Paul L. Caron

Sunday, December 12, 2021

An Archaeological Dig Reignites The Debate Over The Old Testament’s Historical Accuracy

Smithsonian Magazine, An Archaeological Dig Reignites the Debate Over the Old Testament’s Historical Accuracy:

Smithsonian 4Beneath a desert in Israel, a scholar and his team are unearthing astonishing new evidence of an advanced society in the time of the biblical Solomon

When the Israeli archaeologist Erez Ben-Yosef arrived at the ancient copper mines of Timna, in 2009, he was 30 years old. The site wasn’t on Israel’s archaeological A-list, or even its B-list. It wasn’t the Jerusalem of Jesus, or the famous citadel of Masada, where Jewish rebels committed suicide rather than surrender to Rome. It was the kind of place unimportant enough to be entrusted to someone with fresh credentials and no experience leading a dig.

At the time, Ben-Yosef wasn’t interested in the Bible. His field was paleomagnetism, the investigation of changes in the earth’s magnetic field over time, and specifically the mysterious “spike” of the tenth century B.C., when magnetism leapt higher than at any time in history for reasons that are not entirely understood. With that in mind, Ben-Yosef and his colleagues from the University of California, San Diego unpacked their shovels and brushes at the foot of a sandstone cliff and started digging.

They began to extract pieces of organic material—charcoal, a few seeds, 11 items all told—and dispatched them to a lab at Oxford University for carbon-14 dating. They didn’t expect any surprises. The site had already been conclusively dated by an earlier expedition that had uncovered the ruins of a temple dedicated to an Egyptian goddess, linking the site to the empire of the pharaohs, the great power to the south. This conclusion was so firmly established that the local tourism board, in an attempt to draw visitors to this remote location, had put up kitschy statues in “walk like an Egyptian” poses.

But when Ben-Yosef got the results back from Oxford they showed something else—and so began the latest revolution in the story of Timna. The ongoing excavation is now one of the most fascinating in a country renowned for its archaeology. Far from any city, ancient or modern, Timna is illuminating the time of the Hebrew Bible—and showing just how much can be found in a place that seems, at first glance, like nowhere. ...

If you were a rising young archaeologist in the 1970s, you were skeptical of stories about Jewish kings. The ascendant critical school in biblical scholarship, sometimes known by the general name “minimalism,” was making a strong case that there was no united Israelite monarchy around 1000 B.C.—this was a fiction composed by writers working under Judean kings perhaps three centuries later. The new generation of archaeologists argued that the Israelites of 1000 B.C. were little more than Bedouin tribes, and David and Solomon, if there were such people, weren’t more than local sheikhs. This was part of a more general movement in archaeology worldwide, away from romantic stories and toward a more technical approach that sought to look dispassionately at physical remains.

In biblical archaeology, the best-known expression of this school’s thinking for a general audience is probably The Bible Unearthed, a 2001 book by the Israeli archaeologist Israel Finkelstein, of Tel Aviv University, and the American scholar Neil Asher Silberman. Archaeology, the authors wrote, “has produced a stunning, almost encyclopedic knowledge of the material conditions, languages, societies, and historical developments of the centuries during which the traditions of ancient Israel gradually crystallized.” Armed with this interpretative power, archaeologists could now scientifically evaluate the truth of biblical stories. An organized kingdom such as David’s and Solomon’s would have left significant settlements and buildings—but in Judea at the relevant time, the authors wrote, there were no such buildings at all, or any evidence of writing. In fact, most of the saga contained in the Bible, including stories about the “glorious empire of David and Solomon,” was less a historical chronicle than “a brilliant product of the human imagination.”

At Timna, then, there would be no more talk of Solomon. The real mines were reinterpreted as an Egyptian enterprise. ... That was the story of Timna when Erez Ben-Yosef showed up in 2009. He had spent the previous few years excavating at another copper mine, at Faynan, on the other side of the Jordanian border, at a dig run by the University of California, San Diego and Jordan’s Department of Antiquities.

Ben-Yosef, 43, now teaches at Tel Aviv University. He speaks quietly, with the air of a careful observer. One of our meetings took place shortly after he’d returned from a meditation retreat at which he said nothing for ten days. He has no religious affiliation and describes himself as indifferent to the historical accuracy of the Bible. He didn’t come here to prove a point, but to listen to what the place could tell him. “The mere interaction with remains left by people who lived long ago teaches us about who we are as humans and about the essence of the human experience,” he told me. “It’s like reading a work of literature or a book of poetry. It’s not just about what happened in 900 B.C.”

The dig quickly took an unexpected turn. Having assumed they were working at an Egyptian site, Ben-Yosef and his team were taken aback by the carbon-dating results of their first samples: around 1000 B.C. The next batches came back with the same date. At that time the Egyptians were long gone and the mine was supposed to be defunct—and it was the time of David and Solomon, according to biblical chronology. “For a moment we thought there might be a mistake in the carbon dating,” Ben-Yosef recalled. “But then we began to see that there was a different story here than the one we knew.” ...

In the past decade, Ben-Yosef and his team have rewritten the site’s biography. They say a mining expedition from Egypt was indeed here first, which explained the hieroglyphics and the temple. But the mines actually became most active after the Egyptians left, during the power vacuum created by the collapse of the regional empires. A power vacuum is good for scrappy local players, and it’s precisely in this period that the Bible places Solomon’s united Israelite monarchy and, crucially, its neighbor to the south, Edom. ...

[A]rchaeologists had found so few ruins that many doubted the existence of any kingdom here at the time in question. There were no fortified cities, no palaces, not even anything that could be called a town. The Edom of Solomon’s time, many suspected, was another fiction dreamed up by later authors. ...

Looking at the materials and data he was collecting, Ben-Yosef faced what we might call the Timna dilemma. What the archaeologists had found was striking. But perhaps more striking was what no one had found: a town, a palace, a cemetery or homes of any kind. And yet Ben-Yosef’s findings left no doubt that the people operating the mines were advanced, wealthy and organized. What was going on?

Having started out interested in paleomagnetism, Ben-Yosef stumbled into the emotionally charged field of biblical archaeology. His academic position was at Tel Aviv University, the bastion of the critical approach whose adherents are skeptical of the Bible’s historical accuracy. (On the other side, in this simplified breakdown, are the “conservatives” or “maximalists” associated with the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who claim to have identified grand structures from the time of the united Israelite monarchy, supporting the biblical narrative.) Israel Finkelstein, of The Bible Unearthed fame, was a towering figure with an office down the hall from Ben-Yosef, who was still junior faculty. The younger scholar had to tread carefully. He formulated his ideas over several years, and published them only after he got tenure.

Archaeologists, he observed, work with objects that last centuries or millennia, primarily stone structures, and with the types of waste that accumulate in permanent settlements and survive over time. As a result, identifying an advanced society depends on the presence of such remains: the grander the buildings, the more advanced the society must have been. The rival schools of biblical archaeologists were split over whether the united Israelite kingdom was fact or fiction, arguing vehemently about whether certain ruins should be dated close to 1000 B.C. or later. But they agreed that the primary point was the existence or non-existence of buildings. They differed on the answer, in other words, but shared a faith in their ability to settle the question. ...

The veteran Israeli archaeologist Aren Maeir, of Bar-Ilan University, who has spent the last 25 years leading the excavation at the Philistine city of Gath (the hometown, according to the Bible, of Goliath), and who isn’t identified with either school, told me that Ben-Yosef’s findings made a convincing case that a nomadic people could achieve a high level of social and political complexity. He also agreed with Ben-Yosef’s identification of this society as Edom. Still, he cautioned against applying Ben-Yosef’s conclusions too broadly in order to make a case for the accuracy of the biblical narrative. “Because scholars have supposedly not paid enough attention to nomads and have over-emphasized architecture, that doesn’t mean the united kingdom of David and Solomon was a large kingdom—there’s simply no evidence of that on any level, not just the level of architecture.” Nonetheless, he praised Ben-Yosef’s fieldwork as “a very good excavation.” ...

What Ben-Yosef has produced isn’t an argument for or against the historical accuracy of the Bible but a critique of his own profession. Archaeology, he argues, has overstated its authority. Entire kingdoms could exist under our noses, and archaeologists would never find a trace. Timna is an anomaly that throws into relief the limits of what we can know. The treasure of the ancient mines, it turns out, is humility. 

Jerusalem Post, What Did King David’s Israel Look Like? The Answer Is Not Set in Stone

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