Archaeology and the Bible – Yet Another Personal Viewpoint

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By: Aren M. Maeir

Views of the excavations at Tell es-Safi/Gath, courtesy of Aren M. Maeir.

Views of the excavations at Tell es-Safi/Gath, courtesy of Aren M. Maeir.

Biblical Archaeology, that so-popular yet so-vilified profession, deals with the interface between the archaeological remains and the cultures in which the biblical texts were incubated, formed, edited and collected. We archaeologists therefore deal with a large corpus of finds from many periods and cultures, as it is clear that the biblical text mirrors, to various extents, facets of many cultural periods and regions. Since our profession deals with what, on face value, is the physical evidence of texts that are at the very foundation of western culture and religions, it has always been very popular, both for the believer and the non-believer. On the other hand, early attempts to “prove” the biblical texts on the basis of the archaeological remains were wrought with problems, which helped give the profession a bad name in some quarters.

These problems – the eagerness to “prove” the Bible, the flimsiness of many of the data and arguments brought as proofs, and an often tendentious religious orientation – has, and in fact, still does, affect both the public’s view of Biblical Archaeology. To a large extent, it also shapes how many inside this profession comprehend the relationship between the Bible and archaeological remains.

Views of the excavations at Tell es-Safi/Gath, courtesy of Aren M. Maeir.

Views of the excavations at Tell es-Safi/Gath, courtesy of Aren M. Maeir.

On the one hand, there are archaeologists who claim that the improper relationship between the Bible and the material remains that often characterized earlier generations of Biblical Archaeology is a red flag for work in the present. Thus, archaeologists dealing with Bronze, Iron Age and later periods should try, as much as possible, not to involve the biblical text in their interpretations – rather, they should leave textual studies to the textual scholars.

On the other hand, some archaeologists argue that this latter approach is in fact throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Even if the relationship between the biblical texts and the archaeological remains is not as simple as it would appear, the biblical texts nevertheless often do reflect the cultures of the time and periods in which they were created. This can sometimes be seen in archaeological remains – and can be used to better understand both the archaeological remains on the one hand – and the biblical texts on the other.

For the most part, I very much agree with this latter approach, save for one important issue. All too often, archaeologists who attempt to bridge between the archaeological remains and the biblical texts do this without taking into account the latest and most up-to-date biblical research. The modern study of the Bible is a vigorous field of research over the last 150 years or more. New insights into multiple facets of these texts are constantly developing and expanding. If one wants to utilize these texts for scientific research, such as finding the interface between Bible and artifacts, it is of paramount importance that this be done only with the most updated biblical research tools and understandings. Historical, literary textual, and linguistic studies continue to refine and complicate our understandings of the Bible rather than simplify them.

Views of the excavations at Tell es-Safi/Gath, courtesy of Aren M. Maeir.

Views of the excavations at Tell es-Safi/Gath, courtesy of Aren M. Maeir.

I would like to bring a few examples of this, and I’ll start with a topic that I deal with on a regular basis – the Philistines. As the excavator of Gath of the Philistines (Tell es-Safi/Gath), which according to the biblical text is the home town of Goliath, there would be nothing simpler and easier than relating to the biblical narrative on the battle between David and Goliath as an accurate historical description of a specific event, occurring at a well-known location, at a defined time, between two well-known and real protagonists.

Views of the excavations at Tell es-Safi/Gath, courtesy of Aren M. Maeir.

Views of the excavations at Tell es-Safi/Gath, courtesy of Aren M. Maeir.

But as modern biblical scholarship has demonstrated conclusively, the narrative of the David and Goliath battle in I Samuel 17 has a complex redactional history, making it quite clear that one cannot relate to this text in a simplistic manner. Thus, any attempt to identify this or that site as the location of the specific camp of the Israelites before this battle is quite problematic. And thus, when we found an inscription from Tell es-Safi/Gath from the 10th/9th cent. BCE with two names that are linguistically similar to the name Goliath – we did not claim that we had found Goliath’s cereal bowl.

On the other hand, the biblical emphasis on the Philistines as a the “ultimate other” vis-à-vis the Israelites/Judahites can play an important role in understanding the formation processes of the biblical text. Since we know clearly that the Philistine culture completely disappeared at the end of the Iron Age, the fact that the biblical text deals with the Philistines so extensively, and demonstrates knowledge of the cultural origins and characteristics of the Philistines (such as in names, cultic facets, origins, etc.), can be seen as clear evidence that these biblical texts preserve bona-fide cultural memories, originating in the Iron Age, which are reflected in the texts. And thus, any claims that pre-Persian period materials are not reflected in the biblical texts are hard to accept.

Views of the excavations at Tell es-Safi/Gath, courtesy of Aren M. Maeir.

Views of the excavations at Tell es-Safi/Gath, courtesy of Aren M. Maeir.

The problem of reading the biblical text as if it is a monolithic narrative reflecting Iron Age realia can be seen time and again. For example, efforts to explain Israelite/Judahite architecture as reflecting biblical laws of purity, takes for granted that these cultic texts do date to the Iron Age, while in fact, most scholars would date them to post-Iron Age times.

Thus, we must be very careful when try and correlate between text and artifact – but on the other hand, not hesitate to do this if the comparisons are carefully carried out.

Time and again, however, we see examples of archaeologists who attempt to “read” the Bible in a simplistic manner, claiming that this or that find proves and/or disproves a portion of the text. Perhaps the most simplistic and amusing was the 1929 discovery of the Chalcolithic site of Teleilat Ghassul (dating to the fifth millennium BCE), which was thought to be the place where Joshua circumcised the Israelites after crossing the Jordan River, thanks to the large number of flint tools scattered on the surface!

Though extreme, similar logic in reading Biblical accounts is sometimes still seen today. Unfortunately, time and again we see announcements of the press of the discovery of astounding biblical finds, directly relating to this biblical figure or that biblical event – but on close examination, these claims are often quite specious.

Such simplifications are simply unacceptable from a scientific point of view, since it is clear that the biblical text is a multi-layered text(s), created over an extensive period of time. In fact, the Bible itself is very much like an archaeological tell, with its many layers and complex history. To attempt to reduce the biblical text to a single layered text is just as bad as if someone would come to a multi-period site and claim that all the layers represent one period or event!

Views of the excavations at Tell es-Safi/Gath, courtesy of Aren M. Maeir.

Views of the excavations at Tell es-Safi/Gath, courtesy of Aren M. Maeir.

Clearly, if one does want to venture into the study of the interface between Bible and material cultural remains (that is, the archaeological finds), it must be done ONLY if you use the most up-to-date biblical research – otherwise – this is not serious science! Just as I would expect an archaeologist utilizing other fields of research (such as chemistry, physics, geomorphology, etc.), to be up-to-date in these scientific applications (and not utilize research methods and theory of several decades ago), so – this is what I expect of an archaeologist who wishes to integrate biblical textual studies into his research. And if the archaeologist is not sufficiently familiar with the up-to-date biblical research – then experts who are should be consulted!

Otherwise, good science, and robust and well-based conclusions, will not result from this.

Caveat emptor!

Aren Maeir is Professor of Archaeology in the Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology at Bar-Ilan University and director of the Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project.

 

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3 Comments for : Archaeology and the Bible – Yet Another Personal Viewpoint
    • G.M. Grena
    • December 12, 2013

    Just out of curiosity, if a group of Jews born in the 1950s were to perform circumcisions using "Chalcolithic" flint tools found "scattered on the surface" somewhere in Israel, would you automatically assume they must be 5,000 years old?

    • Richard Easton
    • December 18, 2013

    Seems to be a balanced view. However, written materials are among the best archaeological artifacts. Serious weight should be given to test theories of the evolution of the text, against the text itself as a reliable witness.

    • Eve Engelbrite
    • December 18, 2013

    I have been "finding the interface between Bible and artifacts," and have come to the conclusion that the city of Gath was Tell Miqne.

    It's stratum VII was of a large Philistine city. It's stratum VI contained Philistine bi-chrome ware. It's stratum V has a palace-temple complex which correlates to king David calling Gath a "royal city" (I Samuel 27:3-5).

    Tell es-Safi (meaning "bright") is more likely Libnah (meaning "white"). The 4-room houses of its early strata point to it being an Israelite town after Joshua's conquest, later taken over by Philistines during the period of Israel's judges. Though it has a fortification, a palace has not been found.

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