The Archaeology of Israel: Constructing the Past, Interpreting the Present

By Meyers, Carol | Journal of Biblical Literature, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

The Archaeology of Israel: Constructing the Past, Interpreting the Present


Meyers, Carol, Journal of Biblical Literature


The Archaeology of Israel: Constructing the Past, Interpreting the Present, ed. Neil Asher Silberman and David Small. JSOTSup 237. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997. Pp. 350. $65.00.

The title of this volume promises somewhat more than its fifteen articles collectively deliver. The title itself is ambiguous. What do the editors mean by "Israel"? Because two of the essays deal with a period long after the demise of biblical Israel, one can conclude that the term signifies the land of Israel and therefore that a broad sweep of archaeological materials will be presented. The book, however, is a rather eclectic assortment of essays and reports that vary as much in their usefulness for students and scholars as they do in their subject matter.

The Archaeology of Israel is the publication of papers presented at a three-day conference held in 1994 at the Philip and Muriel Berman Center for Jewish Studies at Lehigh University. The aim of the conference, well reflected in its published form, was to highlight the development in the last decade of new and differing approaches to archaeological field work and theory, to consider the way in which the results of excavations intersect-or do not-with texts (i.e., the Hebrew Bible, rabbinic literature, Qumran documents), and to increase awareness of the ideological aspects of doing archaeology as well as of interpreting its results. The essays dealing with these topics are grouped into five sections; and the editors, each of whom is also a contributor to the volume, provide a useful introduction describing the kind of materials contained in each section.

The first and last sections of the book provide the ideological framework for the three sets of more specific studies contained between. The opening unit, called "Archaeology, Contemporary Culture, and Ideological Discourse," comprises four essays (by Amos Elon, Yaacov Shalit, Neil Asher Silberman, and Burke 0. Long). None of the writers of these pieces is an archaeologist; but all of them have strong journalistic or historiographic interest in examining the role of archaeology in the political, social, and theological strategies of its practitioners, Their contributions are diverse: Elon provides anecdotal and nostalgic reflections about the origins of Jewish-Israeli archaeology; Shavit offers somewhat defensive observations about the role of archaeology as a civil religion energizing the powerful secular forces of twentieth-century Zionism; Silberman comments trenchantly on the subjectivity with which archaeological projects were (and still are) designed and interpreted in order to further nationalist interests as determined by those holding political and economic power; and Burke analyzes and sharply critiques Albright's understanding and use of archaeological discoveries in the service of demonstrating the inherent superiority of Western Christian culture.

The closing unit, "Imagining the Past: The Bible, Israelite History, and Archaeological Research," contains two pieces (by William G. Dever and Baruch Halpern), both dealing with the relationship between texts and material culture. Dever has written so many essays on this subject that, although his insistence that Syro-Palestinian archaeology must be historical archaeology is eloquent and important, those who have been following his response to minimalist historiographic stances will find quite similar points in this piece. Halpern's essay also takes minimalists to task; he first seeks to demonstrate that the culture of violence in biblical sources for the early monarchy cannot be fictive and then calls for a creative use of the tension between the fundamentally different enterprises of textual study and archaeology. …

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