The New Biblical Archeology

By Alex Joffe
Monday, July 25, 2011

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 in early July was attended by over 200 archeologists from over 50 different Israeli and foreign projects, who are investigating sites ranging in age from the Paleolithic through Islamic periods. It was another indication that, despite its many internal and external 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 scientific and technological sophistication. The majority of archeological projects in Israel focus on sites outside the brief "Biblical period" of the Israelite and Judean kingdoms, ca. 900 to 586 B.C.E. But all projects incorporate scientific field and laboratory techniques as an end in themselves, 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 sit on-site to analyze the chemical composition of materials as they come out of the ground. At Tel Aviv University, one especially promising laboratory project will examine the rate at which pottery sherds absorb moisture after being fired—a technique that promises the most accurate method of 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 and privileging the Jewish past, through invention of finds as well as 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 tinderbox city's delicate Jewish-Arab relations.

As a result, the impulse to use archeology as a means of reconciliation between Israeli and Palestinians (for example, by bringing disadvantaged youths from both communities together to work on excavations) has been strong. Some localized progress has been made, but overall Palestinian attitudes have hardened thanks to relentless official 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 whose finds relate directly to questions of biblical history. The vitality of the archeological community is met with eager public interest, with CNN and Fox News carrying recent 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 1000 B.C.E. The location, and the site's two gates, appear to match the biblical description of the Judean site of Sha'arayim. A short text found on a potsherd in 2008, while not yet in fully developed Hebrew language or script, 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 rival 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 obviously still unproven. What is more obvious is that a high level of planning and organization was necessary to build this site, precisely in the place and time when we might expect from  biblical texts that the early Israelite state found itself threatened by the Philistines.

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 2500 B.C.E., and shows the advent of Philistines after 1200 B.C.E. 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 of all is a two and a half kilometer long trench that unsuccessfully protected the site on three sides.  The trench was destroyed, probably by the king Hazael of Aram-Damascus, around 830 B.C.E. (as noted in the second book of Kings). Another is a Philistine temple toppled by an earthquake in the eighth century B.C.E., possibly the one described by the prophet Amos. Excavations in 2011 also continue to expose larger areas of Philistine residential areas.

Finally, on the brown, dry plains of the northern Negev, a few miles from the town of 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 excavation of a rural Judean village of the eighth century B.C.E. In its first season, among other techniques, the project is using advanced digital systems to record the precise three-dimensional location of finds along with images directly into a computer database. 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 credulously assumed. To their credit, most biblical archeologists today understand this, in greater or lesser degrees, which is why serious and healthy disagreement exists on virtually all issues.

Still, though it is as scientifically oriented as any other branch of archeology, biblical archeology remains typecast as a servant to biblical history and theology. But archeology globally is discovering with chagrin that public interest matters. Biblical interests and desires among Christians and Jews remain strong enough to bring hundreds of volunteers to digs in Israel each summer from as far away as South Korea. In the process, believers find their faith confirmed, while non-believers are provoked and occasionally enraged. But the majority of people in between are stimulated to ponder the questions of 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.

Alex Joffe is a research scholar with the Institute for Jewish and Community Research. 

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