An Interview With Israel Finkelstein
For the May/June 2010 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review editor Hershel Shanks interviewed Israel Finkelstein, professor of archaeology at Tel Aviv University and co-director (with archaeologist David Ussishkin) of the excavations at the biblical site of Megiddo since 1994. Finkelstein is a prominent Israeli archaeologist who has authored or co-authored several books that are highly critical of the traditional reading of Scripture. These include The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of its Sacred Texts and David and Solomon: In Search of the Bible’s Sacred Kings and the Roots of the Western Tradition.
Finkelstein has a well-deserved reputation as a critic of the Bible. He has long been accused of being a biblical minimalist, someone who believes that only a bare minimum of the Bible is historically trustworthy. Prominent minimalists in modern academia include Thomas Thompson, Philip Davies, and Niels Peter Lemche, all of whom have authored works highly critical of the historical accuracy of the Bible. Finkelstein is not as radical as the minimalists, who approach the Bible with a level of skepticism that borders on outright hostility. At the same time, Finkelstein expresses his belief that the story of David contains mere “historical germs” (Shanks, 2010, p. 51). He admits that there was a group of people called “Israel” as early as the late 13th century B.C. and that Solomon built a temple in Jerusalem, but disagrees that the Bible is historically accurate.
Although Finkelstein is not as extreme as the minimalists, he is often guilty of using the same unwarranted skepticism when reading the Bible. In the interview with Shanks, he says that he believes that he is “in the center” (p. 48) and is “more critical” (in the sense of reading the Bible with a greater level of scrutiny and discernment, p. 51) without venturing into pure minimalism, but denies that the history of major biblical events occurred as they are presented in the pages of Scripture.
Finkelstein is highly critical of those who take the Bible at face value. He says, “I do think we are in a process of liberation from an antiquated reading of the Biblical text… [Some archaeologists] still interpret the Bible very literally…. We tend to give it a more sophisticated reading. This is not to say that the Bible has no history. It means that we need to look at the Biblical material more carefully, in a more sophisticated way (p. 58).
From Finkelstein’s comments throughout the interview, it seems that by having “greater sophistication” in reading the Bible he really means “greater skepticism.” Unfortunately, this seems to be a common way of looking at the Bible. For many critics, it is read not to be understood, but to be condemned. Modern critics assume they are more advanced than the ancient authors, and approach Scripture with an air of chronological arrogance. In reality, those archaeologists and scholars who read the Bible “very literally” are in many ways interpreting Scripture just as the ancient authors intended. They are also interpreting the Bible just as scholars would interpret texts from other cultures. The biblical authors intended their work to be read so that the reader understands that their work is presenting facts that took place in real time. Few scholars in other areas of ancient history would read ancient texts with the same skepticism as Finkelstein and others view the Bible.
It has long been the case that those who read the Bible hold it to a much higher standard—it would not be unfair to call it a double standard—than other sources of information. For instance, when archaeologist Eilat Mazar discovered and identified what she considered to be the palace of David in Jerusalem based partially on her reading of the Bible (Mazar, 2006), Finkelstein and several colleagues disputed her findings (Finkelstein, et al., 2007). When the Khirbet Qeiyafa inscription was discovered, Finkelstein warned against the “revival in the belief that what’s written in the Bible is accurate like a newspaper” (Friedman, 2008). In other words, he argues that we cannot expect the Bible to report factual details with any great degree of certainty. For the last two hundred years scholars have mined ancient texts, including mythological texts, for details that might help with locating ancient sites. Finkelstein apparently believes that this cannot be done with the Bible.
Finkelstein has a brilliant mind, and is witty, engaging, and humorous in his interview with Shanks. At the same time, he also possesses a level of skepticism that finds no place among mainstream scholarship. Experts usually approach the ancient evidence with a degree of confidence, assuming that the literary and material evidence are generally trustworthy unless there is reason for suspicion. Minimalists approach the biblical evidence with an extreme degree of skepticism that they often do not employ elsewhere. They hold the biblical text to an extreme double standard, and disregard the Bible unless incontrovertible extrabiblical evidence is found that corroborates the text. If the same method were applied to reading the daily paper, minimalists would never get past the first paragraph of the lead article.
The minimalists’ approach, which Finkelstein’s resembles closely, is decried by many scholars, both theistic and atheistic. An example of the former is Kenneth Kitchen, one of the world’s foremost Egyptologists. In his book On the Reliability of the Old Testament, he spends considerable time examining the biblical minimalists and their history in the last two hundred years of biblical scholarship (2003, pp. 449-500). Specifically of Finkelstein’s book The Bible Unearthed (coauthored by Neil Asher Silberman), he says, “[A] careful critical perusal of this work—which certainly has much to say about both archaeology and the biblical writings—reveals that we are dealing very largely with a work of imaginative fiction, not a serious or reliable account of the subject” (p. 464). Concerning their treatment of the patriarchal period, which the two describe as a virtual fiction, Kitchen comments, “our two friends are utterly out of their depth, hopelessly misinformed, and totally misleading” (p. 465). Finkelstein’s and Silberman’s discussion of the exodus prompts Kitchen to remark, “Their treatment of the exodus is among the most factually ignorant and misleading that this writer has ever read” (p. 466).
As for non-Christian scholars, there are several who would oppose Finkelstein’s treatment of the Bible. One of these is William Dever, who has often described himself as an agnostic at best. Dever’s battle with Finkelstein is well-known to those in archaeological circles, as well as to readers of Biblical Archaeology Review. The two have feuded publicly in print, although Dever generally commands more respect than Finkelstein. [NOTE: In a personal conversation, a Canadian archaeologist from the University of Toronto told me in 2006 that not only does Finkelstein have a reputation for criticizing other archaeologists’ conclusions without examining their evidence, but other Israeli archaeologists have been critical and almost dismissive of him and his methods.]
Both believers and nonbelievers view Finkelstein’s approach as unwarranted. His point of view has won very few converts in archaeological circles. His skepticism borders on extremism not only because of the way he approaches the biblical text, but also because of the way he treats other scholars who disagree with him. In the end, Finkelstein may be a respected archaeologist in some circles, but he is spectacularly incorrect in his conclusions about the historical accuracy of the Bible.
Finkelstein, Israel, et al. (2007), “Has King David’s Palace in Jerusalem Been Found?” Tel Aviv, 34:142-164.
Friedman, Matti (2008), “Archaeolgist Says He Found Oldest Hebrew Writing,” http://www.usatoday.com/tech/science/2008-10-30-424395593_x.htm.
Kitchen, Kenneth A. (2003), On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).
Mazar, Eilat (2006), “Did I Find King David’s Palace?” Biblical Archaeology Review, 32:16–27,70, January/February.
Shanks, Hershel (2010), “The Devil is Not So Black as He is Painted,” Biblical Archaeology Review, 36:48-58, May/June.