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Mazar’s City of David Discovery and “Biblical” Archaeology

12th December 2005

As has been noted by a few blogs already, Eliat Mazar has published a short article on her city of David excavations — provocatively entitled “Did I Find King David’s Palace?” — in the most recent volume of Biblical Archaeology Review (available for free download here).

The article is definitely worth a read. Mazar based her decision of where to dig on the known topography of the city of David in conjunction with a close reading of the Samuel texts (e.g., David leaving his palace residence and “going down” to the fortress noted in 1 Samuel 5:17).

Here is a modified version of an image from the article that shows the location of the “large stone” structure (labeled as “David’s Palace?”):

In the article, Mazar describes her understanding of the relationship of archaeology to the biblical text as follows:

One of the many things I learned from my grandfather [Benjamin Mazar] was how to relate to the Biblical text: Pore over it again and again, for it contains within it descriptions of genuine historical reality. It is not a simple matter to differentiate the layers of textual sources that have been piled one atop the other over generations; we don’t always have the tools to do it. But it is clear that concealed within the Biblical text are grains of detailed historical truth (p. 20).

Her tentative conclusions are equally as provocative:

The Biblical narrative, I submit, better explains the archaeology we have uncovered than any other hypothesis that has been put forward. Indeed, the archaeological remains square perfectly with the Biblical description that tells us David went down from there to the citadel. So you decide whether or not we have found King David’s palace (p. 70).

While I know this sort of “biblical archaeology” is passé, I find it quite intriguing how the geography reflected in the biblical account helped her locate a significant 10th century large-stone structure — whether or not it is best identified with David’s palace.

Mazar’s method seems to be a throw-back to the Albright-Bright-Wright era where “Biblical archaeology” was concerned primarily to support the picture of history presented by the Bible. As such, biblical sites such as Jerusalem, Jericho, Ai, etc. were typically excavated, and the focus of the investigations tended to be on things like walls, religious centers, etc., rather than the broader material culture of the sites.

While I am by no means an archaeologist, I do know that most modern archaeologists take a broader and more interdisciplinary approach and attempt to retrieve more than simply architectural and ceramic phases or look for correlations between the biblical text and archaeological discoveries. While I think the separation of Biblical/Syro-Palestinian (or whatever we want to call it) archaeology from under auspices of biblical studies is ultimately a good and necessary thing, perhaps Mazar’s work illustrates that the “new” archaeology does not have to preclude considering the descriptions of geography found in the biblical narratives.

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