The Great Minimalist Debate
Yosef Garfinkel, Yigael Yadin Chair of Archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and director of the excavations at Khirbet Qeiyafa from 2007–2013, takes the opportunity of Philip Davies’s article on the Bible and Interpretation website to respond and clarify his own assessment of the minimalist developments in the field of Biblical archaeology and history over the past three decades.
A Minimalist Disputes His Demise: A Response to Philip Davies
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Phase I: The Mythological Paradigm
In the mid-1980s, new approaches developed concerning the historicity of the Biblical narrative. The main argument revolved around dating the final writing of the Hebrew Bible. Particularly relevant to our discussion is the narrative of the tenth century B.C.E., the period known as the United Monarchy. The so-called “Minimalist” school claimed that the Hebrew Bible was written in the Hellenistic period, nearly 700 hundred years after the time of David and Solomon, and that therefore the description of that era is a purely literary composition.i
In 1993 and 1994, several fragments of an Aramaic stele were found at Tel Dan, dated to the ninth century B.C.E. This text specifically mentions a king of Israel and a king of the “House of David,” that is, a king of the dynasty of David. Reference to the “House of David” has subsequently been identified on the Mesha Stele, also dated to the ninth century B.C.E. Thus, there is at least one (possibly two) clear reference to the dynasty of David in the ninth century B.C.E., only 100–120 years after his reign. This is clear evidence that David was indeed a historical figure and the founding father of a dynasty, contrary to the claims of the Minimalists. The Tel Dan stele ended the first phase of the debate regarding the historicity of the Hebrew Bible, clarifying that the mythological paradigm was nothing but a modern myth.Phase II: The Low Chronology Paradigm
After the collapse of the mythological paradigm, a new strategy was developed by the Minimalists. This time, the central method was to lower the dating of the transition between Iron Age I and Iron Age II from c. 1000 B.C.E., as was accepted until then (commonly called “high chronology”), to c. 925 B.C.E., or even as late as c. 900 B.C.E. (called the “low chronology”).
The Iron Age I in Judah and Israel was a period of agrarian communities organized in a tribal social organization (described in the Biblical tradition as the period of the Judges). The next period, the Iron Age II, was a period of urban society and a centralized state organization (described in the Biblical tradition as the period of the kings). Low chronology placed urbanization only at the end of the tenth century B.C.E., thereby indicating that David and Solomon were not rulers of a kingdom but local tribe leaders.
The dating of the earliest fortification in Judah became apparent thanks to the recent excavations at Khirbet Qeiyafa. The site cannot be later than 969 B.C.E. (77.8 percent probability). This date fits the period associated with King David (c. 1000–965 B.C.E.) and is too early for King Solomon (c. 965–930 B.C.E.). The fortified city of Khirbet Qeiyafa indicates that the Iron Age IIA in the southern Levant began at the very end of the 11th century B.C.E., thus rendering the low chronology paradigm nothing but a modern myth.
Phase III: The Ethnic Identification of Khirbet Qeiyafa
Khirbet Qeiyafa is located on the border between Judah and the Philistine region, and could, therefore, be associated with either of these. If it was a Judahite site, it indicates that fortified cities were built in Judah, so David and Solomon were not shepherds living in tents. This situation supports the Biblical tradition. Here begins the third phase in the evolution of the minimalist approach. If Khirbet Qeiyafa is not a Judahite city, then there was still no kingdom in Judah in the tenth century B.C.E. Indeed it had been suggested that Khirbet Qeiyafa is a Philistine or even a Canaanite site.
The Khirbet Qeiyafa expedition did not take part in the long-standing minimalist debate and has nothing to gain or lose if the site is identified as Judahite or Philistine. Thus, we remain open-minded in evaluating the evidence. As it seems now, the identification of Khirbet Qeiyafa as a Judahite site is supported by various aspects; the main ones are:
1. Location: Khirbet Qeiyafa is located at the western end of the high Shephelah and controls the entrance to the Elah Valley, the main route from the coastal plain to the hill country, Jerusalem and Hebron.
2. New settlement: The city at Khirbet Qeiyafa was built on bedrock rather than over the ruins of a Canaanite city from the Late Bronze Age. Why did this location suddenly become important in the late 11th–early tenth centuries B.C.E.?
3. Massive fortifications: The site has an especially impressive casemate wall that incorporated megalithic stones weighing up to 8 tons. Such powerful construction is unknown in Late Bronze Age Canaanite cities, nor is it evident in hundreds of smaller Iron Age I sites in the hill country (commonly known as “Israelite settlement sites”). The building tradition in Philistia was brick rather than stone, as can be seen from walls unearthed at Ashdod, Ashkelon and Ekron. Moreover, casemate walls are not known in the Land of Israel in the Late Bronze Age—neither in Canaanite cities nor at Philistine sites.
4. Two gates: Khirbet Qeiyafa has two gates, one on the west side and the other on the south. The gates are of identical size and consist of four chambers. This is the only known example from the First Temple period of a settlement with two gates in the Northern or the Southern Kingdom.
5. Urban planning: The dwellings in Khirbet Qeiyafa adjoin and are incorporated in the wall, with the casemate constituting the back room of every house. Such planning is currently evident at four additional sites: Beth-Shemesh, Tell en-Nasbeh, Tell Beit Mirsim and Beersheva. All these sites are dated to Iron Age II and are located in the south of the Land of Israel, in the kingdom of Judah. In terms of its dating, Khirbet Qeiyafa precedes them all, attesting that this planning concept was already formulated in the late 11th century B.C.E. Casemate walls are also known at northern sites such as Hazor and Gezer, but at those sites, such walls are freestanding and do not abut dwellings.
6. Pottery vessels: The assemblage of local ware is relatively simple and includes a small number of vessel types: shallow rounded bowls, shallow carinated bowls, kraters with an inverted upper part and 2–6 handles, simple juglets, black juglets, simple jugs, strainer-jugs, cooking pots with an inverted rim, baking trays, and storage jars that usually had a fingerprint on one of the handles. Most of the vessels lack ornamentation. Very rarely, red slip appears on a bowl or jug, which sometimes also features irregular hand-burnishing.
7. Concentrated production of jars and the marking of their handles: Dozens of storage jars were discovered at Khirbet Qeiyafa, generally with one or more handles marked by a fingerprint. By the end of the 2011 excavation season, about 520 such handles had come to light. Petrographic examinations indicated that all the jars had been made in the same place, in the vicinity of Khirbet Qeiyafa.
8. Diet and food preparation: Thousands of animal bones were found at the site, including goats, sheep and cattle. No pig bones were discovered. Almost every house contained a baking tray—a shallow bowl with a charred inner side, indicating that it had been placed over an open fire with the dough draped over the rough outer side.
9. Commercial ties: Finds from the site suggest the import of items from varying distances:
(a) 10–20 km away: Pottery vessels of the Ashdod Ware type were imported from Philistia. The ornamentation of these vessels typically includes red slip on the face as well as painted horizontal white and black lines. These relatively small vessels, with a volume of up to 2 liters, were apparently used to transport specialty products such as spices, medicines or special drinks.
(b) 100–150 km away: Basalt vessels were discovered, including both simple items such as grinding stones and grinding plates, as well as a carefully executed and polished bowl and a basalt altar decorated with a floral pattern.
(c) Cypriot import: A number of pottery juglets that originated in Cyprus were discovered at the site. They are embellished with black bands and concentric circles painted on a white background. (Vessels of the ‘black-on-red’ family characteristic of the late tenth century B.C.E. were not found at the site.)
10. Script: An ostracon found at Khirbet Qeiyafa contained five lines of text, with a total of some 70 letters. The letters are written in an archaic style, in the Canaanite writing tradition (also known as “proto-Canaanite”). A good deal of the writing is unclear, making it difficult to decipher. The inscription includes words such as “do not do” (al ta‘as), “judge” (shofet), “slave” (‘eved), “god” (el), “Baal” (Baal) and “king” (melekh). According to the epigraphist Haggai Misgav, based on the word ta‘as (“to do”), the language of the inscription is Hebrew. This is the longest extant inscription from the 12th–ninth centuries B.C.E. in the region.
11. Aniconic rite: A structure uncovered at Khirbet Qeiyafa during the 2010 season contained a cultic room featuring two stone altars, a basalt altar, pottery libation vessels, a bench, a drainage installation for liquids that joined a channel in the next structure, a seal and a scarab. We found none of the human or animal figurines that are frequently found at ritual sites. In the 2011 excavation season, two other cultic rooms were found with additional cultic paraphernalia: standing stones, a basalt altar, libation vessels and shrine models. No human or animal figurines were found in these rooms.
12. Dating: Based on carbon-14 readings of olive pits, the site dates to the late 11th and early tenth centuries B.C.E.
13. End of settlement: The site was destroyed suddenly, as attested by the hundreds of items found on floors or in the debris of collapsed buildings: pottery vessels, stone vessels, metal vessels, scarabs and seals. Who destroyed the site?
14. Abandonment of the site: Khirbet Qeiyafa was abandoned following its destruction and was not settled again until the late Persian period. Why did its inhabitants not rebuild the site, and why is it not a multi-strata mound?
Prior to our excavations at Khirbet Qeiyafa, it was indeed very hard to find clear archaeological layers in Judahite sites that were dated to the early tenth century B.C.E. Thus, it is not surprising that “minimalist” approaches had been developed. However, the new data from Khirbet Qeiyafa open new horizons for the study of the very early stage of the Judahite Kingdom. The combination of the site location, its massive fortifications, its urban planning, its chronology, central production of jars with stamped handles, the writing and seal, all pointed to an organized state, not agrarian community.
Biblical minimalism was not born with Thompson, Lemche, Davies or Grabbe. The debate about the relationship between archaeology, ancient Near Eastern studies and the Bible, which today seems so modern, actually began nearly a century earlier. In 1902 the famous “Babel und Bibel” lecture delivered by the German Semitic philologist Friedrich Delitzsch created much public interest. From the very beginning of archaeological and historical systematic research in the Ancient Near East, a complex love-hate relationship between archaeology and the Bible developed.
The Biblical minimalism of the 1980s tried to disconnect the Biblical text from its ancient Near Eastern context by seeing it as Hellenistic literature. This claim had very simple implications: To be a Biblical scholar there is no need to study ancient Near Eastern languages, like Sumerian, Akkadian, Hittite or Egyptian, and there is no need to study archaeology of the Bronze and Iron Ages in the southern Levant. This clearly makes everybody’s life much easier as one can eliminate huge fields of scientific knowledge and still be considered, at least in Copenhagen and Sheffield, a respectable Biblical scholar. Indeed, the term “minimalists” is appropriate here, as it means minimalism in knowledge and limited intellectual horizons. The Biblical minimalism of the 1980s did not die, but it underwent several changes. The extravagant confidence that the Biblical tradition has no historical memories whatsoever has been proven wrong. The Iron Age period of ancient Israel is not a prehistoric era!
i. See, for example, Niels Peter Lemche, Ancient Israel: A New History of Israelite Society (Sheffield Academic Press, 1988), Thomas L. Thompson, Early History of the Israelite People (Leiden: Brill, 1992), Philip R. Davies, In Search of ‘Ancient Israel’, (London and New York: T&T. Clark Publishers, Ltd., 1992)
Sign up to receive our email newsletter and never miss an update.