Finkelstein & the Bible

by John Croft

The reason why Finkelstein’s work is quoted so widely in the academic literature. His work as the chief excavator of Megiddo and the analysis of the Bronze and Iron Ages at this site are considered state of the art. The classical theories on the emergence of Israel is viewed by Finkelstein as a long developmental process rather than as a unique single event in the history of the region. Finkelstein suggested that we are dealing instead with a long-term process of a cyclical nature, similar to that which I have earlier described. He demonstrated that the wave of settlement in the highlands in the Iron Age I (ca. 1150-950 BCE) was the last in a series of such demographic developments across time – the first had taken place in the Early Bronze and the second in the Middle Bronze, and are associated with temporary periods of increasing desertification and recovery. The periods between these peaks were characterized by low settlement activity. Finkelstein explained these oscillations as representing changes along the sedentary/ pastoral-nomadic continuum, which were caused by ecological, socioeconomic and political dynamics. Hence, a big portion of the people who settled in the highlands in the early Iron Age were locals of a pastoral-nomadic background. Others, who originated from local sedentary background, moved to the highlands from the coastal towns as a result of the Bronze Age collapse – which in turn was related to a long period of dry climate in ca. 1250-1100 BCE. Since eventually these groups formed the Northern Kingdom of Israel, Finkelstein suggested they can be labeled “Israelites” as early as their initial settlement process. The same holds true for the contemporary settlement process that occurred later in Transjordan and western Syria, which brought about the rise of Moab, Ammon and the Aramean kingdoms of the later phases of the Iron Age, along with the development of a third new trade route which I have pointed to connecting Egypt and Mesopotamia.

Finkelstein regards the biblical account on the Conquest of Canaan in the Book of Joshua as an ideological manifesto of the Deuteronomistic author/s of the late 7th century BCE, describing a “conquest to be” under King Josiah of Judah during the vacuum created by the collapse of Assyria after 612 BCE rather than an earlier historical event at the end of the Bronze Age, for which evidence is sparse and contested. He proposed that the original Conquest Account may have originated in the Northern Kingdom of Israel in the early 8th century BCE; it could have been influenced by memories of the turmoil that had taken place in the coastal lowlands of the Via Maris in the late Iron I as a result of the expansion of the Philistines into Canaan (10th century BCE), rather than the end of the Late Bronze Age collapse (late 12th century BCE), and the contemporary experience of the Assyrian blitzkrieg.

Until the 1990s, the chronology of the Iron Age in the Levant had been anchored in the biblical account of the great United Monarchy and Levantine Empire of David and Solomon, and this was used by Richard Elliott Friedman as dating the J text in his version of the documentary hypothesis. Accordingly, it was believed that the Iron I period ended ca. 1000 BCE and the Iron IIA was dated from 1000 BCE until the campaign of Pharaoh Sheshonq I (biblical Shishak) ca. 925 BCE. The two Iron IIA palaces at Megiddo were at this time earlier conceived as the material manifestation for this great Solomonic Empire. But while he was preparing for the excavations at Megiddo in the early 1990s, Finkelstein noticed difficulties in this scheme. Noteworthy among them was the appearance of similar traits of material culture at Megiddo in a layer that was dated to the time of King Solomon in the middle of the 10th century were wrong, and with the later dates at Samaria and Jezreel it was found in contexts dated with C14 to the time of the Omride Dynasty (of the Northern Kingdom of Israel) in the early 9th century BCE. To resolve these difficulties, Finkelstein proposed to “lower” the dates of the Iron Age strata in the Levant by several decades, which was confirmed by the latest calibrated C14 and geochronological dating methods. According to Finkelstein’s Low Chronology, the Iron Age I dark age lasted until the middle of the 10th century BCE, while the Iron IIA is dated between the middle of the 10th century and ca. 800 BCE, if not slightly later. This means that the Megiddo palaces and other features which had traditionally been attributed to the time of King Solomon – features which date to the late Iron IIA – should indeed be associated with the endeavors of the Omride Dynasty in the first half of the 9th century BCE rather than Solomon’s Empire. This brought on a big debate which is still occurring. All in all, the radiocarbon results generally confirm Finkelstein’s findings and put the Iron I/IIA transition ca. the middle of the 10th century (rather than 1000 BCE as had traditionally been proposed), and the Iron IIA/B transition in the early days of the 8th century (rather than ca. 925 BCE). Similarly what Finkelstein proposed has shown through C14 dating that the locally-made Monochrome pottery known from several sites in Philistia, which was previously widely understood as representing the earliest phase of Philistine settlement under Year 8 of Rameses III, should be dated really after the withdrawal of Egypt from Canaan in the 1130s. This has been more widely accepted.

Finkelstein thus sees the biblical description of the time of David and Solomon as multilayered and later assembled account. Unlike the minimalists he acknowledges the historicity of the founder of the Davidic Dynasty, which places him in the 10th century BCE, but considers the possibility that the description of the rise of David to power conceals old memories of his activity as a leader of an Apiru-like-band (later called Hebrews) that was active in the southern fringe of Judah. Yet, he sees the description of a great United Monarchic Empire as an ideological construct that rather represents the ideology of late-monarchic author/s in the late 7th century BCE, and first and foremost the pan-Israelite ideology of the days of King Josiah of Judah. According to him, the historical David more properly ruled over a small territory in the southern highlands – a territory not very different from that of Jerusalem of the Late Bronze Age. Finkelstein sees much of the description of the stories of King Solomon as representing realities that existed only from late monarchic times: First, from the later days of the Northern Kingdom (for instance, the reference to Megiddo, Hazor and Gezer in 1 Kings 9:15 and to the stables, horses and chariots of Solomon). Second, from the time of King Manasseh of Judah in the early 7th century BCE, under Assyrian domination (for instance, the visit of the Queen of Sheba in Jerusalem).

All references to Philistines in the Biblical texts he shows are a description of the Philistines in the Bible as portraying realities not of the early settlement of the Philistines but of Philistia in late-monarchic times, when Philistia was fully Canaanite. Following the results of the excavations at Megiddo, Finkelstein argued that the material culture of the Iron I in the northern valleys continues that of the Late Bronze Age, despite the erruption of the Sea Peoples. In other words, the collapse of the Late Bronze city-states under Egyptian domination in the late 12th century BCE was followed by revival of some of the same centers and rise of others in the Iron I. the major break in the material culture of Canaan he shows, took place at the end of the Iron I in the 10th century BCE rather than the end of the Late Bronze Age. Finkelstein associated the violent destruction of the revived city-states here with the expansion of the highlanders (early Israelites). He suggested that memories of the turmoil in the lowlands in the late Iron I can be found in northern traditions regarding skirmishes with Canaanite cities which appear in the heroic stories in the Book of Judges.

As a result the first North Israelite territorial polity emerged in the Gibeon-Bethel plateau in the late Iron I and early Iron IIA. Finkelstein showed that there was archaeological evidence for this in the system of fortified sites, such as Tell en-Nasbeh, Khirbet ed-Dawwara, et-Tell (“Ai”) and Gibeon. Historical evidence for the existence of this polity can be found in the campaign of Pharaoh Sheshonq I in this region against these sites in the middle-to-second half of the 10th century BCE. According to Finkelstein, positive memories in the Bible of the earlier House of Saul, which originated from the North, represent this early Israelite entity. He suggested that this north Israelite polity ruled over much of the territory of the highlands, that it presented a threat to the interests of Egypt controlling indirectly the Via Maris via alliances with Philistia, by the 22nd Dynasty in Canaan, and that this alliance was thus taken over during the campaign of Sheshonq I, whose attack was on Israel, not on Judea or Philistia.

The expansion of Israel further to the north came during the days of the Omride Dynasty in the first half of the 9th century BCE, and even more so in the time of Jeroboam II in the first half of the 8th century BCE. Finkelstein described the special features of “Omride Architecture” and, with his Megiddo team, dealt with different subjects related to the material culture of the Northern Kingdom, such as metallurgy and cult practices. Finkelstein has also reflected on biblical traditions related to the Northern Kingdom, such as the Jacob cycle in Genesis (a study he carried out with Thomas Römer), in the Exodus tradition, in the heroic stories in the Book of Judges and remnants of royal traditions in the Books of Samuel and Kings. He suggested that these North Israelite traditions were first committed to writing in the days of Jeroboam II (first half of the 8th century BCE), that they were brought to Judah with Israelite refugees after the takeover of Israel by Assyria, and that they were later incorporated into the Judahite-dominated Bible, giving a more nuanced approach than the strait documentary hypothesis. Finkelstein sees the biblical genre of deploying “history” in the service of royal ideology as emerging from Israel (in the North) of the 8th century BCE.

According to Finkelstein and his colleagues the most suitable location for the core of ancient city of Jerusalem is the Temple Mount itself. The large area of the Herodian platform (today’s Harem esh-Sharif) may conceal a mound of five hectares and more, which – similar to other capital cities in the Levant – included both the royal compound and habitation quarters of the original city. Locating the mound of Ancient Jerusalem on the Temple Mound resolves many of the difficulties pertaining to the “City of David” ridge. According to Finkelstein, the history of Jerusalem in biblical times should be viewed in terms of these three main phases:

Firstly, until the 9th century BCE, Jerusalem was restricted to the mound on the Temple Mount and ruled over a modest area in the southern highlands. Accordingly, Jerusalem of the time of David and Solomon can be compared to Jerusalem of the Amarna period in the 14th century BCE: it had the size of a typical highlands mound (for instance, Shechem), ruled over a restricted area, but still had impact beyond the highlands.

Secondly, the first expansion of Jerusalem came in the 9th century BCE, perhaps in its second half, during the alliance with Israel and Tyre, when the town grew significantly in a southerly direction. Remains of the Iron IIA were unearthed south of al-Aqsa Mosque, above the Gihon Spring and to the south of the Dung Gate of the Old City. In parallel to this development, Judah expanded to the Shephelah in the west and Beersheba Valley in the south, and for the first time became a territorial kingdom rather than a city-state restricted to the highlands.

Thirdly, the most impressive phase in the settlement history of Jerusalem commenced in the late 8th century BCE and lasted until its destruction by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. At that time Jerusalem expanded by 300% dramatically, to include the entire “City of David” ridge, as well as the “Western Hill” (the Armenian and Jewish Quarter of today’s Old City). This expansion was the result of the arrival of large numbers of Israelite refugees after the demise of the Northern Kingdom in 722-720 BCE. These groups brought with them traits of Northern material culture, and more important – their foundation myths, royal traditions and heroic stories. These Northern traditions were all later incorporated into the Judahite Bible.

Finkelstein noted that in the Persian Period, Jerusalem was limited to the mound on the Temple Mount – and even there was sparsely settled – and that Yehud of that time was also thinly settled. As the description of the construction of the wall of Jerusalem in Nehemiah 3 must relate to the big city (extending beyond the old mound on the Temple Mount), it probably portrays the construction of the fortifications conducted by the later Hasmoneans. Finkelstein further noted that many of the sites mentioned in the lists of returnees in Ezra and Nehemiah were not inhabited in the Persian Period and hence sees these lists as also reflecting the demographic situation in days of the Hasmoneans, who imposed the chronological structure of the Anno Mundi on the text. The same holds true, in his opinion, for the genealogies in 1 Chronicles. Finkelstein then looked into the accounts of Judahite monarchs in 2 Chronicles, which do not appear in Kings. He called attention to similarities between these texts and 1 Maccabees, and proposed to understand Chronicles as representing legitimacy needs of the Hasmoneans. This means that at least 2 Chronicles dates to the late 2nd century BCE, probably to the days of John Hyrcanus.

As winner of the Dan David Prize in 2005. The select committee noted that he is “widely regarded as a leading scholar in the archaeology of the Levant and as a foremost applicant of archaeological knowledge to reconstructing biblical Israelite history. He excels at creatively forging links between archaeology and the exact sciences and he has revolutionized many of these fields. … Finkelstein has had an impact on radically revising the history of Israel in the 10th and 9th centuries BCE. He has transformed the study of history and archaeology in Israeli universities, moving from a ‘monumental’ to a ‘systemic’ study of the archaeological evidence. He has taken what was becoming a rather staid and conservative discipline, with everyone in general agreement as to interpretation of excavation results, and has turned things upside down. … The study of these periods is never again going to be what it once was. … Israel Finkelstein has proven to be creative, generating scholarship no less than discussion, launching ideas and stimulating debates, fearlessly but with imagination and grace.”

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