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Broadcast: 24/04/00
It Ain't Necessarily So

What if Moses didn't lead the Israelites to the Promised Land or the walls of Jericho never fell before Joshua's armies. For Christians there will be concerns about the veracity of these claims but for the Jews in Israel it is a more pointed issue because these statements are being made by archaeologists who are themselves Jewish.

Compere: Chris Clark
Reporter: Morag Ramsay

CHRIS CLARK: Now, Ze'ev Herzog is Associate Professor of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University and he thinks archaeology should forget about using the Bible as a reference point.

Professor William Dever is a hugely experienced archaeologist in this field who draws utterly different conclusions.

He joins us from his university in Arizona.

And Gerald Steinberg is Professor of Political Studies at Bar-Ilan University in Israel and he is worried about the impact that these new ideas could have on Israeli society.

Ze'ev Herzog, first of all, let me come to you.

If the Israelites were never in Egypt, there was no wandering in the desert and the Walls of Jericho didn't come tumbling down, are you saying that it's time to simply give the Bible away as an historical source?

PROFESSOR ZE'EV HERZOG, ARCHAEOLOGY, TEL AVIV UNIVERSITY: Yes, I claim that archaeology is undergoing a tremendous revolution and my purpose in presenting the ideas to the general public were to explain that biblical archaeology is not anymore the ruling paradigm in archaeology and that archaeology became an independent discipline with its own conclusions and own observations which indeed present us a picture of a reality of ancient Israel quite different from the one which is described in the biblical stories.

CHRIS CLARK: OK, well William Dever, does that mean that the Bible doesn't really have any place in archaeology anymore?

PROFESSOR WILLIAM PROFESSOR WILLIAM DEVER:, NEAR EASTERN ARCHAEOLOGY, ARIZONA UNIVERSITY: Well, I was one of the first for the separation of what I call "zero Palestinian archaeology" from biblical and theological studies.

I think it's a secular independent professional discipline.

The Bible should be read in the same way that other ancient text should be read -- not as scripture, but as literature which may or may not contain some historical information.

It's not a question of whether to use the Bible in the archaeology of Israel, but how.

CHRIS CLARK: So what is it that you disagree about Ze'ev Herzog's conclusions?

PROFESSOR WILLIAM DEVER: I don't disagree with his facts -- these facts are well known to archaeologists.

But I think his remarks were a little cryptic and this was dumped on the public in a way that perhaps created some alarm and raised some suspicions about archaeology as any kind of a science and I think there was not enough theological sophistication.

In other words, it's too simple to say that archaeology disproves the historicity of the patriarchs of the exodus and so forth.

In some cases, archaeology is just silent.

That's not the same as disproving the biblical story.

CHRIS CLARK: OK, fine, we'll explore that in some detail later.

Let me go first to Gerald Steinberg.

Gerald Steinberg, what is it that offends you, if you like, about this debate and about Ze'ev Herzog's observations on it?


I'm a little bit disturbed by the process.

First of all, the richness of the biblical narrative.

People who read the Bible, study it in its original Hebrew text week after week, see the intricacies are not going to be convinced, their views are not going to be changed by some dubious archaeological findings or non-findings.

Those are irrelevant towards the claim, the richness of the history, the importance.

Second of all, in terms of reviewing the history and the claim of the Jewish people to this land, we know about the first and second temple period.

We know a lot of archaeological aspects that have shown the veracity of those aspects of the Bible.

Jews have been praying for restoration of Jerusalem, considering Zion as their home for 3,000 years and if there are questions about what happened before and some of the details, it's very similar to the debate that takes place about whether the world was really created in six days or not.

One doesn't have to be a fundamentalist to understand the Bible and its richness.

So what this really is is a political argument.

It's part of the post-Zionist, what I call the exhaustion of the Israeli intellectuals, an attempt to be like everybody else.

They simply can't stand the stress anymore of being different and surviving in Israel as a Jewish state.

CHRIS CLARK: Alright, well I want to come to the politics of it a little later, as well, but first let's try and deal with some of the archaeology and if we like, find out where we agree and disagree.

Ze'ev Herzog, you heard Gerald Steinberg's position there and I guess one of the things he was really saying is that you're talking about a period of perhaps 400-odd years where there doesn't seem to be archaeological evidence that supports the biblical narrative.

That's not an excuse for throwing out the whole baby with the bathwater, is it?


We should distinguish within the biblical literature and documentation between two periods.

First, the period of the monarchies of Judah and Israel from the ninth century to the sixth century is well-documented, both in archaeological and in documents from neighbouring countries, mainly Assyrian and this chapter in history as well is grounded in both sources and there is no debate about its historicity.

The discussion is about the earlier phases which we would call a protohistory of the Israelites, the episodes in Egypt, the wandering in Sinai, the very story of the patriarchs, the military conquest.

And all these events, which are described in detail in the biblical stories, appear to be contradicting.

Not the absence of evidence, but very detailed investigations of archaeology over the last 70 years, which presents factual evidence different from the biblical one, basically showing that the population which later was developed into the states of Judah and Israel, originally orientated from within the country, did not come from Egypt, or from any other place.

CHRIS CLARK: OK, Ze'ev Herzog, let me interrupt you there, if I may because I want to bring William Dever in at this stage and just clear up this.

There isn't really any dispute in archaeological circles, is there William Dever, about this big gap?

PROFESSOR WILLIAM DEVER: No, most archeologists and most biblical scholars would agree today that the biblical story of a pan military conquest of Canaan is not very realistic.

In that sense we've undermined, perhaps, the book of Joshua.

On the other hand, archaeology has brilliantly illuminated the more complex story and the account in Judges and we now know that early Israel emerged not overnight as a result of military victories, but in a long cultural struggle and the Bible correctly remembers that in parts of its literature.

So I would rather stress the positive side.

If we don't think many of the ancestors of Israel had ever been in Egypt, perhaps some of them had and told the story as though it were the story of all Israel.

But I think most of us would agree that most of the 'proto-Israelites', as I call them, had had indigenous origins in Canaan and that explains much of the polemics against the Canaanites in the Hebrew Bible, because the Israelites had come from that source themselves.

CHRIS CLARK: So, why is this debate only coming up now after so many decades of biblical archaeology?

In a sense, William Dever, did archaeology in Israel slightly lose the plot somewhere?

PROFESSOR WILLIAM DEVER: Well, it seems to me we've come full circle.

n the '60s we began trying to separate archaeology in Israel from biblical and theological studies.

We succeeded by and large, and now we find that the Bible and politics and nationalism are all being dragged back in by the back door and I really think that's very dangerous.

I think archaeologists should stick to archaeology.

CHRIS CLARK: Well, Gerald Steinberg, can I bring you in here?

Is it fair to say, in a sense, that Israelites, if you like, have grown up with an implicit understanding that underpinning their cultural and national identity is a body of archaeological evidence which, broadly speaking, justifies their claim?

PROFESSOR GERALD STEINBERG: There is a division, I think, in the question of -- what is the Bible?

How is it important?

And there, there's a big division in Israeli society between the secular community and what I would call the traditional religious community and there's some questions about how to divide that.

For me, for the people that I know, for the community in which I live, the Bible is not a technical historical document where every aspect has to be proven against some sort of archaeological find.

There are important lessons in the Bible.

Those lessons are so important that they have been adopted by, let's say, half the people of the world.

All three monolistic religions look to the lessons of the Jewish Bible and that is the key issue.

So the Book of Judges for instance, or the Book of Joshua, teaches us lessons, it teaches us about modern life and there are very many important applicable political lessons in there and the question of archaeology is irrelevant.

So I don't think that this debate is really a question of what is found and not found or what sort of theories can be proven and disproven, but what does it tell us about our past?

What does it tell us about the importance of these issues to our lives today?

CHRIS CLARK: Well, indeed, Gerald Steinberg, if I can just interrupt you there and bring Ze'ev Herzog in here.

Ze'ev Herzog, can you understand why your ideas make people a trifle nervous?

After all, Israel's surrounded by people who challenge its very right to exist and you're saying that some of the history which is used to back up Israel's right to exist, just didn't happen?

PROFESSOR ZE'EV HERZOG: Of course I can understand and this was one of the main reasons I decided to publish these opinions in a popular newspaper, because I was interested in exposing the majority of Israelis who are secular, who consider themselves as modern and looking at --

ready to look at the factual evidence, to present to them this discrepancy between the historical reconstruction of the Bible which we adopted as reality and archaeological evidence which as Dever himself explained very nicely, differs from the biblical reconstruction which we know so well.

I consider this as an important progress in the Israeli society, being able to accept with some surprise, but with interest, the results, encouraging discussion and studying of these events and being able to distinguish between mythological aspects of the Bible which are important, have great moral values and the historical reality which is a different one.

CHRIS CLARK: But are you concerned that, in a sense, you're also striking at the core of what it means for many people to be Jewish and living in Israel?

PROFESSOR ZE'EV HERZOG: Yes, I'm also Jewish and living in Israel and I feel myself freed from biases and from previous legendary conceptions and being able to look at the reality in a modern way, in a way I would say, in a normal way, as any other nation and one of the dreams of Zionism was to become a normal nation and in this respect I believe that I helped to make progress towards this end.

CHRIS CLARK: OK, well Gerald Steinberg, "it's time Israel grew up" I guess is what Ze'ev Herzog is saying and a grown-up nation should be able to have this debate without any damage being done?

PROFESSOR GERALD STEINBERG: I don't think this is a question of growing up or not growing up.

This is a country that in some ways needs a good psychologist.

The tremendous stresses of war, of terrorism, of having one's right to exist, legitimacy, not just being questioned but being threatened constantly, has created a sense in Israel of "we want to be like everybody else in order to run away from our past, "to run away from our claims to be unique."

Every nation has to have roots.

Those roots are historical, they are moral, they are sociological -- all those things come together.

The Jewish people's roots are in the Bible, in the 3,000 or 4,000 years of Jewish heritage.

Unfortunately, the secular community in Israel has been robbed of its cultural heritage for the last two or three generations.

Children, even their parents of this generation, learned nothing about Jewish concepts -- particularly in terms of the Bible.

So this interpretation of the Bible, that somehow it has to be interpreted literally, that the historical issues of what rock may prove what sort of incident is irrelevant.

Jewish history, or the Jewish approach to tradition, to the Bible, is through interpretation and the interpreters, the commentators for the last 2,000 years, have uniformly said, "We're not looking at a test to see the historical veracity, but rather at the lessons that come out of the Bible".

And those lessons are so valid, unfortunately they're not being taught that.

What Ze'ev Herzog has done is said "You don't need to learn this, "you don't need to learn your Jewish heritage, "we're going to give you some sort of very thin quasi-scientific aspect "that's going to replace the roots that you have "and give you a very surfacy view of Jewish life."

What I'm worried about is the impact that will have on the ignorant generation of secular Israelis who don't look beyond that who say, "This is the wrong question.

"These people are asking the wrong questions.

"Let's look at the heritage as a broad and very complex package."

CHRIS CLARK: Alright, well Gerald Steinberg, I'm going to bring William Dever in here and see if he can play the role of psychologist that you mentioned at the beginning of that answer.

William Dever, is it possible to reconcile archaeology, if you like, and the Bible stories, or are we just looking at it the right way?

Is Israel looking at it the wrong way if it tries to do that?

PROFESSOR WILLIAM DEVER: Well, as someone's who's lived and worked in Israel for a long time -- but not directly involved in the current controversy -- I would make this observation.

I think all of us -- Israelis and non-Israelis, Jews and Christians have expected too much of archaeology.

We thought that it would solve questions of faith and morality and ethics and we thought, above all, it would legitimate Israel's claims to the land.

Now the Palestinians think that archaeology will legitimate their claims.

And I would simply observe that history doesn't answer such questions, it only poses them.

We have to work out the answers in the modern world in which we live.

I think we have to avoid extremes.

The minimalists would make out of the Bible a pious fraud and I think that's going much, much too far.

On the other hand, if we try as moderns to read the Bible literally in the way fundamentalists do, we make nonsense of it.

I would try to avoid both of those extremes.

But I want to separate historical and theological and archaeological issues and pursue them honestly and then perhaps we can have a dialogue between these various disciplines.

I think archaeology needs biblical studies and biblical studies needs archaeology.

CHRIS CLARK: Ze'ev Herzog, you don't have any regrets that you've actually opened this debate, because it's obviously caused a lot of distress?

PROFESSOR ZE'EV HERZOG: That's correct, I am very happy with the result.

I am surprised of the interest, which many symposia and conferences are erected as a result of my paper already four months after its publication and it's still going on and this was exactly my objective -- to present and to open the public discussion on this matter.

I'm very happy with the results.

CHRIS CLARK: OK, well, look, Ze'ev Herzog in Tel Aviv, Gerald Steinberg in Jerusalem, William Dever in Arizona, thanks very much for joining us on Lateline tonight.


  1. Discussion Audio
    Chris Clark Talks two archaeologists and a political scientist about whether the Bible has any place in archaeology.
  2. Background Video
    Morag Ramsay sets the scene for the debate on whether archaeological findings in Israel have any effect on the veracity of Biblical tales.

© 2000 Lateline. Australian Broadcasting Corporation.