A Proper Answer: Reflections on Archaeology, Archaeologists and Biblical Historiography

Posted in: Ancient Near East Today, ASOR

By Israel Finkelstein

ANEToday is pleased to present comments by noted archaeologist Israel Finkelstein, delivered at a joint session of ASOR and the Society of Biblical Literature titled “Rethinking Israel” (Boston, November). The session honored Professor Finkelstein’s many contributions and presented him with a festschrift, Rethinking Israel, Studies in the History and Archaeology of Ancient Israel in Honor of Israel Finkelstein, edited by Oded Lipschits, Yuval Gadot, and Matthew Adams.



Rethinking Israel.

I wonder what is going on? Does standing here in front of you, in a joint session of ASOR and SBL, which celebrates Rethinking Israel, mean that I have been “institutionalized”? This is a terrifying, compromising moment, which I can hardly contain. The whole thing is probably a mistake and therefore I am going to do my best this evening in order to de-institutionalize myself.

I have been in the field for 46 years, I have taught for 41 years and from the book that we are celebrating today, I learn that my academic record is not the worst, which means that I have earned my right to reflect on archaeology and archaeologists. Since this is a joint session of ASOR and SBL, and in order to comply with much of the contents of the book, I will put the spotlight on biblical historiography. I know that the event calls for me to behave myself and play the nice guy. Indeed, I will do my best to keep it light, but you cannot expect me, the man who has been described for so many years as an enfant terrible, to suddenly become a stately gentleman.  

Israel Finkelstein, Alex Joffe, and Oded Lipschits at Megiddo, 1996. Photo courtesy Alex Joffe.

Time has not yet come to summarize. For those wishing me to disappear, rest assured that I am still around and plan to be kicking for a while. Yet, I can reflect on one issue: I have been blessed by being surrounded by clever, enthusiastic, innovative young people – graduate students, post-docs and other associates. They have enriched my thinking and understanding in numerous ways. I could not have reached this and other moments of honor without their contributions. There is nothing more satisfactory than a day at the university discussing ten different new frontiers with students and young colleagues; in fact, there is – spending that same day with my students challenging my theories. 

Israel Finkelstein and some of his students.

I suppose that I need to explain the title of my talk. "A Proper Answer" comes from a saying of Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol in the 1960s. After this or that incident along the borders, journalists would ask him how the government intends to react. Clever Eshkol, who did not want to commit himself, would answer: "the booklet is open and the hand is recording; they will get a proper Zionist answer." So make no mistake, my beloved friends, contributors to the book: Those of you who challenged the Finkelstein Dogma will get a "proper answer" – and soon. Soon, because in such cases there is no need to read the article in order to give a proper answer….

Now, what is the Finkelstein Dogma? You may have noticed during the years that I am not dogmatic; after all, I have even been criticized for frequently changing my views. Indeed, I have always followed the famous saying of the late Moshe Dayan, that “only donkeys do not change their mind” (there are many of them, by the way). But when it comes to the history of Ancient Israel, the topics of my research—though seemingly touching on many different issues—are not coincidental. They are pieces of an intricate machine, which has been built slowly and carefully during the years. Understandably, then, there are issues that can be described as the linchpins in the big picture. They are the Dogma; in order to change my views on these issues, I need to see clear-cut, non-disputable and unspun evidence.

The Bible Unearthed.

Let me now turn to some modest observations on our discipline. Here and there they may sound a bit harsh; remember that they come with amusement, with empathy to the profession and those who practice it – and with a wink.

In the field of archaeology of Israel and neighboring regions in the Bronze and Iron Ages, my ultimate goal is reconstructing history. I therefore see myself as a “historian practicing archaeology.” One of my closest associates has made a career of describing himself as a technician who brings the dry facts of archaeology to the high court of history and historians. Well, I have never been a technician and if there is a high court, I am confident enough to be a member of the jury. So, with all due respect to changes in the shape of the cooking pot’s rim, whether it is everted or inverted, this is not a topic worthy of devoting one’s life (at least my life) to. Of course, unless the cooking pot sheds light on something bigger in material culture, which in turn leads to better understanding of historical processes. 

Finkelstein at Megiddo

Speaking about material culture, we need to admit that the southern Levant was a marginal, backwater of the great Ancient Near Eastern civilizations. It has no outstanding monuments, no great archives and no beautiful art-treasures. As an archaeologist, I can disclose to you the sad fact that the people of the southern Levant were not capable of constructing a straight wall, or manufacturing a museum-piece object. The importance of archaeology in this part of the world stems from one thing only – the Bible – the Old and New Testaments. The world is interested in what we are doing, universities open positions, students come to dig with us and the media is enthusiastic to uncritically report every outrageous bit of babble or spin that issues forth from our mouths, only because we work in the cradle of Western Civilization. How to deal with biblical historiography is a different matter.

I see myself as being lucky on three fronts: to deal with the archaeology of such an important region, to focus on important periods related to the rise of Judeo-Christian civilization, and because of timing. Speaking about timing, I reached the frontline of research into the history of Ancient Israel when the traditional fortress of biblical archaeology started crumbling, enabling one to think differently and freely without being crushed by “authority” – the Thought Police. Many of us were there when the time was ripe; only some of us grabbed the opportunity. Make no mistake, there were endless attempts to stop me and others like me, with all sorts of “tricks and schticks,” some funny and others less so.

On the funny side, I remember giving a keynote address on archaeology and biblical historiography in an annual meeting of ASOR years ago; at the end of my talk, a respectable professor rose and asked: “what makes you say all this?” My answer was: “research my dear; but what makes you ask this question?” On the less funny side, I recall a conference some 20 years ago, when a self-declared Authority in our profession came to the stage saying: “well, Finkelstein is a good researcher, but note that what he said today all comes from current politics in Israel.” This was one of the rare moments in my career when I was (almost) left speechless. How could I answer this malicious remark other than noting that I cannot recall this professor standing next to me when I cast my ballot in the last election at home.

One of the most popular tools of intimidation was to declare, in deep Voice of Authority: “Finkelstein stands alone, all other leading archaeologists think differently.” Hearing this has always been a sweet moment when it became crystal-clear to me that I am on the right track, for three reasons: First, this was the moment to evaluate the stature of the Authority, and how to pose it gently – it was less than, say, Wellhausen’s. Second, I listed those whom Authority valued as “all other” archaeologists, and this was relieving: on one hand, the list has never been too nerve-wracking; on the other hand, I have never been truly alone; there have been good researchers, mainly young people, standing with me. Third and most important, as we all know, “standing alone” does not necessarily mean thinking incorrectly; in all fields of knowledge, imposing scholars have stood alone, unintimidated by majority opinion, and after what may have been arduous times, have come to prevail.

Let me elaborate on the meaning of “standing alone.” To start with, for the Voice of Authority, “majority” means a certain camp in the study of Ancient Israel. If Continental scholarship is considered legitimate (it is, isn’t it?), I never really stood alone. There are many sub-schools in the field of biblical historiography – one could say that their number matches the number of scholars in this field. But at the end of the day there are only two ways of thinking. The first engages in literal reading, striving to prove full historicity of the text. Accepting this path means betraying my profession by considering it a second-rate discipline, supplier of nice pictures to prove the biblical text to be fully historical. Second, the idea of devoting my career to repeating wonderful biblical verses in lesser modern language never looked appealing to me.

The second camp, the one to which I belong, puts archaeology in the front seat, as supplier of real-time evidence. And it looks at the history of the biblical authors rather than the historicity of biblically described events; these authors lived centuries after many of the text-described events ostensibly took place and self-evidently promote the ideology and theology of their own time and place. If this is considered the minority, I can only be relieved not to belong to the majority!

Now, among the “majority” scholars, two types are noteworthy. The first can be described as the guardians of the true faith. They are good archaeologists, invaluable collectors and publishers of data. But they see their mission in — and devote their career to— maintenance: sustaining conventional wisdoms. The second are those who go to the field with a theory and – lo and behold – always find the desired evidence to prove it. Poor me, I have never managed to find what I was looking for in the field. For me, the finds have always proven to be complicated, introducing new questions and calling for fresh thinking. Is something wrong with me? Either I am an incompetent excavator or the others are – how to say it gently – ignoring complicated situations. Well, beyond the fact that I sort of don’t like the former possibility, the answer is simple: this is the very essence of archaeology; it never supplies simplistic “proofs.” Incidentally, this last summer I escaped a compromising situation: I went to dig at Kiriath-jearim with a theory, and right at the beginning of the project I ostensibly found support for it in the field. This was terrifying. I was relieved when later things became confused.

Finkelstein at Kiriat-Jearim

In certain cases, when I innocently ask an individual belonging to the blessed “majority” camp, how is it that theory X or Y has no support in archaeology, he or she inevitably pulls out the doomsday answer: “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence; in the future, archaeology will provide the proof.” In the future? Fabulous; does this mean that the only thing one needs is to find the right archaeologist to supply the desired answer? More alarming: being proud of my profession, I wish it to be practiced like any other respectable discipline, such as chemistry, physics or microbiology, and differently from the reputed discipline of voodoo. In other words, we work with what we have—both positive and negative evidence—not according to what we wish to have or with what we will or will not find in the future.

Then there is the real magic: the idea that one piece of “evidence” can flip over the entire discipline of biblical historiography – two centuries of research. Just give me a few broken walls, a few eroded sherds, and the nightmare of critical scholarship will be beaten off. This has always been a riddle for me. Is the person presenting the “ultimate find” an illusionist or a juggler? And how is it that so many biblical scholars succumb to this trickery? So let me give you some advice: first thing is to look into the basics of the “evidence” – some surprises may be waiting there to be revealed. Second is to be confident of your profession: Critical scholarship into biblical historiography is not a pyramid standing on its tip, just waiting for an archaeologist to pull out a single block and make it come crashing down. Critical biblical historiography stands on a solid foundation; it is certainly possible to come forward with a new piece of evidence that calls for a reevaluation of a given theory, but this is not likely to topple the pyramid.

So far I have been relatively well-behaved. Time has come to be a bit more ruthless. It goes without saying that in the field of archaeology and biblical historiography, there are many clever, talented and innovative researchers. Here is a manual of how to deal with some of the others. I present this as a service to biblical scholars who belong to my own “camp”: How to resist being misled, or fooled.

Let me caution you about the three types of academics in our field who are the most menacing to research. First among them is the one who selects the data in advance in order to serve his/her agenda. Here is the modus operandi: Identify a problem, usually a theme central to biblical research; lament how disputed it is and say that you are coming with no agenda – just to look at the facts. Select the data in advance, in order to give you the desired results and then conduct your “study.” Oops – believe it or not – the results fit what you wished to prove from the outset.

Then there is the cultureless ignorant, who boasts about his/her ignorance. Here is how to operate: Make sure that you read nothing and know nothing. Don’t be ashamed of your ignorance; to the contrary, make it the flagship of your work. Endlessly repeat your ignorance in the most provocative way possible. Remember that those whom you are catering to do not care about your ignorance as long as you give them what they want to hear.

Finally, there is the Authority academic who delivers the ideas of others. Here is the mode of operation: Identify a topic in the forefront of research, preferably to do with Ancient Israel. You have little to say, so look for a scholar whose ideas you like. In order not to be accused of plagiarism, attack the author viciously, but then, with a sophisticated twist, sell his/her ideas as your own in a pompous manner. Present yourself as a critical scholar, but cater to church and synagogue.

Time has come to close. Have I painted too grim a picture for you? Perhaps, because there are many great scholars who promote wonderful ideas, and as I said, a large number of exceptionally talented young students. Thanks to them, the future of our discipline is bright, and we can expect fascinating discoveries.

And as for biblical historiography, remember that against all attempts to derange it with a single strike that comes from archaeology, starting with Baruch Spinoza four centuries ago, progress in the field of biblical historiography has been going in one direction only—and that direction is a critical reading of the text.

Israel Finkelstein is Jacob M. Alkow Professor of the Archaeology of Israel in the Bronze and Iron Ages at Tel Aviv University, a member of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities.


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