July was a particularly busy month for archaeology in the Holy Land. In Tell es-Safi in southern Israel, archaeologists from Bar-Ilan University excavating what some believe to be the remains of the ancient Philistine city of Gath stumbled on an older layer of “Biblical-era” fortifications. These, suggested Professor Aren Maeir, director of the dig, might account for the origin of the story of Goliath, the Philistine giant slain by the future king David, as related in the Book of Samuel. The professor is among the scholars who “accept that David was a historical figure.”
It was just the sort of remarkable find from the university’s Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology that earns the generous support of the American Friends of Bar-Ilan, for whom “evidence of Jewish life from the past serves as confirmation that Judaism was – and is – a continuation of whom and what existed from so many centuries ago.”
Only a few days separated the discovery at Tell es-Safi from another nearby that was also linked to David. Excavating a site near the southern Israeli town of Kiryat Gat, archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Macquarie University in Australia declared they may have found the Biblical city of Ziklag, where the Book of Samuel says David took refuge after falling out with King Saul.
Meanwhile, over on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, a team from Israel’s Kinneret Academic College and Nyack Christian College and Seminary in New York claimed to have unearthed the Church of the Apostles, which Christian tradition says was built on the site of the home of Jesus’ first two disciples, Simon (later renamed Peter) and Andrew. The ongoing El-Araj Excavation Project, now in its fourth year, is a collaboration with scholars from The Center for Holy Land Studies, a religious tour company based in Springfield, Missouri, that offers tours that “will provide spiritual renewal as you travel through the lands of the Bible.”
Such discoveries feed into a growing determination, shared by fundamentalist Christians and ultra-Orthodox Jews alike, to produce archaeological evidence to uphold the Old Testament as a historical record.
This is troubling on several levels. Of course, the essential nature of religious belief is that it requires no proof: faith is faith. Therefore, this determination to find physical evidence to support the origin stories so central to Israel’s identity can only be interpreted as an attempt to cement Jewish claims to the Holy Land.
This is wielding the archeologist’s trowel as a tool of politics. As Nur Masalha, professor of Palestinian Studies at the University of London, wrote in his 2013 book, “The Zionist Bible: Biblical Precedent, Colonialism and the Erasure of Memory,” in Israel, any attempt to question the historical authenticity of Biblical accounts “is perceived as an attempt to undermine Jewish nationalism … and, more crucially, the ‘Jewish historic right to the land.’”
Christian traditionalists, he added, were especially disturbed by any archaeological finds that “challenge Biblical literalist-historicist readings of the language of the Hebrew Bible.” It is in this context that one must regard and question the validity of conclusions drawn by many of the archaeological expeditions to the Holy Land mounted by evangelical Christians from the US.
Take the Associates for Biblical Research, a Christian organization from the small Pennsylvania town of Akron. The group is conducting its third season of excavations at Tel Shiloh, a site in the occupied West bank, where the search is on for evidence of the tabernacle. This was the tent-like portable shrine described in the Book of Exodus as housing the Ark of the Covenant, a chest containing the two stone tablets bearing the 10 commandments given to Moses on Mount Sinai and carried by the Israelites throughout their four decades of wandering in the desert.
On its website, the ABR declares it is “dedicated to demonstrating the historical reliability of the Bible through archaeological and Biblical research.” But, as has been pointed out by Peter Enns, an author and evangelical theology professor at Eastern, a Christian university in Philadelphia, “The archaeological record has not been friendly for one vital issue: Israel’s origins,” including the period of slavery and exodus from Egypt and the conquest of the land of Canaan by the Israelites.
Academics say 1967 marks the beginning of the tainting of archaeology by ideology, after the Six Day War left a large number of Biblical sites in Israeli hands. In her 2017 book, “Finding Jerusalem – Archaeology Between Science and Ideology,” the German-born Israeli archaeologist Katharina Galor maintains that excavations have been increasingly compromised by “the ideological pursuit of establishing a continued Jewish presence in East Jerusalem.”
In 2015 the British government even took the unusual step of accusing the Israel Antiquities Authority of collusion with the Elad settler group, which it accused of carrying out “radical settler activities in and around the Old City under the guise of tourism and protection of Jewish history.” The allegation echoed the charges laid against the IAA by Emek Shaveh, an Israeli NGO that works “to prevent the politicization of archaeology in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” In 2017, in a joint report with Yesh Din, an Israeli NGO that defends the rights of Palestinians, Emek Shaveh accused Israel of using archaeology “as a central tool for deepening its control over the West Bank.”
In June, in an extraordinary demonstration of the Trump administration’s devotion to the state of Israel – and to the votes of the Christian evangelical far-right back home – the US ambassador to Israel and the US envoy to the Middle East took a hammer to relations with the Palestinians when they gleefully smashed their way through a specially erected plaster wall in a ceremony to inaugurate the “Path of the Pilgrims” in East Jerusalem. The six-year excavation of the path has damaged Palestinian homes and been condemned even by the Israel Antiquities Authority itself as “bad archaeology.” For the Palestinian Authority, the path demonstrates how Israel is “creating a narrative below the ground to justify its occupation above the ground.”
The Holy Land is home to some of the world’s most fascinating historical sites. But archaeology in Israel is deeply compromised – not so much because its purpose in many cases is to “prove” the authenticity of the Old Testament, but because that purpose serves the more sinister agenda of displacing Palestinians from a land that is just as rich in history and meaning for them as it is for the Jews.
Jonathan Gornall is a British journalist, formerly with The Times, who has lived and worked in the Middle East and is now based in the UK.