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Whether to Science or Faith, Few Biblical Archaeologists Are Uncommitted

December 7, 1996

CAESAREA MARITIMA, Israel (AP) _ Here, amid the crumbling Crusader-era walls of an ancient harbor town, two women swing water bottles and sing their version of the theme from ``The Flintstones.″

``Bedrock, we hit bedrock . . . ″

All about them, co-workers streaked with dirt uncover stone by stone the place where the Bible says the apostle Paul was imprisoned. The place where Cornelius, the first of what was to be billions of gentile believers, was converted to Christianity.

Close by, a trailer shields the barrel-shaped body of a prominent archaeologist from the blistering morning sun. Would you care for a drink? Avner Raban asks a visitor. When water is requested, he gives a suit-yourself shrug and pours himself a fistful of Jack Daniels. It is 10 a.m.

The swaggering romance of archaeology, the legacy of a bygone era when archaeologists were more treasure hunters than scientists, lingers at some of the scores of digs found throughout Israel. It takes some of the edge off the harsh reality:

Rising at dawn, digging ditches, hauling away rock in heat that can hit 120 degrees in summer. This is not work for the weak or the uncommitted.

But when it comes to the Bible, few are uncommitted.

Those who would sift the dirt of the Kingdom of David arrive here burning with fervor to prove the truth of The Word. Or they seek to earn an academic badge of honor by proving the Bible false. They hope to find an ancient inscription that will prove the Jews’ ancient claim to The Promised Land, or a priceless relic that will make them famous like the fictional Indiana Jones. Some seek only the truth _ a truth found not in Scripture but in scraps of pottery and stone.

What they seek matters, because sometimes what you seek is what you find.

Camille Killam, a graduate student from Southeastern Baptist University working at a dig at Tel Hazor, smiles under her straw hat and lowers her voice, as if letting you in on a little secret.

``You know,″ she says, ``this is not as scientific as you might think.″

In the beginning, and for much of its history, Biblical archaeology involved more faith than science. It was the province of seminary professors and treasure hunters who used the Bible as their guide, scouring it for clues about where to dig and what to dig for.

Gradually, they gave way to skeptical scholars who distrusted the Bible and dared ask questions their predecessors would never have posed: Was there really ever an Exodus from Egypt? Was the Promised Land really conquered by the Israelites, or was it gradually settled over centuries by different ethnic groups who eventually became the people of Israel?

By the 1960s, says Fred Winter, supervisor of the Caesarea expeditions, this ``pure″ scientific approach had become so strident that the Bible was seen as nearly irrelevant.

Today, the pendulum is swinging back because of recent discoveries providing the first hard evidence for some Old Testament figures and events. Among the key discoveries: The discovery of the ruins of Ekron, the fabled city where the Bible says the Philistines brought the Ark of the Covenant after capturing it from the Israelites. And the discovery of a stone inscription bearing the name of King David.

Today’s archaeologists are still not likely to take the Bible on faith, but it is no longer fashionable to dismiss it out of hand.

Still, the dominant view is never the only view. The truths buried in the earth of The Holy Land attract all kinds.

___

THE THROWBACK

Vendyl Jones stands tall in the mouth of a desert cave in Qumran near the Dead Sea. He is wearing a khaki shirt and shorts and, yes, a pith helmet.

For more than two decades, the former fundamentalist preacher has been digging holes in the desert, seeking the Holy Grails of biblical archaeology. The Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls, or rather his arcane interpretation of them, are his treasure map.

The story Jones is telling sounds vaguely familiar. He was working a dig inside a cave. Suddenly, a huge boulder came rumbling out of an upper chamber. Jones turned and ran, looking back over his shoulder.

Jones believes he was the model for Indiana Jones _ take away the v and the y and his first name becomes ``Endy,″ he points out.

Today, with the backing of some prominent Orthodox Jews, he is searching for nothing less than the Ark of the Covenant.

Few but Jones seems to think he will find it.

And he is stalled on his latest plan to dig in the caves of Qumran because Israeli authorities say he does not have the credibility to be given new permits.

``You fellas have a bent against religion, I mean, Judaism,″ the feisty Jones says he has told the Israeli Archaeological Authority. ``If you would study the Bible and Talmud, it’s so precise in giving places.″

___

THE MAN ON THE PENDULUM

The site at Ashkhelon, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, is so beautiful that there used to be a Club Med right next door. Some of America’s brightest archaeology students are digging here in carefully laid-out grids near a magnificent, 4,000-year-old arched gateway.

Supervising the dig is a husky, bearded Harvard University professor who is known as the dean of American archaeologists.

Larry Stager, the son of fundamentalist Midwestern farmers, is unwilling to take everything in the Bible at face value, but he doesn’t dismiss it as a storybook either.

Stager says the Bible is a ``multi-layered book of books″ that archaeologists should read the same way they examine dig sites _ by peeling it back layer by layer.

The farther back you go in the Bible, the less likely the characters and events are historical, he says.

But even in the oldest stories of the Old Testament, biblical writers had to ``pass the test of what I call verisimilitude,″ he says. In other words, he says, there had to be enough real history to make a plausible story.

It was at Ashkhelon that researchers unearthed an ancient bronze and silver figurine. The figurine is considered a precursor to the ``golden calf,″ the idol that the Bible says enraged Moses when he descended from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments.

___

THE ODD COUPLE

Ronny Reich thinks the Bible is part history, part liturgical text and part literature.

He thinks the earliest figures of the Old Testament were mythological. He doesn’t think there was ever an Abraham or an Isaac.

Ya’akov Billig is an Orthodox Jew who takes it on faith that the biblical patriarchs were real.

``Whoever is willing to slaughter all the holy cows isn’t being objective,″ Billig said. ``It isn’t more than their own personal way of interpreting.″

It isn’t unusual to find people holding such widely divergent opinions working on the same dig.

For example, at Megiddo this summer, Israel Finkelstein, the archetype skeptic, supervised a crew that included a group of conservative Christians. Every day, they would pray on the mountain top where the biblical writer of Revelation believed the final battle between good and evil would take place.

What is unusual is to find two people with views as divergent as Reich and Billig jointly supervising a dig.

Yet together they ran the dig that uncovered a first-century marketplace outside of Jerusalem’s Western Wall.

It is a marketplace where Jews visiting the Second Temple could have exchanged money, bought food or purchased the ancient equivalent of souvenir T-shirts. Jesus may have walked its ancient plaza.

``We’re at the foot of the Temple Mount, the holiest spot in the world for Judaism. This is just about the peak of the pyramid,″ Billig said. ``After 2,000 years of exile, we’re finally back.″

___

THE LIMITS OF SCIENCE

Toni Tessano, a dig supervisor at Bethsaida near the Sea of Galilee, says that sometimes, she imagines finding a note saying:

``Pete,

``Gone down to the river. Be back soon.

``Jesus.″

But she knows she never will.

Nor will Raban find a letter signed by Paul in the rocky ground of Caesarea Maritima.

Archaeology has its limits. Time and the elements erase many things. And not even Indiana Jones could dig up every inch of ground from Egypt to Canaan.

But perhaps Raban will find the crumbled walls of the prison where Paul was held.

Perhaps Amnon Ben-Tor will find the treasure he seeks in the ruins of a Canaanite palace at Tel Hazor: a royal archive with the greatest trove of documents since the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Despite centuries of treasure hunting and archaeology, much remains hidden.

Perhaps it will always be so.

``For everything that’s found, you can also argue it,″ says Anna Iamim, the architectural expert at the Caesarea Maritima dig.

``I don’t think we’ll have any indisputable proof if something did or did not happen,″ she says. ``The truth is, it is unanswerable.″

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