Friday, August 05, 2005

Digging Deep for Proof of an Ancient Jewish Capital

Published: August 5, 2005

JERUSALEM, Aug. 4 - An Israeli archaeologist says she has uncovered in East Jerusalem what may be the fabled palace of the biblical King David. Her work has been sponsored by a conservative Israeli research institute and financed by an American Jewish investment banker who would like to prove that Jerusalem was indeed the capital of the Jewish kingdom described in the Bible.

Other scholars are skeptical that the foundation walls discovered by the archaeologist, Eilat Mazar, are David's palace. But they acknowledge that what she has uncovered is rare and important: a major public building from around the 10th century B.C., with pottery shards that date to the time of David and Solomon and a government seal of an official mentioned in the book of Jeremiah.

The discovery is likely to be a new salvo in a major dispute in biblical archaeology: whether the kingdom of David was of some historical magnitude, or whether the kings were more like small tribal chieftains, reigning over another dusty hilltop.

The find will also be used in the broad political battle over Jerusalem - whether the Jews have their origins here and thus have some special hold on the place, or whether, as many Palestinians have said, including the late Yasir Arafat, the idea of a Jewish origin in Jerusalem is a myth used to justify conquest and occupation.

The exciting news is that a tenth-century BCE public building has been located in Jerusalem and that (later) epigraphic material has been found, apparently in the same place. All else at this point is speculation and it would be a shame if the squabbling over the speculation were to overshadown the find itself.

As for the last sentence, we have plenty of evidence that Jerusalem was inhabited by Hebrew-speaking Judeans during the Iron Age II, especially the last century or so of it (e.g., references to biblical kings in the Assyrian and Babylonian inscriptions, the Hezekiah's tunnel inscription, the Siloam tomb inscription, the Ophel ostracon, etc.). There is legitimate debate about the nature of David's and Solomon's supposed empires and how reliable the biblical sources are for the Iron Age II, but that is another issue and should not be conflated with the frequently bizarre claims of the Palestinians. I don't know exactly what "origins" means here and I don't want to get into the endlessly debatable topic of the political implications of what we do know about Iron Age-II Jerusalem.
Hani Nur el-Din, a Palestinian professor of archaeology at Al Quds University, said he and his colleagues considered biblical archaeology an effort by Israelis "to fit historical evidence into a biblical context." He added: "The link between the historical evidence and the biblical narration, written much later, is largely missing. There's a kind of fiction about the 10th century. They try to link whatever they find to the biblical narration. They have a button, and they want to make a suit out of it."

This is a pretty fair criticism. At the moment they've found a button, which is quite important in itself. It remains to be seen how much of a suit can be inferred from it and what the size and cut of the suit was. It will take years of study and publication in peer-review journals and monographs before we have a clear idea what the find means.

Now I look forward to Professor Nur el-Din's condemnation of the Palestinian Authority's false claims that there never were Jewish Temples on the Temple Mount. If he has gone on record about this, please send me the reference so I can link to it.
Even Israeli archaeologists are not so sure that Ms. Mazar has found the palace - the house that Hiram, king of Tyre, built for the victorious king, at least as Samuel 2:5 describes it. It may also be the Fortress of Zion that David conquered from the Jebusites, who ruled Jerusalem before him, or some other structure about which the Bible is silent.

A couple of corrections: Eilat Mazar's title is "Dr." And the reference should be to 2 Samuel 5:11.

Later in the article we read:
In his book, "The Bible Unearthed," Mr. [i.e. Professor Israel] Finkelstein writes with Neil Silberman, "Not only was any sign of monumental architecture missing, but so were even simple pottery shards."

Ms. Mazar believes she has found a riposte: a large public building, with at least some pottery of the time, and a bulla, or governmental seal, of an official - Jehucal (or Jucal), son of Shelemiah, son of Shevi - who is mentioned at least twice in the Book of Jeremiah.

Three questions. First, is the name on the bulla Jehucal (according to Maariv) or Yehudi (according to the New York Sun)? I assume it's the former, but given the Sun report it would have been helpful to have clarification. Second, where does the name "Shevi" come from? The book of Jeremiah doesn't give Jehucal's grandfather's name and according to the Maariv article the grandfather's name on the bulla was "Nubi." Is Shevi a correction of the earlier report? (Just how well-preserved is this bulla?) Third, what is a late-seventh-century bulla doing in a tenth-century building? Was the bulla excavated in the building or was it just found in its vicinity? What is the stratigraphy of the building? Was it still in use in the seventh century?
The building can be reasonably dated by the pottery found above and below it. Ms. Mazar found on the bedrock a large floor of crushed limestone, indicating a large public space. The floor and fill above it contain pottery from Iron Age I of the 12th to 11th centuries B.C., just before David conquered Jerusalem.

Above that, Ms. Mazar found the foundations for this monumental building, with large boulders for walls that are about 2 yards thick and extend at least 30 yards. In one corner was pottery of Iron Age II, the 10th to 9th centuries, roughly the time of the united kingdom.

Unfortunately, Mr. Mazar said, she found no floor. It is clear the building was constructed after the pottery underneath it, but less clear exactly how much later.


The lack of a floor complicates things, as does the evidence for 10th-9th century occupation being limited to a corner. Again, we should wait for the formal publication of the excavation before we draw any larger conclusions.

UPDATE: Ed Cook e-mails:
As far as the Nubi-Shebi confusion is concerned, note that in printed Hebrew nun-vav and shin are easily confused. There could be a "scribal error" at some point in the process.

Yes, that could be it. I just checked: both words (as Nobay and Shobay) are attested as names in the Bible in Neh 10:20 and Ezra 2:42/Neh 7:45. The word "Nubi" does not appear in biblical Hebrew.

I suspect the error in citing 2 Samuel above has a similar origin, i.e., that 2 Samuel 5 ended up as Samuel 2:5.

Another update has been removed at the request of the sender.

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