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Israel Finkelstein Interviewed in New Scientist

Posted by NT Wrong on June 5, 2008

New Scientist No. 2658 ( May 31, 2008 ) offers what it calls an “interview” with Israeli archaeologist Israel Finkelstein. It is much more of an article piece than a interview, though, as Israel Finkelstein’s comments are heavily edited by the article’s author, David Cohen.

The article describes Finkelstein as “something of a revolutionary” in the field of archaeology:

Over the past decade he has spearheaded a movement in biblical archaeology that flies in the face of the interpretation of the Bible as a largely historical document. He argues that the traditional dating of many archaeological finds relating to biblical events is out by up to one-and-a-half centuries. His conclusion is uncompromising: many famous biblical stories are probably pure fiction. The exodus of the Israelites from Egypt never happened, and Joshua never attacked Jericho, let alone brought its walls down. “There is no evidence that Jericho even had city walls at that time.” Finkelstein says. David and Solomon were not great kings who ruled over the ancient land of Canaan in the 10th century BC from a palace in Jerusalem, as the Bible portrays; at best they were minor chieftains of some small-time tribe in that area. Their memory was later inflated and mythologised in the 7th century BC to serve particular political and military agendas, he says.

After a bit about Finkelstein’s credentials, the article gets into the substantial content. The first shocking revelation from Israel Finkelstein is that he denies sleeping with William Dever. The article continues:

In this part of the World, where the ancient and the modem meet in everyday political discourse, his findings can be inflammatory – and, much to his annoyance, have been used by some as ammunition against the right of a Jewish state to exist in the area. Others dismiss his work as ideologically motivated. In one barbed attack, William Dever, a specialist in the region’s archaeology at the University of Arizona, accused him of being a fashion-led “Post-Zionist” who is caught up in a race to push the writing of the Bible into more recent times. This incensed Finkelstein “What does he know about me?” he says indignantly. “Is he with me and my wife in the bedroom? In the beginning I used to be furious when people made such accusations, now I’m only amused.”

Why the anger? Despite being firmly on the left of Israeli politics (“I am prepared to swap land for peace with the Palestinians”) Finkelstein considers himself to be “an oldguard, conservative Zionist, which means I strongly believe in the right of the Jewish people to have a state and homeland in the historic land of Israel”.

Mrs Humphrey Ward once wrote, “If the Gospels are not true in fact, as history, I cannot see how they are true at all, or of any value.” However, Israel Finkelstein rightly does not share her sentiment at all:

What really gets to him is the response from his own secular end of Israeli society. “It’s the beach bums in Tel Aviv who say ‘I always knew the Bible was not important, and now Finkelstein has proved it’ that make me depressed.’ As Finkelstein sees it, the Bible does not have to be a historically accurate document for its handed-down set of stories to be “the root of my identity”.

Finkelstein also notes that archaeology should be, but usually is not, done separately from one’s convictions about religion and nation. What a great idea!!

Finkelstein is about as Israeli as they come. Born in the small town of Petah Tikva dose to Tel Aviv, he can trace his family’s roots in the area back to 1850, almost a century before the foundation of the Jewish state. “My family arrived in the mid-19th century from Grodno [in what is now Belarus] to Hebron. I don’t need any more legitimacy than that, nor does the state of Israel need the Bible to justify its right to exist,” he says. He has lived in the country all his life and counts himself a traditional Jew. “I’m not a believer, but we keep kosher at home, and I celebrate all the festivals.” Even the Passover festivaI, which celebrates the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and their journey to the promised land – biblical stories he believes are pure fiction. “Of course! Why not? This is my identity. I do it gladly.”

“Isn’t that a contradiction? “Not at all. I can separate my convictions about my culture and my identity on the one hand from my research on the other. I think this is critical for archaeology. If you cannot make this separation you are finished. Unfortunately, most people who work in biblical archaeology fail to make this separation. It’s a serious problem.”

The article ends with a few Indiana Jones-like episodes in Israel Finkelstein’s archaeological career, such as surviving bombs and mob attacks.


2 Responses to “Israel Finkelstein Interviewed in New Scientist”

  1. I just finished reading “David and Solomon”, which he co-authored. I can see how his take on ancient Jewish history might offend certain sensibilities.

  2. N T Wrong said

    There’s a lot of good things in that book. The (split) approach to history is taken up in Liverani’s History, too.

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