How to Chase a White Whale[1] A Response to “Biblical Archaeology: The Hydra of Palestine’s History.”

But what bothers Thompson of course is that the Bible is, for some, scripture, and Jewish scripture at that. There has always been a self-evident quality to his biblical antipathy. There is simply too much, well, Jewish stuff, in there, that connects, for better or worse, the past and present. His entire oeuvre has been a concerted effort to sever the Bible from the Jews and their Iron Age ancestors. This forces special pleading and head standing; hence such odd statements as “there is in Israel today, no political room for a post 722 BCE Israel.”

By Alex Joffe
Editor, The Ancient Near East Today
Archaeologist and Historian
March 2016

As a student of William Dever I am reluctant to offer comments on Thomas Thompson’s piece. Dever can speak for himself, and does so without my assistance. So, too, can Israel Finkelstein, who is also a close friend.

I am therefore at a disadvantage. Thompson has set the stage in such a way that criticism of his arguments (much less defense of his bête noires) is by definition reactionary. How to defend old-new ‘biblical archaeology,’ now and apparently always “a theologically apologetic discourse on the use of Palestinian archaeology in support of the historicity of biblical narrative,” much less Israeli archaeology, the “fictive foundations of Israeli heritage politics,” which he holds in such evident disdain? There is little to be gained by participating in this already overlong and tedious personal argument, one so well illustrated by the overlong and tedious nature of Thompson’s comments. Still, some of us are gluttons for punishment. So let me offer comments on several issues he raises, mostly indirectly.

Ancient Israel is a veritable Moby Dick, the pursuit of which has consumed generation after generation of scholars. Polemics on all sides have been going on since I was an undergraduate, and before: some 40 years in my own experience. Perhaps a whaling moratorium is in order. Of course, I have argued that it is precisely ancient Israel that, along with Jesus, keeps ‘biblical archaeology’ from slipping out of public view and into the obscure depths of a service industry. Thus to the Pequod are we bound.

But let us not be deceptive regarding the nature of the quest. Thompson unfairly associates the methods and motives of scholars today with those of Albright. This is subtle guilt by association; Albright, that arch-sinister Protestant fundamentalist. This is not simply a red herring, a dog whistle as we say in America, but an old red herring, unfairly dragged ashore to be pummeled.

Anyone who has visited an excavation in the southern Levant during the past 15 years will note the pervasive deployment of scientific methods in the field, not to mention the laboratory. (Note here, too, my use of the politically neutral appellation ‘southern Levant’). The practice of ‘biblical archaeology’ today is utterly unlike anything Albright could conceive (Thompson may concede this in a vague way). But of course, Thompson is not interested in archaeological method, only in the literary (and political) reasoning behind a “new wave of a biblical, ethnocentric archaeology.”

And here he has part of a valid point, but only in the sense that the white whale is a preoccupation of academic archaeologists in the southern Levant, who are drawn to interpret the Biblical text (as are, it seems, some biblical scholars to archaeological evidence). Is he unhappy the way the archaeologists do it, or with their conclusions? Apparently both. The term “ethnocentric” is key.

Regarding Thompson’s critiques of what he sees as circular arguments, “the literary complexity of such heroic chain-narratives,” “unhistorical biblical legends,” whether “the tragic story of Solomon’s hubris, lays its primary plotline within the theme of unity vs. division,” the “theme of greatness,” I will also say little; these interest me almost not at all. Depictions of David in this book or that, really, why? To find the history behind the literature behind the history and so on, a recursive exercise that stretches out over centuries (our included)?

Like those he criticizes, Thompson plays the same game of contrasting the text with the archaeology only in an effort to debunk and minimize the ancient political entities of Israel and Judah, whatever those were (literary? historical? modern? whatever?). His own inconsistencies, for example, positing the impossibility of northern refugees who “sought or found security among the most treacherous of their enemies!,” demands that we adhere to both the political and cultural narrative of the text, rather than assume the text is an elite view and that refugees moved south to a society virtually indistinguishable from their own.

From a strictly archaeological standpoint, this contrastative exercise is no more interesting than one that seeks “convergences,” whether breathlessly or patiently. Both are in the first instance literary -not historical- exercises, which tell us mostly about elite self-representation in contemporary (maybe) or later texts and canons, not political or cultural realities.

And anyway, back in the real world, little states routinely exaggerate, as a glance at, say, Sweden (so virtuous and humane thanks to its ‘soft power’) or Denmark (so sophisticated, for a whaling nation) shows. That little states in the past should have prevaricated (we’re so big, so powerful, so what) is unsurprising, as are the exaggerated claims of their Egyptian or Mesopotamian contemporaries (wherein we remove a zero or two and arrive at the approximate might of their armies, etc.)

Can teasing out and somehow testing literary assertions against archaeology be done? Of course; this is in effect the nautical “tacking” metaphor suggested long ago by Alison Wylie, moving from one domain to the other as if with the wind. But these approaches, Dever’s, Finkelstein’s, and Thompson’s, chain us further to a hermeneutic wheel mired in texts from which I see no escape. Finkelstein and Dever, however, have spent decades patiently building their own archaeological syntheses based first on their own fieldwork. Thompson’s idiosyncratic archaeological syntheses are second hand, and a unique effort to reverse engineer the biblical texts down to nothing.

We need principles and procedures. It is legitimate to ask how texts reflect the periods of which they speak, and more fundamentally, about the relationship between texts and archaeology. On the first matter I can only say that if asking historical questions of the Bible requires the sorts of text criticism that has been on display for the past 150 years then something is quite wrong. Themes, motifs, leitmotifs, plotlines, are as unfulfilling as the old-timey pursuit of sitz im leben and or nouvelle “convergences.” Whereas earlier generations of biblical archaeology were contented with flat interpretations of the Bible, today we have baroque ones, Thompson’s included. Lectio difficilior is a sign of the times. This is the archaeologist in me speaking, frustrated by my own sojourn in a mirror world of textual navel-gazing, and the rabbit hole of coordinating archaeology and text. Is the enterprise still enlightening or enjoyable? I think not. Please, return me to the Early Bronze Age as soon as possible.

The last question, however, as a theoretical and methodological concern, has been asked by many, including by me, but is one that Thompson avoids here. What are the procedures? Where are the points of departure when considering a text in and against archaeological evidence? Must the exercise be only contrast or harmony, or can it be both? Is there a theory to be falsified, in Popperian fashion (the archaeology or the text?) or are higher order reconstructions being tested? To my mind archaeology must be the single point of departure.

Regardless, Thompson makes assumptions on the basis of what he sees as inconsistencies. This is fair enough. But it begs the deeper epistemological question of which data takes priority in historical reconstructions of situations such as the Iron Age. Forgive me if, again, after 150 years of twirlingly inconclusive Biblical studies, I choose archaeology, alone. It is possible to create a perfectly respectable outline of Iron Age history from archaeologically recovered data, alone.

Obviously for the more textually minded the methodological question is not so simple. Archaeological reconstructions have lacuna; it is often politically and ethnically equivocal in its conclusions, in which -in addition to basic chronological issues- it is often difficult to chart even catastrophic events. Is this ash layer 722, 701, or 586?

Here Thompson, too, relies on the Bible, but only in order to reassert his disbelief. This unstated assertion of textual priority (only as counter-history) is hardly a sound methodology. But it also is hardly exceptional; no history of Assyria or Babylonia is written solely on the basis of archaeology. Quite the contrary, texts take precedence, despite their limitations. Who writes a history of Assyria based on the stratigraphy of Nimrud? When you have texts, you use them, and literate societies privilege words over things. Only when one goes to, say, Mycenaean Greece, do we enter similar realms of textual ambiguity atop reasonably clear ‘archaeological history.’

But what bothers Thompson of course is that the Bible is, for some, scripture, and Jewish scripture at that. There has always been a self-evident quality to his biblical antipathy. There is simply too much, well, Jewish stuff, in there, that connects, for better or worse, the past and present. His entire oeuvre has been a concerted effort to sever the Bible from the Jews and their Iron Age ancestors. This forces special pleading and head standing; hence such odd statements as “there is in Israel today, no political room for a post 722 BCE Israel.”

I have waited all my life to use this word: balderdash. For one thing, Thompson is hardly justified in ignoring the mass of other epigraphic evidence, namely seals and sealing, which have a direct bearing on events, including the existence of biblically attested personalities and even kings, and, perhaps more importantly, on the ethnic composition of the southern Levant. He even still puts a question mark around the Tel Dan inscription, casting aspersions that simultaneously raise the legitimacy of the stele and undermine his own integrity. But why would Thompson make such glaring exclusions other than to create space between ‘post 722 BCE Israel’ and Israel today?

The question of “non-Jewish populations,” as he puts it, is valid but the formulation tips his hand. Of course there were no Jews in this period, nor does anyone assert there were (crude and outdated chronological schemes notwithstanding). Thompson, in his zeal to, what, discredit? discount? disconnect? modern Israel, casts the entirely legitimate question of disparate ancient ethnicities in inappropriately modern terms (the same of course is true of his routine use of the term Greco-Roman Palestine).

In fact, this question has been approached, albeit in overly broad terms of the textually defined (and thus elite or top down) ethnicities of Israelites, Phoenicians, etc., and tangential discussions of Iron Age ‘folk’ and ‘household’ religions, foodways, and other behaviors. Who were these people, really? How ‘Israelite’ or ‘Judean’ were they, really? Identity, then as now, was a matter of degree. How much is enough? And there is every reason to imagine that there were ‘non-Jewish populations’ in the interstices of the southern Levant, along with many other flavors of identity in between.

But how do we even find these peoples, archaeologically or textually? And in the absence of unequivocal evidence (on the order of the package of attributes and history we call “Philistine”-and I take a chance calling this unequivocal) why should we reconstruct these intersticial groups as politically or otherwise significant, as opposed to populations who saw themselves as followers of yhwhThompson. But the burden of evidence is on him. Independent Iron Age kingdoms (sorry, “regionally dominant patronates”)? Prove it.

As for the ethnopolitical entity called bit humri, that is, the House of Omri, as opposed to something simply called Israel, I can only say this is heterodox, indeed, idiosyncratic and forced, motivated by Thompson’s antipathy towards calling much of anything Israel. The interpretation, that this was the political designation for something that wasn’t ‘really Israel’, has not gained support, a fact that Thompson would no doubt interprets as suspect. So, too, with his reading of the Merneptah Stele. And it matters not at all that the stele celebrates Libyan control; what matters is that a name, Israel, whatever that is, appears. It is a data point only, but one which he seeks, by means of textual analysis, to obscure. Israel was a thing; it need not be “proto” anything, but it was something whose name became another thing, and which, perhaps disappointingly, appears in the Bible. Is that so unacceptable? Don’t answer that.

Thompson’s accusations that the “non-Jewish populations,” even those of post-722 Samaria, not to speak of today, have been “silenced” as part of modern Israeli archaeology’s ethnocentricity, demands that he ‘dejudaize’ that which was never Jewish to begin with, only ancestral to Jews. As a result we must elevate something parallel that he cannot define archaeologically, historically, or culturally, save in its latest manifestation, the Idumeans.

Who were they, these Iron Age non-Jewish populations? Where are they? What was their material culture, their social organization, or ideology? He cannot say. I agree they were there. They just weren’t terribly widespread or important. And of course, rather Jewish Jews also seem to turn up, and in quite large numbers, from the Persian period onward. Thompson’s straw men are thus heaped up and set ablaze, to create a smokescreen to cover the thinness of his own historical reconstruction.

Let us be as reductionist as possible. In the southern Levant after 1000 BCE two small cultural entities that emerged from the preceding period with considerable continuities in material culture, but with strong north-south contrasts, with hierarchical settlement patterns and administrative centers (first in the north, a century or so later in the south), with a consistent vernacular of personal names that seem to reflect deities, with burial practices that connect families and territories, and with patterns of site destruction, some of which can be synchronized with better attested imperial conquests.

Where do we look for more evidence? To the patterns of seals and sealings on jars and bullae, which reflect systems of taxation and provision? To elite symbols that depict neighboring imagery but with local names? To consistent styles of political architecture? To letters that show contacts between a military deployed at centers and outposts? To buildings, that by analogy with neighboring cultures, appear to be ‘cultic’? Is it therefore so outlandish as to suggest these were little polities (again, first in the north and then in the south), not unlike those to the east and north, and with whom they, on the basis of material culture, evidently had all manner of relations?

How big these polities were, the means and extent of their integration, and the varying ideologies that knit these into societies, from below and from above, are all matters for study. I have suggested these were ‘ethnicizing states.’ But that these entities existed, and appear to be described to some extent by the biblical accounts, is difficult to dispute. And this has nothing at all to do with modern politics. Nor does it ‘silence’ anyone or anything.

So we are left, then, with the Bible itself, something that I am uninterested in interrogating, at least to the extent that Thompson and his nemeses persist in doing. As an archaeologist my interests and skills lie elsewhere. Nor do I wish to participate further in what is self-evidently a blood feud. But I suggest we proceed from a higher level, both materially and personally, than Thompson. The Pequod did not sail forever and nor should we.

Alex Joffe is the editor of the American Schools of Oriental Research’s monthly publication The Ancient Near East Today.


[1] I thank Mark Elliott for the invitation to contribute. I think. I also thank Rachel Hallote and J.P. Dessel for their comments.

Comments (3)

Alex Joffe’s harsh response to my essay on recent works in biblical archaeology is difficult to understand as a response to the actual essay itself, even as a response written by a student of William Dever and friend of Israel Finkelstein. Caveat emptor and read my essay once again.
He explains my essay—indeed, my entire oeuvre—as an effort to “sever the Bible from the Jews and their Iron Age ancestors” and claims that I apparently find too much “Jewish stuff” in it! Actually, I see the Pentateuch as a shared product of Samaritans and Jews. I see the Bible—including much of the New Testament—as a product of Judaism since the late Persian and Hellenistic period. I have no objection to calling it “scripture”, though as an exegete, interested in aspects of composition, predating the inclusion of such texts in the Bible, I see no purpose in this slightly anachronistic reference. As evidence of my respect for this literature, I would refer Alex Joffe, to two of the chapters in my The Bible in History, which he has apparently forgotten; namely, “Confusing stories with historical evidence” and “How the Bible talks about the past” (pp. 34-81).
I do not have any interest in identifying Iron Age Bit Humri as “Israel” and, in my and Ingrid Hjelm’s study of the Merneptah inscription, I do speak of biblical Israel in relationship to Merneptah’s “Israel”. What is Alex Joffe’s objection to our paper?
I think, moreover, he misunderstands the unfortunately cryptic remark of mine: “There is in Israel today, no political room for a post-722 BCE Israel. I was referring to the political decision, granting Samaritans the right of citizenship and understanding them as a Jewish sect, rather than as descendants of Israel.
Before remarking on his specific criticisms, I would like to point out that in my review of Dever’s efforts, I clearly state that “I agree with his statement ‘that the information from archaeological and material sources is now our primary source for writing history—not the biblical texts.” (p.246) Like Dever, I see archaeologically based history and biblical studies as two different fields of research, which should not be confused, but evaluated separately. I speak quite positively about Dever’s interest in understanding archaeological remains as central to history writing. I ask for more “landscape archaeology not less.
I think it might be useful if Alex Joffe would avoid taking so literally metaphors about blood-feuds, when he next reads someone who disagrees with his Doctor vater.

Thomas L. Thompson
Professor emeritus, University of Copenhagen

#1 - Thomas L. Thompson - 03/16/2016 - 11:52

Thompson's fundamental political purpose in trying to sever the Biblical Israel from the State of Israel is hinted at in the title to his essay. Why "Palestine's History" as opposed to something a bit less politically revealing? His is a theory incapable of falsification absent the impossible: a complete and unbroken archaeological record whose interpretation is undeniable. Until then, as far as he's concerned, the Jews have no greater historical claim to Israel than do the Palestinian Arabs.

#2 - Charles Knapp - 03/16/2016 - 14:24

Charles Knapp’s comment suggests an atmosphere of conflict and rejection rather than one in which one seeks understanding and reconciliation. He misunderstands my title’s intention. My use of the term Palestine in the title of my article has a political purpose, which aims to return to the neutral use of the term “Palestine” as referring to the region covered by our history. Some few of our readers might remember that this term was once used in the name for the “Palestine Exploration Society”, which is today the Israel Exploration Society.
Knapp ends his note by referring to what he thinks I believe; namely, “The Jews have no greater claim to Israel than do the Palestinian Arabs.” I do not know whether he is using “Israel” to signify the same geographical meaning as Palestine, or whether he sees it as referring to the territory controlled by the State of Israel (with or without including the West Bank and Gaza), or is he referring to ancient Israel, also known as Bit Humri. If it is this last, then I think that a “greater” claim might possibly be argued on behalf of the Samaritans, but he seems locked into a Jew-Palestinian dichotomy, whereas historically, of course, many ancient Jews were in all likelihood ancestors of those we call Palestinians today and many Ashkenazi find their ancestry among European converts. The modern claims Knapp wishes to address about the “equality” of historical claims to the heritage of this region are, of course, claims that have largely a rhetorical substance, though that may at times seem overwhelming. Although I am a Danish citizen, I have little historical claim on Denmark. Legal claims are quite another matter! I am not a jurist and I have little opinion about the validity of the conflicting legal claims of Israeli and Palestinians.
As far as Knapp’s efforts to set the historical claims of Israelis and Palestinhians in an assumed context of conflict, I would rather explain what I am committed to in my professional work as a scholar and historian. I am currently working as “project developer” for the Palestine History and Heritage Project (PaHH), which will be meeting for its third workshop here in Copenhagen in April. In the process of formulating our project, we have decided to follow the ideal once expressed by Ilan Pappe for his course on the history and heritage of this region, which he taught at the University of Haifa: what he described as a “history and heritage of and for all Palestinians”, for all who have lived in this region, both Palestinian and Israelis. That ideal I am committed to. What is Knapp’s commitment in regard to this issue?
Thomas L. Thompson
Professor emeritus, University of Copenhagen

#3 - Thomas L. Thompson - 03/17/2016 - 09:58

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