When the ribbon was cut to dedicate Jerusalem's newest archaeological attraction last summer, Eilat Mazar stood among the dignitaries like a proud parent.
The 56 year-old Israeli archaeologist didn't just direct the final excavation that prepared the Ophel City Wall site for visitors. She also linked the silent stones with one of the Bible's most eminent and holy kings: Solomon.
The Ophel lies just below the Temple Mount and above the City of David, the oldest area of Jerusalem. It is one of the most authentic locations for pilgrims to "walk where Jesus walked." Now it is possible to stand in the shadow of massive walls that date back to the First Temple.
"The Bible describes how King Solomon built the walls of Jerusalem in 1 Kings 3:1," Mazar told Christianity Today. "I'm suggesting that what we've revealed can be related quite safely to King Solomon."
Such a bold biblical connection from a modern Israeli archaeologist is rare. It provokes other archaeologists (except for evangelical ones), but it also exposes how the discipline has changed over the past several decades. Biblical archaeology has become a field of scientists who are self-conscious about the biblical pursuits that guided—and sometimes misguided—the discipline during earlier years.
Archaeologists of the early 20th century who linked their discoveries with biblical stories occasionally found that later evidence or more refined scrutiny called their judgments into question. Such premature connection is an indictment that has hung around the neck of biblical archaeology for so long that some archaeologists today are more apt to apologize for biblical connections than to trumpet them.
But not all. In the July/August 2011 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR), editor Hershel Shanks chided Israeli archaeologist Ronny Reich for asserting that hypothetical biblical connections should be saved until after the archaeological evidence has been properly sorted out. Shanks believes that Mazar, in her willingness to make the biblical hypothesis sooner rather than later, is not wrong. Speaking of another excavation that Mazar suggests is King David's palace, Shanks wrote that Mazar was simply following the scientific method: "Eilat had a hypothesis, and she wanted to test it by digging."
How many archaeologists today are willing to admit to testing a biblical hypothesis? In 1998, the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR), the main professional organization for archaeologists working in the Middle East, changed the name of its magazine from Biblical Archaeologist to Near Eastern Archaeology in order to separate itself from that modus operandi. Mazar, on the other hand, seems more like her grandfather and the archaeologists of earlier generations.
Benjamin Mazar was one of Israel's most distinguished archaeologists. From 1953 to 1961, he also served as president of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Mazar learned her earliest lessons in archaeology from him long before she earned her Ph.D. from the Hebrew University, where she is now on staff at the Institute of Archaeology.
Benjamin Mazar directed excavation of the Ophel area for over a dozen years, beginning in 1968. His granddaughter was glad for the chance to return to the area. "It's actually a dream come true," she said of the new archaeological park. "Now people can come and witness for themselves how impressive these fortifications are and why we're suggesting dating them to King Solomon."
A Disputed Discovery
Mazar believes that the centerpiece of the discovery is the Water Gate gatehouse mentioned in Nehemiah 3:26-27.
Dutch-born archaeological architect Leen Ritmeyer begs to differ. He worked in the Ophel area with both Mazar and her grandfather in the 1970s and 1980s.
On his blog, Ritmeyer wrote that he suggested to Mazar 25 years ago that she excavate the area to see if it was a gate. But instead of excavating, he reports, she called a news conference and simply announced the discovery of the Water Gate.
"My suggestion that the building in question could have been a gateway was just a working proposal meant to give guidance as to where to dig and investigate. [It] was not ready for media consumption the next day," he told CT by e-mail.
Ritmeyer now believes the actual Water Gate was not at the Ophel but farther down the slope of the Kidron Valley. He believes what Mazar calls the Water Gate was only a storage facility and water-distribution point.
Israeli newspaper Haaretz also noted objections from Israel Finkelstein, a professor at the Tel Aviv University Institute of Archaeology: "If indeed this is a fortification, the findings indicate it was built in a later stage of the kingdom—after Solomon's era."
Finkelstein is the chief proponent of the Low Chronology, which re-dates archaeological findings from the 10th century B.C. This method of dating minimizes the significance of David and Solomon, suggesting that they were minor chieftains rather than major rulers. The Low Chronology is based in part on the paucity of archaeological evidence for David and Solomon's rule in Jerusalem itself.
That's why the small fragment of writing that went on display in a museum at the west end of the Ophel—at the same time the Solomonic Wall was dedicated—may be a more important discovery still.
While carefully sifting the dirt dug out from around this section of the wall, Mazar's team discovered a 3/4-by-1-inch fragment of a clay tablet inscribed in Akkadian cuneiform script. The tablet was dated to the 14th century B.C.—the oldest writing ever found in Jerusalem. "It's very small, but it does tell much because it was written by a very highly skilled scribe," Mazar said.
The dating puts it in the period of the Amarna Letters, a cache of correspondence sent from vassal Canaanite kings to the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten. Six of the letters were from Abdi-Heba, the ruler of Jerusalem.
Little archaeological evidence of the Jerusalem of Abdi-Heba has been uncovered either. This has led Mazar and other defenders of David's and Solomon's significance to suggest there is much yet to discover about Jerusalem from archaeology. Pronouncements based on absence of evidence can change quickly with a new discovery. She notes that important areas of the City of David are still unexcavated.
The Future Of 'Biblical' Archaeology
Mazar doesn't shy away from being called a biblical archaeologist, as some of her colleagues might. She likes the terminology.
"Look, when I'm excavating Jerusalem, and when I'm excavating at the City of David, and when I'm excavating near the Kidron Valley and near the Gihon Spring and at the Ophel—these are all biblical terms," she said. "So it's not like I'm here because it's some anonymous place. This is Jerusalem, which we know best from the Bible."
Nor is Mazar self-conscious about declaring that she excavates with the Bible in one hand and a spade in the other—a description sometimes used to scornfully dismiss archaeologists of earlier years who were trained more in biblical studies than in archaeological technique.
"I don't believe these [modern] archaeologists who ignore the Bible," she said. "To ignore the written sources, especially the Bible—I don't believe any serious scholar anywhere would do this. It doesn't make any sense."
That Mazar is a serious scholar is without question. "She's a good archaeologist," said Lawrence Geraty, a former ASOR president. "She understands stratigraphy, she knows biblical history; I don't think she can be dismissed out of hand. Critics want to disparage her work because they have an agenda that doesn't allow the Bible to contain accurate history."
Ten years ago, archaeologist James Hoffmeier of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School convened a conference just outside Chicago, attended by a small invited group of evangelical and conservative Jewish scholars. "The Future of Biblical Archaeology" raised the question of whether biblical archaeology even had a future, as Finkelstein's theories gained credence and even more-minimalist views of the Bible's historicity gained a wider hearing.
In the intervening years, archaeologists working at sites such as Khirbet Qeiyafa and Khirbet en-Nahas have found new evidence for a centralized Judean monarchy during the time of David and Solomon. The pendulum is swinging away from the biblical minimalists.
At the same time, a better-trained generation of evangelical archaeologists is taking the field. "Many of us who are working in the field are far more cognizant of our need to be scientific, to employ the latest methodologies, to have our work critically evaluated by our peers and not just by our friends," said Hoffmeier.
Mazar was not at the August 2001 conference, but Hoffmeier thinks she would have been comfortable in a group that values the Bible for its historical information.
A Historical Document
Mazar calls the Bible a historical document. But she also says that it needs to be tested and examined. While evangelicals can appreciate her vigorous defense of the Bible as an independent narrative in the field of biblical archaeology, she does not view it as holy writ.
"I'm not religious," she said. "The only interest we share is interest in historical sources, either the Old Testament or the New Testament. Everything [in the Bible] is important to me in order to be examined or studied."
She wrote in a 2006 BAR article, "One of the many things I learned from my grandfather was how to relate to the biblical text: Pore over it again and again, for it contains within it descriptions of genuine historical reality."
The leading archaeologists of the early 20th century who worked with Mazar's grandfather—such as William F. Albright, G. Ernest Wright, and Nelson Glueck—believed that the findings of archaeology supported and did not contradict the Bible. Evangelical archaeologists still hold to that.
"When I teach archaeology to my students, I will make that statement," said Steven Ortiz, a professor of archaeology at Southwestern Baptist Seminary, co-director of excavations at Tel Gezer, and an attendee of Hoffmeier's conference. "Archaeological finds help us interpret the Bible accurately."
Hoffmeier agrees. "Some archaeological discoveries have challenged particular interpretations of the Bible," he said. "One of the problems with the Wright and Albright school was that they had created an expectation of what archaeology could do in terms of discovering the Joshua conquest. They created an expectation that archaeology couldn't deliver. And so people saw that failure as a failure of the Bible."
"I would say that archaeology has not contraverted Scripture," said Geraty. "But it has not always supported our previous interpretation and understanding of Scripture. So we've had to take another look to see how we could help the two relate constructively to each other."
Ortiz compares today's biblical archaeology to CSI, the television show in which sophisticated techniques are used to gather clues that solve murders and other crimes. "We have enough circumstantial evidence to reconstruct historical events," he said about today's better-equipped excavators. Archaeologists of earlier years were after the smoking gun, and sometimes came up disappointed.
More Discoveries Ahead
In 1997, BAR published an article by Mazar cataloging the clues that suggested the remains of the palace of King David could be found in the northern section of the City of David. This area, previously filled with orchards and off-limits to archaeologists, was now open for excavation. "Who will heed the call to find King David's palace?" she asked.
Mazar secured financing and began to dig in 2005. Soon the diggers uncovered the remains of what she called the Large-Stone Structure. The impressive size of the remains made it clear this was no ordinary building. Diagnostic pottery tests allowed for a 10th century B.C. date. Mazar announced that the most logical conclusion was that she had found the remains of King David's palace.
While a palace of King David and the gated walls of King Solomon are impressive, Mazar is clearly more impressed by the tiny discoveries that have come out of her excavations. The tablet fragment of Akkadian script is just one example.
One of her supervisors working inside the Large-Stone Structure spotted raised letters on a flattened ball of clay about the size of a fingernail. Called a bulla, it was the seal impression from an important document. It read, "Belonging to Jehucal, son of Shelemiah, son of Shovi."
Jehucal, the son of Shelemiah, is mentioned in Jeremiah 37:3 and 38:1 as one of the officials serving King Zedekiah. Describing how she deciphered the inscription, Mazar wrote, "I felt as though I had just resurrected someone straight out of the Bible."
Three years later, as work continued outside of the structure, a bulla was unearthed with the name of one of Jehucal's colleagues: Gedaliah, the son of Pashhur, also mentioned in Jeremiah 38:1.
"That is why archaeology is so fascinating," said Mazar. "It's written in the Bible, and then we find these seal impressions. It demonstrates that this biblical story is so accurate."
The fact that Mazar has long worked in the City of David, which is also part of the Arab village of Silwan, engenders additional criticism. The Elad Foundation, which is working to strengthen the Jewish connection to Jerusalem, has been reclaiming the land parcel by parcel from Arab occupants and has provided funds for Mazar and other excavations.
But in a curious turn of events, just a month ago Mazar leveled strong criticism at the Elad Foundation. Elad excavated a cistern just a few feet from where Mazar excavated the structure she identified as the palace of King David. Mazar charged the cistern excavation was improper and sent a letter to the Chairman of Israel's Archaeological Council, asking for an investigation.
Mazar says her City of David excavations, under the auspices of the Institute of Archaeology at the Hebrew University, use the best and most accurate archaeological practices and are without a political agenda. She believes her archaeology speaks for itself.
"When you go on a site, you use the best archaeological methods that you know of," she said. "You put aside all theories and start working. Then the site itself—what's revealed—comes up, whatever it is. Either it supports what you had in mind to find, or not."
Mazar accepts the criticism as part of the territory that goes with excavating in Jerusalem. She appreciates the honor of working in one of the world's most interesting historical cities. And she anticipates that digging further will add more to our understanding of the Bible and the biblical world.
"The Bible could have told us more about what David and Solomon did, because what we see now is so impressive," she said. "I have a very strong feeling we are just at the beginning. There is much to be revealed in ancient Jerusalem."
Gordon Govier is editor of ARTIFAX and produces The Book and the Spade radio program.
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Previous Christianity Today articles on archaeology include:
Archaeology in Turkey: Major Finds in Asia Minor | But researchers say Turkish government is shutting them out. (October 27, 2011)
Archaeology: What an Ancient Hebrew Note Might Mean | Scholar says five lines of ancient script on a broken piece of pottery confirm Kingdom of Israel's existence in 10th century B.C. Others are cautious. (January 18, 2010)
Finders of the Lost Ark? | Why some amateurs are stirring up dust and little else. (May 5, 2008)
Looking Back | Claims to new Sodom locations are salted with controversy. (March 12, 2008)
The Search for Biblical History | What do we do if archeology contradicts the word of God? (CT LiveBlog, January 21, 2008)
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