Biblical Archaeology and the Politics of Nation Building

By Thomas L. Thompson
Professor Emeritus: University of Copenhagen
August 2009

In a review published in the RBL in 2006, I raised a question of scholarly ethics regarding a symposium on The Future of Biblical Archaeology for evangelical scholars.i The use of caricature and anonymity in referring to “minimalists,” whom the congress was explicitly assembled to oppose, led me, as one who was associated with this critical strain of scholarship, to question how narrow and theologically restrictive the conference was and how directed and uncritical were its conclusions and its plea for a return to a biblically oriented archaeology. Was the published volume of the proceedings a product of ideologically directed apologetics or was it a legitimate contribution to the wider world of scholarship? Neither alternative was unequivocally appropriate. My conclusion was that it was for the most part a theologically motivated apologetic and closed to any who did not share their evangelical biases. The rhetoric often showed a distrust of critical scholarship. Such narrowness, however, was not present in all of the papers of the congress. Several reflected sound and critical archaeological methods and judgment. I concluded that the evangelical scholarship reflected by the congress seemed to face a choice between a dogmatic exclusion of critical thought and openness towards the literary forms and cultural contexts of the Bible, which are unlike our own.

A similar use of caricature and anonymity in referring to the same group of “minimalist” scholars, with methods reflecting apologetic purpose, a discourse that is closed to any who do not share the same political biases and a rhetoric of distrust for critical questions is also to be noticed among secular scholars who make an essentially nationalistic (rather than theological) plea for a return to biblically oriented archaeology.ii I am, therefore, led now to ask similar questions: Is Biblical Archaeology, as practiced in Israel and Palestine today, dominated by politically directed apologetics or is it a legitimate scholarly discipline? I can hardly answer this question fully here. However, the stringent apologetics of this discipline, the lack of openness, the distrust of critical questions and the dogmatic historical assumptions are so marked and commonplace that one must at least attempt to open the discussion.

I have chosen Biblical Archaeology’s problematic function of nation building in modern Israel as it directly affects my own research interests as an historian and biblical scholar. The wish to create a “Jewish state” has involved not only the use of archaeology to create a coherent national narrative that could represent a shared heritage for all citizens of the new state—a common enough political function of archaeology in many modern nation states, the building of the modern state of Israel also involved a reinterpretation of Judaism as a unified ethnic entity. Judaism was presented, not simply as a politically privileged religion, but as an essential self-identity that gave all the world’s Jews “a right of return” to their homeland: Palestine. This understanding supported claims of the state and modern Judaism over the particularly Jewish heritage of ancient Palestine at the expense of not only other heritages reflected in Palestine’s history but also in the exclusion of any such rights or identity to non-Jewish residents of Palestine.

The conservative and evangelical efforts to read a historicized biblical narrative, which had lead to the dominance of a biblically oriented archaeology during the Mandate period, offered such nationalism unparalleled opportunities. By the 1950s, an historical understanding of the unity of Israel’s historical roots centered in the projection of ethnic migrations of “semi-nomads,” which were thought to be reflected in the tribal stories of the Pentateuch, from the wanderings of Genesis’ patriarchs to the tales of Joshua’s conquest. This construction was thought to have been confirmed by archaeology. It projected, on the one hand, “Amorite” migrations of the First Intermediate Period, which were seen as reflected in Palestine’s EB IV transition period and, on the other hand, the conquest of Late Bronze Palestine’s “city-states” by Israelite tribes under Joshua, thought to be confirmed by LB destruction levels exposed through excavation. An alternative discourse promoted a theory of a more peaceful immigration of Israelite tribes and was based on the limited Late Bronze remains of settlement in the central hill country, literarily reflected in the stories of Judges. Central to such constructions was the essential need to establish an essential ethnic unity of Israelite origins. The collapse of the archaeological and historical evidence for such migrating nomads in the early 1970s, led some to consider distinct national histories for both Israel and Judea.iii While the Merneptah stele’s figurative reference to “Israel” as the former husband of Kharru (i.e., the land of Palestine) from the end of the 13th century did give evidence of a Jacob-like Israel in Palestine, it also allowed some to bypass the problems of ethnic unity by identifying this “Israel” as the ancestors of the population of the later patronage kingdom of a similar name, which was known from Assyrian records of some centuries later. The growing improvements of archaeological surveys and their interpretation in the 1970s and 1980s rendered such easy identification problematic, these surveys also demonstrated the indigenous nature of the hill country’s Iron Age settlements, while exposing a substantial chronological distance between the new settlements of the central hills and the Galilee in early Iron I and the much later settlements of the Judean highlands. As the settlements of Judea post-dated those of the central highlands by centuries, Judah could hardly take part in Merneptah’s “Israel.”

The difficulties in establishing ethnicity in ancient Israel were intensified by the very limited evidence for both the settlement of Judea and Jerusalem before Iron II. Alternative histories to that of a historicized Samuel-Kings, based on evidence, offered only fragmented histories for Palestine’s Iron Age and little support for arguments of a comprehensive ethno-genesis. Furthermore, the basic continuity of the population, which had once lived in the patronage kingdom of Israel and adjoining regions after the fall of Samaria in 722 BCE, seriously undermines the future of any biblically centered history of Palestine. So too, the devastating effects of Sennacherib’s invasion, destruction, and deportation of Judea’s population in 701 BCE, created a veritable lost tribe of Judah in the most striking discontinuity in Palestine’s demography since the Neolithic period. Furthermore, to speak historically of “the exile” or “the return” by referring to the deportation of Jews to Babylon as both singular and directly interrelated events not only neglects other known “exiles” and “returns” in favor of a Jerusalem-centered supersessionist history, it neglects the need to describe the considerable continuity of Palestine’s population which has been veiled by such identity-creating theological tropes.

It is first during the Hasmonean and Roman periods that Jews become the dominant religious and political group in Palestine. It is, I think, important to recognize, with Jacob Neusner, that Judaism at this period is essentially a religious movement, but that the historical processes which created such dominance were hardly ethnic—however we might understand actual “returns” from exile. Far more important were the political and military dominance of Jews, which eventually led to military conflict and the destruction of the Samaritan temple, as well as to widespread proselytism and forced conversion. The destruction of Jerusalem by Titus in 70 CE and the closing of Jerusalem to Jews after Bar Kochba’s fiasco in 135 CE when Jerusalem became the Roman city Aelia Capitolina did not lead to any significant deportation or emigration of Jews from Palestine. Jews and Judaism remained in the land. The expansion of the Jewish Diaspora was primarily driven by proselytism already from at least the Persian period. By the end of the 2nd and through the 6th century CE, Judaism’s missionary activities turned towards the more hospitable fringes of empire, especially Arabia, North Africa and Spain, but also Southern Russia and eventually Eastern Europe.iv With and after the schism which separated Christianity from Judaism and particularly after Christianity had become the dominant religion in the Roman Empire, most of Palestine’s Jews became Christian by way of both proselytism and forced conversion. After 638 CE, when Jerusalem came under Umayyad administration, the Christians and Jews of Palestine were neither deported nor exterminated. They gave their allegiance to their new overlords and remained. Most became Muslim through both conversion and force.

From the now distant perspective of more than 1400 years, the continuity of Palestine’s population who had been Samaritans and Jews, Christians and Muslims is strikingly coherent until the Mandate period. This continuity reflected a long and coherent development of Palestine’s remarkably flexible religious heritage. The cultural and archaeological heritage since earliest antiquity, including the biblical tradition, involving not only the Torah, Tanak, Bible, and Quran but also such texts as the Dead Sea scrolls and other inscriptions, is a heritage that is common to all Palestinians and their descendents and reflects this culture’s deep roots in the Mediterranean and ancient Near Eastern civilization.


i J.K. Hoffmeier and A. Millard (eds.), The Future of Biblical Archaeology: Reassessing Methodologies and Assumptions (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004).

ii As, e.g., in A. Faust, Israel’s Ethnogenesis: Settlement, Interaction, Expansion and Resistance (London: Equinox, 2006), 236 and G. Rendsburg, “Israel Without the Bible,” in F.E. Greenspahn (ed.), The Hebrew Bible: New Insights and Scholarship (New York, New York University Press, 2007), 3-23.

iii E.g., J.H. Hayes and J.M. Miller (eds.), Israelite and Judean History (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1977).

iv See S. Sands, Comment Le Peuple Juif Fut Inventé (Paris: Fayard, 2008).

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