Archaeology vs. religion in ancient Israel history

Ze'ev Herzog

From Archaeology News; by Ze’ev Herzog, Professor archaeologist at Tel Aviv University in Israel [originally, from the daily Ha’aretz]:

This is what archaeologists have learned from their excavations in the Land of Israel: the Israelites were never in Egypt, did not wander in the desert, did not conquer the land in a military campaign and did not pass it on to the 12 tribes of Israel. Perhaps even harder to swallow is the fact that the united monarchy of David and Solomon, which is described by the Bible as a regional power, was at most a small tribal kingdom. And it will come as an unpleasant shock to many that the God of Israel, Jehovah, had a female consort and that the early Israelite religion adopted monotheism only in the waning period of the monarchy and not at Mount Sinai.

Most of those who are engaged in scientific work in the interlocking spheres of the Bible, archaeology and the history of the Jewish people – and who once went into the field looking for proof to corroborate the Bible story – now agree that the historic events relating to the stages of the Jewish people’s emergence are radically different from what that story tells.

What follows is a short account of the brief history of archaeology, with the emphasis on the crises and the big bang, so to speak, of the past decade. The critical question of this archaeological revolution has not yet trickled down into public consciousness, but it cannot be ignored.

Archaeologists Fear Their Work in Jerusalem May Be Tainted by Settler Politics: here.

The Tel Aviv University-directed archeological site at Tel Megiddo: here.

Early in May of this year, Israeli archaeologist Eli Shukron announced that he had discovered the citadel captured by the biblical King David during his purported conquest of Jerusalem around 1000 BCE. This is only the latest of many claims made by archaeologists relying on biblical accounts who claim to have unearthed sites related to the history of King David, whose actual existence has yet to be sufficiently evidenced by modern-day scientists and historians: here.


8 thoughts on “Archaeology vs. religion in ancient Israel history

  1. Scholar sees change in biblical archaeology

    Caution replaces rash claims to prove Bible

    By Carrie A. Moore

    Deseret Morning News

    Published: Saturday, Nov. 24, 2007 1:17 a.m. MST

    Contrary to the quest of many biblical archaeologists in years past, today’s “new image” of excavating ancient Near Eastern sites isn’t focused on proving that the Bible is an ancient historical document.

    Yet there’s no reason to shy away from comparing scientific findings to biblical text, either, says a longtime archaeologist.

    The challenge is to use caution, rather than leaping to what seem to be “logical conclusions” about findings that go well beyond the actual science involved with high-profile finds, some of which turn out to be forgeries.

    That is according to Aren Maeir, chairman of the department of archaeology and Land of Israel Studies at Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv. Rather than trying to “verify beliefs according to archaeological remains,” Maeir said archaeologists driven by science are leaving those kinds of discussions to theologians. Archaeologists seek to provide information on what they find in the ground, when they believe it originated and how it may or may not play into theological discussions.

    The current spate of Near Eastern excavations began not as a way to “prove” the Bible as a historical text, but as a 19th century project by the British army to update its topographical maps.

    Story continues below
    Maeir recently told students at Brigham Young University that geopolitical considerations played a large role in early excavations shortly after the state of Israel was formed in 1948. Many archaeologists were looking specifically to help establish the ancient legitimacy of Jewish claims to the land of Palestine, which had been occupied by the Turks for centuries before World War I.

    That approach has “come under a lot of criticism, mostly among 99.9 percent of Israeli archaeologists, but here and there it still exists, usually from very specific groups within the political spectrum in Israel.”

    Today, there is a move in some quarters of the profession to “dump the whole premise of biblical archaeology and just look at sites from a clearly archaeological perspective, rather than enmesh it with an ideological, religious or nationalistic perspective,” he said. Some are looking to abandon the term “biblical archaeology” in favor of “Near Eastern archaeology.”

    Yet that approach is espoused “by those who have a very strong ideology in the other direction,” Maeir said, and don’t believe there is any historical accuracy in the Bible.

    “Very often these critics come from a very small group that’s not necessarily representative of what the public is interested in hearing,” he said.

    Not that scientists should conduct research based on what the public is looking for, he said, but findings have to be presented in layman’s terms with explanations that don’t require an advanced degree. “We can be extremely sophisticated in naming things, but if we use titles that turn off the public, then we’re missing our mark.”

    Because interest is so great in legitimate finds, Maeir said the public should be more critical in examining the credentials of those who announce major “breakthroughs” that “prove” something in the Bible.

    Those who do so, he said, almost always are not professional archaeologists; have not been published in refereed, scholarly professional journals; and talk of sensational finds in a way that later is proven to be a gross misunderstanding of fact or an outright fraud.

    Examples include:

    • Mt. Ararat as the site where Noah’s Ark was found. “This one happens every five or 10 years,” yet nothing has been found to verify the claim.

    • The Shroud of Turin. “We know clearly now it was made in the Middle Ages. It has been scientifically tested and dated clearly to the 14th Century.”

    • The tomb of Jesus’ family. Among the most recent “discoveries,” the tomb has been the subject of several documentary films and books, but Maeir said what isn’t discussed is the commonality of the names found in the tomb. “There’s nothing exceptional about having a Jesus and a Miriam and a Jacob” in the same tomb, he said.

    • The ossuary of Jesus’ brother, James. “It turns out the box was found only with the ‘James’ part on it. Someone else added the words, ‘brother of Jesus.”‘

    Certainly legitimate finds are made, he said, though archaeologists are skeptical — sometimes for years — about declaring something is an ancient document or object until detailed research and methodological studies can be done. A case in point was the Dead Sea Scrolls.

    Maeir’s work for the past decade has focused on excavating ancient Gath, a large Philistine city believed by many to be the home of Goliath from the biblical story of David and Goliath. Findings include letters on a pottery shard that represent “one of the earliest Canaanite inscriptions we have” that are similar to “how we understand the development of the name Goliath. But this is not Goliath’s cereal bowl,” he said.

    Among his most important tools are meticulous field methods, recording and analysis; an active and critical engagement with the interface between artifacts and the biblical text; a skepticism that precludes “automatic and senseless connections” between what is found in the ground and what the Bible says; and intensive use of multi-disciplinary studies that look at every scientific aspect of what is found.

    Using such methods, Maeir said he believes biblical archaeology should continue, with a “very sophisticated but non-parochial viewpoint. There’s no reason to be afraid to use archaeological remains to understand the reality embedded in the biblical text, even if it’s not popular in the post-modern world.”

    For information on Maeir’s excavations at Tell es-Safi (known as Gath), see,5143,695230112,00.html


  2. Shattering a `national mythology`

    Ofri Ilani – Haaretz – In his book “Matai ve`ech humtza ha`am hayehudi?” (“When and How the Jewish People Was Invented”) Prof. Shlomo Sand [states that] the Jewish people is a colorful mix of groups that at various stages in history adopted the Jewish religion. The description of the Jews as a wandering and self-isolating nation of exiles, “who wandered across seas and continents, reached the ends of the earth and finally, with the advent of Zionism, made a U-turn and returned en masse to their orphaned homeland,” is nothing but “national mythology” [not unlike the mythologies of] other national movements in Europe.


  3. Was a “Mistress of the Lionesses” a King in Ancient Canaan?

    Monday, April 6, 2009

    TAU uncovers evidence that a woman led in the holy land

    Illustration of the plaque found by Tel Aviv University researchers at Tel Beit Shemesh in 2008.

    The legend is that the great rulers of Canaan, the ancient land of Israel, were all men. But a recent dig by Tel Aviv University archaeologists at Tel Beth-Shemesh uncovered possible evidence of a mysterious female ruler.

    Tel Aviv University archaeologists Prof. Shlomo Bunimovitz and Dr. Zvi Lederman of the Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Civilizations have uncovered an unusual ceramic plaque of a goddess in male dress, suggesting that a mighty female “king” may have ruled the city. If true, they say, the plaque would depict the only known female ruler of the region.

    The plaque itself depicts a figure dressed as royal male figures and deities once appeared in Egyptian and Canaanite art. The figure’s hairstyle, though, is womanly and its bent arms are holding lotus flowers — attributes given to women. This plaque, art historians suggest, may be an artistic representation of the “Mistress of the Lionesses,” a female Canaanite ruler who was known to have sent distress letters to the Pharaoh in Egypt reporting unrest and destruction in her kingdom.

    “We took this finding to an art historian who confirmed our hypothesis that the figure was a female,” says Dr. Lederman. “Obviously something very different was happening in this city. We may have found the ‘Mistress of the Lionesses’ who’d been sending letters from Canaan to Egypt. The destruction we uncovered at the site last summer, along with the plaque, may just be the key to the puzzle.”

    A Lady Ruler in Pre-Exodus Canaan

    Dr. Zvi Lederman, Prof. Shlomo Bunimovitz, Tel Aviv University
    Dr. Zvi Lederman (left) and
    Prof. Shlomo Bunimovitz
    Around 1350 BCE, there was unrest in the region. Canaanite kings conveyed their fears via clay tablet letters to the Pharaoh in Egypt, requesting military help. But among all the correspondence by kings were two rare letters that stuck out among the 382 el‑Amarna tablets uncovered a few decades ago by Egyptian farmers. The two letters came from a “Mistress of the Lionesses” in Canaan. She wrote that bands of rough people and rebels had entered the region, and that her city might not be safe. Because the el-Amarna tablets were found in Egypt rather than Canaan, historians have tried to trace the origin of the tablets.

    “The big question became, ‘What city did she rule?’” Dr. Lederman and Prof. Bunimovitz say. The archaeologists believe that she ruled as king (rather than “queen,” which at the time described the wife of a male king) over a city of about 1,500 residents. A few years ago, Tel Aviv University’s Prof. Nadav Naaman suggested that she might have ruled the city of Beth Shemesh. But there has been no proof until now.

    “The city had been violently destroyed, in a way we rarely see in archaeology,” says Prof. Bunimovitz, who points to many exotic finds buried under the destruction, including an Egyptian royal seal, bronze arrowheads and complete large storage vessels. They suggest a large and important city-state, well enmeshed within East Mediterranean geo-political and economic networks.

    Time for a New Interpretation of Biblical History?

    Tel Aviv University archaeologists say that the new finds might turn the interpretation of pre-biblical history on its head. The people of the time were pagans who had a very elaborate religious system.

    “It was a very well-to-do city,” says Lederman. “Strangely, such extensive destruction, like what we found in our most recent dig, is a great joy for archaeologists because people would not have had time to take their belongings. They left everything in their houses. The site is loaded with finds,” he says, adding that the expensive items found in the recent level points to it as one the most important inland Canaanite cities.

    The discovery of the plaque, and the evidence of destruction recorded in the el-Amarna tablets, could confirm that the woman depicted in the figurine was the mysterious “Mistress of the Lionesses” and ruled Canaanite Beth Shemesh. “There is no evidence of other females ruling a major city in this capacity,” Lederman and Bunimovitz say. “She is the only one. We really hope to find out more about her this summer.”


  4. Inscription From the Time of Kings David & Solomon Found Near Southern Wall of Temple Mount in Hebrew University Excavations

    10 July 2013 Hebrew University of Jerusalem

    Working near the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, Hebrew University of Jerusalem archaeologist Dr. Eilat Mazar has unearthed the earliest alphabetical written text ever uncovered in the city.

    The inscription is engraved on a large pithos, a neckless ceramic jar found with six others at the Ophel excavation site. According to Dr. Mazar, the inscription, in the Canaanite language, is the only one of its kind discovered in Jerusalem and an important addition to the city’s history.

    Dated to the tenth century BCE, the artifact predates by two hundred and fifty years the earliest known Hebrew inscription from Jerusalem, which is from the period of King Hezekiah at the end of the eighth century BCE.

    A third-generation archaeologist working at the Hebrew University’s Institute of Archaeology, Dr. Mazar directs archaeological excavations on the summit of the City of David and at the southern wall of the Temple Mount.

    The discovery will be announced in a paper by Dr. Mazar, Prof. Shmuel Ahituv of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and Dr. David Ben-Shlomo of the Hebrew University, following their extensive research on the artifact. Prof. Ahituv studied the inscription and Dr. Ben-Shlomo studied the composition of the ceramic materials. The paper, “An Inscribed Pithos From the Ophel,” appears in the Israel Exploration Journal 63/1 (2013).

    The inscription was engraved near the edge of the jar before it was fired, and only a fragment of it has been found, along with fragments of six large jars of the same type. The fragments were used to stabilize the earth fill under the second floor of the building they were discovered in, which dates to the Early Iron IIA period (10th century BCE). An analysis of the jars’ clay composition indicates that they are all of a similar make, and probably originate in the central hill country near Jerusalem.

    According to Prof. Ahituv, the inscription is not complete and probably wound around the jar’s shoulder, while the remaining portion is just the end of the inscription and one letter from the beginning. The inscription is engraved in a proto-Canaanite / early Canaanite script of the eleventh-to-tenth centuries BCE, which pre-dates the Israelite rule and the prevalence of Hebrew script.

    Reading from left to right, the text contains a combination of letters approximately 2.5 cm tall, which translate to m, q, p, h, n, (possibly) l, and n. Since this combination of letters has no meaning in known west-Semitic languages, the inscription’s meaning is unknown.

    The archaeologists suspect the inscription specifies the jar’s contents or the name of its owner. Because the inscription is not in Hebrew, it is likely to have been written by one of the non-Israeli residents of Jerusalem, perhaps Jebusites, who were part of the city population in the time of Kings David and Solomon.

    Excavations at the site are conducted in collaboration with the Israel Antiquities Authority, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, and the East Jerusalem Development Company. The site is in the national park surrounding the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, near the southern wall of the Temple Mount compound. The Israel Antiquities Authority maintains the excavation site as a national park open to the public.

    The excavations are made possible through a generous donation by Daniel Mintz and Meredith Berkman of New York. Participants in the dig include Israeli students and workers, along with students or alumni of Herbert W. Armstrong College sent to Jerusalem from Edmond, Oklahoma to participate in the excavation.


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