Saturday, January 27, 2007

Apologetics Archaeology?

I have been reading with intense interest the discussions on Finkelstein's Low Chronology taking place at Jim West's blog, Stephen Cook's blog, and at Abnormal Interests. Jim West has also reviewed the Bible Unearthed DVD, based on Finkelstein and Silberman's book of the same name. Briefly, for readers unfamiliar with the "Low Chronology" debate, archaeologist Israel Finkelstein has suggested, among other things, that strata at many archaeological sites in the Middle East originally dated to the 10th century BCE should be "lowered" to the 9th century BCE. This may seem an innocuous adjustment in dates, but in fact it wreaks absolute havoc with the idea that the bible has any but the most minimal historical validity. It pretty much removes the epoch of David and Solomon from historical consideration, at least as it is represented in the biblical texts. As such it is one of the issues at the heart of the minimalist/maximalist debate in bibical...ah, excuse me, Syro-Palestinian archaeology.

I have read Finkelstein's book and found his reconstruction of the traditional biblical chronology rather interesting. There is clear disagreement on the archaeological validity of the "Low Chronology" and I don't claim to have sufficient knowledge to comment, although I find myself reading more on the subject. However, I was struck more with Finkelstein's focus on explaining the archaeology of the region in the context of issues more familiar to me as a research archaeologist: population increase, adaptation, migration and population displacement, environmental context, etc. Finkelstein is an archaeologist whom I expect would feel comfortable in the realm of hunter-gatherer archaeology. I think he ultimately gets what archaeology is all about: understanding past human behavior. More to the point, I think he does what a good archaeologist should: he puts the archaeology ahead of the history as the primary source of explanatory power. And I get the feeling that his critics are ultimately more concerned with the methodological and theoretical approach he uses, than with the archaeological validation of the Low Chronology, per se.

In this respect, I believe I am coming to a different appreciation of the "maximalist/minimalist" debate in Syro-Palestinian archaeology. Probably naively, I had considered this issue solely within the context of interpreting the archaeology in terms of the bible. If you interpret the archaeology in parsimony with the bible, you're a maximalist; if you interpret the archaeology at variance with the bible, you're a minimalist. But in either case, my assumption had been that the archaeology was the same and it is only the differential interpretive weight placed upon one or more archaeological components that leads to the split between minimalist and maximalist. Now I'm not so sure. What Finkelstein does differently from his critics, is to approach archaeological interpretation of the region on basis of, well...the archaeology. His hypothesis testing is based upon questions of understanding past human behavior in the context of the material culture left behind by extinct human populations, without the theoretical crutch of assuming historic texts have already captured those behaviors and events. Textual evidence is at best a secondary source of information, another interpretive tool in the archaeologist's box, if you will. It may come in handy some time down the road...after the chronology has been worked out...after the subsistence and settlement patterns have been worked out...after some questions of culture change have been addressed. Now in actual practice we archaeologists tend to run all those one is going to wait for the perfect chronology before developing explanations of culture change; what I am referring to is how you approach the archaeological record from the very beginning.

I have always been curious about the criticism leveled at Finkelstein that he "selectively" uses biblical text to support his contentions. But this is exactly the level of interpretive power expected by historical texts - the written record of the human past is plagued with error, perspective, limited vantage, experience (or lack thereof), political and economic motivation, and outright deception. The range of interpretive "help" provided by historical texts will range from absolutely zero to some textual fragments that may be very useful; with a whole lot of text of dubious quality either way. I would expect only "selected" text to be of any value in interpreting the archaeological record. In fact, I would argue that the archaeological record provides greater benefit at the interpretation of historical text than the other way around. This is ultimately the crux of biblical minimalism: Finkelstein is using the archaeology to interpret biblical texts; not the biblical texts to interpret the archaeology.

I think this is the appropriate way to approach archaeological research in regions and time periods where historical documentation is also available. If my understanding of the minimalist/maximalist debate is even remotely correct in this regard, I must obviously count myself among the minimalists. And this is not a perspective I would consider limited to the archaeology in the Land of the Bible. Interestingly, we have a similar issue here in California with the use of ethnographies. Ethnographic sources (historical accounts of Native American lifeways) are considered by some archaeologists in the region to be the focal context for interpreting the archaeological record. I have even heard the Smithsonian's Volume 8 (California) of the North American Indian series referred to as the "Bible" of archaeological interpretation (with a devotion among some archaeologists approaching that of Middle Eastern biblical texts!). I would argue that these "historical" ethnographic texts suffer from the same problems I listed above, are of limited value in archaeological interpretation, and that much of northern Californian archaeology remains provincial because of an uncritical allegiance to this "tyranny of the ethnographic record". But that's a post for another time.

While I certainly do not claim a sufficient knowledge of the archaeological material in question (and in reading additional material, I have my own doubts regarding the validity of the Low Chronology), I am nonetheless suspicious of Finkelstein's critics, largely because most of them seem to give biblical texts far greater interpretive weight than is justified, at least relative to the actual archaeology. This is not to say that I think all of them are raving biblical literalists, chomping at the bit to use archaeology to "prove the bible". Some simply see greater interpretive value in historical texts (be they biblical or any other) and reflect this perspective in their archaeological work. I've got no issue with this (other than it is not a methodological approach I would favor - I think it puts the "interpretive" cart before the "data" horse) - for those conducting responsible archaeology, it is simply another approach that ultimately can be tested with additional archaeological data.

However, I have a growing concern with the ethical framework in which some Syro-Palestinian archaeological projects are being conducted, and this has to do with many of Finkelstein's critics for whom biblical texts are not simply invoked as a valid interpretive tool, but are viewed a priori as historically accurate. I think this is a serious integrity issue for the future of archaeological research in the region. In a series of replies to Jim West's discussion of Finkelstein's positions, "working archaeologist" Dr. Joseph Cathey (who further describes himself as an archivist and professor of Hebrew, but with no location specified - a bit suspicious)absolutely rails against West and Finkelstein, suggesting they are compromised by bias, and in doing so, belies a serious bias on his own part. Cathey claims that he doesn't do archaeology with "a bible in one hand" but I quite frankly see nothing to suggest that criticism is invalid. He then levels this against Jim West:

Lastly, I am happily ready to go where the evidence takes me. It seems that it is just the opposite with you – you are the one who has invested whole heartily in a bankrupt 19th century liberal belief which has long ago been cast aside by the advances made in archaeology.

"...bankrupt 19th century liberal belief" seems to be more a political accusation than an archaeological argument - the kind I hear from fundamentalists lacking any sort of reasoned position on an issue (they always trot out the "liberal" label when they've run out of ideas). His last sentence is also a red-herring - my suspicion is that Cathey actually knows very little about archaeology, or what anything but a selective reading of it has suggested. He seems to be one of a growing number of people who begin to call themselves archaeologists after they've schlepped buckets of pottery from Point A to Point B for a while, or spent a couple of weeks clearing debris. If he has professional credentials in archaeology I'd sure like to see them. So I doubt Cathey would go "wherever the evidence leads" unless the evidence substantiates a literal interpretation of the bible. Cathey's blog on the excavations at Gezer leads me to further think he is a biblical literalist disguising himself as an archaeologist in order to attain an air of professional respectability:

If you read the book of Revelation you will notice the Last Battle – the Battle of Armageddon. In this photograph you will see the valley of which the biblical text speaks. If you were standing in the place of the photographer – me – and looked to your right you would see Megeddio. In John’s apocalypse he notes that the battle will take place at har-megeddio a phrase which we have brought into English as Armageddon.

If that is not enough, Cathey's involvement with the excavations at Gezer reminded me of a major concern I have with the integrity of the Gezer excavations as they are currently being conducted. The current excavations are being directed by Steve Ortiz of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and "...will continue in 2007 with consortium members that include Southwestern, Midwestern Seminary, Lancaster Bible College, the Marian Eakins Archaeological Museum, Lycoming College and Grace Seminary". Read articles on Ortiz and you see things like "committed evangelical", "God has called me to do archaeology", and "the solution to doubts about the bible's authenticity is to do your own archaeological work". The Gezer excavations are being led by someone whose sole purpose at doing archaeological work is to "affirm bible history", leading me to have serious reservations about the integrity of the archaeological work being conducted there. I am particularly distressed in hearing discussions of Ortiz's work under the title of "Archaeology As Apologetics". This is a completely asinine description of the real goals of archaeological research - and it completely devastates any authority archaeology may have to tell us about the past. How much evidence at Gezer that doesn't confirm Ortiz's preconceived notions of biblical history will see the light of day?

Everyone has their biases in approaching archaeological research. But some threaten the integrity of archaeology much more than others. Jim West got to the heart of the problem in responding Joe Cathey:

Joe is doing his Joe best to suggest that the “high chronology” upon which he depends for his exegetical presuppositions must be the one and only right chronology. Should that chronology fall, Joe knows that the basis for his understanding of the Old Testament as “historical” text will crumble like the walls of Jericho under the trumpet blast of Joshua’s circling army of musical priests. Joe, in other words, has too much invested in his presuppositions to be objective. And he wants everyone else to be as “un-objective” as he is, and if they are not, then they are “bowing” to the views of someone Joe disagrees with.

Regardless of biases, those of us in the field need to at least be comfortable that the likelihood of contradictory archaeological evidence will not be destroyed in the fervor to demonstrate one's position. I don't think we can be claim that level of comfort for the excavations at Gezer.


Jim said...

Chris (may I?),

I think you have summarized the debate between Finkelstein and his critics absolutely correctly. Thanks for your insightful observations.

Duane said...


Thank you for a very good post. I agree with most, if not all, of what you have to say. This is why I tried, and largely failed, to turn the conversation into a discussion of the archaeology rather than pure ideology or authority list compiling. While I agree with your comments on Joe Cathey, Jim West has his own strongly held ideological positions. I too have an ideological position but, as far as I can tell, I have no stake in the out come of the of the low chronology debate. I am very concerned that these debates too often degenerate into arguments from authority (and all too often that authority is the Bible) rather than real efforts to confront the evidence and live with its consequences even when it is ambiguous.

On another subject, you are correct that Finkelstein's "does what a good archaeologist should: he puts the archaeology ahead of the history as the primary source of explanatory power." In that, he is among the best in the field. That being said, it doesn't make him either right or wrong on the issue at hand. Because the evidence in its current state is ambiguous, one must either be selective in its use or curse the difficulties. Cursing the difficulties doesn't sell popular books or DVDs or get you on TV. Unfortunately, aligning your interpretation with some popular reading of the Bible may. But I don't think Dever, for example, seeks, as his first instinct, to align himself with the Bible. Compared with say, Rainey, Dever and Finkelstein play an intramural game when it comes to the "conquest" for example.

Christopher O'Brien said...

Of course you may! I prefer the congeniality...and thanks for the comments on your own blog in this matter...

Christopher O'Brien said...

First let me say that I don't think you have failed in your attempts to bring the discussion back to archaeology; I had intended on pointing out how reasoned your posts on the subject have been but got caught up in a longer post than I had intended and never finished my thought. Yours truly has been a voice of reason in this and it is duly noted. (This is one of the main reasons why I visit your blog frequently!).

I certainly have my own ideological positions as well. And as you can probably guess, they are further away from Joe Cathey than they are from Jim West! However, I truly am concerned about the integrity of archaeological work over all, particularly when ideology can be such a driving point in the debate. I believe you yourself have raised concerns about Ortiz's prejudices potentially biasing the work at Gezer (I thought your post in that regard was smack on target: bringing it back to the archaeology - again, not a failure).

I certainly hope I didn't give the impression that I was buying into Finkelstein lock, stock and barrel - your point on motivations for selling popular books is well taken - one reason I'm starting to get into the original literature. However, it is becoming clear to me that Finkelstein's approach is something different than I see in say, Mazar's or Hoffmeier's; and while ultimately connected to the interpretation of biblical texts, it's not that about his approach that appeals to me: it's putting the archaeology ahead of the text. It's not just about the bible, either - as I said, the "tyranny of the ethnographic record" runs rampant here in northern California. Finally it came as somewhat of a revelation to me that this is where the crux of the minimalist/maximalist debate might be.

By the way, I don't think Dever seeks to align himself with the bible either; I've never gotten that impression from reading his material (which also surprises me that, as Dever's former student, Ortiz seems a lot more, say, "apologetic" in his approach than Dever). However, in a NPR interview once, I did hear Dever describe archaeology as more art than science - a comment I personally bristle at, being a "Binfordian" school archaeologist myself - and again a surprise, because as I understand it, Dever was largely influenced by Binford.

Thanks Duane! I look forward to frequenting Abnormal Interests...

Dr. Joseph Ray Cathey said...


If you wish I would be happy to dialogue with you. You can email me at I have never dodged where I worked. It seems that you have spoken at length with Jim but none with me. Likewise I would be happy to discuss Gezer with you at length. Have you spoken to anyone who has done field work at Gezer? Have you spoken with the IAA who does the work at Gezer? Have you spoken to Ami Mazar, Ben-Tor, or other field archaeologists who came to Gezer this last summer or are you simply willing to accept Jim's statements? I will of course be looking for an email from you to discuss these matters.

Sam said...

As co-director of the current excavation team at Gezer, allow me to make two comments regarding recent posts on this blog. First, Joe Cathey, who is a Gezer staff member (assistant square supervisor), speaks for Joe Cathey and not for the Gezer excavation project. In no way should his comments, whether posted on his blog or elsewhere, be construed to represent the ideas of the directors of the Gezer excavations.

Second, there should be no fears about prejudices biasing the work at Gezer. Steve Ortiz and myself are committed to excavating the site to the best of our ability and reporting on our finds in a scientific (that is, objective) manner. What Ortiz writes in his church-related publications, which are the sources for your quotations, must be regarded separately from his/our scientific publications, since they are written with different goals and a different audience in mind.

Sam Wolff
Israel Antiquities Authority

KingSolomonsGate said...

I can not comment on the current Gezer Administration, I have never met anyone involved.

However, I was one of the student volunteer diggers for Yadin on the 1971 excavation that found the Solomonic Gate at Gezer. Four of us Dug like crazy for four weeks just shoveling dirt as fast as we could to get down to the Gate. Trust me no one dug it up and rolled rocks down the hill before we got there as some have suggested. We had to dig down though twenty feet of dirt, often having to USE A PICK AXE TO LOOSEN THE ROCKS AND SOIL just to get to it. In the adjoining area burned debris was present above the floor. Assuming this was Shishak's destruction of 930 BC then that pretty much clinches the story, without even getting into the casemate wall issue or the pottery.

I am not a fundamentalist. I am a Greatful Dead fan! That would seem absurdly irrelevant except that lately on these issues it somehow doesn't. Who would ever have thought I would need to cite Jerry Garcia to establish my political bonifieds in an archaeological post :).

Finkelstein's argument however, is absurd. You have three identical Heavy Gates all below the Shishak destruction. Call him Solomon or Call him Jerry, the same leader was obviously responsible and the timing is right, so objectively speaking.... whats the problem?

The instant attraction of the minimalist argument/low chronology has less to do with archaeology than with theology and politics I suspect. The destructive role of the fundamentalist movement in American Politics, and the unjust indecency of its impacts has almost everybody else ready to hang them, me included. Hopefully they will soon again devine the date and go gather in a field somewhere to await the rapure,... and when they do I want to sit on the hill with a case of beer and have a good laugh!

But to let that blind you to the wonders of the text is to poke your own eye out because what you see offends you. The Gates are Solomonic and there is more to the mystery than most are comfortable with. It is the fear of the very real mystery of God which foments fundamentalism, and blinds the minds eye. Don't let fundamentalism blind your objectivity toward science nor toward God.

Daniel Pride