With recent headlines about the James bone box and an inscribed tablet from Solomon's temple, archaeology in the Holy Land is receiving much attention. What can Jerusalem teach about history and the Bible?
Dan Bahat is one of Israel's leading archaeologists and a senior lecturer at the Land of Israel Studies at Bar-Ilan University. He is an expert on the Temple Mount, Herod's Palace, and the 1,600- foot tunnel that runs under the western retaining wall of the Temple Mount.
Has the recently found tablet been verified to be a genuine artifact?
Not only that, but it has been read to beautifully describe the victory of the Arameans over Israel, which is something we know of from the biblical description.
The fact that some archaeologists have tried to overlook it doesn't [mean it is not authentic] because archaeology is not a definite answer to everything. Archaeology is not exact science like physics and mathematics.
Explain your work at the Temple Mount.
We started digging tunnels along that wall in 1967, immediately after the end of the Six Day War. The idea was to expose the Western Wall tunnel in order to understand why the western wall and no other became holy to the Jewish people. This is also known as the Wailing Wall. It is about one-ninth of the entire length of Temple Mount's western retaining wall.
What role does the Temple Mount play in the Bible?
Temple Mount is the name of that official entity which was constructed on the natural mountain Mount Moriah. This mount has got to do with two events in the Old Testament. One of them was Abraham's attempt to sacrifice Isaac for the sake of God's name.
The second reference is that this is the mount on which Jacob put his head when he dreamt the dream of the angels of the Lord ascending and descending the ladder reaching heaven.
Of course, the tradition goes on. In the book of Chronicles we hear that it was Solomon who built the temple of the Lord on top of Mount Moriah.
We know it was King David who built the altar of the Lord where the angel of God appeared to him on the summit of Mount Moriah in the very same place of Abraham and Jacob. And since then it is the site of the temple in Jerusalem.
It was David who chose the place, it was David who brought the builders from Phoenicia with the trees, with the cedar trees, with the cypresses. He would have built a temple with that. It was David who even had the plans for the temple. But he then submitted them to his son.
The Bible tells us why he David passed on the plans of the temple. The Bible quotes David saying, "Because my son, Solomon, is still a young man." In other words, all the things one would expect from a builder were done actually by King David. It was King David who actually did everything besides the actual building of the temple.
You've made references to what the Bible says. How reliable would you say the Bible is for archaeological purposes?
Very reliable. However, there are many amongst archaeologists now—I call them the new archaeologists—who believe that the Bible is exaggerating the importance of King David and King Solomon. Why? Because not too much has been found.
The problem [with this argument] is that Jerusalem was built and destroyed so many times that we should be grateful for everything that is left. So how can you overlook the biblical facts?
Since David's time, so many things were built and destroyed. Therefore, I don't think that since artifacts of King David are not found, it is reason to say David was not a great historical personality. In upper Galilee there was discovered an inscription by an Aramean king. One hundred and fifty years after King David, what does he call Israel? The House of David.
I will tell you what somebody told me. He said that when he reads the Scriptures, it's like reading in black and white. But after a visit to Israel, it became colorful.
What is your interest in Jerusalem?
I have always been interested in Jerusalem at the time of Christ or the time of Herod. And then one day I discovered, to my greatest surprise, a Crusader church. When I tried to study to see what church it is, I found out that since the early 20th century, no one dealt with Crusader Jerusalem. No one found new facts about the city. So I decided this would be my Ph.D.
The old city of Jerusalem of today is essentially the Crusader city, although it was built by Emperor Hadrian in the second century. It was built then as a city in the block system with streets that are parallel and perpendicular to each other.
This is how the city is today. But it was the crusaders who changed the content of the city. They built the churches and the greater neighborhoods of various denominations and of various nationalities. They established the marketplaces of Jerusalem. When you walk today along the streets of the old city of Jerusalem and through those oriental markets, you should know that all of them were made for the first time under the Crusaders, mainly in the middle of the 12th century.
Another artifact that attracts a lot of attention is the Ark of the Covenant. What do you know, as an archaeologist, about it?
No one knows anything about the Ark of the Covenant. There are local primitive traditions but there is no way whatsoever to prove them.
The interest in the Ark of the Covenant started, in my opinion, with the Indiana Jones movie. And it's very serious, because even in that movie you see there are so many traditions regarding the Ark of the Covenant and its capacities.
We don't really know what it is. I always say that finding the Ark of the Covenant is very much in Judaism like looking for the Holy Grail in Christianity. All the knights and all the troubadours of the Medieval Era looked for the Holy Grail. They didn't know what to look for and they didn't know what it was like.
This shows us something very important: that every nation, every religion is yearning to find something that we don't know actually what it is.
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