Is the Bible a Reliable Source of History

The Archaeology Debate:
“Is the bible a reliable source of history?”

This question is at the root of a controversy in the archaeology of Iron Age Israel (remember, the Iron Age encompasses King David). Related to it, is the question, “Do the archaeological layers coordinate with the accounts in the bible?” Current trends in Israeli Archaeology address this question and come to various conclusions. In today’s entry, I want to let you know about the archaeology behind the answer from Tel Aviv University, the major players from Tel Aviv, and then suggest the role that Gezer plays in the debate.

Theologically, the stakes are high. Even the search for reliable history suggests the possibility of corruption, forgery, propaganda, etc. And, since it is well known that the Hebrew bible is our primary Davidic source, the question quickly loses its innocence. It is religious, and it is encumbered with all kinds of meaning tied to conclusions about scripture and revelation. So behind the question there is an even bigger debate: the nature of true religion.

However, I will confine myself to the archaeology of the different personages, and then relate that to our work at Gezer. I may pick up on the theological ramifications in a different post.

Is the bible a reliable source of history?
The Tel Aviv University Answer

Israel Finkelstein and David Ussishkin of Tel Aviv University have argued intelligently and forcibly for a change in the date of the arrival of the Sea Peoples (Philistines) in Canaan. They propose that the Philistines came into the land around 1150 BC. In so doing, they are challenging the traditional view of a 1208 or 1175 arrival date. The proposed change is anywhere from 25 to 58 years different than what was previously accepted. This may seem like a small change, but it is the center of a disturbance that ripples down to all of dating methods in Iron Age archaeology. In the end, the Tel Aviv answer to our question: Is the bible a reliable source for history? is nuanced and quite different than an unqualified “Yes.”

The leading name in the debate is Finkelstein. He is a co-director of the Megiddo Expedition — a site that serves as an archaeological laboratory within which he can test his theories. Here stand Ussishkin and Finkelstein at Megiddo in the so-called Palace 6000:

Ussishkin on the Left, Finkelstein on the Right

I dug there in 2004 and enrolled in graduate seminars taught by Ussishkin and Finkelstein dealing with Iron Age dating methods. I wanted to learn their arguments first-hand, and Ussishkin himself taught us that the debate starts from the change in date of the Philistines arriving in Canaan, by which, the traditional dates of Iron Age sites need to be shifted.

Destruction layers at Meggido, once assigned to David, end up being assigned to Shishak of Egypt (the Pharaoh who cut a path of destruction through Israel in 925 BC, and who is named in the Bible). In adjusting these layers, entire stratum of the city once assigned to Solomon end up getting reassigned to later kings. This shift then constitutes a need to reassess parallel sites and other finds associated with the United Monarchy, creating a domino effect in the layers of occupation that constitute the remains of ancient cities in Israel.

Where we used to find Solomon’s handy-work, we find a later king; Solomon ends up being a minor player in comparison to the more impressive kings that followed after him — so goes the theory.

Let me agree with what you might be thinking right now: this seems very abstract. And you may be thinking, Who cares about tradition anyway, we want the facts, not the tradition; if Finkelstein is right, we should accept his data. I agree, we don’t hold to a tradition for the sake of tradition — It is the data we care about. And it is the data that causes me to disagree with Ussishkin. I’ll jump ahead of myself, and confess that I agree with the majority of field archaeologists who don’t think the Tel Aviv school is right about this debate.

Ancient events are preserved in the various layers of an archaeological site, and the arrival of the Philistines is a kind of first event that dates subsequent layers and happenings — in this case, the Iron Age in Canaan (which includes the United Monarchy). Ussishkin adjusted our understanding of that historical moment by re-associating Pharaoh-naming cartouches to different layers, which, by necessity, lowers the traditional archaeological chronology. I won’t follow the details here, but you should have a feeling of what started the whole debate.

And that brings us to Gezer. The directors, Steve and Sam, are pictured here to the left:

Steve and Sam Gezer Directors

There is an effort at Gezer to coordinate pottery with artifacts and pottery with specific Iron Age layers. Furthermore, the Bible says things about David and Solomon that are found in the archaeological layers so that both Bible and Archaeology are coordinating accounts of the United Monarchy. Finkelstein calls this circular reasoning, but what is circular to him, may in fact be corroborating evidence. The work at Gezer may yet reveal definitive data.

Ussishkin might be mistaken in his reading of the data, and Finkelstein’s puzzle still has pieces that are missing or don’t fit. The goal is to find definitive answers to the Iron Age sequencing of events. In Iron Age archaeology, Finkelstein looms large, and his questions are partly behind the design goals of the Gezer Expedition.

In my next post, I want to update you on the area where I am supervising, and the reason why, after all, I am not even working in an Iron Age context.

Neve Shalom, Israel.

This article was published under Archaeology, Gezer.

Comments are closed.