Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Bible is true after all (again): Apropos Eilat Mazar’s latest archeological finds

Oy, there she goes again, is the first thought that came to my mind when I read about the recent “world historic find in Jerusalem” (Jonathan Tobin in commentarymagazine.com). 

Eilat Mazar, granddaughter of prominent Israeli archeologist Benjamin Mazar (see HERE), who previously claimed to have discovered King David’s palace (see HERE), has now discovered evidence that 10th century BCE Jerusalem was the strongly fortified seat of a “central government,” exactly as described in the early chapters of the First Book of Kings in the Bible. The release of these news through the Associated Press (see HERE) was immediately all over the internet, where it was enthusiastically received by two types of recipients: biblicist Christians (see, e.g., HERE) and right-wing Zionists (see, e.g., HERE). Nothing surprising here. What is remarkable is the blatant circularity of all of this.

According to Catholic Online Eilat Mazar’s dig was “privately funded by a couple in New York with an interest in Biblical Archeology” and conducted with the help of college students from Oklahoma, “hired workers,” and archeology students from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Considering the fact that Jerusalem is one of the best excavated cities in the world; considering that a vast amount of material from previous digs has not been published; considering also that most serious scholars have seen no evidence of monumental fortifications or other evidence of a “strong central government” from the 10th century, Mazar’s find—if it could be independently verified—might indeed require us to revise our understanding of the age of David and Solomon.

Briefly put: The books of Samuel and Kings describe the origins of the Israelite monarchy in the great deeds of conquest and construction of the legendary founders of the House of David, the dynasty that ruled Judah until its destruction in 586 BCE at the hands of the neo-Babylonians under Nebuchadrezzar. Archeologists distinguish methodologically between literary accounts (which are of uncertain provenance and most likely of a much later date than the events described) and evidence in the ground, which must be free to tell its own story. All the archeological evidence (remnants of buildings and signs of habitation, such as shards of pottery with distinctive design) and epigraphic evidence (seals, inscriptions) of the period archeologists call Iron Age I (ending around the time when an Egyptian Pharaoh by the name of Sheshonq campaigned in Canaan or the biblical land of Israel, an event the biblical historians associate with the reign of Solomon’s successor, Rehoboam) put together does not confirm the presence of an Israelite empire of the sort described in the Bible for the time in question. Rather, the Jerusalem that existed at the time was at best a mountain fortress that was most likely beholden to a more significant and expansive Israelite state centered in the northern hill country of Palestine, the area around modern day Nablus (the ancient city of Shekhem). No serious historian doubts this today.

More importantly, no serious historian would go about digging for evidence of the historical truth of the Bible. The Bible is literature even where it recounts the ancient history of Israel, whereas archeology retrieves and describes the remnants of material culture. To dig for confirmation of literary conceits (whose meanings and provenance are contested) is not just bad archeology but it is also bad biblical scholarship. All of this is evident to specialists, but this does not mean that popular sentiments can not be appealed to with the aid of sensationalist “finds” of the sort trumpeted by Eilat Mazar.

What is Mazar’s interest? According to wikipedia, Eilat Mazar is the head of the archeology department at the Shalem Center, a neo-conservative think tank, of which the current ambassador of Israel, his Excellency Michael Oren, is also a senior fellow. The Shalem Center and its sponsors also support the acquisition of Arab property in and around the Arab village of Silwan (where Eilat Mazar previously “found” the palace of King David) and its settlement with Jewish families. In light of this concerted ideological commitment it is clear why Mazar keeps finding evidence of the truth of the Bible. The goal is to strengthen fundamental Christian support for Israel’s claim (official government policy since 1967) to East Jerusalem as the erstwhile seat of the ancient government of David and Solomon. By superimposing biblical history on the map of modern Jerusalem, the quasi-religious claim to Jewish ownership gains plausibility and legitimacy, at least in the eyes of those who are unable or unwilling to distinguish between biblical literature, methodical archeology, and modern politics.

Expect more “sensational finds” from Mazar!
(Thanks to my former student Shana Richards for alerting me to the AP news item.)

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