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U.S. News & World Report

DECEMBER 24, 2001

The Fight for History
In the Holy Land, archaeology itself is a battleground. Will the Bible win out?

By Jeffery L. Sheler   

Truth shall spring out of the earth," the Psalmist wrote some 3,000 years ago, and for more than a century modern archaeology has worked feverishly to find it. From the fertile valley of the Euphrates to the desolate sands of the Sinai, the land of the Bible has been slowly yielding its buried secrets, illuminating the ancient civilizations that gave rise to three world religions. Some recent archaeological discoveries have shed light on the Scriptures themselves, offering valuable insights into the sacred texts and the people who wrote them. Others have bred new controversies by challenging some traditional views of history in a region torn by centuries-old religious animosity.

But reconstructing history from rocks and pottery shards is not an exact science, and is seldom easy even in the most peaceful of times. Now, with Middle East violence flaring in the background, the often arcane scholarly enterprise has been transformed into a high-stakes and highly politicized conflict over the reliability of the Bible, the reality of "ancient Israel," and the validity of competing historical claims to the land called Holy. Some scholars, for example, say there is no archaeological evidence of an Exodus from Egypt or of an Israelite conquest of Canaan--key events in the Bible that explain Israel's emergence in the Promised Land during the Late Bronze Age. Expunging those events from ancient history, some argue, would seriously weaken modern Israel's claims to a biblical birthright in the Middle East.

It is an international controversy pitting biblical minimalists--a relatively small but influential group of scholars who find little or no history recorded in the Scriptures--against those who consider the Bible a generally reliable window on the past. The debate has spawned dozens of books during the past decade, at least four in the past year alone, and is the subject of a two-hour documentary, Digging for the Truth: Archaeology and the Bible, premiering this week on the History Channel.

Both sides draw heavily upon sometimes equivocal archaeological data to support their views. The minimalists contend, among other things, that ancient Israel as described in the Bible never existed; that Abraham, Moses, and Kings David and Solomon are fictional characters of Hebrew mythology; that the entire Old Testament was composed in the middle of the first millennium B.C.--more than a thousand years after many of the events it purports to narrate--by religious leaders seeking to establish a pedigree for a people just released from exile. "Today we no longer have a history of Israel," declares Thomas L. Thompson, professor of Old Testament at the University of Copenhagen, in his 1999 book, The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology and the Myth of Israel. Not only have the stories of Adam and Eve and Noah's flood "passed over into mythology," under the withering glare of modern scholarship, Thompson says, "but we can no longer talk about a time of the patriarchs," a united monarchy under David and Solomon, or the Hebrew prophets as historical realities. One prominent archaeologist, Israel Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University, in a new book The Bible Unearthed, cowritten with historian Neil Asher Silberman, describes the biblical saga of Israel as "not a miraculous revelation but a brilliant product of the human imagination" compiled and shaped by Jerusalem priests after the Babylonian exile around 538 B.C.

Hotly contesting the minimalists is a broad mix of scholars who find compelling reasons to affirm the basic historical veracity of the Bible even though many do not believe it to be 100 percent accurate. In his new book, What Did the Biblical Writers Know & When Did They Know It?, University of Arizona Prof. William G. Dever argues that archaeology has established a "context for many of the narratives in the Hebrew Bible," making them "not just stories arising out of later Judaism's identity crisis" but "part of the history of a real people." Answering the question raised by his book's title, Dever says the biblical writers "knew a lot, and they knew it early." Minimalists, adds James K. Hoffmeier, a professor of Old Testament, ancient Near Eastern history, and archaeology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, hold the Bible to an unreasonable standard, insisting that it "has to be substantiated by archaeological evidence" in order to be considered true. "They hold the Bible as guilty until proven innocent," he says.

Hoffmeier, Dever, and others assail the minimalists as being ideologically driven--aiming, says Dever, not "merely to rewrite the history" of biblical Israel, but "to abolish [the history] altogether." Intended or not, it is a position many see as eroding modern Israel's historic claim to the land, a claim the Israelis have worked hard to buttress archaeologically since becoming a state in 1948. "Archaeology," Hershel Shanks, editor of the Biblical Archaeology Review, observes in the History Channel program, "was a way of establishing for the early Zionists at that time their roots in the land."

The stakes were raised when the Palestinian Authority, attempting to provide a counterweight, established its own archaeological agency soon after the signing of the 1993 peace accord. "They wanted to immediately start telling a story, start digging, start figuring out their past," Amy Dockser Marcus, author of The View From Nebo, tells the History Channel. "The Palestinians said, `Well, it worked for the Israelis, maybe it can work for us.' " Both sides, she says, are "trying to somehow edge the other side out of the story."

AGE OF THE PATRIARCHS. Though few scholars think archaeology of the Holy Land can ever be fully extricated from Middle East politics, many insist that it will continue to illuminate the major epochs of Israel's past, beginning at the beginning: The Bible traces Israel's origins to Abraham, a Mesopotamian nomad who God promises would be the "ancestor of a multitude of nations" and would inherit the land of Canaan as "a perpetual holding." Through his progeny would come the 12 tribes of Israel that would emerge from Egyptian bondage to occupy the Promised Land. (Arabs also trace their ancestry to Abraham through his first-born son, Ishmael.)

But modern archaeology has found nothing from the Middle Bronze Age (2000-1500 B.C.) directly associated with Abraham or his offspring, leading even such Bible defenders as Dever to conclude that "all respectable archaeologists have given up hope" of proving the patriarchs' existence. The purpose of the story, Dever says, is not to relate history but to tell "a universal story about faith as risk--daring to set out for a Promised Land." Is the story true? "Of course it is," says Dever, "whether literally or not."

Even so, some scholars say that archaeology provides "circumstantial evidence" of the historical backdrop of the patriarchal stories. Treaties and contracts, the price of slaves, and other details of law and commerce written into the narratives, for example, "match remarkably well" what scholars have found in documents from ancient Mesopotamia, says Kenneth Kitchen, a retired Egyptologist from the University of Liverpool. Similarities between Middle Bronze culture and the biblical text, adds Amihai Mazar of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, are "too close to be ignored" and suggest that the patriarchal narratives are "very old traditions . . . passed on from generation to generation" rather than later inventions.

THE EXODUS. As with the patriarch stories, there is no direct archaeological data to corroborate the biblical account of Hebrew slaves in Egypt, their release by a pharaoh after a series of plagues, or the existence of Moses. But that has not prompted the Bible's defenders to cede the field to the minimalists, who argue that the Exodus never happened. "Absence of evidence," says Kitchen, "is not evidence of absence."

Indeed, some scholars find striking circumstantial evidence in ancient Egyptian inscriptions that something like the Exodus could have occurred in the Late Bronze Age (1400-1200 B.C.). One inscription at the tomb of Rekhmire, an official under Pharaoh Thutmose III in the 15th century B.C., for example, depicts prisoners from Canaan and Syria making mud bricks, with stick-wielding taskmasters overseeing them, during construction of the temple at Karnak. The scene closely parallels the Israelites' plight described in the book of Exodus. And Hoffmeier of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School notes that the use of forced labor in Egypt "is documented only for the period 1450 to 1200, the very time most biblical historians place the Israelites in Egypt."

More intriguing is a line in an ancient Egyptian document dating from the reign of Ramses II, considered by many to be the pharaoh of the Exodus, ordering that food be distributed to "the Apiru who are dragging stone to the great pylon." Although the meaning of the term "Apiru" is hotly debated, some scholars believe it may refer to the Hebrews, or more generally to Asian Semitic people.

Perhaps the most dramatic indirect evidence of a 13th-century B.C. Exodus, some scholars say, is a line of hieroglyphics in a temple monument commemorating the military conquests of Pharaoh Merneptah, a son of Ramses II, during a campaign in Canaan in 1207 B.C. Included in a boastful listing of vanquished enemies is a line declaring: "Israel is laid waste." The inscription clearly establishes Israel's presence in Canaan by the end of the 13th century B.C., prompting some scholars to speculate that the Exodus would have taken place about 50 years earlier.

The biblical details do "conform to the Canaanite experience of Late Bronze Age Egypt," says Baruch Halpern, a professor of ancient history and religious studies at Pennsylvania State University. "There were Semites there, there was forced labor, there was brick making, there was intense building activity under Ramses II." There were even reports in ancient Egyptian papyri of small numbers of runaway slaves fleeing into the Sinai desert. Though far short of proving the Exodus, some scholars argue, such evidence gives the story a ring of truth. If one is going to invent a past, says Eric Meyers, archaeologist and religion professor at Duke University, "why create a story of slavery, or suffering, and miraculous deliverance like the Exodus?"

SETTLING THE PROMISED LAND. As the book of Joshua tells it, the Israelites took possession of the Promised Land swiftly and violently. After wandering 40 years in the Sinai wilderness, they crossed the Jordan River from the east and invaded Canaan, destroying city after city until the land was theirs. It is a story amplified--some say contradicted--in the book of Judges, where the settlement of Canaan is depicted as a long and arduous struggle marked by military and moral setbacks for the Israelites.

It is also a story that has not held up well under archaeological scrutiny. Citing a lack of evidence of sudden destruction at several key sites--such as Jericho and Ai, neither of which appears to have been occupied at the time--mainstream scholars for years have rejected the biblical description of a military conquest of Canaan. Instead, many now theorize that ancient Israel arose out of a gradual and generally peaceful infiltration, or perhaps as a result of internal social upheaval.

Such theories raise significant historical questions. Were the Israelites a people of distinct ethnicity and religion who arrived in the land sometime in the Late Bronze or Early Iron Age? Or were they indigenous people, counterculture Canaanites whose customs evolved in response to social and economic conditions and who eventually came to dominate the region as a people known as Israel?

So far, archaeology has provided no clear answers. During the past two decades, archaeologists have found what some think may be the figurative footprints of early Israelite settlers--evidence of hundreds of small agricultural villages suddenly appearing in the sparsely populated hill country west of the Jordan River during the late 13th and 12th centuries B.C. Based on studies of those sites, experts estimate the region's population grew rapidly--from about 12,000 to about 55,000 by the 12th century B.C., and to about 75,000 by the 11th century B.C. Such a population explosion simply cannot be accounted for by birthrate alone, says Arizona's Dever. The evidence, he says, points to "large numbers of people migrat[ing] here from somewhere else, strongly motivated to colonize an underpopulated fringe area of urban Canaan," which by then was in decline.

Whether or not the settlements are Israelite is still debated. And even if they are, scholars say, it is impossible from current archaeological data to confidently link their sudden appearance to either a sweeping military invasion or one of the alternative settlement scenarios. Clearly, a significant influx of newcomers had arrived. But do new villages and population indicate a "new people"? Since the 1960s, some scholars have speculated that the settlers were Canaanite peasants who revolted and fled to the hill country to forge their own egalitarian society and religious identity.

But so far, archaeologists have found little to shed light on the newcomers' cultural identity--their language, religion, and burial practices. They have, however, uncovered one revealing detail about the settlers' dietary habits: They didn't eat pork. While pig bones were commonly found in Philistine coastal villages of the period and at sites east of the Jordan, says Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University, none were found in the new highland villages. That, says Finkelstein, "may, in fact, be the only clue that we have of a specific, shared identity among the highland villagers."

Whatever their origin, it is clear that a people called "Israel" was established in the region by the end of the 13th century B.C. and was known to the Egyptians, as revealed in the Merneptah stele. Within a little more than a century, according to the Bible, they would be consolidated into a powerful nation envied by rival kingdoms of the ancient Near East.

THE KINGDOM OF DAVID AND SOLOMON. No figure in the Hebrew Bible is more central to Israel's heritage than King David, the shepherd-warrior who forged the disparate Israelite tribes into a mighty monarchy with Jerusalem as its capital. The reigns of David and his son, Solomon, from roughly 1000 to 920 B.C., are described in the books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles as Israel's golden age--an era of dazzling military and economic achievements. Their united kingdom also has become a favorite target of minimalists, who wonder how such a magnificent dynasty could have left so few traces in the archaeological record.

During Solomon's prosperous reign, according to the Bible, vast wealth poured into Jerusalem, enabling him to launch ambitious building projects throughout the kingdom. The centerpiece of the king's construction program was an elaborately adorned temple and a regal palace complex in Jerusalem. Solomon's temple, built on Mount Moriah (known today as the Temple Mount), would become the focal point of Israel's religion and national identity. It was destroyed by invading Babylonians in 587 B.C., rebuilt late in the sixth century B.C., and massively expanded by Herod the Great in 18 B.C. Herod's temple was destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70.

But while part of a retaining wall supporting Herod's temple still stands (it is revered as the Western Wall in modern Jerusalem), no remnants of any of Solomon's Jerusalem structures have been found, prompting minimalists to conclude that they were never really there. If the rich and powerful Jerusalem of David and Solomon "existed at all," argues Thompson of the University of Copenhagen, "and years of excavation have found no trace of a 10th-century B.C. town--it was still centuries from having the capacity of challenging any of the dozens of more powerful autonomous towns of Palestine."

However, other scholars note that there are other blank spots in Jerusalem's archaeological record during periods when the city is known to have been occupied, and they caution against reading too much into a lack of evidence. Ronny Reich, an archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority, notes, for example, that excavations near the Gihon spring outside the present Old City have turned up "no pottery, nothing" from the Byzantine era--roughly A.D. 330-1450. "Does that mean there were no people in Jerusalem?" Reich asks. "Of course not. How do you explain it? You can't."

Outside of Jerusalem, archaeological links to David and Solomon have been more tantalizing. According to the Bible, Solomon's building campaign included new fortifications at strategic cities throughout the kingdom, the construction of "store cities" to stockpile goods, and the building of numerous military bases. Archaeologists have found what many consider dramatic evidence of Solomon's handiwork at several sites mentioned in 1 Kings 9:15. Fortifications of almost identical design and material have been discovered at Hazor, Megiddo, and Gezer, reportedly dating to the middle of the 10th century B.C.--precisely the time of Solomon's reign. Yigael Yadin, an Israeli archaeologist who worked at Hazor in the 1950s, was convinced that the gates of all three cities "were in fact built by Solomon's architects from identical blueprints."

But Finkelstein, who recently excavated at Megiddo, argues that Yadin leaned too heavily on the Bible. Citing "renewed analysis of the architectural styles and pottery forms" found at the site, Finkelstein concludes that the structures date to the early ninth century B.C., decades after the death of Solomon. "The whole idea . . . of Solomon's architects and of the grandeur of the Solomonic palaces," says Finkelstein, rests not on archaeology but "on the interpretation of a single biblical verse."

Finkelstein's revisionist views are hotly contested by other leading archaeologists. The current excavator at Hazor, Amnon Ben Tor of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and the University of Arizona's Dever, who excavated Gezer, remain convinced that pottery and other evidence point to 10th-century B.C., and presumably Solomonic, construction at all three cities. That judgment, says Dever, is based "on commonly accepted ceramic grounds--not on naive acceptance of the Bible's stories." Even one of Finkelstein's colleagues at Megiddo, Penn State's Halpern, disagrees with the revised dating. "In history, the issue is probability, not absolute proof," says Halpern, "and probability is overwhelmingly on the side of the traditional dating."

Even the dramatic discovery in 1993 of a ninth-century B.C. Aramaic inscription bearing David's name (the first ancient reference to David outside the Bible) has not convinced the most determined minimalists. Some, like Thompson and Niels Peter Lemche, also of the University of Copenhagen, have suggested that the plaque, found in an ancient ruin in upper Galilee and currently on display at the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art in Santa Ana, Calif., was mistranslated, or may even be a modern forgery. "King David," insists Philip R. Davies, a Bible professor at the University of Sheffield, in England, "is about as historical as King Arthur." Few mainstream scholars agree, however.

While archaeology alone is unlikely to resolve all debates over Israel's past, many scholars are convinced it still has more to contribute. At many important sites--even some, like Jericho, that have been excavated for decades--only a fraction of the ground has been explored. At others, like Jerusalem, work is hampered by dense population and religious restrictions, and more recently by violence. Who can say what biblical bombshells lie buried in the sands of Egypt or the hills of the West Bank and Israel? Despite the dramatic discoveries of recent decades, Holy Land archaeology has still only scratched the surface.

Whose homeland is it?

Archaeologists are trying to determine how much of the Bible can be corroborated by physical evidence.


The 1993 discovery here of a 9th-century B.C. inscription bearing David's name still has not convinced some skeptics that he existed.


Ancient city gates of nearly identical design are believed to be Solomon's handiwork, but some scholars now argue that they were built a century after his time.


Archaeologists have located ruins of key Philistine cities mentioned in the Bible and have found artifacts clearly associated with the militaristic "Sea Peoples."


The Bible says the invading Israelites destroyed Jericho and Ai, but archaeologists theorize that both sites were unoccupied at the time.


Scholars debate whether hundreds of recently discovered villages dating to the late 13th and 12th centuries B.C. were settled by Israelites.


The earliest known reference to Israel outside of the Bible was found here, etched into an Egyptian monument to the pharaoh.


According to the Bible, the pharaoh used Hebrew slaves to build the cities of Pithom and Ramses (now thought to be Pi-Ramesse).


David captured it and made it his capital, Solomon built it into a regal city, but archaeologists to date have found no direct evidence here.

9. UR and HARAN

Evidence suggests that Haran was a commercial hub when Abraham would have arrived from Ur on his way to Canaan.

10. DAN

The David inscription appeared on a monument to the king of Damascus's victory over the kings of Israel and Judah.


Abraham migrated through Shechem to Hebron, where the Bible says he settled and is buried. Archaeologists have clearly identified ancient ruins of these cities.

[Main map labels]

Mediterranean Sea

Dead Sea








Sea of Galilee


Jezreel Valley


Central Highlands










[Inset map labels]

Mediterranean Sea









Saudi Arabia



Red Sea

Area of detail

Stephen Rountree--USN&WR

A related documentary, Digging for the Truth: Archaeology and the Bible, premieres Dec. 17 on the History Channel.

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