Commentary Magazine


Contentions

Against (Archaeological) Interpretation

This week, archaeologists in Jerusalem reported the discovery of a great wall dating to the sixth century B.C.E., likely to be part of the very city walls built by the Israelite leader Nehemia as described in the Bible. The archaeologist, Eilat Mazar, of Hebrew University and the Shalem Center, made major headlines two years ago with the discovery of what is likely the remains of King David’s palace. (I wrote an essay in Azure about this at the time.)

The debate over archaeological support for the Bible has, over the past years, gotten weirder and weirder. As more evidence like Mazar’s discovery emerges supporting the historical account of an Israelite people centered in Jerusalem, opponents are driven further into the arms of post-modernism: Not that the evidence doesn’t prove the hypothesis, but that all evidence and hypothesis are not real but political manipulation. I remember hearing a talk by Israel Finkelstein, head of Tel Aviv University’s archaeology department and the leading promoter of the theory that David and Solomon’s kingdom never really existed. When asked to provide proofs for his alternative theory of how to know the dates of archaeological finds (upon which he based his whole pitch), he began citing the 1960’s philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn—who famously argued that science is not about truth but about shifting “paradigms,” driven as much by politics as anything else—to justify why he didn’t need proofs at all.

Now comes Barnard anthropologist Nadia Abu El-Haj, who received tenure for a book she wrote claiming that the entire field of biblical archaeology is nothing but a political manipulation to justify the Jewish state and the oppression of Palestinians. But unlike Finkelstein, whose post-modern approach is often obscured by his archaeological knowledge, El-Haj is up-front about her intentions. As cited in Haaretz this week, she describes her research as building upon “post-structuralism, philosophical critiques of foundationalism, Marxism, and critical theory”—and therefore on “rejecting a positivist commitment to scientific method.” Ultimately, she is guided by a “commitment to understanding archaeology as necessarily political.”

This is a sign of desperation. As the evidence continues to mount, and the truthful nature of much of the biblical history becomes increasingly clear, these critics have little left to say but that evidence doesn’t matter. Students of Said, take note.



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