Thursday, September 08, 2005

The Lord is my Archeologist, I shall not want

Bathsheva, call your agent--
One of the bitterest fights between religion and science is the fight between believing Jews on one hand, and a new generation of Biblical archeologists over the historical accuracy of the Torah, particularly about the kings of ancient Israel, David and Solomon. Where they really, as the Bible says, great kings over a rich kingdom that ruled a vast area of the Middle East, or were they insignificant rulers of a pip-squeak monarchy in the armpit of some other major kingdoms. Was Jerusalem a major capital or a backwater in the last days of the Bronze Age? The Biblical archeologists are, as you can imagine, not terribly popular among believing Jews and the fact that most of them are Israeli makes the battle nastier. The fact is that the archeological evidence for many of the events in the Bible or Torah is not plentiful.

Enter the archeologist Eilat Mazar, of the Shalem Center and Hebrew University, who is digging in what is called the City of David slope in Jerusalem. She has uncovered what is apparently a very large building, possibly even a palace. Pottery found in the ruins she dates to the Jebusite period, which immediately predates the reign of David, 11th or 12th century BCE. The building itself is later, probably 10th or 11th century BCE, about David's time. She is working a strip 10 meters wide and 30 meters long and the building is bigger than that. How much bigger, she doesn’t yet know.

The building’s foundation consists of huge stones placed on an earthen landfill. Because of the size, she guesses it has to be a palace, temple or fortress, probably the first.

"For years, there have been those who contended there was no evidence of public construction in 10th century BCE Jerusalem," says Mazar. "Based on this, they claim that David and Solomon were not important rulers, as described in the Bible. Now there is evidence of such construction, and those who minimize the importance of David and Solomon have to deal with the facts. Because in an out-of-the-way and remote settlement you would not find a structure like this, the construction of which required abundant resources and a great capacity to plan and execute."

II Samuel 5 descibes David conquering the city and then building a palace outside the boundaries of the city, a new building, not one constructed on the ruins of an old one. Mazar says there is no evidence of anything under the ruins she’s uncovered. The construction itself is complex and was probably very expensive, the kind of thing a new ruler would want to throw up to impress the people he just conquered.

Not everyone, of course is convinced. Two Jews, three opinions. Israel Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University, the leading critic of the Torah’s historical accuracy, is not impressed. He’s visited the site and thinks the dating is a “stretch.”
"Once every few years, they find something in Jerusalem that seems to confirm the biblical description of the magnitude of the kingdom in the time of David. After a while, it turns out that there is no real substance to the findings, and the excitement subsides, until the next outburst," he says, "and the excitement subsides, until the next outburst."

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