Jewish Ideas Daily: The new biblical archeology

A field that sparks that imagination of believers and non-believers alike.

archeologist yosef garfinkel_311 reuters (photo credit: REUTERS)
archeologist yosef garfinkel_311 reuters
(photo credit: REUTERS)
This article was first published by Jewish Ideas Daily ( and is reprinted with permission.
Every summer, the Israel Antiquities Authority holds a reception at the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem for foreign archeological teams excavating in Israel. This year’s reception was attended by over 200 archeologists from over 50 Israeli and foreign projects, who are investigating sites from the Paleolithic through the Islamic periods. It was another indication that, despite its many critics, the new biblical archeology is going strong.
But what’s “new” about the new biblical archeology?
Part of the answer lies in the field’s sophistication. The majority of archeological projects in Israel focus on sites outside the brief “biblical period,” 900 to 586 BCE. But all projects incorporate scientific field and lab techniques using geological sciences as well as satellite imagery to understand the changing physical landscapes and climates of their sites. At many projects, teams with computers and spectrographs analyze materials as they come out of the ground. At Tel Aviv University, one especially promising lab project will examine the rate at which pottery shards absorb moisture after being fired – a technique that promises the most accurate dating yet.
After almost 150 years of work, biblical archeology has thus moved from a supporting role in theological dramas to a fully scientific branch of world archeology. But for over two decades it has also been drawn directly into the Arab-Israeli and, increasingly, the Muslim-Jewish, conflict. At its extreme, biblical archeology has been falsely accused of being a handmaiden of Zionism, through the invention of finds as well as the destruction of Palestinian and Muslim remains. Israelis and Arabs alike have been bitterly critical of research projects, particularly in Jerusalem, which appear to upset the city’s delicate Jewish- Arab relations.
As a result, the impulse to use archeology to reconcile Israelis and Palestinians (for example, by bringing disadvantaged youths together to work on excavations) has been strong. Some local progress has been made, but overall, Palestinian attitudes have hardened thanks to their relentless propaganda denying any Jewish past.
Still, the most notable feature of the new biblical archeology is that it is largely unapologetic. Some of the largest projects are undertaken precisely on sites that relate directly to biblical history. The vitality of the archeological community is met with eager public interest, with CNN and Fox News carrying stories about sites that appear to figure prominently in biblical history. The successful run (whatever its leaps of faith and logic) of TV’s biblically-focused The Naked Archeologist is another sign of public interest.
THREE EXCAVATIONS may characterize the new biblical archeology. At Khirbet Qeiyafa, on a ridge overlooking the Elah Valley southwest of Jerusalem, Professor Yossi Garfinkel of Hebrew University is revealing a unique, short-lived and massively fortified town dating to around 1,000 BCE. The location, and the site’s two gates, appear to match the biblical description of Sha’arayim. A short text found on a potsherd in 2008, while not yet in fully developed Hebrew, appears to contain the words “judge” and “king.” Guarding a primary route into Jerusalem, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that Qeiyafa was fortified against the Philistines to the west. Given the site’s date, a connection with King David (a biblical hero but thus far a shadowy archeological figure) is tantalizing, although still unproven. What is more obvious is that a high level of organization was necessary to build this site.
Some six and a half miles west of Qeiyafa, Professor Aren Maeir of Bar-Ilan University is excavating Tel es-Safi, in all likelihood the Philistine city of Gath. This enormous site contains a long sequence of settlement going back to at least 2,500 BCE, and shows the advent of the Philistines after 1,200 BCE. With their Aegean lifestyles, the Philistines appear to have assumed control of existing Canaanite cities and then gradually assimilated. Dramatic finds continue to pour out of the site. The largest is a 2.5 km trench that protected the site on three sides. The trench was destroyed, probably by King Hazael of Aram-Damascus, around 830 BCE (as noted in the second book of Kings).
Another is a Philistine temple toppled by an earthquake in the eighth century BCE, possibly the one described by the prophet Amos. Excavations in 2011 continue to expose large Philistine residential areas.
Finally, on the brown, dry plains of the northern Negev, a few miles from Sderot, is the tiny site of Khirbet Summeily. There, a team directed by Professors Jeffrey Blakely of the University of Wisconsin and James Hardin of Mississippi State University have begun excavating a rural Judean village of the eighth century BCE. In its first season, the project is using advanced digital systems to record the precise three-dimensional location of finds. Though the site is unlikely to have figured prominently in biblical history, such villages on the border with Philistia would have been the economic and social backbone of Judah, providing agricultural goods and perhaps labor to the kingdom based in Jerusalem.
MANY WILL stop here and observe with satisfaction that the Bible has been “proven” by archeology. But this is far from the case. Whether the Bible is regarded as divine writ or dispassionate history, the relationship of those texts and the archeological finds cannot be simply assumed. To their credit, most biblical archeologists today understand this, which is why serious and healthy disagreement exists on virtually all issues.
Even though it is as scientifically oriented as any other branch of archeology, biblical archeology remains typecast as a servant of biblical history and theology. But archeologists are discovering with chagrin that public interest matters. Interest and desires among Christians and Jews remain strong enough to bring hundreds of volunteers to digs in Israel each summer. In the process, believers find their faith confirmed, while non-believers are provoked. But the majority of people are stimulated to ponder just what realities are embodied in the biblical texts, the relationship between religion and science and, most fundamental of all, the relationship between the past and the future.
The writer is a research scholar with the Institute for Jewish and Community Research.