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Bible histories: Fact or Fiction

Author: Stephen Goode

For centuries, the narrative of the Bible went unchallenged. But with the advent of modern archeology, long-held truths came underscrutiny. One of these was the existence of King David, Israel's first king and among Judaism's most important figures. In recent years, revisionist scholars, including Israeli Israel Finkelstein, have suggested that the account of David in the Bible was largely invented, or at the very least aggrandized. Now, National Geographic reports that archeology is beginning to reveal evidence to support archeologists -- led by Israeli Eilat Mazar -who have staked their careers on the biblical narrative. On the heels of Mazar's claim to have discovered King David's palace, two other archaeologists have unveiled remarkable finds. Twenty miles southwest of Jerusalem in the Elah Valley—the very spot where the Bible says the young shepherd David slew Goliath—Hebrew University professor Yosef Garfinkel claims to have unearthed the first corner of a Judaean city dating to the exact time that David reigned.
Meanwhile, 30 miles south of the Dead Sea in Jordan, a University of California, San Diego professor named Thomas Levy has spent the past eight years excavating a vast copper-smelting operation at Khirbat en Nahas. Levy dates one of the biggest periods of copper production at the site to the tenth century B.C.—which, according to the biblical narrative, is when David's antagonists the Edomites dwelled in this region. (However, scholars like Finkelstein maintain that Edom did not emerge until two centuries later.) The very existence of a large mining and smelting operation fully two centuries before Finkelstein's camp maintains the Edomites emerged would imply complex economic activity at the exact time that David and Solomon reigned. "It's possible that this belonged to David and Solomon," Levy says of his discovery. "I mean, the scale of metal production here is that of an ancient state or kingdom."

Some archaeologists are challenging the veracity of Old Testament histories such as those of Kings David and Solomon. Can the Bible withstand such challenges?
Bible stories are among the most familiar we know. We've heard them time and again, and the majority of us probably regard them as mostly true and based on events that really happened. Think about one of the most familiar: A young shepherd boy named David slays the Philistine giant Goliath with a slingshot and a stone and later becomes a king of Israel and author of the great religious poetry known as the Psalms -- which still are read, sung and chanted by hundreds of millions of devout Christians and Jews worldwide.
David's son, the wise Solomon, succeeds him as king in a magnificent kingdom at the height of its splendor. Solomon plans and builds a great temple, an act beautifully described in I Kings 5:3-6, in a letter Solomon wrote to Hiram, king of Tyre: "You know that my father, David, was not able to build a Temple to honor the name of the Lord his God because of the many wars he waged with surrounding nations. He could not build until the Lord gave him victory over his enemies. But now the Lord my God has given me peace on every side, and I have no enemies and all is well. So I am planning to build a Temple.... Now please command that cedars from Lebanon be cut for me. Let my men work alongside yours, and I will pay your men whatever wages you ask."
These stories excite most of the Old Testament, including I and II Samuel, I and II Kings and I and II Chronicles, and form the very heart of Jewish tradition. But did the events they so eloquently describe actually take place? Were David and Solomon genuine historical figures as, say, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson? Or were they men whose lives have become so distorted by legend that it's difficult to locate the real person, such as Wyatt Earp, or outright mythical inventions, such as Paul Bunyan?
All of this is one of several big issues in biblical archaeology these days, a field so wracked by controversy that few of its scholars agree on anything absolutely. Many of them have major disagreements when it comes to very important issues such as whether David and Solomon really existed and the importance of their authenticity to history.

The traditional view is that David and Solomon are central to Jewish history, and it's still the view held by many scholars (and supported by some recently discovered archaeological evidence, as we shall see). But a group of highly articulate scholars known as the "new archaeologists" -- the most prominent of their group is Israel Finkelstein, the head of the Tel Aviv University Institute of Archaeology -- play down the greatness of David and Solomon, claiming that they were, at the most, small-time leaders of local tribes and that the greatness of Israel under their leadership is, well, greatly exaggerated. They strongly doubt that the man the Bible calls Solomon ever built the great temple the Bible describes him as building.
Very aptly these doubters also are called the "minimalists" because they believe in a minimal interpretation of the evidence available about ancientIsrael, as opposed to the more traditional "maximalists" whose scholarship accommodates expansive interpretation.
Even more extreme, there is a small number of scholars called the Copenhagen School -- some of its members teach at Denmark's University of Copenhagen -- who argue that David and Solomon didn't exist but were invented, probably by Jewish writers in the third century B.C., as part of a program to create a great (but fictional) past for the Jews.
In a recent issue of Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR), Neils Peter Lemche, one of the Copenhagen School scholars, is quoted as saying: "From a historian's point of view, ancient Israel is a monstrous creature. It is something sprung out of a fantasy of biblical historiographers and their modern paraphrasers."
David and Solomon invented? Or merely second-rate leaders of little historical significance? To many in the field it seems astonishing but not wholly unexpected. "If you look at the history of the last 200 years of biblical interpretation," Hershel Shanks, editor of BAR (see Picture Profile) tells Insight, "the so-called progress has been limited to the historical value of various parts of the Bible."
Earlier generations of scholars called into question such onetime biblical givens as the Exodus or the Israelite conquest of the Promised Land and decided they probably didn't happen, so why not extend the cloud of historical doubt over David and Solomon, too? To the faithful this smacks of heresy, but P. Kyle McCarter, professor of Near East studies at Johns Hopkins University, cautions Insight that, "People make assumptions that archaeologists are trying to prove or disprove the Bible. No serious archaeologist is doing that. If you find one that is, you should be suspicious of that archaeologist."
This, no doubt, is good advice. But McCarter adds, "What archaeologists find is not a threat to anyone's belief. An archaeologist can't confirm or refute anyone's religious beliefs." To which a reply might be, Yes, that's probably true, but in religions based in history as firmly as Judaism and Christianity -- both of which are religions attached to specific historical events, such as the Exodus or the Crucifixion -- then a rewriting of history that alters the past would seem significant indeed.
Just how controversial the new developments are was underlined last September at a conference at Beit Jala, near Bethlehem, attended by both Israeli and Palestinian archaeologists, and at which the Palestinian archaeologists used the event to declare that present-day Palestinians are descendants of people who inhabited the Near East long before the Jews were there. They based much of their argument on the claims of the new archaeologists that David and Solomon weren't important leaders and that 10th-century Israel was an insignificant entity. The implications were clear: If David's Israel hadn't been great, then Jewish claims to the region weren't as solid as they might be, and Palestinian claims could be advanced.

Probably even more significant than the September conference was an exchange at the ill-fated Camp David meetings between President Clinton and Israeli and Palestinian leaders. A short time before the discussions broke down in July, according to the Jerusalem Report, Sa'eb Erekat, a senior Palestinian negotiator, turned to Israeli Minister of Internal Security Shlomo Ben-Ami during an argumen t.
about the status of the much-disputed Temple Mount section of Jerusalemand said: "How do you know that your Holy Temple was located there?" It was a challenge based directly on the claims of the new archaeologists that the temple erected by Solomon on Temple Mount never existed and, therefore, there was no reason to regard the spot as more important to Jews than any other. Jerusalem Report was told by a member of the Knesset that the archaeological issue was the "hottest topic" at Camp David and that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat used it to try to delegitimize Israeli claims.
How does Tel Aviv University professor Finkelstein respond? "I don't see a connection between research of the past and the present," he tells Insight. "I don't think that there is a jury sitting somewhere and judging the right of people according to a time scale. The only thing I can ask for is that my views will not be manipulated by politicians."
Of course, the historicity of David and Solomon is important to Christians, too, just as it is to Jews. According to Luke, Jesus was the son of Mary, "engaged to a man named Joseph, a descendant of King David." So what is happening in biblical archaeology today? A great deal, but it all comes down to one big question, says Amy Dockser Marcus, author of The View From Mount Nebo, a book the former Wall Street Journal Near East reporter who now works for Money magazine published earlier this year and in which she recorded her many conversations with archaeologists working in Israel. What all the current dispute comes down to, Marcus tells Insight, is the question of "how much history there is in the Bible."
It's a big question. For Marcus, who traveled to archaeological digs with Finkelstein and interviewed him at length and was impressed with his findings, it's clear that "the kingdom of David and Solomon was probably not the golden age it was made out to be."
That's pretty much Finkelstein's position. His first work was Living on the Fringe, a collection of his monographs published in 1995. His new book is The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts, coauthored with Neil Silberman. Finkelstein is digging at Megiddo--at a site that has 20 layers of archaeological remains covering more than 6,000 years. Megiddo is believed by many to be Armageddon, the location mentioned in the Book of Revelation where the final battle will be fought. It's also a spot visited by about 200,000 Christian pilgrims each year.
But it's Finkelstein's opinions on Jerusalem that matter most in the current debate, and it's his considered judgment that Jerusalem hardly counts as a center of importance in the 10th century B.C. -- the century of David and Solomon. How does he reach this conclusion? Because there is very little archaeological evidence, very little indeed, that has been uncovered by archaeologists and can be traced to that century. For him (and for other minimalists) that's proof enough that a great monarchy never existed, because if it had been a great monarchy, if the age of David and Solomon had been a golden age, then it most surely would have left evidence -- and probably a great deal of evidence.
The lack of archaeological evidence in the face of the Bible's claim for David and Solomon's greatness has led the new archaeologists, including Finkelstein, to recommend that where the Bible proves inaccurate it should be chucked as a historical guide in favor of the archaeological record. The "big story here, for us," Finkelstein told reporter Netty C. Gross of the Jerusalem Report, "is that biblical text and archaeology are not compatible. And I'm not the first to say so. This has been going on for about 40 years or so."
Yes, that's true, but it's equally true that the new archaeologists haven't converted everyone -- not by a long shot. During the last 40 years biblical archaeology has seen advances on other fronts as well. The lack of archaeological evidence doesn't bother Wilbur Fields, for example, who has taught archaeology for 36 years at Ozark Christian College in Joplin,Mo., and participated in many archaeological digs in Israel.
Fields has tried for decades, he tells Insight, to discover the name of one of his great-great-grandfathers "who lived before the Civil War and left several orphaned children." He hasn't found the name -- and that ancestor lived only a century-and-a-half ago, not 3,000 years ago. Fields is impatient, too, with scholars who approach the Bible with what he calls the "hermeneutics of suspicion." Hermeneutics is the study of the methods used to interpret Scripture, and what Fields means is that too many scholars approach the Bible skeptically and with suspicion, so it isn't surprising that they reach the conclusion that the Bible isn't accurate. For scholars such as Fields, the Bible is "full of the testimony of tradition, which can't be discounted," the testimony of men and women of faith who bore truthful witness.
Bryant Wood is another scholar who doesn't approach the Bible with suspicion. Wood started his professional life as a mechanical engineer, working 13 years for General Electric before his interest in biblical archaeology got the best of him; he left his job and earned a doctorate in Syro-Palestinian archaeology.
These days he's working at a site in Israel called el-Maqitir for the Christian and Maryland-based Associates for Biblical Research. He thinks el-Maqitir might be where the ancient city of Ai was located. Ai is mentioned in the seventh and eighth chapters of the Book of Joshua, a town conquered by the Israelites and left, according to the Old Testament, as "a permanent mound of ruins, desolate to this very day."
Wood tells Insight he thinks he may have found the actual Ai, but being a careful and methodical man he's not certain. "In this business [biblical archaeology], you're never 100 percent sure," he says. "It's extremely rare to find a site and to find an inscription there with the name of the site on it." But what's interesting about el-Maqitir, he says, "is that there's a lot of detail in Joshua about Ai, such as that the gate of the city was located on the north side of the fortress, and our site meets the requirements very closely."
That's significant since the Conquest of Canaan by the Children of Israel following the Exodus is one of those events relegated to the realm of fiction by many scholars because there's no archaeological evidence that a conquest took place. Wood's excavation at el-Maqitir, if it turns out to be a likely location for Ai, may be evidence that gives credence to the biblical story of the conquest.
Wood is skeptical of the standard dating of a "fiery destruction" ofJericho, another city attacked by the Israelites during the conquest, according to the Old Testament. Scholarship, based on the dating of pottery shards, puts the fiery destruction at 150 years too early for the conquest. Wood's own investigation of the shards, however, finds them contemporaneous with the conquest -- more proof (for Wood, at least) that the conquest took place.
Wood's background is in science and engineering -- whose methods, he says, he brings to his work as an archaeologist -- and it's as a scientist that he makes the following observation about biblical archaeology and the way it's done these days: "It's a bizarre situation in this discipline. I find it quite amazing how scholars think in this field." How so? "In engineering, you collect data and analyze it and then reach a conclusion," he says. "In biblical archaeology, you have theories, then you have a piece or two of evidence" and then reach conclusions that seem suspiciously close to the theories started out with -- a blatantly unscientific approach. For Wood, it appears that "many of these people [the new archaeologists and others] seem to want to discredit the Bible and go out of their way to discredit it."
There's other evidence, too, that calls into question the theories of the minimalists and that underlines the value of the Bible as history. "From the 14th century B.C., we happen to have an archive fromEgypt," notes BAR editor Shanks. "It's correspondence exchanged between the Egyptian pharaoh and the King of Jerusalem." At the same time, however, there are very few artifacts from 14th-century excavations (just as there are few from the 10th century, the time of David and Solom on
We  have the literary evidence, but on the basis of no evidence are you going to conclude that there was no Jerusalem in the 14th century," or that it wasn't important?
In addition, Shanks says, there's an Egyptian stela from the 13th century that mentions the people of Israel who live in Canaan -- which, he points out, seems to indicate that Israel existed.
Shanks also uses an argument from geography to underline Jerusalem's central importance in Near East history. "If you want to go north and south in Palestine, Canaan, Israel, you've got to stick to the central part of the country and follow the ridge," he tells Insight. "If you go to the east or the west you're going to hit the valleys and go up and down and up and down. All the cities are located on this ridge."
Furthermore, Shanks continues, "At Jerusalem, you've got a great water supply, constantly running, which is a blessing. You have a ridge that sticks out and steep valleys on all three sides that are easily defensible. That was important in ancient times. It's not important now." With all these factors taken into consideration, he asks, isn't it reasonable to assume that there must have been a city there continually, and probably a city of significance?
Shanks then offers a general criticism of the minimalist approach to biblical history. "The basic problem of the minimalist is that they usually argue from the absence of evidence, and that is a problem for them logically." Why? "It's not really a valid form of argument," Shanks contends. "You have to be very careful when you so argue, especially when you're talking of something that didn't happen thousands of years ago, that it didn't happen because you can't find evidence of it. You have to establish that you really should be able to find evidence, and that's a hard case to make."
But the biggest find for traditionalists has been a piece of a stela dug up at Tel Dan in 1993 with the Aramaic "House of David" or "Dynasty of David." It dates from about 150 years after David's time but is an early mention, outside the Bible itself, that David did exist and that he wasn't a figment of writers inventing his legend in the third century.
"It came along just when they [the new archaeologists and revisionists] were starting their pitch," says Shanks with obvious glee. It's a find that Finkelstein accepts as genuine. "The translation is reliable," he tells Insight. And Marcus, author of The View From Mount Nebo, points out that minimalists who first questioned the stone's authenticity now have come around, at least most of them, to accepting it as the real McCoy. "Some have accused archaeologists of salting the mines, but most have since retracted those statements," she says. "There's some question about the exact translation, but the majority believe it says `House of David.'"
Marcus notes that when she was living in Israel there were stories of new archaeological discoveries almost nightly on the news, a fact that led her to write her book. And everyone Insight talked with underlined that we do live in interesting times, archaeologically speaking:
* Explorer Robert Ballard, who found the Titanic, for example, recently found evidence of a sunken city on the Black Sea that had experienced a flood. Was this the flood mentioned in the Bible? No one knows, of course, and archaeologist Wood of the Associates for Biblical Research says that a lot of serious work on dating the site scientifically must be conducted before any interpretation can be made.
* In Jerusalem, archaeologists Ronny Reich and Eli Shukron have uncovered a vast underground waterworks system they say dates from the 17th century B.C. They've also discovered a wall from the sixth century B.C., whose date was estimated by Babylonian arrowheads found around it.

* Another recent find in Jerusalem shows how much of the daily lives of ancient peoples archaeology can uncover. It's a toilet that probably dates from 587-586 B.C., the time of Nebuchadnezzer's successful siege ofJerusalem, when the Israelites went into the Babylonian Captivity. An examination of the coprolite residue at the toilet, says Marcus, found that during the siege people were reduced to eating raw meat covered with parasites and weeds.
* Also useful in giving us a picture of life in Christ's time are the Dead Sea scrolls, says Johns Hopkins' professor McCarter, who says "the enrichment they provide is significant because they come from the time of the development of Christianity and provide a glimpse into how life was when Jesus walked the earth."
* At Sepphoris, four miles northwest of Nazareth where Jesus grew up, excavators have uncovered a city that may have played a significant role in Christ's life. "There's a debate over how cosmopolitan Sepphoris was," BAR editor Shanks says. But "there's a theater there, and they have found some pottery shards associated with the construction of the theater."
"Was that theater there in Jesus' time? The guy who found the shards says they date from the early first century so yes, sir, it was there," Shanks notes. "Imagine a huge theater only four miles from where Jesus was raised!" On the other hand, "there are other archaeologists who say, `No, no, this is pottery that dates from the late first century, so the theater wasn't there in Christ's time.'"
What, then, can be said about the Bible as historical truth in a time of so much controversy? Wood of the Associates for Biblical Research offers this summation of its authenticity: "A proper interpretation of the archaeological data demonstrates historical accuracy going clear back to Genesis."
That's a long way from the minimalists willing to scrap Scripture when it conflicts, in their view, with the findings of modern archaeology.
It is Shanks who sums up the thinking of a lot of people when he describes the Bible in these words: "It's a theological work in which history is embedded" -- a statement that sounds like a very guarded defense of the book as history until he adds: "It is a major source that we have for the ancient history of the Near East."
From Ancient Israel to Christianity

2000-1500 B.C.    Abraham, Issac and Jacob lived
1260-1250 B.C.    Exodus of Israelites from Egypt
1200-1000 B.C.    Canaan settled by Israelite tribes
1001-969  B.C.    David becomes king
969-931   B.C.    David's son, Solomon, reigns

931-910   B.C.    Solomon dies. King Rehoboam
DIVIDED KINGDOM   rules over Judah
931-910   B.C.    King Jeroboam rules Israel

885-874   B.C.    Omri becomes king of Israel

874-853   B.C.    Omri's son, Ahab, becomes king
                  of Israel

723-722   B.C.    Assyrians conquer Sumeria

605-586   B.C.    Assyrian empire falls as Babylonians
                  take over and burn the
                  first temple

587-538   B.C.    Babylonians rule Judah

538       B.C.    Cyrus the Great conquers Babylon

538-332   B.C.    Persia rules Judah until 336 B.C.,
                  when Alexander the Great becomes
                  king of Greece and conquers Judah

141       B.C.    Writing of the Dead Sea Scrolls

63        B.C.    Romans rule and create Herodian

37-4      B.C.    Herod the Great rules Judea

4         B.C.    Herod dies and a series of appointees
                  govern Judea

26-36     A.D.    Pontius Pilate governs

Timothy W. Maier contributed to this story.

COPYRIGHT 2000 News World Communications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group

Issue: Dec 25, 2000

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