The Bible is at the core of Western civilization, writes BRIAN BETHUNE, and the assault on the history in it still has repercussions

December 9 2002


The Bible is at the core of Western civilization, writes BRIAN BETHUNE, and the assault on the history in it still has repercussions

December 9 2002


The Bible is at the core of Western civilization, writes BRIAN BETHUNE, and the assault on the history in it still has repercussions


FAITH AND HISTORY The major Christian traditions-Orthodox, Protestant and Roman Catholicall incorporate the Jewish Bible, known as the Tanakh, within their Old Testaments. The Tanakh’s opening nine booksGenesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy,

Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings— give the history of the Children of Israel. It takes them from their mythic origins to the Babylonian Captivity that began in 586 BCE, an event within the living memory of the men-or, possibly, the individual religious genius-who stitched together the story of the Chosen People and their demanding God.

THE OPENING of the Gospel of John is the perfect expression of the Bible’s crucial role in Western civilization. The Hebrew scriptures, known as the Tanakh to Jews and the Old Testament to Christians, are at the heart of both religions. The great Biblical themes— man’s relationship with God, atonement and forgiveness, the call to ethical and social responsibility, the absolute worth of the individual—have formed the essential Western way of seeing the human condition, as much for non-believers as for the faithful. In the 16th century, biblical translations became the very engine of national languages, especially in Germany and England. For centuries the King James Bible of 1611 was the English-speaking world’s basic text, the book from which people learned to read and think, their major source of images, metaphors and collected wisdom.

One of the Bible’s deepest implants in the Western mind comes from its self-definition as a work of history, a narrative that plots events and God’s plans along a skein of time. History is purposeful, according to the scriptures, not an endless and meaningless cycle. Since the Bible began to be shaped about 2,500 years ago, the West has never lost touch with it, as it did with the works of classical antiquity in the Dark Ages. The distilled thought of an ancient Near Eastern culture has never seemed foreign, but rather the most familiar source of intellectual, moral and spiritual ideas available to us. We have always been, and still remain, the people of that book.

Nor is the Bible’s influence restricted to our cultural DNA—to art and music, law codes and political theory. Prime among its decisive, on-the-ground effects is the survival of Judaism and the Jewish people over 2,000 years of dispersal and persecutionone of the most astounding survival stories in human history. Without the Bible, there could have been no Judaism, and none of

its profound influence on Western civilization. No Holocaust. No Zionism.

No Israel.

But what if the word is not to be trusted? And not just some parts, the ones that modern Christians and Jews—fundamentalists and the Orthodox aside—have already repudiated. The clearly mythical account of creation in six days, for one, or the miraculous touches in later accounts, like the parting of the Red Sea or the tumbling walls of Jericho.

No, now it’s the whole thing, historically speaking. The exodus from Egypt, the conquest of the Promised Land, even the glorious united monarchy of David and Solomon—all are derided as fiction by revisionist academics known as minimalists. Textual scholars for the most part, they have deconstructed the Bible to fragments while casting a baleful outsider’s eye on a century of Near Eastern archaeology. Once conducted by religious scholars who examined their discoveries in the light of the Bible, archaeology is now carried out by secular experts who view scripture in the light of their findings. And what they’re digging up offers a startlingly new picture of ancient Israel.

They are hotly denounced by more traditional scholars, often known as maximalists. And in the context of the Mideast crisis, where everything to do with land is already violently charged, it was inevitable that a dispute over Biblical history would be thoroughly politicized. Archaeology has “always favoured dominant interests,” notes University of Toronto professor Timothy Harrison. In Israel it’s been state business from the start. The Palestinian Authority, hard pressed to deliver even basic services to its people, has set up its own archaeology department. And many devout settlers in the West Bank—the epicentre of the IsraeliPalestinian struggle—assert their right to live in Arab territory on scripture.

In Hebron, the Biblical site of the tombs

of the patriarchs, some 450Jews live in a tightly guarded enclave in the midst of 150,000 Arabs. After 12 Israeli troops and three Palestinian gunmen died on Nov. 15 in the city’s latest violent clash, settler—and history teacher—Meir Menachem said it was the Arabs who should leave. Hebron, he said, “is more ours than Tel Aviv, this is the land of the Bible.” Even in North America, dismissing some of Christianity’s and Judaism’s dearest religious beliefs can start a firestorm, as Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple Synagogue in Los Angeles discovered last year, when he told his congregation that new discoveries show the exodus never happened. He was deluged by virulent e-mail, and Orthodox rabbis took out a half-page ad in the Los Angeles Times in protest.

It’s no surprise that the more radical revisionists claim traditional scholarship, in its search for the never-never land of Ancient Israel, consciously or unconsciously acts to validate Israeli claims to Palestinian land and to erase Palestinian history. Nor is it astonishing that opponents should accuse the minimalists of flirting with anti-Semitism. There’s no room in this quarrel for academic civility. Rival scholars have instead gone

There’s no room in this quarrel for academic civility. Rival scholars have gone for one another like ‘a pack of feral canines.’

for one another like “a pack of feral canines,” in the apt phrase of Queen’s University historian Donald Akenson. Charges of forgery and evidence suppression are common. In 1993 a fragment of inscribed stone was discovered at Tel Dan and dated to the mid-9th century BCE. The fractured wording makes reference to a king of Israel and his then ally, a king of “the House of David.” It is the first ever extra-Biblical mention of David. And although it proves little more than the fact that kings of Judah claimed descent from David at an early date, it was still considered a major coup for the maximalist cause. Minimalists didn’t hesitate to call it a forgery— “one guy wrote the stone had been cut by a circular saw,” marvels U of T’s Harrison.

In a similar vein, University of Copenhagen minimalist Thomas Thompson once wrote that archaeologist William Dever and

his team had destroyed chronologically inconvenient evidence at one Israelite site. Dever, a distinguished and courtly professor at the University of Arizona, simply rolls his eyes when asked about the accusation. A leading maximalist, Dever is equally scathing about Thompson and his associates. “A lot of revisionists are simply ill-educated, renegade ex-fundamentalists who went from one literalism to another,” says Dever, an adult convert to reform Judaism whose father was a fundamentalist preacher. “And they’ve let themselves be kidnapped by Palestinian extremists who say, ‘No Ancient Israel, no legitimate modern Israel.’ They’ve encouraged the translation of their books into Arabic, even though Arab intellectuals read English. Why do you think they want to be read on the Arab street?”

The minimalists met with sympathy at first. Much of the older model of scripturesupportive scholarship was a house of cards waiting to fall. It’s been 250 years since scholars noticed there seemed to be two strands of narrative running from the very start of Genesis. One referred to the Almighty as Elohim or God, the other as Yahweh or Lord. The former thinks highly of Israel,

ALONG A SKEIN OF TIME Academic convention now calls the years since Christ’s birth Common Era or CE and the years before it BCE or Before Common Era; the Bible’s opening history books cover a vast span of the latter, some 3,400 years from creation to 586 BCE

; The Genesis account; Abraham, a nomad with whom God makes ! the Covenant, goes ! west to Canaan from ! Mesopotamia

Abraham’s son Isaac and grandson Jacob, father of the 12 tribes of Israel; famine drives Jacob and his sons from Canaan to the Nile delta

Moses leads the exodus, bringing the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and through 40 years in the desert; Joshua conquers the Promised Land

Age of the Judges and of the powerful united monarchy of David and Solomon; the realm fractures into Israel and Judah

The shifting wars and alliances of the independent Israelite kingdoms; Israel eventually destroyed by Assyria, Judah by Babylon



Eaiiy Bronze Age 35OO~2OOQ BCE

M~ddJe Bronze 2OO~ 1550 BCE

Late Brc~e Age 1550-115G BCE

troii Age 1150 900 BCE



No trace of large-scale migration from east, or of socio-economic conditions that would match Biblical narrative (camels not used as beasts of burden until much later)

Evidence of migration from Canaan to Egypt in times of drought, and of sometimes violent reaction, but no trace of Israelites in extensive Egyptian records

Only Egyptian mention of Israelites (about 1210 BCE) says Israel already in Canaan; considerable evidence of peaceful, indigenous emergence in the central highlands

Israelites becoming ethnically distinctdigs show avoidance of pork; no trace of David or Solomon; population in north-Jerusalem only a tiny village

Israel and Judah appear in written evidence;

Tel Dan stele refers to “House of David;” foreign accounts record fall of Israel in 722 BCE, Judah in 586 BCE

the northern and larger of the two Israelite kingdoms that eventually arose, while the latter favours the smaller southern realm of Judah. Later, more than 20 other sources were postulated to cover material that didn’t seem to come from the first two—a remarkable development, given that every last one of them is purely theoretical.

Growing awareness of Bible sources meant a new appreciation of when it was compiled. Passages that favour the southern realmlike Genesis 49:8, where Jacob sets his son Judah as king over his 11 brothers, founders of the other Israelite tribes—could only have been written after they had become a reality. Most scholars push that date of composition to the 7th century BCE or later. For one thing, the patriarchal narratives— the stories about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob— make constant mention of caravans of camels, an animal not widely used as a beast of burden before then. That means that well over a millennium of Biblical narrative is drawn from oral sources: epic sagas, folk tales, hymns, poetry, even puns and jokes. Little of it is a reliable guide to what actually happened, and the only confirmation is what excavations provide.

Holy Land archaeology began in the 19th century, and long remained the domain of religious scholars. They came to the Near East seeking support for their beliefs. As the French Dominican Roland de Vaux noted, “if the historical faith of Israel is not founded in history, such faith is erroneous, and therefore, our faith is also.” Those early archaeologists thought they were able to place Abraham within a period of urban collapse and a migration of pastoral easterners at about 2100 BCE, just when the Bible said he lived. But subsequent excavations showed the eastern influx didn’t actually take place. Attempts to move the patriarchs to other eras produced the same unhappy results. Today even maximalists like Dever have given up hope of establishing Abraham, Isaac or Jacob as credible historical figures.

For the exodus from slavery in Egypt— the very heart of Judaism celebrated each Passover (and familiar to millions of Christians, if only from Charlton Heston’s portrayal of Moses in The Ten Commandments}—scholars relied on little more than faith dressed as reasonable presumptions. Many, however inadvertently, simply demonstrated the hold the Exodus story had on their imag-

inations. “Moses was beyond the power of the human mind to invent,” British historian Paul Johnson confidently asserted as late as 1987. Something real must lie behind a story so vividly told, so long entrenched. And besides, adds Hershel Shanks, editor of the prominent Biblical Archaeological Review, no one can prove it didn’t happen. Absence of evidence, runs the well-worn historian’s mantra, is not evidence of absence.

But what an absence. Decades of searching the Sinai Peninsula for any trace of 40 years of Israelite wandering has turned up nothing, not a skeleton or campsite, from the period in question—even though archaeologists have found far older and sketchier remains in the Sinai. Scholars now agree that the exodus—if it happened—had to have occurred in the 13th century BCE, which also turns out to have been an era of strong Egyptian border control, complete with records of who was coming and going. As for the traces of ruined Canaanite cities attributed to the Israelite conquest described in the Book of Joshua, the destruction turns out to have occurred at other times.

So where did the Israelites come from? For they were surely there, in some form, al-

PAST AND PRESENT Palestinian boys stand across from Israeli armoured vehicles in Hebron, the Biblical site of the tombs of the patriarchs, after the West Bank city’s latest violent clash. Some 450 Jews live there in a tightly guarded enclave in the midst of 150,000 Arabs.

most as early as Exodus suggests. That much is known from a two-metre tall stele (an inscribed stone) that the Egyptian Pharaoh Merneptah erected about 1210 BCE to commemorate his military victories in Libya and Canaan. A single line provides the oldest known written evidence of Israel’s existence— “Israel is laid waste, its seed is not.” The answer to the puzzle of who these Israelites were and how they arose in Canaan had to wait for another generation of secular archaeologists, and for the Six Day War of1967.

The children of Israel were always a people of the central highlands. Many lived in what is now the occupied West Bank. Until the war it was terra incognita for Israeli archaeologists, both because they were concentrating their efforts on a fruitless search for Joshua’s victories on the coastal plain, and because the land was under Jordanian control. After 1967 they began large-scale settlement surveys in the newly opened Palestinian lands. The results were stunning.

Archaeologists found that the central highlands, which had been sparsely inhabited in the Bronze Age, experienced a population explosion. In the century or so of economic and social collapse that led up to the tran-

The settlement surveys show the bulk of the wealth and population to have been in the north-Jerusalem was only a tiny village

sition from Bronze to Iron Age at about 1150 BCE, peoples were on the move all around the eastern Mediterranean. And about the time the Philistines colonized the coast, highland settlements in the interior began to explode in number from 25 to 300. Scholars still quarrel about where these people—the first Israelites—came from. They were Canaanites moving from nomadism to farming, according to Tel Aviv University archaeologist Israel Finkelstein, who has achieved the unique—and dangerously exposed-distinction of being distrusted by both maximalists and minimalists (“I am in the middle,” he says, only half-jokingly, “being shot at from both sides”).

Merneptah’s Israel, at least at the beginning, was close to indistinguishable from its Canaanite neighbours; it used the same pottery (always archaeology’s favourite iden-

tifier), and even its four-room farmhouses, once thought unique, are found elsewhere. Although Finkelstein raises the ire of the minimalists for ascribing historical value to Biblical books, they cite him approvingly for his dismissal of the united monarchy of David and his son Solomon. For maximalists, that Biblically attested realm, which gathered under one rule all the Israelites between 1005 and 931 BCE, was a major regional force. Solomon, in the Book of Kings, is unmatched for his wisdom and wealth, and a master builder who raised the first temple for Yahweh in Jerusalem, capital of the kingdom. Although misrule by Solomon’s son meant the realm would split into the rival states of Israel and Judah, that fleeting moment of power and unity has long been celebrated by Christians and Jews.

In a now-familiar pattern, archaeologists have searched without success for mention of Solomon in contemporary foreign records and for traces of his building program. They thought they found the latter in impressive gates at Megiddo—the site of Biblical Armageddon—and other cities, works mentioned in the Book of Kings. But Finkelstein is having none of it. The settlement surveys

show the bulk of the wealth and population to have been in the north—Jerusalem was only a tiny village. It would have been impossible for a southerner like David to have marshalled the resources necessary to conquer Israel. The monumental building was in the north too, and came long after Solomon.

Like Isaac’s sons, Jacob and Esau, the two Hebrew realms were thus independent rivals from birth. If David and Solomon lived at all, they were petty hill chieftains whose exploits were wildly exaggerated by their Judean descendants, Finkelstein contends. The whole panoply of Biblical history, in fact, was crafted by the southern religious elite to bolster its claim to rule all the children of Israel after the northern realm was wiped from the map by the Assyrian Empire in 722 BCE. Minimalists applaud, though many think that the compilation was much later. Traditional scholars, though they may have yielded on the patriarchs and the conquest, are adamant on the reality of David’s kingdom and the historical facts contained in the books of Samuel and Kings.

How to to bring the debate forward, to get a non-Biblical picture of what the Israelites were doing in the 350 years between Memep-

tah’s stele and the Tel Dan fragment, is now the issue. Like Finkelstein, Dever was among the almost 8,000 participants who went to Toronto in late November for the annual meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Schools for Oriental Research. Dever’s talk on searching for ethnicity in the archaeological record drew a

standing-room-only crowd that spilled out into the hallway. Given the Israelites’ indigenous origins, everyone is looking for a way to mark their emergence as a distinct people. But the quest for a set of ethnic markers to identify something that mainly exists in the mind—you are who you think you are—and in the sort of soft tissue, like skin, that doesn’t survive 3,000 years in the ground, has a certain potential for absurdity. When a woman in the audience asked about circumcision as an Israelite marker, Dever deadpanned, “Sure, but what would the evidence look like?”

But Dever does have one ace in the archaeological hole, a single ethnic marker capable of surviving. Or, to be exact—and in keeping with a debate that is all about absence—a marker that could but shouldn’t be there. Pig bones. Considerable effort has gone into attempts to find the one people, in the otherwise swine-friendly Near East, with a prohibition against eating pork. Zvi Lederman and Shlomo Bunimovitz, two archaeologists from Tel Aviv University who attended the ASOR session, have dug for a decade at the Iron Age site of Beth-Shemesh. They’re confident in their results. “There’s

a clear avoidance of pork, and no environmental reason that might have made pig-raising difficult,” Lederman says. “Otherwise you can’t tell them from the Canaanites.” Bunimovitz and Lederman place the origin of the pork avoidance in the context of Philistine pressure. “Beth-Shemesh was on the border between later Judah and the expanding Philistines,” says Lederman. “Group identities form in times of stress, it forces people to set themselves off.” That’s it? A key and clearly ancient tenet in Jewish religion, ascribed to everything from an early awareness of swine-borne diseases to the deepest spiritual symbolism, originated in a desire to distinguish themselves from the neighbours? An apologetic smile and a shrug from Lederman. “What else is there to say?” The short answer is, more than the minimalists assert and less than the maximalists hope. Some kind of Israel was there by 1200 BCE—that much Pharoah’s inscription makes clear—and it was already engaged in the process of self-determination that would later set Jews apart from the rest of the world. Pork avoidance is one marker; another, insufficiently remarked upon, is its very name. There is no scholarly agreement on what

the word Israel means. It certainly involves God, and probably also the idea of struggle— “he who fights with God” is a common translation. An ethnic group that invoked a deity in its very name was a new development in the ancient Near East, and a sign that from the very beginning, the children of Israel, having defined themselves by their rela-

tionship to God, were on a path that would eventually lead them to monotheism.

What followed the highland settlements— the evolution to sophisticated but small states eventually swallowed by expansionist empires—is still open to debate. The political implications are as fluid. Even William Dever, a friend to Ancient and modern Israel, has voiced doubts over the roots of the violent opposition Orthodox Israelis exhibit towards archaeology. That’s supposed to derive from worries over disturbing ancient graves, he notes, but Dever suspects it lies in fear of what might be found out about thenorigins and traditions. Continued erosion of the Bible’s literal historicity cannot help but undermine their claims to West Bank land.

The Bible itself remains, in the midst of a debate that, in some ways, only serves to emphasize its enormous power. The northern kingdom of Israel was literally erased by the Assyrians in 722 BCE, its 10 tribes lost from history to myth. Judah had another 136 years before the Babylonians destroyed their state. But because during that time Judeans hammered out the scriptures on the anvil of their collective experience, their heirs too endure. lifl