Monday, August 24, 2009

The Copper Scroll, Code Cracked?

The Copper Scroll is certainly one of the most intriguing of the Dead Sea Scrolls.  The only text inscribed on two copper sheets, it lists the location of sixty treasures apparently in Judah in the period before the First Jewish Revolt in A.D. 70.  Many scholars believe that the list is authentic, but despite numerous efforts of the years no one has ever found any of the treasure.

The Jerusalem Post reports on an Oklahoma fire marshal named Jim Barfield who believes that he knows the location of not just one or two hiding places, but 56 of them.

After looking at the scroll for five minutes he deciphered the first location, and twenty minutes later he identified the next four locations. He and his wife took their first trip to Israel to confirm whether the sites and places that he had identified actually existed. "I wanted to make sure I wasn't just imagining things," Barfield said. It took six months for Barfield to crack the code for the rest of the locations.

This guy is pretty good.  He was able to figure out the locations without ever being to Israel, without knowing the language that the inscription is written in, and without having any background in archaeology or geography.

It’s nice to know what others think about his discovery:

He says that all of the archaeologists, rabbis, and historians presented with his research have been convinced. "It is so simple." He says. "They just all thump their heads."

Unfortunately, we only get it in Barfield’s words.

I don’t know enough to say that this guy is a fraud, only that he sounds like one.  If he actually has found something, he should go dig it out and then report on it.  But if he’s a publicity hound, I can write the script for the next few years: initial attempts will be stymied by various obstacles, during which time he’ll do many interviews and attempt to raise lots of money.  When he finally digs at one of his spots, he’ll find nothing – no treasure and no indication that any treasure was ever hidden there.  He’ll claim that it was stolen in antiquity (another round of interviews and appeals for cash) and start planning for a second excavation.  Efforts to dig will be hindered by various obstacles, during which time he’ll do many interviews and attempt to raise lots of money.  Etc.

The article itself is worth reading as it provides interesting and accurate information about the Copper Scroll.  You can find an introduction to and translation of the scroll in Florentino Garcia Martinez, The Dead Sea Scrolls Translated, 2nd ed., pages 459-63.  An excellent reference is the Encyclopedia of the Dead Sea Scrolls (2 volumes).

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Friday, May 15, 2009

Archaeological Surveys and Their Limitations

My friend A.D. Riddle sends along this interesting quotation from J. B. Pritchard, Recovering Sarepta, A Phoenician City: Excavations at Sarafand, Lebanon, 1969-1974 (1978):

The western face of the promontory had been eroded by heavy seas. In the scarp, stubs of walls and masses of Roman sherds could be seen, but nothing earlier. Scouring the surface of the fields on top of the mound for diagnostic sherds that might date its occupation, we found two handles from amphorae that had been imported from the Island of Rhodes. They could be dated to the Hellenistic period by the labels in Greek which had been stamped on them. Obviously the site had been occupied at least two centuries before the Roman port was built. Below the Hellenistic debris there might be the remains of an Iron Age settlement, but on the surface there was no evidence—not a single potsherd—to witness a Phoenician presence (p. 71).

In the excavations, Pritchard revealed seven layers preceding the Hellenistic period, including five from the Iron Age.

Zarephath Phoenician harbor & tell from E,ar090508617Zarephath (Sarepta) harbor and tell from east
Photo by A.D. Riddle, May 2009


Tuesday, January 13, 2009

That Rope around the High Priest’s Ankle

It’s a myth. Sorry to ruin such a good story for you.

The notion that the high priest would tie a rope around his ankle before entering the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) so that his body could be pulled out should he Tabernacle high priest, tb022804700be struck down is not found in any ancient source, including the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Josephus, the Apocrypha, the Mishnah, the Babylonian Talmud, or the Jerusalem Talmud.

The earliest reference that I know of is in a 13th century A.D. Jewish work, the Zohar:

A knot of rope of gold hangs from his leg, from fear perhaps he would die in the holy of holies, and they would need to pull him out with this rope.

The Zohar says a lot of other things that are not trustworthy. In fact, wearing such a rope would probably be a violation of Leviticus 16:3-4, which gives clear directions on what the high priest is to wear on Yom Kippur:

But in this way Aaron shall come into the Holy Place: with a bull from the herd for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. 4 He shall put on the holy linen coat and shall have the linen undergarment on his body, and he shall tie the linen sash around his waist, and wear the linen turban; these are the holy garments. He shall bathe his body in water and then put them on. (ESV)

John Gill cites this story in his Exposition of New Testament, published in 1746-48. Concerning Hebrews 9:7, he cites “Zohar in Lev. fol. 43. 3. & Imre Binah in ib”:

The Jews say, that a cord or thong was bound to the feet of the high-priest when he went into the holy of holies, that if he died there, the rest might be able to draw him out; for it was not lawful for another priest to go in, no, not an high-priest, none besides him on the day of atonement.

There are many websites and other sources that perpetuate this legend (including the NIV Study Bible on Exodus 28:35).

Another webpage that discusses this myth is located at

UPDATE (8/27/09): Rabbi Dr. Ari Z. Zivotofsky has written a lengthy article refuting the claim in the Zohar.


Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Best Blog Posts of 2008

While reviewing the BiblePlaces Blog for posts of the best discoveries, I made a few notes about what I consider to be the best analysis pieces of the year. 

Nebi Samwil is not Mizpah – the archaeologist of Nebi Samwil wants a biblical name for his site, but he has to inflate his own (archaeological) evidence and ignore other (biblical) evidence to make the identification.

60 Minutes on the James Ossuary – unfortunately people on scholarly lists are still citing this CBS report as if it were in any way credible.

The Qeiyafa ostracon – an explanation of the inscription’s potential significance, before much had been revealed by the archaeologists.

Qeiyafa – I wrote many posts on this site, including why it may be Ephes-dammim, but surely is not Shaaraim or Gob.  I’m preparing an article for publication which has some intriguing new ideas.

Views That Have Vanished – not an analysis piece, but a helpful contribution to those who study and teach about the biblical lands.  These 700 photos taken by David Bivin while he lived in Jerusalem in the 1960s contain some real gems.  I finished four years of work in preparing the CD collection for its October release.


Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Top 8 of 2008: Archaeological Discoveries Related to the Bible

2008 was a good year for archaeology.  You can read about the top ten archaeological discoveries in the world this year, but my goal here is simply to suggest what I perceive to be the most significant discoveries for understanding the Bible and its world.  Both the selection and the ranking is purely subjective; there were no polls, editorial committees, or coin tosses.  For another opinion, take a look at the list of Dr. Claude Mariottini

1. Khirbet Qeiyafa (and inscription).  The new excavations of this fortified site in the Shephelah ranks as #1 for the following reasons: 1) The site was occupied for only a limited time during the reign of King David. 2) The site is located near the battle location of David and Goliath. 3) A strongly fortified site is indicative of a strong central government, at a time when scholars question the existence of such.  4) A early Hebrew inscription discovered this summer points to the site’s owners (Judeans) and the state of literacy in this period.  5) These discoveries will certainly shed light on what is currently the most debated issue in biblical archaeology: the nature of Israel/Judah during the 10th century.

Elah Valley aerial from west, tb011606779 marked Elah Valley from the west

2. Gath excavations.  It’s not a single discovery that puts the excavations of this Philistine city in the number two spot, but rather the cumulative results of a very profitable season.  This includes possible early Iron IIA material (see above debate), a 10th century seal impression, two Assyrian destruction layers, methodological advances, as well as other significant remains from the Early, Middle, and Late Bronze Ages.

Gath, Tell es-Safi, Area E excavations from east, tb060906085dddGath excavations, Area E, Summer 2006

3. New discoveries at Herod the Great’s tomb.  The tomb was discovered and identified in 2007, but on-going excavation in 2008 revealed additional coffins, including one that may belong to one of Herod’s wives and another to one of his sons.  They also found a theater that sat 750 people and included a VIP room with beautiful wall paintings.  All of this further confirms the previous identification that Herod’s tomb was located on the slope of the Herodium.

4. The “First Wall” of Jerusalem.  A well-preserved portion of the Hasmonean wall (2nd century B.C.) was uncovered on the south side of Jerusalem.  While parts of this wall have been excavated previously, there are two advantages to the current excavation: 1) It is being carried out with the latest in archaeological knowledge. 2) The remains will be preserved and visible to visitors.

5. Alphabetic Inscription from Zincirli. The Kuttamuwa Stele is a large well-preserved funerary inscription from the 8th century B.C. city of Sam'al (modern Zincirli) that sheds light on the beliefs of the afterlife of one of Israel’s northern neighbors.  For more on the content of the inscription, see this.  This is the only discovery on this list which is also on Archaeology Magazine’s Top 10 Discoveries of 2008.

6. Iron Age Seals from Jerusalem.  Many inscriptions were found in Jerusalem at different times this year, including the Seal of Shlomit (aka Temah), the Seal of Gedaliah, the Seal of Netanyahu, and the Seal of Rephaihu.  The first two were discovered in Eilat Mazar’s excavation of the potential area of “David’s palace,” and the other two were found relatively close by (Western Wall and Gihon Spring).  Gedaliah is mentioned by name in Jeremiah 38:1, and Shlomit may be mentioned in 1 Chronicles 3:19.  Some might rank these discoveries higher in the list, but I have not because so many have already been found, including many in this area and many that mention other biblical figures.

7. Pre-8th century B.C. neighborhood in the City of David.  This report received little notice, as far as I could tell, but could be quite significant in our understanding of the growth of Jerusalem in the earliest centuries of Judean rule.  While these discoveries were made in 2007, they were only publicized in 2008 (thus qualifying them for this list).  In short, the archaeologists found five Iron Age strata which included a group of houses that dated “earlier than the 8th century.”  Excavators rarely uncover houses in Jerusalem, and these would be the earliest I know of from the Iron Age.

8. Philistine temple near Gerar.  I heard very little of this discovery, but it makes the list because Philistine temples are both rare and of biblical interest (see Judges 16:23-30 and 1 Samuel 5:2-5).  Other Philistine temples have been excavated at Tel Qasile and Ekron (and Aren Maier has teased that he may have another at Gath).

Other discoveries that did not make the top 8 include the sarcophagus fragment of the son of the High Priest in Jerusalem, the “Christ Inscription” in Egypt, and a Jerusalem quarry found in Sanhedria.  The on-going Temple Mount sifting project deserves mention (and support).

Other finds that did not make the list are the perfume bottle that Mary Magdalene used to anoint Jesus’ feet and the water tunnel that David used to conquer Jerusalem.  Perhaps more information or discoveries will convince me that these are more than attempts to gain publicity.

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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Video Review: Noah’s Ark in Iran

Robert Cornuke, renowned discoverer of the true Mount Sinai, location of the Ark of the Covenant, and anchors from the Apostle Paul’s shipwrecked boat, has recently produced a video on his discovery of Noah’s Ark. 

This video has recently been reviewed by Gordon Franz, Bill Crouse, and Rex Geissler, who note: “Because of the excellent production quality, we are concerned once again that its sensational claims will mislead the Christian public.”

From the review:

The main premise of the video, as stated on the back cover of the video box, is that: “Based on the testimony of the Bible, personal investigation, examination of evidence, and other factors, Cornuke points to Mount Suleiman in the modern-day country of Iran, as the most probable resting place for Noah’s Ark.” This premise, however, collapses on Biblical grounds and other known facts.

Cornuke bases his conclusion on five main assumptions:

  • The veracity of the Ed Davis testimony as to the location of the Ark
  • The region (country) of Ararat (Urartu) extended into the central Elburz mountain range in Iran
  • An interpretation of Genesis 11:2 would mean that the Ark landed in Iran, east of Shinar (modern-day, south central Iraq)
  • Other ancient sources, for example Josephus, might extend the Land of Ararat eastward into Iran
  • The rock outcrop they found on Suleiman is the Ed Davis object, is petrified wood, and by implication, the remains of Noah’s Ark

The review then considers each of those assumptions.

The problem is, as with all of Cornuke’s “discoveries,” that they are never published in a credible journal where specialists in the relevant fields can respond.  Instead, Cornuke (like his predecessor Ron Wyatt) goes straight to the public, where the standards are much, much lower.  Sadly, perhaps no group is more gullible to these sorts of claims than evangelical Christians. 


Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Perfume Bottles Found at Magdala

There is something important to this story, but it’s not what you might think.  What is exciting is that ancient Magdala is being excavated.  Perhaps that will increase our knowledge of this ancient city that was home to Mary Magdalene.  Perhaps it will result in the site being opened to visits by tourists.  Perhaps there will be silly sensational claims made before analysis is done – oh wait, that wish has already come true.  From the Telegraph, written by Nick Pisa in Rome:

Archaeologists have discovered vases of perfumed ointment which may have been used by Mary Magdalene to anoint the feet of Jesus.

This sentence should immediately clue you into the fact that this is a “made-for-TV” story, fashioned for maximum publicity without regard to truth.  You know this because:

1. It is quite incredible that of all the vases in the ancient world, the first ones the archaeologists find at this city are related to this biblical event.

2. Mary was from Magdala, but since there is no record that Jesus was ever in Magdala, his feet were not anointed there.  Perhaps, though, Mary carried the bottles back to her hometown.

3. Except that it’s hard to believe that Mary only poured some of the contents out and left the rest for archaeologists to find.

4. Most important to ignore in order to make this story fly is the fact that the Bible nowhere says that Mary Magdalene anointed Jesus’ feet.  A different Mary anointed him the week before his crucifixion (John 12:1-8).  And a sinful woman anointed him at the house of a Pharisee (Luke 7:36-50).  She is never named and Mary Magdalene is introduced by Luke two verses later (Luke 8:2) with no indication that this was the same woman.  Furthermore, the unnamed woman used an alabaster jar.  Did the excavators find an alabaster jar?  Mary Magdalene did plan to anoint Jesus’ body one Sunday morning, but she failed in her attempt (Mark 16:1-8).

The Italian team have been digging for several months at the ancient Palestinian town of Magdala – from where Mary gets her name.

In Mary’s day, Magdala was in the district of Galilee.  Today, its ruins are in the state of Israel.  It was not then, and is not now, a Palestinian town, except for those who wish to see the Jewish nation replaced by an Arab one.

The archaeologists of the Franciscan academic society Studium Biblicum Franciscanum found the unopened vases dating to the first century AD conserved in mud at the bottom of a swimming pool in Magdala's thermal complex....

Speaking of the discovery Father Stefano De Luca who is leading the dig, said: "The mud-filled condition of the site allowed us to find these truly extraordinary objects, which were intact and sealed and still contain greasy substances.

"We think these are balms and perfumes and if chemical analysis confirms this, they could be similar to those used by Mary Magdalene in the Gospels to anoint the feet of Christ.

I have a revolutionary idea.  Analyze the contents, and then tell us what they are.

"The discovery of these vases is very important. We have in our hands the cosmetic products from the time of Jesus. It's very likely that the woman who anointed Christ's feet used these products, or ones similar in organic composition and quality."

Frankly, this story could have been written long before the excavations.  They already knew the site was inhabited in the 1st century A.D.  All they needed was to find some vases, any vases, and they could say that these were related to Mary.  And the reporters would come, and the donations would flow.

HT: Joe Lauer

Magdala from above, tb102702020 Magdala from west

UPDATE (12/12): An article in Italian is longer and includes a photograph.

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Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Qeiyafa: An Apple Tree or a Copernican Revolution?

I have more to say about Khirbet Qeiyafa, but time is tight right now and a more careful presentation will have to wait.  But there are a few developments I can note and a few comments I can respond to, all in brief fashion.

First, G. M. Grena posted on the comments here this morning that the PowerPoint presentation that excavator Y. Garfinkel gave at the ASOR meeting last week is now available in pdf format.  This is a great resource for those who want to know more but couldn’t be there. 

Second, if you’re interested in following the ostracon on its tour of the most expensive cameras in the world, you can do that here.  Thanks again to G. M. Grena for alerting us.

Now, to an article by Bloomberg about Qeiyafa which includes two quotations from scholars.  The first is from N. A. Silberman, known for his extreme views that much of the Old Testament was written very late by priestly propagandists.

“To find an apple tree in some town in the Midwest doesn’t mean the Johnny Appleseed legend is exactly correct,” said Silberman, co-writer with Israel Finkelstein of “The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts.”

This is really quite an apt analogy.  Except for the fact that the site was found precisely in the exact area where the battle of David and Goliath was fought.  And it dates precisely to the time period when the Bible says that David lived.  Sorry, sir, you can’t wish this away so easily.

The excavator of Qeiyafa, unfortunately, doesn’t do much better.

Garfinkel, gesturing toward a nearby hill where he said the Philistine city of Gath once stood, said he believes his find brings to life the tale of David killing the Philistine giant Goliath with just two stones.

He said he would have agreed with Silberman’s views on David before the dig: “Once it was excavated, it changed the whole situation.”

So until this summer Garfinkel apparently held to the view that Silberman espouses, which is that Judah was a sparsely populated hinterland during the time of David (and for the next several hundred years).  But he finds a small walled city and a potsherd with writing on it, and suddenly, everything has changed?  This tells me either that he has a super-high estimation of the value of what he found, or he is ignorant of some important data.  How does Qeiyafa revolutionize things when decades ago, a much more impressive fortification from the 10th century was found at Gezer (11 miles to the north)?  What about Azekah about 1 mile to the west?  True, it hasn’t been excavated (by someone other than Robert Alexander Stewart Macalister 100 years ago), but shouldn’t that very fact give someone (both Silberman and Garfinkel) pause before concluding that Judah was weak and impoverished in the “time of David”?  Who knows what you’ll find at Azekah!  Just down the road is Gath, which is proving to look quite similar to what we would expect from the biblical account. 

Now, perhaps Garfinkel was speaking not of the (lack of unique) fortifications, but rather of the ostracon.  Surely, this is an important discovery.  Just how important we may not know until the text is recovered by photography and it is published.  But, is it really accurate to say that on the basis of this one as-yet-undeciphered ostracon that “it changes the whole situation”?  It’s not like we don’t have other 10th century inscriptions from the area--the Gezer Calendar has been known for 100 years, and the Tel Zayit inscription was discovered a few years ago.  So we have known that ancient Judah was literate and had fortified cities in the Shephelah for a long time now.  But Garfinkel (apparently) denied these realities meant anything because he would have agreed with Silberman’s views.  But now, on the basis of his finds, everything has changed in his mind.  This all suggests to me that some scholars come to conclusions without carefully considering all of the evidence.

Chris Heard at Higgaion has posted a few comments that I want to note.  The first point is outstanding and in sharp contrast to the two quotes above:

Reports of the “low chronology’s” death may be greatly exaggerated, or premature, but Khirbet Qeiyafa must surely influence our picture of 10th-century Judah. Let us not overstate the case: what we (the interested public) know of Khirbet Qeiyafa at this point hardly “proves that David killed Goliath” or anything of that sort. However, Khirbet Qeiyafa does counterbalance the increasingly common portrayal of 10th-century Judah as a cultural backwater.

Yes, indeed.  Overstatements are far too common among scholars talking to journalists.  But this part I cannot agree with:

The identification of the site as Sha‘arayim seems quite likely now, completely independent of anything learned from the ostracon.

This conclusion is unwarranted on the basis of the current evidence.  It seems to rely on the excavator’s word, and not the data.  But I urge caution.  1) Last year the excavator said the site was Azekah.  Frankly, that’s most unlikely on many accounts.  It comes from the urge to have your site be something important.  It demonstrates that the excavator did not properly consider the data from history and geography in making the identification.  2) Historical geography seems to have been ignored in this identification of Qeiyafa as Shaaraim as well.  I have discussed this before and will be saying more about it.  3) The sole basis for identifying Qeiyafa as Shaaraim is this: Shaaraim means “two gates.”  (The three reasons listed on slide 33 all argue against identifying Qeiyafa as Shaaraim, which I will demonstrate in the future.) The excavator has excavated one and eyeballed what he believes is another one from the same time period.  No excavations have been done of the second gate.  The meaning of the name is significant, but my question is: does it override other evidence?  Again, I simply suggest that more study occur before we decide that the identification as Shaaraim “seems quite likely now.”

If all of this is too basic for you and you’d prefer to read about some analysis about radiocarbon dating related to Qeiyafa, see this post by Abnormal Interests.  John Hobbins also has some more thoughts about the site identification, to which I’ll respond in the future aforementioned post.

Update (12/5): I have removed reference to the Ephes-dammim credit line in the pdf file as that has now been updated (see comment below).

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

National Geographic on Qeiyafa

The Book and the Spade radio program just posted the first of two interviews with Qeiyafa excavator Yosef Garfinkel (the link there is updated every week for the current program).

National Geographic reports on the Qeiyafa excavation.  Much of the story reports what has been covered elsewhere, but there are some problems with the article.  (Does mentioning these help to prevent their perpetuation by journalists or others?)

The article begins:

The remains of an ancient gate has pinpointed the location of the biblical city Sha'arayim, say archaeologists working in Israel.

In the Bible, young King David is described as battling Goliath in the city, before eventually killing him in the Elah Valley.

Ahem.  Is it really that hard for the NG journalist (Mati Milstein) to open the Bible (1 Samuel 17) and read the story of David and Goliath?  The battle did not occur in a city, and Shaaraim is mentioned only as a point on a road that the Philistines used to flee.  It’s quite a creative re-telling that puts the battle in the city, but Goliath’s eventual death in the valley.  Even if the writer couldn’t find a Bible (or locate one on the Internet), couldn’t he have asked the archaeologist he was interviewing?  Since this is the entire reason why anyone cares about this excavation as opposed to the hundreds of others in Israel (and this is evidenced by its placement in the first two paragraphs), shouldn’t NG try to get at least this right?  If they can’t, can you trust anything in the article?

Later in the article, archaeologist Amos Kloner comments on the site identification:

"This is an initial idea, all aspects of which must be examined," he said. "[But] it doesn't matter if there is a second gate … This provides no indication of a Judean population there."

Apparently Garfinkel hasn’t convinced everyone that the mere presence of a second gate absolutely and infallibly confirms that Qeiyafa is Shaaraim.  I think, however, that Kloner is wrong if he follows Garfinkel in the idea that Qeiyafa must be a Judean site in order to be Shaaraim.  In fact, as I argued before, I think a better case can be made from the only source that we have that at the time of the battle, Shaaraim was in Philistine hands. 

The article closes with this quote from Garfinkel:

Garfinkel said he will continue to explore the Elah site in search of further evidence.

"Maybe we'll find an inscription on the gate indicating who built the city: 'I David, son of Yishai, built this city,'" he said with a laugh.

That’s a typical archaeologist kind of joke, and it wouldn’t be worth a response, except that Garfinkel has suggested elsewhere that he is serious about the possibility that David built the Qeiyafa fortress.  I think it is entirely possible that David built the Qeiyafa fortress, but if he did, Qeiyafa is not Shaaraim.  You can have one, but not the other, unless you believe the biblical account is completely confused.  This is the big problem with those scholars who want to claim the “middle ground” between maximalists and minimalists: they claim validation for their results based upon data which they believe is faulty.  In other words, the scholar says, our evidence that Qeiyafa is Shaaraim is the biblical text which mentions this site (Shaaraim) in this area (Elah Valley).  The Bible says that Shaaraim existed before David became king.  We can believe the Bible that Shaaraim was a city in this area, but we can’t believe the same biblical story that Shaaraim existed before David.  This is very typical scholarly logic, but it is usually dressed up in fancy language, and supported by one questionable hypothesis built upon another dubious theory.

UPDATE (10 p.m.): The initial paragraphs of the NG article have been changed:

The remains of an ancient gate have pinpointed the location of the biblical city Sha'arayim, say archaeologists working in Israel.

In the Bible young David, a future king, is described as battling Goliath in the Elah Valley near Sha'arayim.

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Qeiyafa: Is it biblical Shaaraim?

The San Francisco Chronicle is reporting that excavator Yosi Garfinkel believes Khirbet Qeiyafa is Shaaraim (Shaarayim), and this is confirmed by David Willner on the excavation website. This suggestion does not need to deny the David and Goliath story to find support (as does the Gob identification). Garfinkel will make a presentation (or two) this week about the site, but from what has been revealed thus far, there are two bases for his conclusion. 1) Shaaraim is mentioned in the story of David and Goliath (1 Sam 17:52). 2) Garfinkel found a second gate at the site last week. This is suggestive because the name “Shaaraim” means “two gates.”

This portion of the article is worth quoting:

Garfinkel, who has excavated numerous sites in Israel, says he discovered the second gate after noticing an apparent break in the massive stone wall as he walked along the 2,100-foot long structure that faced the road to Jerusalem. After two days of digging, his hunch paid off. A second entrance constructed from massive stones lay just a few feet beneath the topsoil.

"This is the only city from the Iron Age in this region ever found with two gates," said Garfinkel as he clambered over the huge structure. "It was probably a mistake. It made the city more vulnerable. It might explain why it appears to have been settled only twice, for very short periods."

Garfinkel says he is certain the newly-found massive stone gate was the main entrance to the city that existed at the beginning of the 10th century B.C. and then again for a few years at the time of Alexander the Great.

"It is enormous, it has symbolic value demonstrating authority and the power of the kingdom," Garfinkel said while describing the huge building blocks of more than 3 feet square and 10 feet long, each weighing more than 10 tons. "They are the largest ever found from the Iron Age. If King David ever came here from Jerusalem, he entered from this gate. It is likely we are walking in the footsteps of King David."

Khirbet Qeiyafa, 10th c casemate wall, ar080731445 Casemate wall at Khirbet Qeiyafa, 10th century B.C.

This is very significant, for not only are there very few early 10th-century fortifications in Israel, I don’t know of any with two gates. There are, however, some potential problems. 1) Apparently only a few days have been spent in excavation of this second gate, which would suggest that caution in conclusions at this point is wise. 2) Who built this massive gate? If it dates to the early 10th century, then one might connect it with David’s kingdom. But if that is so, then it was not the scene of his pre-kingship battle with Goliath. Perhaps, then, it was built by King Saul. The problem with that is that scholars don’t believe he had any real power. 3) Why were two gates built? Did someone who went to all the work in moving stones weighing more than 10 tons really not think through the problem of having two gates? I have trouble believing that we today understand their warfare better than they did.

There are some other potential problems with this identification. The only other place where Shaaraim is mentioned in the Bible is in a list of cities of Judah.

Joshua 15:33-36 (NASB) In the lowland: Eshtaol and Zorah and Ashnah, 34 and Zanoah and En-gannim, Tappuah and Enam, 35 Jarmuth and Adullam, Socoh and Azekah, 36 and Shaaraim and Adithaim and Gederah and Gederothaim; fourteen cities with their villages.

This text proceeds roughly from north to south (Sorek Valley, then Elah Valley). The sites in the Elah Valley appear to proceed from east to west: Adullam, Socoh, Azekah. If so, this suggests that Shaaraim would be located west of Azekah. If Shaaraim was Qeiyafa, it would logically fit between Socoh and Azekah.

This location (west of Azekah) seems to be supported by the David and Goliath account. Shaaraim is mentioned only at the end of the story. The Philistines fled west from the battle to Gath and Ekron, dying on the way of Shaaraim.

1 Samuel 17:52 (NASB) The men of Israel and Judah arose and shouted and pursued the Philistines as far as the valley [or Gath], and to the gates of Ekron. And the slain Philistines lay along the way to Shaaraim, even to Gath and Ekron.

Normally, this construction “way of [place]” means the road to a certain place (e.g., 1 Sam 13:17-18; 2 Sam 2:24; for a myriad of examples, see Dorsey, Roads and Highways of Ancient Israel, 47-50, where he finds only one road in the Bible not named after its destination, Num 20:17). It is difficult to conceive of a battle scenario where the road they are fleeing on would be called the “way of Shaaraim” if Shaaraim = Qeiyafa. 1) If the Philistines were encamped on the south side of the valley and the Israelites were encamped on the north side near Qeiyafa, why would the Philistines flee on the “way of Shaaraim”? 2) If the battle was much farther to the east, and the Israelites were encamped in the lower slopes of the hill country and the Philistines were encamped on the eastern end of the Elah Valley, a) one wonders why it was called the way of Shaaraim and not the way of Azekah, the bigger and more well-known city nearby and b) one cannot account for the Philistines being encamped “between Azekah and Socoh.” In short, Shaaraim is best located on the far (eastern, northern, or southern) side of Azekah, and not on the side closer to the battlefield. This also makes sense of the following phrase “the way of Shaaraim as far as Gath and Ekron.”

John Hobbins interacts with Garfinkel’s proposal of Shaaraim. I agree with him on point #1 but do not think he goes far enough (as I have above). I disagree on point #2, as it seems that if the Philistines are fleeing towards Shaaraim, then this would likely be in their territory. To say it another way, if Qeiyafa = Shaaraim, we should expect it to be a Philistine site (at least at the time of the battle). Garfinkel’s evidence suggests that Qeiyafa is an Israelite site.

This does not address the reality of “two gates” at Qeiyafa. If we are certain that both were in use at the same time, and we know that there are no other sites in the area that had two gates, this would be strong evidence. I don’t know how certain the excavators are that the two gates are contemporaneous. I’m very hesitant to say that there are no other sites with two gates, since until a week ago, even Qeiyafa was not known to have two.

By way of conclusion: If Qeiyafa is Shaaraim, either 1) the Israelites were encamped here at the time of the battle of David and Goliath or 2) the Philistines were not encamped between Azekah and Socoh or 3) Shaaraim = Ephes-dammim. Of the three, I find #1 to be most likely, but it then is strange that a) Shaaraim is not mentioned as the place of Israel’s encampment and b) the Philistines are said to have fled on the way of this Israelite site. From the Philistine perspective, the road from Gath to the east might be called the “way of Shaaraim” (though it requires ignoring Azekah), but the biblical record was not written from the Philistine perspective.

Neither this post, nor the previous one, furthers my suggestion that Qeiyafa is Ephes-dammim. But they do, I believe, make the identifications with Gob and Shaaraim less attractive. Everyone in the discussion is working with a fraction of the total evidence. Garfinkel, as excavator, has more of the evidence available to him, but it is not difficult to imagine future discoveries that significantly clarify or alter the picture. To that end, we wish the excavators great success in their on-going work.

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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Qeiyafa: Is it biblical Gob?

Nadav Na’aman has written an article (pdf) in the Journal of Hebrew Scriptures suggesting that Kh. Qeiyafa is Gob.  Na’aman begins with the conclusion that Qeiyafa is a Philistine site.  He does this by dismissing three lines of evidence from the excavators (pottery, absence of pig bones, Hebrew inscription).  I am unconvinced by this part of the discussion, but I don’t think it undermines the rest of his presentation.

The next paragraph is of most interest to me, as I previously suggested that Qeiyafa be identified with Ephes-dammim.  Let’s follow Na’aman’s line of reasoning.  It’s important to note that his cursory dismissal allows him to move to a more radical proposal.  His text is in bold and my comments are in brackets.

The description [of 1 Sam 17:1-2] indicates that the story was written after the consolidation of the kingdom of Judah, when Socoh (and Azekah) were Judahite cities. [He presupposes, contrary to the biblical account, that Judah was only formed many years after the time of David.] According to the description, the Philistines encamped south of the Elah Valley, where Ephes-dammim must be sought, and Saul and his army arrived from the northeast and encamped north of the valley. [Read 1 Sam 17:1-2 again.  It says nothing about the Philistines being “south.”  Perhaps it was (and I have believed for many years that it was), but it only says that Ephes-dammim is between Azekah and Socoh, and as my photos here show, Qeiyafa is both between the two sites and north of the Elah Valley.] Although the Israelite army encamped not far from Khirbet Qeiyafa, this important stronghold is not mentioned in the story. [Whoa, see how he did that?  He just jumped right over the possibility that Qeiyafa is Ephes-dammim, because it “must” be on the south side.] Evidently, the site was destroyed and deserted at the time when the story was written. [This is typical of Na’aman’s work: one possibility, however unlikely, becomes the foundation for another possibility, which then becomes certainty, and the foundation for a larger theory (see the rest of the article).  But if you pull out one card, the house comes falling down.  Since his creative theory developed in the rest of the article requires precluding Qeiyafa from being Ephes-dammim, he must not allow this very real possibility to detain him.]

Elah Valley and Azekah view nw from Socoh, tb021707830

View from Socoh looking west towards Azekah

Na’aman then proceeds to 2 Samuel 21:19, and he concludes that the David and Goliath story (1 Sam 17) is a later and much embellished (and distorted) retelling of the former.  He does not seem to recognize the following weaknesses with his theory: 1) the victors in the two stories have different names; 2) the fathers of the victors in the two stories have different names; 3) the location of the battles are given in each account, but there is no similarity between the two; 4) the context of the two battles in the larger biblical narrative is unrelated; 5) 1 Chronicles 20:5 gives a parallel account of 2 Sam 21:19. 

If you’re going to continue with Na’aman, you have to accept that 1) the highly detailed account of David vs. Goliath is pure fiction based upon a historic “kernel” that bore no relation to it; 2) the author of Samuel was ignorant (or unconcerned) that he was including the same “story” twice – both the kernel and the later embellishment. 

A better approach is to recognize the close similarities between 2 Sam 21:19 and 1 Chron 20:5 and acknowledge that these are the same story, but 1 Sam 17 is a different event.  There are textual difficulties in the two brief accounts, but you can’t explain David out of the Goliath story of 1 Sam 17 by scribal errors.  Instead you have to believe in deliberate deception and/or incredible ignorance.  (Much of the scholarly approach to the OT is predicated on these two principles: most ancients were stupid, and the few brilliant ones were liars, albeit espousing the worship of a highly ethical God.)

I do not, however, think that a rejection of Na’aman’s proposals to this point necessarily disqualifies his identification of Qeiyafa as Gob.  2 Samuel 21:18-19 mention two battles with the Philistines, and since 1) Qeiyafa is a logical place of conflict between Israelites and Philistines and 2) Gob has not yet been identified, I think it is a plausible idea.  I just think that Na’aman has much less evidence to support it than he thinks he does.

John Hobbins has written a lengthy analysis of Na’aman’s article.  He makes some good points against the identification of Qeiyafa as a Philistine site.  One problem, as I see it, is that we should not assume that the situation was static in this period of Israel’s history.  Quite possibly, sites changed hands.  In fact, that seems to be what is at stake in the narrative of David and Goliath.  The Shephelah was the contestable ground in the 11th century (see also the story of Keilah in 1 Sam 23), and the goal was to expand one’s borders.  In other words, Qeiyafa may have been built as a Philistine fortress but later taken by the Israelites, or vice versa.

Hobbins then agrees with Na’aman’s proposal that Qeiyafa is Gob.  Since the whole thesis depends on 2 Sam 21:19 being accurately preserved and thus contradicting 1 Sam 17 and 1 Chron 20:5, Hobbins and Edgecomb discuss some more technical aspects of textual criticism of these verses in the comments section.  While I agree with Edgecomb on this, I would make this overall point: it’s not reassuring when a grand theory is built upon a difficult text against other easier texts. It is better to follow 1 Sam 17 than to undo it based upon tenuous theories and emendation of brief, problematic verses elsewhere.

Tomorrow I will respond to the proposal by archaeologist Yosi Garfinkel that Qeiyafa is Shaarayim.

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Tuesday, November 04, 2008

King David’s Water Tunnel in Jerusalem

Last week Eilat Mazar announced that she had discovered a water channel connected to the building she has identified as the palace of King David.  Based on the tunnel’s date, location, and characteristics, she believes that she has identified “with high probability” the shaft used by David’s men to conquer Jerusalem.  You may recall the story:

On that day, David said, “Anyone who conquers the Jebusites will have to use the tsinnor to reach those ‘lame and blind’ who are David’s enemies” (2 Samuel 5:8).

The Hebrew word tsinnor is usually translated “water shaft.”  For many years, this shaft was identified with a 40 foot (13 m) vertical shaft near the Gihon Spring.  More recent excavations have suggested that this shaft was not accessible during the time of David.

The story gets the press-release-rehash in the Jerusalem Post and Arutz-7The Trumpet, because of its close relationship with Mazar, has two photos.  Haaretz apparently wrote their story before the press release and has some strange information about the water system:

But Mazar believes the water system served to purify David's warriors, first among them his chief of staff, Joab, after the city had already been conquered.

She says that purification was necessary because the Bible states they had to fight against the "blind and the lame," and in so doing would have become impure. She notes the use in the relevant verse of the Hebrew root naga (touch) in relation to the "gutter," a word usually involving matters of purity.

Here are just a few thoughts (based on the articles, not the minimal information above):

It seems that this channel was discovered at the end of the last season of excavation, and much more work is required.

Both ends of the tunnel are currently blocked, so it is not clear where the tunnel begins or ends.

The tunnel runs north-south, that is, roughly from the area of “David’s palace” towards the Temple Mount, all within the city fortifications.  This does not seem to fit the type of passageway that would be needed to conquer the city.

Oil lamps from the end of the First Temple period (c. 600 B.C.) were found, but it’s not clear how Mazar knows the tunnel was in use in the time of David.  It’s usually easier to date the end of use of a water system than the beginning.

The attempt to also connect the tunnel with refugees fleeing from Jerusalem in the days of King Zedekiah seems stretched.

Both identifications of the tunnel to the Bible (David and Zedekiah) strike me as the sort of “biblical archaeology” that Bible believers like myself wish would go away.  By that I mean, you find a tunnel and without knowing where it begins or where it ends, you assume that it must be the very one that is mentioned in a famous story in the Scriptures.  How is it that such archaeologists, working in a very restricted area, always happen to find exactly what they are looking for?

The solution is not to refuse to make connections to the Bible, nor to deny that the Biblical record is historically accurate, but instead to carefully study all of the evidence, avoiding unwarranted and premature sensationalistic headlines.  It goes both ways; more often it is scholars on the other side who use a scrap of evidence as complete and compelling proof that the biblical story is false.  Abuses on one side do not justify abuses on the other.

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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Khirbet Qeiyafa in the NY Times

The New York Times has an article in tomorrow’s print edition about Khirbet Qeiyafa (with thanks to Joe Lauer for pointing it out).  The article appears to me to be a teaser, released on the same day of the excavator’s lecture in Jerusalem, which likely will include some new revelations.  The article quotes a number of archaeologists, but most of the information is already known to those who have followed the excavation here or elsewhere.  I’m going to comment on some portions of the article, but you’ll do best the read the article in its entirety first, and then read my comments.

Five lines on pottery uncovered here appear to be the oldest Hebrew text ever found and are likely to have a major impact on knowledge about the history of literacy and alphabet development.

This is a dramatic statement, but the rest of the article ignores the inscription.  The “competition” for the earliest Hebrew text would be the Izbet Sartah inscription (11th century), the Gezer Calendar (10th century), and the Tel Zayit Inscription (10th century).  Interestingly, all of these inscriptions are from the same general vicinity (the western foothills, aka Shephelah).

A great power [like that described of David and Solomon], they note, would have left traces of cities and activity, and been mentioned by those around it. Yet in this area nothing like that has turned up — at least until now.

Hold on here.  Gezer is only a few miles up the road, and the excavations there were pretty decisive that it was a well-fortified city in the time of Solomon.  This is an example of trying to make the site more important by denigrating the significance of others.

Another reason this site holds such promise is that it was in use for only a short period, perhaps 20 years, and then destroyed — Mr. Garfinkel speculates in a battle with the Philistines — and abandoned for centuries, sealing the finds in Pompeii-like uniformity.

This is very important.  The problem with other sites is that they may be used for a long period of time, making it difficult to distinguish exactly what was going on at an earlier point it is history.  For that reason, archaeologists love destructions.  Even better is a single period site with a relatively short-lived occupation.

“The fortification required 200,000 tons of stone and probably 10 years to build,” he said as he walked around the site one recent morning. “There were 500 people inside. This was the main road to Jerusalem, the key strategic site to protect the kingdom of Jerusalem. If they built a fortification here, it was a real kingdom, pointing to urban cities and a centralized authority in Judah in the 10th century B.C.”

These are some numbers that I had not seen before.  It does seem strange that a fortress that took 10 years to build would only be in use for 20 years.  Why was it not rebuilt?  Was it because it was captured by the Philistines?  Or was it because David’s kingdom was strong enough (and its border now further away) that this fortress was no longer necessary?

“This is an important site, one of the very few cases from the 10th century where you can see a settlement fortified in a style that is typical of later Israelite and Judean cities,” said Amihai Mazar, a professor of archaeology at Hebrew University. “The question is who fortified it, who lived in it, why it was abandoned and how it all relates to the reign of David and Solomon.”

Mazar certainly asks the key questions.  It’s important to remember that many of these things are interpretive, which means that an archaeologist can interpret the finds one way and another archaeologist can come to a different (even opposite) conclusion.  If only the stones could speak.

The Philistines had a huge city, Gath, some seven miles away, but pottery found there looks distinct from what Mr. Garfinkel has found here.

This suggests that Qeiyafa was an Israelite fort.  That’s a real question because the Shephelah at this time was contested by the Philistines and Israelites.

Seymour Gitin, an archaeologist and a director of the Albright Institute in Jerusalem, a private American institution, who has seen the finds, said: “The real value is that there was an urban center in the 10th century. You can extrapolate and say this helps support a kingdom, a united monarchy under David and Solomon. People will rightly use this material to support that.”

What Gitin is saying is that a fortress like this doesn’t come out of nowhere.  There must be some sort of strong organizing force (government) that financed and directed it.  This compound wasn’t built by three bored Israelites one Sunday afternoon.

“Some of us look at things in a very ethnocentric way — everything is Israelite or Judahite,” [Israel Finkelstein] said. “History is not like that. There were other entities playing a big role in the southern part of the country. And even if it belongs to Jerusalem, fine. So there is a late 10th-century fortified structure there. I don’t believe that any archaeologist can revolutionize our entire understanding of Judah and Jerusalem by a single site. It doesn’t work that way. This is a cumulative discipline.”

Whoops!  Look at how quickly Finkelstein re-dated the whole enterprise by approximately a century.  Earlier in the article the fortress is dated to 1050-970 B.C.  Finkelstein makes it late 10th-century with a wave of his hand.  This is not accidental, as his recent publications are built upon the theory that the biblical history was written very late and is entirely unreliable.  Any discovery which suggests a strong central government in Judah in the 10th century is very inconvenient for his views.

He [Garfinkel] says with some 96 percent of this site still to be unearthed, a process likely to take 10 years, he hopes that more writing, more olive pits and more pottery will be uncovered, and add depth to what he believes is a revolutionary find.

Most critical in the whole discussion is this note of caution.  Too often absolute and sensational conclusions are made after the first discoveries.  We have time.  Any discoveries heralded now, of course, certainly makes recruiting slave labor volunteers much easier.

The New York Times does not have any photos of the site, but we do.  For more photos of the site in relation to the Elah Valley, and my speculation before the Times article or Garfinkel’s lecture, see this previous blog post.  The Times article does not mention the possibility that Khirbet Qeiyafa is Ephes Dammim.

Khirbet Qeiyafa, 10th c four chambered gate, ar080731447

Khirbet Qeiyafa four-chambered gatehouse (10th century B.C.)

Khirbet Qeiyafa stele fragment, ar080731446  Khirbet Qeiyafa excavations with stele fragment

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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Identity of Khirbet Qeiyafa

If I were teaching a course in historical geography now to advanced students, I'd cancel one of the assignments and have them write a paper on the site identification of Khirbet Qeiyafa.  They would be required to use all of the available data in suggesting possible candidates.  Since I'm not teaching such a class, I can post my own thoughts here without fear of hindering their research.

It’s been a few weeks since I wrote about Kh. Qeiyafa, so a brief review is in order:  Located next to the Elah Valley where David fought Goliath, Kh. Qeiyafa has been excavated the last two seasons (2007-08).  This summer a 10th century B.C. inscription (ostracon) was discovered (photo), the contents of which have not yet been revealed, but may be very interesting

The place to start in identifying Kh. Qeiyafa with a known historical place name is to look at the general area of the site.  Kh. Qeiyafa is located on the north side of the Elah Valley, roughly north of probable Socoh (Kh. Abbad/Kh. es-Suweikeh) and east of probable Azekah (Tell Zakariyeh).  Those last two identifications are generally agreed upon by scholars, but as far as I know there's no certain proof of either identification (for a good discussion of Socoh and Azekah, see The Sacred Bridge, page 147).  That's important to keep in mind as we proceed under the assumption that Abbad = Socoh and Zakariyeh = Azekah.

Early explorers who identified sites like Hazor, Beth Shemesh, and Beth Shean did not have the advantage of aerial photographs and Google Earth.  But since we have those at our disposal, we will put them to use.

You can locate Qeiyafa on Google Earth using this kmz file.

You can locate Qeiyafa on Google Maps with this link (via G. M. Grena)

You can see the site in relation to Socoh (Abbad) and the Elah Valley on the photo below.

Elah Valley aerial from west, tb011606772_marked

Archaeology is critical in determining site identification, and Qeiyafa has remains dating to the early 10th century and to the Hellenistic period.  To do a thorough job in my little exercise, one would need to investigate Hellenistic sources concerning sites given in this area.  Because the occupation gap is so large (c. 800 years), it is possible that the Iron Age name was not preserved.  Since I am less knowledgeable about Hellenistic sources, and don't have the necessary time, I am going to ignore this part of the equation.

The textual sources that we have for this time period are limited.  The Bible is the obvious place to start, though as I'll note, some scholars question the traditional dates given to biblical texts.  Another source is the ostracon previously discussed.  It is possible that this ostracon has one or more place names and may single-handedly answer this question.  (Well, not really single-handedly, as it has to be in agreement with the rest of the data, but its relative importance is potentially great.)  Another possible source is Shishak's conquest list as given on the Bubastite Portal in the Karnak Temple.  Since no other sites in the vicinity of the Elah Valley appear to be mentioned by Shishak, I am going to ignore that for now.

What can we learn from the Bible?  It might be instructive to note first that many scholars these days would sneer at this question.  It then would be worth reviewing just how many hundreds of accurate site identifications were made in the last 150 years, using the Bible as the primary source.  That is how Edward Robinson did it, as well as many successors on down to Yohanan Aharoni and his students and "grandstudents" (among whom I count myself).

A good place to start is with the passage of the battle of David and Goliath, as this was situated in the Elah Valley.  The setting is given in 1 Samuel 17:1:

Now the Philistines gathered their armies for battle. And they were gathered at Socoh, which belongs to Judah, and encamped between Socoh and Azekah, in Ephes-dammim (ESV).

Elah Valley aerial from west, tb011606779b
Aerial view of Elah Valley, view to southeast

While the locations of Socoh and Azekah are generally agreed upon (see above), the location of Ephes-dammim is uncertain.  Based on the above text, it seems that it is located “between” the two sites.  “Pas Dammim” is mentioned in 1 Chronicles 11:13 and could well be the same place, though the event described there is a different one than the David and Goliath story.  A parallel to 1 Chron 11:13 is given in 2 Samuel 23:9; the place name is lacking in the Masoretic Text but is given as "Pas Dammim" in the Septuagint.  These are the only references to Ephes/Pas Dammim in the Bible.

In teaching the David and Goliath story, I’ve pointed to the “gas station” (labeled on the first photo above) as a possible place for Ephes-dammim.  There's no evidence for this, but since no other site has been identified and this sits neatly between Azekah and Socoh on the southern ridge of the valley, it was a convenient marker.

But now a new possibility arises: Could Khirbet Qeiyafa be Ephes-dammim?  There are three points in favor of this identification: 1) Like Ephes-dammim (ED), Qeiyafa is “between” Azekah and Socoh; 2) Like ED, Qeiyafa was inhabited in the 10th century; 3) Since the only textual references to ED are in the 10th century, and Qeiyafa was inhabited only in the 10th century (during the time of the Bible), this too would match. [Note: the biblical chronology seems to put the David/Goliath battle in the late 11th century, but the difference is only a few decades here and archaeology is usually not able to be very precise, especially at this period of time.]

swpelah Kiafa (Qeiyafa) is clearly between Azekah and Socoh

Map from Survey of Western Palestine (1870s)

Some have suggested that the modern site of Damun preserves the name of Ephes-dammim, but as Steven Ortiz notes in the Eerdman's Dictionary of the Bible (p. 411), Damum is 4 miles (6.5 km) northeast of Socoh when one would expect it to be west (and east of Azekah).

Another possible text that lists cities from the 10th century (though many scholars think it dates to much later) is the list of Rehoboam's fortifications (2 Chronicles 11:5-10): “Rehoboam lived in Jerusalem and built up towns for defense in Judah: Bethlehem, Etam, Tekoa, Beth Zur, Soco, Adullam, Gath, Mareshah, Ziph, Adoraim, Lachish, Azekah, Zorah, Aijalon and Hebron.”  The location of nearly all of these sites is pretty well agreed on, not suggesting another possibility for Qeiyafa.

A text that many scholars would go to for sites is the city list of Judah from Joshua 15.  Clearly this is the best geographical list for the area, but I didn't start there because I believe (hold your breath) that this list dates hundreds of years earlier than the 10th century.  Most scholars do not, and accordingly, I will not ignore it. Joshua 15:33-36 lists cities of Judah: “In the western foothills: Eshtaol, Zorah, Ashnah, Zanoah, En Gannim, Tappuah, Enam, Jarmuth, Adullam, Socoh, Azekah, Shaaraim, Adithaim and Gederah (or Gederothaim)—fourteen towns and their villages.”  The location of many of these cities is not positively identified.  Based on the sites whose identification is generally agreed on (Eshtaol, Zorah, Jarmuth, Adullam, Socoh, Azekah), the list seems to proceed from north to south.  The Elah Valley sites are all known (Adullam, Socoh, Azekah), and do not give us an extra name to associate with Qeiyafa, particularly between Socoh and Azekah as we might expect from 1 Sam 17:1.  If Joshua 15 is a pre-10th century text, then this is not surprising.

The “prophet of the Shephelah” is Micah, who lived in the late 8th century.  His hometown is given as Moresheth (probably known elsewhere as Moresheth-gath) in Micah 1:1.  He pronounces judgment on many cities in the Shephelah from 1:10-16, a number of which are unknown (particularly in vv. 11-12).  Too little is stated to pin down locations for these (Beth Ophrah, Shaphir, Zaanan, Beth Ezel, Maroth), but none is mentioned in connection with Adullam, a city on the eastern end of the Elah valley.  Again, I wouldn’t expect to find a relevant name here since Qeiyafa was apparently abandoned several hundred years earlier.

Elah Valley and Azekah view nw from Socoh, tb021707830 View from Socoh looking west towards Azekah

Are there other possibilities?  A quick check of Ahituv’s Canaanite Toponyms in Ancient Egyptian Documents, Tabula Imperii Romani, and Eusebius’s Onomasticon do not seem to suggest any other potential site names.

Was Kh. Qeiyafa a Philistine outpost?  This summer the excavations discovered a four-chambered city gate and a 13-foot-wide (4 m) casemate wall. (Photos of excavations here and a 4-minute video of mostly still photos here.)  It certainly was a stronghold, and the only two known powers of the region at this time were the Philistines and the Israelites.  The Egyptians were back home enjoying their Third Intermediate Period, and there does not seem to be any strong contingent of Canaanites in the Shephelah (those would have likely migrated to where there were fewer enemies, such as the Jezreel Valley).

We can speculate further.  Perhaps Kh. Qeiyafa was Ephes-dammim, and it was constructed by the Israelites in the 11th century as they competed with Philistia for the Shephelah.  But one day the Philistines succeeded in capturing the fortress.  That brought Saul and the Israelites down to battle to regain their stronghold.  That could explain the otherwise curious reference in 1 Sam 17:1 to Ephes-dammim, as well as to giving its specific coordinates (since it was not well-known, then or later).  Unfortunately for the Israelites, Goliath wanted to make the battle a contest of champions and there was no one brave enough among the Israelites to respond.  The Israelites were encamped opposite the Philistines on the south side of the valley (which is the opposite of how I have always pictured it), or possibly in the hill country to the east.  David’s victory sent the Philistines fleeing towards Gath and Ekron (1 Sam 17:52), which makes perfect sense given the location of Kh. Qeiyafa.

While the above paragraph is speculative, the data that connects Qeiyafa with Ephes-dammim seems to me to be stronger than that which exists for many biblical sites.  The biblical text is very specific, and Qeiyafa matches exactly.  The dating of the fortress to the early 10th century is very close as well.  It’s certainly intriguing to consider.  Perhaps the ostracon discovered this summer will help to relate Kh. Qeiyafa to the biblical narrative, or even to confirm/deny the possibility that the site is biblical Ephes-dammim.  We’ll be interested to learn more when details are released.

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Monday, September 15, 2008

Speculation on the Khirbet Qeiyafa Inscription

With regard to the Khirbet Qeiyafa inscription, there are those who know and those who don't.  Those who know have been sworn to secrecy, leaving only those of us who don't know to speculate.  I am happy to oblige and suggest below some reasons on why this inscription is significant, thereby possibly fueling more speculation by others also in the dark.

What is not speculation is the fact that the inscription is being studied by Haggai Misgav, a Northwest Semitic epigraphist (source).  Given the location of its discovery, this is no surprise, but it clearly rules out the possibility that inscription was written in another language.  Misgav Haggai says at present that his conclusions are "doubtful and temporary" and he does not know when he will be ready to publish (reported by Jim West).  That suggests that the inscription is difficult.  I offer some ideas that may explain archaeologist Aren Maier's comment that this inscription "is going to be VERY INTERESTING!!!!"

1. The inscription is long.  This is a guess based upon a photograph of the potsherd and a friend's report that the inscription is 4-5 lines long.  Too many inscriptions are known only from a small portion preserved.  The recent ostracon found at Gath with a name similar to Goliath received much attention, but it contained only two words.

2. The inscription is meaningful.  This is in contrast to other early inscriptions, such as the Tel Zayit abecedary (10th c.) and the Izbet Sartah abecedary (11th c.).  Certainly alphabetic inscriptions are meaningful, and scholars can write much about them.  But the primary reason why they get so much attention is because there are few other contemporary inscriptions.  Sometimes conclusions about the state of writing are made that may be without warrant.  The combination of a brief or ambiguous text with a lack of contemporary material makes possible many wrong interpretations.

3. The inscription was discovered in a stratified context.  This is in contrast to the Gezer Calendar, which was found in the debris pile in 1908.  The Tel Zayit abecedary was found in a wall, not in its original context.  Archaeologists do not have a clear stratigraphical context for many important inscriptions. 

4. The inscription is early.  Khirbet Qeiyafa has occupation from the 10th century and then a gap until the Hellenistic period (2nd c.).  The inscription certainly dates to the time of the settlement, which guarantees a 10th century date (assuming that the site itself has been correctly dated).  There are very few 10th century inscriptions in Israel, and all have some problems.  (The only 10th c. inscriptions from Israel that come to mind are the Gezer Calendar, Tel Zayit abecedary, and the Shishak inscription, but there are probably others.)  The significance of an inscription increases exponentially each century that you go back in time.  A seal impression in the city of David from the 6th century is less rare and thus less valuable than a letter or poem from the 10th century.

5. The inscription dates to a period now highly controversial in biblical archaeology.  In the mid-1990s Israel Finkelstein proposed a "Low Chronology," which essentially re-dated all material believed to be from the 10th century to the 9th century.  The poor material culture from the 11th century was brought down to the 10th century.  Historically, then, Israel and Judah were impoverished and weak, or, more likely, non-existent (according to Finkelstein) at the time when the Bible describes the great United Monarchy.  Like so many theories in biblical archaeology, this one is highly dependent upon a large amount of "white space," in which one's own ideas can be inserted.  Almost certainly this new inscription will fill in some of the gaps, as well as spawn its own controversies.

More speculating remains to be done on the site identification of Khirbet Qeiyafa, but that will need to await a future post.

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Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Crediting Sources

The lead story yesterday at Arutz-7 is entitled "Supreme Moslem Council: Temple Mount is Jewish."  It begins:

The widely-disseminated Arab Moslem position that the Temple Mount is not Jewish has been debunked - by the Supreme Moslem Council (Waqf) of Jerusalem, in a Temple Mount guide published in 1925.

It then includes a couple of scanned images from the 1925 guide.  The story credits the guide to the Temple Institute.

The Jerusalem-based Temple Institute ( reports that it has acquired a copy of the official 1925 Supreme Moslem Council Guide Book to Al-Haram Al-Sharif (the Moslem name for the Temple Mount).

We are honored that our story was picked up by a major news organization.  They didn't give us credit, even though the basis of their story and the scans that they post came from here.  Reader Sean Q purchased the booklet, scanned it, and we posted it.  The Temple Institute took the story and pdf file and presented it as their discovery.  This isn't a copyright issue, but it is an ethical one.  Perhaps they'll do better next time.


Wednesday, August 27, 2008

City of David Excavation Report

Excavations began in the parking lot below Dung Gate in 2003 and were resumed in 2007.  The Israel Antiquities Authority has just released a brief report on the discoveries from the 2007 season.  It should be noted that this report does not include results from 2008.

Excavations in Central Valley, tb051908109 
Excavations of area in May 2008

The longest portion of the report concerns the Second Temple period, which is primarily the 1st century A.D.  It reports one of the discoveries:

A large impressive edifice, whose northeastern corner has only been revealed to date, was in the southern unit. The eastern wall of the building (exposed length over 14 m, thickness c. 2 m, height more than 5 m) was built of large roughly dressed fieldstones, some of which were hundreds of kilograms in weight. The northern wall (width c. 1 m) was also preserved to a substantial height. The interior portion of the building, within the limits of the excavated area, indicated that the structure was divided into elongated halls, oriented northwest-southeast.

This is what was hailed in the media as the "palace of Queen Helene of Adiabene," though as the 1st century ruler's name is not mentioned in this report, some may have missed the connection.

The period of greater interest given the current discussion of the nature of Jerusalem in the Old Testament period is the section on the Iron Age, quoted here in full.

The remains of the period, exposed in five strata that represented most of the Iron Age, were founded directly on bedrock, marking the earliest settlement in this part of the City of David. This period was mainly characterized in this area by relatively densely built houses of careless and poor construction. The houses, built of one-stone-wide walls, contained a variety of domestic installations. These indicate a residential quarter that existed in the area during this period.

The early phase of the Iron Age was noted for the use of bedrock the builders had employed for setting the buildings’ walls and incorporating it within their built complex of structures. Thus, ‘habitation pockets’, confined between the buildings’ walls and bedrock outcrops, were discovered. This phase was dated earlier than the eighth century BCE, based on the abundance of ceramic finds. The later phase of this period dated to the seventh–sixth centuries BCE. No building remains from Iron I were discovered.

There are several significant points to note here:

  • The discovery of houses from the Iron Age in Jerusalem is unusual.  In most places, later destruction removed traces of building except for monumental structure (walls, water systems).  The best examples of houses were found on the other (that is, east) side of the City of David in Shiloh's excavation.
  • Caution should be taken before concluding that because some houses in Jerusalem at this time were of "poor construction," all were.
  • Some of the material is "earlier than the eighth century," which means 9th century (or possibly 10th, but distinguishing pottery between the two centuries is problematic at the moment).  This indicates that there was habitation in this area before the expansion in Hezekiah's day (late 8th century) when the Western Hill was fortified.  This should not be surprising, given indications in the biblical text.
  • That no remains were found from Iron I (or Bronze Age; see end of report) also fits the biblical narrative.  The city of Jebus was small and more closely located to the Gihon Spring when it was captured by David.  The city expanded to the north as David prepared for the construction of the temple.

In other words, the biblical account would lead us to expect to find remains earlier than the 10th century in the City of David, remains from the 10th century and later at the Temple Mount, with a likely "filling in" of habitation between the two sometime after the temple's construction.  Admittedly, there are other possibilities, but this one seems quite reasonable, and it appears to fit with the results of this report.

Readers unfamiliar with the geography of the area and the location of these excavations will better understand the last two points with the graphic below, which shows that the excavation area was outside the boundaries of the "City of David."

Aerial view of City of David, tb010703 givati parking diagram 
Jerusalem from the southwest
Click on graphic for high-resolution

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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Just Another Byzantine Church

The "Earliest Church in Jordan" sounded like a bunch of nonsense to start with and now a couple of scholars have more data and believe the excavators have made some big mistakes.

Even stronger criticism has now emerged. Two University of Toronto scholars argue that the excavators have misread the inscription in the church; they claim, from both a rereading of the inscription and from the architecture, that the church is significantly younger than do the excavators. They also say that the cave below gives no indication of having been used in the first century.

Biblical Archaeology Review has the story, including a pdf file of the article: “The Oratory of St. George in Rihab: The Oldest Extant Christian Building or Just Another Byzantine Church?”

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Monday, July 07, 2008

Gabriel's Vision (Messiah Stone)

The New York Times publishes an article on old news, Drudge links to it, and suddenly we have a sensational story that will "shake our basic view of Christianity."  Hold on a minute.

You can read the story in the NY Times, a copy at the International Herald Tribune, Haaretz, World Net Daily, and elsewhere.  You could also have read about it a year ago in Haaretz, or read the article in Biblical Archaeology Review Jan/Feb 2008 issue.  Why is it suddenly "news" now?

You can see photos of it at Haaretz, a large photo here, line drawing and transcription here (pdf), and an English translation here.  You can also read the original journal article published in Cathedra here (in Hebrew; pdf).

Here's a brief summary:

What: Three-foot tall stone inscribed in ink with 87 lines of Hebrew text describing a vision given by the angel Gabriel

When: The stone was written in the 1st century B.C. and it was discovered 8-10 years ago and sold by a Jordanian antiquities dealer to an Israeli-Swiss antiquities collector.

Where: It was found in the vicinity of the Dead Sea, possibly on the Jordanian side.  Ada Yardeni: "You have got a Dead Sea Scroll on stone."

Forgery?: Even though this was not uncovered in a legal excavation, scholars believe the inscription to be authentic.

The Sensational Claim: The end of the inscription mentions a messiah who would rise in 3 days.  Since the text was written before Jesus' resurrection, it explains how the story of Jesus' resurrection came to be.

The Sensational Quotation: "Resurrection after three days becomes a motif developed before Jesus, which runs contrary to nearly all scholarship. What happens in the New Testament was adopted by Jesus and his followers based on an earlier messiah story" (Israel Knohl, professor of biblical studies at Hebrew University and proponent of this theory). 

The Disputed Reading: "In three days you shall live, I, Gabriel, command you."

Why Disputed: "There is one problem.  In crucial places of the text there is lack of text. I understand Knohl's tendency to find there keys to the pre-Christian period, but in two to three crucial lines of text there are a lot of missing words" (Moshe Bar-Asher, president of the Israeli Academy of Hebrew Language and emeritus professor of Hebrew and Aramaic at the Hebrew University).

Why This Matters:

Knohl said that it was less important whether Simon was the messiah of the stone than the fact that it strongly suggested that a savior who died and rose after three days was an established concept at the time of Jesus. He notes that in the Gospels, Jesus makes numerous predictions of his suffering and New Testament scholars say such predictions must have been written in by later followers because there was no such idea present in his day.

In other words, if the disputed reading is correct, this reveals that Jesus and/or his disciples did not create the story of his resurrection after three days, but rather they borrowed it from existing ideas.  Of course, it is either one or the other: they invented it or stole it.  Here's a radical idea: Jesus was raised by God from the dead after he had been in the tomb three days.  Jesus expected this, which is why he predicted it.  His disciples remembered it, which is why they recorded it.

The author of this theory, Israel Knohl, says that this stone "should shake our basic view of Christianity."  Several assumptions are required for this stone to be so significant: 1) Knohl's disputed reading must be correct; 2) Knohl's interpretation of the text overall must be correct; 3) Jesus and/or his disciples must have known about this text (or a similar one not yet attested to); 4) Jesus did not rise from the dead; 5) Jesus' disciples were dishonest in claiming that he did rise from the dead and in attributing this idea to him from another source; 6) Jesus' disciples were stupid in dying for a lie that they invented.  Altogether, I think that these assumptions are shaky enough to suggest that Knohl is a little too optimistic about the impact of his theory.

UPDATE (7/8): I found the BAR article mentioned above online and added a link.  For today's articles and analysis on the story, see this post at Paleojudaica.

UPDATE (7/9): I can hardly do better than Paleojudaica with the latest stories, so I will not even try.  Note his choice for "inflated headline of the week."

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Friday, June 13, 2008

Earliest Church in Jordan

When a sensational but unsubstantiated archaeological discovery is reported, my inclination is to ignore it.  Since the goal to gain headlines and popularity (and sometimes to stir up tourism), the best way to thwart the guilty is to not publicize their claim.  As they know, all publicity is good publicity.

This doesn't work very well when mainstream news sources carry the story and one gets multiple requests about the accuracy of the report.  So I succumb.

The claim by Jordanian archaeologists that they have found the "earliest church" ever is the latest in an apparently on-going competition by archaeologists.  According to everything I've read about it, there is no basis for this claim whatsoever.  All evidence noted in the story runs counter to this claim.  Jerome Murphy-O'Connor says it well:

"Pushing the (date) back to the year 70 is very speculative. (The Jordanians) are desperate to create church sites (for tourism)," Father Murphy-O'Connor said. "I would be suspicious of this sort of hype."

Be suspicious of archaeologists, pseudo-archaeologists, and government departments of tourism.

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Monday, May 05, 2008

CT article on Amateur Archaeologists

Gordon Govier has written an excellent article in this month's Christianity Today on the problem of amateur "archaeologists" who make sensational, but unfounded, claims.  As Govier notes, I have commented on the issue here before.  What this means to you: the next time someone forwards you an email that shows chariot wheels under the Red Sea or similar phenomena, hit the delete key. 


Thursday, May 01, 2008

Nebi Samwil is not Mizpah

The May/June issue of Biblical Archaeology Review arrived in the mail yesterday (and it's online here), and it includes an article entitled Nebi Samwil: Where Samuel Crowned Israel's First King.  The article is primarily a means of making public the results of the excavations at the site by Yitzhak Magen from 1992 until 2003.  An article like this is to me a primary reason for the existence of BAR: it puts otherwise inaccessible material into the hands of the average Bible reader.  I've read a summary of Magen's report elsewhere before, but the book is very expensive and won't be at your local library.  With that commendation of the article and magazine aside, I'll tell you why I think the central premise of the article, that Nebi Samwil is biblical Mizpah, is wrong.

The most detailed geographic passage in the Bible mentioning Mizpah is 1 Kings 15:17-22.  In the story, the northern king Baasha takes Ramah away from the Judean king Asa.  When Asa succeeds in getting Baasha to withdraw, Asa fortifies Geba and Mizpah.  By fortifying Geba, Asa ensures that Ramah cannot be taken by the road from the east.  By fortifying Mizpah (according to where nearly everyone except Magen locates it), he prevents Ramah from being retaken by the road from the north.  If Mizpah is at Nebi Samwil, Asa was an idiot.

Though this story is critical to the premise, the article only deals with it in a footnote.  There are two problems with Magen's argument as presented in the footnote.  First, it wrongly identifies Gibeah of Saul (= Tel el-Ful) with Geba of Benjamin (= Jaba).  More importantly, it doesn't make any sense what Asa gained by fortifying the two sites that Magen says he did (Nebi Samwil and Gibeah).  Baasha could simply come back, re-fortify Ramah, and Asa is back at square one.  But if you control en-Nasbeh (Mizpah) and Jaba (Geba), you control the two main arteries into Judah from the north and prevent Baasha from returning to Ramah.

BAR has a map but it omits key data.
I made this using the free Bible Mapper.
As labeled, Gibeah=Tell el-Ful; Mizpah = Tell en-Nasbeh; Geba = Jaba

The archaeological evidence from the Iron Age at Nebi Samwil is so pathetic that it's a wonder that Magen even tried.  Knowing that you can read the whole thing yourself, I don't mind isolating a few clips to make the point:

We did not find any remains from the time of the Judges... [that is, the time when Samuel allegedly crowned Saul here!]

Interestingly enough, we found not a single structure or even a standing wall from this period.  On this basis, it might be tempting to conclude that the site was unoccupied at this time [Iron II]....  [He's right; it is tempting...]

All this suggests caution in concluding that the site was not occupied until later.  [In other words, the natural conclusion is that it wasn't occupied until later, but we found a few scraps of evidence that should be considered.]

I commend him for his honesty, but does he really want us to assume that because he found a few Iron Age seal impressions that the site was a major military fortress in the Iron Age?  We're not idiots either.  (Compare these remains with the significant Iron Age evidence at en-Nasbeh and it's an open-shut case.)

Mizpah Iron Age offset-inset wall, tb051407525 
Iron Age wall at en-Nasbeh

Here's a reality I've seen time and again: archaeologists often identify their site with something biblical, even if the evidence is thin.  It's a natural human response to want to be associated with something great, and if it's archaeology in the land of Israel, a biblical connection brings lots of interest. Let's face it: most of us wouldn't read the article if it was all about Hellenistic buildings and a Crusader castle.  But here's what this all means to you: be careful before trusting the archaeologist when he claims the site he is excavating is mentioned in the Bible.


Wednesday, January 16, 2008

"David's Palace" and Contrary Opinions

Israel Finkelstein, Lily Singer-Avitz, Ze'ev Herzog, and David Ussishkin have written an article in the Tel Aviv journal entitled "Has King David's Palace in Jerusalem Been Found?"  Jim West has posted the article in pdf format here (but after Jan 29 here).

The abstract:

Recent excavations at the City of David have revealed a set of massive walls constructed of large undressed stones. Excavator Eilat Mazar has presented them as the remains of a single building, which she labelled the ‘Large Stone Structure’. Mazar interpreted the ‘Large Stone Structure’ as part of a big construction complex, which had also included the ‘Stepped Stone Structure’ on the slope. She dated her ‘Large Stone Structure’ to ca. 1000 BCE and identified it as the palace of King David. We argue that: (1) the walls unearthed by Mazar do not belong to a single building; (2) the more elaborate walls may be associated with elements uncovered by Macalister and Duncan in the 1920s and should possibly be dated to the Hellenistic period; (3) the ‘Stepped Stone Structure’ represents at least two phases of construction— the lower (downslope) and earlier, possibly dating to the Iron IIA in the 9th century BCE, and the later (which connects to the Hasmonaean First Wall upslope) dating to the Hellenistic period.

Their brutal conclusion:

Eilat Mazar’s excavations in the City of David add several points of information to what we know about the history of this problematic site. Yet, the main find—the ‘Large Stone Structure’—was not properly interpreted and dated. First, it seems to consist of several elements, mainly a rectangular building in the west and the citywall in the east. Second, all one can safely say is that its various elements post-date the late Iron I/early Iron IIA and predate the Roman period. Circumstantial evidence seems to suggest the dating of most elements to the late Hellenistic period.

Beyond archaeology, one wonders about the interpretation of the finds. The biblical text dominates this field operation, not archaeology. Had it not been for Mazar’s literal reading of the biblical text, she never would have dated the remains to the 10th century BCE with such confidence. This is an excellent example of the weakness of the traditional, highly literal, biblical archaeology—a discipline that dominated research until the 1960s, that was weakened and almost disappeared from the scene in the later years of the 20th century, and that reemerged with all its attributes in the City of David in 2005.

Revising Mazar's date from the 10th century to the 2nd-1st century is a huge correction (it reminds one of the 1000-year errors that Robert Alexander Stewart Macalister regularly made).  And this charge is made not in a casual conversation, but in a major journal. But the authors make no attempt to hide their own agenda: they hate "biblical archaeology."  While Mazar is possibly guilty of finding what she is looking for, I have trouble imagining a scenario where Finkelstein would agree with any conclusion which supports the traditional biblical interpretation.  Perhaps herein lies a test: if every archaeological discovery of a certain excavator seems to be of a structure mentioned in the Bible, be suspicious.  But if an archaeologist is able to find a reason to reject every discovery with a biblical connection, he may not be worthy of your trust.

There's another lesson in this debate: much in archaeology is ambiguous, and multiple conclusions are possible.  In most cases, a major issue is not at stake and the conclusion of the excavator is not carefully evaluated.  But there are many, many examples where a site, level, or subject is re-analyzed and a significantly different conclusion is reached.  For me it means one thing: thou shalt not trust in archaeology.  If certain conclusions are the primary support of one's faith, it's quite possible that one day those conclusions will be questioned (before, perhaps, being re-adopted).  Many today use archaeology in a similar way but for an opposite result: certain archaeological conclusions are their evidence that the Bible is not an accurate historical record.  To all amateurs, I suggest a careful consideration of the ambiguity of much of archaeological evidence.  In the hands of an interpreter (usually called an archaeologist), archaeology is no science.

In a blog comment, Aren Maier indicates that the debate is just beginning:

As someone who has seen the evidence and heard both Eilat Mazar present her case and Finkelstien, Ussishkin, Herzog and Singer-Avitz present their counterarguments, I believe that one can say that:

1) Eilat has overstated her case that she has found “David’s palace”. She HAS found a large building in the City of David, dating to the 10th or 9th cent. BCE.

2) From an archaeological point of view, the “Hellenistic” dating that Finkelstine et al. have suggested is to say the least, very unconvincing. This though is not the place to go in to details.

Sometime I'd like to post my own thoughts on Mazar's "palace of David."  I'm not competent to analyze the stratigraphical issues, but I do think that she's made some significant mistakes in biblical interpretation.  And that's from one who believes that David had a palace and the biblical record of it is reliable.

*The article is worth downloading for the bibliography alone, if you're into that kind of thing.

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Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Palace of Queen Helena Found?

The Israel Antiquities Authority announced the discovery of the palace of Queen Helena of Adiabene today.  You can read about it in this Jerusalem Post article or in this AFP article.  The JPost article also has a great photo of the excavation area.  Here are some parts of the JPost article with my thoughts.

The site, which has been unearthed during a six-month 'salvage' excavation in the Givati parking lot just outside the Dung Gate ahead of the planned expansion of the Western Wall car park, also indicates that the ancient City of David was much larger than previously thought, said archeologist Doron Ben-Ami, who is directing the dig at the site.

If you've been in Jerusalem in the last five years, you've seen this gaping hole just south of the Dung Gate - this is the same place.  I worked with our students as volunteers in digging here back in the fall of 2003, so it's not exactly a new excavation as the article implies.

Temple Mount and City of David aerial from sw, tb010703234 
Jerusalem from southwest; excavation area circled

That the "City of David was much larger than previously thought" doesn't make any sense to me.  The City of David has always been understood to be bordered by the Kidron Valley on the east and the Central Valley on the west and neither of those have moved in the last six months.  Nobody has doubted that there was construction in this area in the 1st century A.D., especially given the Crowfoot expedition in the 1920s.

The "monumental" edifice, which was destroyed by the Romans when they demolished the Second Temple in 70 CE, was dated to the end of the Second Temple Period by pottery and stone vessels, as well as an assortment of coins from that time, Ben-Ami said.

When we were there, we were digging in the Late Roman and Byzantine periods, and I've never been part of a dig where we found more coins than this one. 

According to the director of the dig, the elaborate edifice, which is an anomaly in the landscape of the Lower City at the end of the Second Temple period - which was marked with modest buildings - was probably a palace built by Queen Helena, a wealthy Iraqi aristocrat who converted to Judaism and moved to Jerusalem with her sons.

The problem with this statement is that very little digging has been done on the crest of the City of David (as opposed to the eastern slope), and there was much destruction in later periods.  So there isn't much to compare with.  If all they have is a magnificent building, I'd say it could be Helena's and it could be someone else's.

Helena is an interesting individual.  Her tomb in Jerusalem was the second most magnificent one in the ancient world (and it's still impressive, although difficult to visit because of poor management by the French government; cf. Ant. 20.4.3).  Josephus wrote that Helena built three palaces in the Lower City (one for herself, one for her son and one for her mother-in-law; Wars 4.9.11; 5.6.1), which is (I think) the only basis for the identification of this building as hers by the archaeologist.

Though contemporary with the book of Acts, Helena is not mentioned in the New Testament.  Josephus connects her with the famine mentioned in Acts 11:28, indicating that she bought large quantities of food from Egypt to feed the people of Jerusalem (Ant. 20.2.3ff.).

The archeologists carrying out the dig have not yet found any inscription to identify the building they uncovered, but the excavation director said that there was a "high probability" that the site was indeed the 2,000-year-old palace of Queen Helena.  "We need more evidence to decide, but almost everything fits," Ben-Ami said.

This identification could well be, but there's no evidence for it given in this article.  I would think the identification would be stronger if: 1) more of the City of David had been excavated, thus excluding other sites; 2) we had more knowledge of what else was in the City of David in the 1st century; all we really know is that these palaces were here, but it's doubtful that these occupied the entire area; 3) finds from the building were of Mesopotamian origin (Adiabene was a province in northern Mesopotamia).

The well-preserved structure being uncovered in the ongoing excavation is an impressive architectural complex that includes massive foundations; walls, some of which are preserved to a height in excess of five meters and built of stones that weigh hundreds of kilograms; halls that are preserved to a height of at least two stories; a basement level that was covered with vaults; remains of polychrome frescoes, water installations and ritual baths.

This is great, but there were many impressive buildings in first century Jerusalem, so this alone is not sufficient to prove the identification.

Those interested in Jewish evangelism and conversion in the New Testament period would find Helena's story worth studying.  For a start, take a look at the articles in Anchor Bible Dictionary on Proselyte and Circumcision.

Update: The JPost has a one-minute video of the excavations with an archaeologist talking about the discovery.  HT: Joe Lauer.

Update (12/7): has a 2-minute video, and this Arutz-7 article has numerous photos which show the well-preserved walls and some of the artifacts discovered.  The story is also covered by Reuters, Haaretz, and the AP.

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Sunday, December 02, 2007

Gospel of Judas: NG Blew It

April D. DeConick says that National Geographic got it all wrong in their interpretation of the Gospel of Judas.  And, what do you know, but their strange choices created the story.  DeConick goes further than explaining the translation errors, but she also shows why scholarship should not be done this way - in a closet by a few scholars who sign non-disclosure agreements before a major press conference designed to generate boatloads of money.

Amid much publicity last year, the National Geographic Society announced that a lost 3rd-century religious text had been found, the Gospel of Judas Iscariot. The shocker: Judas didn’t betray Jesus. Instead, Jesus asked Judas, his most trusted and beloved disciple, to hand him over to be killed. Judas’s reward? Ascent to heaven and exaltation above the other disciples.

It was a great story. Unfortunately, after re-translating the society’s transcription of the Coptic text, I have found that the actual meaning is vastly different. While National Geographic’s translation supported the provocative interpretation of Judas as a hero, a more careful reading makes clear that Judas is not only no hero, he is a demon.

Several of the translation choices made by the society’s scholars fall well outside the commonly accepted practices in the field. For example, in one instance the National Geographic transcription refers to Judas as a “daimon,” which the society’s experts have translated as “spirit.” Actually, the universally accepted word for “spirit” is “pneuma ” — in Gnostic literature “daimon” is always taken to mean “demon.”

Likewise, Judas is not set apart “for” the holy generation, as the National Geographic translation says, he is separated “from” it. He does not receive the mysteries of the kingdom because “it is possible for him to go there.” He receives them because Jesus tells him that he can’t go there, and Jesus doesn’t want Judas to betray him out of ignorance. Jesus wants him informed, so that the demonic Judas can suffer all that he deserves.

Perhaps the most egregious mistake I found was a single alteration made to the original Coptic. According to the National Geographic translation, Judas’s ascent to the holy generation would be cursed. But it’s clear from the transcription that the scholars altered the Coptic original, which eliminated a negative from the original sentence. In fact, the original states that Judas will “not ascend to the holy generation.” To its credit, National Geographic has acknowledged this mistake, albeit far too late to change the public misconception.

The rest is here and it is worth reading.

UPDATE (12/8): One of the NG translators responds in a letter to the NYT.

HT: Joe Lauer

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Sunday, November 25, 2007

Maeir Urges Caution in Reaching Archaeological Conclusions

Some much of what makes the news from the archaeological world lies on either extreme of the spectrum: either wild-eyed gullibility of some sensational claim or knee-jerk denial that X has any true historical reality.  Adherents of one end of the spectrum usually lack scholarly credentials, while the latter often boasts a boatload, but both extremes are at odds with a normal common-sense approach held by most archaeologists.  Archaeologist Aren Maier has been excavating at Gath and he gave a lecture which is reported by the Deseret Morning News.

Contrary to the quest of many biblical archaeologists in years past, today's "new image" of excavating ancient Near Eastern sites isn't focused on proving that the Bible is an ancient historical document.

Yet there's no reason to shy away from comparing scientific findings to biblical text, either, says a longtime archaeologist.

The challenge is to use caution, rather than leaping to what seem to be "logical conclusions" about findings that go well beyond the actual science involved with high-profile finds, some of which turn out to be forgeries.

That is according to Aren Maeir, chairman of the department of archaeology and Land of Israel Studies at Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv. Rather than trying to "verify beliefs according to archaeological remains," Maeir said archaeologists driven by science are leaving those kinds of discussions to theologians. Archaeologists seek to provide information on what they find in the ground, when they believe it originated and how it may or may not play into theological discussions.

You can read the rest of the story here.  The main points he makes seem so basic that they hardly need reporting, but given the tendencies of the media to cover the extremes mentioned above, perhaps more fair-handed approaches like this should be covered.  As for the ossuary of James, I don't think that we have heard the last word as he suggests.  In the forgery conference earlier this year, most scholars in attendance agreed that the inscription was authentic.  But this point is well-made: everyone must exercise caution before making a sensationalistic identification.


Thursday, October 25, 2007

"But I Used the Tractor Carefully..."

The Jerusalem Post story on the on-going saga of "excavations" on the Temple Mount is here.  The abbreviated version follows:

Genius #1: Shmuel Dorfman

"There was no damage to the remains of buildings or artifacts."

Sir, can you tell me if you excavated with a tractor?

"They were under time pressure."

It's good to know that you can excavate with a tractor and cause "no damage" to ancient remains.  This guy wouldn't pass Archaeology 101.  Unfortunately he is the Director-General of the Israel Antiquities Authority.


Genius #2: Meir Ben-Dov, retired archaeologist

"There were no archeological findings in the ground," Meir Ben-Dov told the committee. "They dug a total of 50 cm. [18 inches] deep and all of it was fill-in from the earlier infrastructure that had been installed."

Somebody should have told this guy about the Iron Age remains from an undisturbed layer that were discovered in this trench.  Ben-Dov is not an honest man.  He just expected that the Muslims would have destroyed it all so thoroughly that no one would ever be able to prove him wrong.  Fortunately somebody was watching "the excavation" between tractor scoops and not all was lost.


The good news:

"The Knesset State Control Committee on Monday decided to ask the State Comptroller's Office to investigate procedures for allowing the Wakf Islamic trust to excavate on the Temple Mount, amid claims by archeologists that the laying of electric cables there in August endangered ancient artifacts."

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Monday, October 01, 2007

Bad "Archaeology"

Eric Cline has a good op-ed on "biblical archaeologists" who are frauds.  Entitled "Raiders of the faux ark," the Boston Globe piece exposes some of the "discoveries" made by guys with no archaeological training whatsoever.  It's not only worthwhile to expose such "scholarship" for what it is (and Cline does this more thoroughly in his recent book, From Eden to Exile: Unraveling Mysteries of the Bible), but he avoids making a mistake that many do - lumping all religious scholars in with the nut cases.  The article in full is worth reading, but here is an important paragraph:

Religious archeologists and secular archeologists frequently work side by side in the Holy Land. Among the top ranks of researchers, there are evangelical Christians, orthodox Jews, and people of many denominations. It is not religious views that are the issue here; it is whether good science is being done. Biblical archeology is a field in which people of good will, and all religions, can join under the banner of the scientific process.

From reviews I've read, I think I would find more to disagree with in his book than in this article.  A couple of evangelical writers are working on a book debunking some of the "amazing discoveries" made in the last few decades and I'll mention it here when that gets closer to publication.

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Thursday, September 06, 2007

Loan Siloam Inscription: Don't Believe It

I read this story yesterday in the Washington Times and ignored it, because I thought it was in error.  I've since seen it mentioned in blogs online as if the story was credible.  Jay Bushinsky of the Washington Times begins his report:

An ancient inscription memorializing Jerusalem's salvation from Assyrian invaders 2,700 years ago is to be returned to the Holy Land from Turkey for study and public display.  Israel has been trying for about 20 years to recover the artifact, which marks one of the most important turning points in Hebrew history.

I think this story is bogus for the following reasons:

1. No one else is reporting this.  I hardly think that the Washington Times knows something that no one else does.  You can check online news sources easily by searching for "Siloam Inscription" at Google News (here is that link).

2. A story like this would be broken by the Israel Museum or a major government agency, and not only are they not mentioning it, the WT story does not cite them.  The story is long, but the length is deceptive as only the first sentence mentions the return. 

3. About a month ago, various news outlets reported some discussion of the matter.  The essence of the story was that a Turkish official agreed to consider some sort of loan.  In the Middle East, such "consideration" is a far cry from a decision.  And a decision is very different than action.  In other words, this isn't "news" until the inscription is sitting in Jerusalem.

What I think happened is that this reporter read some of those stories too quickly and wrote an article based on a misunderstanding.

By the way, if you want to take a picture of the inscription, don't wait until it comes to Jerusalem.  The Israeli authorities won't allow it, I'm certain.  You'll do better to go visit it in Istanbul, where you can take pictures.  Which is far better anyway, because there are so many great artifacts on display that won't be coming to Jerusalem on loan.  There would be a certain irony as well if the Siloam Inscription came to Jerusalem the next couple of years, as hundreds of the best archaeological finds in Israel are locked up out of sight of visitors.

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Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Excavations in West Bank

The Jerusalem Post reports on the number of excavations that have taken place in the West Bank or Gaza Strip since 1967.

About 15 percent of the total number of archaeological excavations conducted in Israel over the past 40 years took place across the Green Line, a study released Wednesday showed.

The Tel Aviv University study reveals that approximately 1500 excavations had been carried out at some 900 different sites across the Green Line over the last four decades, which comes to about 15% of the total number of excavations conducted in Israel during that time.

The study, by Dr. Rafi Greenberg and Adi Keinan of the university's Department of Archeology and Near Eastern studies, found that the peak of academic involvement in the excavation of east Jerusalem occurred in the first decade following the unification of the city in 1967, while the height of academic activity in the West Bank came between the rise of the Likud to power in 1977 and the first Palestinian Intifada in 1987.

A few points of interest from this brief article:

1. Many of the sites related to Israel's ancient history are located in the West Bank, and 15% is a very small number for such an important area.  There is much to be done here, and it won't happen if Israelis do not have access because a) there are not many Palestinian archaeologists; b) the Palestinian people are largely uninterested in sites related to Jewish history.

2. The article doesn't give the total number of excavations in Israel since 1967, but there apparently have been 10,000 (1500/.15).

3. Israeli archaeologists should be hailed for studying these sites and gaining much knowledge from them, instead of being vilified as "occupiers."  Some of the important Israeli excavations in this area include Herodium, Shiloh, Jericho (Tulul abu el-Alayiq), Mt. Gerizim, and Mamre.  Sites that need more excavation include Samaria, Tirzah (Tell el-Farah North), Bethel and vicinity, Tekoa, and Jericho (Tell es-Sultan).


Friday, August 31, 2007

Bahat: Archaeologists Politically Motivated; Wall Must Not Exist

The AFT has a follow-up to yesterday's article on the discovery of a wall from the Second Temple.  The article is headlined "Doubts over 'second temple remains' in Jerusalem."  The headline is misleading.  The only one casting doubts in the article is Dan Bahat, who has a record for distorting evidence related to the Temple Mount.  He admits that he hasn't seen the wall, and his reaction is but a knee-jerk response to the claims of other archaeologists who he says are "waging a politically inspired campaign, systematically for several years, to strengthen Israeli control over the esplanade."  Even assuming that this charge is true, that doesn't change the nature of construction that is being revealed and possibly destroyed on the Temple Mount.  The fact that the police haven't stepped in doesn't mean anything; they didn't step in when thousands of tons of earth were removed in the late 1990s either.  I mentioned in the last post that Barkay is a trustworthy voice on the subject; I can't say the same for Bahat.  In addition to his appearances in the media, his Illustrated Atlas of Jerusalem is filled with errors.  I use portions of it with students, but with cautions.  The maps are very helpful and generally more reliable.  (I list some better books here.)

UPDATE: The Jerusalem Post now covers the story.

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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

A New Reference to a Biblical Figure

This story in The Times looks very interesting.  It's another one of those occasions when the discovery is made long after the excavators leave the field.

The British Museum yesterday hailed a discovery within a modest clay tablet in its collection as a breakthrough for biblical archaeology – dramatic proof of the accuracy of the Old Testament.

The cuneiform inscription in a tablet dating from 595BC has been deciphered for the first time – revealing a reference to an official at the court of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, that proves the historical existence of a figure mentioned in the Book of Jeremiah.

This is rare evidence in a nonbiblical source of a real person, other than kings, featured in the Bible.

The tablet names a Babylonian officer called Nebo-Sarsekim, who according to Jeremiah xxxix was present in 587BC when Nebuchadnezzar “marched against Jerusalem with his whole army and laid siege to it”.

The rest of the story is here.  I've been working for some years on a list of extrabiblical references to biblical people.  I'm not ready to share it, but I can tell you that it is long.

The stupid quote of the story goes to renowned scholar Geza Vermes, who said, according to the reporter, "the Biblical story is not altogether invented."  My response: there is not a fraction of evidence that it is invented at all.  Many scholars have many theories, but these are possible only because of the lack of evidence.  The more evidence, the less room for scholarly ideas about the invention of the Bible.  This observation is not based upon the above story, but upon years of study in the land of Israel.  The liberal case gets weaker the more I know.

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Thursday, June 07, 2007

The Dangers of Wikipedia

I like and use Wikipedia for all kinds of things.  The more I know about the subject, however, the poorer the quality of the articles.  This morning I was going through some photos I took a few months ago, including some that I took of Har Nitai, across the Wadi Hammam from Arbel.  This picturesque mountain is not easily accessible as there are no roads and no good footpaths (that I could find).  The site has significant ruins on the surface, but as far as I could tell, no excavations have been carried out.

A quick search for the site on Google brought me to this Wikipedia entry, which is largely a page written by a single person ("Truthresearch").  That should be the first clue; anybody with a username like that is immediately suspect. 

The entry gives a little information about the site, but quickly goes to a suggested identification of the site as Nazareth.  The basis for this identification appears to rest solely on the location of a steep cliff here (fitting the story in Luke 4 where Jesus is nearly thrown off a cliff).  If that's the method for site identification, then we can rearrange the entire map of Galilee.  The writer acknowledges that the present-day Nazareth has the evidence of tradition, but it tries to make that a negative, explaining that it is only about 300 A.D. when Nazareth is mentioned in ancient sources.  He fails to note that most Christian traditions are not attested until that time because Christianity was persecuted until the end of the Roman empire (circa 300 A.D.).  Nazareth's insignificant status and size explain its lack of mention in non-Christian sources.  None of this of course is any sort of an argument that Har Nitai is the real Nazareth.  But there is a cliff; what more do you need?

The link at the bottom of the article to a geocities site ("The Real Nazareth?") suggests that the author of the two is identical.

All of this does of course give me the excuse to share a photo of the Arbel cliffs taken from Har Nitai.  No sign yet of the planned golf course on top of Arbel.

Sea of Galilee and Arbel cliffs panorama, tb0221007888sr


Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Excavations and Journalists

Here's a rule of thumb: if a news article touches on the Temple Mount or the City of David, you can pretty much count on large parts of it being politically motivated and inaccurate.  A good example of that is yesterday's Haaretz article by Meron Rapoport.  Non-Israeli readers may not know of Haaretz's reputation as the left-wing newspaper of the country.  You can read the short article yourself; I'm going to limit myself to addressing the article's failures.

1. The supervising archaeologists are Ronny Reich and Eli Shukrun.  There is no Gabi Reich.  That's such a basic error that you know this reporter is completely unfamiliar with the subject.  Reich is a first-rate archaeologist who has been an excavation director in Jerusalem for more than a decade and in other capacities since the early 1970s.

2. "This is a very sensitive region for a dig. Should it approach the Temple Mount wall, it will certainly elicit angry reactions from the Muslim Waqf..."  The dig is in the City of David, many hundreds of meters from the Temple Mount.  Ronny Reich has led excavations immediately next to the Temple Mount and there were no protests.  For the record, Muslim protests are unrelated to reality.  If some Muslim leader wants a reason to get his people worked up, he will claim his mosque is being undermined, even if last year's dig was closer than this year's.  Given the context of the article, it appears that the author is trying to create a problem that does not exist.  [Note that this excavation is completely separate from the dismantling and construction of a bridge for tourists to the Temple Mount, which was the stated reason for Muslim violence today.]

3. "Moreover, most of the excavation site is inhabited by Palestinians, and thus far, no effort has been made to get their permission, as required by law, for digging on and under their property."  There is no evidence that the author knows where the excavation really is.  This is just an attempt to get somebody excited to shut down this dig.  He certainly is unwilling to admit that the workers employed in these excavations are Palestinians who live in the area.

4. "But on top of all that" - is this really an appropriate phrase for a news article, or should this be on the editorial page?

5. The heart of the article concerns whether or not the excavators have a license to dig.  "The excavation of a tunnel under Jerusalem's City of David has gone on for months without a license from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), as required by law."  This indeed is strange, given that the chief archaeologist on the ground (Shukrun) is an IAA employee.  That means he does what he is told.  If the IAA doesn't grant him a license, then he's not going to be digging there, assuming he wants to receive his salary.

6. The rat seems to be buried in the details.  Possibly the issue is not the IAA not issuing a permit (even the article says, "the IAA decided to extend Reich and Shukrun's license to dig in Silwan"), but the Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority (INNPPA) not giving permission to the IAA.  Aha - this is a spat between governmental agencies.  One is trying to control the other and when he doesn't get his way, he calls his local journalist.  I have no idea if the INNPPA really has authority over the IAA, but it really doesn't matter to me.  The issue is this "news article" and the dirty work that this journalist is willing to do.

7. "But INNPPA spokesman Moshe Gabay said that there is currently "no operative plan" to develop the area for tourism..."  Well, this guy must live in Eilat.  In the last couple of years, they've done extraordinary things in the City of David, including the excavation of the Pool of Siloam and opening it to tourists; the opening of the Siloam Tunnel to tourists; the construction of a visitor's center at the entrance; the construction of a viewing point of the City of David; the excavation of the "palace of David" with attendant provisions for tourists.  And just last week they drained Hezekiah's Tunnel so that metal steps could be installed.

8. "nor did the organization [INPPA] approve an expanded dig. Instead, he said, it approved only an "exploratory dig" of 50 to 100 meters, after which a decision will be made."  So, what do you know?  The INNPA actually did approve the dig. 

The problem with articles like these is that they lead everyone astray except those closest to it.  Thus, the esteemed Paleojudaica blog can conclude from the article, "there are irregularities with this dig which are a cause for concern."

Back to the rule of thumb.


Friday, January 05, 2007

Response to Rafi Greenberg - now in English

I've just received and posted an approved English translation of Amnon Ben-Tor's letter to the editor. See the "Response to Rafi Greenberg" below.


Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Response to Rafi Greenberg

I commented previously on a horribly one-sided Haaretz article (or here) on Israeli archaeology in the West Bank. Professor Amnon Ben-Tor, an esteemed archaeologist at Hebrew University, has written a letter in response. This was published in the Haaretz Hebrew edition, but there are no plans to publish it in the English edition. The letter is posted here, but letters to the editor are not archived and will be removed soon. Thanks to Joseph Lauer for passing this on.

Ha’aretz [Hebrew]

December 29, 2006

יום שישי ח' בטבת תשס"ז

כתם ארכיאולוגי
בתגובה על "ת"פ אלוף מרכז" מאת מירון רפופורט ("הארץ", 15.12

מירון רפופורט, המצטט את הארכיאולוג רפי גרינברג, כותב מפיו: "מאז 1967 נסקרו כ-5,000 אתרים ארכיאולוגיים בגדה... ארכיאולוגים ישראלים הם שניהלו את הסקרים, והם העדיפו, כמובן, לסקור אתרים החשובים להיסטוריה היהודית ולא להיסטוריה הפלשתינית... הארכיאולוגים הישראלים חיפשו בעיקר את בית ראשון או בית שני... אך טבעי הוא שארכיאולוגים יתעניינו בהיסטוריה של העם שלהם, ככה זה בכל העולם".
האמירות האלה של גרינברג אינן מבוססות. כל כוונתו של סקר היא לקבוע את המפה היישובית באזור הנסקר בכל תקופה ותקופה, ולכן אין כל אפשרות להעדיף תקופה אחת על רעותה. כל המעיין בנתוני הסקרים העיקריים שנערכו בגדה לאחר 1967 על ידי זרטל, פינקלשטיין ועופר, יראה מיד שמספרם של האתרים שאינם "יהודיים" שנסקרו) כנעניים, ביזנטיים, מוסלמיים) גדול בהרבה מאלה ה"יהודיים".
אשר לאתרים שנחפרו - גם כאן התמונה דומה: מאז שנת 2000 הוצאו רישיונות חפירה בגדה המערבית ל-147 אתרים, מהם ניתן להגדיר 14 כ"יהודיים" (20%), מספר קטן של אתרים כנעניים, ואילו הרוב המכריע הוא אתרים מהתקופה הביזנטית והמוסלמית.
דברים אלו נכונים גם לחקר האתרים שבתחומי הקו הירוק: האתרים שבהם נערכות חפירות בקנה מידה גדול בשנים האחרונות ובהם עכו, קיסריה, בית שאן, סוסיתא, בית גוברין, מרישה - אף לא אחד מאלו ניתן להגדיר כאתר "יהודי". בשנת 2006 הוציאה רשות העתיקות 281 רישיונות חפירה: בכ-100 מאלו נחקרו מתקנים חקלאיים שאת "זהותם האתנית" של המשתמשים בהם לא ניתן לקבוע. בין יתר האתרים, כ-60 הם אתרים בני התקופה המוסלמית, 45-50 הם אתרים נוצריים, 35-40 הם אתרים בני התקופות הכנענית והפרהיסטורית ו-25 (פחות מ-10%) הם אתרים שבהם נחשפו שרידים מימי בית ראשון ושני. נתונים אלה כוללים גם את החפירות בירושלים.
את כל הנתונים הללו קיבלתי מקצין המטה לארכיאולוגיה ומרשות העתיקות בתוך פחות מ-12 שעות מאז פנייתי.
טענות מסוג אלה שטוען גרינברג נשמעות כמעט בכל כנס בינלאומי וכן בפרסומים "מדעיים", ולצערנו התרגלנו כבר לסילופים אלו שכל כוונתם היא לתקוף את ישראל. גרינברג הכתים לא רק את עצמו, אלא את הארכיאולוגיה הישראלית בכללה. מה חבל, שבדומה לאלו שאינם ישראלים, נתן גם גרינברג להשקפתו הפוליטית לסלף את העובדות.

אמנון בן תור


The following is an English translation of Dr. Amnon Ben-Tor’s Letter to the Editor published in Ha’aretz [Hebrew] on December 29, 2006. It was translated and is circulated with Dr. Ben-Tor’s permission, and also corrects a numerical typographical error made by the paper.

The letter was written in response to an article published in the Ha’aretz Hebrew Language Edition on December 15, 2006. The article was also published in the December 17, 2006 Ha’aretz English Language Edition under the caption “Buried treasure that’s kept in the dark”. The article is based on claims made by Dr. Rafi Greenberg regarding Israeli archaeology and archaeologists. As is evident from his letter, Dr. Ben-Tor takes strong exception to those claims.


An Archaeological Stain

In response to “Under Command of the GOC Central Command” by Meron Rapoport (Ha’aretz [December 15, 2006]).

Meron Rapoport, who quotes the archaeologist Rafi Greenberg, writes that he says that “Since 1967, some 5,000 archaeological sites in the West Bank have been surveyed…. the surveys were done by Israeli archaeologists and they naturally preferred sites that are important to Jewish rather than Palestinian history…. Israeli archaeologists have excavated mainly the First Temple and Second Temple periods…. It is natural for Israeli archaeologists to take an interest in the history of their people, … it’s the same everywhere.”

These statements of Greenberg are baseless. The whole purpose of a survey is to determine the map of settlement in the surveyed area in every period, and therefore there is no possibility of preferring one period over another. Anyone who studies the data from the main surveys that were conducted in the West Bank after 1967 by Zertal, Finkelstein and Ofer, will immediately see that the number of the surveyed sites that are not “Jewish” (Canaanite, Byzantine and Muslim) greatly exceed those that are “Jewish”.

The picture is similar with regard to the sites that were excavated. Since the year 2000, excavation permits were issued in the West Bank for 147 sites. Of them, 20 can be classified as “Jewish” (14%), and a small number as Canaanite sites, whereas the vast majority are sites from the Byzantine and Muslim periods.

These facts are also applicable to the examination of sites within the Green Line. Of the sites at which excavations were conducted on a large scale, including Acco, Caesarea, Bet Shean, Sussita, Bet Guvrin, Maresha, not even one could be characterized as a “Jewish” site. In 2006 the Israel Antiquities Authority issued 281 excavation permits: in about 100 of these agricultural installations were studied, about which the “ethnic identity” of their users could not be determined. Of the remaining sites, about 60 are Muslim-period sites, 45-50 are Christian sites, 35-40 are from Canaanite and pre-historic periods, and 25 (less than 10%) are sites at which First and Second Temple period remains were discovered. These data also include the excavations in Jerusalem.

I obtained all of these data from the staff officer for archaeology and from the Antiquities Authority in less than 12 hours from when I approached them.

Allegations of the type made by Greenberg are heard at almost every international conference and also in “scientific” publications, and to our regret we have already become accustomed to these distortions which are only intended to bash Israel. Greenberg did not only stain himself but Israel archaeology in general. What a pity that, like those who are not Israeli, Greenberg too has permitted his political opinions to distort the facts.

Amnon Ben-Tor


Friday, December 22, 2006

Top 10 and Qumran Latrine Response

Haaretz has a very one-sided article on Israeli archaeology in the West Bank.  Somebody should write an honest response to what's essentially a mouthpiece for the opinions of one Rafi Greenberg.

Archaeology magazine lists the Top 10 Discoveries of 2006.  Nothing of biblical significance is included, but the #1 discovery is the tomb in Luxor's Valley of the Kings.  KV63 is the first tomb excavated here since King Tut's tomb in 1922.

Hardly a week goes by when some argue is promoted or dismissed on the basis of logic rather than evidence.  In this Haaretz article about the Qumran latrines, Yitzhak Magen responds to the recent proposal by Zias and Tabor that only Essenes would have ventured outside the camp.

"In addition," Magen says, "the Qumran area and particularly the caves surrounding the site, are full of predatory animals and animals that consume carrion, like foxes, hyenas, and leopards. People who lived in this area for years were well aware of that. They feared these animals and certainly would not leave their camps to relieve themselves. Thus, it is unreasonable to assume that the camp's latrine was located at such a distance."

"It was not the Essenes who buried the scrolls in the caves near the Qumran ruins," Magen adds. "The scrolls were buried by Jews who escaped from Jerusalem after the destruction of the Second Temple." One of the main escape routes from Jerusalem passed through Qumran. Jews, who were somewhat unfamiliar with the area and had no knowledge of its predatory animals, did not fear entering the caves to bury the scrolls, he proposes.

So it's unreasonable that Essenes walked a few dozen yards to bury scrolls, but it's reasonable that people came dozens of miles and hid them there (but only because they didn't know about the foxes!).

Magen does not respond to the ancient texts which specify the Essenes should travel 1,000 or 2,000 cubits (1,500-3,000 feet) outside of the settlement to relieve themselves.

Whenever you hear that something is "unreasonable," that should alert you to the likelihood that there's no good evidence to support the proposed conclusion.


Friday, December 15, 2006

"No Room in the Inn"

In the typical Christmas pageant, one of the children will be cast as the heartless innkeeper who refuses lodging to Joseph and pregnant Mary.  Most know that there is no innkeeper mentioned in the Bible, but fewer are aware that there is not even an inn described.  The view that Joseph and Mary simply arrived late to Bethlehem and accommodations at the local hotel were full is incorrect.  The word translated as "inn" is the word kataluma, which is used elsewhere by Luke and translated as "guest chamber" or "upper room" (Luke 22:11; cf. Mark 14:14).  When Luke wants to speak of a paid establishment (i.e., an inn), he uses a different Greek word, pandocheion, as in the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:34).  Unfortunately, of the dozens of English translations that I've checked, all translate kataluma as "inn" in Luke 2:7 and not as "guest room" (that includes the recent ESV and NET; apparently they are unwilling to buck tradition in favor of accuracy).

The result of this mistranslation leads to a different understanding of the story.  It's not that Joseph and Mary were late to town, but it's that they were rejected by their family.  Clearly they had family members in town, as that was the reason they returned to Bethlehem for the census.  That there was no room in the guest chamber for a pregnant woman indicates that they chose not to make room for this unwedded mother.  The birth of Jesus in a room where animals lived suggests shame and rejection. 

Most of what I have described above is the general view of scholars and I find it compelling.  But some scholars err in arguing that Bethlehem could not have had an inn.  This view has been repeated enough for me to address it.  Ben Witherington, for instance, says this:

It can be doubted whether there would have been an inn in Bethlehem in Jesus’ day since it was not on any major road, and inns normally were found only on major roads, especially the Roman ones (Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, p. 69).

Doug Greenwold, in the December 2006 Preserving Bible Times Reflection, writes:

These pandoxeion inns were typically located 16-18 miles apart on major trade routes, the average daily distance traveled by a caravan. Since Bethlehem was five miles south of Jerusalem, it was far too close to Jerusalem for the placement of such an inn. Furthermore, Bethlehem was not on a major trade route so there was little need for a pandoxeion.

I'm not sure what qualifies as a "major trade route," but if there was any trade route in the hill country of Judea, Bethlehem was on it.  The only way you can say that there was no "major road" near Bethlehem is by saying that there were no major roads in the hill country.  But were there no travelers in this area, and were there no traders bringing supplies to Judea and Samaria?  Certainly there were. 

An understanding of the topography of the hill country will help here.  The Judean hills are very rugged as they are divided by deep wadis (canyons) on the eastern and western slopes.  Consequently, travelers have always preferred to stay on ridges, to avoid frequent ascents and descents.  For this reason, travelers have moved along the watershed ridge, from the time of Abraham until the present.  About a decade ago, Israel decided that for political reasons they needed to build an alternate road to bypass the Arab population of Bethlehem.  They built a road less than 2 miles to the west of the watershed ridge.  Even such a small deviation required that they spend millions of dollars in the construction of tunnels and bridges.  Today we can do it; in ancient times, they did not.  In short, there can be no doubt that historically any north-south traffic in the hill country passed near to the town of Bethlehem (cf. Anchor Bible Dictionary 5:783).

Modern Israeli road that bypasses Bethlehem, with bridge and tunnel

Furthermore, the argument that Bethlehem is too close to Jerusalem to warrant an inn presupposes that all travelers left from the same point and had the same destination.  Jerusalem may have been a major destination of travelers in the hill country, but it was not the only destination.  Travelers could have been going to and from countless villages in the hill country.  Some known settlements in the 1st century B.C./A.D. include Hebron, Gabath Saul, Ephraim, Gophna, Sychar, Sebaste.  That travelers might stop at any point along the major north-south hill country route is illustrated well by the story of the Levite and his concubine in Judges 19.

In the end, the argument that there was no inn in Bethlehem in the time of Jesus falls short.  Luke, however, says nothing about an inn.


Thursday, October 12, 2006

Is This Noah's Ark?: A New Critique by Gordon Franz

The alleged discovery of Noah's Ark in Iran has been discussed on this blog before ("Christians Doubt Cornuke Has Found Noah's Ark" and "We Sell Hope"), and we wanted to alert our readers to a new critique of Robert Cornuke's theory by Gordon Franz. The author's conclusion is appropriate and fair:
With so many theories claiming to discover biblical truth, the evangelical Christian community must be very discerning and follow the model of the Bereans who, after hearing the Apostle Paul himself, "searched the Scriptures to see whether these things are true." Before swallowing the next claim, our community must do our homework on the history, archaeology, geology and geography of the landing place of Noah's Ark using primary sources and hard data. If we cannot, then hold off judgment (pro or con) until others are given the opportunity to do so.

At this point the claims made by BASE Institute do not seem to have any merit. For the sake of the truth, however, I encourage the BASE Institute investigators to offer scholars, independent of the BASE Institute, full access to all the data. Let their best evidence come under the tests of scholarly scrutiny. When all the test results are in, the investigation and its claims will either be vindicated or proven false. The church, the witness to an unbelieving world, and truth itself deserve no less.


Wednesday, October 11, 2006

David's Spa, Ha, Ha

The stupid article by Ynet News has been mentioned a few places in the blogosphere already (best take: Higgaion), but I want to add my two cents and a photo. I'm assuming that you've read the original article and Higgaion's response.

1. I don't think archaeologists are to be faulted here. I'd be willing to bet that this entire article is a figment of the author's imagination, possibly stimulated by some of the local paid workers at the site. The only archaeologist cited is Ronny Reich who rejects the article's premise. I don't know any other archaeologists who would claim something so foolish, especially at such an early stage.

2. An aqueduct has been found. In fact, a number of aqueducts have been uncovered in the last few months. The origin(s), destination(s), and date(s) of these water channels are not always clear. Collectively, there's a lot going on near the Pool of Siloam that archaeologists do not yet understand.

3. There is good reason to believe that there is another ancient pool or two to be found in the area. Pools mentioned in Jerusalem include the Old Pool (Isa 22:11), the Upper Pool (Isa 36:2), the Lower Pool (Isa 22:9), the King's Pool (Neh 2:14), the Pool of Siloam (Neh 3:15), and the artificial pool (Neh 3:16). It's quite possible that a pool had multiple names, but it's clear that these names do not all refer to the same pool. The convergence of the Kidron, Central, and Hinnom Valleys is a natural place to find pools because this is the lowest place topographically in the city.

Does it bother anybody that the article's author doesn't even know where the City of David is in reference to the Western Wall (it's directly south, not west). I confess that when I first read the article, I decided to ignore it because it was clearly worthless. I changed my mind because some people have paid attention to it.

One thing worth remembering: current excavations are uncovering new finds from the Second and First Temple periods that will certainly increase our understanding of Jerusalem's water systems in the biblical times.

Water channel recently discovered near Pool of Siloam
Photo taken Sept. 13, 2006

Adapted from Ordnance Survey of Jerusalem, 1865

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Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Review of The Exodus Decoded

I've mentioned The Exodus Decoded here before, and over at Higgaion, Chris Heard is doing a very extended review of the movie (Part 1 | Part 2 (with addendum) | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7). His analysis has elicited responses from the man behind the movie, Simcha Jacobovici, which gives the reader the chance to decide for himself/herself who to trust. Those who have watched the movie and think there's something to it would do well to read it. Such a dialogue should have taken place before the 3 million dollars was spent, and it's a lesson on why you should never trust new ideas which are first promoted on television. If the ideas had merit, they could bear the weight of scholarly scrutiny and an end-run around academia to the masses with dazzling graphics would not be necessary. Unfortunately this isn't the first guy to pull such a trick and it won't be the last.

Lest any new readers to this blog think that I'm just another liberal blasting someone trying to prove the Bible true, that's not so. I believe the Bible is an accurate record of history, including in all of its details about the exodus. I just believe that The Exodus Decoded does not do any favors to the biblical record.

UPDATE (9/22): Bryant Wood of Associates for Biblical Research has posted a review of the movie. This one is shorter than Heard's and is written by one who believes in the accuracy of the biblical narrative. I recommend it.


Monday, August 21, 2006

The Exodus "Decoded"

Yesterday the History Channel showed "The Exodus Decoded," written by Simcha Jacobovici and directed by James Cameron. Given its high budget (for a documentary) of $3 million, there's a good chance you'll have the opportunity to see this either as a re-run or possibly at your church's evening service. I have not seen it, but have a few comments based on the press coverage.

First, you can read about it in the New York Times (poor), or the Associated Press (a bit better), or the Miami Herald (best). Hershel Shanks, editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, has posted a lengthy correspondence between him and Jacobovici. Wikipedia covers the main aspects of the theory. And there's always the official website with a 5-minute trailer.

From the trailer and reviews it is apparent that this is one slick production. That immediately suggests to me their facts aren't good and they're trying to hide it with fancy graphics. That of course doesn't necessarily follow, but it has been true often enough that I'm wary.

The essence of the theory is that the Israelites are the Hyksos and the exodus occurred during the time of the eruption of Thera (Santorini) about 1500 B.C. Is this possible? Well, I have never read one scholar who believes either of those suggestions. Some believe that the Hyksos may have been in power when the Israelites began their sojourn (assuming 430 years in Exodus 12:40 refers to time in Egypt and Canaan, a less preferred textual variant). But no one believes that the Hyksos were the Israelites and that the Hyksos expulsion is the same thing as the Israelite exodus.

There's also a problem with the dating. The Biblical dates, if taken literally, add up to an exodus around 1450 B.C. (cf. 1 Kings 6:1). There's no way to push that number back (to 1500 or earlier) without suggesting the biblical numbers are not literal. Now many scholars do reject the biblical numbers, but they always push the date of the exodus down (to about 1250 B.C.) The rest of the scholars believe that there was no large exodus of Israelites from Egypt. But no one dates the exodus to 1500 because there is no biblical or non-biblical evidence for it. (Those who favor the biblical evidence typically prefer an exodus date of 1450; those who favor the non-biblical evidence date it to 1250).

The movie locates Mt. Sinai at a site that has no major proponents, if any. That doesn't make it wrong, but before you buy it, you might ask yourself how a moviemaker found it when no one else could. I think the miracle explanations are bound to fall apart as well.

There are a number of other pieces to the "Code," but they hang on the above. Having skimmed the Shanks-Jacobovici correspondence, I would commend Jacobovici's motivation but not his data.


Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Those Pottery Makers at Qumran

As is often the case, the publication of a book is accompanied by an article in a popular magazine and a summary in a newspaper article. Unfortunately, the New York Times doesn't seek out mainstream scholars to get their take, and so from reading their article, you might conclude that scholars no longer believe that Essenes live at Qumran. That is just not so.

The book The Site of the Dead Sea Scrolls: Archaeological Interpretations and Debates, edited by Katharina Galor, Jean-baptiste Humbert, and Jurgen Zangenberg includes a chapter on which the articles are based.

The magazine article, Qumran - The Pottery Factory , is in the Sept/Oct edition of the Biblical Archaeology Review ($50 subscription to read online; much less to subscribe to the print edition).

That Qumran was not home to the Essenes has been suggested before, with theories that identify the site as everything from a Roman villa, military fortress, fortified farm, and now a pottery factory. To be sure, Magen and Peled are respected scholars who have excavated at Qumran. But their view is clearly in the minority. When you read a statement like this, "There is not an iota of evidence that it was a monastery," red flags should be flying. That the majority of scholars would hold to a certain interpretation without one iota of evidence tells us more about the speaker than the theory. That the only outside scholar that the NYT quotes is Norman Golb should cause all the bells to be sounding. Anyone who has spent time in the area has to just bust out laughing when reading Magen's idea that these caves are “the last spot they could hide the scrolls before descending to the shore” of the Dead Sea. I can just picture these guys running away from the Romans and just stopping by Cave 1 to drop off some scrolls! Oh wait, we need some jars for these - quick, run to the pottery factory and bring some back here! Those who have been to Cave 1 will understand the humor more; it's not exactly "on the way" (Cave 2 even less so). The proximity of Caves 4, 5, 7, 8, 9, and 10 to the site is telling as well. They are all less than 50 meters from the inhabitation. The attempts to separate the scrolls from the site are an utter failure.

I certainly wouldn't discourage anyone from reading the articles or the book about this theory. But here's the problem: too often these minority theories get the sensational coverage and people read about them and, lacking any other knowledge, are taken in. Instead, they should be first directed to the theories which have long been held and tested. After reviewing the mountain of evidence that Qumran was an Essene settlement, then go and weigh it against the latest view.

There are a lot of good books on the subject, but one of the best is Jodi Magness, The Archaeology of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Another advantage to this route: this book will cost you $13 instead of $147 for the one above.

There's a video to go along with the NYT article here.

Side point: if scholars can't agree on the function of a site in a relatively late period where there is lots of archaeological and historical evidence, how is it that they can be so certain about events much earlier in history for which almost no evidence has been preserved? The less evidence we have, the more certainty that scholars have.


Tuesday, August 08, 2006

"We Sell Hope"

Robert Cornuke has led many to believe that he has found the route of the Red Sea crossing, the location of Mt. Sinai, the place of Paul's shipwreck, and, most recently, the Ark of Noah. Because of his failed track record, his imitation of the charlatan Ron Wyatt, and his own website dubbing him as "Indiana Jones," I view Mr. Cornuke's claims with suspicion. Yes, by the world's standards, I am crazy: I believe the biblical account is historically reliable. But I'm not crazy enough to buy what Mr. Wyatt or Mr. Cornuke are selling. But now we find out that he's selling something else.

In an interview in the Colorado Springs Gazette, Mr. Cornuke said,
I guess what my wife says my business is, we sell hope. Hope that it could be true, hope that there is a God.
The problem with this is that the standard needed to establish an item as justifying "hope" is substantially lower than establishing an item as actual, genuine, or persuasive. In the case of Noah's Ark then, Mr. Cornuke need only have something that looks like wood. It doesn't need to be wood; it doesn't need to be the right kind of wood; it doesn't need to be on the right mountain; and it doesn't need to be from Noah's Ark. It simply needs to resemble what Cornuke's audience is looking for. If it's possible, then you've succeeded. You've provided "hope."

The problem with this, of course, is that hope dashed is worse than hope never raised. There's perhaps no better example of this than Noah's Ark. Noah's Ark has been "discovered" so many times that the most devout Bible believer with any knowledge of the former "discoveries" simply won't be taken in again. Some, no doubt, tire of the fraud perpetuated by "Bible believers" and choose another way. The world, perhaps at times curious if there really is some truth in the Scriptures, simply laughs at the foolish gullibility and rationalizes that such gullibility must also account for their belief in the Biblical stories. In the end, all are worse off for the perpetuation of fraudulent "discoveries."

There is an alternative. If there is a Noah's Ark that still exists, conduct the study carefully (1-2 years is not carefully!). Bring in well-regarded experts to study the relevant issues (geology, geography, archaeology, etc.). Do not let professional policemen promote Scriptural interpretations which run counter to the consensus of Bible-believing scholars (don't let that scholar word scare you: scholar means "professional" - it means they do this all their life; it means they know the sources and resources and are not easily deceived). And lastly, don't publicize. Yes, I know that you love the publicity. You love the book sales and you love the contributions. But wait. Make sure that everything is in order. Make sure that there are no holes. Make sure that you really have it this time. This is the test if what you really desire is truth or fame.

You see, we already have "hope." There are so many confirmations of the biblical record from the historical and archaeological sources that we have hope that Scripture is trustworthy. We have thousands of confirming evidences, and we don't need that extra one if it is in fact a false hope.


Friday, July 21, 2006

Christians Doubt Cornuke Has Found Noah's Ark

Recent claims that Robert Cornuke discovered the Ark of Noah in Iran are questioned by several people who believe that the flood of Noah was a historical event, but doubt that Cornuke has found evidence of it.

Dr. John Morris of the Institute for Creation Research comments on the "petrified wood" that Cornuke believes is from the ark. The article is brief and worth reading in full. Among other things, Morris notes:
The claim is made that the material is petrified wood, and it may be. But petrified wood is found in thousands of places around the world. Finding it here means nothing. Perhaps the ark is petrified, but this would necessitate conditions and a sequence of events which hardly seem likely here. Wood is best petrified when buried in volcanic ash, but the team have asserted that the region of their discovery is not volcanic. Without precise maps and study, it would be impossible to refute this claim.
Rick Lanser of the Associates for Biblical Research has written a much more detailed article, questioning in particular the Iranian location of Cornuke's find. He concludes:
For the above and other reasons which space does not allow me to deal with, it appears that Bob Cornuke's "filters" have prevented him from dealing fairly with much information which does not fit into his "Ark in Iran" hypothesis. When such data is considered, it raises great doubt that he has found anything related to Noah's Ark on Takht-e Suleiman. I would love to see his find hold up to close scrutiny so it can be used as a witness to the world of the trustworthiness of the Bible, but if I – who, as a brother in Christ, am "on his team" – can come up with this many problems in identifying the find on Mount Suleiman with the Ark, we can be sure that an unfriendly, secular world full of dyed-in-the-wool skeptics will find many more reasons to reject it. The best I think he can hope for is that many will want to hear his story as an adventure tale – but that may be enough for him, an expected benefit of the aggressive promotion of the site at the beginning. I just hope that in view of the many problems that have come to light, he presents his audiences with the FULL story, warts and all.


Monday, July 03, 2006

The Top 5 in the Last 5

I've been asked what the top 5 archaeological discoveries related to the biblical record have been discovered in the last 5 years. I'm not really sure where to start in formulating a list except from my memory. So I'll start a list here and welcome suggestions for additional items.

Pool of Siloam
James Ossuary (forgery?)
Jehoash Inscription (forgery?)
Tel Zayit 10th c. abecedary
"Goliath" inscription from Gath
Ketef Hinnom Silver Amulets - new inscription
Palace of David (?)
10th century remains in Edom
9th century seals from City of David (not announced as far as I know)
Noah's Ark (3 or 4 times!)

A few notes:
1. This list is in no particular order.
2. The experts that I trust have not been convinced that the James Ossuary and Jehoash Inscription are forgeries. Some experts that I decidedly do not trust are convinced that they are forgeries. I have included them on this list until there is greater agreement on the matter.
3. I am not claiming that these items mean everything that has been attributed to them by various writers. I am also reserving judgment about the identification of the "palace of David," but include it here because it seems, in any case, to be a significant building in OT Jerusalem.
4. The Noah's Ark thing is a joke. (Here's an easy way to know if something is a genuine hoax: if it has the names of Ron Wyatt or Robert Cornuke attached to it.)


Wednesday, June 28, 2006

British Museum: Top 10

A friend wrote and asked what my top 3, 5 or 10 discoveries in the British Museum would be. The first thing is to realize that any reduction to such a number is going to eliminate a lot of major finds. But there's also the realization that a person has only so much time and so many brain cells. So here's my top 15. I can't reduce it any further than this. The list is in roughly chronological order. Some are more closely related to the Bible than others.

1. Epic of Gilgamesh
2. Amarna Letters
3. Kurkh Stela of Shalmaneser III
4. Black Obelisk
5. Samaria Ivories
6. Taylor Prism (Sennacherib)
7. Lachish Siege Reliefs
8. Shebna Inscription
9. Babylonian Chronicle for 605-594
10. Lachish Letters
11. Cyrus Cylinder
12. Temple of Artemis column
13. Elgin Marbles
14. Rosetta Stone
15. Politarch Inscription

Lachish Siege Reliefs Room

If you want to suggest an addition, please also suggest one of the above to remove.

In any case, if you're planning a visit, the book that you must get is by Peter Masters, entitled Heritage of Evidence in the British Museum. It used to be hard to find, though I now see it listed for sale at Amazon and here and here.

Does anyone offer a B.A. in the British Museum? That's not overreaching, in my opinion. Especially given what other college programs exist these days.


Saturday, May 13, 2006

Sodom Identified?

I've been reading for a few weeks about new excavations by Steve Collins of a site that he thinks is biblical Sodom. You can read a typical report in the El Defensor Chieftain (also here and here), which doesn't tell you much besides the site's name and the excavator's enthusiasm. The proposed site is Tell el-Hammam, which didn't ring any bells. So I grabbed my copy of the best place to start for research on biblical sites in Jordan: "East of the Jordan:" Territories and Sites of the Hebrew Scriptures, by Burton MacDonald (ASOR, 2000). It says that the site is located on the northeastern region of the Dead Sea, in what is known biblically as the "plains of Moab." Bells went off, as I know from previous study that of the three possible regions for the location of Sodom and Gomorrah based on all of the Scriptural evidence (northeast, southeast, under the Dead Sea), the least likely is the northern theory. The second problem is not insurmountable, if the excavators can find evidence of occupation from a different period that has been found already. I'll quote MacDonald in full here, as it may be useful in the months/years to come as the Hammam excavation moves forward.
Tall al-Hammam appears to be a very large and strongly built Iron Age I-II fortess (sic) completely enclosed by a strong outer fortification wall (Glueck 1951: 379). The East Jordan Valley Survey reports Iron I-II sherds as dominant at the site (Yassine, Sauer, and Ibrahim 1988: 192, 197-98). Prag's 1990 work at the site indicates that relative to the northeast tell at Hammam 'the most prominent ruins are probably of the Iron Age II and Persian periods, when it appears to have been strongly fortified. These remains were recorded in some detail by Glueck, who dated them to the Iron Age 1 and 2 periods' (1991: 60). Tall al-Hammam is a good, though not certain, candidate for the location of Abel-shittim (MacDonald 2000: 90).
Perhaps then Collins will have one biblical site (Abel-shittim) if not the other (Sodom).

What does the team need to find in order for this site to potentially be identified with Sodom? A destruction layer in EBIV/MBI/Intermediate Bronze (2300-2000 B.C.). The Iron Age mentioned above is dated roughly 1200-600 B.C.

Bab edh-Dhra is the site most frequently identified with biblical Sodom.


Saturday, January 28, 2006

Here's One to Ignore

I had no idea when I wrote yesterday about Finkelstein's view of the City of David that he has a new book coming out on David and Solomon. Like Unearthing the Bible, David and Solomon: In Search of the Bible's Sacred Kings and the Roots of the Western Tradition is co-authored by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman. I haven't seen the book yet, but you get an idea for the content of this book from a review in Publisher's Weekly:
The authors are careful to note that the absence of contemporary confirmation outside the Bible is no reason to believe that the characters did not actually exist. Rather, the biblical stories form the basis for a legend tradition in which the Davidic legacy gradually transforms "from a down-to-earth political program into the symbols of a transcendent religious faith that would spread throughout the world."
To whom would I recommend this book? Only to those who need insight into the creativity that is required (or allowed) when you jettison the major historical sources and set about inventing your own history.

Which reminds me of a similar point: I have my students read from (many) liberal authors with whom I greatly disagree. I wonder how many liberal teachers require their students to read from conservative authors? I can tell you from own experience in graduate school: liberals don't seem aware that there are other opinions. And they certainly don't want their students exposed to those ideas. Yes, it is ironic that these are the "liberals."


Friday, January 27, 2006

On the JPost Article on the City of David Excavations

The Jerusalem Post has a lengthy article on the recent excavations in the City of David. Though there are some basic factual errors, the article does a good job of informing the reader of some of the different views about the latest archaeology in the oldest part of Jerusalem. The two major excavations in the last decade are those of Eilat Mazar ("palace of David") and Ronny Reich and Eli Shukrun (Warren's Shaft, Siloam Tunnel, Pool and Spring Towers, Pool of Siloam). According to these excavators, the biblical accounts are essentially supported by the archaeology. According to Israel Finkelstein, an archaeologist at Tel Aviv U., "all of the recent discoveries from Ir David are merely 'Messianic eruptions in biblical archeology.'" Perhaps the article's writer misunderstood him, but if not, it's really a stunning statement by one who has received major awards for his archaeological contributions. More accurately, it is a foolish statement.

I shouldn't be surprised, because this is the trend. The trend used to be (unfortunately) that when anything was discovered it was immediately connected to the Bible and claimed to "prove" the Bible. This itself is foolish, as often errors in identification and dating were made. Proof was desired so badly that caution wasn't exercised.

The trend now is the opposite. Scholars who distrust the Bible respond in knee-jerk fashion to deny any biblical connection regardless of the evidence. Is the discovery of the "Pool of Siloam" really a "Messianic erruption"? How so? I'll tell you what it is - a massive and impressive reservoir that dates (no doubt) to the time of Jesus and is the area where ancient sources describe (photos). It doesn't prove that Jesus healed the blind man there, and no one is claiming that it does prove that. But some scholars are apparently so scared of anything that may relate in any way to the Scriptures that they dismiss them with a passing insult.

Perhaps Finkelstein wasn't referring to the Pool of Siloam, but only to the "palace of David." Now, I am not certain that the monumental building that Eilat Mazar discovered was David's residence. And Finkelstein isn't either. But you wouldn't know it from the way he talks.
"Because there was no floor discovered and no pottery assemblages or olive pits or seeds, the building could be from the ninth century or the eighth or the eighth, or from two minutes ago, there is no way to know."
But it also could have been from the 10th century. The reason that it "isn't" is because Finkelstein's mind is already made up. [Did he really say the building could have been from "two minutes ago" or is that just incompetent journalism?]

The article tries to spin this as Mazar and the sponsoring institution already having their minds made up. But no one has their mind made up more than Finkelstein, who published his elaborate theory in The Bible Unearthed. He argued, on the basis of the absence of evidence, that there was no great united monarchy in Jerusalem. Who has the most to lose? He does. Mazar's discovery would pull the bottom card from his stack of cards. But the article doesn't say that, and Finkelstein for certain doesn't want to draw attention to that.

There is additional folly in the notion implied in this article that the sponsoring institution (which has right-wing views) could somehow change the discoveries in the excavation. It's almost as if completely different things would be discovered if the dig was sponsored by a left-wing institution than if it was sponsored by the Shalem Center. Does anyone really believe that a respected archaeologist like Eilat Mazar would fabricate her findings? Does anyone really believe that if she did that she could get away with it? Archaeologists have voices and they have journals and they are not afraid to speak up.

Here's a good rule of thumb for reading articles like these in the future: if the only nay-sayer is Israel Finkelstein, he can safely be ignored.

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Monday, November 07, 2005

Ancient Church Found at Megiddo

I'm being asked for my opinion on the latest archaeological discovery: the "earliest church" found at Megiddo (AP story, Washington Post, photos and more photos). Frankly, I'm not all that excited. Here's why.

1. It seems like every few years the "earliest church" is discovered (in Jordan). Of course, they mean the earliest church building, and that means a building which is decorated with things which I do not find necessarily helpful nor biblical.

2. Israel has plenty of ancient churches, chapels, and monasteries. They are everywhere, and usually in exactly the wrong place. Many of them have beautiful mosaics, like this one. Thus the only thing that makes this "newsworthy" is the claim that the church is from the 3rd century (before 300 A.D.). Now that would be remarkable, since Christianity was a persecuted religion until about 310. I suppose I can imagine a group of believers meeting publicly in Israel (far from the Roman center) at this time, but it is harder to imagine them building a lavish structure. Perhaps this will help to re-write history. And if so, that is fine. But I also confess that I am a bit suspicious of the claim, knowing as I do, that this would be a non-story if it were a few decades later. Knowing that the archaeologist can get a lot of attention out of this and quite likely get the site preserved on the basis that this is a unique structure. Perhaps it is, but I see too many other motivations for preferring a lower date if the evidence is ambiguous.

3. Even if it were everything claimed for it, I still wouldn't be very excited because it's just a church building. I don't see how it is going to help me to better understand any of the things I care about, including the Bible and theology. That doesn't mean it's not important, just that it's not important to me.

Today, however, was a good day of excavating in the City of David. There will be more news about the work there in the years to come.

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Monday, August 15, 2005

Did Worship of Yahweh Leave Archaeological Evidence?

I have two books on my desk right now, and both make the same annoying point. One is Finkelstein’s The Bible Unearthed, and the other is Dever’s Did God Have a Wife. A major premise of the latter and a point made in the former is that according to archaeology, worship of Yahweh only developed in the late period – time of Hezekiah or Josiah. Here’s Finkelstein:
“Yet archaeology suggests quite a different situation—one in which the golden age of tribal and Davidic fidelity to YHWH was a late religious ideal, not a historical reality. Instead of a restoration, the evidence suggests that a centralized monarchy and national religion focused in Jerusalem took centuries to develop and was new in Hezekiah’s day. The idolatry of the people of Judah was not a departure from their earlier monotheism. It was, instead, the way the people of Judah had worshiped for hundreds of years” (Finkelstein and Silberman 2001: 234).
One can hold to this view, but please don’t pretend that it is based on archaeological grounds. These authors seem to miss the most obvious point: worship of Yahweh as commanded in the Bible didn’t leave archaeological evidence. The exception would be the temple, and nothing of that exists thanks to the Babylonians, Zerubbabel, Herod, the Romans, and the Muslims. These authors argue that because they have found Asherah figurines, bull statuettes, high places, and inscriptions related to non-Yahwistic worship, and because they haven’t found the same for “Biblical religion,” then therefore the latter didn’t exist. They date it to the late kings because that’s when they date the text. Still no archaeological evidence, mind you.

Another common error in these works is reflected in Finkelstein’s comment immediately before:
“The biblical picture of Judah’s history is therefore unambiguous in its belief that the kingdom had once been exceptionally holy but had sometimes abandoned the faith” (ibid.).
Why do some liberals insist on this mischaracterization? It is patently false. The biblical record is that the Israelites consistently failed to follow the Lord. The exceptions were those who did. That doesn’t make biblical faith less true, real, or required. It does tell us that archaeology should expect to find significant remains of non-biblical religion. When it does, archaeologists act surprised and say, “Aha, I told you the Bible wasn’t telling you the truth.” In fact it is, but like the ancients, moderns refuse to listen.

I’ve only skimmed Dever’s work at this point, but Finkelstein’s is full of similar errors, inconsistencies, and gaps of logic. It’s also one of the best-selling books on “biblical archaeology” in the last decade.