December 13, 2001
Journal readers who were upset when a prominent local rabbi proposed that the biblical story of the Exodus from Egypt wasn't literally true, should be forewarned of possible apoplexy while watching the History Channel's "Digging for the Truth: Archaeology and the Bible."
The stated thesis of the two-hour documentary, premiering Dec. 17 at 9 p.m. and narrated by James Woods, is that both Israelis and Palestinians are using archaeological discoveries as weapons to justify their historical claims to the Holy Land, and to delegitimize the claims of the other side.
As this thesis actually plays out in the film, however, the confrontation is not between Muslim and Jewish scholars -- only a single Palestinian spokesman is presented briefly near the end -- but takes the form of an internecine struggle among Israeli experts.
In the past two decades, the battle lines have been drawn between two schools of Israeli archaeologists, who, looking at the same evidence, have arrived at wildly different conclusions.
On the one side are the skeptics, or "minimalists," who, one of their opponents charge, think that if something is written in the bible, it must be wrong.
Chief champion of the minimalists is Dr. Israel Finkelstein, who leaves few icons unsmashed. According to the Tel Aviv University professor, Kings David and Solomon were not rulers of a strong, unified monarchy, but insignificant Southern tribal chieftains. On the other hand, King Ahab -- one of the more despised biblical characters and husband of Jezebel -- ruled over a major Northern kingdom in the ninth century BCE, when Jerusalem was a village of little importance.
Representing the more traditional, bible-centered interpretation of archaeological discoveries, still the majority view, is Dr. Amnon Ben- Tor. The Hebrew University professor and former student of Yigael Yadin, discoverer of the Dead Sea Scrolls, gives as good as he gets in the battle against the minimalists.