Commentary Magazine

Archeology as Politics

One of the world's most prominent academics, specializing in the history of the ancient Near East during the Roman period, has accused Israeli archeologists and historians of that most heinous of scholarly crimes: distorting facts for political purposes and deliberately misinterpreting history. Glen W. Bowersock, the accuser, taught for many years at Harvard, ultimately becoming chairman of the department of classics; he is now at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. His accusations against Israeli scholars were made in an article entitled “Palestine: Ancient History and Modern Politics,” published in the literary quarterly Grand Street (Autumn 1984).

Bowersock's article is concerned with, in his own words, “the altering or suppression of the past in order to make it more usable.” He writes: “Tampering with history in the interests of the present is just as reprehensible as any other kind of misrepresentation. Honest mistakes can be expected anywhere and at any time, but the tendentious falsification of the past is another matter.” Israeli scholars, in his view, are guilty of just such deliberate, knowing falsification. When “the truth is not particularly helpful,” they proceed “quietly [to] suppress” it. They engage in “manipulation of the past”; they practice “bold deception.”

What has been the reaction to these charges? Professor Jacob Neusner of Brown University has written that Bowersock is right, but unfair—because he is not equally critical of Arab scholarship. In an amiable exchange in Grand Street, Harvard's David Landes suggested that Bowersock's discussion would only contribute to the politicization of archeology. In a second such exchange, Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of the New Republic, chastised his “friend Glen” for failing to observe that “there is a ‘usable past’ phenomenon in the Arab case as well—indeed, in the cases of all nationalisms. The tendentious reclamation of ancient histories is a topos of all nationalisms. . . . I would say the remarkable thing about the Israeli case is the degree of its independence from the worst consequences of such political/historical conveniences.”

No one, however, has really grappled with Bowersock's specific charges—perhaps because Bowersock himself is often not specific, or perhaps because the debate would involve abstruse issues about which books could be, and have been, written. Still, it is worth exploring, however briefly, at least a few of them.

Among the examples Bowersock adduces to support his charge of intentional misrepresentation, one has to do with the Roman emperor Hadrian, who suppressed the Second Jewish Revolt in 135 C.E. and rebuilt Jerusalem on the plan of a Roman camp. In an effort to obliterate all Jewish associations with the city, Hadrian renamed it Aelia Capitolina, and adorned it with pagan temples. But the ancient sources differ over what was where. Eusebius speaks of a temple to Venus on the site identified as that of Jesus' burial, the Holy Sepulchre. Jerome refers to a temple to Jupiter. The historian Dio Cassius refers specifically to a temple to Jupiter on the Temple Mount, the site of the destroyed Jewish temple, but his reliability on this point is doubted.

Some modern scholars contend, on the basis of the ancient sources, that the temple on the site of the Holy Sepulchre was dedicated not to Venus (as Eusebius says) but to Jupiter. Others believe that the temple to Jupiter stood on the Temple Mount. Bowersock is of the view that the standard translation of Dio Cassius is inaccurate, and that the temple to Jupiter was not built on the Temple Mount—only statues of the emperor and of a pagan god (perhaps Jupiter) were put there, while the temple to Jupiter itself was several blocks away. According to Bowersock, Israeli scholars who, relying on the traditional understanding of the passage from Dio Cassius, assert that Hadrian built a temple to Jupiter on the Temple Mount—which presumably would have been a graver offense to Jewish religious sensibilities than mere statues—are not simply in error, they are “apologists” for Judaism who are suppressing historical truth.

I asked Bowersock who these unnamed Israelis were. There were two. One of them was Michael Avi-Yonah, who died in 1974. This is curious, because elsewhere in his article Bowersock explicitly cites Avi-Yonah as a member of an older generation of Israeli scholars whose work he generally finds objective—“accurate, thorough, and dispassionate” are the terms Bowersock uses to describe Avi-Yonah's scholarship. Evidently, however, in suggesting that a temple to Jupiter had been built on the formerly Jewish Temple Mount, Avi-Yonah slipped from this high status and instantly became an “apologist.” So much for Bowersock's own commitment to “accurate, thorough, and dispassionate” judgment.


Another example. Bowersock tells us about a remarkable archeological discovery recently made in Israel's Negev desert: a bilingual Nabatean and Arabic inscription. The (unnamed) scholar who found it, Bowersock writes, dates it to the middle of the 2nd century C.E. If true, this would “constitute by far the earliest example of the Arabic language. . . . Its significance for pre-Islamic scholarship could be enormous.” Then comes the punch line: “In any other country with a serious interest in archeology this object would have been removed to a protected place for safekeeping.” But in Israel, “it still lies today in the desert sun.” Bowersock also complains that the inscription has not been published, implying that there is a political motive at work.

I asked Bowersock for the name of the Israeli who did this dastardly deed: it was Abraham Negev, of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, one of the world's two or three leading Nabatean scholars. When I inquired of Negev, he replied as follows:

The only man responsible for not moving it from its original place is me, and only me. The reason is very simple: fear of damage which will certainly be caused while removing it from its original place. It is engraved on a flat, very large stone, deeply embedded, or perhaps even part of a large natural rock. At its outer inscribed face, there is a crack. It is completely safe where it is. There are only two people in the world (me included) who know how to get there, and we have kept the knowledge of it hidden from all.

Why did Bowersock not ask Negev the same question I did? Or did he already know the answer? As for publication, Negev reports that his article on the inscription has already been submitted to the Israel Exploration Journal.


A final example. In the early 1960's, Yigael Yadin, who until his recent death was Israel's leading archeologist, discovered in a cave in the Judean wilderness thirty-five personal documents concerning a Jewish women named Babatha who had fled to the cave during the Second Jewish Revolt against Rome. These documents reflect importantly on relations between Jews and Nabateans in the area. Today, nearly twenty-five years after they were found, the documents still have not been published, and the texts themselves are generally unavailable to scholars.

According to Bowersock, the failure to publish the Babatha documents can be accounted for on political grounds: “If there were any interest in Israel today in the social world of Babatha and her family among the Arabs in the second century A.D., the thirty-five documents she left behind would have been published long ago. After fifteen years of studying Babatha's world, I have become persuaded that to neglect her testimony is to suppress it.”

That the Babatha documents have not been published is scandalous. The reason, however, has nothing to do with politics. The documents are written in often poorly preserved Nabatean, Aramaic, and Greek. Yadin assigned the task of publication to his colleague Jacob Polotsky, one of the few scholars eminently qualified to handle all three languages. Are we now to examine Polotsky's mind, or even, as a practical matter, his competing scholarly duties, his family obligations, his health, to determine the cause of delay?

As it happens, there is an easier and more revealing way to proceed. At the same time and in the same area where he discovered the Babatha documents, Yadin found letters written by the leader of the Second Jewish Revolt himself, Shimon Bar-Kokhba. For Yadin, Bar-Kokhba was the hero of the war (Bowersock, on the other hand, calls him a “pious thug”). Surely, then, if politics were the key variable, the Bar-Kokhba letters should have been promptly published. But they too, alas, like the Babatha documents, remain unpublished to this day.

Bowersock also accuses Yadin of giving publicity to the Bar-Kokhba letters that was not given to the Babatha documents. But the fact is that in his 1971 book on Bar-Kokhba, Yadin describes the general contents of the Babatha documents just as fully and just as extensively as he does the Bar-Kokhba letters.

The unfortunate fact is that lengthy and unjustified delays in the publication of archeological discoveries are endemic. A report on the excavation of a stunningly beautiful synagogue with an elaborate mosaic from the 4th century CE., undertaken by an Israeli archeologist on the shore of the Sea of Galilee in the early 1960's, was not published until 1984, a delay that can hardly be attributed to a desire to suppress evidence.

Similarly, approximately half of the Dead Sea Scroll fragments from the famous Cave 4 at Qumran remain unpublished after thirty years and, like the Babatha documents, are generally unavailable to scholars. It would make just as much, and as little, sense to attribute this delay to Christian fears of what the documents will tell us about ancient Christianity (such a charge, incidentally, has been made) as to attribute the delay in publication of the Babatha documents to fear of or indifference to what they will tell us about the relationship between Jews and Nabateans in the 2nd century. The uninformed may perhaps be forgiven for making such spurious claims; Bowersock knows better.


The relationship between archeology and history on the one hand and politics on the other is worth exploring, but the reality—at least in Israel—is totally different from what Bowersock describes.

To be sure, there is in Israel a greater interest in finds with biblical implications than in finds in other areas. Consequently, support for research in the biblical periods is easier to come by. But the same interest obtains here. A recent article in the New York Times, for example, reported that the American archeologist James Sauer had discovered some remains in South Yemen from before the time of Solomon; no remains that old had previously been found in the area. But the Times was not interested in ancient Arabian culture; it was interested in the possibility that the Queen of Sheba might turn out to have been a real person who had in fact visited King Solomon. Sauer, artifact in hand, gladly posed for a Times photographer to lend credibility to this guess, although he is well known to abhor the making of tenuous speculations about biblical connections.

In another recent Times article, it was reported that volcanic glass from an explosion in the 15th century B.C.E. on the ancient island of Thera (modern Santorini) had been found on the Mediterranean coast of Egypt. Once again, the Times was interested not in the volcanology of the area but in the possibility that tidal-like waves resulting from the volcano may have been the source of the biblical account of the parting of the Red Sea, as claimed by Johns Hopkins Egyptologist Hans Goedicke.

Interest in the Bible, in other words, is hardly confined to Israelis, or to Jews. Moreover, although it is certainly true that Israelis are especially concerned with their own history, just as Arabs are especially concerned with theirs, the implications to be drawn from this are not those drawn by Bowersock—who in any case finds nothing but words of praise for such a “bias” when it appears in Arab scholarship. Jordan, he observes, has “provided enlightened support for research and excavation in pre-Islamic fields, with particular attention to the culture of the Nabateans who were the Arabs who preceded the Romans in the region.” Bowersock even lauds the Syrians and the Saudis. In Syria, he writes, “there is strong encouragement of research in non-biblical history,” while the University of Riyadh has opened up “a spectacular excavation” of a Hellenistic-Roman site. True, these initiatives are “clearly linked to an effort on the part of the various [Arab] nations to . . . restor[e] a forgotten element to the tradition.” But in contrast to the case of Israel, Bowersock sees here nothing “reprehensible,” no “tendentious falsification of the past,” no “manipulation of history,” no “willingness to tamper with the facts.”


The fact is that Israel boasts distinguished scholars in non-biblical as well as biblical periods; it is matched by few Western countries and by no Arab countries in the study of the Crusader period, the Byzantine period, the Roman period, the Early Bronze Age, the Chalcolithic period, and still earlier prehistoric periods. There are also leading Israeli Egyptologists, Hittitologists, Sumerologists, and so forth.

Even more to the point, Israeli scholars have made an enormous contribution to the study of early Arab cultures. Benjamin Mazar and Meir Ben-Dov have uncovered, and restored, previously unknown Arab palaces at the foot of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Abraham Negev has excavated, and restored, several Nabatean sites in Israel's Negev desert. Israeli scholars have made singular contributions to Islamic studies. Indeed, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem is often cited as the world's leading center of Islamic studies.

By contrast, the way in which Arab scholars deal with issues touching on Jewish history may be gleaned from an account in the Syria Times of a symposium in Damascus on Syrian archeology. According to this account, “All participants in the symposium emphasized that Hebrew, regardless of the suspect political purposes of Zionist allegations, is no more than a Canaanite dialect.” The symposium concluded that “The Canaanite heritage was the real source of Jewish legends. The Jewish rabbis plagiarized that precious treasure. What else could they do?”

It is, indeed, as Glen Bowersock writes, disturbing to see scholarship at the highest and most respected level made the dirty handmaiden of politics. It is especially chilling when, as in his own case, the accuser turns out to be the guilty party.

About the Author

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.