Archaeology's Rebel: Bible in One Hand, Spade in the Other
When the ribbon was cut to dedicate Jerusalem's newest archaeological attraction last summer, Eilat Mazar stood among the dignitaries like a proud parent.
The 56 year-old Israeli archaeologist didn't just direct the final excavation that prepared the Ophel City Wall site for visitors. She also linked the silent stones with one of the Bible's most eminent and holy kings: Solomon.
The Ophel lies just below the Temple Mount and above the City of David, the oldest area of Jerusalem. It is one of the most authentic locations for pilgrims to "walk where Jesus walked." Now it is possible to stand in the shadow of massive walls that date back to the First Temple.
"The Bible describes how King Solomon built the walls of Jerusalem in 1 Kings 3:1," Mazar told Christianity Today. "I'm suggesting that what we've revealed can be related quite safely to King Solomon."
Such a bold biblical connection from a modern Israeli archaeologist is rare. It provokes other archaeologists (except for evangelical ones), but it also exposes how the discipline has changed over the past several decades. Biblical archaeology has become a field of scientists who are self-conscious about the biblical pursuits that guided—and sometimes misguided—the discipline during earlier years.
Archaeologists of the early 20th century who linked their discoveries with biblical stories occasionally found that later evidence or more refined scrutiny called their judgments into question. Such premature connection is an indictment that has hung around the neck of biblical archaeology for so long that some archaeologists today are more apt to apologize for biblical connections than to trumpet them.
But not all. In the July/August 2011 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR), editor Hershel Shanks chided Israeli archaeologist Ronny Reich for asserting that hypothetical biblical connections should be saved until after the archaeological evidence has been properly sorted out. Shanks believes that Mazar, in her willingness to make the biblical hypothesis sooner rather than later, is not wrong. Speaking of another excavation that Mazar suggests is King David's palace, Shanks wrote that Mazar was simply following the scientific method: "Eilat had a hypothesis, and she wanted to test it by digging."
How many archaeologists today are willing to admit to testing a biblical hypothesis? In 1998, the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR), the main professional organization for archaeologists working in the Middle East, changed the name of its magazine from Biblical Archaeologist to Near Eastern Archaeology in order to separate itself from that modus operandi. Mazar, on the other hand, seems more like her grandfather and the archaeologists of earlier generations.
Benjamin Mazar was one of Israel's most distinguished archaeologists. From 1953 to 1961, he also served as president of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Mazar learned her earliest lessons in archaeology from him long before she earned her Ph.D. from the Hebrew University, where she is now on staff at the Institute of Archaeology.
Benjamin Mazar directed excavation of the Ophel area for over a dozen years, beginning in 1968. His granddaughter was glad for the chance to return to the area. "It's actually a dream come true," she said of the new archaeological park. "Now people can come and witness for themselves how impressive these fortifications are and why we're suggesting dating them to King Solomon."