We are finally talking about the plague of forged Israelite documents, and we should be. Sunlight is a powerful disinfectant.
But I think the real problem might go deeper. Because there is a fundamental difficulty in the way we imagine, and thereby attempt to dig up, ancient Israel. Because of both historical facts and inherent conceptual problems, this enterprise might be doomed to fail in the terms it has set itself. As long as the burning desire to authenticate or falsify Biblical documents exists, as long as the debate is cast in these terms, problems like this will continue to come up. So another question we could ask is, why is the debate cast in these terms, of maximalism vs. minimalism, history vs. ideology, authenticity vs. forgery? Why is the question we're so fixated on--how did it get to be this way--and is this quest somehow already set up for failure?
First of all, the ancient side of the problem: archaeology has not recovered the stark opposition between Israelites and others that the Biblical text proclaims. Excavations show that Syro-Palestinian material culture varied mainly by region and not ethnicity: Indeed, scholarship now views ethnic group membership as a result of deliberate choice and reflection by the members themselves, as well as others who recognize them. This is the crucial methodological contribution of Ian Hodder’s Symbols in Action, a series of studies in which archaeologists interpreted the recent material remains of a culture while the natives were still around to talk to. Able to ask what the excavated objects actually meant to their users, Hodder found that the ethnic significance of objects was determined in conversation and interaction, not set in stone, nor inherent in the things themselves. In other words, the bare physical forms of the artifacts were not as important as the ethnic interpretation their users gave them through language.
This goes against the long-standing “Culture Area” assumption that ethnic and linguistic divisions should line up with material culture--that we could dig up Israel as a tight, coherent national unit, which would correspond with people who, uniformly, spoke Hebrew, were members of an Israelite religion, believed in Davidic monarchy, and thought their ancestors came from Egypt. But Hodder’s theory has been borne out in Syro-Palestinian archaeology by studies of the distribution of items that were once thought to be taxonomically Israelite, such as the legendary four-room house and collar-rim jar. The spread of these items into places like Jordan correlates with geography and economy, not political or ethnic boundaries.
In a crucial recent article, Elizabeth Bloch-Smith points out that “not a single ‘Israelite’ trait identified by proponents of the Culture Area approach—pillared houses, collar-rim store jars, or pig abstinence--was exclusive to a conservatively delimited Iron I highland Israel…In general, Iron I highland architecture, diet, material culture, subsistence adaptation, language, and even cultic features continued Late Bronze Age practices or were attested in neighboring regions.”
The issue is not that the Culture Area approach did not produce the expected result here; the issue is that the result it expects is the excavation of a nation. Both rooted in and working to reinforce a distinctly modern concept--a tightly defined, homogenous nation-state, this archaeology’s “methods appeared to enable a clear-cut territorial boundary to be drawn around discrete culture assemblages, thereby delimiting the object of study as that of a distinct ethnic culture.” As the scholar of Nationalism Anthony Smith writes, this “presentation of a highly concrete and bounded territorial, archaeological culture seemed destined to clinch the nationalist image of a world of discrete and unique nations, each occupying an historic homeland, and each possessing its own shared memories and public culture, single economy and common laws.”
I should be clear: I don't see much purpose in asking whether an ancient Israel (as well as an ancient Judah, and an ancient Ephriam, which is what ancient Judeans like to call those northerners presumptuous enough to claim to be "Israel"!) existed. The question I'm excited about pursuing is whether it existed on our terms, and, especially, how you could recover the way it existed on their terms. The point of my book is to explore this through ancient writing. Provenanced ancient writing!
Last installment: the modern side of the problem, or, how it got this way.
Bloch-Smith, “Israelite Ethnicity in Iron I: Archaeology Preserves what is Remembered and what is Forgotten in Israel’s History” JBL 122 (2003) 401-25. The quote comes from p. 411
John S. Holladay, “Four-Room House” in Eric M. Meyers, ed. The Oxford Encylopedia of Archaeology in the Near East, vol. 2 (New York: Oxford University Press; 1997) 337-342
Hodder, Symbols in Action: Ethnoarchaeological Studies of Material Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982)
A.D. Smith, “Authenticity, Antiquity and Archaeology” in Nations and Nationalism 7 (2002). The the quote comes from p. 442