Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Old Testament – Archaeological History or Just a Good Read?

For decades archaeologist have been questioning the historicity of the Old Testament narratives as archaeological discovery upon archaeological discovery lines up to contradict the events recorded in Genesis, Exodus, Samuel, and Kings and Chronicles. Today, few archaeologist (or historians for that matter) see evidence for a Sojourn of Western Asiatics (i.e. proto-Israelites) in Egypt during the New Kingdom; nor do they find a pattern of city destructions at the end of the Late Bronze Age which they can equate with an Israelite conquest of the Promised Land as described in the book of Joshua; and more recently, the position of Solomon, as a wealthy merchant prince has been seriously questioned following Professor Israel Finkelstein's radical revision of Iron Age chronology.

So, is the Bible simply a collection of fairy stories? Or is there a basic misunderstanding here?

These are fascinating times. We are coming to a point when something has to give. Either the historical Bible needs to be assigned to the wastebasket of history or archaeologists need to rethink the relationship between their stratigraphy and biblical narrative history. The big question is: do we really have the correct archaeological framework to enable biblical historians to construct a cultural and political history of ancient Israel? And, following on from this, if there is any doubt whatsoever concerning the previous question, could we not attempt a reassessment of the chronology of the ancient Near East in order to achieve a fresh perspective on the cultural development of the nation of Israel – its origins in Egypt, its emergence in the hill country of Palestine and its establishment as a kingdom under Saul, David and Solomon?

There are now two models for us to compare.

(1) The conventional chronology places the Sojourn in Egypt during the Late Bronze Age and the settlement of the Israelites in Canaan at the end of that archaeological period. The book of Judges then covers the Early Iron Age, which, if Finkelstein proves to be correct (and I believe his arguments are receiving wide acceptance), must include the era of the United Monarchy. The Divided Monarchy would then fall into Iron Age II.

In this model, as I have already stated, we have no archaeological evidence of Israelites in Egypt. There are no identifiable remains of Western Asiatics at Pi-Ramesse (biblical Raamses) which have come to light – even after a quarter of a century of excavations.

We have no destruction of a fortified city of Jericho, which, as we all know, was virtually an abandoned ruin at the end of the Bronze Age. Nor is a destruction of Hazor attributable to the time of Joshua's conquest. Amnon Ben Tor's current excavation of the Late Bronze Age palace at Hazor is producing a date for the burning for that building around the time of Seti I, some 100 years before the proposed date for any Israelite destruction of the city. So yet another pillar of the conventional biblical chronology collapses. There are now no destructions of Canaanite cities which can safely be attributed to the Israelites. This was pointed out long ago by Dr John Bimson both in his PhD thesis (published as Redating the Exodus and Conquest) and in the pages of Biblical Archaeology Review.

It is clear from the survey work undertaken throughout the hill-country of Palestine in recent years that there is a general cultural continuity between the Late Bronze Age and the Early Iron Age. Increases in population and the introduction of new house designs do not constitute cultural change but rather demographic change. There does appear to be continuity in domestic pottery between the two periods, which would be difficult to explain in the context of the influx of a new people coming out of the Egyptian environment. This is why Bill Dever and others argue that the increase in population must be sourced from areas within the Palestine sphere - perhaps from the lowlands or from Transjordan. It is precisely this lack of a clear cultural break which has led to the theories of 'peasant revolt' and 'social revolution' put forward to explain the rise of a political entity called Israel within the region.

The conventional model also now denies an archaeological phase appropriate to the Old Testament view of the United Monarchy period. Finkelstein's 100-year downward revision of Iron Age chronology puts paid to the glories of the Solomonic era. What, then, does the conventional chronology offer us? Very little it would appear. There are few scraps of comfort here to satisfy those who search for an Israelite archaeological history compatible with the literary tradition.

(2) The second model is that offered by the New Chronology – still in its infancy and suffering from that typical academic attitude towards new ideas "My mind is made up, don't confuse me with facts" (as Professor Bill Dever brilliantly puts it). Egyptologists and biblical historians who adopt his know-it-all attitude are in danger of turning their disciplines into 'nanny states' where younger scholars get smacked down and sent to their rooms if they dare to question the wisdom and authority of their elders.

So what is the big heresy of the New Chronology? Well, it is certainly a radical thesis – but is it really such a ludicrous idea? What we are looking at is a revision of the historical interpretation of the stratigraphy of the Middle and Late Bronze Ages and the later Iron I and II. In essence the results for biblical archaeology of the new scheme are as follows.

The New Chronology proposes an Israelite Sojourn in Egypt during the late-12th and 13th Dynasties when archaeology produces clear evidence for the existence of a large Western Asiatic population in Egypt. The city of Avaris, located in the Land of Goshen (and lying under the southern quarter of the later city of Pi-Ramesse), was populated by foreigners from the Levant. The Brooklyn Papyrus 35.1446 lists domestic slaves with Asiatic names, a number of which are clearly biblical names (Menahem, Issachar, Asher, Shiphrah, etc.).

During the Middle Bronze IIB (the Hyksos period in Egyptian terms) there is undisputed evidence that many of the cities in Canaan, recorded in the Bible as being destroyed by Joshua, were indeed raised to the ground by fire. Jericho at this time was a heavily fortified city – its walls fell down and it was destroyed by fire, then to be abandoned for several centuries. Hazor was also raised to the ground (Joshua 11:11), whilst letters from the Middle Bronze Age archive there tell us that the name of one of the kings of Hazor at this time was Ibni – the Canaanite equivalent of the biblical Jabin, killed by Joshua when he destroyed Hazor (Joshua 11:10).

Towards the end of MB II a migdol-temple was constructed on top of a platform or terrace filling at Shechem. In front of the temple the builders erected a large white standing stone. Sometime later (during LB I) the temple was burnt to the ground. The book of Joshua informs us that the Israelites, having completed their conquest of the Promised Land, gathered in front of the Temple of Baal-Berith ('Lord of the Covenant') at Shechem. This structure was otherwise known as the Beth Millo 'House of the Millo' and the Hebrew word Millo means 'platform' or 'terrace filling' (Judges 9:6 & 20). There Joshua erected the covenant stone (Joshua 24:25-26). The book of Judges informs us that Abimelech, king of Shechem, burnt the migdol temple to the ground with one thousand citizens of Shechem inside (Judges 9:46-49).

Israel Finkelstein's excavations at Shiloh in the 1980s uncovered a sacred precinct which the archaeological evidence suggests was founded in the last phase of the Middle Bronze Age. The Bible informs us that Joshua's Israelites set up the sanctuary of the Ark at Shiloh long before it was moved to its new home in the Temple of Solomon. In the conventional chronology this MB IIB sacred enclosure at Shiloh has to be a Canaanite cultic temenos which the Israelites 'took over' when they arrived in the hill-country during the Early Iron Age. In the New Chronology it is the Middle Bronze Age sanctuary which the incoming Israelites were responsible for founding on a virgin hilltop – there is no need for a reoccupation of an old Canaanite cult centre as required by the currently accepted scheme.

In the New Chronology model Solomon is a king of the Late Bronze Age when archaeology has revealed that the cities of Megiddo and Hazor were at their architectural peak. In LB II we find fine ashlar buildings, including palaces and gateways whose outer walls are constructed on the principles described for Solomon's building activity (I Kings 7:9-12). The era of the Late Bronze Age was one of prosperity and high culture. Trade flourished. This setting is far more appropriate for Solomon the merchant prince than the impoverished Iron Age IB where he currently languishes in the conventional scheme.

Shoshenk I's campaign into Gilead, the Jordan and Jezreel Valleys and the Sharon is not that of the biblical Shishak but rather Egypt's military response to the maraudings of Hazael's Arameans from Damascus who attacked these very same regions in the time of Jehoahaz (II Kings 13:1-7). Southern Canaan was perceived as falling within the Egyptian hegemony and so Shoshenk's response would have been appropriate. The Bible does not name the military leader who came to the rescue of Jehoahaz – he is simply referred to as 'a saviour who freed them (the Israelites) from the grip of Aram'. The Aramean invasions also explain the population increase in the hill-country during the Early Iron Age. The new settlements are refugee camps for the Israelites who have fled from Transjordan in the wake of the Aramean raids. They settle in the heartland of the kingdom of Israel for protection – they are not the Israelites of the Conquest. Bill Dever and the other archaeologists are right to argue that these Iron Age newcomers were indigenous to the region because they are refugees from the outlying tribal settlements of Israel during the Divided Monarchy period.

This brief outline only covers some of the historical advantages of the new scheme. There are many others, including a much better historical context for the Habiru of the Amarna Letters and a proper cultural setting for the stories relating to Joseph (now set in the late 12th Dynasty).

The New Chronology opens up fascinating possibilities for research and debate once scholars realise its potential for providing answers to many of the problems which have beset biblical archaeology over the years.

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