I’ve known Bill Dever for a quarter century. I first met him when I knocked—unannounced—on the door of the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem in 1972. Bill, who directed the institute, answered and graciously invited me in for coffee. Later that year, when my family and I were spending a self-created sabbatical in the city, my wife Judy ran into Bill at Chaim the Butcher’s. We quickly became reacquainted, and Bill introduced us to Jerusalem’s archaeological community.
Bill Dever is without question one of the most widely respected senior archaeologists today. In addition to directing the Albright for four years, he chaired the Committee on Archaeological Policy for the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR), the umbrella group for Near Eastern archaeologists. He also edited ASOR’s scholarly journal and served for six years as ASOR’s vice president—but never as its president, a fact discussed in our interview.
Despite our long personal friendship, Bill Dever—until very recently—did not write for BAR. He objected to the ads we run from antiquities dealers, and he felt we covered our subject in too sensational a way. Indeed, he even objected to the very term “Biblical archaeology,” as readers will see at the beginning of the interview. Whether we’ve become less “sensational” or he has mellowed over time, we aren’t sure, but Bill relented recently from his self-imposed ban on appearing in our pages. So precarious is the future of our field, in his view, that he wrote “The Death of a Discipline,” BAR 21:05, to sound a warning to all who care about the study of Near Eastern archaeology. His analysis of what’s wrong—and right—about his beloved area of study appears in the wide-ranging and frank discussion that follows. Part Two will be published in our next issue.
Hershel Shanks: Bill, in my opinion you are one of the world’s leading Biblical archaeologists, but let’s face it, you are famous for spurning that term, for eschewing it. I have some quotes here. Let me just read them to you: “The term Biblical archaeology should be avoided, at least in academic circles.” Another one: “The sooner we abandon the term Biblical archaeology the better.” Another one: “We ought to stop talking about Biblical archaeology. There probably is no such thing.” And finally, “I do disassociate myself from the term Biblical archaeology.” Bill, are you ready to disassociate yourself from these remarks?
William G. Dever: Well, first of all, some of those remarks were made years ago when the situation was somewhat different. There’s a sort of political stance there that was necessary at the time to define the terms of the discussion. Secondly, I think probably all those remarks were made in the context of trying to define archaeology as an academic discipline; in that sense, I would still stand by what I said. I use the term “Biblical archaeology” for the dialogue between archaeology and Biblical studies. I use it in quotes usually.
HS: Why do you put it in quotes?
WGD: Because it refers, in my mind, to a certain style of Biblical archaeology that now belongs largely to the past.
HS: A number of the quotes I read you come from your article “Archaeology” in the new Anchor Bible Dictionary . So they’re not old.
WGD: I have said those kinds of things for 25 years now. You have to put the whole discussion into the context of the controversies of the ’70s and ’80s, which I think are over now.
HS: You like the term Syro-Palestinian archaeology.
WGD: That’s [William Foxwell] Albright’s term [the leading Biblical archaeologist in the mid-20th century]. I’m flattered to be credited with inventing it, but in fact it’s Albright’s term.
HS: But you’ve popularized it. He used it at a time when it wasn’t a political term.
WGD: It isn’t now, in my judgment. I have never used the term in a political sense and have always cautioned against 032reading any political connotations into it. The term “Palestinian archaeology” is used by Israelis when they are writing or speaking in English. The Israel Exploration Journal uses it regularly; that’s all the justification I need for the term “Palestinian.”
HS: I wonder why, in terms of image, you find it necessary to trash the term “Biblical archaeology” so much. The image you project is a very anti-Biblical image, and it’s so unnecessary. Why do you do it?
WGD: I don’t project a negative image at all regarding the relation of archaeology to Biblical studies. You would probably have to agree that I write more than any other archaeologist about that relationship.
HS: I agree.
WGD: From the very beginning, I wanted to separate archaeology from Biblical studies for the purposes of dialogue. Read the earliest articles I wrote in the early 1970s: Coupled with the call for the separation of archaeology and Biblical studies was a call for dialogue. What I want is an honest dialogue between two disciplines. As long as Palestinian, or Syro-Palestinian, archaeology, or the archaeology of Israel, is construed as a sub-branch of Biblical studies, there will be a monologue, not a dialogue. It’s not about semantics, it’s not about names, it’s simply about defining our fields of inquiry. I use the term “Biblical archaeology” in its proper sense for that inquiry that tries to relate archaeology to questions of Biblical history and religion. I have talked, as you know, about a new style of Biblical archaeology. I do not denigrate Biblical studies or the importance of archaeology for Biblical studies.
HS: No, you don’t. But you do denigrate the term “Biblical archaeology.”
WGD: Because it is a misleading term for what all of us actually do. As you know 033very well, the archaeology of Israel deals with the Biblical period, but it deals with a host of other things, too.
HS: But no other scholar has really taken up the cudgels like this.
WGD: Nobody needs to. All of us use the term Palestinian or Syro-Palestinian archaeology. All of us also conceive of an entity that you could call Biblical archaeology. But it is not the name of our discipline. It is an inter-disciplinary inquiry, in which many of us participate, no one more than I. Biblical scholars tend to ignore the results of archaeology. Many archaeologists are oblivious to the implications of their work for Biblical studies. I stand somewhere in the middle. I want these two disciplines to inform each other, because we need each other. But when I play at Biblical studies, we do not advance our science; and when Biblical scholars play at archaeology they do not advance their science.
HS: You concede you are not a Biblical scholar.
WGD: I have never pretended to be. I want to know enough about Biblical studies to know what the current issues are. I want to know enough to be able to quote mainstream Biblical scholarship. I hope that most Biblical scholars will know enough about archaeology to use archaeological publications critically.
HS: Isn’t it true that you really can’t excavate in the lands of the Bible without taking account of what the Bible says?
WGD: Of course. I’ve always said that. This is why my students are required to take several years of Hebrew and to take several courses in the history and religion of ancient Israel as part of their Ph.D. program. I work in a part of the world that is connected irrevocably with the Bible. But “Biblical” does not accurately describe what I do. I work all the way from the Chalcolithic [late fourth millennium B.C.] to the Persian period [fifth-fourth centuries B.C.]. The concerns of Biblical scholarship are a relatively small part of what I do.
HS: Albright defined Biblical archaeology very broadly.
WGD: He defined it so broadly that his definition was meaningless. As you remember, he said it stretches all the way from Gibraltar to the Indus Valley and all the way from the Upper Paleolithic to the Modern Era. That’s almost an exact quote. If it’s everything, it’s nothing.
HS: Isn’t it valid for an archaeologist to say, “I am interested in the light, direct or indirect, that my discipline could shed on the Bible.”
WGD: You are almost quoting me.
HS: Why wouldn’t that person be a Biblical archaeologist?
WGD: That person is an archaeologist who at that point in his or her research is concerned with a small part of the archaeology of Palestine and its relation to Biblical studies. You cannot use a term like that for a discipline as a whole; it is simply not accurate. It is also not useful in the larger world of scholarship. If you are interested only in that aspect of archaeology, you’re much too narrow to be in a professional field. You cannot make a career out of that small part of the archaeology of Syria-Palestine. You will not find Israelis using the title [Biblical archaeology for the entire field].
HS: But they don’t reject it either.
WGD: They use it when they are popularizing archaeology, and so do I. But, Hershel, you have to make a distinction between the professional discipline, and the language it requires, and popularization, which both you and I do. We both know the distinction is important. You make certain concessions when you speak in a popular fashion. I use the term “Biblical archaeology” in that sense. I will not use it to describe our discipline as a whole because it is inaccurate. I think no one disagrees with me on that.
HS: Well, no one agrees with you either.
WGD: The fact is that no one needs to discuss these matters anymore. I do not sit around with my Israeli colleagues discussing the label for what we do. We agree by and large now on basic methodology, and I think we are all moving in the same direction together. We’re not interested in debating these terms anymore.
HS: But in the past only you have engaged in the discussion. No one else.
WGD: Because it was necessary. And now that we have done that, let us move on.
HS: It’s not “we,” it’s only you, Bill.
WGD: Others didn’t write on the subject because it was too controversial. Privately, many of my colleagues have thanked me for opening the discussion and for carrying it on.
HS: The implication you have left is that you can’t be a modern Biblical archaeologist because Biblical archaeology means being biased.
WGD: It has meant that historically. We all know the sad history of classical-style Biblical archaeology. The scandals are too well known to need repeating. We want to leave that history behind us. If we are going to be respectable archaeologists in the larger world of archaeology, the label “Biblical archaeology” is simply a further barrier to overcome.
HS: But all disciplines improve. The older Biblical archaeology developed careful stratigraphy, developed refined pottery chronologies, improved field methods. Of course if you go back, their methodology was poor by today’s standards, but that’s true of almost everything. We improve; there was never any resistance on the part of any Biblical archaeologists to improvements or new techniques. As a matter of fact, they were welcomed. It seems to me that you damn your predecessors, you kill your fathers, by taking the stance that they were biased, that they were unwilling to make advances. Of course we have improved today, but we stand on their shoulders.
WGD: I have used the very expression and I have tried to be appreciative of our predecessors, including my own teachers. You are quite right, many new techniques were developed by an earlier generation of archaeologists. I am not talking about techniques, however—I am talking about research, and I think all of us would agree today that much of the archaeology done clear up through the 1950s is useless today because the fieldwork was bad and the publications never appeared. There’s no point in trying to pretend that the work was any better than it was. In the hands of some people, these methods were used perhaps as well as they could have been used, but there clearly was another branch of Biblical archaeology that injected into the field theological issues that never belonged there.
HS: It’s been said that some archaeologists are afraid to publish because they’ll be criticized.
WGD: I’m sure that’s true. You have to have a rather thick skin in this branch of archaeology. I am not afraid to publish. I am not afraid to make mistakes.
HS: Well, as a matter of fact, in your own illustrious excavation at Tell Gezer, there’s been a long-standing controversy regarding the date of the major wall of the city.
WGD: Yes, and that shows you that even with what one might consider improved methods, or even the best methods, there is still room for interpretation. Good scholars, honest scholars, will continue to differ about the interpretation of archaeological remains simply because archaeology is not a science. It is an art. And sometimes it is not even a very good art.
HS: Recently there has even been a question not simply about the date of the wall, but about the date of your famous “Solomonic Gate.” It has been attacked as not being Solomonic.
WGD: That’s right. That would be a good case study, because it reveals some of the methodological problems in our discipline. When the Israelis began to argue with our interpretation, I went back to Gezer for two rather complicated and expensive seasons [in 1984 and 1990] to try to resolve the problem [of the date of the wall and gateway].
HS: You weren’t able to though, were you?
WGD: Not to their satisfaction. I have solved it to our satisfaction.
HS: When you say “our,” who’s “our”?
WGD: Most Americans, if not all of them, tend to agree with our interpretation. This has become a kind of American/Israeli debate that has to do more with our different approaches than it does with the Gezer Gate.
HS: Do you think that a future generation will say as you have said of earlier generations that your work is therefore useless because there’s this dispute?
WGD: That would be too negative an assessment. I think there is a vast difference in comparing the work of the ’80s and ’90s with the work of the ’50s. First of all, our excavations have been meticulously recorded and will be published in full. So future scholars can check our conclusions in a way that we cannot check the conclusions of our predecessors. Secondly, no one suggests that the controversy is because of bad field methods. The issue is something rather different. The issue is really a historical issue. It’s not about Biblical archaeology; it’s about how one uses literary records and correlates those with archaeological remains. The argument is very specifically focused on one of the fundamental problems of archaeology in our part of the world—that is, how to correlate artifactual remains and literary remains, including the Bible. Many Biblical scholars today don’t believe that the Book of Kings is historical. And therefore these Biblical scholars would reject that version altogether as a witness.
HS: Do you?
WGD: No. As you know, there is a dispute in Biblical studies between what are called maximalists and minimalists. I certainly am not a minimalist. I hope I am not a maximalist either. I believe that even though the Biblical sources were edited late in the Persian [fifth-fourth centuries B.C.] and Hellenistic [third-second centuries B.C.] periods, there is a great deal of history to be gleaned from the Bible.
HS: How would you define the minimalists and the maximalists?
WGD: I didn’t coin those terms. I’m not sure who did. They appear now regularly on the Internet. I don’t participate in electronic gossip, but people inform me that I have been labeled a maximalist, even a fundamentalist, you will be surprised to hear, and of course a Biblical archaeologist. That’s the ultimate irony—because I do take the Bible seriously.
HS: I regard you as a Biblical archaeologist.
WGD: I do Biblical archaeology in the sense of the dialogue I am talking about. But those of us who see some history in the Biblical accounts are now dismissed by a group of scholars who call them-selves revisionists. I am thinking of Tom Thompson, who is now in Copenhagen, his colleague Niels Peter Lemche, who’s been there [in Copenhagen] for a long time, Philip Davies at Sheffield [in England], and a number of other scholars, both American and European, who believe that the Hebrew Bible was not only edited in the Persian/Hellenistic periods but was written then, and therefore the description of ancient Israel in the Bible is a literary construct forced back upon the Iron Age: There was no ancient Israel and therefore there is no history of Israel in the Bible. That’s an extreme position. I have called these revisionists the new nihilists. They are nihilists in the philosophical sense: There is nothing to be said about early Israel, either from the Biblical text or from archaeology. I certainly do not agree, not for a moment. I believe that archaeology has succeeded in reconstructing a very plausible context for Biblical Israel—by and large, not in every detail of course. Ancient Israel did exist in the Iron Age [c. 1200 B.C.–586 B.C.] in Palestine; and if Biblical historians cannot write its history, then we archaeologists shall.
There will always be extremists. Perhaps I was extreme in some of my own views in the past. That’s necessary to get the discussion going. Certainly I have been polemical. Some of us are more attracted to controversy than others. In my youth, I rather relished the fight. I don’t any longer.
HS: The minimalists have recently made a concerted attack on the stele uncovered at Tel Dan by Israeli archaeologist Avraham Biran, which mentions Beth David, or the House of David.a If true, this reference presents the minimalists with a terrible problem because this is a non-Israelite source, outside the Bible, that refers to the dynasty, or the House, of David. What is your view of this controversy?
WGD: I find it amusing because just before this inscription was found Philip Davies published his little book, In Search of “Ancient Israel.” He was committed to 036the view that there could be no early Israel. Davies chided archaeologists for not producing textual evidence. Then what happens when we do produce a stunning text? He rejects it out of hand. He and others are now suggesting even that the text is a forgery—that it was planted on [excavator Avraham] Biran. I think that’s libelous. I have seen the inscription. I have handled it. I have been with Biran to the site. I know exactly where it was found.
They have even accused me on the Internet of telling my students for the last two years that the inscription was found in the debris in a wheelbarrow. That is absolutely not true. The inscription was found in secondary use, rebuilt into the outer wall of the gate that was destroyed in the eighth century [B.C.]. So archaeologically it could date to any time before the late eighth century [B.C.]. Paleographically, it dates to the ninth century [B.C.], I am given to understand by experts.
I think the whole issue revolves around the absence of a word divider [a dot] between the two words in the phrase “Beth David.” One would expect to find a word divider if it really means “House of David” and it’s not a place name, but Frank Cross [of Harvard, one of the world’s leading epigraphers] has told me that he can cite a half dozen or more examples in early Aramaic inscriptions where there is no word divider in a similar expression. So I think the text means exactly what it says: Already in the ninth century [B.C.] there were kings of Israel and kings of the House of David known to the Arameans and to the neighbors of Israel. In short, Israel was a state already in the ninth, if not in the tenth, century. Recently Thompson and Lemche have argued that neither Israel nor Judah constituted a state until at least the ninth or eighth century [B.C.] and Judah perhaps never was a state. They simply will not take this inscription at its face value because they cannot afford to. They argue that it’s a place name. This is an example of the lengths to which scholars will go to avoid the obvious when it does not suit them.
HS: There’s another famous inscription. It’s not new—the Merneptah Stele, which is written in hieroglyphics and mentions Israel. All scholars agree on that. And all scholars agree that it can be dated to the late 13th century B.C. I sometimes wonder what these minimalist scholars would do if we didn’t have these two accidental finds—the Merneptah Stele and the Beth David stele. They would have a field day. How do they get around the Merneptah Stele when they want to say that Israel didn’t exist?
WGD: A very good question. I’ve often wondered, too: If we had not discovered that inscription, where would the discussion be today? For me, the Merneptah Stele is a terribly important inscription because it entitles me to use my term “proto-Israel” 037for the earliest settlers in Canaan in the 12th and the 11th centuries B.C. If these people were already known to the Egyptians, then I think the term is a valid one. And I would not hesitate to use even the term Israelite for the earliest settlers.
But I think your question is appropriate: What would it take to convince the minimalists? I suspect that nothing would convince them. What I find ironic is that the minimalists are so scathing in their criticism of fundamentalists. They even seem to think that I’m a fundamentalist. They have used that label for me. But their methodology is not very different. Basically it’s this, “My mind is made up, don’t confuse me with facts.”
HS: Many scholars have rejected the Israelite conquest of Canaan as described in the Bible. Is that correct?
WGD: I would say all archaeologists today.
HS: That’s because there are problems with certain sites. There is no destruction level at the time that Joshua was supposed to have conquered them. At some sites, though, there are. Wouldn’t you accept the fact that the Israelite emergence in Canaan involved some military action?
WGD: Certainly some conflict. Even if one sees it only as a peasant revolt or a social revolution,b there would inevitably have been a certain amount of conflict, some of it armed conflict. So therefore I think the Biblical stories have some origin in fact, but what we do know is that many of the sites claimed to have been destroyed were not destroyed or were destroyed by other people. I would say the only destruction that I would want to connect with incoming Israelites might be the one at Bethel. The one at Hazor is now dated too early by Yadin’s own student and disciple.
HS: On the contrary. Amnon Ben-Tor, who is Yadin’s student and is now digging there, attributes the destruction to the Israelites.
WGD: I think in his latest work Ben-Tor is inclined to move the destruction earlier and see it as due to other causes.
HS: I talked to him this past summer, and I have him on film.
WGD: Well, when I saw him in May when we visited the site, I tried to pin him down on that question, too, and he was very vague, very elusive. There is a major destruction there, no doubt, a dramatic destruction.
HS: I sense that archaeologists like you almost take some satisfaction, some glory, in saying there was no conquest. Why don’t you say that not all sites that claim to have been conquered have destruction levels, but there 038are destructions at some sites, there was some conquest, some military action, but there were other factors too?
WGD: I do say that. I would not use the term “conquest,” because an isolated battle here and there does not amount to a conquest of Canaan. The term conquest really ought to be amended. It’s misleading.
HS: But the Bible describes military campaigns, and people like you give the impression that the Bible is completely wrong, which is not the fact.
WGD: No, I have never said that. What I have always pointed out is that the Bible gives us two accounts of the origins of Israel—the account in Joshua and the account in Judges. The latest editors of the Hebrew Bible thought that both accounts were important and therefore we have to struggle with both. But archaeologically the only one that makes much sense today is the account in Judges, which minimizes a simple military campaign and talks instead of a two-century-long cultural struggle between early Israel and Canaan. That’s very realistic. That account is no doubt based on very ancient records. The account in Joshua, on the other hand, glorifies the military career of a single individual and cannot easily be reconciled with the archaeological evidence we have today.
HS: Often people like you, instead of saying that the account in Judges comports better with the archaeological evidence than the account in Joshua, say things like there was no conquest, without adding that actually the Bible gives a very realistic account of Israel’s emergence in Judges.
WGD: I challenge you to find any place where I have made a statement like that without giving some context for it. I have always tried to balance the picture. I take the Biblical accounts very seriously. They are there for a reason. And I don’t think you can simply dismiss them. On the other hand, as an archaeologist, I have to work with those materials that fit best with the sort of reconstruction that I can come up with archaeologically. But wherever I’ve addressed the issue, I’ve tried to end on a positive note. For instance, I’ve always pointed out that a small portion of those people who came to comprise early Israel possibly did come from Transjordan and ultimately from Egypt. And therefore when they told the story of Israel’s origins they told it in terms of their own miraculous escape from Egypt. I have tried to be sensitive to the theological issues involved.
HS: Why call them theological issues? They are historical issues. If there was a group who came from Egypt, through Transjordan, isn’t that an important historical statement to make, quite apart from theology?
WGD: It may not be a historical statement at all. It is a theological judgment that the writers of the Hebrew Bible made. For them, early Israel resulted from a series of miracles. Now historians cannot deal with miracles, nor can archaeologists. We have to try to deal with the evidence we have. But I am sensitive to the fact that there are theological implications to be drawn from the story of Israel as it is told in the Hebrew Bible.
HS: But you have to start with history before you get to theology.
WGD: That’s precisely my point.
HS: You have just suggested that there was a historical group who came from Egypt, through Transjordan, into Israel, and settled in the hill country of central Canaan—and you admit all this, don’t you?
WGD: We don’t know that it’s true. I want to allow it as a possibility.
HS: But you have no reason to doubt it.
WGD: I have no reason to accept it is a historical fact, either.
HS: Isn’t it incredible that a people would simply make up a history of slavery in another land [Egypt], that they would give their hero an Egyptian name like Moshe, or Moses in English, that they would be able to create a story with such an accurate Egyptian contextual basis if there were not some historical core there? Wouldn’t you admit all this, Bill?
WGD: Not at all. First of all, when we label an ancient story incredible, we are doing so from the modern perspective. Secondly, the historian cannot deal with credibilities or things that seem 039incredible. We have to deal with the facts as we have them. There are in fact other parallels for ancient peoples who have invented such stories for themselves because it seemed appropriate to them.
HS: Where is there an ancient parallel story of slavery as an origin of a people?
WGD: Perhaps not slavery. I’m not sure. But there are, for instance, Native American Indian tribes who have invented for themselves quite incredible stories of their origins, stories we know not to be true.
HS: Certainly there have been histories that are not accurate, but we are talking about one of slavery. That’s the point. You say you don’t know another.
WGD: I can’t think of another. There may well be in world history.
HS: Why isn’t the task of the historian and the archaeologist who is interested in Biblical history to try to find the historical core of the story instead of just being destructive, instead of just being negative? I mean if you say to yourself that these stories were not simply made up, as I think you have to, and you are shaking your head, yes, then if you set yourself the task and ask the legitimate question, What is the historical core? and excavate the text in the same way that you might excavate a tell, then you begin to separate truth from later accretions that may date from the time the text was finally edited.
WGD: The task of the historian and the archaeologist is not to try to construct or destruct, but simply to find out what happened. What you have to do is put every text in a context. All scholars would agree that the Biblical texts were edited and put together in their final form quite late—in the Persian and Hellenistic periods. Many scholars would say there is nothing that lies behind these texts; they are simply inventions, literary constructs. I would not say that. I think there is a history there to be recovered, but just in the same way that I, as an archaeologist, excavate the tell meticulously, we have to depend on Biblical scholars to excavate the layers of the text. And as an archaeologist I have to be dependent upon their expertise. I would not attempt to excavate the text. The texts are as complicated as tells. They have as many layers or more. But if these texts were edited in a late period, you would expect to find some late references in the text.
HS: You’re quoted in Time magazine [December 18, 1995]—you, Bill Dever, who disclaims being a Biblical scholar—as follows: “William Dever, a University of Arizona archaeologist, flatly calls Moses a mythical figure.” Now if you’re not a Biblical scholar, how can you say that?
WGD: Hershel, you are too good a journalist not to know that most of us get quoted out of context. I was correctly billed as an archaeologist, and my judgment was an archaeological judgment. What I said in context was that in our present reconstruction of Israel’s origins, since we cannot really envision an Exodus, or a wandering in the wilderness, or a large-scale military conquest of Palestine, there is no room for a Moses in the 13th century B.C. as the founder of Israelite religion. If no Moses fitting the Biblical description existed, there nevertheless may have been a tribal leader somewhere in southern Transjordan in the 13th century B.C. who could have borne the name Moses, who developed some of the ideas that appear in later Yahwism. And that by the way is mainstream Biblical scholarship. Most scholars today believe that Yahwism originated somewhere in southern Transjordan, among some of the tribal elements that later came to make up early Israel. And I do not disagree. Archaeologically, that’s possible.
HS: That’s a very sound judgment.
WGD: I wish the entire quotation had gotten into Time magazine.
HS: But it appears time and time again that you are misunderstood (in your terms) because of the image you project. And the only thing that comes across is that you’re saying that Moses was mythical, which kind of equates Moses with the Greek myths or something so far out that it has no basis in history or truth at all.
WGD: Well, I cannot be held responsible for journalists taking little snippets of what I say and exploiting them. We are all treated that way. You have been misquoted frequently, in some of your statements about the [Dead Sea] Scrolls, and I know better than to take those at face value. In any case, the term “myth” sets off most people, but it’s a very common term in Biblical scholarship.
Most Biblical scholars regard most of the stories in Genesis as myths. Laypeople are alarmed by that term, but I don’t know what other term we could use.
HS: When you say Genesis, what do you include?
WGD: The patriarchal stories.
HS: It’s true, I think, that the first 11 chapters of Genesis would be regarded as myths—the creation stories, the story of Noah and the flood, the Tower of Babel. But once you get to the patriarchs you have a different kind of historical question. Don’t you agree, Bill?
WGD: Yes, of course. No archaeologist in his right mind would go searching for the Garden of Eden. But the search for the historical background of the patriarchs has been a legitimate quest for a very long time. I myself worked on it back in the 1970s for a handbook of Biblical studies. I actually set out to try to vindicate Albright’s view that the patriarchs were historical figures. And in the course of my research I realized that would be impossible.
HS: That’s something else that I have to tell you sets me off—when I see you denigrating Albright because he failed to locate the patriarchs in a particular archaeological time period. I would have to agree that he failed. But it was a magnificent failure; it was a serious attempt. It wasn’t stupid or foolish. Yet you give the impression that because he failed that we should give up the search. That he failed doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t continue to look and sift the evidence, does it?
WGD: No. You’re putting words in my mouth. I certainly never said that Albright failed. I never used the word failure, much less the other words you mentioned. What I did point out was that the search was fruitless. And I think no scholar would disagree today. No current history of ancient Israel begins with a patriarchal period.
HS: As a matter of fact, the only modern history of ancient Israel that we have is one that I edited.c And it does begin with the patriarchs in a very trenchant chapter by Kyle McCarter. We’re preparing a revised edition now, and that chapter is going to be revised by another great Biblical scholar, Ronald Hendel. Both of these scholars find enough material to discuss what history may lie behind the patriarchal stories.
WGD: Well, first of all, that’s not the only modern history.
HS: What’s another?
WGD: There are a handful of modern histories that are used regularly as textbooks. And none begins before about 1200 B.C. with the emergence of Israel and Canaan because nearly all Biblical scholars today are convinced that there is very little history to be written before that.
HS: “Very little” is different from “none.”
WGD: I have said there is perhaps some historical memory in the patriarchal stories, but not the kind of memory that historians can use. And Kyle McCarter comes up with very little history indeed. He does not differ substantially from me and my earlier treatment of the patriarchs. That is more or less a dead issue. I don’t think archaeologists or Biblical scholars will ever again be much interested in the so-called patriarchal period. It’s true that some of the elements of these stories do seem to go back to the Late Bronze Age [1500–1200 B.C.] or the Middle Bronze Age [2000–1500 B.C.] or even earlier. But in their final form, it’s very difficult to use them as historical sources.
HS: But there is some history there.
WGD: Yes, but if we don’t know how much, we can’t go much further.
HS: Which doesn’t say we shouldn’t keep looking.
WGD: Nevertheless, I don’t think that searching for the patriarchs is a proper archaeological research design. If we are excavating sites in the Middle or Late Bronze Age and recover material that’s useful, that’s fine. We would all welcome that. But here again, one cannot attack the problem as a Biblical 063archaeologist. You have to attack it merely as a Bronze Age archaeologist, and if the discoveries have anything to do with Biblical studies, that’s fine.
HS: I would certainly agree with that. That raises an issue of methodology. You have emphasized the importance of a research design in archaeological excavation.
HS: You’ve also said that to be scientific, the archaeologist should start with some hypothesis.
WGD: Yes. That’s been standard procedure for 20 years or so.
HS: Isn’t it also true that you never really know what you’re going to find, and therefore you have to take the material you come up with and see what questions they answer? There was an old game—I don’t know if you’ve ever played it—where you give the answer and then you have to invent the question. For example, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume”; that’s the answer, now what’s the question? The question is, “Could I please have your full name, Dr. Presume?” Or another one is “9W.” That’s the answer, and the question is “Do you spell your name with a V, Herr Wagner?” And the answer is “Nein, W.” I suggest to you that there’s an analogy in an archaeological excavation. If you find a seal that has a form of the name Jacob on it from the Middle Bronze Age, you have to ask yourself, Does that answer a question regarding a Biblical text?
WGD: That’s a good analogy. I hadn’t thought of it. Archaeology is a lot like that.
The call for a research design came from New World archaeology back in the ’60s. They were excavating what we call single component sites, sites that were occupied only for a brief period. There, from surface remains, you probably could come up with an adequate research design and then you would test it in the field.
The problem with Middle Eastern mounds, of course, is that they are multi-layered. You make a surface examination of the mound, but you have to scrap the design totally at the end of the first season when you come down to stratum two.
That’s been the problem for us: how to structure a research design for a large, long-running tell excavation. For small, one-period sites, you can still do it. But I would argue that even though the research design changes, it is essential to have one; otherwise, you are just digging blind. It’s not much better than treasure hunting. But it is true that with each discovery you have to rethink what it is you are trying to learn at that site.
You mention the possibility of finding a scarab with the name Jacob: We actually have such a scarab.
HS: I know.
WGD: You’ve published it. The problem is, as Tom Thompson and others pointed out long ago, that that name or others like it can be found throughout the second millennium, and therefore to find it in a Middle Bronze Age context does not prove that our Jacob in the Hebrew Bible belongs in the Middle Bronze Age.
HS: But Kenneth Kitchen has pointed out that that criticism is not exactly valid, that you find the name very frequently at a certain time and then it diminishes, so that it was most popular in the Middle Bronze Age.d
WGD: Those statistics of course are all fortuitous. They depend entirely on the accidents of discovery. I don’t think you can make such a claim.
HS: Then I ask, how much evidence do you want? What would it take to make the name Jacob relevant when you find it?
WGD: I think you’re confusing possibility and probability. That the patriarchal names in the Hebrew Bible were already formed in the Bronze Age is possible, but that does not make it probable. The historian always has to assess relative degrees of accuracy and usefulness in the data. You ask what would it take. It would certainly take a great deal more evidence. One would have to pin these kinds of names down exclusively to a certain period.
Albright had the same problem. He argued that if the patriarchs were pastoral nomads, as they seem to be in Genesis, then you have to look in the archaeology of Palestine to a period where pastoral nomadism dominates; that, of course, is his Middle Bronze I period, around 2200–2000 B.C. Now that suggests those stories could go back that far. That there are some elements of those stories that go back to that period makes sense. Others do not, however. The references to Beersheba, for instance: Beersheba was not founded anywhere near that early.
Some elements of the patriarchal stories will fit in the Middle Bronze I period [c. 2200–2000 B.C.], others fit better in the Middle Bronze II period [2000–1750 B.C.], others fit in the Late Bronze period [c. 1550–1200 B.C.
[Part Two of our interview with William G. Dever will appear in
“Is the Bible Right After All? BAR Interviews William Dever—Part Two,”BAR 22:05.]
I’ve known Bill Dever for a quarter century. I first met him when I knocked—unannounced—on the door of the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem in 1972. Bill, who directed the institute, answered and graciously invited me in for coffee. Later that year, when my family and I were spending a self-created sabbatical in the city, my wife Judy ran into Bill at Chaim the Butcher’s. We quickly became reacquainted, and Bill introduced us to Jerusalem’s archaeological community. Bill Dever is without question one of the most widely respected senior archaeologists today. In addition to directing the Albright […]