Thursday, April 27, 2006

Biblical Archaeology from a Tourist Perspective

In the current Smithsonian (May 2006) is an article titled "Shifting Ground in the Holy Land." The author, Jennifer Wallace, extracts the essence of a question that one faces while doing standard tourism in Israel.

At the one extreme in the question of biblical archaelogy, are those who believe that the Bible is history or a very close representation of it. (Those who believe that the Bible is literally true are not worried about archaeology or any other evidence, so they don't really figure in this dichotomy.) Archaeologists in the early days of Zionism were delighted to find evidence of biblical sites such as Hatzor. They also enjoyed excavating Roman/Byzantine synagogues like Bet Alpha as they tried to form connections for the dispossessed immigrants to the new land of Israel. The article describes some of the proponents of this view and their enthusiasm for their discoveries.

At the other extreme among Jews, as summarized in the article, are the extreme skeptics, who dispute virtually every claim about the correspondence between the Bible and the stones. A book I have read called The Bible Unearthed by Neil Asher Silverman is the epitome of this view. To use the summary in the article: "The book argues that the biblical accounts of early Israelite history reveal more about the time they were written -- the seventh century B.C. -- than the events they describe, which would have taken place centuries earlier." (p. 62)

Also at the extreme of disbelief, as the article and many others discuss, are Palestinians who for political reasons refuse to acknowledge any Jewish presence in Israel before some arbitrary date like the 19th century of our era. Frankly, I don't think they are any different from the people who believe the Bible is the word of God: evidence doesn't matter to them. The Smithsonian article depicts Hamdan Taha of the Palestinian Authority, who rejects Jewish history.

Even for someone like myself, a nonbeliever in the religion of the Bible, the historic connections are inspiring. Seeing the gates and water systems of Meggido and Hatzor or the altars of earlier sites, presented side by side with biblical quotes in Israeli national parks, is exciting. And quite a few accounts of the correspondence between the stones and the ancient words do seek a middle ground.

Silberman's book was published subsequent to my last trip. However, the connection to the Bible writers who used the landmarks of their era -- the seventh century BCE -- in formulating their own history is just as exciting as the idea that the history is totally accurate. I will try to keep so much of this in mind as I revisit the truly ancient sites. I'm not sure that the connection is diminished by the details of 50 years here or there, or of just exactly what the truth about David's kingdom was. It's still Jewish history, and exciting.

No comments: