Bible, Archaeology and Science


Jan Gunneweg Ph.D.

This webpage contains a tentative answer to critical remarks concerning the integration of Bible, Archaeology and Science in general as well as to a news paper article of Zev Herzog published in Maariv (November 1999) in particular.

Let us assume that Zev Herzog considered well his 'Big Bang' (in his words) before he went to the media and against the Bible. His argument was that the Israelites "have not been in Egypt, had not wandered in the desert, did not conquer Canaan, whereas King David's existence was doubtful" He concluded that it is obvious that 50 years of archaeology in Israel has not come up with a single piece of evidence that would corroborate the biblical narratives. From a didactic point of view, Herzog followed a wrong assessment because he assumed that what HE maintains is the truth without providing any substantial evidence to sustain his refusal of the historical Bible.

Herzog overlooks the fact that if one cannot prove a theory, one does neither have per se the civil right nor the duty to just dismiss it. In court one is innocent until proven otherwise. Likewise in science, one has to prove that a previously held theory has no right of existence.

If Herzog was motivated by a patriotic urge to tell the Israeli community --what he actually expressed in the last paragraph of the English version of his article-- as 'the right of the people to know'--nobody could have had anything against his declaration of biblical doubts because a large part of the population has, indeed, never heard of what he published. Over the years, many historians and archaeologists alike have pointed out that many stories in the Bible should be taken with a grain of salt, the story of the famous walls of Jericho being one of them. So thus far, no news under the sun.

However, if one goes to the media, one must also think about the consequences that the printed text will have in different fields not covered by academic research such as Bible Exegesis, Archaeology and History. The fact is that everybody today interprets every scoop he hears into his own direction, the Palestinians being fast and swift in declaring that if Herzog is right, the State of Israel and especially Jerusalem as its capital have no right of existence if it is build on the premise that its Jewish forefathers were there before as numerous scholars (and politicians) have declared basing themselves on the Bible. From the past experience on the archaeological information about Peleshet (the land of the Philistines) Herzog should have learned something because Peleshet or Palestine (Herodotus) was explained by the Palestinians (Housseini) as the land of their forefathers with the right to be there and in every place where the name Palestine was refering to. Herzog should have known on these grounds that also this time the discussion would swiftly be used against the State of Israel.

That the Bible is a conglomerate framework of stories for a woman/man of faith (a believer) and not an accurate account of what really happened, is also nothing new. A few years ago, also the story of the fall of Masada in 74 A.D. was attacked on exactly the same grounds because it did not correspond to Flavius Josephus's account that the inhabitants of Masada committed suicide "en mass" but that archaeology did not encover the right amount of skeletons that should have been there. I have always taught my students that there is a Rule of Thumb that when one does not have a superior theory than the existing one, one better waits until one finds a more plausible explanation before refuting the old theory. Also in the Masada account, the absence of the skeletons does not refute a thing because the archaeologists have neither uncovered the entire mound of Masada nor its environment whereas a mass grave could have easily been overlooked since it has not to be per se near the mound of Masada.

Let us for a moment recapitulate the gist of Herzog's reading of the Bible. He says that there is no chronology for the Patriarchs.

The question however is: Is that really necessary? We grasp the importance of the biblical narrative also without to freeze the account of its primary (perhaps imaginary) characters somewhere in time.

Herzog mentions that some nomads due to a drought often took the direction of Egypt--the wheat basket of the Fertile Crescent--and that the biblical exodus was the account of one such a small tribe not that of a people.

One might respond: The entire story of the exodus doesn't diminish its impact because of the lack of the volume of its masses. It still shows the finger of the Almighty in leading His people to better pastures. It remains the main theme of the Exodus tale that was important to be told at a time that the bible was written.

Herzog sees the Canaanite cities as unfortified settlements?

We cannot call Hazor an unfortified city. And even if Herzog is right in the south of the country, some of these cities such as Ascalon and Gezer (mentioned by name in Herzog's paper) were however important enough to be mentioned by name in the Merneptah Egyptian annals. So were Canaan and Israel, a sign that they meant something to the Egyptian writer. That we are not able to verify when exactly an exodus took place, worth to be told to prosterity, is our fault and not that of the Bible.

Herzog echoes Finkelstein's theory that the early Israelites must have been farmers and keepers of sheep and also that is nothing new either.

The assessment that Jerusalem became only important after 722 BC because the Jewish leaders needed to prove that their capital existed, is contradicted by the finds at Kuntillet 'Adjrud where we by means of neutron activation proved that the pottery inscribed and decorated with JEHOVA AND HIS ASHERA was locally made in Jerusalem long before 722 BC. and exported from there to a far outpost in the desert that served as a shrine during the 9th century BC. so, prior to 722 BC. This is an interesting thought.

Not having found the Citadel of Jerusalem of the Early Iron Age I, nor the graves of its early kings does not mean a thing either. For example, a Greek archaeologist looked solely for thirty long years for the grave of Alexander the Great's father, Philip of Macedonia, until he finally uncovered one of the richest tombs ever found in Greece.

I see the biblical message in the context of what follows: When Homer tried to show his audience in the 8th century BC the rich Greek heritage, he took the legends of the greek gods and the kings and villans and heros as having existed in the Mycenaean period, 600 years earlier and nobody denies today what Homer has given to mankind about the understanding of early Greece. Nobody also two centuries ago thought of any truth in these accounts, until Schliemann with Homer's Iliad in his hands wandered around and discovered Mycenae and Troy.

The Bible has beaten even odd Homer since it became the basis of three great religions, Judaism, Christianity and Muslim faiths that survived until today, and to my opinion, it will take a larger "Big Bang" than Herzog's to get rid of these. Another idea concerning Herzog's paper is that I am already looking forward to a follow-up regarding the New Testament that also has similar problems as advanced by Herzog.

Herzog's publication does not harm any of the people who believe in the Bible since they take the biblical message at face value and do not need proof. Herzog's apparently hastily written paper, however, is damaging to archaeology. It seems that if field archaeology does not find material evidence, nothing else can be done. Where is the importance of laboratory methods that are able to establish much more than the human eye can detect. Today, analytical techniques are able to prove certain facts with objective means. For example, various dating methods can date wood, bones, pottery and even glass. For example, nuclear science was able to prove that the first Philistine pottery found in Israel was not imported from the Mycenaean Argolid in Greece, as every archaeologist thought until 1969, until neutron activation showed that their pottery was locally made in Ashdod and later also in Ekron. They imitated Mycenaean-like ceramics and we are even able to say how they did it.

Also the Edomite presence in Judah, known to us from the biblical accounts, is today tackled by neutron activation and we can detect which pottery was "Edomite" -- as coming from Edom in Transjordan-- and what ceramics were locally made in Judahite sites where "Edomite" pottery has been found.

In the context of more science applied to Bible, History and Archaeology, Lancet of the Weizman Institute reminded us to re- read Villikovsky because the man (Vilikosvsky) was misunderstood. Lancet argued that archaeologists should pay attention to read Vilikovsky who suggested to lower the dating of archaeological finds by 500 years than that we know today. By so doing, the Philistines would appear in the Greek world.

Well, I am asking myself: How can the Philistines become Greek or Persian people when their pottery is accompanied by that of Late Bronze Cypriote pottery and two meters of debris with different layers of cultural remains of at least 500 years before the Greek period level is reached in Ashdod, Ashkelon and Ekron? Science has its place in all this, but it also has not to be overemphasized.

An archaeological find sometimes proves a written text of which we have not the faintest idea when it was written. The Priestly prayer found on a tiny silver scroll in Katef Ben Gehinnom proves that the text was already existing because it was quoted from an existing source that later was incorporated in the Bible. Sometimes, the archaeological information is the only source we have and not the biblical text. My late teacher, Yohanan Aharoni took his idea of digging in Tel Sheba from an ostrakon that he found in Arad that mentioned the "Temple in Beer Sheba". In the Bible, there is no mention of a temple to have existed in Beer Sheba. In 1969, Aharoni started to excavate and found the entire Iron Age city of Beer Sheba, including its temple.

Is Science, finally, able to solve archaeological questions? For over twenty years we have tried--as my 'Oratio pro domo'--to trace the provenience of pottery in order to prove trade and other relations between populations of different eras. Our laboratory of archaeometry in Jerusalem, alas closed because of narrowsighted bureaucrats, was the first to prove that the Philistines made their Mycenaean IIIC 1b pottery locally at Ashdod and Ekron, that the Hellenistic and Roman Terra Sigillata pottery was probably imported from eastern Cyprus, that Nabataean Painted Fine Ware was only manufactured in Petra and its environment and that the inscriptions of "Jahweh and His Ashera" were found on large storage jars in the shrine of Kuntillet 'Adjrud that were made and imported from the capital Jerusalem. Furthermore, Mycenaean pottery found in Dan and Akko came from two different sites in Greece, something that nobody could have foreseen.

The second goal for a scientist working in the domain of archaeology would be to get an independent chronometry of the timespan wherein the various cultures left their cultural remains for prosterity. Today, the stylistic approach on ceramics is relative to the Egyptian chronology and the context of the pottery found and dated according to pharaonic dynasties. It would be, however, a good idea to check the Egyptian chronology with all of the different dating methods at our disposal and not just by carbon 14 dating alone.

A possible benefit of Herzog's paper is perhaps that the research in the Bible, History and scientific applications to Archaeology will boom. And in that case, Herzog's contribution was a good start.

During an evening of discussions among Israeli scholars from different disciplines at the Ben Zvi Institute in Jerusalem, Jair Zakovitz expressed the following: The biblical writer wrote for the present, took his source from the past with his eyes toward the future. Roots are build from today going backward in time as any good researcher will do. The biblical writers needed to start with a revolutionary idea: Monotheism and needed a manifesto to prove it. They were no reformers but restorers of ideas that existed before the time they actually wrote. Israelites were a sort of 'new Canaanites' with a different religion. The biblical books should not be read as a historical overview of what really took place, but as a literary expression for a framework of the manifesto. Zakovitz told his audience that there are various Mozesses (reformers), Yeroboam and later Jesus being some of them. They all came with a revolutionary idea. The reason why the story is told is important, not how it is told. Zakovitz suggested that an archaeologist should first dig into the ground without looking to the Book and only later take it up and compare.

Sara Jafet took the main headings of Herzog's paper and extrapolated that Herzog's paper was real Israeli in the sense that it corresponds to the question of every down_to_earth Israeli who would ask whether the stories in the Bible are real or not. It is a black against white picture, grey being overlooked. Politically, she said, that is important to them. She found the written record important. Without a writing, there is no history--thereby implicitly minimalizing the role of archaeology as a source. The Bible reflects the moment of writing, so also the history around the time period it was written down.

Nadav Neeman held that the time of the biblical accounts is important. For him, writing is not just a list of tablets or ostraka with records of how much wheat, gold or sheep were traded. Israel after a difficult start with a new alphabet, started to write its memoires only in the 8th century BC. The name 'Israel' for the entire country starts only after northern Israel (Samaria) fell in 722 BC. It took 300 years to record these facts and many inaccuracies came in when it takes so long before the text was finaly edited and written down.

To the contrary, one may say that this example refutes the importance of the Qumran Dead Sea Scrolls that has given us a 2000 years ago proof of the biblical text that, in principle, remained the same as we had before the scrolls were found in 1947. Important items are never forgotten.

Zachariah Kallay said that history must go together with geography and especially topography. In earlier texts there is already a latent hint in the topographical enumeration of the sites that only later will become patent within a historical framework. He holds the idea that many different disciplines will finally give the overall picture of what reallly took place in the biblical account. He said that in prehistory we don't have texts so that everything is uncovered and interpreted by archaeology alone. However, if Josua tells us that the Israelites lived in the hills, we have to take it as true. Likewise, also the United Monarchy is no invention because the writer's contemporaries would react against him in case of bluff.

Israel Finkelstein started out with saying that Wellhausen --long before a spade was put in Israel's soil, i.e. before archaeology started in the Holy Land--already told the world that the biblical narrative did not correspond to the truth. In reaction to Wellhausen, Albright, spearpointing the American scholars against the Germans, maintained that everything in the Bible was right. Little by little, it was experienced that also this was not true either. The present archaeologists--being followers of the school of Albright--come back from that statement and Herzog arrived again to what Wellhausen had said a century ago.

Finkelstein proposed that somewhere at the end 8th century BC the Bible was written for a political or religious purpose. Since history is written for a crowd--it has to have clients--, the content had to be acceptable whereas one had to know about what the biblical writer was talking. He could not just invent his stories, but they had to have truth in them. When did this political message become urgent? Finkelstein thinks that after the fall of Samaria in 722 BC. it became a must for the regime in Jerusalem--being the capital of Judah--to tell its people to not ever let happen the same fate to Jerusalem as what happened to Samaria in 722 BC.

The sole source of our knowledge on the timespan between 1200-800 BC is therefore only archaeology and not the Bible. On the other side, he agreed that the ancient site of Shilo that he excavated himself was found to consist of only a few houses. However, its recorded impact in the Bible is enormous and much more than what he as archaeologist found. Juda, according to Finkelstein, started somewhere between Bethel and Beer Sheba as a narrative for cooping with a trauma that started after the 722 catastrophy in the north.

Amnon Ben Tor argued that one cannot separate the Bible from Archaeology. He proposed that each discipline should first thoroughly do its own specific part. He further emphasized that Merneptah's inscription mentioning Israel must be seen as an important document for the age of our history.

The title of this short paper suggests a so-called integration between history, bible and the approach though hard science, or better still the integration between the scholars of different disciplines. However, sometimes we are too hard pushing to make it work.

Let me take an example from the Dynosaur project (an euphemism for iridium measurements on the outfall of an enormous astroid) started between four people in Berkeley's LBNL laboratory: Frank Asaro, Helen Michel and the Nobel prize winner Louis Alvarez and his son Walter Alvarez. It grew out to a multi-national collaboration because scholars in different disciplines were interested to work together not because they envisioned collaboration at the start. The project grew in importance when results came to light.

Also the Qumran project whereby we are tracing the chemical composition of the different styles of pottery in order to show the relations between Qumran and its near and remote environment has started with only three people. Others will certainly join us when we have published our first results.

And so, there is work to be done for everybody who wants to preserve the past for our present and for the generations to come by showing the long way it took in order to arrive where we are and will be on this Earth and beyond.