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Arts & Culture Cable Documentary Takes Aim at Some Favorite Biblical Stories

December 10, 2001
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Some of the most cherished Bible stories come under attack by a new breed of archaeologists in an upcoming two-hour documentary on U.S. cable television.

The stated thesis of “Digging for the Truth: Archaeology and the Bible” is that both Israelis and Palestinians are using archaeological discoveries to justify their historical claims to the Holy Land and to delegitimize the claims of the other side.

The program, narrated by James Woods, premieres Dec. 17 at 9 p.m on the History Channel.

Author Amy Marcus explains the confrontation by noting that one cannot understand the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians without understanding what’s happening in archaeology.

“The reason is because archaeology touches on their national identities, on their religious identities, and also on their political aspirations, says Marcus, a former Wall Street Journal Mideast correspondent who wrote a book on the political use of archaeology in the Arab-Israeli conflict. “By writing each other out of the biblical narrative, they write each other out of the modern narrative.”

In the film, however, this thesis plays out not in confrontations between Muslim and Jewish scholars — only a single Palestinian spokesman is presented briefly, near the end — but as an internecine struggle among Israeli experts.

“Digging for the Truth” opens calmly enough with a useful overview of Holy Land archaeology since 1831, when Ottoman ruler Mehmet Ali opened Palestine to Western travelers after a 600-year ban.

The pioneering 19th-century research of such men as Edward Robinson and Charles Warren is given due credit, as is Queen Victoria for establishing the Palestine Exploration Fund in 1865.

In the past two decades, battle lines have been drawn between two schools of Israeli archaeologists who, looking at the same evidence, have arrived at wildly different conclusions.

On one side are the “minimalists.” They are skeptics who, one of their opponents charges, think that if something is written in the Bible, it must be wrong.

The champion of the minimalists is Israel Finkelstein, who leaves few icons unsmashed.

According to the Tel Aviv University professor, Kings David and Solomon were not rulers of a strong, unified monarchy, but were insignificant southern tribal chieftains. On the other hand, King Ahab — the husband of Jezebel and one of the more despised biblical characters — ruled over a major northern kingdom in the ninth century BCE, when Jerusalem was a village of little importance.

An even more heretical theory advanced by the minimalists is that the ancestors of the Jewish people were not the conquering Israelites, but the idol-worshipping Canaanites — the same ancestors claimed by the Palestinians.

Representing the more traditional interpretation of archaeological discoveries, still the majority view, is Amnon Ben-Tor.

The Hebrew University professor — and a former student of Yigael Yadin, who discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls — gives as good as he gets in the battle against the minimalists.

Digging for the Truth will be repeated on the History Channel on Dec. 18 at 1 a.m., and Dec. 23 at 6 p.m.

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