The timing could not have been better.
When the California Museum of Ancient Art scheduled its lecture series on "The Archaeology of Ancient Israel" to begin Monday, May 14, at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, it could not have known that Rabbi David Wolpe's Passover sermon touching on doubts about the historical accuracy of the Exodus story would spark a wave of local interest in Biblical archaeology.
The four lectures in the upcoming series will cover topics such as "The Age of Solomon: Myth or History," "New Light on Israelite History From Ancient Inscriptions" and "An Israelite Tribe Beyond the Jordan: Recent Discoveries at Tell Umayri."
The museum, which has no religious affiliation, schedules two or three lecture series a year on topics ranging from biblical archaeology to the late Bronze Age. It maintains its large collection of artifacts in a warehouse but has no exhibition space and usually uses the Gallery Theater in Barnsdall Park for its events. However, to retain the renowned scholars scheduled to participate, this series had to be coordinated months ago, and the Gallery Theater was unavailable for the scheduled dates. Luckily, Piness Auditorium in the Wilshire Boulevard Temple was available.
According to Dr. Jerome Berman, executive director of the museum, the lectures are relevant beyond any local controversy, since scholars of history have recently garnered major media attention by questioning the Bible's historical accuracy. The so-called "minimalists" or "revisionists" argue that biblical stories are primarily myths. The History Channel, the Learning Channel and even "Nightline" are producing segments on this topic. The theories also have political ramifications, as Palestinian activists cite the minimalists' work to undermine Jewish claims on the Holy Land.
So the California Museum of Ancient Art organized these lectures to "help people understand what really happened, in the context of the Near East," Berman says. "The question is, what do we really know about ancient Israel outside of the Bible? Some of the lectures will show parallels with what we read in the Bible, and we see some discrepancies. Ultimately, we aim to understand the culture in which the Bible came into existence."
First up in the lecture series is Dr. William Dever, who will address the biblical minimalists' arguments with recent findings that verify the existence of a united monarchy under King Solomon. In the second lecture, Dr. William Schniedewind will discuss some of the many inscriptions discovered in Israel that shed light on ancient Israelite history. Dr. Lawrence Geraty adds to the understanding of biblical-era Middle Eastern culture with his discussion of a settlement east of the Jordan River that bears telltale signs of Israelite settlement. Dr. John Monson delivers the final lecture, comparing Ain Dara temple in Syria with descriptions of King Solomon's Temple.
The series is not meant to be an exhaustive overview of biblical archaeology but an introduction to some of the more interesting controversies and evidence relating to the Bible. As Berman says, "We're trying to tell the story of the ancient world, to bring that world to life."
"The Archaeology of Ancient Israel," lecture series: $64 (series); $18 (individual lecture). Dr. William Dever lectures May 14; Dr. Schniedewind, May 21; Dr. Geraty, June 4; and Dr. Monson, June 11. Piness Auditorium, Wilshire Boulevard Temple, 3663 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. To register for the lectures or for more information, call (818) 762-5500.