she worked for an institute that openly states that the goal of it’s research is to strengthen the Jewish people’s historical claim to the land of Israel. By any other name this would be called “bias.”

    Finkelstein may well have a bias as well, but I can’t see that you’ve proven that here. You say you “bet he is supported by leftists” and that you “heard an Israeli archeologist say that is definitely the case.”

    In answer to your questions: I’m not driven by a concern for the “purity of the science of archaeology” because I don’t think there is such a thing. Any honest archaeologist will admit it is an inexact science and that methods and findings are constantly being changed and re-evaluated.

    I do, however, believe that archaeology can be used for political purposes and that Israel has made an art form of this kind of thing for decades. And yes, I am afraid that the politicization of this research will create more needless conflict and tragedy over the status of Jerusalem. Political solutions should emerge out of the reality of the real facts (and real lives) on the ground – not broken shards of pottery.

  7. Cotton Fite

    Scripture (whether Jewish or Christian) is a fascinating combination of idealized narratives woven together with myth (which doesn’t mean untrue), moral and religious insights and convictions and, surely, nuggets of objective history. To use it, though, buttressed by archaeological discoveries, to establish political advantage over another people is a terrible violation of the profound moral lessons it teaches. There’s a sad coincidence as well with this conversation and Netanyahu’s recent announcement that Israel will declare the Cave of the Patriarchs and Rachel’s Tomb national heritage sites.

  8. YBD

    I find it odd that we see the issue being presented here as “pure science” vs (Zionist) “politicized science”.

    Let’s do a thought experiment….RabbiBrant, let’s say that Dr Mazar and you sit down together and she is able to convince you, on scientific grounds, that her discovery and her explanation of it are true, that she has found remains of a substantial city that King David built in Jerusalem which indeed corresponds to what is written in the Bible. Would it make any difference to you? Would you now say “well, I now see that at least some of the Zionist ‘narrative’ IS true”, “maybe the Jewish people do have a strong historical claim to the country”?

    We are seeing a full-front war against Zionism. Instead of saying “yes, the Jewish people have a strong historic claim to the country, but maybe we should not insist on implementing it due to the presence of another people there”, we see “progressives” going all the way and adopting the Arab/Muslim claims against the Jewish people:
    (1) The Arab/Muslims say “the Bible is a fraud”. The “progressives” in order to not offend other Jews modify this to “the Bible is not historically ‘accurate’. Objective Archaeology
    (2) The Muslims say “there is no Jewish people today”. The “progressive” says “Prof. Shlomo Sand is correct-the Jews today are essentially imposters, have no historical connection to the Biblical Hebrews and are recent converts to Judaism who never had any sentiments to Eretz Israel. Objective Historical research.
    (3) The Arab/Muslims say “the Palestinians are the only people with a historical connection to the country”. The “progressive” says “we can prove with DNA that the decendents of the Biblical Hebrews are today’s Palestnians”. Objective Science.

    There you have it….complete deligitimiztaion of the Zionist “narrative” AND the worldview of most Jews today has propagated by the Arab/Muslim world as then adopted by the anti-Zionist “progressive” in the guise “OBJECTIVE HISTORICAL ANALYSIS”. And the war goes on.

    1. Dan Solomon

      Hi YBD:

      Science has a way of correcting itself. As new evidence is discovered the truth emerges and eventually the scholars in a given field reach a consensus and move on to argue about other things. So if we wait long enough the questions about the historical accuracy of the Bible will be resolved.

      However, what I don’t understand it why it seems to matter so much in terms of today’s politics. After all the events described in the Bible occurred a long time ago. The land of Israel has been occupied, controlled, or governed by a variety of groups over the years. First the Jews, then the Babylonians, then the Persians, then the Greeks, then the Jews again, then the Romans, then the Muslims, then the Christian Crusaders, then various Muslims empires again, and now the present day Israelis.

      So why does it matter in terms of today’s politics whether or not King Solomon was the powerful king described in the Bible or just a minor figure?

      – Dan

    2. Shirin

      You should not mistake an ancient historic connection with a claim. They are not the same thing. And a historic connection by no means gives anyone the right to a claim superior to that of the existing inhabitants, let alone give them the right to drive out the people who have made their homes there for centuries.

      he Arab/Muslims say “the Bible is a fraud”.

      Neither “The Arabs”, nor “The Muslims” say any such thing. In fact, I have never heard any Arab or Muslim call the Bible a fraud. Some Muslims do believe that the Bible as it is now is not the true word of God because it has been altered by humans, and they are factually correct there. However, that is not the same as saying it is a fraud. In fact, calling the Bible a fraud would contradict the Qur’an.

      The Muslims say “there is no Jewish people today”.

      “The Muslims” say no such thing. Oddly enough, however, many Zionists certainly do insist that Palestinians have never existed and do not exist to this day, and the logic they use to try to prove that is sometimes astonishing.

      the Arab/Muslims say “the Palestinians are the only people with a historical connection to the country”.

      Neither “The Arabs” nor “The Muslims” say that. In fact, the overwhelming majority of Arabs and Muslims know very well that Jews, like themselves, have a long and important historic connection to the entire region whether or not the Biblical version of history has any validity. Arabs and Muslims know their own history well enough to know that Jews have inhabited the Middle East for thousands of years. In fact both the positive and the negative relationships between the early Muslims and the various Jewish communities in the Arabian peninsula are well known to any reasonably well-educated Arab or Muslim, and every single Jewish prophet is also a prophet in Islam, and revered by Muslims.

      In the National Museum in Damascus they have reassembled the Dura-Europos synagogue, which dates back to the 2nd century, and was discovered near the Syria-Iraq border. The Syrians protect it carefully. I have been inside it myself. You have to get a museum employee to let you in, and they will not leave you alone inside in order to make sure you do not touch the beautiful and fragile frescoes on the walls*, or take flash photos since the light will damage them over time*.

      Where Arabs and Muslims mainly differ with people who think as you do is that they do not accept the notion that Jews’ historic connection to the land gives them a superior claim over that of others who have both a historic connection, and a contemporary claim by virtue of having inhabited the place continuously for centuries and being the current inhabitants when the Zionists first began to migrate to Palestine.

      It matters not at all whether the Zionist narrative is or is not legitimate because that narrative does not constitute a claim, and a two thousand year old connection certainly did not and does not give Jews or anyone else the right to drive out the existing inhabitants of any land in order to take it for themselves.

      * Yes, I know. Frescoes in a synagogue?! What can I say? It’s a synagogue from the 2nd century, and the walls are covered with amazing frescoes.

  9. Dan Solomon

    It is interesting how with some issues ones point of view has a strong impact on how one receives or judges scientific research. A good example of this is the Global warming debate where liberals seem to have no problem accepting the possibility of man-made global warming whereas conservatives deny it.

    I find that I am in a similar situation with regard to Finkelstein’s assertion that the Exodus never occurred and that there was no invasion of the land of Canaan. The Israelis were basically Canaanites and not a distinct people, at least initially.

    I had a difficult time accepting because the Passover sedar is one of the few “Jewish” events that I have always observed. That “we were once slaves in the land of Egypt” has always been part of my Jewish identity and now to find out that it probably didn’t happen is hard to take.

    My thought (or rationalization) is that even if the Exodus never really happened as described to “all Israel” maybe it happened to somebody. And my guess is that somebody is the Levites. First the Levites were the keepers of the religious tradition so any stories would tend to reflect their own history more than the rest of the tribes. In addition there is something very peculiar about the Levites – they had no tribal land. This is strange because the heroes of the Exodus story, Moses and to a lesser extent Aaron, are both Levites. In addition during the “Golden Calf” incident they slaughtered a number other Israelis at Moses’s behest so obviously they could handle themselves. So why did they not get any tribal land?

    My (uneducated) guess it that the Levites where a group of people that arrived after the land was pretty much occupied. They also had had a bad experience in Egypt which was part of their ancestral memory. Because the land was settled they took on the only job available which was to minister to the cult of Yahweh. This would explain why they had no land even though they are portrayed as the leaders of the Exodus.

    This might also explain why Yahweh is such a “jealous” God who forbids the worship of other gods. It is fairly evident that before the destruction of Jerusalem the Israeli’s worshiped other Canaanite gods in addition to Yahweh. Yahweh’s jealousy may reflect the insecurity of the Levites who, with no tribal land, had no position in society other than of maintainers of the “cult of Yahweh”. The worship of other gods, by the Israelis, was a direct threat to their livelihood.

    Anyway all this is just a guess, but it raises an interesting question which perhaps someone could answer and that is why did the Levites, as leaders of the Exodus, get no land?

    – Dan

  10. Lesley

    Why are we expected to feel so connected to people who may or may not have lived in Israel thousands of years ago,and no connection whatsoever to those _we know_ were living there in 1948? Even if the biblical narrative is historically accurate, why does it give those of us with a tenuous genealogical descent from that era a superior claim over the children and grandchildren of people who were _born_ there, who still have keys to their family homes? Don’t need any pottery shards to prove that.

      1. Yisrael Medad

        Lesley, that’s what being Jewish means. It doesn’t mean you ignore anyone’s human rights or needs (Israel to Haiti, for example) but it doesn’t mean we kowtow to those who wouldn’t want us here in Israel, in Jerusalem or Shiloh or who seek to erase our very physical presence here of 3000 years which is being uncovered.

      2. Shirin

        It doesn’t mean you ignore anyone’s human rights or needs (Israel to Haiti, for example)…

        Israel to Haiti proves nothing. Israel to Gaza is far more relevant, not to mention Israel to Lebanon, Israel to the West Bank, Israel to the Golan Heights, Israel to East Jerusalem, and on and on.

  11. Manal

    I used to work as an archeologist at the Israeli authority of Antiquity and I did not like the Zionist and national view that motivate the Jewish Israelis to study and work in such a field. As a Palestinian Israeli I felt that the preoccupation of “proving” the Zionist claim in any excavation is more important than objective scientific excavation.

    I quit that job!
    I like your honest voice in your writing.


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