Ziony Zevit, «Three Debates about Bible and Archaeology», Vol. 83 (2002) 1-27
Three significant debates affecting perceptions of Israelite history, the Bible’s historiography, the relationship between this historiography and archaeology, and the dating of parts of the Bible’s literature have occupied Biblicists and archaeologists for the last 25 years. This article distinguishes the debates by analyzing the issues involved, the terminologies employed, as well as the professions of the protagonists engaged in each. It considers each within its own intellectual context. In light of these analyses, the article proposes a positive assessment of the contribution of these debates to the study ancient Israel’s history.
Finkelstein has succumbed, however, to the appeal of a minimalist rhetorical ploy, that of describing an opponent as taking the position of ‘the custodian of the ideal, harmonic picture of Bible archaeology, which argues for a glorious Solomonic state, against an intruder who threatens to shatter the sentimental images’42. This sentence alludes to the Rabbinic midrash of a young Abraham who, after discerning the truth of monotheism through reasoned analysis, destroyed the idols in the workshop of his idolater father, Terah. The term ‘Bible archaeology’ in the above citation is intended to evoke the dispute of two decades ago from a completely secular perspective.
Notwithstanding this crossover of rhetoric, the ‘minimalist-maximalist’ debate is unlike the ‘tenth century’ one with regard to the training of the disputants, the nature of the evidence, the quality of the evidence, and the type of the rhetoric. The former involves Biblicists, linguists, and epigraphers; the latter archaeologists. Furthermore, in this debate, the issue of competency has not been raised, only that of conclusions.
If anti-religious sentiment lies in the background of the minimalists, and pro-religious sentiment or nostalgia in that of the different maximalists, something else informs the tenth century debate. None of the protagonists identify themselves as religious.
For the last fifteen years or so, there has existed in Israel a penchant among young historians for radical revisionism of Israeli and Jewish history in general and Israeli socio-political history in particular. Revisionism of pre- and post-1948 history, which is regularly reported and discussed in the press and on television talk and debate shows, may be characterized by its willingness to attack the consensus frontally, aggressively and often publicly with new evidence, even when the evidence is ambiguous or inconclusive or incomplete. It is somewhat reminiscent of the revisionism in European and American history that characterized the 1960’s. This supportive atmosphere may have encouraged Finkelstein to push his case as hard as he has. In any event, his efforts have expanded the front of such revisionism so that it includes ancient Israel as well.
The preceding analyses have considered the three debates as individual conversations within the ‘history of Israel’ research paradigm. As such, they have occupied members of the scholarly community for many years and merit a constructive analysis.
The ‘Biblical Archaeology’ debate exposed both practical and ideological fissures between different approaches to the source materials out of which such a history may be constructed. It led to the recognition that dirt archaeology is not a handmaiden for theologically driven Biblical exegesis and helped eliminate the expectation that the correct interpretation of excavations should result in evidence corroborating Biblical historical accounts. Although it settled matters for professional archaeologists and historians, it left some theological matters unresolved for Biblicists.
The importance of the ‘Minimalist-Maximalist’ debate, still ongoing among Biblicists, is threefold. First, minimalist claims to have exposed the overt influences of a priori ideologies in the interpretation of Biblical literature heightened the sensitivity to Foucauldian concerns. Second, rejected minimalist claims about the Persian period setting for Biblical historiography compelled disagreeing scholars to review the results of literary and holistic interpretations within alternative historical and social settings. Third, it led scholars to reconsider the history of record keeping, chronicling, and history writing in the ancient Near East. As a consequence of this debate, the rehistoricization of different types of Biblical literature has become a more sophisticated and nuanced undertaking.
The ‘Tenth-Century’ debate, an in-house methodological dispute in Syro-Palestinian archaeology, contributes to ongoing historical research by making Biblicists aware that the interpretation of archaeological data, let alone its application in historical interpretation, is a complicated matter about which acknowledged experts sometimes