Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Tenth Century Question (or, Finkelstein vs everyone else?)

Any student of the Hebrew Bible is likely well aware of the debate that has gone on in the field over the last decade or so regarding the tenth century. In a nutshell, the issue has two sides: those accepting what has been dubbed a 'higher chronology' and seeing evidence of an elaborate and extensive kingdom under Solomon, confirmed at sites such as Megiddo, Hazor, and Gezer (see 1 Kgs 9:15). On the other side, advocating a 'lower chronology' is Israel Finkelstein and David Ussishkin; the implications of this position is a non-existent United Monarchy, as well as seeing Israelite statehood as emerging in the 9th century--with the Omride dynasty more or less taking over the place of Solomon as premiere empire builder, and Judahite statehood in the 8th century as a ramification largely of the collapse of the Northern Kingdom after the Assyrian onslaught. I have recently read quite extensively on the topic, and thus far I am uncertain which position has more to commend itself.

Finkelstein's challenge to the conventional chronology is grounded in two specific arguments he makes: 1) red slip burnished pottery is not de facto an indication of a tenth century context/stratum; 2) an alternative view of the Philistine settlement in Canaan, reliant upon documents such as the Medinet Habu inscription, the Harris Papyrus I, Tale of Wen Amon, and Onomasticon of Amenope, which he sees as requiring a down-dating of Philistine bichrome pottery and all subsequent pottery assemblages by 50-100 years.

Amihai Mazar has perhaps been the primary opponent in print of Finkelstein's view, although Bill Dever and Amnon Ben-Tor have also challenged Finkelstein's understandings of Gezer and Hazor respectively. The best, most concise, and most recent treatment of this topic can be found in the Brian Schmidt edited volume The Quest for the Historical Israel: Debating Archaeology and the History of Early Israel (Atlanta: SBL, 2007), which includes essays by both Finkelstein and Mazar on a number of topics, ranging from the historicity of the ancestors (Abraham, etc.) to the tenth century to the role of archaeology in biblical studies. This is a fine volume, and has much to commend itself. In it, Mazar--who previously in print had challenged Finkelstein vociferously--does concede in a way, accepting that the evidence does require a modification of the chronology, but not a wholesale shifting of it as Finkelstein does. Mazar rather proposes a Modified Conventional Chronology (MCC) that attempts to see the 10th and 9th centuries as one extended archaeological period, and one large stratum. While Mazar's view may be more honest about the evidence, it seems to me the difficulty still exists: do the specific Megiddo, Gezer, and Hazor sites date to Solomon or the Omride dynasty. Mazar's chronology would allow for either to stand as a viable possibility. This ambiguity may prove problematic.

Finkelstein's position seems to have garnered little support (although, in an essay in The Bible and Radiocarbon Dating, he addresses this argument briefly, but by doing no more than citing a footnote elsewhere that apparently lists those who take his side). I must admit, though, Finkelstein's chronology has several points weighing in its favor: 1) it closes an archaeological 'black hole' that has existed in the 9th century; 2) it dates state formation in Israel as coterminous with other areas known in the Levant during the 9th/8th centuries BCE; 3) it lines up more with the intellectual and material culture [i.e., writing would be important in a centralized culture, and no provenanced monumental inscriptions exist until the 9th or 8th centuries].

It does appear, though, that Finkelstein's position has some difficulties: 1) much of it is based upon assumptions; 2) while seeing himself as fashioning a middle road between maximalist and minimalist approaches to the Bible, many of Finkelstein's criticisms of Dever especially lead me to suspect he is much closer to the minimalist camp than he may be letting on [i.e., he accuses Dever of dating the Gezer city walls and gates not according to its pottery assemblages but on the basis of 1 Kgs 9:15]; 3) counter-arguments of Mazar, Dever, Ben-Tor re: the specific cites [Megiddo, Gezer, and Hazor], as well as a general unacceptance in, for instance, Ziony Zevit's seminal volume on Israelite religion, has called Finkelstein's chronology into question as well.

At bottom, both sides have their advantages and disadvantages. The archaeological picture is no doubt even muddier now than it was ever in the past; not only do archaeologists have to make difficult decisions based upon their evidence, they also now have what I would call a serious challenge to the 'status quo' that has come to be known as the low chronology. At best, I am agnostic about how much pottery can honestly reveal about a given site. In many places it has surely been helpful, but it also seems to have introduced difficulty as well. It appears, though, to me, at present, that a way forward might be to reexamine issues pertaining to the Philistine settlement, which served as the starting place for the entire debate. Finkelstein's work there has only minimally been addressed, and much of the debate has focused--since the two articles in 1995 and 1996 respectively that introduce his arguments--on the evidence he and Ussishkin gathered during their Megiddo excavations, along with the excavations at Gezer and Hazor. The debate is surely an interesting one, and I feel Finkelstein has at the very least pointed out some difficulties with the conventional chronology that need to be addressed before his arguments can be dismissed.


  1. I hope Finkelstein is not motivated to attempt to trivialize - or even disprove - biblical accounts.

  2. Indiessance:

    I do not believe that is Finkelstein's main objective. I also would hope that is not the motivating factor for any scholar, biblical or achaeologist.

    There does of course seem to be some sort of basic consensus that parts of the Bible are not 'true' (yet I am here reminded of a quotation by Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, of which I paraphrase here: 'some things that never happened are very true'). For instance, scholarship by and large does not see the ancestral narratives as historical (you can see Finkelstein/Mazar both affirming this view in the Schmidt edited volume I mention above). A worldwide flood, or the exodus event also likely did not occur--if at all--in the way the biblical text describes them. This of course does not, and should not, rob these stories of any of their meaning or value.

    The maximalist/minimalist debate continues to fascinate me.

  3. John,

    Thanks for your comment on my blog and for the insights here. A few thoughts on the Finkelstein/Mazar exchange. First, Finkelstein has modified his position since the debate. He now believes that Iron IIA began in the first half of the 10th century and ended in the mid-9th. See I. Finkelstein, The Last Labayu: King Saul and the Expansion of the First North Israelite territorial Entity, pp. 171-188 in Y. Amit, E. Ben-Zvi, I. Finkelstein and O. Lipschits (editors), Essays on Ancient Israel in Its Near Eastern Context, A Tribute to Nadav Na'aman. Winona Lake, 2006.

    Second, a forthcoming article by D. N. Freedman and D. Frese in Eretz Israel will point out some major problems with Finkelstein's dating.

    Third, I wrote a review of this book in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (Dec 2008 issue) in which I point out problems with both views. If you're interested, I can send that by email.

  4. Todd:

    I would welcome the email (j_anderson@baylor.edu).

    Thank you for your comments here. It is interesting to me that you mention Finkelstein's altering his position in a 2006 article, yet to my recollection this change was not laid out so clearly in the Quest for the Historical Israel volume (2007). In fact, he seems to be upholding and defending his low chronology and the fault of Yadin and others quite blatantly. Perhaps I am missing something obvious.

    The modification to his chronology is likely indicative of the legitimacy of some of the challenges that have been leveled against him. But what you describe this shift as being does not seem to tidy anything up any better than before.

  5. John - the Quest volume was published in 2007, but it was based on lectures given in 2005, so apparently the change was made in the interim. My mind is working in other arenas lately and it would take some work to get back into the details of this argument to say anything of value. I do think that this discussion will continue in the years ahead. I'll send you the review by email.