Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Archaeological Find of the New Century?

[SEE THE UPDATE BELOW!]

This is a story I've been closely following for some time now, but have held off posting on out of caution. However, it seems as though the evidence is beginning to look pretty solid. In sum, an archaeological dig at Khirbet Qeiyafa, which was reported on a few months ago by the New York Times, is turning out finds that are rocking the scholarly community. And, while at the time, the New York Times reported that only a small piece of the site had been excavated, information is pouring out that even more striking evidence has been uncovered.

This may very well go down as the "21st century Dead Sea Scrolls". However, while the DSS helped illuminate the New Testament,
Khirbet Qeiyafa is shedding incredible light on a much, much earlier period, apparently corroborating the historicity of the Old Testament.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me give some background here.

Many scholars dispute the historical reliability of the Old Testament, particularly the parts prior to Ezra and Nehemiah: e.g., David, Solomon, the kingdom, etc. Why?

According to many scholars the stories about the glorious reign of David and Solomon are myths--of little more value than the stories about King Arthur and the Roundtable. All of it was made up. When Israel returned from their Babylonian exile the past history of Israel was "invented". In fact, for some historians there never even were twelve tribes in Israel. The Israelites "idealized" their past. The story of the apostasy of Solomon and the sinfulness of the Israelites were created for two purposes. First, it gave the Jews a claim on the land. Second, it gave the Jews a reason to remain obedient to the priestly leaders.

In sum, the Old Testament narratives about David, Solomon--not too mention that of Abraham and the Patriarchs--were nothing more than political propoganda. Some scholars believed Israelite writing didn't even exist at that point.

Perhaps, such scholars might concede, there were some tribal leagues and small villages, but a kingdom of David? Such scholars--often called "minimalists"--would laugh and say, no way.

Until now.

Evidence at Khirbet Qeiyafa suggests that in fact there was a massive political force in the land of Israel in the 10th century. Aside from artifacts, and pottery, writing has even been found, shattering just about everything many scholars thought they knew about the development and spread of literacy. Carbon-14 dating is really making this a discovery hard to dismiss as significant. Here is the homepage of the excavation team, where you will find some photos.

The discovery involves the excavation of what apparently was a heavily fortified structure. Though some think it may be the fortress of David himself, I think we're far beyond the ability to make any such identification. Much, much more work and examination will need to be done. But even if it can be shown that the site is not an Israelite compound, the evidence is highly suggestive: clearly there was a powerful force in the area that had to be reckoned with by outsiders. Yosef Garfinkel from Hebrew University is leading the dig. The New York Times article quotes him as saying:
“There were 500 people inside. This was the main road to Jerusalem, the key strategic site to protect the kingdom of Jerusalem. If they built a fortification here, it was a real kingdom, pointing to urban cities and a centralized authority in Judah in the 10th century B.C.”
Indeed, the article goes on to explain that the evidence being collected is clearly dissimilar from Philistine culture.

The scholarly world is all a-buzz with the find. Even skeptical scholars--who have staked their reputation on minimalistic claims--are now making some very telling admissions. Apparently, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Much more is coming out, as someone close to the dig explained on Jim West's blog. John Hobbins at the blog Ancient Hebrew Poetry has even called it the "end of minimalism as we've known it". He writes, "
Minimalism will go down in the annals of scholarship as a classic example of over-reach." I think he's absolutely right.

Again, caution is always necessary. I've been sitting on this for 2 months now. However, the evidence is really striking. I think the likelihood that we have here a significant find--one involving a seismic shift--is very high.

In fact, what we are witnessing here to assumptions made in Old Testament scholarship may be quite similiar to what happened in the 20th century in New Testament studies. Many scholars at that time believed the Fourth Gospel, for example, was a late creation--a second century document with no historical value. Then of course a fragment of it was found in Egypt dating to the turn of the second century. As a result, a lot of the books that were hot items in libraries got put back on the shelf. They are collecting dust to this day.

Given that minimalists are now making some key admissions about this find, I think it is safe to say that something similar is going to happen to a lot of the books now being checked-out by students on the history of Israel. But again we'll have to wait and see what else comes out of this discovery.

UPDATE:
In the comment box I received the following from
Barnea Levi Selavan, the codirector of the organization behind the excavation, to whom I am very grateful for the following information.
Michael,

I am Codirector of the Foundation Stone organization. We are developing the Elah Fortress/Qeiyafa site, and are responsible for the excavation of Prof Garfinkel of Hebrew U. I appreciate your words. I invite you to see the promo movie and articles on our website www.elahfortress.com, and must share with you there is even more.

The massive fortified city, the unprecedented 10 ton stones, in the unprecedented second gate of an Iron Age city -which may identify it as Sha'arayim, "Two-Gates", mentioned three times in the Bible in this area, twice related to King David before he became king, which would fit its early dating-the clear destruction layer context, an opportunity to examine the workings of the architecture of the casemate wall and houses(21,400 pieces of pottery pulled from 600 square meters), the absence of pig bones, the seemingly destroyed and reused cultic stone, the location at the gateway between the Judean Foothills and the Philistine Coastal Plain, the consensus of scholars that it the pottery typology is early 10th century, the consensus of all the major Philistine excavators that the pottery "is not a coastal ssmeblage"-Sy Gitin- so it is not Philistine, the early proto-Canaanite Hebrew writing with its implications of how and when this writing spread to the Greeks and others, the interesting words and the potential historical value of its actual text, the range of hi-tech imaging methods used to see the letters not visible to the naked eye, the over 100 jug handles with finger impressions until now found only a couple at a time and not valued as a feature, the short Hellenistic-Ptolemaic period reuse of the fortifications, and their strategic approach to fortifications, the short term use of the city - as there is no remodeling, the carbon-14 dating range of burnt olive pits, the potential revising of the transition or even structure of dating Iron Age I and Iron Age II, the surety of more discoveries because of the layout of the casemate walls, the elephant in the room- the historical implications for the accuracy of events and characters reported in the bible, as the urban society of 300o years ago (dating based on science alone-the pottery typology and carbon-14 dating; the ostracon found in the same destruction layer context in a tightly-controlled provenanced excavation) was using writing, not only oral traditions, and this means a higher degree of accuracy is expected in transmission of acts and events, even if passed down to several hundred years later, even as academics currently claim (contrary to ancient Jewish traditions of literacy accuracy and writing throughout, and when the books were written) .... I may have missed something.

Yours
Barnea Levi Selavan
Foundation Stone
www.elahfortress.com
There is also a funny clip from Saturday Night Live where the excavation is mentioned--be sure to check it out at their website.

5 comments:

Shoshanah Selavan said...

Michael,

I am Codirector of the Foundation Stone organization. We are developing the Elah Fortress/Qeiyafa site, and are responsible for the excavation of Prof Garfinkel of Hebrew U. I appreciate your words. I invite you to see the promo movie and articles on our website www.elahfortress.com, and must share with you there is even more.

The massive fortified city,
the unprecedented 10 ton stones, in the unprecedented second gate of an Iron Age city -
which may identify it as Sha'arayim, "Two-Gates", mentioned three times in the Bible in this area, twice related to King David before he became king, which would fit its early dating-
the clear destruction layer context,
an opportunity to examine the workings of the architecture of the casemate wall and houses(21,400 pieces of pottery pulled from 600 square meters),
the absence of pig bones,
the seemingly destroyed and reused cultic stone,
the location at the gateway between the Judean Foothills and the Philistine Coastal Plain,
the consensus of scholars that it the pottery typology is early 10th century,
the consensus of all the major Philistine excavators that the pottery "is not a coastal ssmeblage"-Sy Gitin- so it is not Philistine,
the early proto-Canaanite Hebrew writing
with its implications of how and when this writing spread to the Greeks and others,
the interesting words and the potential historical value of its actual text,
the range of hi-tech imaging methods used to see the letters not visible to the naked eye,
the over 100 jug handles with finger impressions until now found only a couple at a time and not valued as a feature,
the short Hellenistic-Ptolemaic period reuse of the fortifications, and their strategic approach to fortifications,
the short term use of the city - as there is no remodeling,
the carbon-14 dating range of burnt olive pits,
the potential revising of the transition or even structure of dating Iron Age I and Iron Age II,
the surety of more discoveries because of the layout of the casemate walls,
the elephant in the room- the historical implications for the accuracy of events and characters reported in the bible, as the urban society of 300o years ago (dating based on science alone- the pottery typology and carbon-14 dating; the ostracon found in the same destruction layer context in a tightly-controlled provenanced excavation) was using writing, not only oral traditions, and this means a higher degree of accuracy is expected in transmission of acts and events, even if passed down to several hundred years later, even as academics currently claim (contrary to ancient Jewish traditions of literacy accuracy and writing throughout, and when the books were written) .... I may have missed something.

Yours
Barnea Levi Selavan
Foundation Stone
www.elahfortress.com

Brant Pitre said...

Wow, Michael, this looks extremely exciting.
Ten years ago, my wife and I did an archaeological dig at Megiddo (of Armageddon fame) under Israel Finkelstein and David Ussishkin.

If my memory serves me correctly, Finkelstein, who was a brilliant and kind man, was arguing for a very different biblical chronology than this new find suggests: he held that the only solid Israelite archaeological evidence really began with Kings Omri and Ahab, and that the biblical accounts of David and Solomon were 'legendary'--projections into the past (a la King Arthur).

At the time I remember having my doubts about Finkelsteins rewriting of history. This new site would surely raise some questions about this and be an exciting contribution to this fascinating field.

Thanks for the informative post!

Mason said...

Fascinating.
As difficult and potentially subjective the interpretation of archeological finds can be, this seems to offer a great deal of evidence as to the early existence of the kingdom of Israel. Whatever side of this one falls on, I personally see the OT historical accounts as real history not cultural myths, there is a lot here that can not be ignored in future studies.

Thanks for sharing this Michael

Charles Sommer said...

Wow!

Something to be looking at over Christmas...when grades are turned in

Taliesin said...

Glad that these discoveries are making the news, and wonderful that this is such a short-term site with fairly good C-14 dating, which hopefully will remove the need for too much arguing over interpretation.

(The King Arthur analogies were always made by people who never had a clue about the origins and growth of the Arthurian legend and associated literary corpora).

What is sad is that the whole minimalist debate (actually several debates in one but never mind) has become mixed up in politics, when there are no necessary connections. The justice of the Palestinian cause is not affected by discovering that David and Solomon existed or that the United Monarchy really did flourish in the 10th century BCE. (And why Muslims would be in the business of dissing two of their own prophets is a mystery to me). What is at stake in the conflict between Zionism and the Palestinians is the history of the last 120 years, and it is on that terrain that political combat must occur, not the 10th century BCE. I can just as easily take people like Tom Segev, Avi Shlaim, and Ilan Pappe as my 20th century historians of choice, yet refuse to take Israel Finkelstein, Niels Peter Lemche, and Thomas L. Thompson as my historians of choice for the 10th century BCE: there is no contradiction. Sorry to belabour the obvious but it's vital we keep the politics out of this.

As you say Michael, caution is vital.