Jerusalem vs. Tel Aviv and the battle over Israel’s biblical archaeology

"Some think that the history of Israel should be written only by relying on sources outside the Bible."

Illustrative image of ancient pottery (photo credit: ROSSELLA TERCATIN)
Illustrative image of ancient pottery
(photo credit: ROSSELLA TERCATIN)
In 1993, archeologists working at the Tel Dan site in northern Israel unearthed an Aramaic inscription featured on a monumental stone jab. Once deciphered, the artifact offered something absolutely unprecedented: the first archeological reference to biblical King David.
The issue of the historicity of the monarch had been debated by scholars for decades within the context of whether the Bible can be considered a historical source and of what role it can play in archeological studies in the land of Israel. From the first European archeologists making their way to the Middle East to explore the Holy Land in the 19th century to this day, the dispute has not ceased.
One side of the spectrum is represented by hardcore “minimalists,” biblical scholars from several Europeans schools of thought that have emerged since the beginning of the 20th century. The most recent of those groups is known as the Copenhagen School, whose representatives believe that the Bible was written in the Persian or even in the Hellenistic period – between the fifth and the second centuries BCE – therefore too late to offer any relevant information on the events of the previous centuries.
On the other side are those taking the Bible quite literally, often as the result of religious beliefs. Many of those scholars are associated with religious groups from abroad, especially from the Christian Evangelical community in America.
Among them was the legendary archeologist William Foxwell Albright. Albright landed in Israel in the 1920s with the mission of uncovering the traces of the Bible and therefore proving wrong those intellectuals in Europe, and especially in Germany, who dismissed its historicity.
Albright’s enormous influence on the field, also resulting from his ability to combine scholarship in many disciplines such as biblical studies and near eastern languages, is widely acknowledged, even by those scholars – the majority – who today point out that his research cannot be considered scientifically sound.
A century later, the dispute regarding the historicity of the biblical text and its ability to offer insights in biblical archeology offers a wider and much more nuanced range of positions, leaving in the minority the two radical approaches, as well as their ideological implications that extend much beyond the borders of archeology, touching deep political and theological questions, including the view of the bond between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel.
For the past few decades, the debate has revolved around the role of certain biblical characters, the accuracy of the depiction of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah and the possible connection between archeological findings and sites described in the Bible – as well as questions relating to the dating of the composition of the text itself.
For the record, the academic discussion has sometimes turned ugly, to the point of breaking up friendships and unleashing dramatic and very public insults among its most prominent voices.
Perhaps not surprisingly, two bastions of the debate currently find their home into the “frenemy” pillars of the Israeli academic world, the Tel Aviv University, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and in two of their most prominent scholars, carrying similar last names: Israel Finkelstein and Yosef Garfinkel.
FINKELSTEIN, PROFESSOR emeritus at Tel Aviv University has been in the field of biblical archeology for decades. Over the course of years, he has repeatedly challenged interpretations of discoveries that his fellow researchers believed supported the Scriptures, as well as questioned the chronology of the events described in the text.
Speaking to the Magazine though, he utterly rejects his reputation of a scholar who disregards the Bible, highlighting that he considers it as the foundational text of his culture as a Jew, an Israeli and a member of Western civilization.
“I respect the Bible better than anybody else, as I know it better than many,” he said. “However, I am far from reading it in a literal and naïve way. In my opinion, approaching the Bible respectfully means digging deeper into the nuances of the ideology, theology, problems, needs and goals it addresses. Anything else is ridiculous,” he explained.
Provided that it is interpreted correctly, he added that the Bible is one of the three essential tools in the pocket of biblical archeologists, together with archeological findings themselves and the records of the ancient Near East populations such as the Egyptians, the Babylonians and especially the Assyrians, whose annals were essential to formulate the chronology of the Hebrew kings.
One of the major theses that Finkelstein proposes is that the Bible is a cultural product of the kingdom of Josiah, which ruled over Judah in the 7th century BCE.
According to the professor, the figure of Josiah is the key to answer the question of the existence of the “United Monarchy,” a kingdom encompassing both Israel and Judah marking a golden age for the Promised Land, which has been one of the hottest matters of debate in the past 20 years.
In the biblical text, the powerful rulers of this kingdom were David and Solomon. While some scholars once doubted the two of them could have been historical figures, he believes that they indeed existed, but still offers an alternative version of the story, pointing out that according to his opinion, no archeological evidence of a great kingdom in Jerusalem or its surroundings from their time – the 10th century BCE – has emerged, in spite of what other archeologists state.
“David and Solomon ruled over a small territory in the Judean highlands and not over an empire. The description of a great United Monarchy comes from the ideological needs of the author in the later kingdom of Judah,” he explained. 
“Josiah is described in the Bible as the most righteous king. My opinion is that the original idea of a United Monarchy itself came from a specific tradition of a king ruling over Israel and Judah together. However, that king was not a Jerusalem king from Judah but a Samarian king from Israel, which in the 9th and 8th centuries was much more powerful. After the kingdom of Israel fell at the end to the Assyrians in the 8th century, this tradition made its way to Judah and from there into the biblical text, changed and adopted to fit the needs of the Judean authors.”
A MAJOR thesis Finkelstein of TAU proposes is that the Bible is a cultural product of the kingdom of Josiah, which ruled over Judah in the 7th century BCE. (Credit: Rossella Tercatin)
A MAJOR thesis Finkelstein of TAU proposes is that the Bible is a cultural product of the kingdom of Josiah, which ruled over Judah in the 7th century BCE. (Credit: Rossella Tercatin)
FOR HIS part, Garfinkel, professor of prehistoric archeology and of archeology of the biblical period at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, was the one offering one of the most recent and crucial breakthroughs in the debate over the existence and features of David’s kingdom. In 2007, he uncovered a fortified city at the site of Khirbet Qeiyafa, some 30 kilometers southwest of Jerusalem. The findings unearthed in the area offered counterarguments to many of the points made by those claiming that in the territory of Judah in the 10th century there was nothing resembling a kingdom.
“I believe that the minimalist approach to biblical archeology has expressed itself into three phases,” he told the Magazine. “The first one was what I call the ‘mythological paradigm’: David and Solomon never existed, everything was a myth.”
The scholar pointed out that this concept came to an abrupt end with the 1993 discovery offering scientific proof that David was actually a historical figure.
“Afterwards what I called the ‘chronological paradigm’ emerged. It stated that somebody named David existed, but there was no kingdom, no administration, no writing, no army, no fortified city. Moreover, it was suggested that the first kingdom was Israel in Samaria, while Judah became one only in the end of the 8th century BCE.”
According to Garfinkel, this particular moment in time was chosen by the scholars believing in this theory because by then the existence of Judah was mentioned in extra-biblical sources, and specifically in Assyrian records.
“Some think that the history of Israel should be written only by relying on sources outside the Bible,” he noted.
“The heavy debate within the chronological paradigm focused on when urbanism started in Judah and when Judah became a kingdom,” he further explained. “However, Khirbet Qeiyafa, with its fortifications, inscriptions, public buildings and everything you want to find in a strong urban center, changed the picture.”
Garfinkel’s team managed to identify enough materials for about 30 radiocarbon tests, and the results confirmed that the city dated back to about 1000 BCE, the time of David.
“This marked the beginning of the third phase of the minimalist approach: the ethnographic paradigm,” he told the Magazine. “Immediately after our discoveries, people started debating whether the site was Judean, Philistine, Canaanite or Israelite.”
The professor pointed out that there are several arguments supporting the affiliation of Khirbet Qeiyafa with Judah. Of the thousands of animal bones found, for example, no pig remains were identified, contrary to what is common in Philistine sites where pig represented a substantial part of the diet. The urban planning also has similarities with other Judean settlements. Moreover, a Hebrew inscription was unearthed, as well as two “shrine models” presenting similarities to the biblical descriptions of the Temple built by Solomon.
“If someone asked me if I proved the Bible, I would answer that I’m not proving the Bible, I’m testing the Bible,” Garfinkel highlighted. “It is a historical source, I don’t need to believe or disbelieve, I need to check it. I think that in biblical archeology some people would consider a biblical tradition as 100% history, others would just believe that nothing written in the Bible can be true. I do not have any preconception. For example, in Khirbet Qeiyafa we actually disproved a biblical tradition: our findings suggest that contrary to what is said in the Bible, Judeans were very familiar with the use of iron.”
The professor highlighted that in order to prove its conclusions he uses rigorous scientific methods.
“Every date that I suggest is based on radiocarbon, iconographic analysis and analysis of the archeological data. This is the only way to prove or disprove a biblical tradition. That’s the beauty of research: if you just think that everything is wrong, it becomes theology, exactly as if you believe that everything is right,” he pointed out.
SPEAKING TO the Magazine, Finkelstein acknowledged the importance of Khirbet Qeiyafa, even though he dismissed the notion that it has necessarily represented a game changer and suggested that while it is indeed possible that the site was Judean, it is also possible that it was Israelite.
When asked whether the dramatic changes that archeology has been experiencing by applying life sciences technologies to the field will have an impact on the debate about the role of the Bible in the future, the two scholars offered different views.
Garfinkel said that, although procedures like radio-carbon dating or DNA analysis have opened new horizons, he feels that they are never going to be enough to persuade people who chose to believe or not to believe in certain notions. Finkelstein expressed confidence that in the next five years already many issues will be indeed made clearer.
However, both acknowledged how at the end of the day, archeological remains a discipline where interpretation is crucial and in many cases is hard to find absolute answers, although the next once-in-a-generation discovery in the field might happen tomorrow and radically change the debate again.
“If we look at Khirbet Qeiyafa, which I indeed believe is a very important site dating back to the 10th century BCE, the next question is: So what? What does it tell us about the kingdom of Judah, the United Monarchy and biblical composition? The issue of what you do with new discoveries and how you view them combining all pieces of evidence remains essential,” Finkelstein pointed out.
“The archeological findings and data we collect are like the tesserae of a disassembled mosaic,” concluded Garfinkel. “The question is how to put them together to recreate the picture. This is why this discipline is part of the humanities.”