Culture, Israel, Religion

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. I’m glad you wrote this SR, I almost wrote the same post last night when I got word of the article. However, you recommend a book that is just as highly politicized. in the 80s, Finkelstein was a maximalist (those who read truth and history into biblical accounts) posterboy. he needed a job, and well, by 1988 there weren’t too many minimalist (those who read no truth or history into biblical accounts) digging in Israel, so he had a nice niche, and, well, the rest is history.
    point in case, archaeology is politics. it’s also guess-work and self biases will ALWAYS win out.

  2. You seem to have a very profound misunderstanding of how archaeology works. Have you ever been on a dig?
    I have no political horse in this race, so I am just saying: but ANYONE who does archaeology of this manner MUST USE the Bible. Of course, there is debate about how much and at which points, but the bottom line is that the archaelogical findings are SO INCONCLUSIVE that one must triangle one’s findings w/ something else–and the Bible is a great resource. The sorts of things that people find are otherwise entirely inscrutable. Of course, the Bible must be reinterpreted in light of the findings and so forth–but it’s really all an art and interpretation all the way down (Bible, findings, etc.)
    So this sort of attack is just silly: Finkelstein is just doing the same thing but from a different interpretive perspective–he is no more “right” in that regard.

  3. Justin,
    I’d actually place Finkelstein today somewhere between maximalist and minimalist, which is why I appreciate his scholarship more than nationalists like Mazar or classical minimalists (i.e the Copenhagen school, of which Finkelstein is not “member.”) He’s really among a new school of Israeli archaeologists who are viewing this field w/in the broader context of the Ancient Near East and not just Israel in a vacuum.
    Of course he and his colleagues have their biases like everyone else – but it’s notable that he does not conduct his research as part of the Israeli nationalist establishment.

  4. the copenhagen school aren’t minimalists, they’re silly. and there really is no copenhagen school, there’s thomas thompson who couldn’t get a job at any other university. And Finkelstein’s approach is not new, it’s new to Israelis. But that being said, trained archaeologists are new to Israelis. You have misinformation regarding Finkelstein’s research because you’re basing it off of one title which was published for popular consideration. If you read his journal articles you’ll see that he fits into the same politics as everyone else. I am not saying he sits in either camp, I’m saying he’s traversed both. Because it’s about money. Archaeologists in it for fame should NEVER be trusted.

  5. I actually trust Finkelstein and Silberman no more than I trust Mazar. Which is to say, I’m pretty agnostic about most of this stuff. I don’t think we can know now how true or untrue the bible is. However, we do know that the practice of tool in one hand, bible in the other is outdated and scientifically unacceptable. It recalls the days when every little crack in the unearthed walls of Jericho were cause to believe that everything in the Book of Joshua was true.

  6. The so called Maximalists rant and rave that anybody who doesn’t approach archaeology with a bible in one hand and a trowel in the other is a minimalist. The other side paints every archaeologist who even considers measuring the veracity of the bible as maximalists. I see no harm in keeping the bible on ones reference shelf to aid ones science—-as long as it takes no more precidence than, say: the armana papers, mesopotanian king lists and recorded history, Egyptian king lists and recorded history, greek recorded history, and so on. The Bible must be considered an important source because it has been proven to contain {some} accurate historical data. One must measure the results of archaeology digs against the results coming from any other location which reasonably could have interactions with each other. On should not make statements about the world or history that cannot be proved by evidence, direct and indirect combined. We cannot know the veracity of Solomons existance by the discovery of a coin or a gate or a pot—–it must be measured by an accumulating conglomeration of evidence that averages out to a most probable truth.

  7. Archeology is stupid. What kind of a putz wants to stand around and dig up rocks all day?
    People should ignore what archeologists say and just rely on past lives.

  8. You don’t mind Moshe if the rest of us are allowed to have our own opinions. Or did I miss it and somebody made you the knower of all things known, the seer of all things seen, and the thinker of all possible thoughts—–One could look at your life and say—–“what kind of Putz would want to do “the things that Moshe does” all day. I like digging up rocks and fossils. And archeology tells us more about past lives than any of your sources. If you want to believe that the lies you’ve been told all your life are truth—-well thats your bag, baby. I on the other hand will trust in science to guide my beliefs—-thats my bag. Or you could believe that some dudes 3000 years ago lived for 700 years—-hey whatever floats yur ark man.

  9. “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.”
    It’s as misleading to claim that the Bible “is a history book” as it is to claim that it “is not a history book”. Read through Judges, Samuel, Kings, Ruth, Esther, Joshua, etc. etc. etc. Sure sounds like a narrative of events, doesn’t it? Is that the main purpose? Well, I don’t know…. there’s a lot going on and IMO it’s probably very multifaceted depending on what frame of reference you want to experiment with.
    But given the number of archaeological finds that Biblical references have led to, it would seem pretty unwise for a modern archaeologist to disregard it.
    “Mazar’s comment that she works with a Bible in one hand and her tools in the other speaks volumes about her fundamental bias.”
    Well thank goodness it’s only possible to be biased in one direction…

  10. I hate it when science is used for political purposes, as is obviously the case with this story. It’s sad that the media has swallowed it. All that’s really known is that an old wall was found and that it might date back to 1000 BCE. The rest is pure hooey at this point and shows that Eliat Mazar is no scientist — and neither are the people who back her. Take a look at the following from the ScienceDaily article:
    The excavations in the Ophel area were carried out over a three-month period with funding provided by Daniel Mintz and Meredith Berkman, a New York couple interested in Biblical Archeology. The funding supports both completion of the archaeological excavations and processing and analysis of the finds as well as conservation work and preparation of the site for viewing by the public within the Ophel Archaeological Park and the national park around the walls of Jerusalem.
    The excavations were carried out in cooperation with the Israel Antiquities Authority, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, and the Company for the Development of East Jerusalem. Archaeology students from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem as well as volunteer students from the Herbert W. Armstrong College in Edmond, Oklahoma, and hired workers all participated in the excavation work.
    Ye Gads, this was funded in part by Herbert W. Armstrong College! Now there’s a great research institution.

  11. @Eric-
    but the historical reality does not match the narrative of Na”kh. It may read like a history book, but it’s a story book. like you wonder, it’s likely not the intention of the books to relay history like you or I may understand the word in terms of its science

  12. I think Mazar, like others (and perhaps sometimes more so that others at times) is clearly motivated by politics. And I agree that the Bible should not be seen as a history book in the traditional sense. That said, I personally don’t have a problem with it being used as a reference point to how things *may* have been in a general time period. In the quotes I’ve seen from Mazar covering this incident, I never read her quoted as saying that everything in the Bible – at any specific point – is completely accurate. But you mentioned the “kernels of truth” possibility – I think you can say that certain parts of the Bible are likely resembling – at least to a certain level – how things may have been. And if archaeology can shed light into that, without claiming to 100% prove anything, what’s the problem?

  13. “the issue is when the Bible is not treated as an artifact, but rather as a reference guide.”
    But Justin that’s exactly the point. Relying on the Bible to provide references does lead to archaeological discoveries. This makes some people uncomfortable — which is the real root of this discussion.

  14. no, it’s not. and I am someone who studied archaeology in depth in university and have been on many digs. The fact is that the Bible is not unlike the Gilgamesh or the Iliad. If you look for something, you’ll find it. What people do not realize is that “Biblical Archaeology” is not a real field. In the academic field it is Syrio-Palestinian archaeology and it applies the same science as any other form of archaeology, which is to say that a text is an artifact. that it has geographical resources does not make it a reference guide. So, please, do not talk about the real root of the discussion, which is really the Royal Palestine Exploration Fund which is the first institution of “Biblical Archaeology” back when the field was not a science at all, but referred to as ‘antiquarianism’. Ultimately, the PEF was in the same spirit as the Helene of Byzantium’s efforts to find the places mentioned in the Bible, and if people came back without relics or stories of finding locations, there end was not pretty. The Bedoin have made a multi-millenia racket off of guiding archaeologists to sites they say “yeah, Samson killed a lion here…” Or, “yeah, John the Baptist dunked Jesus here…” So it’s not that people are uncomfortable with using the Bible (which doesn’t make as good as a reference as you think). There are lots of factors which make this a problem.
    Furthermore, Israeli archaeology in particular started as a group of hobbyists, mainly generals with a Zionist penchant for Jewish history. They saw things as they wanted, and lacking proper academic training actually destroyed many sites in their attempts to excavate. Their legacy, however, has even maintained itself in Israeli archaeologists today (mainly those not affiliated with TAU, whom tend to be a little more moderate in their approaches)
    Do not chalk this up to, oh, if the Bible is proven right then the Jews have a right so the world wants to take it away from them by pretending the Bible’s not true. Trust me, as someone who REALLY wanted to be an archaeologist proving the Bible true. It’s just not in the historical record in the ground. The fact is that according to the science of archaeology, the Bible is a valid artifact to use as a tool in understanding the context of a dig, however, no more so than any other textual document contemporary to the era. And at that, we really have NO idea when the biblical texts were composed, and how proximate to the time they describe they truly are.
    The REAL root of the discussion, in my opinion, is that archaeology got coupled into Zionist youth education and young adults do not understand the full implications of such a practice. So that people have a sense that they understand the bible can be seen on the ground. And, well, that’s simply a falsehood and any archaeologist (who’s not wearing their political bias on their sleeve quite as loudly as Mazar) will say that the narrative of history purported in the books of the Bible and the artifactual evidence pulled out of the ground is simply not the same. This is why the Maximalists and Minimalists referred to above for all intensive purposes are no longer really a part of the game. The age of proving or disproving the Bible I believe is done outside of Biblical Archaeology Review, which will be done when Herschel Shanks retires (maybe soon?)
    So, please, before you start to determine the real root of the issue, make sure that you’re really getting to the root of the matter, which is how “Biblical Archaeology” evolved in the 19th century from a bunch of British evangelists who wanted to reconfirm their protestant world-view by proving their sacred text historically relevant. It didn’t work, and once Israel came on the scene, Israelis have taken over, and despite their best efforts to paint the history any number of colorful ways, we still have absolutely no evidence for a united monarchy, no evidence of any personage in the bible before the king Omri and have full confidence that the conquest mentioned in Joshua and Judges is, at best, not quite like it describes, and at worst, never even happened.
    This isn’t because archaeologists are anti-Semites or anti-Zionists. It’s a science, and good ones put politics aside as much they can. But trust me, what you think is the root is not the root.

  15. I really think the most recent comments are all trying to make a similiar point—-even if the posters align themselves on different sides of a central line. I think that most people agree that the Bible can (at times) assist archaeology and science and historical research with achieving the most current possible understanding of reasonable truth of the history of the levant. And I think that most people understand(and if they don’t they should) that the vast majority of ancient “stories” contain absolute truth within them. Take for instance the Biblical narratives that deal with location: I think that everybody on earth would agree that the bible is not describing places that existed in America or China, and that the biblical narrative has described, sometimes to a high degree of accuracy, factual historical geography. Historical truth may also exist in the descriptions of daily life—although the exact time period to assign that activity can sometimes be questionable.(ie anachronistic camel caravans described in the bible that could not possibly exist at the time period the biblical narrative states.
    I think Mazar’s scientific ethics should be questioned—-absolutely. There is just no excuse for straying from the principals of science—-while performing a scientific enterprize—for the purpose of proving a preformed opinion.

  16. From justin: “we still have absolutely no evidence for a united monarchy, no evidence of any personage in the bible before the king Omri and have full confidence that the conquest mentioned in Joshua and Judges is, at best, not quite like it describes, and at worst, never even happened.”
    Although, I must agree with you on some points, I almost lost hope reading further when I read your lines above. We still have no “absolutely” evidence for this and that, yet because of the lack of evidence, some portion of the events(except for miracles to which is obvious cannot be proven) cannot be proven to have happened in the past. Yet, I still don’t know what you mean that “AT WORST” it actually didn’t happen at all(eg unified kingdom), to which in itself is maybe leads to an “absolute” claim that King David doesn’t exist. If however, at the time of King Josiah, only resonable historical records can be matched also in the Bible, how about these persons that exists in the era of King Josiah, of their sentiments and testimonies about their past? Did they deny the persons that existed before them? In that respect, in the absense of evidence, one can conclude that a unified Kingdom does exist or it does not, depends on the testimonies of the Kings, prophets and any major personages that existed after the period of the Patriarchs/Matriarchs through the reigns of David and Solomon.
    It seems that you take the negative one, on which in itself is an absolute claim inspite of the lack of the evidence for or against it.

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