"" Friday, November 12, 1999

by : Prof. Doron Lancet


ABSTRACT: "New archeology" expands the use of technologies such as carbon dating and the analysis of ancient DNA. By changing dramatically the system of dating Israel's archeological finds, these techniques may reveal agreement between biblical accounts and evidence on the ground

Last week, Ha'aretz Magazine published Prof. Ze'ev Herzog's startling announcement that the Bible period never existed, as no evidence has been found for it in archeological excavations. Most other archeologists interviewed expressed complete agreement, and even said that Herzog's statement was nothing new. A minority continues to claim that material evidence exists for the biblical accounts, but the consensus seems to go the other ay.Non-archeologists, religious and secular alike, unanimously said that whether the Bible is truth or legend, its standing as a colossal work will always prevail. But disturbing voices were heard, urging that the archeologists and their findings should be entirely dismissed.

Herzog's article poses a seminal question: is archeology an exact science? The scientific discipline disregards a scientist's status or the emotional reaction to his work. In the famous quote attributed to him, "But it does move," Galileo expressed his revulsion with the church's attempts to let emotions take precedence over his observations showing that the earth is not the center of the universe.

It is inconceivable that politicians and poets will have a say in a dispute among archeologists. If one assumes that archeology is a bona fide science, involved with collecting data and explaining them by means of historical theories, then the only way to settle the archeological incongruity is to obtain more accurate results and if necessary to change the theory. In the last few decades, archeology has undergone a major transformation, from being less a part of the Humanities, where it is being taught now, and more associated with the Natural Sciences.

The "New Archeology" expands the use of technologies such as carbon 14 dating and ancient DNA analysis, and involves extensive use of quantification and statistics. The Weizmann Institute of Science has recently launched the Kimmel Center for Archeological Science, headed by Prof. Stephen Weiner. It offers students with degrees in exact sciences the opportunity to obtain a Ph.D. in archeology. Similar changes are taking place in other universities in Israel and abroad. Could this revolution help settle the conflict between the excavations and the holy scriptures?

The old testament has three main components: myths intended to establish a new nation, texts that form the basis for the world's first monotheistic religion, and detailed historical accounts. Setting aside the first two, it is impossible to ignore the sentiment that the bible's historical parts are utterly believable and worthy of detailed scientific pursuit. No jury would dismiss its painstaking portrayal of kings and prophets, cities and temples, battles and religious wars, as pure figments of the authors' imagination. The verisimilitude of the Bible led to the establishment of biblical archeology in the 19th century, aimed at validating biblical accounts through excavations. Are we in a position to state now that this century-long effort has totally failed?

When science runs into a clash between fact and theory, all hell breaks loose. This happened in 1887, when the Michaleson-Morely experiment demonstrated that the speed of light is unaffected by the velocity of the lantern. This contradicted Newton's equations, and led to Einstein's theory of special relativity. The reform was all but smooth, and years of meticulous experiments were needed for it to be accepted by the entire scientific establishment. It appears that a new theory combined with careful fact-finding will be required also for the biblical archeology quandary.

How do scientists decide whether a theory is worth the effort required to confirm or to refute it? A theory surely has to explain the newly discovered facts. But what if several theories appear equally successful? In that case, scientists use the principle of "Occam's Razor," named after William of Occam, a 14th century English theologian. This principle states that in case of doubt, the simplest, most parsimonious theory should be favored. An example is the contradiction discovered between the distribution of matter inside galaxies and their apparent luminosity. Most astronomers still explain this by assuming that galaxies harbor dark matter, but are then forced to invoke a special ad-hoc mass distribution for each galaxy. Prof. Mordechai Milgrom of the Weizmann Institute has proposed an alternative: to change (again) one of Newton's laws. Surprisingly, a small change in the equation leads to complete agreement for hundreds of different galaxies. Physicists find the idea extremely difficult to accept, but relate to it with considerable respect because of Occam's rule. Is there an alternative theory for Israeli archeology? Seven years ago, Yehoshua Etzion published "The Lost Bible" (Shocken Press). The book, based on an extensive literary search, provided a verbatim account of almost every discrepancy listed in Herzog's article. And more importantly, it offered an explanation in terms of a radical change of the dating for archeological strata, extending Immanuel Velikovsky's writings ("Ages in Chaos"). Etzion is not a professional archeologist, and the book has therefore been greeted with contempt and disregard by the archeological establishment. While it is indeed difficult to accept such a radical idea, particularly from a person lacking formal training, the scientific method demands that two questions are answered: does the new view settle a key problem and does it conform with Occam's principle? "The Lost Bible" proposes to stop relying on the dating system developed for Egyptian archeology, and try to establish an independent scale for Israel. This sounds truly heretical, just as was initially true for the theory of relativity. But it turns out that if one changes the dates attributed to the different archeological strata, by making them about 500 years younger, a surprising agreement emerges between the bible and archeology. This is true for dozens of excavation sites, and includes remains of nomadic wandering in the Sinai Desert, a sudden and comprehensive destruction at the time of Joshua's conquests, massive building activity in the time of David and Solomon, and evidence for the gradual destruction brought upon by the Assyrians and Babylonians at the end of the first temple period. The dating change also helps understand the systematic absence, at numerous sites, of a layer from the Persian period, when Jews came back from Babylon led by Ezra and Nehemiah. It seems as if Etzion's proposal settles many discrepancies, and at the same time conforms to Occam's Razor: widespread agreement is obtained by a single change, which is much simpler than assuming that hundreds of biblical accounts are fictitious. Of course, the scientific scheme does not require that the alternative theory should be immediately accepted. It is also not necessary to perform any experiments uniquely devoted to testing this particular theory. Comprehensive and careful data collection will confirm or refute it, along with the testing of many other potential theories. All that is required is to introduce a profound change in the use of novel technologies. Carbon 14 dating has reached a point of providing aaccuracy of plus or minus 20 years, as long as appropriate resources are devoted to each measurement. If archeologists, including those with training in the natural sciences, perform innovative measurements on thousands of artefacts in numerous mounds and layers, it will be possible to settle the painful disagreement between the scripture and the excavations. Science offers the means to do this. All that is needed is a courageous and creative attitude among archeologists and the authorities that fund them. Prof.Lancet is the head of the Crown Human Genome Center at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel

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