An Interview With Yigael Yadin

31 Aug

I mentioned a book I owned, Scholars on Record by Hershel Shanks, and one chapter is a reprint of his interview with the Israeli archaeologist. I am going to copy and paste different answers Mr. Yadin gave as they contain some good insights to biblical archaeology.

I will probably only quote one question asked by Mr. Shanks as it contains thoughts supporting what I wrote earlier on archaeology and its convenient use. Nothing is edited in the quotes and if you need more context, you can read the full article in BAR. The specific information for which issue it appeared in will be included after the initial quote. if you have the BAR collection on Cd, you will already own the interview.

I should add that if you read the full interview, I do not agree with everything Mr. Yadin says. I also will include the page numbers from the book where the quotes can be found.

Hershel Shanks: Professor Yadin, one of the things that we hear about most frequently from our readers, and which is somewhat puzzling to them, involves the relationship of archaeology to the historical accuracy of the Bible. We know that archaeology is not supposed to prove the truth of the Bible. Most of our readers are more sophisticated than that. But sometimes they get the feeling that archaeologists are too quick to accept archaeological evidence and find that it contradicts the Bible, too quick to conclude that therefore the Bible is inaccurate. Our readers often point out how uncertain archaeological evidence really is; how often archaeologists argue from silence, from the absence of evidence; and how often there are explanations other than that the Bible is wrong. After all, we know very little of the full archaeological picture. Most of it still lies underground. And even if it were all uncovered, there would still be enormous gaps in our knowledge of the ancient world. I wonder if you feel that archaeologists are sometimes too quick to reject the Bible in favor of limited archaeological evidence? (186)

BAR 09:01 (Jan/Feb 1983). 1983 (H. Shanks, Ed.). Biblical Archaeology Society.

Yigael Yadin: I think your question is really a basic one. Our knowledge of the Bible as a historical document is not yet complete. It’s limited. And with all the advances in the archaeological discipline, including field archaeology with all that goes with it, it is far from providing 100% answers to many questions people would like to know about the Bible.
My definition of archaeology sounds a bit sophisticated—and incidentally I didn’t invent it. It was written by someone a hundred years ago. I don’t remember who wrote it, but I follow it, and that is that archaeology is the science that examines the mind of man to the extent it is reflected in material or has been expressed in material. (186-7)

YY: I think there is enough evidence, even in Kenyon’s excavations—and also in the earlier excavations of Garstang—to show that at Jericho there is no necessary contradiction to the Bible. (188)

YY: That’s beyond the realm of archaeology, and I think it’s beyond the realm of history as well. It’s a matter of faith. The ancient people believed that this was the cause. Now if you want to believe it, you believe it; if you don’t believe it, don’t. But the fact is that there was a city there, in my opinion, and it was conquered. There can be no doubt. (189)

YY:I belong to a school of thought that thinks tradition must be used as a source for history, of course with caution. People don’t invent certain things. For example, you can’t deny that the Israelites were once in Egypt. What nation would invent such a crazy story, that they were slaves in Egypt and they left that country and came to this country, and then make that the kernel of all their history? There is a historical core. Even if you want to minimize it, there is a core of truth there. Maybe it did not happen exactly as it is recorded, down to the last detail. But there is a historical core. (189)

YY: We archaeologists sometimes make a terrible mistake. We think that when a new king begins to reign, then a new level must be found in the city; when he dies, the city must die as well. When a new period comes, there must be a new city wall. But this isn’t true. Look, today, even today, you can see old city walls that have survived for 300, 400, 500 years. And I believe that the Middle Bronze city wall at Jericho was used in the Late Bronze Age. (190)

YY: One of the reasons scholars are reluctant to believe that there is a kernel of truth in the Jericho story is that they say that there is no evidence from the Late Bronze Age at Jericho. But this is not true. There is evidence, even according to Kenyon. She had to admit that in one spot she did find one house. All right, if you find one house, there may be more. Secondly, that they didn’t find a city wall from the Late Bronze Age is not evidence. The Middle Bronze Age city wall could easily have been re-used in the Late Bronze Age. (190)

YY: When we study history, I think it’s very important not to project what we think onto what people thought at the time. Today there are millions of people who believe that events happened exactly as described in the Bible and I’m sure that in those days when the Israelites managed to conquer cities, and when their grandchildren saw that they, a desert people, were able to become masters of a land that had been owned by giants and had been fortified, the Israelites were absolutely convinced that it was not only their act of valor but it was mainly God’s wish and with God’s help that they were able to do this. Therefore, whatever they wrote is not a bluff. They really believed it. Now you can say that this doesn’t prove that God actually helped them, but it does prove one thing: it proves what motivated them, what moved them to do what they did; it was that belief. We have to understand that; otherwise we can’t understand why they built these temples and in fact why they behaved as they did. (193)

YY: But it is absolutely untrue that archaeology disproves the Bible. On the contrary, I think archaeology proves it, that is, that the great events—for example the conquest of Canaan by the children of Israel, which was a major event in the history of the people—cannot be thrown away and be explained by all sorts of sociological theories, as is sometimes attempted. First, archaeology proves that there was a conquest at that period, and second, the tradition is so strongly imbedded in the Bible, I don’t believe that it was invented.
I am reminded of the story about whether it was Joshua who conquered Canaan. Who would invent Joshua? It’s like the discussion about whether there was a Shakespeare; whether it was Shakespeare or somebody else by the name of Shakespeare. Was it Joshua or somebody else who was called Joshua? Why suddenly invent a Joshua? Now maybe he did less than is ascribed to him. But to deny completely the fact that there was a hero by the name of Joshua who led the tribes at a certain period and that they managed to conquer the land is, I think, to deny archaeology and the Bible at the same time. (194)

YY: You know the same kinds of questions are involved in other ancient documents. I wouldn’t put the Bible in the same category, but the same kinds of questions are involved. Take Josephus, for example [a first-century A.D. Jewish historian]. Before archaeological excavations, it was the vogue among historians—very serious historians—to argue that Josephus in many places relates sheer nonsense, that he is not historical, that he exaggerates, and so forth. But the more we dig in Jerusalem and at Masada and at Herodium and in [Herodian] Jericho, the greater respect we—both archaeologists and historians—have for the accuracy of Josephus. He is one of the greatest historians. Of course he had his own prejudices. But show me any historian without them. Josephus is accurate not only for his own period but for previous periods as well, for example, the Hellenistic period. Josephus had theories; of course he made mistakes in his theories—so we think—but basically as historian, he is much, much more respected as a result of archaeology. (195-6)

HS: Is there a subject, an academic discipline of Biblical archaeology? As you know, some scholars believe that it’s not a real academic discipline, but simply a historical description of what certain scholars in the past have done and they believe that the term should be abandoned. (197)

YY: Well, of course, as the editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, you are touching on something very important to your readers. You’re touching a very vexing problem. I know, of course, about the views you refer to.
I think those who object to the term Biblical archaeology have absolutely misused it and therefore created confusion. You put in the mouths of those who object to the term a very mild description of their objections. Some of those who object say that Biblical archaeology is “coffee table archaeology,” for example. The truth of the matter is that unfortunately we are working in a country—let’s say Palestine, it’s the land of the Bible we’re talking about—which for a 2,000-year period [3000 B.C. to 1000 B.C.] left no substantial inscriptions or writings to enable us to understand what we excavate, unlike Egypt and Babylon which have left substantial inscriptions on monuments and written documents. (197)

YY: Now I wouldn’t like to be an archaeologist who is only a technician in dissections. Of course it’s important to know how to excavate, just as it is vital for a pathologist to know how to make a dissection. But if this is all he knows, then he’ll never be a doctor; he’ll never contribute to the understanding of the human body. So what are we to do. From 3000 B.C. to at least 1000 B.C., we have so little written material because our forefathers [unlike Babylonians] did not write much on clay; and papyrus, because of the humidity, did not stay well-preserved. We don’t have Egypt’s dry weather which preserved not only the pyramids but also papyrus. So our forefathers are silent in this respect. So today we can dig. We can know exactly the pottery, the fortifications, and stratification and relative chronology of sites and so on. And we shall be able to reconstruct a fair picture of the culture. But this is not enough. In order to understand the human mind, we have to know more. And we do have sources. We have the Bible, if we understand it correctly. (197)

YY: I really don’t understand why this objection to the term Biblical archaeology has arisen. Can you show me one archaeologist in Greece who has not pursued classical studies as a sine qua non of his education? (198)

YY: Of course, the prehistoric periods are different. I wouldn’t call that Biblical archaeology in the same sense because unfortunately the prehistorical archaeologist hasn’t got the Bible to provide the background. But even there, if he studies the Paleolithic period of Palestine, of the Holy Land, I would still call him a Biblical archaeologist in that sense, as I would the Greek scholar, the Greek archaeologist who studies the Paleolithic period of Greece. After all, this is the land of the Bible. (200)

YY: Now we come to your question, “What is the land of the Bible?” I don’t criticize those who use the term Syro-Palestinian. I think we should let it stand if they wish. It is a political term. But is has nothing to do with our discipline of archaeology. You can show that it is true that Syria and Palestine had a lot in common in certain periods of history. But today the term Syro-Palestinian is used by certain archaeologists in such a way that they will be able to roam about in Jordan, to roam about in Syria. You know Biblical archaeology has already become taboo there. The Bible is already not to be mentioned in certain areas. In Syria, for example, I’m sure Biblical archaeology is becoming a dirty word. But Syro-Palestinian is acceptable, particularly if you put Syro before Palestine, (200)

YY: Therefore, if we’re talking about Biblical archaeology, obviously the land of the Bible is the center. If we’re talking about Homeric archaeology or Greek archaeology, then obviously Greece is the center. (201)

YY: Because of the accumulation of knowledge, we cannot master everything. Because of that, I wouldn’t like to define Biblical archaeology in a limited way. (202)

YY: In Mari [in Mesopotamia], we found a letter written three hundred years, if not four or five hundred years earlier, saying that they are sending an ambassador to Hazor. And ambassadors from Hazor go to Mari. Some letters found at Mari concern shipments of precious metals to Hazor and vice versa, and so on and so forth. At Hazor, a young boy, not an archaeologist found a little broken piece of a tablet which contained a dictionary, a Sumero-Akkadian dictionary; this find shows there was a scribe at Hazor. This dictionary must have been made by a scribe for other scribes. So I think up to now we have simply been unlucky in many of the cities where we have dug in Israel. You know we excavate on a huge mound, and if you don’t hit the archive, you don’t even know it’s there. Even in Ebla [in Syria where a fabulous third-millennium archive was recently found] they had fantastic luck. They could have dug for another 50 years and not hit that one particular spot.(203)

YY: Daily written material from our area, such as transactions and letters and even what the prophets wrote, has unfortunately been lost because most of it was written on papyrus. Even the Dead Sea Scrolls would have been lost were it not for the fact that they were, so to say, buried or hidden in caves in the Dead Sea area which is so dry. Otherwise, they would have been lost as most other scrolls either on papyrus or on leather have been lost everywhere else in the country. (205)

YY: As everyone who starts to study medicine has to know anatomy, so a student of archaeology has to study the pottery and the stratigraphy and the technique of excavation and the typology and so on. But I would advise the student who wants to study the archaeology of this part of the world also to take a course in the history or in the literature or the philology of the country or the adjacent countries. Don’t limit yourself to becoming only a technician/archaeologist. My advice would be to do both. And remember it takes seven years, at least, to really become a qualified archaeologist. (208)

There is a lot of food for thought there and the questions from Mr. Shanks would help the context a lot but space and time prohibit adding more than I already have. Enjoy.


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