Raiders of the Lost Relics

Jerusalem, Israel - On a hilltop overlooking the Elah Valley, about 15 miles southwest of Jerusalem, an ancient city is yielding archaeological finds that have reignited a debate about some of the Bible's most colorful characters, including King David.

In 2008, Yosef Garfinkel, a professor of archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, unearthed a potsherd at the site, known as Khirbet Qeiyafa, inscribed with ancient Hebrew characters and dated to the 10th century BC—the earliest Hebrew inscription yet discovered. He also found a highly unusual second gate in the heavily fortified city walls. The combination led him to identify the location as Shaarayim (Two Gates), a city mentioned three times in the Bible, most notably as the town to which the Israelites chased the Philistines after the slaying of Goliath (I Samuel 17). In early May, Garfinkel announced his most recent discovery: three large shrines, standing stones, altars, and other cultic objects, including two portable model shrines made of pottery and stone. Garfinkel said his discoveries proved that those who "completely deny the biblical tradition regarding King David and argue that he was a mythological figure, or just a leader of a small tribe, are now shown to be wrong."

Garfinkel's finds have triggered a wave of excitement from one set of scholars—and a chorus of derision from another. In a scathing essay published just before the latest finds were announced, Israel Finkelstein, a professor of archaeology at Tel Aviv University, dismissed Garfinkel's dating of the site as a product of "methodological shortcomings in both fieldwork and interpretation of the finds."

For the past 20 years, archaeologists have been locked in a battle over the very existence of David and his son Solomon, the extent of their influence, and when they reigned, if at all. Though the events under discussion occurred some 3,000 years ago, the debate has stirred strong emotions fueled by modern-day politics, academic rivalry, and a very 21st-century recruitment of modern media techniques that have divided the dry and dusty world of archaeological research into warring digital camps.

The David debate first spiked in the 1990s, when Finkelstein challenged the traditional idea of "a great United Monarchy of Israel, established in the course of the military exploits of King David and stabilized in the days of his son Solomon, who ruled over a glamorous, rich, and prosperous state." That notion had emerged from excavations conducted by the founder of biblical archaeology, William F. Albright, in the 1930s, and subsequently was cemented in popular perception in the 1970s by the archaeologist Yigael Yadin's discoveries at Megiddo, 75 miles north of Jerusalem.

The traditional view, Finkelstein argued, was based mainly on the biblical account of Israel's early history. "In other words, this is a unique (and annoying) case in which archaeologists compromised the evidence provided by their own discipline in favor of the one-sided interpretation of the textual material provided by another discipline."

The archaeologists to whom he referred are sometimes known as Maximalists, and they are concentrated at the Hebrew University. Supporters of the "High Chronology," they believe that by the 10th century BC, the House of David ruled, first from Hebron and then from Jerusalem, over a polity extending as far as the Elah Valley in the west and Hebron to the south—a day's march in either direction. Some believe it reached all the way to Megiddo, where Yadin unearthed monumental ruins ascribed to the ancient kingdoms, including an area previously identified as "Solomon's Stables" that he reattributed to King Ahab—just as unscientifically, according to Finkelstein.

But "not one of the arguments of the traditional chronology can withstand a thorough scrutiny, free of theological or simply romantic bias," wrote Finkelstein.

Finkelstein became the poster child for an opposing camp of Minimalists, concentrated at Tel Aviv University. Advocates of the "Low Chronology," they say that David and Solomon were mythical figures who perhaps ruled a small nomadic tribe confined to the Jerusalem-Hebron area. They date the finds at Megiddo to the ninth century BC, say they have no connection to Solomon, and argue that the biblical kingdoms of Israel and Judea emerged as political powers at least a century after David was supposed to have lived.

"The debate over the chronology for me is over. I'm not interested in this any more. It has been decided, as far as I can judge," Finkelstein tells me as he inspects the vast excavation pits at Megiddo that so far have yielded layers of civilization stretching back some 5,000 years.

"The biblical David almost certainly didn't exist," says Philip Davies, emeritus professor of biblical studies at the University of Sheffield, in England, whose book In Search of 'Ancient Israel' questioned the entire notion of an ancient Jewish kingdom.

"There probably never was such a thing as 'the Land of Israel,'" he says. Rabbis were probably the first to use the Hebrew term eretz yisrael to mean "Palestine."

Certainly, he says, eretz yisrael is never used in connection with the promise of land by God or the conquest of land.

He charges the Maximalists with interpreting the Bible through the distorting lens of modern politics to provide an ideological underpinning for modern Zionism and the State of Israel.

"The existence of Abraham and Moses has been in serious doubt amongst biblical scholars for many decades. David is now coming into the limelight," says Davies.

Garfinkel's latest finds from Khirbet Qeiyafa may win the argument—unless the rival camp can provide an alternative explanation for the newly unearthed cultic objects. He says his reference to King David has no connection to the modern state of Israel or Zionist ideology. The 10th-century date has been confirmed by carbon-14 tests. He says the absence of pig bones, the lack of human or animal forms in the religious vessels, and the Hebraic inscription set Khirbet Qeiyafa apart from nearby Canaanite or Philistine sites of the same period.

"Here we are in the Elah Valley. According to the radiocarbon dating we are in the time of David, and we have two gates, so we match very nicely the biblical description of Shaarayim," says Garfinkel. "The Minimalists can't bear this because it destroys the idea that the Bible has no historical memories from the 10th century. But this site shows you that some historical memories are embedded in the biblical tradition."

He says he has no view about the personal history of King David, or whether he even existed.

"It's a metaphor. Maybe there were 20 Goliaths and 20 Davids. The Bible remembers that this was the border area, like Alsace-Lorraine between France and Germany, where the Judeans and the Philistines clashed for generations," he says.

Aren Maeir of Bar-Ilan University is excavating a site at Tel Es-Safi, a few miles further west, identified as the site of Gath, home to the biblical Goliath.

"To make a connection between the biblical text and the archaeological remains does not mean you are accepting the biblical text 100 percent at face value as an infallible text," says Maeir. "But not to use the biblical text and not try to find within the biblical text the layers which relate specifically to the Iron Age is ludicrous."

"We're here not to prove or disprove the Bible. We're here to illustrate the cultures in which the biblical text was formed," he says.

The correspondence of archaeological finds with biblical texts is a charged topic even beyond the Maximalist-Minimalist divide. Academic biblical archaeology is already reeling from a series of assaults—from several directions—that put scholars like Maeir and Garfinkel under particular scrutiny and threaten to damage the credibility of the entire field.

In the old days, scholars could spend years excavating a site, and then more years, perhaps decades, marshaling material and publishing their conclusions.

In recent years, a new hunger for publicity and acclaim has changed all that. As the cost of excavations and scholarship has risen, archaeologists have turned to private sponsors and commercial organizations to underwrite their expeditions. Publicity has become a key tool for raising money. With the proliferation of cable TV, channels like National Geographic and Discovery, and then independent film producers, were able to provide huge injections of cash in return for exclusive access and production rights to the most camera-friendly expeditions. After such heavy investment, the producers expect discoveries that would create headlines and attract large audiences.

In the past decade, a steady stream of spectacular discoveries linked to well-known biblical stories has come from a mixture of outright charlatans, religious foundations, highly regarded mainstream archaeologists, and even the Israel Antiquities Authority, an official government agency that oversees all archaeological work in Israel. Some of the announcements read like a modern-day search for holy relics.

Suddenly, every archaeologist is being compared with Indiana Jones, and filmed in what appear to be similar settings.

The fusion between commercial movie making and archaeology reached its apogee when James Cameron, director of Titanic and Avatar, began producing documentary films about the excavation of Roman-era tombs in Jerusalem. The Exodus Decoded, in 2006, was followed the next year by The Lost Tomb of Jesus.

After years of scraping together research grants and fellowships, the huge budgets were hard to resist. "I don't agree with everything they say in the films, but they pay me an awful lot more than I could ever earn from writing or teaching," one archaeologist who has appeared in such productions told The Chronicle, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The Emmy Award-winning director Simcha Jacobovici (star of the documentary television show The Naked Archaeologist) appears to have the best publicity machine and the biggest budgets for such films. This year Jacobovici directed The Resurrection Tomb Mystery, a film that purported to recast the earliest days of Christianity in Jerusalem. He described the discovery of a tomb in that city containing a burial box inscribed with what the filmmakers said was the earliest known example of Christian iconography—a whale spitting out a stick figure of Jonah. The film was swiftly deconstructed by scholars. Critics identified the "fish" as a common depiction of a burial urn: The filmmakers had portrayed it horizontally rather than in its original vertical position to buttress their interpretation. Robin Jensen, a professor of the history of art and Christian worship at Vanderbilt University, who had been flown to Rome to appear in the film, wrote to "absolutely refute" the suggestion that she supported the film's conclusions.

In 2011, Jacobovici had announced another spectacular find: nails that he suggested were used in the crucifixion of Jesus. In the past dec­ade, he has presented what he says is evidence of the "family tomb" of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph; a movie purporting to show the scientific and historical context of the Ten Plagues in Egypt; and proof that some of the Gospel of St. Mark was written in Spain.

(This reporter first met Jacobovici while working as a researcher for a week on another movie, in 2003.)

The dash for public acclaim has coincided with an escalating politicization of archaeology by both Israeli and Palestinian researchers, with each side attempting to buttress its own patriotic narrative about the disputed Holy Land through the interpretation of artifacts found buried in it.

Eilat Mazar of the Hebrew University unearthed an impressive building in 2005 on a site believed to be the ancient City of David in Jerusalem, and tagged it as the palace of King David. In 2010 she identified a large stone wall a few yards to the north as built by King Solomon.

In February 2012, the Israel Antiquities Authority announced archaeological finds in Ashdod that it said verified the existence of life there at the time of the prophet Jonah. In December 2011, the agency announced the discovery of a seal impression it said was "a first of its kind find, indicative of activity in the Temple."

Such announcements were celebrated by the IAA as physical evidence of the biblical narrative.

Other finds did not come from official archaeological excavations, raising the possibility they were not even authentic. In 2011 the discovery was announced of a set of lead codices found in Jordan bearing pages of apparently ancient script and likenesses of Jesus. They were swiftly revealed as almost certain fakes.

In July 2010, Adam Zertal of the University of Haifa identified a site as "Sisera's hometown, as mentioned in the book of Judges," based on the discovery of a single bronze linchpin from a chariot wheel. Further afield, explorers have "found" the remains of Noah's ark in Turkey on several occasions.

Jim West, an adjunct professor of biblical studies at the Quartz Hill School of Theology, an online effort affiliated with a Baptist church in California, and moderator of an influential online forum for Bible scholars, says many of the Bible-related archaeological claims made in recent years have been tainted with "exaggeration and speculation the likes of which haven't been seen since pieces of the 'true cross' were found all across Europe in the Middle Ages."

West says the headline-grabbing discoveries are detracting from genuine scholarship and casting a cloud over the entire field of "biblical archaeology."

"It's time to take our field back," he says. "This isn't about any of us, it's about getting word out to the public which accurately reflects the state of our present knowledge regarding biblical studies and archaeology."

Among the scholars who challenged Jacobovici's movie purporting to reveal the lost tomb of Jesus in 2008 was Mark Goodacre, an associate professor of New Testament in the religion department at Duke University, who published an essay detailing the faults he found in the film and its associated Web sites. He says he was dismayed by the lack of response and wonders whether the authors "are driven by commercial concerns and ... uninterested in honest intellectual concerns."

Respected archaeologists like Garfinkel and Maeir are concerned that their careful use of the Bible as a possible reference for scholarship is being both upstaged and undermined by the spectacular showmanship of popularizers.

"One of the problems is that if you're interested in headlines and you're interested in money, certain people want to hear certain things," says Maeir. "To relate to the biblical text as though it's the Sunday-school story that we read, a very simple and clear-cut event, that's a mistake. But on the other hand, to say that because the biblical text is multilayered and complicated, so I'm not going to relate to it—that's also a mistake."

Shimon Gibson, a senior fellow at the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research and an instructor at the University of the Holy Land, in Jerusalem, says disputes between archaeologists are nothing new and can produce healthy results.

Gibson has enjoyed his own time in the limelight with headline-hitting discoveries of a shrouded figure in a Roman-era tomb in Jerusalem and inscriptions in a cave in the Judean Hills that he linked to John the Baptist.

But he says there is a wide gulf between floating scholarly hypotheses that spark the popular imagination and wild claims made by commercial film producers.

"The public doesn't distinguish between informed opinion and speculation and fantasy—to them it's all the same," says Gibson. "We are professionals in different fields. It annoys me because I'm tarred with the same brush as people who do speculate and work in terms of fantasies."

Emotions can run high. Joe Zias, a former IAA inspector and one of Jacobovici's most strident critics, proudly boasted that his criticism of the Lost Tomb film had led to its being quietly dropped by the Discovery Channel and said that by concerted action the scholarly community might bury future projects. Jacobovici responded by filing a lawsuit, accusing Zias of defamation and demanding $1-million in damages.

One academic who has collaborated with Jacobovici says people are too worked up about the ways in which the filmmaker uses archaeology. James D. Tabor, chair of the department of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, appeared in The Lost Tomb of Jesus, about a Roman-era burial cave in Talpiot, Jerusalem, and wrote The Jesus Dynasty, a book that chimed with the film's thesis. The two have written a new book, The Jesus Discovery: The New Archaeological Find That Reveals the Birth of Christianity, to accompany their latest documentary.

"I'm happy working with him," says Tabor. "Simcha and I are close enough friends that if we have differences, we hash them out. Because I'm a scholar, not a filmmaker, I would like more cautionary statements all the way through, but it probably would lessen the drama."

He says the controversy about their work stems from either professional pride or religious belief.

"It brought together the strangest bedfellows—archaeologists and evangelical Christians," he says. "The archaeologists didn't want to admit they had overlooked the most important and interesting discovery in the history of archaeology. It was a little embarrassing. The evangelicals obviously hate it because it can't be Jesus whose body went to heaven."

As for Jacobovici, he points out that many of the scholars critical of him, including West, are ordained Christian ministers. He says they have a theological agenda, comparing them to "sleeper agents" inside academe.

"This is where it becomes very mean," Jacobovici says. "Everything historical, even if it's good for Christianity, has to be delegitimized, because they decided a long time ago that any Jesus archaeology is bad."

"That means that anyone coming up with anything to do with Jesus is marginalized, dehumanized, delegitimized, and ostracized. They have to make an example of him so that anybody else who might go that way won't dare to challenge them in future," he says.

Jacobovici recalls that the Dead Sea Scrolls were also initially denounced as fakes—in part because they challenged long-held beliefs about the origins of Christianity. He says he is using legitimate journalistic methods to promote public interest and scholarly debate in finds that might otherwise languish for years before being published.

West acknowledges that headline-grabbing stories may provoke good scientific debate but says his criticism has nothing to do with religion.

"He's right that the archaeological guild has done a miserable job in engaging the public," says West. "You have to hand it to him. He has raised the issues, but in my estimation he has raised them the wrong way. He has sensationalized things that shouldn't be sensationalized: the Talpiot tomb, the Jesus nails. Those things are just not real. They are not real archaeological finds, they are not what they are being claimed to be."