A lost temple – new findings might shatter Biblical archaeology paradigm

In his recent research, Zvi Koenigsberg may shed new light on long-held beliefs which are three millennia-old.

The site of the suggested altar with Tsvi Koenigsberg  serving as guide. (photo credit: ANDREW KOONCE)
The site of the suggested altar with Tsvi Koenigsberg serving as guide.
(photo credit: ANDREW KOONCE)
The Israelite Temple, which served as the religious and national center of the People of Israel since the days of King Solomon, was preserved in the historical memory of the nation as a symbol of national independence from foreign rule, Jewish uniqueness, and unity. It housed the Ark of the Covenant and it served as the center of cultic rites since 954 BCE. The Bible describes the temple as being on Mt. Moriah in Jerusalem. The mountain became associated with the structure, and already in the biblical Book of Micha, dating to the 8th century BCE, we see it is referred to as the Temple Mount: “…Jerusalem will became heaps of rubble/ The  Temple hill [Mount] a mound overgrown with thickets” [Micha 3:12, NIV].  According to Jewish oral tradition, which was written down by the Sages, Mt. Moriah (i.e. the eventual Temple Mount) is where the binding of Isaac took place.
But what if the Temple Mount was not the first central Israelite cultic site, but rather Mt. Ebal north of Shechem (current day Nablus)? What if “the Place the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for His name” [Deuteronomy 26:2] was not in Jerusalem? Such are the revolutionary claims of Zvi Koenigsberg, based on his groundbreaking research, which he presented at the Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem, on Oct 30th.
Roughly four decades since it was discovered by the late archaeologist Prof. Adam Zertal, the altar on Mt. Ebal raises questions about the early stage of the Israelite conquest of the land, and the emergence of Israelite ritual. Was the altar built by the Tribes of Israel when they arrived in Canaan? Can the finding verify the historical reality of the Blessing and the Curse described in Deuteronomy Chapter 11 and Joshua Chapter 8? Where did the tribes flock to in order to mark the three pilgrimage holidays before Solomon built his temple?
One of the first Jews in modern times to settle near Samaria and Mt. Ebal, Koenigsberg revealed his conclusions which might shake up currently accepted research about biblical archaeology. In doing so, he can rely on his years of working alongside the late Zertal, his involvement in the excavations starting from their first year, and his contribution in suggesting that the discovered remains of the central stone structure were an altar. Since then, he has been exploring the relationship between the findings on Mt. Ebal and biblical sources, as well as other relevant fields of research.
Speaking about the trigger which set him on his path, Koenigsberg mentions the late Prof. Benjamin Mazar, who is widely considered one of the pioneers of Biblical Archaeology. Koenigsberg met Mazar the very next day after identifying the central structure at Ebal as an altar, and he says that it was Mazar “who pushed me to study the topic. Nearly 36 years have passed since then, and I still continue.” On October 13, 1983, Koenigsberg saw Zertal’s sketch of the central structure at Ebal, and suggested that  it showed a great likeness to a drawing he was familiar with, namely the drawing which can be found in some editions of the Mishna, in Tractate Measurements, Chapter Three. It is a drawing of the altar of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, the temple built 70 years after Solomon’s Temple was burned down by the Babylonians.
“What followed was reading guided by Mazar and endless conversations with him,” said Koenigsberg. “Thanks to him, I was able to connect with various experts on the topic, many of whom invested their time to hear me out and help me with ideas and bibliography. What was required of me was to read a great number of volumes and articles, and to think outside the box.”
It is not only the People of Israel who have a special focus on the Temple Mount and the Temple. Islam and Christianly also have special interest in the site. The Temple Mount and the Temple appear more than 20 times in the New Testament. Naturally, even 3,000 years later, world leaders have a special interest in the place, and the disagreement over what belongs to whom seems far from being over. Former US President, Bill Clinton, suggested that Israeli sovereignty be implemented beneath the mountain.  The late King Hussein of Jordan suggested that sovereignty over what is known as ‘the historical basin’, meaning the holiest sites in Jerusalem, should be left to God. Prof. Ruth Lapidoth suggested that Israeli sovereignty over the site should be valid, but willingly suspended, meaning that Israel should agree to not fully exert it – which would separate the symbolic aspect of sovereignty from the aspect of running things on the ground. Since 1967 [the year in which Israel was able to take control of the site during the Six Day War] various plans and ideas have been brought forth to calm the tensions which are always simmering beneath the Temple Mount and on top of it. In that sense, the research Koenigsberg puts forth can have dramatic ramifications.
“This is the only burnt offering altar found in Israel,” Koenigsberg told Maariv, the sister publication of the Jerusalem Post.
“If I am right, the Ebal site is also the first temple of the People of Israel in their land, a title usually given to Jerusalem. The biblical phrase, “the Place that the Lord your God will choose”, is also usually attributed to Jerusalem, but according to my conclusions, the phrase referred to Ebal before it referred to Jerusalem. 
“If I am right - and this goes against all accepted views - this part of Deuteronomy was written before the other textual sources which comprise the Torah. If so, the nucleus of Deuteronomy is the first literary product of Western Civilization [written down] and predates the written Homeric epics, the ‘Iliad’ and the ‘Odyssey’, by four centuries.
“Perhaps the most important thing,” he explains, “is that an archaeological artifact [the altar] was found that can fairly accurately show that the things written down in the Torah are not entirely fictional inventions or folklore, but at least in part, based on a historical reality which really happened.”
Bar Ilan University Professor of Archaeology, Gabriel Barkay, explains that while there is a three-thousand-year tradition of placing a great deal of importance on Jerusalem, that does not mean that there weren’t other cultic sites before it. “Starting in 1982,” Barkay told Maariv, “the late Prof. Adam Zertal from Haifa University conducted excavations on Mt. Ebal.  During the course of his archaeological survey of the Mannaseh Hill Country, on April 6, 1980 Zertal found the Mt. Ebal site, which was dated to the 13th and 12th centuries BCE. It had massive amounts of bones belonging to animals the Torah regards as kosher which were eaten there, including cattle, sheep and goats, and fallow deer.
“While no ongoing human settlement was unearthed, a major structure was found, meaning this was not a site for everyday life but for ritual. The major structure was made from uncut stones, meaning stones that were not changed by human labor using iron tools, - and it is fairly square in its shape.”
“Based on the Mishna that Koenigsberg brought to his attention, Zertal suggested that it was an altar. And twice in the Bible, Deuteronomy 27 and Joshua 8,” Barkay said, “there is mention of an altar at Mt. Ebal. These things match.  We are certain that the place we call Mt. Ebal today, is verified as the Biblical Mt. Ebal.”
“No other site on Mount Ebal can match such descriptions, so this identification is logical.”
“The site functioned until the middle of the 12th century BCE, roughly 1140 BCE, when it was buried intentionally under rocks. We know that roughly from that time on, the center of Israelite cultic activity moved from the territory of the Tribe of Mannaseh to Shiloh in the territory of the Tribe of Ephraim [in central Israel]. Shiloh is where the cultic center, complete with the Ark of the Covenant and the Tabernacle moved to. During the 11th Century BCE Shiloh was destroyed, and the Bible tells us that King David had the Ark of the Covenant brought to Jerusalem. At the time, the Ark was inside the Tabernacle. David’s son, Solomon, built the House of the Lord. However, it was not called a temple then. The usage of that name only began during the Second Temple period.”
Regarding the revolutionary aspect of the research done by Koenigsberg, he says: “This is a massively important finding.
“In the 17th century, the Documentary Hypothesis was first suggested. It was fully developed by two people two centuries later, de Wette and Wellhausen. They argued that the Torah was composed of four different sources, the Yahwist, the Elohist, the Priestly and the Deuteronomist. They also suggested possible dating for each source.”
Barkay further claimed that “de Wette and his followers placed an Archimedean point [a hypothetical point from which an observer can objectively see a subject completely] which is still used today in biblical research: in the Book of Deuteronomy, there are more than  20 mentions of ‘the Place the Lord your God will choose’. That ‘Place’, they argued, is Jerusalem. Therefore, the Book of Deuteronomy must have been written in the 7th Century BCE during the rule of King Josiah who found a Torah scroll in the Temple in Jerusalem and was engaged in ensuring that ritual practice would be both centralized and located in Jerusalem.          
“According to this, all the references to ‘the Place the Lord your God will choose’ are about Jerusalem. Yet, in Joshua 9:27 it is written ‘in the Place which He would choose’ and the intent there certainly can’t be Jerusalem. So, the concept that Deuteronomy dates to the time of King Josiah does not stand up to the test, and the idea that the ’Place which He would choose’ has to be Jerusalem, is far from clear.
“The concept of centralization of the cult, is likely an ancient one, and Mt. Ebal seems to have been the first spot where the cult was centralized and the location from which it moved to Shiloh. According to Koenigsberg, this is hinted at when Jacob blesses the two sons of Joseph, Mannaseh and Ephraim. By crossing his arms, Jacob gives the more significant blessing to Ephraim, not Mannaseh, despite Manasseh being the first-born. This is important because Manasseh had the lands on which Mt. Ebal is located, and his brother, Ephraim, the lands where Shiloh was located. This explanation of Koenigsberg’s solves the 3000-year-old puzzle of why Jacob crossed his arms in Genesis 48.”
Barkay says that biblical scholars “must accept that Mt. Ebal was an Israelite cultic site, which is disputed.” He explains that “scholars are held captive by paradigms and axioms that have been accepted for nearly 200 years, meaning that Deuteronomy was discovered by King Josiah and that ‘the Place which He would choose’ is automatically Jerusalem. This, despite the fact that Jerusalem is not mentioned in Deuteronomy. They will have a very hard time accepting this, but I imagine that if they visit the site and hear Koenigsberg and his ideas, they might get inspired to explore new lines of thought.”
Koenigsberg (72), has been married to his second wife, Shira Steinberg, for twenty years, and is father of three, and grandfather of 14. He was raised in the US where he received a traditional Jewish education. He came to Israel in the midst of the Six Day War and stayed for 25 years. In 1992, he went back to the US, then returned to Israel in 2016. “I did not formally study anything in the fields of biblical studies, archaeology or history,” he told Maariv, “but I overcame this limitation thanks to Mazar, of blessed memory, who taught me about these topics for a decade during monthly meetings”.
As to what will come out of his research, he said that “it is impossible to make claims or predictions on the implications [it] may have on our reality and understanding. The topic of [Mt.] Ebal, for all sort of reasons, has been almost completely ignored in scientific circles. If my research draws attention, maybe something will change in the future. In the meanwhile, I can only quote the late Harvard Professor Lawrence Stager, who directed excavations in Ashkelon for several decades. He visited [Mt.] Ebal in 1984 and said that “if this is really what it appears to be, we [scholars] will have to return to kindergarten.” “Stager said that” explains Koenigsberg “because he realized fully that this would open a series of scientific, and non-scientific, Pandora’s boxes.”
For a list of Zvi Koenigsberg’s publications, see: https://www.thetorah.com/author/zvi-koenigsberg