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 together...no 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.