To what extent can we reasonably treat the stories of the Bible as actual historical events? On a recent visit to Tel Aviv, I had a fascinating interview with Dr. Ze’ev Herzog, a distinguished Israeli archaeologist and a leading figure in the debate regarding the “historicity” of the Hebrew Bible, or what Christians call the Old Testament. This is a topic that has intrigued me for years and is an important thread in my current project. I couldn’t have asked for better scholarly guidance on a complicated topic.
Though he formally retired three years ago, Dr. Herzog is still active in the field. Since 2005 he has been the Director of the Institute of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University, whose faculty includes some of the most sophisticated and intellectually courageous archaeologists in the world. He is an adviser to the Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority and was a peer and colleague to some of the giants of the recent generation of prominent Israeli archaeologists, including Yigael Yadin with whom he excavated Tel Hazor and Tel Megiddo (Armageddon), and Yohanan Aharoni with whom he excavated Tel Arad and Tel Be’er Sheva. He also directed the archaeological work at Beer Sheba, Tel Michal and Tel Gerisa and ancient Jaffa. (From his brief explanation of some of the finds there, I was ready to chuck the book project and volunteer to help dig!)
A provocative debate in Israel
What had initially attracted my interest in meeting Dr. Herzog was an article he wrote back in 1999 in Ha’aretz, a leading centrist Israeli daily, that precipitated a firestorm of debate among Israeli intellectuals and the general public. The article was entitled Deconstructing the Walls of Jericho, and it opened with these words:
This is what archaeologists have learned from their excavations in the Land of Israel: the Israelites were never in Egypt, did not wander in the desert, did not conquer the land in a military campaign and did not pass it on to the 12 tribes of Israel. Perhaps even harder to swallow is the fact that the united monarchy of David and Solomon, which is described by the Bible as a regional power, was at most a small tribal kingdom. And it will come as an unpleasant shock to many that the God of Israel, Jehovah, had a female consort and that the early Israelite religion adopted monotheism only in the waning period of the monarchy and not at Mount Sinai. Most of those who are engaged in scientific work in the interlocking spheres of the Bible, archaeology and the history of the Jewish people – and who once went into the field looking for proof to corroborate the Bible story – now agree that the historic events relating to the stages of the Jewish people’s emergence are radically different from what that story tells.
The article went on to elaborate the history of archaeological and historical research, and cataloged the solid evidence for conclusions that may seem radical but are in fact reasonable, even conservative, interpretations of the record by today’s objective academics. The public dialog the article precipitated was predictably intense, with many religious scholars attacking Herzog on his facts. But I was interested in hearing Herzog’s personal experience of the firestorm he created and the personal interactions that came out of it.
Herzog impressed me as a imminently reasonable man who was able to relate other people’s views calmly and respectfully. I had the impression listening to him, even as the time went on and we had the opportunity to talk about the work of other scholars in the field, that even if one of his scholarly opponents had been in the room with us, he or she would not have objected to Herzog’s summary of his or her position.
I was expecting to hear stories of vitriolic responses he had received from religious Jews, but this didn’t seem to have been his experience. Orthodox Jews, he said, did not seem to react much or even pay much attention, while many nationalist/religious-leaning Jews were intensely engaged in the topic but sought out discussion and debate in what seemed to be a perfectly civil manner: a typical reaction he related from these Jews was “maybe you just haven’t found the evidence yet.” He related a few reactions with devout Muslims that might be summarized as “I don’t care if the Bible is historically accurate or not, my beliefs come from the Quran so these have to be true.” And he shared one comment from a thoroughly-secular relative, who expressed disappointment only that Herzog could point to examples where archaeology supported the Biblical story.
The only group from which Herzog related getting indignant personal responses were from American Christians, from whom he received some angry letters warning him of the divine retribution headed his way. As an American traveler who is perhaps is vulnerable to media stereotypes of how irrationally religious those people in the faraway Middle East are, it was gentle and funny comeuppance.
The “burden” of having a Bible to refer to
On a broader topic, Dr. Herzog gave me an insightful overview of the shifting academic consensus about the historicity of the Bible that has occurred over the past one hundred fifty years. It is easy to find examples where religious academics seemed to have had their thumb on the scale when it came to interpreting archaeological finds, and more recent atheistic scholars may have been guilty of the same temptation. But leaving those examples aside, it is really interesting to me what a raw intellectual challenge it is to try to make sense of the ancient history of Israel. When the Biblical narrative is so powerfully ingrained in our sense of what “must” have happened there, how, as an archaeologist, can you ignore it as you dust off an artifact you’ve never seen before? Why should you ignore the Bible when it is the most comprehensive narrative you have of the region? And how do you strike a balance between focusing on the people who left a written narrative- even when you suspect it is false- and their neighbors and rivals who did not?
Dr. Herzog acknowledged these challenges while also pointing out that other fields of research have their own distinct challenges. He summed up by saying “while researchers in biology and mathematics have their own difficulties, at least they are not burdened by having a Bible.”