Excavating the Bible—A Response

Yitzhak Meitlis responds to Itzhaq Shai

In the September/October 2014 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Itzhaq Shai reviewed Yitzhak Meitlis’s book Excavating the Bible: New Archaeological Evidence for the Historical Reliability of Scripture (Savage, MD: Eshel Books, 2012). Click here to read Shai’s review in full. Below, Meitlis responds to Shai’s review.—Ed.


Yitzhak Meitlis, Excavating the Bible: New Archaeological Evidence for the Historical Reliability of Scripture (Savage, MD: Eshel Books, 2012).

Reading my book Excavating the Bible is, indeed, a daunting task, since some of the chapters are complicated and require closely attentive reading, even on the part of experienced archaeologists. As a result of that, I feel that its presentation as offered by the reviewer Dr. Itzhaq Shai in the September/October 2014 issue of BAR does not reflect its basic underpinnings and does not properly indicate the insights gained from it.

The book Excavating the Bible is based on four premises:

1. The Intermediate Bronze Age lasted much longer in the Judea Mountains than in the lower parts of ancient Israel. While in the plains the Middle Bronze Age I (II/A) began as early as the twentieth century B.C.E., in the mountains, the Intermediate Bronze Age went on for quite a lengthy period. Only in the eighteenth century B.C.E. did the penetration of members of the Middle Bronze Age to the mountainous region begin. This idea has already been written about by Prof. Israel Finkelstein, and in my book, I expanded on this topic. This important insight was not at all noted in the writer’s review.

2. On the basis of research conducted in Babylon at the end of the twentieth century C.E. by Gasche and his colleagues, one should date the end of the Middle Bronze Age in ancient Israel to the end of the fifteenth century and not to the middle of the sixteenth century B.C.E. To be sure, this is an unusual idea, but it was explained extensively in my book, though the reviewer did not consider it at all. The system I am proposing solves familiar, well-known problems in the world of archaeology regarding the fifteenth century, a period in which there are essential contradictions between Egyptian sources and archaeological findings in ancient Israel, without any connection to the question of the reliability of the Bible.

3. The beginning of Iron Age I should be dated to the fourteenth century B.C.E., in line with the analysis of the excavations at Shiloh and other sites as well as on the basis of the results of carbon-14 testing at Tel Dan. Moving Iron Age I to the fourteenth century was already proposed by the late Prof. Yohanan Aharoni. The reviewer did not grapple with this argument, too, except for noting the fact that I move the beginning of the age to the fourteenth century.

4. The space between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea should not be considered one historical and geographical unit. The Land of Israel is a complex region, and one cannot conclude automatically from the findings in one part of the country about another part. In my book, the mountainous region (mainly the Judean Mountains) is distinguished from the plain region, since the processes in each section were different. Unfortunately, the reviewer missed this chapter, with the result that he made a claim about something I never said. He wrote that I propose eliminating the Late Bronze Age. Had he made a more thorough reading of the book, he would have understood that I propose that the Late Bronze Age or the Late Bronze culture was concentrated in the plains and valleys while at the same time in the mountains Iron I culture took root. Several years ago the late Prof. Kempinski already wrote about the overlapping of the two cultures, although in his system the overlapping began in the thirteenth century B.C.E.

I must note that a review of the history of ancient Israel shows that the existence of two entities or two ethnic elements—one on the plains and one in the mountains—is known from different periods. For example, in the second part of Iron Age I there were essential differences between the Israelite inhabitants of the mountains and the Philistines on the coastal plain, and to a great extent the situation is the same today.

As the point where three of the world’s major religions converge, Israel’s history is one of the richest and most complex in the world. Sift through the archaeology and history of this ancient land in the free eBook Israel: An Archaeological Journey, and get a view of these significant Biblical sites through an archaeologist’s lens.

These are the main principles upon which the book is founded. On the basis of them, I produced a correlation between archaeological data and the Biblical narratives; I do think that archaeology and the Bible reside well with one another and the integration between them enables the enrichment of insights into the Biblical period. I wish to stress that even a scholar who does not accept my interpretation of the archaeological findings should deal with the data and analysis of archaeological findings that I present and analyze with traditional archaeological instruments. Such confrontation is lacking in the reviewer’s statements.

Now I turn to a number of details mentioned in the review:

a. Acceptance of the reviewer’s claim that the excavators of Tel Bet Shemesh changed their minds about the identity of the inhabitants of the site during Iron Age I is not obligatory. The excavators’ previous identification that those living at Tel Bet Shemesh were Israelites and their current claim that they were Canaanites is not based on new information, but rather only on a new interpretation whose aim is to adapt the finding to the thesis accepted at Tel Aviv University about the existence of a Canaanite entity in the Shephelah during Iron Age I.

b. Carbon-14 tests. The reviewer claims that I only reference an article from the early 1990s and that I am not up-to-date on the research. I have no pretensions to claim that I am familiar with all the carbon-14 tests conducted in Israel, but in contrast to his argument, it seems he did not read the book properly, since I do cite results of tests from Tel Lachish from 2004 that reinforce my concept of the end of the Middle Bronze Age. Moreover, I note the carbon-14 tests that were conducted in Jericho. I, likewise, bring the results of the carbon-14 tests from Tel Dan regarding the start of Iron Age I, which were published in 1999 and the results from Sasa from 1996. The reviewer did not specify whether there are tests that contradict my system. As far as I know, until the publication of the Hebrew version of my book in 2006 (and not 2008 as appears in the review), there was no result that contradicted my idea, and it seems to me that this goes for today as well.

c. Another argument made by the reviewer is that, according to my system, the cultural change at the beginning of Iron Age I is based solely on changes in pottery. This claim demonstrates the reviewer’s superficial reading of my book, since, in addition to pottery, I base myself on other data as well, such as architecture and the finding of animal bones.

d. Regarding the term “apiru” that appears in Egyptian sources: The reviewer cites the opinion of Anson Rainey about the meaning of the name but ignores other suggestions, such as that of Prof. Nadav Na’aman. The various explanations inform us that this term is not totally clear, so it is not impossible that there is a connection between the Hebrews and the apiru. Yet, it would have been worthwhile if the author of the review had noted that I, too, argue explicitly that the term ‘”ivrim” in the Bible, at least in the more ancient periods, does not coincide with the children of Israel but rather in its initial stages was a broad, general term for a large population.

The upshot is that it seems that the reviewer did not give my book an in-depth reading, and this can be understood by his review. The book presents new insights based on the accepted archaeological rules, and it is only fitting that the reader treat the concept presented in it objectively and openly.

Yitzhak Meitlis is professor of Biblical archaeology at Herzog College. He received his Ph.D. in archaeology from Tel Aviv University and also holds degrees from the Hebrew University and Bar Ilan University. In 2005 he was honored with the Minister of Education Prize for innovation in Jewish Studies.


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