Bible and Beyond

Click here to view the original article.

What happened to tenth-century B.C. Jerusalem? This has been the focus of much recent scholarly attention and has engaged BAR readers as well.a The tenth century was the time of the United Monarchy of Israel, the glory days of King David and his son King Solomon. For Biblical minimalists, however, who deny any historicity to the events described in the Bible,b tenth-century Jerusalem is Exhibit A. Jerusalem is surely one of the most excavated cities in the world—yet it has yielded almost no remains that date to the tenth century. David and Solomon and their supposed kingdom are mere myth, the minimalists contend, citing Jerusalem archaeology (or the lack of evidence it has produced) in support of their case.

No one can deny that the archaeology of tenth-century Jerusalem is a problem. But, as Tel Aviv University historian Nadav Na’aman points out, we have equally little archaeological material for the 14th century B.C. Yet we know Jerusalem existed at that time because diplomatic correspondence from the Canaanite king of Jerusalem, ‘Abdi-Håeba, to the 14th-century Egyptian pharaohs has survived in cuneiform tablets recovered from Tell el-Amarna in Egypt.c Perhaps, argues Na’aman, what applies to the 14th century applies equally to the 10th- Archaeological remains are either gone or undiscovered, yet there must have been a city there despite the scant evidence in the archaeological record.

Na’aman is on the right track, but he doesn’t go far enough. We need to ask ourselves why we direct our attention to the 10th and 14th centuries in the first place. The question of Jerusalem’s existence in the 10th century interests us precisely because that is the time of David and Solomon. And we address the question about the 14th century precisely because we have documentary evidence that there must have been a city there at that time.

If we broaden the question, we begin to realize just how little has been recovered—and perhaps how little can ever be recovered—from ancient Jerusalem. In fact, there is very little from the 17th century, the 16th century, the 15th century, the 14th century, the 13th century, the 12th century, the 11th century, the 10th century or the 9th century B.C. Or to put it in archaeological terms, we have little archaeological evidence of Jerusalem from the Late Bronze Age (1550–1200 B.C.) or from Iron Age I (1200–1000 B.C.) or from the first couple centuries of Iron Age II (1000–586 B.C.)—in all, a period of almost a thousand years.

We are thus faced with two mutually exclusive conclusions- (1) Jerusalem was abandoned and unsettled during this entire thousand-year period; or (2) the current archaeological record doesn’t tell the whole story.

Even without the Bible as evidence, the first alternative doesn’t ring true. It simply makes no sense to suppose that a site like Jerusalem—with steep valleys on three sides for easy defense, with an abundant year-round water supply (the Gihon Spring), with fertile adjacent land to till, with a position on the only route through central Canaan and with a history of prior and subsequent settlement that has been established archaeologically—would be abandoned for nearly a millennium.
Moreover, we know of at least one instance when contemporaneous documents (the Tell el-Amarna letters) establish the existence of a city that has not appeared in the archaeological record.

So how do we explain the scant archaeological evidence during this thousand-year period?

First, the archaeological record is not quite as empty as the minimalists would have us believe. The date of the Stepped-Stone Structure—a mammoth five-story-high support for an as-yet-unknown construction above it—is disputed, but it was surely built in the City of David sometime during this thousand-year period. This certainly implies some substantial settlement in this period. Furthermore, Late Bronze Age tombs have been found outside Jerusalem.1 The people buried in these tombs must have lived somewhere, and it’s hardly credible to suppose that they were the only inhabitants of the area. An Egyptian temple may also have stood outside Jerusalem during this period.d

But the Achilles heel of this position, say the minimalists, is the pottery—or rather the lack of it. Pottery is easily breakable. Indeed, it breaks so easily and must be replaced so frequently that its design evolves rapidly. That is why changes in pottery forms provide such an excellent chronological indicator. And nothing is more abundant on archaeological digs than pottery sherds, by which different strata are dated. Unlike walls, whose stones can be scavenged and reused (thus destroying the wall itself), pottery sherds generally lie where they fall, awaiting the archaeologist’s spade. Why, the minimalists ask, have the excavators of Jerusalem found almost no pottery sherds from this thousand-year period? This is indeed the toughest question of all. But there is an answer—or rather several elements of an answer.

Some pottery from this period has been found—both in Yigal Shiloh’s excavation in the 1970s and 1980s and in Dame Kathleen Kenyon’s excavation in the 1960s, as well as in earlier excavations.e It is true that the pottery is not abundant. Unfortunately, none of the pottery from these excavations has been published in any substantial way. Of the pottery that has been published, Late Bronze Age pottery is documented from Kenyon’s excavation,2 attesting to a settlement of some kind at that time. According to Jane Cahill, who is publishing the pottery from Shiloh’s excavation, some clearly tenth-century pottery was found in that excavation. In his preliminary report, Shiloh noted that the tenth century was “fully represented” in two areas (G and J) and “partially represented” in another area (E1).3

Moreover, Eilat Mazar, who is publishing the final report for Benjamin Mazar’s excavation south of the Temple Mount, has drawn my attention to an intact black juglet, found on the Ophel (the area between the City of David and the southern end of the Temple Mount), that is characteristic of the tenth century.4 On this basis, Eilat Mazar dates the fortifications and gate above this juglet to the tenth century and identifies them as the work of King Solomon, who, according to 1 Kings 3-1, fortified the walls of Jerusalem in addition to building his palace and temple.

More important, however, is an understanding of why there is so little pottery from this period. Even Shiloh and Kenyon, careful and modern excavators though they were, did not save all the pottery they found. At the time of their excavations, the intense question about the existence of the United Monarchy of Israel had not yet arisen; there was little, if any, dispute over the existence of the city in this period. Thus they may have unwittingly thrown out much of the evidence for occupation in this period. Earlier excavators were even worse. In short, we really don’t have a very good record of the pottery found in the City of David, the oldest inhabited part of Jerusalem.

Moreover, neither the Temple Mount, where the Temple and Solomon’s palace were located, nor the summit of the City of David are available for excavation—the former because it is the site of Muslim religious buildings and the latter because private homes are now built above it.

It is important to realize what a very small percentage of the inhabited area of a site an archaeologist excavates—usually less than five percent. This is true even of the City of David. Take the city wall recently discovered by Ronny Reich and Eli Shukron. Despite all the excavations in Jerusalem, only a 100-foot stretch of this wall has been found, and that only in the late 1990s.f Or take the much-vaunted eighth-century city of which there is so much evidence- We have fewer than a half dozen houses whose architectural plans are complete. So it is not unusual to find little in the way of architecture.

Later building often obliterates evidence of earlier occupation, and I believe that has been a factor in Jerusalem. For the most part, the eighth-century city was built on bedrock. Precious little has been found from any earlier city. We know that there was an important city here in the Middle Bronze Age (2200–1550 B.C.) because from that time we have an imposing city wall, gigantic towers at the Gihon Spring and a water channel that runs down the eastern side of the City of David. Yet no significant buildings—domestic or public—have been found from this period. From the Early Bronze Age (3200–2200 B.C.), we have two one-room structures and some pottery.

After the Middle Bronze Age, no new city wall was built in Jerusalem until the late eighth century, when Hezekiah wanted to protect his expanded city. I suspect that the Middle Bronze Age wall continued in use for nearly a millennium. We know how sturdy it was from the section that has survived. But none of the uppermost part of the wall remains. Thus we do not know how many times or how often it was rebuilt. There was simply no need to construct a new wall to replace it entirely. When it was superseded by the eighth-century wall, the builders went down to bedrock in most places, leaving little evidence of previous occupation. Interestingly, in places the builders of the eighth-century wall incorporated part of this Middle Bronze Age wall into their structure.5

That the Jerusalem of the United Monarchy was not as grand or glorious as the Bible implies is almost surely true. It is also true that considerable uncertainty clouds much of what I have said. Nevertheless, the alternative—that the city was abandoned for a millennium—seems to me very improbable. And I reach my conclusion without even considering the Biblical evidence. When that is added to the mix, I believe the existence of a city at Jerusalem during the Late Bronze Age, Iron Age I and tenth- and ninth-century Iron Age II is highly likely.6

a. See “David’s Jerusalem—Fiction or Reality?”- Margreet Steiner, “It’s Not There- Archaeology Proves a Negative,” BAR 24-04, Jane Cahill, “It Is There- The Archaeological Evidence Proves It,” BAR 24-04, and Nadav Na’aman, “It Is There- Ancient Texts Prove It,” BAR 24-04.

b. See “Face to Face- Biblical Minimalists Meet Their Challengers,” BAR 23-04; and “The Search for History in the Bible,” a three-article section in BAR 26-02.

c. Nadav Na’aman, “Cow Town or Royal Capital? Evidence for Iron Age Jerusalem,” BAR 23-04; “It Is There- Ancient Texts Prove It,” BAR 24-04.

d. Gabriel Barkay, “What’s an Egyptian Temple Doing in Jerusalem?” BAR 26-03.

e. Jane Cahill, “It Is There- The Archaeological Evidence Proves It,” BAR 24-04.

f. See Hershel Shanks, “Everything You Ever Knew About Jerusalem Is Wrong (Well, Almost),” BAR 25-06.

1. See, for example, Benjamin Maisler (Mazar), “Cypriote Pottery at a Tomb in the Vicinity of Jerusalem,” American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literature 49 (1932–1933), pp. 248–253; D.C. Baramki, “An Ancient Cistern in the Grounds of Government House, Jerusalem,” Quarterly of the Department of Antiquities in Palestine 4 (1936), pp. 165–167 (identified by Gabriel Barkay as a tomb); and Ruth Amiran, “A Late Bronze Age II Pottery Group from a Tomb in Jerusalem,” Eretz Israel 6 (1960), pp. 25–37.

2. See Henk J. Franken and Margreet L. Steiner, Excavations in Jerusalem 1961–1967, vol. 2, The Iron Age Extramural Quarter on the South-East Hill (Oxford- Oxford Univ. Press, 1990), pp. 6–7, fig. 2–2.

3. Yigal Shiloh, Excavations at the City of David I, 1978–1982, Qedem 19 (1984), chart on p. 4.

4. Eilat Mazar and Benjamin Mazar, Excavations in the South of the Temple Mount- The Ophel of Biblical Jerusalem, Qedem 29 (1989), esp. p. 31, photo 61 and plate 13.1.

5. Shiloh, Excavations, p. 28.

6. I am grateful to Jane Cahill for her help on this article. She caught several errors and provided me with much of the documentation.