Whom Do You Believe—The Bible or Archaeology?

Historical King David. Excavated at Tel Dan in northern Galilee, the fragmented Tel Dan Stela contains the earliest mention of King David from a secure archaeological context. Dating from the ninth century B.C.E., the inscription is crucial extra-Biblical evidence for a historical King David. The phrase “House of David,” highlighted on this image, refers to the Davidic dynasty. Photo: Zev Radovan /

A worldwide crisis in Biblical studies has been brewing for a generation. The eminent Bible scholar Lester Grabbe put the matter succinctly in the title of a book he edited: Can a ‘History of Israel’ Be Written? No mainstream history of Israel in English has been written during the past 30 years (except for an evangelical work or two). What has gone wrong?

In my view, it is because a majority of Biblical scholars has lost confidence in the reliability of its principal source—the Biblical text. These texts, it was asserted, were too late (dating from the Persian or Hellenistic periods); too obviously “constructs” about self-identity; or too preposterous to provide authentic information about any real historical past. The most radical of the skeptics were and still are the European Biblical revisionists of the Copenhagen and Sheffield schools. As a leading member of this circle, Thomas Thompson put it, “There is no more ‘ancient Israel.’ History no longer has room for it.”

This is simply extreme skepticism, another example of the pervasive influence of postmodernism, a theory of knowledge according to which there is no knowledge; there are no facts, only interpretations—and one interpretation is as good as any other.

Such nihilism cannot produce a history of anything. As Michel Foucault, one of postmodernism’s major gurus and a would-be historian, once admitted, “I am well aware that I have never written anything but fictions.”

Why does the question of a real history of a real “Israel” matter in the first place? That puts it in stark simplicity. For historians like me (that is what archaeologists are), all history matters since it provides perspective. Understanding the human past is the only way we have of knowing who we are and what we can hope to be. The past is prologue. For people of faith, Jews or Christians, and even for secularists in the Western cultural tradition, a fictitious “Israel” has no moral foundations. Unless God is manifest in history—for many, this particular history—he is invisible. It is ultimately a question of authority: What can we believe, and what moral imperative do we have? Of course, skeptics will scoff at all this, as they scoff at everything because they are simply spoilers. But most of us cannot and will not live with such scorn for moral values, for that makes us less than human.

Yet we must pursue the question of history beyond the abstract. What is it that we want to know, and how do we propose to go about knowing it? As an archaeologist, I would argue that what we want to know, despite various definitions of history, is simply, “What was it really like in the past in ancient Israel?”

In hopes of answering that question, we have only two sources of information: the Biblical texts and the artifacts—the material culture remains, including of course other texts brought to light by archaeology.

Both sources are valuable, but both have obvious limitations. Beyond recognizing that fact, sound method and honesty require that these two sources for history be dealt with independently and then compared. At that point, we have what I call “convergences”—points at which the parallel lines of evidence come together. Then we arrive at what historians often call “the balance of probability,” or what jurisprudence would regard as “the preponderance of the evidence.”

That is a modest, but obtainable, goal. The inquiry may not offer iron-clad “proof,” which neither Biblical studies nor archaeology can claim. But it offers us all that we need to know to get on with meaningful lives. (And it is in line with the “neo-pragmatism” that characterizes the best of archaeological theory today.

Having struggled with these questions over a long career, I have recently suggested that new and better histories of Israel can now be and must be written. And the clue is to show how archaeological data can provide a breakthrough, by offering a primary source for history writing. That assertion is not as radical as it may sound. Think about it. The archaeological data are “primary” by being closer to the original events, by definition contemporary, not later (often much later), as the Biblical texts are.

Moreover, the archaeological record is more objective in that it has not been edited, as the Biblical texts obviously have been. In particular, archaeology offsets the elitist (and male) bias of the Biblical writers by giving a voice to the masses of ordinary folk in ancient Israel.

Finally, the archaeological data are more varied, more detailed and more dynamic by constantly expanding our knowledge in comparison with the closed Biblical canon.

I would go so far as to argue that by now the Biblical texts have yielded all the information, all they wish to tell us, about any “real-life” Israel. The Biblical texts will still be valuable for histories of religious or theological ideas. But increasingly, “secular” histories of many other Israels will be written, and there archaeology will necessarily prevail.

I have offered such an archaeologically based history in a forthcoming book, titled Beyond the Texts: An Archaeological Portrait of Ancient Israel and Judah. Here there are dozens of “case studies” illustrating how text and artifact interact to produce a more balanced account of what it was really like in ancient Israel. The major strategy is to situate all the Biblical stories about Israel between about 1200 and 600 B.C.E. along a continuum from the left (“disproven”) to the right (a hypothetical “proven”), with many putative events remaining somewhere in the middle (“probable,” “possible” or “evidence inconclusive”).

Here let me select only one case study: the historical King David.

First, here is what an investigation shows that we actually know from comparing our two sources—the Bible and archaeology:

  • David did exist as a king, the head of at least a nascent 10th-century B.C.E. state (cf. the well-known Tel Dan Stela).
  • He founded a dynasty, well known to his neighbors (cf. the Tel Dan Stela and possibly also the Mesha Stela from Transjordan).
  • He embellished his capital in Jerusalem (the Stepped Stone Structure and the “Citadel” recently excavated by Eilat Mazar).
  • His reign saw an expanding population and an increasing urbanism (settlement patterns).
  • He fortified the borders of the kingdom (Khirbet Qeiyafa as an early-10th-century B.C.E. well-planned barracks-town on the border with Philistia).
  • He was successful in his wars against the Philistines (comparative stratigraphy of Judahite and Philistine sites, showing the weakening of the latter).
  • His national dynasty and “Israelite self-identity” lasted from the 10th to the early sixth century B.C.E. (continuity of a distinctive material culture).

Next, here is, in addition, what is possible, even probable, but insufficiently attested:

  • David’s legendary charismatic character (1 Samuel 16:18; 1 Samuel 18:16).
  • Dynastic rivalries (and murders) (1 Samuel 18—31; 1 Samuel 1—5; 1 Samuel 13—19; 1 Kings 1—2).
  • Efforts to establish a corvée (forced labor) system, to build the Temple, to pursue widespread foreign wars (2 Samuel 20:24).
  • Israelite domination of neighbors other than the Philistines (1 Chronicles 18—20).

Then, here is what is very unlikely:

  • David’s annexation of large parts of Transjordan (Moab, etc.) (1 Chronicles 18—20).
  • David’s extension of campaigns against the Arameans well up into Syria (1 Chronicles 18—19).

Finally, here is what archaeology cannot address, given the nature of our evidence:

  • David was God’s anointed, “a man after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14; 1 Samuel 16:1—13).
  • His triumphant kingdom and enduring dynasty were due to Divine Providence (2 Samuel 7).
  • The larger-than-life tales about David’s personal life and many exploits (e.g., 1 Samuel 17).

If it is as obvious as I have argued that new and better histories of ancient Israel are needed and indeed possible, why then have more not been written?

There is enough blame to go around. For their part, Biblical scholars have become increasingly uncertain about the adequacy of their only source, the texts. There is also the issue of motivation: Many of the previous generation wanted to construct history as the indispensable ground of faith. Most Biblicists by now have become secularists—thus factual history is no longer so important. As a consequence, the current fad in Biblical studies is something called “cultural memory.” That is, the question is no longer “What actually happened in history?” but rather “How was the story transmitted and transformed into ‘cultural meaning’?”

“Cultural memory” would eclipse history writing as most practicing historians (and some archaeologists) have traditionally seen it. It’s a cop-out, in my opinion, a counsel of despair. If that view were to prevail, only a few evangelicals would write any new histories of Israel in the future. (That discounts fundamentalist “histories,” which are little more than paraphrases of the Hebrew Bible.)

For their part, many archaeologists simply do not see themselves as historians, and almost none has any training in the discipline of history. The Israelis, in particular, have been preoccupied with improved field methods, better data-collection, fuller publication, multidisciplinary analyses, cultural-resource management and, increasingly, “cyber archaeology.” That is all necessarily part of the maturation of a national school, as well as the discipline. We Americans, on the other hand, do better facing some of the larger theoretical issues, including epistemology, philosophies of history, the role of archaeology in religious life and the like. But we confront more difficulties in trying to keep up with the incredible mass of new data, second-hand as it were.

Finally, it may be that nowadays few scholars are bold enough even to attempt syntheses, which are likely to be obsolete as soon as published. We are simply inundated by a flood of new and often intractable information, almost beyond the ability of any scholar to comprehend. There are no more Albrights! The failure of nerve is understandable. Perhaps only very senior archaeologists will be bold (or foolish?) enough to venture into this uncharted territory. But that is where we must go.

Now in my mid-80s, I have nothing to lose—and nothing to gain. So I have plunged ahead. Mine is not the “history of ancient Israel,” but is only one attempt at improving the employment of the burgeoning, all-important archaeological data.

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