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Face to Face: Biblical Minimalists Meet Their Challengers, Hershel Shanks, BAR 23:04, Jul-Aug 1997.

Dead Sea ScrollsOne of the most controversial issues in modern Biblical studies is the increasingly assertive contention that the Bible is essentially useless as a historical source, even for the period of the Israelite united monarchy (tenth century B.C.E.). David and Solomon, it is claimed, are mythological, not historical. The Bible, according to this school of thought, can tell us only about the period in which it was written; naturally, these scholars contend that it was written late—in the Persian period (fourth century B.C.E.) or even in the Hellenistic period (third-second centuries B.C.E.).

To discuss these issues, BAR brought together two of the most prominent scholars who take this position—Niels Peter Lemche and Thomas Thompson, both of the University of Copenhagen—and two internationally known scholars who take, to a greater or lesser extent, differing views. They are archaeologist William Dever of the University of Arizona, and Biblical scholar P. Kyle McCarter of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. The sometimes heated discussion was moderated by BAR editor Hershel Shanks.

The first question was what to call the group that includes Lemche and Thompson.

Shanks- You have been called “Biblical Minimalists,” but Philip Davies, one of your group, has called that “a sneering epithet.”(a) What can we call you?

Thompson- I always thought we were maximalists.

Lemche- We’re maximalists because we try to get as much historical information out of the sources as we can. We’re historians, after all. The only difference is the amount of information we think we can get out. We try to get as much out of it as possible, but we don’t think it’s very much.
Shanks- Is there a name that we can call your school that would be acceptable?

Thompson- I don’t think that there’s a real sharp distinction in the work that we do as a group. Our position in terms of understanding interpretation of archaeology historically is not very far from Bill Dever’s—

Dever- Oh yes it is!

Thompson-—until we get into Iron II [the Israelite monarchy (1000–586 B.C.E.)]. Then we get sharp distinctions and differences.

Shanks- Is there a name that we can call your school that you wouldn’t object to?

Thompson- Yes, call us historical scholars or Biblical scholars.

Dever- You use “revisionists” as a term.

Thompson- No, I have never used “revisionists.”

Dever- You have in your JBL [Journal of Biblical Literature] article.(1)

Thompson- I can’t remember that. I don’t mind “revisionist,” but it doesn’t seem to signify anything.
Bill, are we dealing with the question of how we identify ourselves, or how you identify us? I know how you identify us. You’ve been calling me names for about four years now.

Dever- Sir, I have here from the internet some of this electronic gossip. I’m not the name-caller. You guys have labeled me a fundamentalist and God knows what.

Shanks- Niels, you said that the difference between you and other schools of Biblical historians is that you find less in the Bible. And that’s why, without meaning to be sneering, many people do refer to you as Biblical minimalists.

Thompson- We find a great deal in the Bible, it’s just that we don’t find the Bible to be a historical record.

Dever- Well, what do you find? What’s left, in other words? Is there any history at all, and if there isn’t, what’s left in the Bible that’s worth digging for?

Thompson- I think that we have a great deal, in terms of intellectual history, in terms of literary history, in terms of theology, in terms of the self-identity of peoples in Palestine in the second, first century B.C.E.

Dever- What’s left before the second century B.C.E.? We all know that the texts were edited in that period. The real question is how much history is behind the history.

Thompson- No.

Dever- It isn’t?

Thompson- No.

Shanks- What is the question, Tom?

Thompson- The question, as far as the Biblical material is concerned, is what do the texts signify? What do they mean? How do we read the texts, and how do we understand them? The question of history is a secondary question.

Shanks- I think our readers are interested in history. Is there any history in there before the second and first centuries B.C.E.?

Lemche- The problem is that there’s no coherent history as such except in the form of literature. Biblical literature presents you with a picture, an image of the past, as any historical reconstruction would do. But not very much can come in from the past, as we see it, from this Biblical literature. That’s for certain. Well, then, what’s the Bible useful for as a historical source? For understanding the mental history of the people from the time in which it was composed.

Dever- Are we talking about when the text was edited or when it was composed? We all agree it was edited late.

Lemche- We don’t think that there was really a vast distance between editing and composition. You’re talking about a rather old-fashioned idea, about the ways Biblical literature arose. It seems that you’re advocating a kind of archaeology of the text, where you dig into the text to lay bare the strata of the text. It’s as if you are saying that you are going to try to get behind and behind and down and down. What we are saying is that this is a kind of house of cards, and if you take away one of the cards the whole building tumbles down. It’s much better to say, “We have here a piece of literature, reflecting the time in which it was finished.”

Shanks- Is it your view that the Biblical author simply made it up, wrote fiction at this late date?

Lemche- He didn’t know what the word fiction meant. It’s a modern term.

Shanks- Well, did he have sources?

Lemche- Yes, of course he had sources, of course there were traditions. The problem is whether you can get through that screen, back behind it. It’s a kind of treasure hunting for historical information. Sometimes there may be some, sometimes not.

The Biblical writer placed the text in a so-called historical framework. Take Pithom and Raamses [built by Israelite slaves in Egypt, according to Exodus 1-11]. Pithom was founded by Pharaoh Neco in the late seventh century B.C.E. So it’s out of place in the Bible.

Dever- We don’t disagree about that.

Lemche- We have a number of historical recollections here, but the Biblical writer did not know where to place them.

Dever- I agree.

Lemche- What this means is that he was not really writing history. He was making it up. He didn’t know the genre of history writing. Antiquity simply did not know that genre. That’s a modern genre. That means there are traditions; the tradents [creators and carriers of a tradition] were creating mythologies. It has nothing to do with history.

Dever- I agree. But the Exodus and the conquest [of the promised land] are a bad case. I agree with you that [the Book of] Joshua has little to do with any historical events. If you guys think I—or the Israeli archaeologists—am looking for the Israelite conquest archaeologically, you’re wrong. We’ve given that up. We’ve given up the patriarchs.(b) That’s a dead issue. But the rise of the Israelite state is not a dead issue, and that’s a better test case. I agree on the late editing of the documents. I agree that there is no connected history in Joshua, but maybe we should look at the Book of Judges. That fits a lot better with the facts on the ground as we now know them.

Lemche- No. One thing is missing in Judges—the Egyptians.

Dever- They weren’t germane to the story.

Lemche- Judges really reflects what we call a heroic society, heroic in the Greek sense. It’s a kind of history you find in Norse tradition, among the Vikings, my forefathers. We love those stories, but we don’t believe them to be true.

Dever- We archaeologists are not trying to prove these early stories to be historical. We get accused of it, but we’re not doing it.

Thompson- We don’t deny that there’s early material in the Bible. But we do think it’s small, only fragmentary material.

One of the things we’re beginning to investigate is the relationship between the Biblical tradition and the Qumran materials [the Dead Sea Scrolls]. In the Biblical scrolls [from Qumran], we find the process of Biblical formation is still going on. I see the process of the formation of the Biblical text as a kind of discussion about tradition. If you compare Genesis, for example, with Jubilees [a book of the apocrypha, sometimes called the rewritten Bible] or 1 Chronicles [which re-records genealogies and some descriptive material in Genesis], you can see that they’re taking different positions about traditions that each has collected in its own way. In the Ishmael and Esau genealogies, for example, some elements and some traditions—a very, very small amount—can be dated to the Assyrian period, the seventh and sixth centuries B.C.E.

The Biblical books were formed, I would say, in the Persian period [fifth and fourth centuries B.C.E.] or later, when an Israel is possible, at least an Israel of the sort that we have in the Bible is possible.

McCarter- It’s true that in the Qumran materials, in the second, first century B.C.E. and first century C.E., we see Biblical texts that are still to some extent in the process of being edited. The texts that the rabbis later chose existed in final form thereafter, but there were also alternative texts. That gives us a window on the editorial process that we all agree went on. I think the point of disagreement is that what we see at Qumran—the editing of texts—had been going on for several centuries. That we first see it at Qumran doesn’t mean that that process started then or was new then. It had been going on for centuries.

Dever- If you guys say there is something earlier than the second century or the sixth century, I’d like to know what it is. You say there are little bits, but which bits? What is left that can be pre-Exilic [prior to the Babylonian Exile in 586 B.C.E.] in the text tradition, as you understand it, that is historical?

Thompson- The king lists for one. Also a number of names, such as Amuru [Amorite] and Kinanim [Canaanite] and Peleset [Philistine] and Israel and Apiru [Hebrew?]. Certainly a number of the place names are old. There is a lot of commentary about traditions that are understood to be old; we just haven’t yet been able to trace them. But if you want to deal with text archaeology, that’s the kind of question you have to ask. I don’t want to. But the material is there. I don’t see why you find this terribly surprising. Both Niels Peter and I have mentioned these things in our writings.

Dever- Then I don’t see why you find it terribly surprising that I take this outline—that’s what we’re talking about, an outline of some historical events that predate the Exile—and when archaeological facts seem to converge, we say they converge. You say there is an outline there; I am saying archaeology can fill in some details. Many times it can’t. Tom, you guys seem to think I’m trying to prove the Bible. I’m only looking at convergences where they exist.

Thompson- One point on which we disagree is the outline; we do not see it as early.

Dever- Well, we have king lists.

Thompson- I don’t see the Bible as originating stories or traditions but rather as a discussion about traditions, as a collection of traditions.

McCarter- Both Tom [Thompson] and Bill [Dever] have expressed skepticism about what you call the archaeology of the text, the idea of excavating the text for early information. That is a very old enterprise, but I don’t think it is discredited even today. Bill doesn’t do it, but Bill is an archaeologist. And Tom and Niels Peter [Lemche] are skeptical of it. But I still embrace it. You can still do source-critical analysis to identify earlier strata in a text. I don’t mind the archaeological language there. We can find older material within the text. The final form of the text is not the only text to which we can relate. Scholarship has been developing methods for doing this for a number of centuries. These methods are often difficult to apply, but they’re valid methods.

Lemche- But you can’t really find a time line between the different strata. As Johannes Pederson said more than 60 years ago, it’s ridiculous to say that the Yahwist [the J strand of Pentateuchal source criticism] should belong to the tenth century [B.C.E.] and the Elohist [the E strand] to the ninth century.(c) There may be a difference in vocabulary, but in general it’s the same language. If you accept the different redactions, the last redaction will redact to the language of the former sources. The whole idea becomes more and more absurd.

Dever- Scholars have been looking for a Sitz im Leben, a living context, for the Biblical text. I have argued that the best you can do is to find a literary context. But archaeology could provide an independent witness. Take the description of the Solomonic Temple. We can show that the text will fit in the tenth and ninth century, but it won’t fit anywhere else. Doesn’t that suggest that parts of the text may be of genuine antiquity? That’s really all I’m trying to do.

Thompson- Methodologically, there’s no problem with that. But if we then jump and say now we’ve found Solomon’s Temple, then I would raise a red flag.

Dever- If you look at the history of Biblical scholarship, almost every school of critical Biblical scholarship, there is a parallel in the history of archaeology. The two have taken parallel courses. Tom, here’s where the anger between you and me comes to the surface too easily, and I apologize if it does- We are trying to do the same thing, but we’re badly misunderstanding each other. We need to get rid of the polemics and get to the issues. We do agree on a lot of things. I’m not nearly as radical as you guys make me out, and you’re probably not as negative as I think you are. Here’s something on which we might agree- Archaeology can provide a different kind of context. It’s not just a context of literary transmission.

Thompson- Absolutely.

Dever- Now, let’s go back to Solomon because that’s where we really begin to get in trouble. We would agree on a lot of things about the patriarchal era and the so-called conquest era, but when we come to the monarchy, I think, that’s where the differences between us become plain, don’t you?

Thompson- If you want to focus on where we have disagreements, I think that’s quite correct.

Dever- While we’re on Solomon, I resent the fact that on the Internet, you or somebody else is accusing me of going to Gezer to find the Solomonic gate. Now that is absolutely ridiculous. Our arguments have always been on straight archaeological lines- ceramic evidence, stratigraphy, historical points that can be fixed—like Shishak’s reign [c. 935–914 B.C.E.]. To say that we went to Gezer looking for the Solomonic gate is really slanderous. Maybe you didn’t write this.

Thompson- I did write something similar to that. I talked about what we went to Gezer for. [Thompson dug at Gezer under William Dever’s direction in 1967.]

Dever- You knew that we were not looking for the—

Thompson- I knew that we were looking for Solomon’s gate.

Dever- Well, that’s something I didn’t know. That’s what I mean by slander. Do not impute motives to other people when you don’t know what they’re doing.

Thompson- I’m talking about what you told me and what we did together. And that’s what I’ve written.

Dever- Dear sir, if you have not read what I’ve written about Biblical archaeology for these last 30 years …

Thompson- I have.

Dever- You know very well that I have been the most outspoken foe of that kind of simple-minded Biblicism. I’ve been the most outspoken, and I have paid for it dearly. To say that our archaeological strategy comes out of the Bible is really nonsense. Tom, I don’t care in the least whether Solomon ever existed. I’m probably more of a disbeliever than you. I don’t really care about the tradition. I don’t believe any of the myths. But as a historian, an archaeologist, I believe the date of the construction of the six-chambered gate [at Gezer] is a historical and archaeological matter. If the Bible had never been written, I still would need to date that gate.

Thompson- I was reconstructing a piece of the history of scholarship. You, who were very, very central to that piece of the history of scholarship, deny what I say.

Dever- You were reconstructing this from your memory. I only ask you to go back and read what I was writing in the ’60s.

Thompson- That’s quite fair.

Dever- Don’t hold me responsible for a memory you have of what you thought I was doing 30 years ago.

Thompson- I don’t.

Shanks- One of the things that really stuns our readers and stuns a lot of scholars is the perception that your Copenhagen group concludes that there was no ancient Israel despite the Merneptah Stela [which dates to the late 13th century B.C.E. and mentions Israel] and that there was no united kingdom led by David and Solomon. Is that really your position?

Thompson- On the first part, no that is not our position. We do not deny that there was an ancient Israel; in fact, we talk about it a good deal. We don’t deny the existence of the Merneptah Stela; we try to explain it and understand it in terms of the history of the period. We do deny the existence, at least I do, of a united monarchy [under David and Solomon] in the tenth century [B.C.E.]—for a number of reasons. First, I see a difference in the history and origin and formation of the peoples of the northern hills, that is, the hills of Ephraim and Manasseh, on the one hand, and the settlement of Judah, on the other. I see a difference in the settlement patterns. In the northern hill country we have settlement from about 1200 to about 900 B.C.E. Judah has almost no settlement at this time. It begins to be settled around 850 to 800. Jerusalem is not settled at all until about 900. We don’t have a tenth-century Jerusalem.(d)

Then we have the fortification of towns. This takes place around 950 B.C.E. with the high chronology, or around 900 B.C.E. with [Israel] Finkelstein’s new low chronology. This includes the fortification of Megiddo, Gezer, Beersheba and Lachish. This is terribly important because it means Lachish is fortified before Jerusalem exists. Then we have the development of kingdom paraphernalia, such as seals and inscriptions in 850, 800 [B.C.E.]. The last point is that Jerusalem becomes a really major town only after the destruction of Lachish in 701 B.C.E.

Now I put this all together. Without a significant population in Judea, without a city of Jerusalem, it’s very, very difficult to talk about a united monarchy [under David and Solomon in the tenth century B.C.E.]. That would be my general argument for saying that I don’t see where there’s room for a united monarchy within history.

Dever- I need to respond to that. First of all, your argument about the tenth century in Jerusalem, as you know very well, is altogether an argument from silence.

Thompson- Absolutely. I said we have no knowledge of any Jerusalem. We work only with evidence, Bill.

Dever- Furthermore, your argument about the population of Judah is incorrect. Based on recent surveys by Avi Ofer and Nadav Na’aman [see Na’aman, “Cow Town or Royal Capital? Evidence for Iron Age Jerusalem,” on p. 43 of this issue], it’s simply wrong to say that Judah doesn’t have a significant population before 701.

Thompson- Oh, I estimate about 2,000.

Dever- In a recent article you said, I’m quoting you, “There were only a few dozen people in Judah.” I will bring you the quotation.

Thompson- Please do.

Dever- I shall. I don’t misquote. And if you look at any of the studies of demography that the Israelis have done, then you know that that’s quite wrong.

Thompson- The figure of 2,200 is cited from Finkelstein’s most recent article.(2)

Dever- You said a few dozen. Many of your facts are wrong, Tom, because you do not control the archaeological data.

No Israeli archaeologist has bothered to answer you—Tom, I’m sorry to say this—because none takes you seriously. Not a single one. They have not answered you because you get your facts wrong, Tom. You need to check with archaeologists.

Lemche- That’s nonsense. We have to get in here because of an attack—

Dever- When a man denies he’s written what he’s written, I do not trust him any longer.

Shanks- Do you agree that there’s nothing from the tenth century in Jerusalem?

Dever- There’s a fair amount of tenth-century stuff, but no monumental architecture.

Lemche- Last year at a conference in Jerusalem on exactly this period, David Ussishkin said to me, “It’s not only an argument from silence. There’s not a single sherd [piece of pottery] from the tenth century.” Ussishkin is a very conservative scholar. I know him quite well. He really wants to retain the Davidic monarchy. Not a single sherd, not a single one belongs to the tenth century.

Dever- When Ussishkin says not a single sherd belongs to the tenth century, that’s because he dates all of it to the ninth century. I grew up with this generation of archaeologists. They’re my best friends. I know these guys, and I know what they think. And I can tell you that not a single one of the other Israeli archaeologists agrees with this low chronology, except Israel Finkelstein.

McCarter- This business with tenth- or ninth-century ceramics will work itself out. It has to be permitted to do that, but I wouldn’t want to anticipate either side of it at this point.

Thompson- When I talked about there not being anything in Jerusalem, I wasn’t referring to Finkelstein and I wasn’t referring to Ussishkin. I was talking about Margaret Steiner’s publications of the Kenyon excavations. She’s publishing [British archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon’s reports] with the Copenhagen international seminar, of which I’m the editor.

Dever- You can’t say there’s nothing there in the tenth century. You can only say in her publication there’s not.

Thompson- I’m not talking about the metaphysical existence of the reality of the past. I’m talking about the basis of evidence. And if we don’t have evidence, we don’t have any history—and both of us agree on that, so let’s not bicker about it.

Dever- Well, you cannot use silence as an argument that there was no state of Judah with its capital in Jerusalem.

Thompson- I’m only saying that we can’t put it into history.

Dever- What is your evidence that Judah was not a state before the eighth century?

Thompson- I said we don’t have any evidence for it. That means we can’t put it into our history. I didn’t say it didn’t exist.

McCarter- We do have some evidence. We have the evidence of a tradition. Judah has a traditional founder, as many states do. The question is, Is David, the traditional founder, a historical figure, or is he a legendary figure?

Thompson- I agree.

McCarter- But we do have the tradition. It’s not that we have no evidence. People do different things with that. I think some of us think the most economical explanation of the tradition is that David was a historical figure. I think that’s the simplest answer. He doesn’t look like a shadowy, legendary founder to me. I see lots of those in the ancient Near East. David doesn’t seem to me to be one of them.

Shanks- What about the new Beth David [House of David] inscription from Tel Dan?(e)

Lemche- You could try to make an analysis of the stone and the cutting of the stone to see whether it’s a modern fake or an ancient one.

Dever- Oh geez, come on fellas. I’ve handled it. Have you?

Lemche- I was just talking to some of the specialists who examined it. I’ve also talked to the person who found the inscription, I mean the person who found it—

Dever- This is slanderous to suggest!

Lemche- No, it’s not. The inscription was found at least in secondary use. It was found near the gate. I know this from firsthand evidence because I had a discussion last summer at a seminar at Megiddo with the person who found it. He said, no doubt it had been there for some time, but he couldn’t say for how long. Whether it was five years, six years, 2,000 years, he couldn’t say. All the pictures of it printed in the Israel Exploration Journal are fakes. They have much better pictures, this fellow said to me, where you can see it sitting in the wall. Avraham Biran [director of the excavation at Tel Dan, where the inscription was found] was so fond of this inscription he wanted to give a nice picture where you could see the inscription. But he did not publish the original picture where you could see it sitting in the wall, but could not read it.

Dever- Niels Peter, you’re too good a scholar to indulge in this sort of thing. I have seen the published pictures of it in situ.

Lemche- You haven’t seen it.

Dever- I have. I was there shortly after it was found. I’ve known Biran for 40 years. The woman who found it, Gila Cook, I hired at Hebrew Union College. I have handled the inscription. I know what I’m talking about. There’s no way. All of this was covered by debris until he started digging. True, it was found in secondary use. Nobody ever argued that it was in primary position. It was re-used in the wall. But there is no way in the world anybody could have dug down there, found that wall five years before Biran came along and planted it. It’s impossible.

Lemche- We have another example. Something may be wrong down there at the moment- The new inscription from Ekron, which mentions Ekron. The only two [personal] names mentioned in the Ekron inscription we know from Assyrian sources. I mean if we had known one of them, and the second was unknown to us …

McCarter- Wait a minute, explain …

Lemche- The Ekron inscription is more or less in the style of the Beth David inscription. It mentions two kings of Ekron. And only two. Both of them are known from Assyrian sources. It would be nice if we knew one of the kings and the second one was unknown to us. If we know both of them, it reminds me too much of Oscar Wilde- “To lose one of your parents is a mishap. To lose both of them is really carelessness.” I mean, one example is OK, but two examples are one too many.

Shanks- In other words, you’re suggesting that it too might be a fake?

Lemche- Yes. If that’s shown to be true, then you have people going around faking inscriptions.
McCarter- What would be the motivation for the forgery?

Lemche- Oh, you know, a card-playing trick. I’ve already experienced that sort of thing, people making inscriptions. They are salting excavations with the funniest things, simply to tease and to try their colleagues. You put in an Egyptian scarab, for instance, to see whether the archaeologists will be able to recognize that it is out of place, or you may even fake an inscription. They’re always doing that, simply for fun.

For instance, we have the seal impressions of Berakhyahu ben Neriyahu, supposedly impressed with the seal of Jeremiah’s scribe.(f) Benjamin Sass, who may be the greatest expert on this, says they’re fakes. He even told me who made them, of course at a dinner party, never in print. None of the bullae like the Berakhyahu seal impressions were found in an excavation. They were found in an antiquities shop on King David Street in Jerusalem. This is just an example of such fakes. It’s a terrible business because outsiders will not be able to determine whether artifacts are fake or not. The Tel Dan [Beth David] inscription—is it a genuine inscription or is it not genuine?

Shanks- Let me interrupt a minute here. We happen to have sitting here an expert paleographer and Biblical scholar, Kyle McCarter. Can you respond to the charge that the Beth David inscription and the new Ekron inscriptions are both fakes?

McCarter- It’s not unreasonable to raise the question of whether these things are authentic. That question always has to be asked. And it’s also true that unfortunately we’ve reached a time when there are forgers who are competent in ancient paleography. They can emulate it, they can fool us. But I think that the Tel Dan inscription is an extremely unlikely forgery. That is, it has surprising features in it; it lacks the things a forgery would have, such as the name of the king who left it, or the mention of Tel Dan. Precisely the things you’re saying are present in the Ekron inscription are lacking in the Tel Dan inscription. So if that’s a criterion, it tends to authenticate Tel Dan. Several people witnessed its discovery. It wasn’t found by one digger alone on the site at night. It was called to the attention of others. The circumstances of its discovery are not in favor of its being a forgery. The problems that we have in reading it and understanding it also make it an unlikely forgery. The subtlety of the forger would have to be extraordinarily great.

Then there’s the whole question of the motivation. I don’t think there’s much chance the Tel Dan inscription is a forgery.

I tend to doubt the Ekron inscription is a forgery. When we have a chance to study it, questions may arise. It’s too new for us to have the confidence in it that we have in the Tel Dan inscription. I’ve studied the Tel Dan inscription carefully and I don’t have any bad feeling about it at all and I don’t think others do. The old Aramaic is impeccable. The orthography [spelling] and paleography [letter shapes] are impeccable. The Ekron discovery is new, less than a year old, and it requires study, but again I think the circumstances of its discovery are not suspicious. Many artifacts are found in this way.

Shanks- What about the seal impressions, the bullae?

McCarter- I think there are bullae being forged now, and we do need a scientific test. It’s going to be very difficult because the impressions are stamped on small pieces of clay the size of fingernails. It’s hard to imagine a non-destructive test that can settle that, but we will have one eventually—I’m already actively working on that.

The fact is that most of the bullae we have do not come from controlled excavations. Except for the City of David hoard,(g) the vast majority come from the antiquities market. That underscores the need for a scientific evaluation; it also often forces us to ask the reasonable question of whether some of these are bad. But the reaction I’ve had from examining them very closely is that at this point I don’t think there are a lot of bad ones out there. I think there will be soon.

Thompson- I’m not denying that at all, so we’re not in disagreement here. I would just go further with the interpretation. I would see David as the eponymous ancestor of Judah. The whole discussion of Beth David in the Bible is related to that. You do have an ideology referring to David and his line and it’s specifically associated with the Temple and with Yahweh. This is where I would see a good interpretation in reading Dod [instead of David]; the inscription contains wordplay between “David” and “Dod” that’s essentially theological rather than historical.(h)

McCarter- David is certainly the eponymous ancestor of the House of David. That’s an obvious statement and I don’t disagree with it. What I disagree with is whether an eponymous ancestor can be a historical figure. He could be a legendary figure, but I think David was a historical figure. That’s apparently the point of difference.

Shanks- Let’s turn to the Merneptah Stela.

Lemche- The question is simply, what was the Israel mentioned in the Merneptah Stela? That’s also the question regarding the Mesha Stela, which also mentions Israel. They’re two separate questions. There’s no reason to be surprised by the mention of Israel in the Mesha Stela if it belongs to the ninth century [B.C.E.]. We have no problems with Israel as such, with the name. We have problems with the interpretation of the name. The mention in the Mesha Stela is, of course, something you can’t get around. Just not mentioning it is nonsense. In the Merneptah Stela [late 13th century B.C.E.], however, the mention of Israel must be considered in its own context and not in the Biblical context. It is not so important whether you speak about proto-Israelites or about proto-Palestinians, or whatever term you would use.

Dever- You’re talking about various Israels- (1) The Israel of the Merneptah Stela, (2) the Israel of the Biblical account (the Mesha Stela), and (3) the archaeological Israel. I don’t want to combine these Israels either. It’s the archaeology of Palestine in the Iron Age (1200–586 B.C.E.) that I’m talking about. If it resembles descriptions in the Biblical text, I’m willing to comment on the resemblance. I don’t depend on the Biblical text. I’m the first to agree that the Israel I would reconstruct in archaeological terms is certainly not the Biblical Israel.

Lemche- Similarly, the David of the Bible, David the king, is not a historical figure.

Dever- Why not say, “He could be, he might not be.” Are you sure he’s not?

Lemche- Because [the Bible relates that] he’s the king of an empire stretching from the Euphrates to Egypt. It’s a vast empire. Solomon even enlarged it. These two kings are described by the Bible as the greatest kings in their day.

Dever- In that sense, I agree they did not exist.

Lemche- The Biblical David did not exist.

Shanks- Couldn’t their empire be smaller and still exist?

Dever- I wouldn’t call it an empire, I would call it a state.

Lemche- Judah, in the tenth century, is probably a territorial state of about 1,000 square kilometers. That’s all.

Dever- That’s where you guys have made a mistake. You’re defining statehood by size, but the anthropological literature says you cannot do that. There are many small states. All anthropologists and sociologists agree that size is not the criterion; centralization is. And archaeologically we can show centralization.

Lemche- To find this type of centralization in southern Palestine, Jerusalem is very important [implying that you can’t find it there].

Dever- I want to be sure you understand me about David and Solomon. For me, as an archaeologist, it’s simple. I don’t have to argue whether this Solomon existed. I do have to argue that somebody built these three gates [at Gezer, Megiddo and Hazor] in a government that was highly centralized, and for me that means statehood. In other words, it’s Solomon by another name. I don’t care. I’m talking about centralization and the rise of the state. And I use the term Solomon as a kind of convenient shorthand. And so therefore I would say a Solomon of some sort existed but not necessarily the Solomon of fable.

Thompson- I find myself very much agreeing with that type of description. I also think that the gates do seem to suggest some type of a state structure. I don’t like the word “Solomon” because it seems to point toward Jerusalem, and that seems to point towards a Biblical reconstruction of it. I don’t see any need for that. I have no problem with your reading of the archaeological material.
Dever- For me, it’s an archaeological issue. If someone can prove that these gates all date to the ninth century [instead of the tenth century B.C.E.], that will not trouble me at all. I would still argue that we’re dealing with a state.

Lemche- Whether you see statehood arising in Palestine in the late tenth century or the early ninth century, for normal people, this must be almost a matter of indifference. After all, it’s almost 3,000 years ago. But of course it’s important because if it’s ninth century, then Solomon and the Bible are gone. You can’t save them. Then you’ll need another Biblical metaphor- You could say that these gates have something to do with the House of Omri and have something to say about what we read in the Bible [concerning the dynasty established by King Omri (882–871 B.C.E.) of the northern kingdom of Israel].

If you, Bill, call it “Solomonic,” as a shorthand, you bring in the connotation of Solomon as the Biblical Solomon. You bring him in the side door because people’s understanding of Solomon comes from the Bible, first and foremost. When you say “Solomonic,” they put it immediately into this Biblical context.

Dever- You know that’s not what I mean. That was imprecise language on my part. But we all do that. We all, in archaeology, talk about the such-and-such palace. As an archaeologist, I am not looking for Solomon, the Solomon of the Bible. I do, however, think we will end up being able to show that state-formation processes begin in Palestine in the tenth century B.C.E. And if we can then correlate [this evidence] with some reading of the text, I’m not opposed to that. Are you? If the texts and the artifacts seem to converge, is there a problem?

McCarter- Can I try a defense of Solomon? I don’t think anyone here will disagree that from a fairly early period in the list of kings of Israel and Judah, we have corroboration that they were historical kings. We have references to many of them in Assyrian records and elsewhere. These records include the names of many eighth-century [B.C.E.] Israelite kings. They take us back into the middle of the ninth century—for example, to Shalmaneser III [858–824 B.C.E.] and Ahab [871–852 B.C.E.]. We also have the “House of Omri,” referring to the northern kingdom [of Israel]. In short, our list of Israelite and Judahite kings, with extra-Biblical corroboration, goes back almost to the time of David and Solomon. OK, you say that [the ninth century B.C.E.] may have been the time when the state arose. I agree with Bill that those gates suggest some kind of central state. If the debate is over the date of those gates, fine. If they turn out to be ninth century, that’s one thing. If their customary attribution to the tenth century stands, then we have a list of kings going back to the mid-ninth century and we have an archaeologically identifiable phenomenon [the gates] that’s even earlier. I don’t think it’s a very big leap to say, “What does that king list say, what name does it give us to correspond to that tenth-century date?” The name is Solomon. To me, that’s not a very big leap. It’s true that the Solomon of the Biblical tradition is a Solomon whose splendor has developed in a legendary fashion, but I would still postulate a historical Solomon at about that time. I think he’s responsible for the fortification of those cities.

Thompson- I have no trouble with a ninth-century state. I have no trouble with a tenth-century state. My problem is how we’re reading the Bible and understanding it as expressive of history.
Dever- But I’m not doing that. My only point is this- When you do have a convergence of the archaeological reconstruction that we come up with and a history behind the history that one can seem to see, what is the problem with saying so? That’s not fundamentalism. And I do resent being called a fundamentalist.

Lemche- But, of course, if you use the Biblical chronology, there is a big difference whether the gates, for instance, were built in 920 instead of 940 [B.C.E.]. Then it would be Jeroboam who built them and not Solomon. David might have been a chief who lived in the highlands in the tenth century, but this has very little to do with the Biblical text.

Dever- I want to go back to the dating of the gates because so much hinges on that. Our dating of the gate at Gezer is not based on the Biblical story at all. It is based entirely on the hand-burnished pottery that is characteristic of the tenth century. It is found below certain destruction layers; above the destruction layers is wheel-burnished pottery. At Megiddo, they have the same sequence. The Shishak destruction [of about 930 B.C.E.] therefore becomes the pointed issue. Our argument has been very simple. After the phase of the gate, which has only hand-burnished pottery, there is a massive destruction. You can go there and still see it today. If you study the topography of the sites on the Shishak list, there’s no question that Shishak came this way. So if you have a Shishak destruction at Gezer which can be dated around 930 B.C.E. plus or minus five years, and you have one at Megiddo, and you have one now at Beth-Shean, and in all those cases you have stratigraphy and ceramic typology that fit the picture, then I am prepared to date the hand-burnished pottery and the gates to the tenth century. But it has nothing to do with Solomon.

Lemche- I think too much [importance] has been placed on those gates. The gates in themselves are not evidence of a centralized state, but only of a centralized idea about architecture; it says the same person was moving around building gates. It was Kyle [McCarter] who used the gates as evidence of statehood. That’s not enough. A state requires a whole setup-organization, the appearance of towns.

Dever- We don’t rely just on the gates; it’s a whole complex. It’s pottery, it’s tomb styles, it’s house styles, it’s gates, it’s fortifications. When you put it together I think you can make a very good case for a tenth-century state. But if Solomon hadn’t lived, we would have to invent a Solomon by another name to account for the archaeological evidence.

Shanks- Let’s talk a little about the existence of ancient Israel in the late 13th or early 12th century B.C.E. based on the Merneptah Stela. I take it that even your group, Tom, would agree that there was something called ancient Israel at that time, based on the reference to Israel in the Merneptah Stela. But you say that it wasn’t the Israel that’s referred to in the Bible. Do you want to tell us why, and how you come to that conclusion?

Thompson- The Merneptah Stela has a very clear reference to the name “Israel” in Palestine at the end of the 13th century B.C.E. It is the same name that we find later used for a state in the central hill country of Palestine. And it is the name that we find in the Bible later. What I do is compare that with comparable kinds of names. There are four others that are analogous. One is the name Canaan, another is Peleshet or Philistine, also the name Amuru or Amorite, and possibly Apiru referring to Hebrew. What I find in all these other four names is that the name itself has a continuity. But what the name signifies varies from period to period. We have an Israel at the end of the 13th century, and we have an Israel in the ninth-seventh centuries (that’s the first time we come up with the inscriptions). Can we connect the Israel of the Merneptah Stela with the later Israel? What I’m saying is, we don’t have a connection. I’m not saying that it doesn’t exist, but that we haven’t found it.
Dever- But there is a connection, Tom. There is a connection in material culture. It’s very simple to show this. You would agree that there is a state of Israel in the ninth century.

Thompson- Yes.

Dever- I can show you that the pottery, the house types, the fortifications, the metals, the burial customs, everything else goes from the ninth back into the tenth, from the tenth back into the 11th, from the 11th back into the 12th. My argument is simply this- In the material culture, we can see a continuity. If the ninth-century material is Israelite, then the 12th- and 11th-century material is what I call proto-Israelite.

McCarter- I’m not quite sure what we mean when we talk about continuity here. I don’t think anyone thinks that the Israel of the late 13th century of the Merneptah Stela is the same Israel as the ninth-century state. We need to describe the process by which Israel became a state. Yet if continuity simply means a connection of any kind, there must be some connection. We know there was a people called Israel in the late 13th century; we know that from an Egyptian record, the Merneptah Stela. These Israelites were a population group in Canaan at that time. We know that a state later took that name. The obvious assumption, unless there’s some reason to doubt it, is that Israel was a traditional name in the region that had existed for some time, at least since the 13th century, and that that name was adopted as the name of the state as it later emerged.
Thompson- I agree with you. We have a continuity in name. There’s no question. I would also agree with Bill, that we have cultural continuities from at least the earliest settlements in the highlands [in the 12th century B.C.E.] through the ninth century. If we could place Merneptah’s Israel in the central highlands of Palestine north of Jerusalem archaeologically, then I think we could talk about proto-Israelites. We have a name that has a long, long history in Palestine. But does this name always represent the same thing? That is our historical problem. Does the Israel of the Merneptah Stela have anything to do with the Israel of the ninth century and the Israel of the Biblical periods? I don’t see that we have any evidence for that. We don’t have sufficient archaeological evidence for Merneptah’s Israel.

Dever- Well, now, wait a minute! What would constitute archaeological evidence? If you look at topography, we know where some of the peoples are that are mentioned along with Israel in the Merneptah Stela. We know where Ashkelon is. We know where Gezer is. We know where the land of the Hurru is. We also know where the Philistines were. There’s not much left for Israel except the central highlands. Now you turn to Finkelstein’s survey data and you see the archaeological evidence, the new villages and so forth. I believe that we can call these settlements proto-Israelite.
From the archaeological side, we can confidently describe a village culture. It’s not because of a single trait, like collared-rim storage jars or the four-room house. The peculiar combination of traits makes it look like something out of Late Bronze Age, urban Canaan, something unique. And we now know enough about Transjordan to know that what’s over there is different.

I don’t care if you call it Israelite [west of the Jordan] or Edomite [in Transjordan]. Archaeologically, we can begin to distinguish the village culture of the central hill country in Palestine beginning in about 1200 B.C.E. That’s the reason for my term proto-Israelite. I’m not going to call it Israel, the Biblical Israel, but it is proto-Israel. And that is something, at least.

a. Philip R. Davies, “‘House of David’ Built on Sand,” BAR 20-04.

b. But see the following BAR articles- Kenneth A. Kitchen, “The Patriarchal Age- Myth or History?” BAR 21-02; and Ronald S. Hendel, “Finding Historical Memories in the Patriarchal Narratives,” BAR 21-04.

c. According to the documentary hypothesis, the Pentateuch was composed at different stages in Israel’s history by four (or more) different authors/editors, indicated by the letters J (Yahwist or, in German, Jahwist), E (Elohist), P (Priestly code) and D (Deuteronomist).

d. But see Nadav Na’aman, “Cow Town or Royal Capital?” in this issue.

e. See “‘David’ Found at Dan,” BAR 20-02.

f. See the following articles in BAR, March/April 1996- Hershel Shanks, “The Fingerprint of Jeremiah’s Scribe,” BAR 22-02, and P. Kyle McCarter, Jr., “Pieces of the Puzzle,” BAR 22-02.

g. See Tsvi Schneider, “Six Biblical Signatures- Seals and Seal Impressions of Six Biblical Personages Recovered,” BAR 17-04.

h. Most Scholars read the Tel Dan inscription’s critical six letters, BYTDWD, as Beth David (“House of David”). However, Philip R. Davies argues that because no word-divider separates Beth and David (the Tel Dan inscription places dots between words), the letters form a place-name, like Bethlehem (which means House of Bread). Davies also suggests that DWD (David) can be read as Dod, meaning “beloved,” “uncle” or “kettle.” Thus he argues that the letters could form the place-name Bethdod (House of the Beloved). For critiques of Davies’s reading, see the following BAR articles- Anson Rainey, “The ‘House of David’ and the House of the Deconstructionists,” BAR 20-06; and David Noel Freedman and Jeffrey C. Geoghegan, “‘House of David’ Is There!” BAR 21-02.

1. Thomas L. Thompson, “A Neo-Albrightean School in History and Biblical Scholarship?” Journal of Biblical Literature 114, no. 4 (Winter 1995), pp. 683–698.

2. Israel Finkelstein, “The Archaeology of the United Monarchy- An Alternative View,” Levant 28 (1996).

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