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Postmodern Bible Critics and Recent Archaeology

Michael G. Hasel, PhD*

Since the dawn of archaeological research in the ancient Near East in 1799,1 no other discipline has provided more new data and insights on the people, places, and events of the Bible. The scope of archaeology spans the globe and seeks to understand ancient cultures and lifeways through a study of the material remains of the past, impacting both our understanding of origins and ultimately what we have become today. This bridge between who we were and what we have become continues to fascinate thinking individuals around the world with the penetrating questions: Who am I? Where did I come from? Why am I here? Today, after the demise of modernism, postmodernism has become the major basis for forming new worldviews.2 Although by its very philosophical premise it defies definition, Os Guiness has offered this summary: “Where modernism was a manifesto of human self-confidence and selfcongratulation, postmodernism is a confession of modesty, if not despair. There is no truth; only truths. There is no grand reason; only reasons. There is no privileged civilization (or culture, belief, norm and style); only a multiplicity of cultures, beliefs, norms and styles. There is no universal justice; only interests and the competition of interest groups.”3

In the end, writes Oxford theologian Alister McGrath, “this disillusionment with the modernism of the Enlightenment” has led to a philosophy where “the truth is that there is no truth.”4 This major premise has led to a radical reinterpretation of the Bible, resulting in a new level of critique on Biblical history.

Niels Peter Lemche of the University of Copenhagen writes that genuine “historical recollections of Israel’s early history are not to be found in the Old Testament historical narrative,” therefore “we cannot save the biblical history of early Israel.”5 In another recently published collection of essays entitled Can a “History of Israel” Be Written?, Hans M. Barstad concludes: “If historical (verifiable) truth should be our only concern, the history of Israel should not only be very short (written on ten pages or so), but it would also be utterly boring.”6 One might dismiss these discussions to the ivory tower of scholarship, and wonder what kind of direct impact it has had on popular thinking. But these reinterpretations have received major headlines in the popular press. One article from U.S. News and World Report is entitled, “The Fight for History.”7 According to one popular book available in major bookstores, The Bible Unearthed, by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, the new vision of ancient Israel tells us that “the historical saga contained in the Bible—from Abraham’s encounter with God . . . to the rise and fall of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah—was not a miraculous revelation, but a brilliant product of the human imagination.”8 The recent blockbuster thriller The Da Vinci Code, has left millions of people around the world wondering whether the Bible is simply a pious hoax or cover-up. These individuals are faced with major questions that strike at the very core of issues surrounding the reliability of the Bible.9 Or as one recent bestseller’s title queries, Is the Bible True?10 For Christianity, the answers to these questions are essential in its present claim for viability in a rapidly changing world.

William G. Dever, one of America’s foremost Near Eastern archaeologists, addresses these views in a recent book entitled, What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It? He writes, “The irony is that the most deadly attack on the Bible and its veracity, in either the historical or the theological meaning, has come recently not from its traditional enemies—atheists, skeptics, or even those ‘Godless Communists’ feared by Bible-believing people until recently—but from the Bible’s well-meaning friends.”11 Archaeology is one of the major disciplines that allows us to defend ourselves against postmodern revisionism as hundreds of  archaeologists work every year to uncover the past. Recent discoveries in the past 15 years have given cogent answers backed up by factual evidence against postmodern criticism. In this short essay we will look at a few of these areas.

People: David and Goliath

The story of David and Goliath has captured the imagination of Bible students through the ages. It is the story of the faith of an unprotected youth withstanding an armored Philistine champion. It is the story of an Israelite army cowering in the Valley of Elah while the Philistines taunt them and their God. Five stones against iron shields, helmets, and swords. But what is the history behind the story? Were there a Goliath and a David?

In 1992 Philip Davies, professor of Biblical studies at the University of Sheffield, appealing to archaeology, wrote, “The biblical ‘empire’of David and Solomon has not the faintest echo in the archaeological record—as yet.”12 He concluded that David and Solomon were no more historical than King Arthur of the Round Table. But his argument is one from silence. In the view of Davies and other postmodern scholars, the characters and stories of the Bible must have a historical (archaeological) counterpart. “Unless this is done, there can be no real basis for claiming that biblical ‘Israel’ has any particular relationship to history.”13 The Bible is guilty until proven innocent.14 But such arguments from silence are dangerous in any discipline. In archaeology, with hundreds of archaeologists working in the Middle East today, it can be devastating.

The following year, in July 1993, archaeologists at Tel Dan in northern Israel uncovered a remarkable find. Outside the gate to the city, a basalt stone was found reused in a wall. Upon turning over the stone, a volunteer noticed a written inscription. The excavator and a linguist later published the text, which mentioned a victory by the Aramean King Ben-Hadad who boasts of defeating the “house of David” and the “house of Israel.” The inscription is dated on the basis of the writing to 850 B.C.15 The significance of the inscription is that it mentions for the first time the name David. It is used here in the context of referring to “the house of David,” the dynastic name for Judah also used in the Bible (1 Kings 12:26; 14:8; 2 Kings 17:21). The point is that there is no reason to name a dynasty after someone who did not exist.

As recently as the summer of 2005, an exciting archaeological discovery was made that sheds additional new light on the story of David and Goliath. According to the Bible, Goliath came from Gath (1 Samuel 17:4), one of the five cities of the Philistines. Modern excavations at Gath (Tel es-Safi) directed by Aren Maier of Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv, during the 2005 season uncovered a broken piece of pottery with an inscription. According to Dr. Maier in his presentation to the American Schools of Oriental Research in Philadelphia in November 2005,16 the letters are written in a proto-Canaanite script (in Semitic letters). The letters written without vowels are: ALWT and WLT. However, while the script is Semitic, the language it is written in is Indo-European. The names could thus be constructed as “Wylattes” or “Alyattes.” In the hearing of an Israelite it might sound like this: Wylattes/WLT/Goliath. That the names are written in Indo-European in a Semitic script is significant. Indo-European points to an Aegean (Greek) origin, which is the same place that the Bible describes as the origin of the Philistines (Genesis 10:14). Its writing in a Semitic script indicates some adaptation of the language in written form to the local Canaanite environment where the Philistines settled.

Where was this inscription found? As archaeologists uncover the ancient cities layer by layer, they can date artifacts within those layers. This inscription was found below the massive destruction of the city, which archaeologists have identified with the military campaign of Hazael of Syria (2 Kings 12:17). The inscription is thus sealed in a stratigraphic context and can be dated to the tenth to ninth centuries B.C., around 950 B.C., to no later than 880 B.C. The context is important, because it establishes that the name “Goliath” was known at Philistine Gath about 70 years after the event between David and Goliath was recorded in 1 Samuel 17. Dr. Maier, a well-respected archaeologist who is currently director of the Institute of Archaeology at Bar-Ilan University, concludes that while the inscription probably does not name the Biblical Goliath directly, it does point to “a Goliath or rather two Goliath-like names.” This affirms that these names were used at Philistine Gath some years after the Bible records the conflict between David and Goliath.

Places/Cities: Hazor, Gezer, and the United Monarchy

According to 1 Kings 9:15, 16, Solomon refortified the cities of Hazor, Megiddo, Gezer, and Jerusalem. What is the archaeological evidence of this refortification? In the 1950s when archaeologists were working at Hazor, they uncovered a monumental gate that dated to the time of Solomon. Yigael Yadin, the excavator from Hebrew University, predicted that similar gates would be found at the other sites mentioned in the Biblical text. His hypothesis was confirmed.In the late 1960s, excavations at Gezer revealed a gate with the same architecture, and it was dated by archaeologists to the tenth century, the time of Solomon. Texts found at the two sites confirm the identification with Hazor and Gezer. But postmodern scholars began to question this correlation with Solomon’s activities, stating that the gate should be dated later in history.17

In 1990, I was privileged to participate in the renewed excavations at Gezer. During that season, working with Professor William G. Dever of the University of Arizona, we uncovered the evidence needed to firmly place the gate in the tenth century.18 That date has been reconfirmed by new excavations at Gezer in 2006. For the past three summers (2003-2006), Southern Adventist University has been involved with the renewed excavations at Hazor, the largest Old Testament site in Israel.19 These two sites have produced impressive evidence for the period of Solomon. The gates of these cities and their associated areas produced tenth-century red-slipped and burnished pottery. The architecture of both gates consisted of finely hewn ashlar stones that are reminiscent of the Biblical account’s description of skilled Phoenician workers that were hired by Solomon to complete the work. Today, archaeologists continue to unearth evidence that confirms the Biblical descriptions of the tenth century.

Polities/Cultures: Canaan and Philistia

Niels Peter Lemche has boldly stated that Canaan and the Canaanites were not well defined in the second millennium B.C. In his book The Canaanites and Their Land, he writes: “Evidently the inhabitants of the supposed Canaanite territory in Western Asia had no clear idea of the actual size of this Canaan, nor did they know exactly where Canaan was situated.”20 In essence, “the Canaanites of the ancient Near East did not know that they were themselves Canaanites.”21Lemche’s conclusions have been challenged,22 but he has maintained his interpretation of historical sources, which he calls “imprecise” and “ambiguous.”

This revisionist history of Canaan and the Canaanites simply cannot be supported by the archaeological evidence at hand. The term Canaan appears for the first time in ancient Near Eastern texts, and it is from this evidence that most scholars have defined the region. Texts from the ancient city of Ebla located in Syria (circa 2400 B.C.) mention Canaan for the first time where it is to be understood as a land or region. Archives of ancient cuneiform texts from Alalakh and Mari also indicate that people from this region were known as  Canaanites, and clear distinctions are made between these and other groups. The Amarna letters found at Egypt provide the most helpful documentation of the political organization of Canaan around 1400 B.C. Here, phrases like “all of Canaan,” “the cities of Canaan,” “the lands of Canaan,” and “the land of Canaan” express a geographical and territorial entity with certain mentioned boundaries that constitute the Egyptian province in western Asia.23

The Egyptians refer to Canaan and Canaanites 15 times in records of military campaigns into the region. In these descriptions, the inhabitants are not only described but also pictured in reliefs on temple walls in Egypt. The consistent portrayal of these reliefs indicates that Canaan was a territory filled with cities and inhabitants that stretched from Gaza in the south to the southern areas of modern Lebanon.24 Certainly from the texts excavated by archaeologists, there is much to illuminate this ancient territory referred to in Scripture.

The Bible describes the Philistines as a group originating from Caphtor or Crete (Genesis 10:14; Jeremiah 47:4; Amos 9:7). In 1992, Thomas L. Thompson wrote: “That the ‘Philistines’ are to be understood as representing a foreign population intrusive to Palestine must certainly be denied.”25 He claimed that the archaeological evidence was “superficial” and stated that “‘Philistine’ pottery does not simply reflect Philistine people. Nor is there any justification for seeing these potters themselves as immigrants or as descendants of immigrants . . . rather the pottery reflects a synthesis of ceramic traditions of more than one population group.”26 Unfortunately, there is no development of this hypothesis in respect to the pottery and other material culture, leaving the archaeologist wondering what Thompson meant. The fact is that archaeology has vividly illuminated the Biblical Philistines in the past 20 years.

Based on Egyptian texts and pottery (painted with the same motifs as Mycenaean and other Aegean wares), the Philistines have been traditionally viewed not as an indigenous group of people but coming either as invading conquerors or as a migrating group from the Aegean world. The Egyptian reliefs of Ramses III at Medinet Habu depict these “Sea Peoples” arriving on ships and overland in carts. Papyrus Harris I claims that the Egyptian saying, “Philistines were made ashes,” referred to their demise at the military might of Egypt.27

The archaeological record can be cited in support of this reconstruction. The devastation of sites throughout the southern Levant during the period of the Late Bronze–Early Iron Age transition has been attributed to these desperate groups of “Sea Peoples” from the Aegean (Greek) world. The pottery assemblages at Philistine cities such as Ashkelon, Ashdod, Tel Miqne-Ekron, and Tel Qasile produced remarkably new wares with Aegean influences following these destructions,28 and neutron activation analysis has confirmed that this pottery was made locally rather than imported. New types of architecture indicating Aegean influences include (1) hearth rooms at Ekron and Qasile with parallels in Pylos, Mycenae, and Tiryns, Greece; and (2) features of the Aegean megaron (largest room in a house) building evident at Ekron. Furthermore, cultic influences are attributed to the “Ashdoda” figurine with parallels from Mycenae. Excavations at these and other sites indicate that Philistine culture was sophisticated and advanced compared to the contemporary Israelites.29 It is no wonder Samson was tempted to go down to the Philistines (Judges 14:1).


Archaeology represents one of the few disciplines that deals exclusively with the realia—artifacts, buildings,cities, and lands— those tangible, three-dimensional facts that, although covered with the sands of  time, bear testimony to the people, places, and events of the past. As these monuments continue to be uncovered year after year, the Biblical world emerges more fully, providing us with glimpses of its rich and varied scope. There is a growing need for careful archaeological research in the Middle East. Biblical scholars and historians now faced with the challenges of postmodernism are increasingly turning to the field of archaeology as the primary source of information about Biblical history. Although the discipline is still in its infancy, archaeology is beginning to fill in the details of the grand Biblical story from its earliest beginnings. In that quest, the revisionist claims of postmodern scholarship continue to be challenged by the rock records of the Middle East.

Note on Author*

Michael G. Hasel (PhD, University of Arizona) teaches Near Eastern Studies and Archaeology at Southern Adventist University, where he is also director of the Institute of Archaeology and curator of the Lynn H. Wood Archaeological Museum. In 2005 he was Senior Fulbright Scholar at the Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute in Nicosia. His e-mail address: mhasle@southern.edu. This article originally appeared in College and University Dialogue 18:2 (2006).


1 For the birth of archaeology in Egypt related to the discovery of the Rosetta stone during Napoleon’s campaign, see Neil Asher Silberman, Digging for God and Country: Exploration in the Holy Land, 1799-1917 (New York: Doubleday, 1982), p. 13; William H. Stiebing, Jr., Uncovering the Past: A History of Archaeology (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 57.
2 For critiques of postmodernism, see Allen Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Touchstone, 1987); Keith Windschuttle, The Killing of History: How Literary Critics and Social Theorists Are Murdering Our Past (New York: Free Press, 1997); Terry Eagleton, The Illusions of Postmodernism (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997).
3 Os Guiness, Fit Bodies, Fat Minds (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1994), p. 104.
4 Alister McGrath, A Passion for Truth: The Intellectual Coherence of Evangelicalism (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity, 1996), p. 188.
5 Niels Peter Lemche, “Early Israel Revisited,” Currents in Research 4 (1996), pp. 27, 28.
6 Hans M. Borstad, “History and the Hebrew Bible,” in Can a “History of Israel” Be Written?, ed. Lester L. Grabbe, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament series, suppl. no. 245 (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997), p. 64.
7 Jeffrey L. Sheler, “The Fight for History,” U.S. News and World Report 131/26 (December 24, 2001), pp. 38-45.
8 Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001), p. 1.
9 Postmodern approaches to the Bible were critiqued by William G. Dever, What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It?: What Archaeology Can Tell Us about the Reality of Ancient Israel (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2001).
10 Jeffrey L. Sheler, Is the Bible True? How Modern Debates and Discoveries Affirm the Essence of the Scriptures (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1999).
11 Dever, What Did the Biblical Writers Know?, p. 3.
12 Davies, “In Search of ‘Ancient’ Israel,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament series, suppl. no. 148 (Sheffield, England: JSOT Press, 1992), p. 67.
13 Ibid., p. 60.
14 On this assessment, see James K. Hoffmeier, Israel in Egypt (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997),  pp. 10-17.
15 Avraham Biran and Joseph Naveh, “An Aramaic Stele Fragment from Tel Dan,” Israel Exploration Journal 43 (1993), pp. 81-98.
16 Aren Maier, “An Iron Age IIA Proto-Canaanite, Philistine Inscription and Other New Finds From Tell es-Safi-Gath.” A paper presented to the annual meetings of the American Schools of Oriental Research, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, November 18, 2005.
17 For this discussion in general, see Gary N. Knoppers, “The Vanishing Solomon: The Disappearance of the United Monarchy From Recent Histories of Israel,” Journal of Biblical Literature 116 (1997), pp. 19-44; Dever, What Did the Biblical Writers Know?
18 Dever, “Further Evidence on the Date of the Outer Wall at Gezer,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 289 (1993), pp. 33-54; Randall W. Younker, “A Preliminary Report of the 1990 Season at Tel Gezer,” Andrews University Seminary Studies, 29 (1991), pp.19-60.
19 Amnon Ben-Tor, “Excavating Hazor: Solomon’s City Rises From the Ashes,” Biblical Archaeology Review 25/2 (1999), pp. 26-37.
20 Lemche, The Canaanites and Their Land (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1991), p. 39.
21 Ibid., p. 152.
22 Nadav Na’aman, “The Canaanites and Their Land: A Rejoinder,” Ugarit-Forschungen 26 (1994), pp. 397-418; “Four Notes on the Size of the Land of Canaan,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 313 (1999), pp. 31-37; Anson F. Rainey, “Who Is a Canaanite? A Review of the Textual Evidence,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 304 (1996), pp. 1-15.
23 Lemche, Canaanites, p. 152.
24 Michael G. Hasel, Domination and Resistance: Egyptian Military Activity in the Southern Levant, 1300-1185 B.C. Book 11 in the Probleme der Ägyptologie series (Leiden: Brill,1998); The Name Equation: Mediterranean Peoples, Places, and Polities in the Egyptian New Kingdom, in preparation.
25 Thomas L. Thompson, Early History of the Israelite People From the Written and Archaeological Sources. Book 4 in the Studies in the History of the Ancient Near East series (Leiden: Brill, 1992), p. 140.
26 Ibid., p. 271.
27James Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts, 3rd ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press), p. 262.
28 For a general overview, see Trude Dothan, The Philistines and Their Material Culture (New Haven: Yale University, 1982); Trude Dothan and Moshe Dothan, People of the Sea: The Search for the Philistines (New York: Macmillan, 1992).
29 For further detailed references, see Hasel, “New Discoveries Among the Philistines: Archaeological and Textual Considerations,” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society 9/1-2 (1998), pp. 57-70.
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