Right after Pesach last year, Ziony Zevit got a string of phone calls in Jerusalem, where he was on sabbatical from his position as a professor of biblical literature and Semitic languages at the University of Judaism (UJ).
"Have you heard?"
The callers' questions were in reference to the front-page Los Angles Times article covering a Passover sermon delivered by Sinai Temple's Rabbi David Wolpe, in which he challenged his congregants to retain the basis for their faith, in light of the fact that archaeological evidence allegedly refutes the narrative of the Exodus as relayed in the Bible.
"What started off in L.A. began to spread across the county, and what was more interesting is it was picked up not only by Jewish groups, but by Christian groups," said Zevit, now back at his post at UJ.
He saw in the controversy a prime opportunity to use a venue he has been nurturing over the past 12 years: The UJ's Simmons Family Charitable Foundation Program in Biblical Archaeology, one of only two major annual public programs nationwide on the subject.
A series of eight Monday night lectures this fall will address the question of "What is true in the Bible?" Archaeologists and biblical scholars -- some of the top ones in their fields -- will try to answer how they discover, reconstruct and explain the past.
While the series, now in its 12th year, has always held a highly respected place on the calendar of archaeology aficionados, this year's series will probably have wider appeal because of the debate opended by Wolpe.
James Hoffmeier, one of the world's leading Egyptologists, will address the Exodus topic specifically through a look at the Bible's account of the Israelites' stay in Egypt, discussing the current scholarship and his finds at a dig he recently directed in the Sinai Desert.
Zevit says he chose Hoffmeier, professor of Old Testament and Near Eastern Archaeology at Trinity International University, because he is one of the few people in the field who is an expert on both Egypt and ancient Israel, is involved with key scholars and sites, and knows both Arabic and Hebrew.
"I thought that a sane voice would introduce a useful mode of intelligent calm into the discussion," Zevit said of Hoffmeier, author of the 1994 book "Israel in Egypt? The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition." "It's not a matter of being pro or against, but of nuancing words and presenting the data, and Hoffmeier is highly respected."
Hoffmeier, who is not Jewish, will also be coming from a traditional vantage point, one that accepts the essential validity of the major biblical traditions -- a break with many presenters in the past, who raised questions about the historicity of the biblical narrative.
"There is a sense among many people that if what you say about the past of Israel conforms to the presentation of history as it is in the Bible, you are old-fashioned, fundamentalist or buying into myths," said Zevit, who decries that kind of "post-modern intellectual posturing."
Rather than presenting the lack of hard evidence to disprove the Israelites' sojourn in Egypt and in Sinai, Zevit suggests that archaeologists can ask other questions -- such as whether the desert route outlined in the Bible makes sense, and why a group would choose such a route. "If a different series of very pointed questions are asked, the conclusions begin to look different, and Hoffmeier argues within that framework," Zevit said.
Zevit has asked all the lecturers to present their topics in a way that will help listeners understand the process scholars undergo to reach their conclusion -- thus placing the whole Exodus debate in a more comprehensive context.
"An archaeologist has a job -- that job is to excavate and report," Zevit said. "But now the archaeologist puts on the hat of the historian and tries to make statements that are supposed to create knowledge. The idea is, 'show me every step in your thinking that led you to this conclusion. I don't want you to talk like a historian when the only authority you have is as an archaeologist.'"
Zevit hopes the approach will open up the presentation to being more like a lopsided dialogue than a lecture.
"It makes the conclusions a little more vulnerable to analysis," but, he said, it involves every person who listens intelligently in the search for truth.
However, Zevit does recognizes the limitations of the series. When asked if the speakers will address the theological implications of their topics, he responded, "As little as possible."
The speakers in the eight-part series from Oct. 22 to Dec. 10 include:
Hershel Shanks, editor of the Biblical Archaeology Review, Bible Review, Archaeological Odyssey and Moment Magazine and an expert in the Dead Sea Scrolls, will speak on "The Dead Sea Scrolls: What Do They Really Say?" Monday, Oct. 22 at 8 p.m. He will address the concept of the Messiah developed by the sect at Qumran, the authors of the 2,000-year-old scrolls, and how that messianic concept influenced early Christianity.
Zevit himself will take the lectern for the first time in the 12 years he has been running the series. On Monday, Oct. 29, at 8 p.m., Zevit will discuss "Who Were the Gods of Ancient Israel and How Do We Know About Them?"
Hoffmeier's discussion of the Exodus, "From Joseph to Moses -- How Does an Egyptian Archaeologist Look at the Bible and Read the Text?" will take place Monday, Nov. 5, at 8 p.m.
All lectures are at the University of Judaism's Gindi Auditorium, 15600 Mullholland Drive. Lectures are $25 each or $150 for the series for the general public, and $15 each or $75 for the series for students. To register and for more information, call (310) 440-1246.