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Jewish Journal

The search for biblical history

by Brad A. Greenberg

January 21, 2008 | 10:14 am

I read “Walking the Bible” on my flight to and from Israel last summer and thoroughly enjoyed it, and on my short blogroll I link to David Plotz’ Blogging the Bible. Last week, I found on Slate that Plotz has returned with “Digging the Bible.”

So, it’s not exactly the Ark of the Covenant. In fact, it’s not exactly much of anything—just a dirty shard of pottery the size of my big toe. But I found it. I had been scraping the floor of this Israeli cave when I spotted its sharp edge. I fished the piece out of the dirt and pushed on it, as instructed, to see if it crumbled. If it did, it was probably just the local limestone, which is as soft as a bar of soap. But my piece firmly resisted, so I brushed off the dirt until I could see smooth pottery, one side black, the other brick red. I’m the raider of the lost pot.

I hand it to my digging partner Ian Stern, the archaeologist in charge of this site. He glances at it and says, “Cooking pot. See the black part? That’s where it carbonized. Probably 2,200 years old, time of the Maccabees”—the Jewish heroes of the Hanukkah story. He tosses my shard into a plastic collection bucket. “That’s why this place is so great. It has instant gratification. There’s a biblical connection. There’s a Hanukkah connection. It takes it out of the realm of the abstract and makes it tangible. You can come here and dig up pottery from the time of Judah Maccabee. He fought a battle near here. Now, I’m not saying he ate out of that pot, but you see and hold this pottery, and he is not a fairytale figure anymore. He is real.”

I’ve spent much of the last year blogging the Bible for Slate, writing about reading the Good Book for the first time. Now I’ve come to Israel to see the Bible, to dig it. I’ve read the stories. Now I want to see where they happened and to learn if they happened—to experience the Bible through archaeology, history, politics, and faith.

This is a similar premise to “Walking the Bible,” which contains quite a few passages where Bruce Feiler is wrestling with the lack of historical evidence for major events like the Flood and the Exodus or whether Moses really existed:

The unusual circumstances of this story—the fact that Moses gets his name from an Egyptian and is raised in the pharaonic court, the fact that he claims not to speak well—have led many to speculate that Moses wasn’t an Israelite at all. Sigmund Freud, in his influential book “Moses and Monotheism,” says that Moses was an Egyptian who learned monotheism from Akhenaten and was inspired to lead a revolt of foreign slaves out of a desire to overthrow his symbolic father. Freud says Moses gave the slaves the idea that they were a chosen people, which in turn led to anti-Semitism. “It was one man, the man Moses who created the Jews. To him his people owes its tenacity in supporting life; to him, however, it also owes much of the hostility which it has met and is meeting still.

Leaving aside Freud’s psychological interpretation, many scholars agree with his underlying thesis, that Moses might have been an Egyptian.

First off, lots of scholars have lots of contradictory theories. This is the academic process. But after reading this, I jumped onto my computer and ordered Jonathan Kirsch’s book, “Moses: A Life,” which I anticipate will add to the discussion (though in half a year I have yet to crack).

The passage reminded me of Rabbi David Wolpe’s famous Passover sermon a few years ago, when he let members of Sinai Temple know that most scholars don’t believe the Exodus actually occurred. The declaration dropped on LA Jewry like an A-bomb (little hyperbole intended), thanks to the LA Times, which played the story as a Column One:

Wolpe’s startling sermon may have seemed blasphemy to some. In fact, however, the rabbi was merely telling his flock what scholars have known for more than a decade. Slowly and often outside wide public purview, archeologists are radically reshaping modern understanding of the Bible. It was time for his people to know about it, Wolpe decided. After a century of excavations trying to prove the ancient accounts true, archeologists say there is no conclusive evidence that the Israelites were ever in Egypt, were ever enslaved, ever wandered in the Sinai wilderness for 40 years or ever conquered the land of Canaan under Joshua’s leadership. To the contrary, the prevailing view is that most of Joshua’s fabled military campaigns never occurred—archeologists have uncovered ash layers and other signs of destruction at the relevant time at only one of the many battlegrounds mentioned in the Bible.

Today, the prevailing theory is that Israel probably emerged peacefully out of Canaan—modern-day Lebanon, southern Syria, Jordan and the West Bank of Israel—whose people are portrayed in the Bible as wicked idolators. Under this theory, the Canaanites took on a new identity as Israelites were perhaps joined or led by a small group of Semites from Egypt—explaining a possible source of the Exodus story, scholars say. As they expanded their settlement, they may have begun to clash with neighbors, perhaps providing the historical nuggets for the conflicts recorded in Joshua and Judges.

“Scholars have known these things for a long time, but we’ve broken the news very gently,” said William Dever, a professor of Near Eastern archeology and anthropology at the University of Arizona and one of America’s preeminent archeologists. Dever’s view is emblematic of a fundamental shift in archeology. Three decades ago as a Christian seminary student, he wrote a paper defending the Exodus and got an A, but “no one would do that today,” he says.

The Jewish Journal followed the next week with a cover package dedicated to Exodus-doubting fallout, including conservative columnist Dennis Prager arguing that no Exodus = no Judaism, just as Christians would say that without the resurrection, Christianity is dead. But if Christianity is built upon the Torah, upon the stories of Jewish history, does it also need a literal, factual, historical Exodus?

And if we the faithful are willing to dismiss some historical findings, what is the value of biblical archeology?

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