Sunday, March 09, 2008

The Quest For The Historical Israel

No local bookshops sell this book yet, but Hao is kind enough to helped purchase a copy for me when he was in the USA during CNY. I've been eyeing for this book since I got to know about it nearing the end of last year. It's a collection of essays written by 2 archaeologists, namely Israel Finkelstein and Amihai Mazar, and edited by Brian Schmidt on the historical Israel.

As the subtitles indicate, the book is a debate on archaeology and the history of early Israel yet the authors only start to debate at Part 4 'The Tenth Century:The New Litmus Test For The Bible's Historical Relevanve'. There are 6 parts in total. The first 3 parts are agreements between both archaeologists on the archaeological relevance of the OT (Hebrew Bible), the historicity of the OT's materials, and the relation between the OT and archaeology.

Both authors identify themselves as 'Centrist', dubbed 'The View From The Center' as contrast between the Maximalist and the Minimalist/Revisionist. Basically their position is to take archaeology as the 'real-time witness' (p.16, 19) for or against the historicity of the OT. Thus if they are told that Malaysia has a lot of monkeys in its ruling party, they will not take that at face value. They will see if there are 'archaeological' evidents (i.e recordings of parliamentary disputes at Youtube) to either substantiate or repudiate this claim.

Both of them agree that the stories about Abraham, Moses, Joshua etc may have historical value in spite of 'the distortions, exaggeration, theological disposition, and literary creativity' (p.31). Of course that is the politically-correct way to put it. It could be quite blatant if they say that those stories do not have historical value because current archaeological data has refute them.

That's their agreement. They part ways when it comes to discussing the dynasty of David and Solomon. Finkelstein dates the monarchy to the ninth century while Mazar dates it to the tenth century. Both dates according to archaeological data yet both falls on different century. But actually, both are just arguing over semantics. They differ due to Mazar's usage of his 'Modified Conventional Chronology' (p.121) that drags a particular era within the Iron Age. Besides that, Mazar argues that Solomon could have built his temple and palace during the tenth century based on close similarities of such structure found at Zinjirli and other Syrian cities (p.129). Thus, a conservative believing reader would find Mazar to be less hostile than Finkelstein.

There are other real disputes revolving the interpretation of archaeological findings in their essays which show the detailed knowledge of both scholars in this field. Yet the book leaves the reader puzzle over their attempts to clarify the fact that archaeology should not be influenced by and threaten current political, social, and theological identity. Their findings, if accepted, no doubt will affects some conservative believers but they made a good point that whether or not the data found in the OT are historically true is peripheral concerning our current situation and where we are heading towards. Like it or not, we have to accept that the OT is inseparable from the western (in our case, post-colonial) cultures. It is our precious heritage and should remain to be that. And that is said within the fact that archaeology is still an on-going project. Who knows, it might vindicate the conservative's stance one day.

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