In which Bwog correspondent Josh Mathew reports on last night’s lecture about a book and all the hubbub it’s caused.
The Underground Lecture Series: What Archaeology Tells Us About Ancient Israel
Alan Segal, PhD, Professor of Religion and Ingeborg Rennert Professor of Jewish Studies, Barnard College
What does Biblical archaeology tell us about the First Temple Period?
Professor Nadia Abu El-Haj is wrong. At least, that’s what I learned pretty quickly from Professor Alan Segal. The flyer for the event hadn’t mentured El-Haj, but Segal made it clear that, though not a “harangue or tirade,” his remarks served to question El-Haj’s scholarship.
The event was sponsored by LionPac and the cheerfully-named Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, who, according to their website, are “trying to counterbalance the well-documented and increasing anti-Israel and anti-Semitic forces that have made their way to the college campuses today.” A survey of their position papers reveals a dearth of articles actually about peace or conflict resolution, but the name sounds nice.
Segal’s lecture focused primarily on the debate between Biblical maximalists and minimalists—those who consider the Bible to be a reliable historical source regarding non-miraculous things, vs. those who don’t—and finally moved on to El-Haj’s supposed reliance on the latter in her book Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society. He accuses her of inaccurately portraying maximalists as Biblical fundamentalists and evangelicals, and minimalists as rational thinkers. In a short history, Segal discussed the historical dominance of the maximalists and the challenges posed by the minimalists, whom he described as an academic minority with little supporting archaeological evidence.
During the 1960s, archaeologists, now referred to as Biblical maximalists, “had proven a whole range of aspects of the Bible to be truth.” While the first 11 books of Genesis were understood to be “pure myth,” the rest of the Pentateuch was considered more reliable “legend,” in that it provided a credible social context in which the events of the Hebrew Testament could have occurred in the 2nd millennium BCE.
Discussing the emergence of Biblical minimalists during the 1980s, Segal focused on the Israeli archaeologist Israel Finkelstein, who raised a critical debate over the ancient gates at Gezer, Megiddo, and Khatol. Although they were traditionally thought to be built by Solomon, Finkelstein dated the gates 150 years later to the Israelite kingdom of Omri, a position that Segal rejects.
This seems like an esoteric debate, but as Segal emphasized, these gates are the only archaeological evidence of the Israelite United Kingdom, that ruled by King David and Solomon. Finkelstein then made “the argument from silence” that the United Kingdom therefore never existed and cautioned archaeologists against using the Bible during digs, as it might prompt incorrect interpretations of excavated sites. Critical of this interpretation, Segal suggested that Finkelstein, an assistant professor in Israel at the time, had proposed the theory simply to make a name for himself.
In response, Segal went on to cite numerous archaeological examples to support the Israelite kingdom’s existence, including the Mesha Stele and the Merneptah inscriptions, as well as “ethnic identifiers” such as instruments for circumcision, certain types of pottery, and almost a complete lack of pig bones in specific areas.
The question and answer period was markedly more political. When asked about the minimalists, Segal tersely responded that they were just scholars trained in a new type of hermeneutics looking for an intellectual exercise. Then, abruptly, he assured the audience that as an academic, he is not interested in which nation lived in the Middle East longer or earlier, and that the creation of Israel was based on the UN’s mandate.
Later noting that some groups like the Jebusites are known only through the Bible, Segal criticized Yassir Arafat’s identification as an “Arab, Palestinian, and Jebusite.”
“How do you know you’re a Jebusite?” he asked. “You have to believe the Bible.”
Segal also denied the link proposed by an audience member (as well as El-Haj in her book) that early Israeli archaeologists who had migrated from Eastern Europe were influenced by that region’s archaeology, the discipline of which had grown alongside and in response to European nationalism.
That same audience member seemed to question the value of the lecture as a whole when he commented that after reading El-Haj’s book, he thought that El-Haj did not in fact reject the existence of an Israelite kingdom. This Bwog reporter admits that he needs to do more investigation—expect a detailed book review of Facts on the Ground in the near future.