The Politics of Archeology in Israel

The meaning of archeological finds in Israel is up for interpretation.

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Tourists to Israel are often thrilled by the idea of traveling the land of Abraham, praying at the Western Wall, just a stone's throw away from where King David's palace and Solomon's Temple once stood. However, today’s archeologists are locked in a fierce debate over whether archeology can confirm biblical stories. The land of Israel has yielded many archeological finds, but what they mean is subject to interpretation: archeology is both influenced by politics and personal belief, and plays a role in shaping political discourse.

A Brief History of Archeology in Israel

In the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, British and American archeologists set out to test the truth of the Bible in a period where the "documentary hypothesis" had shaken the Bible's previous authority. These explorers--some devout Christians, and others more skeptical--uncovered what seemed to be basic proof of Jewish, Canaanite, and Philistine settlements generally corresponding to the Biblical narrative.

masada

Ruins at Masada.

With Israel's independence in 1948, archeology continued to shape the Jewish national narrative. For example, the fortress at Masada, discovered in 1838 by British archeologists and further excavated by Yigal Yadin in the 1960s, was heralded as confirmation of the heart-wrenching story of Jewish zealots who committed mass suicide rather than surrender to the Romans. The story of that last stand, spoke to Israeli fighters looking for models of Jewish bravery and willingness to fight and die for autonomy.

After the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel gained access to the entirety of Jerusalem. With the renewed access to the Old City, Israeli archeologists discovered testaments to life during the Second Temple period. This included the southern entrance to the Temple complex, thought to have welcomed Jewish pilgrims three times a year and the remains of the homes of Jewish priests.

Post-Zionist Critique

The finds from the Second Temple period are relatively uncontested, however much debate now surrounds the beginnings of Jewish rule in Israel and the Davidic Kingdom in Judea. In the past two decades, scholars and activists have accused archeologists of being driven to prove the truth of the Bible when dating and interpreting their finds. Underlying some of these accusations is the insinuation that Zionist archeologists wish to bolster the Jewish right to the land by pushing Jewish political dominance in Israel to an earlier date.

Israel Finkelstein, a scholar at Tel Aviv University is one of the leading Israeli archeologists who questions whether the Bible can be relied upon as an accurate historical document, concerning the Kingdom of David. He points to the lack of evidence of a developed centralized economy and fortified cities in Judea (Jerusalem and its environs) during the period when David was supposed to have reigned. Finkelstein argues that there never was a "united kingdom of Israel," under the rule of King David. Rather, generations after King David, the sparsely populated south became a power center due to an influx of refugees migrating from the destroyed Northern Kingdom. This led to a boom in population and a newly minted need for infrastructure, governance and a national narrative. Only then was the story of the unified kingdom under David crafted in order to consolidate power and integrate the Northern refugees. If King David did exist, then, Finkelstein asserts, he was a small tribal leader at most.

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Alieza Salzberg

Alieza Salzberg is a graduate student at the Hebrew University where she studies Rabbinic Literature. She is a fellow at the Hartman Institute's Seder Nashim, Beit Midrash for Judaism and Gender. She lives, writes and studies in Jerusalem.