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One question hovered over two recent meetings of archaeologists and bible scholars—ASOR and SBL—last November: Which archaeological strata should be associated with the tenth century BCE, and which strata should be associated with the ninth century BCE?

This question commonly gets translated into the language of the non-specialist as a debate about which strata correspond with David and Solomon (tenth century kings of the united monarchy of Israel) and which strata should associate with Omri and Ahab (ninth century kings of the northern kingdom of Israel).

The common translation of the debate is helpful because it transforms a debate about an absolute chronology of an archaeological tel into a discussion of about biblical figures and something of theological value. On the other hand, the move to label the debate as an either/or battle between Solomon and Ahab leads to misunderstandings by some biblical scholars and many of the larger public who have an interest in archaeology but no particular training. Such misrepresentation of the issues has led some to suppose that scholars were debating the existence of Solomon and Ahab or whether Solomon lived in the tenth or the ninth century BCE.

The current re-excavations at Megiddo led by David Ussishkin, Israel Finkelstein (both of Tel Aviv University), and Baruch Halpern (of Pennsylvania State University) provide the fuel for such debates as well as interpretive options for biblical historians and theologians alike.

Megiddo is one of the most important sites in Israel, Palestine, or Jordan. It was a vital crossroad through the Levant during a vast sweep of time: the Early Bronze, Middle Bronze, Late Bronze, and Iron Age. The city was a cultural and political center for the Canaanite peoples and later the Israelite people, and so is full of informational promise.

So, how do we date the strata that correspond with the tenth and ninth century BCE? It has been quite common to associate Megiddo Stratum VB with the period of David (early tenth century), Stratum VA/IVB with the period of Solomon (second half of the tenth century), and Stratum IVA with Omri and Ahab (the ninth century).

Hazor Strata Megiddo Strata Traditional Chronology New Chronology
X VA/IVB tenth century = Solomon early ninth century = Omrides
IX
late tenth- early ninth century first half of ninth century = Omrides
VIII IVA first half of ninth century = Omrides late ninth century

Some of the most famous architectural features of biblical importance from these strata include two palace structures that are similar to the description of Solomon’s palace in Jerusalem were found in Stratum VA/IVB (see http://www.tau.ac.il/humanities/archaeology/megiddo/excavations2.html for photo), a chambered gateway that is commonly attributed to Stratum VA/IVB and the reign of Solomon (give link with photo), and pillared buildings from Stratum IVA that are commonly designated as “stables” (see http://www.tau.ac.il/humanities/archaeology/megiddo/revelations3b.htm for photo) from the time period of Omri and/or Ahab.

Although these attributions had, until the last decade or so, attained “consensus” status among archaeologists, it is important to emphasize that there is no clear absolute chronology for the strata of the Iron I or Iron II periods at Megiddo until 732 BCE. This is the date that the Assyrian monarch Tiglath Pileser III destroyed the city of Stratum IVA and built the new city of Stratum III. This date is confirmed by Assyrian sources and the palace structure, which is typical of Assyrian palaces (see http://www.tau.ac.il/humanities/archaeology/megiddo/qtvr/f.mov for photo).

The debate about tenth century attributions is really best understood as a debate about how to assign an objective, externally confirmed absolute chronology to strata that can only (so far) be dated in relative terms—meaning they lack an external or definitive reference to their time period.

Until quite recently there had been near consensus about how to date most of the Iron Age strata since Yigael Yadin’s excavations at Hazor in the 1950s. Yadin observed that the chambered gate complexes at Hazor, Megiddo, and Gezer were similar. He noted that 1 Kings 9:15 credits Solomon with fortifying these cities, so he posited that this similarity was due to a common construction technique used by Solomon.

According to Yadin, this was an example of where archaeology could be confirmed by the Bible, so the pottery (especially red-slipped) associated with the gate complexes strata was defined as being “tenth century” or Solomonic. The end result was that Megiddo Stratum VA/IVB and Hazor X were dated to the period of Solomon, and the monumental structures found at these sites and strata was presented as proof of Solomon’s prosperity and great military buildup.

Two of Yadin’s staff at Hazor (Yohanan Aharoni and Ruth Amiran) wrote a seminal article in 1958 about the ramifications of the excavations for understanding the Iron Age. ( Y. Aharoni and R. Amiran, “A New Scheme for the Sub-Division of the Iron Age in Palestine,” IEJ 8 (1958) 171-184.) Previous to the excavations at Hazor, it was common to refer to the Iron I as the period from Joshua until the end of Solomon’s reign (ca. 1200–925). Likewise, the Iron II period was defined as the years from the division of Judah and Israel until the fall of Jerusalem (ca. 925–586).

Building upon Yadin’s theory, Aharoni and Amiran presented a detailed ceramic study that showed the material culture at Hazor changed between Stratum VIII and Stratum VII. They suggested that the Iron II period should be divided into two (Iron IIa and Iron IIb). (Aharoni and Amiran actually used the terms Israelite II and Israelite III.) Aharoni and Amiran then sought to find an event or political cause to explain the change.

They posited that the Iron I period dated to ca. 1200–1000 (from Joshua until the United Monarchy), that the Iron IIa dated to ca. 1000–840 (from David until the end of the Omride dynasty) and the Iron Age IIb dated from ca. 840–587 (from the end of the Omrides until the fall of Jerusalem). These historical observations made sense of the material culture from Hazor and most sites in the north. However, the establishment of an absolute chronology at Hazor and the ‘Solomonic’ strata at Megiddo were based on historical assumptions.

One can easily see how this situation could result in a crisis where the accepted absolute chronology could be called into question if these historical assumptions were challenged. Two scholars, David Ussishkin and Israel Finkelstein, have recently presented such a challenge. Rather than focus on Hazor for an absolute chronology of the tenth and ninth centuries, they focused on Megiddo.

Aharoni and Amiran had in fact anticipated this crisis. They realized that Megiddo posed a problem for their theories because Megiddo IVA had a long life and contained pottery comparable to both Hazor VIII and VII. Aharoni and Amiran posited a historical paradigm shift to account for the changing material culture between Hazor VIII and VII, so the fact that the material culture did not undergo this shift at Megiddo posed a problem. Aharoni and Amiran solved this problem by positing a long life span without a destruction for Megiddo IVA. Their solution is possible, and as a biblical historian, I think it the most likely explanation. Yet, one must admit that the solution is based on another historical assumption that to date cannot be proven.

Ussishkin and Finkelstein proposed that the strata typically associated with Solomon (esp. Megiddo VA/IVB) should receive an absolute date in the ninth century (about the reign of Omri). Likewise, Megiddo IVA should date to the time of Ahab and later. These scenarios made more sense of the ceramic differences from Megiddo, and better accounted for the differences between Hazor VIII and VII when they were compared with Megiddo IVA.

Even though there is not consensus about an absolute date for strata that should be associated with David and Solomon, the situation should not spell hopelessness for the biblical scholar who wishes to use archaeology to inform his or her reading of the Bible. The lack of consensus does not mean that David and Solomon did not exist; it simply means that we are unable to objectively describe the material culture of Israel in detail during their reigns. Yet, we can still draw some conclusions.

The traditional way to use archaeology to interpret the Bible has been negative. Archaeology has been used to ask yes/no questions about theories that we already have concerning the Bible. Viewed in this way, archaeology does not prove the Bible, but archaeology can disprove or support a theory that we already have about the Bible.

Another way of viewing this use of archaeology is to state that archaeology (and history in general) can provide a limit to the range of interpretations. These limits are helpful for interpreters who use narrative, rhetorical, and literary readings to explain the theological importance of the Bible.

Archaeology (and historical investigations in general) can also play a positive role—they illumine the time period of the Bible. In the case of Megiddo, we know what the character of the city was like in the ninth century (both Strata VA/IVB and IVB contained large public buildings and monumental architecture). There are also several options for the character of the city in the tenth century (depending on whether Stratum VA/IVB dates to the tenth century or not). In both scenarios, there is some information about the city during the reigns of David and Solomon.

The archaeology of Megiddo also confirms the biblical account of Ahab as a prosperous king who controlled the most important areas in the northern kingdom of Israel who was involved in international trade. These conclusions help to bring the text alive and illuminate the severity of the problems facing the prophet Elijah in his encounters with Ahab.

One interpretive option for biblical historians and theologians given this archaeological ambiguity is to give weight to imagination. This is where historical and archaeological “limits” can be put into conversation with theological readings of the biblical texts as contemporary believers seek to undertake what the theologian David Tracy calls “conversations” and “arguments” with their classic text par excellence, the Bible.

There is no doubt that the current excavations at Megiddo (and other sites as well) will continue to produce important clues that may solve our questions about an absolute chronology for the Iron Age archaeological strata in Israel and Judah.

In the absence of epigraphic finds or C14 that are much more precise, the debate will not soon be resolved, so it is important to continue to put the data from Megiddo in conversation with other excavations and vice versa. It is a grave mistake though to allow the difficulty of assigning an absolute date to a stratum to prevent the historical data from being used to imaginatively interpret the Bible.

Andrew G. Vaughn is Assistant Professor of Religion at Gustavus Adolphus College. A biblical historian, he has excavated several sites in Israel and is currently writing a history of ancient Israel textbook for Abingdon Press.

For more on the chronology debate at Megiddo, see http://www.tau.ac.il/humanities/archaeology/megiddo/chronology.html .

For a Megiddo bibliography, see http://www.tau.ac.il/humanities/archaeology/megiddo/bibliography.html .

For general excavation information on Megiddo, see http://www.tau.ac.il/humanities/archaeology/megiddo/index.html and http://www.digmegiddo.com

Citation: Andrew G. Vaughn, " What's a Bible Scholar to Do? ...When Archaeologists Can't Agree," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Jan 2005]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=61

 
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