For the layman, it’s hard not to think of the Bible when considering archeology in the Holy Land.
It turns out, it’s just as hard for many archeologists. A dispute has been raging for years over mixing the scientific means of gathering information versus relying on the holy book as a guide. National Geographic magazine recently highlighted the argument, which has focused to a large extent on the biblical figure of David and his capital city, Jerusalem.
Were David and his son Solomon majestic figures lording it over a grand kingdom, or were they minor warlords in control of a dirt-poor corner of the Middle East. Or did they exist at all?
The disagreement among Israeli archeologists focuses on one Israel Finkelstein, a Tel Aviv University professor who dismisses suggestions that David and Solomon were anything like the glorious, city-building monarchs described in the Bible, versus Eilat Mazar, who is excavating a site in Jerusalem that she claims is David’s ancient palace.
Enter Dan Bahat to shed light on the dispute. Bahat is a colourful figure in Israeli archeology who served as chief archeologist of the Jerusalem Region for the Israel Antiquities Authority. This reporter first met Bahat in 2009 when he conducted a fascinating tour of the Western Wall tunnel that runs for 1,600 feet from the visible wall into the Arab Quarter of Jerusalem.
“I am in the school of Mazar,” said Bahat, who recently ended a visiting teaching position at the University of Toronto’s St. Michael’s College. “You can’t prove anything from a lack of information.”
Bahat has left Toronto for now, although he promises to return next autumn to resume teaching at U of T.
“My field is Jerusalem,” he said. “When Israel Finkelstein and others wrote, ‘How can it be a big empire if we didn’t find anything?’, my point of view is that Jerusalem cannot be judged. Why? Because it was destroyed so many times, we should be grateful for the smallest morsel of information.”
The ancient City of David, which lies south of the current Old City walls and is the site of a largely Arab neighbourhood, was first excavated in the 1880s. Archeologists found nothing of the Davidic period and “the result was that people say there was no David or Solomon in Jerusalem,” he explained.
“The problem in Jerusalem is that the upper part of the hill was completely shaven by the Romans. The Romans took the stones to build Aelia Capitolina, the name [Rome] gave for Jerusalem after it exiled the Jews following the Bar Kochba revolt.
“So all that can be looked for are the slopes on both sides.”
“Mazar was clever. She found areas that were never excavated and she tried and found 10th- and 11th-century BCE remains,” Bahat said.
But, he continued, “she made a grave mistake. She immediately said this is David’s palace” and that prompted an “attack” from Finkelstein.
“She should have said, ‘I found structures built in the 11th century and used in the 10th century BCE and this is exactly what the Bible said, that David made his residence in the citadel of Zion and he called it the City of David. I think this is exactly what she found.
“You should never, when you come to digs, come with previous knowledge. It will distort what you find… You can refer later to the Bible,” he said.
Bahat believes that the argument of naysayers, who question David’s prominence, was put to rest by the discovery in 1993 of an inscription in Tel Dan, in which “another king called Israel the House of David. That meant David left a great impression on the Aramean king.”
There are historians and archeologists who “falsify history” and who reject evidence of the Davidic influence. One “wrote a book that accuses Jewish archeologists and historians of trying to erase Arab history in the country. That’s part of a world view that embraces the Palestinian narrative and denies the Jewish one.”
Other discoveries have bolstered the biblical description of the Davidic kingdom, he continued. Another find, this time southeast of the Dead Sea in Jordan, dated to the time of David and Solomon, suggest the scale of the mining operation could only have been organized by a well-to-do kingdom, National Geographic reported.
Asked about recent Palestinian claims that denied a Jewish connection to the Western Wall, Bahat quickly responded, “These are lies.”
In fact, he said, recent excavations in the Western Wall tunnel are going deeper than before and finding artifacts from the First Temple Period – the era associated with Solomon, almost 1,000 BCE.
“It shows the city existed north of the Second Temple area and into [today’s] Old City.”
Bahat, 72, said Israeli archeology authorities won’t permit him to dig anymore – they worry he’ll die before he publishes his findings. But, “if I could dig on the eastern side of Jerusalem at the eastern wall of the Temple Mount, it is believed to date back to the Solomonic period. But you’d have to dig in an Arab cemetery,” and that is not in the cards, he said.