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Shifting Ground in the Holy Land

Archaeology is casting new light on the Old Testament

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By 1985, Zertal had concluded that the stone structure was Joshua’s altar. It fit the Bible’s description of the site, he says, and its ramp and other features are consistent with ancient accounts of the altar at the Second Temple in Jerusalem—another example of such a structure in ancient Israel. In addition, Zertal says he found charred animal bones at the site, which he interpreted as sacrificial offerings. To Zertal, the “altar” proves that the Israelites crossed the Jordan and entered Canaan, just as the Old Testament says they did.

Zertal, 60, has a poetic affinity for the land he has spent so much time surveying. Talking to local Bedouin shepherds in Arabic about place names and checking them against biblical references, he has found what he says are more than 300 Israelite sites from the early Iron Age (or Iron Age I, as the years 1200 to 1000 b.c. are known), moving gradually westward into Israel.

But he has yet to submit his Ebal finds to radiocarbon dating. And he professes a dislike for the common archaeological practice of establishing chronologies by radiocarbon dating potsherds, or pieces of broken pottery. “Others see things through the narrow keyhole of pottery,” he tells me as I join him on one of his Friday walkabouts. “I prefer to see things in a wider perspective: history, Bible, literature, poetry.”

While Zertal’s findings on Mount Ebal have given comfort to those in Israel and elsewhere who take the Bible literally, few of his fellow archaeologists have accepted his conclusions. In an article in the Biblical Archaeology Review in 1986, Aharon Kempinski of Tel Aviv University contended that the stones were actually part of a watchtower from the first part of the Iron Age, and that there is “no basis whatever for interpreting this structure as an altar.” Most archaeologists have ignored the find. “Adam Zertal is the lone wolf,” says Uzi Dahari, deputy director of the Israel Antiquities Authority. “He’s working alone.”

“There’s definitely an Iron I site there, and there may even be evidence for cultic activity,” says Israel Finkelstein, an archaeologist at Tel Aviv University. “But I don’t think that you can take the Book of Joshua and use it as a guidebook to the architectural landscape. Joshua was put in writing much later than the events it describes and is full of ideologies related to the needs of the writers.”

Though Finkelstein occupies the middle ground between the literalists and the minimalists, he has led the challenge to traditional biblical archaeology in Israel for the past decade. He offers a markedly different picture of Israel’s early history.

Finkelstein and co-author Neil Asher Silberman rocked the world of biblical archaeology with the publication, five years ago, of The Bible Unearthed. The book argues that the biblical accounts of early Israelite history reveal more about the time they were written—the seventh century b.c.—than the events they describe, which would have taken place centuries earlier. The book also maintains that Israeli archaeologists have indulged in a kind of circular reasoning, drawing on biblical references to date a potsherd, for example, and then using it to identify places described in the Bible. The Bible, Finkelstein believes, should be used far more cautiously in interpreting archaeological sites.

Last year, Finkelstein received the $1 million Dan David Prize for innovative research, awarded by an international venture based at Tel Aviv University. But his work has proved controversial. Several archaeologists have challenged his finding that some ruins related to Solomon are too recent to fit into the biblical account of his reign (“a huge distortion,” says Amihai Mazar of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem). David Hazony, editor of a journal sponsored by a conservative Israeli think tank, wrote that “the urge to smash myths has overtaken sound judgment” in Finkelstein’s work. In an essay in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, Hershel Shanks, editor of the Biblical Archaeology Review, likened Finkelstein to the minimalists, who, he said, were “anti-Israel” and “anti-Semitic” for their “faddish lack of pride in Israel’s history.”

Over lunch on the Tel Aviv University campus, Finkelstein, 57, jokes that his more conservative colleagues “are the guardians of the true faith. We are the simple apostates.” More seriously, he adds: “I was surprised that some scholars are completely deaf and blind, in my opinion, and they don’t accept the inevitable and very clear evidence.”

He cites the fact—now accepted by most archaeologists—that many of the cities Joshua is supposed to have sacked in the late 13th century b.c. had ceased to exist by that time. Hazor was destroyed in the middle of that century, and Ai was abandoned before 2000 b.c. Even Jericho, where Joshua is said to have brought the walls tumbling down by circling the city seven times with blaring trumpets, was destroyed in 1500 b.c. Now controlled by the Palestinian Authority, the Jericho site consists of crumbling pits and trenches that testify to a century of fruitless digging.

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