Sunday, October 11, 2015

The NYT and Jewish-Temple denial

TEMPLE MOUNT WATCH: Historical Certainty Proves Elusive at Jerusalem’s Holiest Place (RICK GLADSTONE, New York Times). I wrote a long post about this article on Friday. Then I reread the Times article and realized the problems with it were even more extensive than I had first thought and that more needed to be said. I had to get some other work done, so I set this post aside until I had more time, which is now.

Meanwhile the article's bogus historical assertions have been called out by many. A selection:

There Was a Temple on the Temple Mount (Michael Satlow)

The so-called “elusive” location of the Temple in Jerusalem (Leen Ritmeyer)

New York Times Gives Credence to Muslim Claims of No Jewish Temples Ever on Temple Mount (The Algemeiner)

The Temple, the Times and the BDS Supporter (Alex Safian, CAMERA)

The Times Declares History is Bunk (JONATHAN S. TOBIN, Commentary Magazine)

The blowback has been so great that the Times has had to revise the article a little and post the following:
Correction: October 9, 2015
An earlier version of this article misstated the question that many books and scholarly treatises have never definitively answered concerning the two ancient Jewish temples. The question is where precisely on the 37-acre Temple Mount site the temples had once stood, not whether the temples had ever existed there.
I'm glad they posted the correction, but that doesn't let them off the hook for irresponsible journalism. The two questions are not hard to mix up: one is a real question and the other is made-up Palestinian propaganda. They should have known better.

The references above point to errors in the article, but problems remain that require further discussion and nuancing, so I have rewritten the earlier draft of this post to take into account new developments and make such points as I think remain to be made. The article originally began:
Within Jerusalem’s holiest site, known as the Temple Mount to Jews and the Noble Sanctuary to Muslims, lies an explosive historical question that cuts to the essence of competing claims to what may be the world’s most contested piece of real estate.

The question, which many books and scholarly treatises have never definitively answered, is whether the 37-acre site, home to Islam’s sacred Dome of the Rock shrine and Al Aqsa Mosque, was also the precise location of two ancient Jewish temples, one built on the remains of the other, and both long since gone.
(My bold emphasis.) The second paragraph has been rewritten as follows:
The question, which many books and scholarly treatises have never definitively answered, is where on the 37-acre site, home to Islam’s sacred Dome of the Rock shrine and Al Aqsa Mosque, was the precise location of two ancient Jewish temples, one built on the remains of the other, and both long since gone.
(My bold emphasis.) I have no problem with the second paragraph as it now stands. The third paragraph, which remains unchanged, is a different matter:
Those temples are integral to Jewish religious history and to Israel’s disputed assertions of sovereignty over all of Jerusalem. Many Palestinians, suspicious of Israel’s intentions for the site, have increasingly expressed doubt that the temples ever existed — at least in that location. Many Israelis regard such a challenge as false and inflammatory denialism.
Excuse me? "Many Israelis?" There is no historical debate whether Jewish temples stood on "the site," meaning somewhere on the Temple Mount. PaleoJudaica has endless posts on Jewish-Temple denial, which originates in Palestinian propaganda, is widely circulated in the Arab world, and is sometimes facilitated by the Western media. Start here and follow the links or, for more, run the terms "Jewish temple denial" through PaleoJudaica's search engine. It is disappointing to see the Times speaking so imprecisely, as though some Israelis and everybody else thought it was fine.

The fourth paragraph raises further concerns:
“This is a very politically loaded subject,” said Matthew J. Adams, Dorot director of the W. F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem. “It’s also an academically complex question.”
What's that? The director of the Albright Institute says that whether there were Jewish temples on the Temple Mount is "an academically complex question?" Not so fast. Scroll down well into the article and we read this:
“The sources for the first temple are solely biblical, and no substantial archaeological remains have been verified,” said Wendy Pullan, senior lecturer in the history and philosophy of architecture at the University of Cambridge, in the book “The Struggle for Jerusalem’s Holy Places.”

Mr. Adams said, “We just don’t have enough primary source data, textual or archaeological, to say where it was with any confidence.”
If you put Mr. Adams's two quotes together in this context, they say something rather different: that where the First Temple stood on the Temple Mount is an academically complex question and we don't have enough primary data to answer it confidently. Was he really talking about the question of there being ancient Jewish temples at all on the Temple Mount or was he talking about the location of one or both of the earlier temples? I don't have access to the full transcript, but reading the two quotations together in this context makes sense for what the director of the Albright Institute would likely have actually said. If so, the placement of the first quote in its current context in the article gives an incorrect impression of what he was saying.

CAMERA objects to Dr. Pullan's comments on the grounds of her political connections. These don't interest me one way or another, although the Times could have noted them in the interest of full disclosure. My concern is about the historical accuracy of her statement, which should be considered alongside the following two excerpts (the next three quoted paragraphs below), a little later in the article:
Jane Cahill, an expert on Jerusalem’s early history who was a senior staff archaeologist for Hebrew University’s City of David Archaeological Project, said “nobody knows exactly” where the temples once stood, although “pretty powerful circumstantial evidence” suggests they were on the site.

“Because there have been no organized excavations there, and not likely to be, circumstantial evidence is probably all we’re going to have,” she said.
Again, I would like to see Ms. Cahill's full quotation. I suspect she was saying that no one knows exactly where the temples stood on the Temple Mount, which is correct. As framed now, her statement could be taken to imply that there might have been Jewish temples somewhere or other, but not necessarily on the Temple Mount, which is a bizarre thought. The temples were somewhere else in the vicinity of Jerusalem but through some mixup everyone forgot about that and (understandably) got the erroneous idea that they stood on that big platform? I don't think so.
Archaeologists agree that far more information is known that corroborates the existence of the second temple at the site than the first.
That is true. It is almost correct that the only evidence for the First Temple is references in the Hebrew Bible, although I want to nuance that a bit, and it is true that there is no "substantial archaeological" (i.e. architectual) evidence so far for the First Temple. But there is good reason why there shouldn't be. A decade ago I collected the evidence for the existence of the Second and Herodian Temples and the existence of the First Temple, where I dealt with the questions in considerable detail.

But to recap briefly here: starting from first principles, other ancient Near Eastern peoples had their own national temples and it would be very notable anomaly if the late-Iron Age Judeans didn't. There is a clear, persistent, and consistent memory that there was such a temple and it stood on that site, and that's why the Second Temple was built there. And there is supporting epigraphic etc. evidence in addition, although the readings are sometimes unclear and one could interpret the Arad inscription in other (less convincing) ways.

I am aware of no peer-review publication that argues that there was no Iron Age Judean temple somewhere on the Temple Mount. Where exactly on the Temple Mount and when exactly in the Iron Age II it was built are more complicated problems on which there is debate.

Skipping a bit more:
Further corroboration of the temple’s existence is in the New Testament, based on its account of anger at Paul by Jews who accused him of having violated the trespass restriction: “He has brought Greeks into the temple and defiled this holy place,” reads a passage from Acts 21:28.
The New Testament has many references to the Herodian Temple. See my post linked to above on the Herodian and Second Temple for some, not all, of them.

Finally, I note, as have others, that the Times mentions the Waqf administration of the Temple Mount, but fails to mention its destructive illicit excavations there and the efforts of the Temple Mount Sifting Project to recover what data can be recovered from the discarded rubble. See recently here and here and just keep following those links back.

Let us be clear: the New York Times published an article making seriously erroneous assertions about the scholarly state of the question regarding the evidence for Judean/Jewish temples on the Temple Mount. It was called out on them and published a retraction, although questions remain about the content that was left unchanged. The inspiration for the now-corrected historical mischaracterization was Palestinian propaganda about the Temple Mount. And the Times published the article just at a time when disputes over the Temple Mount are particulary intense in the region. I give them some credit for the correction, but the article was still exceedingly unhelpful. Many people will have read it and will never see the correction. The New York Times has not covered itself with glory on this one.

UPDATE: I have just received an e-mail from Joseph I. Lauer indicating that Jodi Magness, one of the specialists quoted in the article, has written to the Times protesting and correcting the misrepresentation of scholarship in this article. Her letter will be published by the Times. Watch this space.

UPDATE (14 October): More here, here, and here.