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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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On a vista overlooking the Valley of Elah, Garfinkel points out the fortress walls of the ancient city in which residences abutted the outer city wall. Judean civilization, perhaps foreshadowing kibbutz life, was tightknit, he says. Then he scrambles farther down the hill to a wide gate – one of two in the city wall.

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The presence of a second gate, an unusual feature for a city of that time, has led him to conclude that this is Shaaraim ("two gates" in Hebrew), which is mentioned in the Bible's description of the aftermath of David's battle with Goliath.

He knows well the criticisms of his conclusions. But he remains unmoved by them. As he sits down on the stony ledge where the gate once stood, he says he is satisfied, after seven seasons of excavation, with the portrait he has sketched of Qeiyafa in the 10th century BC – of a small, fortified city that stood on a regional border between the Judean kingdom and larger Philistine cities.

In addition to the urban planning reminiscent of Judean civilization, his team found a 70-glyph inscription containing Hebrew words such as judge and king. The ruins of what he believes was the governor's palace in the middle of the city, together with a large storeroom, point to a social hierarchy indicative of regional politics rather than a loose confederation of tribes or independent shepherds. Remains of pottery jars with matching indentations suggest to him a primitive form of central taxation, in which the jars would be distributed to citizens, who would then return them full of agricultural produce.

Clues also come from what was not found. In Canaanite cities of the time, pig bones have accounted for 2 to 3 percent of all animal bones discovered, while in Philistine cities, such as Gath, it was as high as 15 to 20 percent, he says. In Qeiyafa, not a single pig bone has been found among the thousands of skeletal remains excavated, suggesting a custom of not eating pork.

Likewise, Garfinkel's team didn't find any cultic figurines in more than 60 rooms. "We don't have any naked ladies," he says, drawing a contrast with Canaanite or Philistine cultural practices. But he did find a model of a shrine reflecting a new type of architecture, which he says closely matches detailed technical descriptions of Solomon's temple in the Bible.

While all this may sound convincing to the average person, it doesn't to Finkelstein. In 2012, he and a colleague from Tel Aviv University, Alexander Fantalkin, wrote an article that rebutted Garfinkel's assertions point by point. It concluded with a scathing commentary on the "sensational way in which the finds of Khirbet Qeiyafa have been communicated to both the scholarly community and the public."

"Khirbet Qeiyafa is the latest case in this genre of craving a cataclysmic defeat of critical modern scholarship by a miraculous archaeological discovery," they wrote.

Yet Mazar, perhaps Finkelstein's most articulate debating partner over the past 15 years, has written a critique of the critics. He has argued that "one cannot avoid asking whether scholars who are trying to deconstruct the traditional 'conservative bias' are not biased themselves by their own historical concepts. In other words, it seems to me that the same charges used against conservative traditional biblical archaeologists can be made against a broad spectrum of minimalists, revisionists, post-modernists, or whatever term we use for a variety of current writers."

Still, despite all the controversy surrounding the dig, many experts see the work at Qeiyafa and other sites around the country yielding something vital – bringing the Bible to life.

"In my own mind, it's helped me say, 'Geez, these things are not coming out of thin air,' " says Jonathan Waybright, a professor of religious studies and archaeology at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, who has worked on digs in Israel for 25 years, most recently at Qeiyafa. "It's adding substance to the biblical story."

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