How do you ignore the intellectual 'volcano' of Mount Ebal?

Only recently have my theories about Mount Ebal started to gain serious attention and interest – even acceptance.

Mount Ebal and an explanation of its standing at the altar (photo credit: TAMAR HAYARDENI)
Mount Ebal and an explanation of its standing at the altar
(photo credit: TAMAR HAYARDENI)
Thomas Kuhn, well-known philosopher of science, popularized the concept that important new ideas tend to be ignored by science, or vigorously resisted for a long time. Eventually they are accepted as the “new norm” – what Kuhn called a “paradigm shift.”
The theories I developed about Mount Ebal certainly have some revolutionary implications. And just as certainly, they have been what Kuhn would describe as “ignored and resisted.” Only recently have they started to gain serious attention and interest – even acceptance. In a recent Maariv article translated in The Jerusalem Post, the Hebrew headline called Mount Ebal an intellectual “volcano.” Almost 40 years after I started proposing my theories about Ebal, suddenly it’s an “explosive” new idea. How better to explain this lag than with Kuhn’s theory?
So, what are my theories, and what’s revolutionary about them?
It started when I participated in the Mount Ebal excavation (1982-88) headed by the late Prof. Adam Zertal. When he drew a diagram of the structure we were uncovering, I brought him a copy of the Mishna with a strikingly similar picture of the Second Temple altar. Strong evidence – to be followed by more evidence – that this was an Israelite altar in an Israelite site.
After more digging, the finds – especially pottery and burnt bones – enabled us to date the altar to the Settlement Period (circa 1200 BCE). And other things we found at the site fit with the texts in the Torah and Joshua about the Israelites entering the Promised Land and conducting the ceremony on mounts Gerizim and Ebal.
Of course, this didn’t sit well with the scholars known as “Minimalists” who claim everything in the Tanach prior to the Monarchic Period is “old wives’ tales.” What did the Minimalists do? Yes – they ignored it! Or in some cases, they resisted, and gave alternative explanations which failed to address the reality of the physical finds.
Then my research – decades of inter-disciplinary work, initially guided by the late Prof. Benjamin Mazar. I came to more conclusions which were ideal candidates for being ignored or resisted. Here are two of the most important conclusions:
1. Dating of Biblical Texts - The Torah (Deuteronomy 27) and Joshua refer to the ceremony at Mount Ebal. I concluded – based on archaeological and biblical sources – that those texts not only reference actual events, but, were written around the same time (circa 1200 BCE). Ongoing analysis of physical finds appears likely to prove – in the near future – the existence of writing at the site.
This contradicts accepted scholarly theories that the texts relating to Ebal were written in King Josiah’s time (circa 620 BCE). According to these theories, Josiah commissioned the texts – written to sound old – then “found” them in order to give his plans religious/historical legitimacy. Further, the accepted theories assign dates to many Biblical segments relative to the date of Deuteronomy 27. So, my conclusion that Deuteronomy 27 was written circa 1200 BCE undermines the accepted dates of many portions of the Bible.
2. Ebal as a temple – Another of my conclusions is that the entire Ebal site was an Israelite temple. This would make it the first Israelite temple, the original object of the well-known phrase in Deuteronomy, “the place that he will choose” – the “home of God.” This has revolutionary implications for scholarship and for religious tradition. Ironically, Ebal as a holy site was frequently ignored by both camps, even before I proposed my temple theory.
One example of the scholarly reaction is an Israeli podcast about the history of the Ark. It completely neglects the Ark’s presence at Ebal, although it’s clearly spelled out in Joshua 8:33. And the Ark is much less controversial than the concept of a temple prior to the Jerusalem Temple.
The religious tradition of ignoring Ebal goes back a long way. The Mishna (Zevahim, Ch. 14), circa 200 CE, lists the holy sites of Israel – and ignores Ebal despite the Ark having been there. The rabbis of the Mishna were undoubtedly reluctant to emphasize Ebal and Shechem, as their archenemies at the time, the Samaritans, prevailed there.
On the other hand, Rabbi/Professor Umberto Cassuto wrote that the Torah speaks of “constructing a temple and offering sacrifices at Ebal.” Cassuto didn’t offer any corroborating evidence. Apparently, he considered the biblical descriptions surrounding Ebal sufficient for his conclusion without physical evidence. (Cassuto died before our excavations began.) Also, he apparently didn’t view the idea of a precursor to the Jerusalem temple as threatening to the status or holiness of Jerusalem.
Looking to the future: Steps continue to preserve the Ebal site and make it more accessible to the general public. Hopefully, it will become the public park it deserves to be. Zertal’s monumental project, the Manasseh Hill Country Survey, which prompted the Ebal excavation, is being continued by Dr. Shay Bar of the University of Haifa. The survey is close to completion after 40+ years. And we look forward to publication of the final Ebal excavation report, despite the funding obstacles it faces.
In conclusion, a quote from late Harvard professor Lawrence Stager, upon visiting the Ebal site in 1984: “If this is really what it looks like it is, we all have to return to kindergarten.” We hope Stager’s comments will become the call for Kuhn’s “paradigm shift” and transform Ebal into the starting point for understanding and evaluating a series of issues about the Bible, and the history/cultic beginnings of Israel.
The writer is author of The Lost Temple of Israel, Academic Studies Press, Boston, 2015.