Does the archaeological ‘Low Chronology’ disprove the Biblical narrative?

The Challenge

The ‘Low Chronology’ is a proposed redating of the Iron Age,1 dating the reigns of David and Solomon to a time during which there is no archaeological evidence supporting them.2

The Objections

Proposed at least as early as the 1980s,3 the redating received almost no support,4 and was resisted strongly by the archaeological consensus.5 Objections were raised by archaeologists including Dever (1997),6 Mazar (1997, 1999),7 Zarzeki-Peleg (1997),8 Ben-Tor (1998), and Ben Ami (1998).9

Finkelstein responded, but criticism was renewed in 2000 by Na’aman10 and Ben-Tor.11 Over the next five years Finkelstein was virtually the only promoter of the theory. 12 13 14 15 16 17 18

The Evidence

Mazar and Dever note evidence agreeing with the Bible’s description of Jerusalem under David and Solomon.19 20 Garfinkel likewise says evidence supports the description of the Israelite battles with the Philistines.21 Architecture at Khirbet Qeiyafa indicates David ruled an established state, as in the Biblical narrative.22 Carbon 14 dated olive pits at the site have an age within the traditional date for the reign of David.23

Dead and Buried

Garfinkel believes the evidence from Khirbet Qeiyafa to be conclusive, 24 25 and has declared ‘Low chronology is now officially dead and buried’.26

  1. ‘Proponents of the low chronology suggest that the end of the Iron Age I and the Iron Age IIA should be dated some eighty to one hundred years lower than the traditional chronology.’, Lehman, ‘The United Monarchy in the Countryside: Jerusalem, Judah and the Shephelah during the Tenth Century B.C.E’, in Vaughn & Killebrew (eds.), ‘Jerusalem in Bible and archaeology: The First Temple Period’, pp. 119-120 (2003; Iron Age I and Iron Age IIA are specific eras within the Iron Age. []
  2. This suggested “Low Chronology” supposedly supports the replacement of this paradigm by a new one (in fact, similar to one presented earlier by David Jamieson Drake and others), according to which the kingdom of David and Solomon either did not exist or comprised at best a small local entity.’, Mazar, ‘The Search for David and Solomon: An Archaeological Perspective’, in Schmidt (ed.), ‘The Quest For the Historical Israel: debating archaeology and the history of Early Israel’, p. 119 (2007). []
  3. “Revisionism” began on the archaeological front in the early 1980s, when several archaeologists o the Tel Aviv University set out to lower the conventional 10th century date of the distinctive four-entryway city gates and casement (or double) walls at Hazor, Megiddo, and Gezer to the early-mid-9th century BCE.’, Dever, ‘Biblical and Syro-Palestinian Archaeology’, in Perdue (ed.), ‘The Blackwell companion to the Hebrew Bible’, p. 137 (2001). []
  4. ‘The Tel Aviv group’s idiosyncratic “low chronology,” however, was not accepted by the Jerusalem school, or by any European or American archaeologist (it still is not widely accepted, even by all Tel Aviv archaeologists).’, ibid., pp. 137-138. []
  5. ‘The underlying premises of the Low Chronology were quickly challenged.’, Ortiz, ‘Deconstructing and Reconstructing the United Monarch’ , in Hoffmeier & Millard (eds.), ‘The Future of Biblical Archaeology: Reassessing Methodologies and Assumptions’, p. 128 (2004). []
  6. ‘And I can tell you that not a single one of the other Israeli archaeologists agrees with this low chronology, except Israel Finkelstein.’ Dever, quoted in Shanks, ‘Face to Face: Biblical Minimalists Meet Their Challengers’, Biblical Archaeology Review (23.04), July/August 1997. []
  7. ‘Mazar concluded that Finkelstein’s suggestion to push the date of the Philistine Monochrome pottery beyond the end of the Egyptian presence in Canaan is based on a debatable assumption (Tenet #2).’, ibid., p. 128. []
  8. ‘A second article criticizing the Low Chronology was published by Anabel Zarzeki-Peleg.17 She also focused on the Iron Age stratigraphy of northern assemblages. Zarzeki-Peleg presented a ceramic typological study of three important northern sites (Megiddo, Jokneam, and Hazor) and concluded that the stratigraphical redating of the Low Chronology is not possible.’, ibid., p. 128. []
  9. ‘The most significant studies, all opposed to Finkelstein’s “low chronology,” are those of Zarzeki-Peleg, 1997; Ben-Tor and Ben-Ami, 1998; and Mazar, 19991.’, Dever, ‘Biblical and Syro-Palestinian Archaeology’, in Perdue (ed.), ‘The Blackwell companion to the Hebrew Bible’, p. 202 (2001). []
  10. ‘A second set of responses to Finkelstein’s Low Chronology came in a 2000 issue of BASOR.22 First, Nadav Na’aman challenged Finkelstein’s redating of the Philistine Monochrome pottery using Trojan Grey Ware from Lachish and Tel Miqne-Ekron.’, ibid, p. 129. []
  11. ‘A second article by Ben-Tor addressed Finkelstein’s redating of the northern sites, particularly Hazor.’, ibid., p. 129. []
  12. ‘In the meantime, his views are opposed by such leading archaeologists as Amihai Mazar of Hebrew University, excavator of Tel Rehov;* Amnon Ben-Tor of Hebrew University, excavator of Hazor;* Lawrence Stager of Harvard University, excavator of Ashkelon; and William Dever of the University of Arizona, excavator of Gezer. More to the point, Finkelstein’s low chronology has not been accepted even by his codirector at Megiddo, David Ussishkin. Ussishkin tells us that “on archaeological grounds it is quite possible (though not necessary) that some or all of [the structures in Stratum VA-IVB] originate in the 10th century B.C.E., during Solomon’s reign,” which is what the traditional chronology holds.’, Shanks, ‘Reviews: Megiddo III—The 1992–1996 Seasons, Israel Finkelstein, David Ussishkin and Baruch Halpern, Editors’, Biblical Archaeology Review (6.06), November/December 2000. []
  13. ‘What they do not tell the reader is that Finkelstein does not deny an Israelite state, but only down-dates its origins somewhat; and that his idiosyncratic “low chronology” is scarcely accepted by any other archaeologist.’, Dever, ‘What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know it?’, p. 43 (2002). []
  14. ‘It should not go unnoticed that not a single other ranking Syro-Palestinian archaeologist in the world has come out in print in support of Finkelstein’s ‘low chronology’.’, Dever, ‘Histories and Non-Histories of Ancient Israel: The Question of the United Monarchy’, in Day (ed.), ‘In Search of Pre-exilic Israel: proceedings of the Oxford Old Testament Seminar’, p. 73 (2003). []
  15. ‘The overwhelming consensus is, now more than ever, against Finkelstein’s low chronology, and therefore against his ‘new vision’ of ancient Israel.’, Dever, in Tel Aviv, volumes 30-31, p. 278 (2003). []
  16. ‘Demolishing Finkelstein’s supposed late date for the appearance of Philistine Bichrome pottery, based on an argument entirely from silence, leaves him without a leg to stand on for the remainder of his Iron I ‘low chronology’. While he continues to present it as fact, even claiming a growing consensus, there is not a shred of empirical (that is, stratigraphic) evidence to support this chronology.’, Dever, ‘Histories and Non-Histories of Ancient Israel: The Question of the United Monarchy’, in Day (ed.), ‘In Search of Pre-exilic Israel: proceedings of the Oxford Old Testament Seminar’, p. 73 (2003). []
  17. ‘Most senior archaeologists reject Finkelstein’s low chronology.’, Shanks, ‘Radiocarbon Dating: How to Find Your True Love’, Biblical Archaeology Review (31.01), January/February 2005; he cites ‘Amihai Mazar, Ephraim Stern, Amnon Ben-Tor, all of Hebrew University; Lawrence Stager of Harvard; William Dever and Seymour Gitin, the former and present directors of the Albright Institute in Jerusalem; and even Baruch Halpern, co-director with Finkelstein and David Ussishkin of the current excavation of Megiddo.’, but adds ‘But at this level of scholarship, you don’t simply count noses; you reason and argue! Recently, two brilliant younger archaeologists working at what is becoming a key site in the debate (Tel Dor on the Mediterranean coast) have parted company on this issue from their mentor, Hebrew University archaeologist Ephraim Stern, and now support Finkelstein’s low chronology.† Are the sands shifting?’. []
  18. ‘Currently, Finkelstein is the only outspoken proponent of the Low Chronology.’, Ortiz, ‘Deconstructing and Reconstructing the United Monarch’ , in Hoffmeier & Millard (eds.), ‘The Future of Biblical Archaeology: Reassessing Methodologies and Assumptions’, p. 128 (2004). []
  19. ‘Jerusalem of the tenth century B.C.E. is described by Finkelstein as a small and unimportant village. However, the “Stepped Stone Structure” in Area G in the City of David is a huge retaining wall that must have supported one of the largest buildings (perhaps the largest) of the 12th-10th centuries B.C.E. in the entire land of Israel. The pottery evidence indicates that it was founded during the Iron Age I (12th-11th centuries B.C.E.) and went out of use at some time after the tenth century. This fits the Biblical description of “The Citadel of Zion” (Metsudat Zion) as a Jebusite citadel captured by David and used as his stronghold (2 Samuel 5:7). In addition, Iron IIA pottery was found in almost every excavation area in the City of David. Jerusalem may not have been an enormous city during that time, but it definitely was much more than merely a small village, as Finkelstein contends. Outside of Jerusalem, monumental structures at Hazor, Megiddo and Gezer can, in my opinion, be dated to the tenth century B.C.E. Thus Yigael Yadin was probably correct in suggesting that these should be associated with Solomon’s building projects mentioned in 1 Kings 9:15.’, Mazar, ‘Does Amihai Mazar Agree with Finkelstein’s “Low Chronology”?’, Biblical Archaeology Review (29.02), March/April 2003. []
  20. ‘If the biblical Solomon had not constructed the Gezer gate and city walls, then we would have to invent a similar king by another name.’, Dever, ‘What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know it?’, p. 133 (2002). []
  21. The geopolitical circumstances in the Elah Valley during the late 11th–early 10th centuries are quite clear. The mighty Philistine city state of Gath, ca. 30 hectares in area, was located only 12 km downstream from Khirbet Qeiyafa. This was a hostile border area, where the Kingdoms of Gath and Jerusalem had constant millenary conflicts. The story of David and Goliath is just one of many such “warrior tales” listed in 2 Sam 21:15–22 and 1 Ch 11:11–27. Even if many of these traditions are folkloristic in character, their chronology and geography bear historical memories. As by the end of the 9th century BCE Gath disappeared as a political power, these traditions must have been created at an earlier time.’, Garfinkel, ‘Khirbet Qeiyafa: Sha’arayim’, Journal of Hebrew Scriptures (8.22.6). 2008. []
  22. Khirbet Qeiyafa is surrounded by a massive casemate city wall, 700 m long and 4 m wide. It is constructed of megalithic stones, quite often reaching a weight of 4–5 tons apiece, and in the eastern gate, even ca. 10 tons each. Our calculation suggests that 200,000 tons of stone were required for the construction of these fortifications. A four-chambered gate, its upper part constructed of ashlars, was located and excavated in the western part of the city. It is clearly a fortified town rather than a rural settlement.’, Garfinkel, ‘Khirbet Qeiyafa: Sha’arayim’, Journal of Hebrew Scriptures (8.22.5). 2008. []
  23. ‘As Khirbet Qeiyafa is an Iron Age IIA site, we are left with a dating post-1000 BCE, that is, 1000–975 BCE (59.6%) or 1000–969 BCE (77.8%). These dates fit the time of King David (ca. 1000–965 BCE) and are too early for King Solomon (ca. 965–930 BCE).’, ibid., p. 3. []
  24. ‘The four new C14 results from Khirbet Qeiyafa clearly indicate that the “low chronology” and the “ultra-low chronology” are unacceptable.’, ibid., p. 4-5. []
  25. ‘The biblical text, the single-phase city at Khirbet Qeiyafa, and the radiometric dates each stands alone as significant evidence clearly indicating that the biblical tradition does bear authentic geographical memories from the 10th century BCE Elah Valley. There is no ground for the assumption that these traditions were fabricated in the late 7th century BCE or in the Hellenistic period.’, ibid., pp. 5-6. []
  26. Garfinkel & Ganor, ‘Khirbet Qeiyafa: An Early Iron IIa Fortified City in Judah’, presentation to the American Schools of Oriental Research, slide 24 (2010). []

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