What archaeology tells us about the Bible
A contentious dig in Israel delves into the kingdoms of David and Solomon, stirring a debate over the veracity of the biblical record.
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Finkelstein himself chose early on to dig at Shiloh, the ancient capital of Israel for more than 300 years before the Hebrew people built a temple in Jerusalem and enshrined it as the heart of their nation and religion. But as he spent the next 20 years exploring the mountainous lands of the West Bank with modern archaeological tools and methods, he began questioning the accepted practices and conclusions of earlier years that had been used to validate biblical stories.Skip to next paragraph
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Two of the most prominent proponents of these theories were William Albright, a devout son of American missionaries, and Yigael Yadin, a former Israeli military chief of staff who became one of the country's most lionized archaeologists. Albright sought to illumine the Bible with his finds in the Holy Land, while Yadin shored up Israel's nationalist narrative with what he believed was irrefutable proof of the mighty kingdom that prospered under David's son Solomon. In Megiddo, Hazor, and Gezer, a trio of cities mentioned by the Bible as Solomon's chief building sites apart from Jerusalem, Yadin uncovered monumental gates whose similar styles indicated a common architect. He also found two palaces at Megiddo, which he dated to the same era.
But after the 1967 war, criticism began building of the validity of both biblical and archaeological explanations of ancient Israel. In the 1990s, historians and biblical scholars – concentrated mainly in Copenhagen, Denmark, and Sheffield, England – launched a frontal attack on the Bible as a legitimate historical source. This coincided with Finkelstein's growing conviction that his field had long espoused biblical narratives too indiscriminately, particularly in regard to the era of David and Solomon.
In 1996, he upended the United Monarchy theory with an article in Levant, a British scholarly journal, which argued that the dating method that had been used so far, known as "high chronology," was off by close to a century.
"The biggest question is who and what was Solomon – just a little tribal leader, or a king who had a kingdom and built enormous structures?" says Hershel Shanks, founder and editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, who has challenged Finkelstein's conclusions. Assigning key discoveries to a later period undermined the most compelling proof that Solomon was a notable potentate, since he would have lived before the time of the gates unearthed at Megiddo, Hazor, and Gezer. The result is that "you no longer have any evidence of Solomon," says Mr. Shanks. "What you thought was a kingdom of considerable importance has now disappeared."
But in the nearly two decades since Finkelstein introduced his "low chronology" theory (lowering the start of the period from 1000 BC to 920 BC), research has narrowed the gap between the two schools to 30 to 40 years. Thus supporters of the more traditional timeline feel reinforced by the findings being uncovered at Qeiyafa. "I think the tide is against Finkelstein's low chronology," says Shanks.
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In Israel, nothing from the United Monarchy period has yet been found that is as grand and definitive as the towering pyramids of Egypt, or the nearly intact tomb of King Tutankhamen, with its golden burial mask and sarcophagus. And apart from the Bible, there is only one mention of Israel prior to the 9th century BC – the Merneptah Stele, an inscription from about 1205 BC, which was unearthed in Egypt.
That has given rise to difficult questions. If Israel was such a mighty kingdom under David and Solomon, why didn't other regional leaders mention them? And why was the archaeological footprint of Jerusalem, its capital, so small?
Spades alone haven't been able to answer the questions. "Archaeology is mute," says Amihai Mazar, professor emeritus of archaeology and biblical history at Hebrew University.