"David's Palace" and Contrary Opinions

Israel Finkelstein, Lily Singer-Avitz, Ze’ev Herzog, and David Ussishkin have written an article in the Tel Aviv journal entitled “Has King David’s Palace in Jerusalem Been Found?”  Jim West has posted the article in pdf format here (but after Jan 29 here).

The abstract:

Recent excavations at the City of David have revealed a set of massive walls constructed of large undressed stones. Excavator Eilat Mazar has presented them as the remains of a single building, which she labelled the ‘Large Stone Structure’. Mazar interpreted the ‘Large Stone Structure’ as part of a big construction complex, which had also included the ‘Stepped Stone Structure’ on the slope. She dated her ‘Large Stone Structure’ to ca. 1000 BCE and identified it as the palace of King David. We argue that: (1) the walls unearthed by Mazar do not belong to a single building; (2) the more elaborate walls may be associated with elements uncovered by Macalister and Duncan in the 1920s and should possibly be dated to the Hellenistic period; (3) the ‘Stepped Stone Structure’ represents at least two phases of construction— the lower (downslope) and earlier, possibly dating to the Iron IIA in the 9th century BCE, and the later (which connects to the Hasmonaean First Wall upslope) dating to the Hellenistic period.

Their brutal conclusion:

Eilat Mazar’s excavations in the City of David add several points of information to what we know about the history of this problematic site. Yet, the main find—the ‘Large Stone Structure’—was not properly interpreted and dated. First, it seems to consist of several elements, mainly a rectangular building in the west and the citywall in the east. Second, all one can safely say is that its various elements post-date the late Iron I/early Iron IIA and predate the Roman period. Circumstantial evidence seems to suggest the dating of most elements to the late Hellenistic period.
Beyond archaeology, one wonders about the interpretation of the finds. The biblical text dominates this field operation, not archaeology. Had it not been for Mazar’s literal reading of the biblical text, she never would have dated the remains to the 10th century BCE with such confidence. This is an excellent example of the weakness of the traditional, highly literal, biblical archaeology—a discipline that dominated research until the 1960s, that was weakened and almost disappeared from the scene in the later years of the 20th century, and that reemerged with all its attributes in the City of David in 2005.

Revising Mazar’s date from the 10th century to the 2nd-1st century is a huge correction (it reminds one of the 1000-year errors that Robert Alexander Stewart Macalister regularly made).  And this charge is made not in a casual conversation, but in a major journal. But the authors make no attempt to hide their own agenda: they hate “biblical archaeology.”  While Mazar is possibly guilty of finding what she is looking for, I have trouble imagining a scenario where Finkelstein would agree with any conclusion which supports the traditional biblical interpretation.  Perhaps herein lies a test: if every archaeological discovery of a certain excavator seems to be of a structure mentioned in the Bible, be suspicious.  But if an archaeologist is able to find a reason to reject every discovery with a biblical connection, he may not be worthy of your trust.

There’s another lesson in this debate: much in archaeology is ambiguous, and multiple conclusions are possible.  In most cases, a major issue is not at stake and the conclusion of the excavator is not carefully evaluated.  But there are many, many examples where a site, level, or subject is re-analyzed and a significantly different conclusion is reached.  For me it means one thing: thou shalt not trust in archaeology.  If certain conclusions are the primary support of one’s faith, it’s quite possible that one day those conclusions will be questioned (before, perhaps, being re-adopted).  Many today use archaeology in a similar way but for an opposite result: certain archaeological conclusions are their evidence that the Bible is not an accurate historical record.  To all amateurs, I suggest a careful consideration of the ambiguity of much of archaeological evidence.  In the hands of an interpreter (usually called an archaeologist), archaeology is no science.

In a blog comment, Aren Maier indicates that the debate is just beginning:

As someone who has seen the evidence and heard both Eilat Mazar present her case and Finkelstien, Ussishkin, Herzog and Singer-Avitz present their counterarguments, I believe that one can say that:
1) Eilat has overstated her case that she has found “David’s palace”. She HAS found a large building in the City of David, dating to the 10th or 9th cent. BCE.
2) From an archaeological point of view, the “Hellenistic” dating that Finkelstine et al. have suggested is to say the least, very unconvincing. This though is not the place to go in to details.

Sometime I’d like to post my own thoughts on Mazar’s “palace of David.”  I’m not competent to analyze the stratigraphical issues, but I do think that she’s made some significant mistakes in biblical interpretation.  And that’s from one who believes that David had a palace and the biblical record of it is reliable.

*The article is worth downloading for the bibliography alone, if you’re into that kind of thing.


3 thoughts on “"David's Palace" and Contrary Opinions

  1. ‘Tel Aviv’ a major journal? Maybe. But don’t forget that Finkelstein is the editor. He can publish anything he wants, and on the other hand, can regulate it like a communist newspaper.

  2. Finkelstein is not the editor, although he is on the editorial board, as are three other Tel Aviv University faculty. Benjamin Sass is the editor.

  3. ABSOLUTELY Tel Aviv is a major journal in the world of biblical archaeology, or–if you prefer–Syro-Palestinian archaeology. For example, if you want to find the conclusive pottery reports that verify that Tufnell and Aharoni were correct–while Starkey was incorrect–about the destruction of Lachish III (i.e. Stratum III) being dated to 701 BC (Assyrian invasion) and not 597 BC (2nd of 3 Babylonian invasions), you can find this only in Tel Aviv 29 (2002). Herzog and Singer-Avitz each wrote 100-page reports: the former on the overall site and the excavations of the 60’s (an interim report) and the latter on the associated pottery. The findings of Singer-Avitz confirm conclusively that Tufnell was absolutely correct about Lachish III, even though the giants of the archaeological world balked at her conclusions for many years. In this case, knowingly or not, Singer-Avitz verified archaeologically what is inferred in the biblical text. For this reason, Todd’s–and, by the way, I studied with him in seminary–warnings are just a bit too foreboding and doom-cloud-producing. He is correct, however, that so much in archaeology depends on interpretation. Then again, the tangential field of biblical studies has the same dilemma: hermeneutics is the key to everything! A hermeneutical practitioner with poor or flawed principles undergirding his views will almost invariably come to flawed conclusions. And by the way, this happens all of the time. Many such commentaries sit on your bookshelves and mine!!

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