Sunday, August 15, 2004

THE "MINIMALIST-MAXIMALIST" DEBATE (neither side like the name, but I don't know what else to call it) is taken on by David Hazony in the article "Memory in Ruins" in Azure. There's a shorter version in the Forward, which was where I found it). He opposes the minimalists and takes the maximalists to task for not defending their ground better, especially on the popular front. Here's an excerpt from toward the end:
What is the appropriate response to the new archaeology? The first step is to recognize just how fragile are the conclusions which Finkelstein and his school have produced. Traditional biblical archaeology, while far from perfect, has the advantage of corroborative evidence in the form of the biblical text itself. Given two plausible interpretations of an archaeological find, one that matches the biblical account and one that does not, it is reasonable to prefer the biblical reading. This is not because the biblical text is assumed to be accurate in all cases. It is because the two sources - the find and the text - lend support to each other. This way of looking at the Bible is no different from the way historians treat the testimony of any other ancient text that appears to shed light on archaeological finds.

The new archaeology, by contrast, is extremely limited in what it can tell us with confidence, a fact that stems directly from its principled refusal to credit the biblical narrative as a legitimate corroborative source. Thus a stone wall discovered in a dig may be incontrovertibly determined to be a stone wall, but nearly every meaningful conclusion about it - that it is part of a palace and not a citadel; that it was built in the ninth century B.C.E. and not in the seventh; that it was destroyed by one invading king and not another; or even that it was built by one people and not another - is a matter of interpretation. These conclusions are sometimes based on extrapolation from similar examples, or on deduction from theories concerning political or cultural conditions that are themselves highly speculative. Unlike the conclusions produced in the experimental sciences, "purely" archaeological histories are thus based on mountains of guesswork and creative gap-filling. If archaeology is ever going to produce a more reliable history, it needs the input of historical documents. And when one dismisses the most detailed document that exists concerning the biblical period, the result is to set archaeology on a path of unconstrained conjecture.

This is especially important with regard to the new theories concerning the kingdom of David and Solomon. The crucial fact is that there have been no new discoveries in the field of archaeology that cast doubt on the authenticity of the massive structures and fortifications that have until now been attributed to the united kingdom. Moreover, the finds that have turned up in recent years only lend support to the biblical story. Perhaps the most stunning archaeological discovery in the last decade was the first extra-biblical reference to David, an inscription found at Tel Dan in 1993, describing a battle fought against a king of the "house of David." Trapped by their own paradigm, the more extreme skeptics went as far as dismissing the simple reading of the text, concocting alternate readings that relieved them of having to admit that the "house of David" ever existed. But for the vast majority of scholars (including Finkelstein), this discovery was taken as conclusive evidence that, at the very least, a king named David lived and reigned, and founded a dynasty somewhere in the ancient Near East. And although Finkelstein may stand firm in his minimalist reading, maintaining that David and Solomon were nonetheless "little more than hill country chieftains," for most of his colleagues the Tel Dan inscription offered significant support for the historicity of the unified Israelite kingdom depicted in the Bible.

But the most important lesson from the Tel Dan discovery, and others like it, is that there is still a great deal of biblical history that remains buried, waiting to be found. Indeed, if the pace of biblical-era discoveries has slowed dramatically in recent years, it is not because archaeologists have come out of biblical-era excavations empty-handed, but because they essentially called off the search. In this regard, the apathy of mainstream researchers dovetails with the aims of the revisionists: The former stop looking for biblical-era remains, and the latter seize upon the lack of new discoveries to conclude that "after seventy years of digging," anything that has not yet been discovered never will be. But in reality, underneath the surface in hundreds of sites around the Near East, there remains a vast archive of Jewish history, which seven decades of biblical archaeology - regardless of the scholars' exhausted cries to the contrary - have only begun to tap.

Iron-Age archaeology is outside my expertise and I don't have any strong views on this debate. My interests were originally in the Hebrew Bible and the epigraphic texts of this period and earlier but I moved to the later period in part because it came home to me in time that the biblical material is just not suited to the sorts of historical questions that we would like to ask it. I think that Hazony is wrong in the first quoted paragraph, or at least that he oversimplifies. Scholars and archaeologists have to interpret the evidence on its own terms, and that means making sense of the archaeology as best we can on its own before turning to the biblical texts. Often when we do compare archaeology and the Bible we're comparing apples and oranges, because they give us information about very different things. Moreover, the biblical texts that claim to describe events in Iron I and earlier (i.e., from the Judges on back) give every indication of being collections of legends. There is considerably more collateral evidence, especially from cuneiform texts, for events in the Divided Monarchy, and I don't doubt that the broad outline of events in 1-2 Kings is real. My guess is that the biblical texts on the United Monarchy (David and Solomon) fall somewhere in between, in terms of what they tell us about actual history, but I really don't know (and I don't think anyone else does either).

Hazony goes on to say,
The leading biblical archaeologists, whether from Israel or abroad, should return to their calling as it was practiced by the founders of their craft. This means carrying out excavations in Israel and elsewhere, whose purpose is to elucidate the history of the biblical era - a period which is not yet well understood, but which continues to exert a profound influence on the mind and spirit of mankind.

I'm a little surprised by this. Does he mean that archaeologists are avoiding digging sites and strata from the biblical period? I doubt that this is so and I doubt that they could avoid this period in any consistent way, even if they tried. But if he means that he thinks they should be conducting their excavations to try to confirm (or disconfirm) the biblical accounts in the Iron Age, all I can say is that archaeologists need to follow the questions that their own research leads them to and we non-archaeologists are not in a good position to tell them what they should be asking. Sure, it's neat to have direct confirmation (or disconfirmation) of biblical events or stories once in awhile, but, as I said above, any intersection between text and archaeology (including inscriptions) is hard to come by and often very difficult to evaluate even when we have it.

UPDATE (16 August): Cynthia Edenberg e-mails to report "that David Hazony is active in the Shalem Center, which engages in polemic with 'new' Israeli historians."

Also, see the immediately following post for related thoughts on inscriptions.

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