Nobody’s perfect

Diarmaid MacCulloch

The Middle East isn’t short of ruins (there are many more now than there were a few years ago), and until the turn of the millennium archaeologists believed that those at Khirbet Qeiyafa, twenty miles south-west of Jerusalem, belonged to a large farm of the fourth to third centuries bce. It was an interesting, ancient but hardly unusual site. But then excavations beginning in 2007 revealed something of much greater antiquity and significance. Of course all antiquity is depressingly significant in this strip of land along the eastern Mediterranean coast, attracting public attention way beyond those who revel in trenches and back episodes of Time Team. It is an exhausting region to visit since so many people are determined to possess it, very often with just as great a determination that others may not possess it – and that possessiveness extends to its past. Even to name this land is fraught with pitfalls. An easy choice would be to call it ‘the Holy Land’, but some may think that evasive, and when I have used other, more specific names in my books I have had to deal with some aggressively critical mail. In order to understand why the excavations at Khirbet Qeiyafa are so important, we should begin with an account of those names that seeks to be neutral.

In a remote past these territories were called Canaan, but their later turbulent history produced two names, Israel and Palestine, both of which are of course still in use, and carry clashing connotations. Israel was the name of a character in an epic story, who was previously called Jacob: he was a trickster and a chancer with a momentous destiny. Jacob got his new name after a night-long fight with a mysterious being of power who nearly, but not quite, let him win. Those who counted themselves Israel’s descendants hazarded that his altered name meant ‘He who struggles with God’. Jacob’s wrestling match with the Stranger was only one episode in the Israelites’ literature of struggle, with God and their neighbours; their strivings brought them to these lands and then scattered them again, and the warfare after their modern return is not over. One of the earliest set of struggles was with a sophisticated people living in wealthy cities and in command of powerful fleets, called Philistines, and these wars became emblematic of all struggles in Jewish tales. The general drift of the Israelite narrative was that the Philistines lost the wars, and certainly they have disappeared from history – but not their name, for it survives in the alternative territorial description, Palestine. The Romans used this as an official name for one of their imperial provinces – Syria Palaestina – deliberately, when they had crushed rebellions in the region by the descendants of the Israelites. Simply to utter the name Palestine remains a challenge to the claims of the modern Israeli state.

For the descendants of Israel, the Holy Land is the Promised Land, granted to them in solemn pronouncements made by God to a succession of their forefathers, and recorded in their sacred books. When they are not called Israelites in their stories, they are called Hebrews, a name that originally seems to have been a disapproving designation for wanderers or marginal folk, and was apparently adopted by such people in defiant pride. Their sacred books are commonly called the Hebrew Scriptures. There is a third name for this same people: Jews. They are so called after the southern portion of Israel/Palestine: Judah (or in Latin, Judaea), which is the location of Khirbet Qeiyafa and its archaeological dig.

Judah as a political unit contrived to keep its independence from successive great empires in the Middle East for a considerably longer time than a rival kingdom to its north which had taken on for itself the name of Israel. The two monarchies had only ever achieved unity under a single king for a brief period, and Judah was content to go its own way, cherishing its capital, Jerusalem, as a sacred place, with a monumental temple that became increasingly emblematic of Jewish faith and identity. For nine centuries, from its foundation until its destruction by the Romans in 70 ce, the Jerusalem Temple was one of the chief sites of pilgrimage in the whole Middle East. Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, was very conscious of its memory when he boosted the status of his own local shrine at Mecca.

Christians, who started as a small dissenting sect of Judaism, have their own name for Palestine or Israel. They call it the Holy Land, because Jesus the ‘Christ’ (Greek for ‘Messiah’, the deliverer expected by the Jews) was born and died there. Jesus was a Jew, bearing one of the commonest Jewish names, ‘Yeshua’ or Joshua, from a hero who appears in the Hebrew Scriptures as a leader in conquering the Promised Land, centuries after the time that God promised it to Jacob. This new Joshua for the Christians was executed outside the city of Jerusalem in the time of the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate, around 30 ce. One of the charges against Jesus was that he had threatened to pull down the Jerusalem Temple. The name Jerusalem (often called Zion after its citadel) echoes through the sacred songs of the Jews, in accents of longing, wretchedness or triumph, but it is equally on the lips of Christians, linking them to their crucified Messiah. In fact Christians have filched the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures for their own purposes, calling them their Old Testament and so redefining them as a grand and varied preface to a New Testament, which tells of the life of Jesus Christ and its consequences.

A generation or two back, many would have heard most of this story in a Christian Sunday school. They would have retained at least the exciting bits, such as when the young hero David (destined to be the second king of the united kingdom of Judah and Israel) slew the mighty Philistine warrior Goliath, using only his skill with a sling and a few pebbles. These stories and the corpus of literature in which they are embedded have been subject to a good deal of searching criticism in the last two hundred years, from both Christian and Jewish scholars. It is easy to treat them as most Sunday schools did, as descriptions of literal history, but actually there is a two-thousand-year tradition of scepticism or creative thinking around the biblical text. Jewish readers early on, around the time of Jesus, began to think that matters were more complicated than a simple literal interpretation of their scriptures might suggest. For many of them, especially the thousands living in the Egyptian-Greek port-city of Alexandria, Hebrew had become a dead language; Greek wasn’t only the language they spoke but the medium through which they viewed their Jewish heritage, and they even read their own sacred books in Greek.

Greeks had a pair of books that were treated almost as sacred literature in their own culture: the Iliad and the Odyssey. Many Greek readers had been excited by the thought that these canonical texts contained meaning even more profound than the beauty of their poetry: truths hidden under the surface. Hellenised Jews warmed to this thought as they perused their own often alarmingly picturesque and violent literary heritage in the Hebrew Scriptures. Surely these books were more edifying and instructive if they were read symbolically, allegorically, to find the sacred or moral messages encoded in the words. The first great Christian commentator on the Old and New Testaments, the second-century Alexandrian Origen, followed the Jewish lead. Who could be so silly, he asked, as to believe that God had once walked in a literal garden called Eden and talked to humans there? One must delve beneath the story to find what God wanted to reveal through it about his Creation and plan for salvation. Many Christians followed Origen’s method, and exulted in the layers of meaning that their imaginative explorations found buried under such tales as that of David and Goliath.

A new problem for Christianity in reading the Bible resulted from a great convulsion in its European sector during the 16th century: the Protestant Reformation. One major element in the Protestant repudiation of existing Church authority was the Reformers’ rejection of the long-established allegorical way of reading the Bible. The text was the text, the Word of God, and it should be read straightforwardly (Protestants did use allegory when it suited them, but nobody’s perfect). This had a long-term consequence. If the Bible was to be read as history without qualification, then when the reading of history became increasingly sophisticated and bound by rules of practice and critical analysis, the Bible’s manifest inadequacies as a work of history would become apparent.

The Western Enlightenment opened another front of critical investigation in the 19th century when it created a new discipline of scientific archaeology. European archaeologists digging sites in the Middle East (often specifically to test the reliability of the Bible) discovered and deciphered documents in long-dead languages that bore remarkable resemblances to portions of the Old Testament, sometimes telling the same stories in different forms, or adopting similar literary conventions, like attributing impossibly long lifespans to venerated heroes. The excavations uncovered ancient societies in which the Jews were newly revealed as only bit players rather than the stars of God’s show. The Bible no longer seemed unique, and its many-faceted character as a library of varied books, which had always been apparent to those who read it closely, offered new possibilities of dating and redefinition.

Critical analysis of Old and New Testament texts in the 19th and 20th centuries is one of the great intellectual achievements of the Enlightenment, deployed for the most part in an honest effort to make Christianity plausible. Jewish scholars reassessed the Hebrew Scriptures with a similar purpose in mind. It became clear that the stories in the earliest parts of the Bible, particularly in the Book of Genesis, could not be read as authentic, linear history. Prominent among them were the tales of the leaders called ‘Patriarchs’ by Jews and Christians. The first Patriarch was Abram, grandfather of the trickster Jacob/Israel. Genesis says that Abram came from Ur (in what is now Iraq) and was promised the Holy Land by God, who clinched the deal by appropriately manipulating the Patriarch’s name to Abraham, ‘Father of Multitudes’. Troubling questions arise even if one takes the Bible on its own terms and tries to build a chronology from it. Working backwards in time, these divine promises to the Patriarchs would have been made around 1800 bce. Yet moving forward in the biblical text to the pronouncements of ‘later’ figures called prophets – Jeremiah, Hosea or the first prophet of several known as Isaiah – there is a remarkable silence about these earlier figures. Those prophets’ words seem securely dated in a context of the eighth and seventh centuries bce by external history and modern archaeology. Supposedly basic foundational stories of Israel’s origins a thousand years before the first prophets seem largely missing from the prophets’ consciousness, whereas in biblical material which is reliably dateable to the sixth century bce or later, references to the Patriarchs appear abundantly. The logic of this is that the stories of the Patriarchs postdate rather than predate the first great Hebrew prophets of the eighth and seventh centuries, even if there are fragments of ancient stories scattered through them.

As the anomalies multiply in the historical record of the Hebrew Scriptures, the problem is in judging how far forward in the biblical books historians’ scepticism must travel. Certain incidents in the stories of the Patriarchs mirror incidents that took place in a more convincingly ‘historical’ context, around 1200 bce: for instance, duplicated threats of gang rape to guests in a city, found in both Genesis 19 and Judges 19, or the destruction of the city of Shechem, mentioned first in Genesis 34 and then in Judges 9. The patriarchal stories have one or two references to the Philistines, who definitely come from a later period of history, and there are many more to a people who are close relatives of the Patriarchs, called Arameans – Abraham is very precisely given a kinship to the Arameans in one biblical family tree. Yet archaeology confirms that Arameans arrived in the region at the earliest around 1200 bce, and maybe later.

The conclusion must be that the stories of the Patriarchs are wishful thinking. They are a claim on the Promised Land predated to 1800 bce, and made at a time when the Jews were desperate to maintain their relationship to it. That would be in the era when foreign invaders, Assyrians then Babylonians, had destroyed much of Hebrew society and carried off a large part of the population north and eastwards: in fact to the lands around Ur, the area from which the first Patriarch, Abram, was said to have travelled. The stories would have been formulated in that period, that is, between the eighth and sixth centuries bce, around a thousand years later than the time of ‘Abraham’. Abram’s ancient link to Ur was a comforting assurance that the present plight of the Jews in exile was part of God’s plan.

That set of historical conclusions then raises questions about the next elements of the biblical story after the Patriarchs: the long period that the descendants of Jacob spent in the land of Egypt, their ‘exodus’ from it and their conquest of the Promised Land. Then comes the subsequent period of rule by ‘Judges’ among the Israelites, and the formation of monarchies, Judah and Israel, united for a while under the rulers called Saul, David and Solomon. It was in David’s time that the city of Jerusalem was taken from a people called Jebusites, and in Solomon’s that the first Temple was built as part of the city, chief glory of a Solomonic empire so splendid that the Queen of Sheba travelled from afar to satisfy her curiosity about it. How much of this story can be regarded as history? After Solomon’s time, matters become clear, with increasing external witness to the kingdoms of Judah and Israel and their monarchs. But what of the Davidic kingdom? There seemed to be no such positive archaeological evidence even of the names of Saul, David and Solomon, and the modest settlements revealed by what archaeological digging had been done, hampered by intensive continuous human occupation in key sites like Hebron and Jerusalem itself, did not suggest the empire completed by Solomon, lovingly described in the pages of the Bible.

A natural conclusion was to regard this part of the Bible as just as mythical as the earlier stories of the Patriarchs: what the authors of In the Footsteps of King David describe as the ‘minimalist’ view of biblical reliability. Perfectly respectable scholars, in British universities as much as elsewhere, have taken this point of view, but there is also a serious political dimension. If King David is mythical, what does that do to modern Jewish claims to a place in the land of Israel, achieved by feats of arms to equal his own? Politicians will always misuse history for their own purposes, and one of the most egregious examples of biblical minimalism was the claim of the veteran Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, during negotiations with President Clinton on the future of Israel/Palestine, that the Jewish Temple had never stood in Jerusalem and had actually been built on Mount Gerizim, so that Jews had no historical claim to the Holy City. Mainstream Palestinian historical scholars were horrified, but one can see how Arafat had got there.

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This, then, is the importance of the Khirbet Qeiyafa excavation. It has revealed a well-planned fortified town of a distinctive type that can be dated fairly securely to the era when King David reigned. Once through the Persian/Hellenistic farmstead layer, this earlier town was revealed by the archaeologists with remarkable clarity, since it was very soon and indeed hurriedly abandoned, unlike Jerusalem and Hebron. The book describes the excavation and draws conclusions from it. Given that so much hangs on these conclusions, the reader needs to feel confidence in how it is all done. Right away the book should be put in context: it is a product of Israeli university scholarship, translated (very effectively) from the Hebrew original. The work at Khirbet Qeiyafa was supported by the Southern Adventist University of Tennessee, a reflection of the general alignment of the American Evangelical constituency with the state of Israel, and of Evangelical interest in vindicating biblical truth. Results of the excavations have been the subject of an exhibition in Washington DC at the Museum of the Bible, an enterprise sponsored by Evangelicals whose backers Hobby Lobby recently agreed to pay a $3 million fine for purchasing archaeological artefacts smuggled out of Iraq.

After this unpromising start I read the book with a hermeneutic of suspicion, but I have to say that it went on to disarm me. Its authors are well aware that they have to demonstrate the highest standards of archaeological excavation and of inference from their findings; among their severest critics are colleagues in the bracingly combative world of Israeli academic scholarship, and those critics are generously cited. What are the key arguments underpinning their case? First, one should note that in terms of the known bounds of Philistine and Judahite territory, Khirbet Qeiyafa is a frontier settlement, which suggests that it was already part of a political entity capable of creating such well-defended frontier outposts to confront neighbours. It can also be contrasted with nearby urban settlements, apparently of the same era but with very different characteristics, within the known bounds of Philistine territory. They do not share its plan or architecture: it has an oval defensive barrier constructed distinctively as two parallel walls, the space between them divided into chambers (casemates), integrated with houses clustered within the walls. Four other sites further away, but all in the historic area of the kingdom of Judah, have a similar plan. Then there is a significant absence. Amid the thousands of animal food bones discarded by the settlement, there are no pig bones at all: the inhabitants observed the characteristic dietary abstention of later Jews from pork. The site is rich in artefacts because it was evidently abandoned so quickly that its inhabitants had little time to collect items for reuse, yet there are no cultic figures of humans or animals in what are evidently worship areas. The religion of these people did not use images, unlike the cultic observances of settlements in neighbouring areas. To the objection that such sacred images are precisely the sort of item that even people making a hasty escape would take trouble to remove or retrieve, the response would be that there are indeed cultic objects present at Khirbet Qeiyafa, but not figural ones: small-scale models of temple buildings, interestingly smashed up with sadistic thoroughness. There is a positive presence of valuable and uncollected iron tools, a metal technology which seems at this date to be most common in the area considered to represent ancient Judah.

Dating has already emerged as a crucial factor in these arguments. Even while the excavations continued, other scholars argued for a variety of dates for what was emerging. Pottery is a staple of archaeological dating, but it is not precise enough. Carbon dating, relying on the decay in organic materials of the carbon-14 isotope, is much more reliable, and the excavators submitted appropriate materials to the renowned Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit, the laboratory of record. First attempts were disappointing – the samples were too small and random – but in the 2011 digging season one find produced the perfect sample: a jar, in a stratified context, containing around twenty olive stones. Olives are not kept for more than a year or two; the resulting dates would be secure. They suggested a date for the destruction of the city of no later than 980 to 970 bce, which is within the timeframe of David’s reign, projected back from the ever more secure biblical chronology of subsequent periods. Granted, the name of David does not appear in any text associated with Khirbet Qeiyafa; only two objects bearing contemporary writing have been found there, and the longer one is maddeningly obscure in meaning and not even certainly in Hebrew. The other is in Canaanite script and language, and is more suggestive; it is on a storage jar, consisting of a clear mark of ownership by a man named Eshbaal. That name is to be found in the Bible, as a son of King Saul and himself King of Israel, rival of the more celebrated King David.

It is necessary to set out this quite technical case to show its importance. This is a settlement of Jews, created by a powerful government. The Bible provides plausible names for that regime. In fact, the minimalist case that David never existed had already been holed below the waterline in 1993, when an Aramaic inscription was found in northern Israel, celebrating the defeat by the King of Damascus of a King of Israel and a ‘King of the House of David’, that is, the other Jewish kingdom of Judah. At least by the later ninth century bce, then, there was a memory of the founder of the Judahic dynasty as David. The excavations chronicled in this book give substance to that fleeting reminiscence, and they do so with the appropriate relationship to the biblical text. They show its general reliability: a first king called Saul is likely to have yielded to a usurper called David, who was able to expand on his predecessor’s successes and who showed energy in marshalling people to build planned and impressively defended urban centres with little precedent in the previous Hebrew society of the Judges. Khirbet Qeiyafa adds persuasive texture to the biblical narrative of the period after 1000 bce precisely because it deflates the Bible’s boasting: this settlement, for all its stout fortifications, was quickly destroyed, presumably by Philistines nearby, and it was not resettled for another five hundred years. That puts in its place the Bible’s improbably large claims about the empire of David’s son Solomon. However splendid the Temple that Solomon created (and the book has some fascinating comments to make on its likely architecture, based on finds from these excavations), that proverbially wise ruler’s territories were likely to have been little more impressive than his father’s, and certainly did not comprise the whole of the latter-day Holy Land.

This study provides one very important strand for the tangled story of Palestine/Israel. It exhibits the virtues of committed scholarship in a land where anger and assertion frequently crowd out careful qualification and a willingness to consider varied arguments. It is restrained in its claims, avoids triumphalism and guards its sanity. How it will be used in the war of words and worse that is Middle Eastern politics is anybody’s guess.