Archeology and Ideology


As we are celebrating Hanukah this week, it strikes me that these events that occurred almost 2,200 years ago in Israel seem very actual and relevant to our lives today. People chose to understand the story of Hanukah in different way – the Rabbanim of the Talmud just wanted to see the miracle of the oil and the rededication of the Temple, most Israeli Jews are sensible to the fight for a free and independent country, some are more sensitive to the issue of Jews alienated to their own culture and people to the point that they prefer to serve a foreign global culture – and for exactly this reason some left-wing Jews, mainly in the USA, really don’t like Hanukkah, because they see it as celebrating a right-wing religious victory against what the very cosmopolitan ideology that they believe in today.

But one thing is sure – whatever the view about Hanukah, nobody denies the actual basic facts and events that happened.

That’s not the case with older Jewish history and particularly Biblical history.

The issue is complex and difficult so I will try to summarize it. Historians of the time of the Bible rely mostly on archeology and text evidences that have been retrieved. Biblical archeology is almost as old as archeology, but in the last decades, the experts of the subject have tended to divide themselves along two camps: minimalists and maximalists. Of course, the divide is not really sharp, most biblical archeologists would define themselves as being in the middle. But the fact is that there are two schools of thought.

Minimalists believe that the Bible is primarily a religious book and should be taken as myth and historically worthless unless proven otherwise. They think that the land of Israel and the Middle-East have been excavated thoroughly and that what was found is a representative sample of what was. So if no proof of an event has been excavated, we should assume it did not happen.

Maximalists see the Bible as a primary source, exactly as any other source of the period. Of course it is not a precise history manuel, and it contains mistakes. But it should be considered as true unless proven otherwise. As only a tiny amount of the material that ever existed in the past has been excavated, that most things were destroyed or reused for other purposes, what we did found is not a representative sample of what was. The absence of proof is not a proof of absence.

In reality, the debate about the reality of Bible events is much smaller than it seems. All historians agree that all the event in Genesis before Avraham are mythological. They don’t agree about the reality of the story of the Three Fathers of the Jewish people, but it can’t really be proven one way or the other.

Then, there is also almost no debate about the relative trustworthiness of the events from the 9th century and after, because they have been more or less confirmed by other sources.

The conflict, in fact, is focused on the time between the stay in Egypt and the division of the United Kingdom of Israel between Yehuda and Ephraim, in particular the Exodus and the kingdom of David and Shlomo.

In the last decades, the minimalists seemed to be on the winning side, but discoveries of the last decade have shaken the basis of some of their affirmations. The 2001 book by Israel Finkelstein « The Bible Unearthed » was acclaimed in the mainstream media and marked the victory of the minimalist discourse in the general secular western public.

For example, a minimalist school from Denmark claimed that David never even existed and was a latter invention of the Judean monarchy – until, in 1993, was discovered the Tel Dan Stele, an Aramaic inscription of the 9th or 8th century referring to the « House of David ». After that the minimalist claim moved to undermining the importance of David’s kingdom – « Yes he existed, but he was just some small tribal chieftain ruling over a few backward villages ». Most of the argumentation does not derive from new discoveries, but a revision of the traditional dating of archeological sites: sites that were dated to the time of David and Shlomo were moved one century later. This way, nothing of importance could be attributed to David and his son, and so it was easy to argue that they never were important.

Here it is interesting to note that the minimalist/maximalist debate, that was, and partly still is, an international discussion, has become an internal Israeli fight between the archeology department of the Tel Aviv and Jerusalem universities. Of course not all archeologists in these two universities think the same, but the mainstream of both is clearly define: Tel Aviv, leaded by Israel Finkelstein, on the minimalist side, Jerusalem on the more maximalist one.

Then in the last few years, Hebrew University archeologists have indeed discovered a few things that contradict the minimalists version of the events: from the « David Palace » in the City of David, to an Hebrew inscription 3000 years old and other things – many little proofs that in fact David was the king of a large and developed kingdom. As archeological excavations can last decades, and many findings need to be published and peer-reviewed, this is still too soon to make definitive assessments.

But one thing is certain in all this: archeologists are not neutral scientists only guided by facts and with no preconceptions. It seems pretty clear that ideology plays a very important role in the way some archeologists decide to interpret the data that they have. The fact that Tel Aviv University is a center of post-zionist propaganda can explain why this university’s archeologists are so strongly against the idea that the Biblical story is accurate.

This issue is not limited to archeology. The mixture of ideology, politics and science is not alien to other fields, « climate science » in particular. But this is for a future post.

Next time, we will try to understand if the Exodus did happen or not.

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