Using the Bible as Her Guide

Israeli archaeologist Eilat Mazar discusses the value of the Holy Book for Israeli archaeology.

With over 10 million copies sold, Werner Keller’s book The Bible as History stands as the principal literary work highlighting the accuracy of the Bible. Originally published in 1955 and again in 1980, the book travels through the biblical epic, pointing out how archaeology has time and again proven the Bible as a legitimate historical document. Further excavation over the years has vindicated most of Keller’s positions and disproved a few others, but the fact remains that the Bible preserves a compellingly truthful account of ancient Israel’s history.

Since that book was published, scores of recent archaeological excavations are corroborating the biblical history as well.

Israeli archaeologist Eilat Mazar unabashedly uses the Bible as one of many tools in her kit. Famed for discovering King David’s palace in 2005, Dr. Mazar is a solid supporter of the Bible’s function in informing successful Israeli archaeology. “What is amazing about the Bible is that very often we see that it is very accurate and sometimes amazingly accurate,” she told the Trumpet.

So accurate, in fact, that she actually used one specific verse to locate the massive but heretofore elusive palace of King David from over 3,000 years ago.

Scripture Supplies a Clue

When David conquered the Jebusite city around 1000 b.c. he took up residence in the stronghold—the Jebusite fortress at the north end of the city. According to 2 Samuel 5:9, he then began to build up the area around Millo and inward. The New International Version says David “built up the area around it, from the supporting terraces inward.” So David set out to enlarge the city limits—first concentrating on a royal palace. The Bible says King David’s palace was partially built by workers sent to him by the Phoenician king of Tyre as a gesture of friendship (verse 11). “And David went on, and grew great, and the Lord God of hosts was with him” (verse 10).

Near the end of David’s palace construction, the Philistines attacked. And since the new palace may not have been reinforced strongly enough to withstand the Philistine assault, verse 17 says David went down to the citadel to barricade himself within the city walls until the conflict ended. This, Dr. Mazar theorized more than a decade ago, indicates that David’s new palace stood on higher ground than the Jebusite fortress.

She published her theory in Biblical Archaeology Review in January 1997 under the title, “Excavate King David’s Palace.” On a two-page artist’s rendering of the ancient City of David, Mazar drew an arrow pointing at the north end of the city, underneath the caption “it’s there.” She wrote, “Careful examination of the biblical text combined with sometimes unnoticed results of modern archaeological excavations in Jerusalem enable us, I believe, to locate the site of King David’s palace. Even more exciting, it is in an area that is now available for excavation. If some regard as too speculative the hypothesis I shall put forth in this article, my reply is simply this: Let us put it to the test in the way archaeologists always try to test their theories—by excavation.”

A decade later, excavation did exactly that. In 2005, just under the surface in the northern-most region of the City of David, she found what she calls the Large Stone Structure and labeled it King David’s palace.

But Is It Scientific?

Naturally, in the scientific world, Dr. Mazar has detractors who discredit her work because of how she uses the Bible. They label her as a religious fundamentalist with obvious bias. However, in talking and working with Eilat Mazar in person, you hardly get that impression. Much the opposite, Dr. Mazar is as scientific as they come, her conclusions based firmly in sound archaeological method.

While archaeological method is constantly improving, Dr. Mazar is as scientifically respectable as anyone in the field. She actually invites other archaeologists to the site, “especially ones that think differently,” she says. “Everybody is most welcome to observe how we work, and afterwards, how we process the finds. We make sure that everything can be observed and criticized. Then nobody can blame us that we are not doing the best updated work.”

Some archaeologists dislike that Dr. Mazar actually found what she was looking for, and label that premise as being unscientific. However, is it not scientific to have a hypothesis before you start an experiment and then use a controlled method to test that hypothesis?

Once the excavation is over and the artifacts and stratigraphy are studied, it is the right of the archaeologist to suggest the best possible explanation of what has been excavated, to objectively decide whether the hypothesis held up. In the case of King David’s palace, it most certainly did. The widely acknowledged dating of the structure to sometime during the 11th and 10th century b.c., its location within the city and its enormous size all testify that King David’s palace is the most logical and scientific identification of the Large Stone Structure.

Actually, it is good science to find what you are looking for. But it requires great ability to draw on all the sources at your disposal to conduct the best possible research before you excavate. In Dr. Mazar’s mind, this research necessitated tapping the biblical text.

Dr. Mazar can hardly understand why some of her contemporaries work to pick holes in the text rather than use it to aid their work. “Archaeology cannot stand by itself as a very technical method,” she related. “It is actually quite primitive without the support of written documents. Excavating the ancient land of Israel and not reading and getting to know the biblical source is stupidity. I don’t see how it can work. It’s like excavating a classical site and ignoring Greek and Latin sources. It is impossible.”

Impossible indeed! As impossible as recovering Egyptian history without Manetho.

The Stones Ignore the Sponsors

Many delegitimize Dr. Mazar’s work at the palace of David because of the religious views of her sponsors. But consider: She waited 10 years from when her paper was published before she could get funding to excavate. No doubt if a Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or atheist gave her the money to excavate she would have used it to produce the same investigative process, arriving at the same conclusion.

What would Dr. Mazar say to critics who fault her archaeology because of its Jewish sponsors?

She laughs and replies, “Well, the stones, and the structure, and the stratigraphical layers—they don’t care who is giving the funds. There are very clear and very advanced scientific methods our days. You can have all theories and working hypotheses as you go to the field, but the minute you start to excavate, all these theories need to be put on the side. From that minute onward, you have to document and give every little item a precise height and photograph what you find.” She concluded, “I think that the people who get to know the details of how archaeology works nowadays understand that you cannot force agenda on the facts.”

For Dr. Mazar, her whole academic reputation is on the line with her excavations and conclusions. Still, she holds firm to the historical application of the Bible.

Inspiration From a Grandfather

Although she may be the poster child of biblical archaeology today, Dr. Eilat Mazar isn’t the first archaeologist to hold the Bible in such high esteem.

“There is nothing new about reading the Bible to see how much of the reality can be tangible. It is a whole school that started with Robinson and later on in force with Albright, of which my grandfather considered himself to be a follower and a student,” she says.

“My grandfather” is the late professor Dr. Benjamin Mazar, a leading Israeli archaeologist in his own right. He is best known for his massive excavation at the southwestern corner of the Temple Mount that spanned the late 1960s and the ’70s. He also served as president of the Hebrew University between 1953 and 1961.It was his enthusiasm for archaeology and the Bible that captured the imagination of a young girl named Eilat who loved to visit his digs. She recalls that many times she would sit before her grandfather as a child when he would conduct advanced seminars for scholars in his home. “He was sharing his enthusiasm with the whole academic world and with us, the children.”

From home to the excavation site to anywhere beyond, archaeology saturated Mazar family life. Naturally, Eilat and others in the family followed Dr. Mazar into the field. “When I studied at the university, he guided,” she says. While at university, the two Mazars began working together on publication of The Temple Mount Excavations. The project would continue for 10 years.

Meanwhile, Dr. Mazar worked in the City of David excavations under the direction of Dr. Yigal Shiloh. Each day after the excavations, as she worked with her grandfather, he would ask her, “What’s new at the excavation?”

“What’s new? We just discussed all the new things yesterday, so what can be so new?” she would reply.

“No, no, no; what’s new?” the professor would ask again.

“He was expecting new and fresh thinking every single day. He really pushed me. On the one hand it was quite distressing, but on the other hand it pushed me to constantly be thinking every time that I am excavating,” Mazar recounts.

That training and birth, if you will, into archaeology served Eilat Mazar well. So did Professor Mazar’s deep understanding that the Bible should be used as a historical source for Israelite history.

And it was the two together who would first discuss the idea that King David’s palace was located exactly where it was later found.

Ever since the early 1800s, many in the scientific community have sought to malign the authenticity of the biblical text. The God of the Bible actually claims to be not just a casual observer of the history of mankind, but an actor in it as well—making the Bible unlike any other religious book. Thus, when men presumably destroyed the historical basis for the Bible, it put people’s faith on shaky ground. For that reason, Keller’s book in the mid-20th century was a refreshing change.

Thankfully, there are still some, like Dr. Eilat Mazar, who are willing to practice true science and acknowledge the Bible as history. If more did, who knows what else would be found?