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Behind the Scenes: an Interview with Prof. Israel Finkelstein

Posted by on Jul 15, 2015

Behind the Scenes: an Interview with Prof. Israel Finkelstein

Prof. Israel Finkelstein is a leading archaeologist who has been active in the field of Biblical archaeology for more than 40 years. He has co-directed the Megiddo excavations since 1994 and has been teaching in the International MA Program since it opened in 2011. 

I recently had the pleasure of meeting Prof. Finkelstein and interviewing him about his work as a Biblical archaeologist and as co-director of the Megiddo excavation:

You have been active as an archaeologist for over 40 years.  I’d like to talk to you about how the field has changed or remained the same – during these 40 years since you participated in your first dig. Of course I’m thinking of IzbetSartah. So I´ll begin by asking: Is it still as exciting as it was? Is it still as much fun?

It is fun. It is exciting if there is an interesting question or if there comes an interesting find. I mean, archaeology at the end of the day is not only about designing a project but also a matter of chance. So yes! All in all, it is still exciting. The best proof of that is that I’m still in the field; sometimes at 35 degrees, in humid and dusty conditions, but I’m still in the field!

Prof. Finkelstein at Tel Aviv University's restoration lab

The site of Shiloh was the first big dig you organized. How did this site affect you personally and did it further your understanding of biblical archaeology?

That excavation was interesting. It was a key to better understand the settlement history and material culture of the Highlands, and it was very well connected with the results of the surveys that I conducted at the same time in the highlands around Shiloh. While Shiloh wasn’t the place where new methods of archaeology were tested, (that was done in later excavations, especially at Megiddo), it was still important from a historical point of view, as it assisted us in understanding the processes that led to the rise of Ancient Israel.

Talking about the site of Megiddo, personally I think it´s a very interesting site, a place with an almost mythical past.

What do you mean an interesting site? It is THE mother of ALL sites!

Indeed, no one can deny its importance, and even the ancients thought of it as an important place that they associated with wars. Later Biblical authors have also acknowledged the site’s significance and fittingly named the final battle of mankind, Armageddon, as Har-Megiddo, the mound of Megiddo. Can you explain why Megiddo is such an important site?

First and foremost, the site is important because of its location. Megiddo allowed those who controlled it strategic observance of the area since it overlooks the main highway that leads from Egypt to Mesopotamia and Anatolia. 

Secondly, almost all archives in the ancient Near East mention the site. We have Assyrian, Egyptian, even a single Hittite testimony of Megiddo, and then, of course, there are the significant mentions in theHebrew Bible.

Thirdly, this site has been excavated by many expeditions and became the cradle of Biblical archaeology. For all these reason, as I told you, it is the mother of all mounds and it is extremely important and exciting to work there.

The archaeological site of Tel Megiddo

What impact has Megiddo had on Biblical Archaeology?

The most important contribution of Megiddo to research, I suppose, is as the place that forms the skeleton of the stratigraphy and chronology of the Bronze and Iron Ages in the Levant. Therefore, this is the ultimate place to recheck stratigraphy and chronology with new methods.

How should we use the Biblical text when we deal with archaeology, is there a proper and improper use?

Yes, there is proper and improper use and it comes from archaeologists’ knowledge of Biblical exegesis. I think that the key for dealing with Biblical archaeology in a proper way is to understand, or at least get the notion about what is going on in Biblical research today, and also be aware of the history of this discipline. 

You can’t read the Bible the way you would read a newspaper. Looking at the Bible in a simplistic way is disrespectful. It does not acknowledge the complexity of the text, nor does it take into account the ideology and theology of the time, and of its authors. 

Sometimes I hear Biblical archaeology theories that remind me of approaches from the period that preceded Baruch Spinoza. My reaction to these theories is: “Hey, you are in delay — somewhere around the 16th century, 450 years ago”.

International MA students learning from Prof Finkelstein at Tel Megiddo

Do you feel that when we read the bible in a more sophisticated, critical approach, there is a risk of over-analyzing the text? I’m thinking of the old Latin sentiment “simplex sigillumverum” – Simplicity is a sign of truth.

Hmmm…there is something to be said about that. Sometimes, looking at certain Biblical research, I find myself in disagreement with scholars who approach the text in an overly sophisticated manner which makes coherent understanding impossible. Still, it is better first to analyze the text in such a way and then take a step back, then the other way around — to approach the text in a too simplistic manner. We are in between two situations that are not ideal but I would go for a proper Biblical exegesis and then zoom out to think about the meaning.

Those who are familiar with your scholarly work are familiar with your critical approach toward the Biblical text. Are you disturbed by the way some people miss quote and miss-interpret your views?

Some people, and unfortunately some scholars, discuss my views based on the writings of journalists, rather than reading my articles and books first hand. This of course leads to various misunderstandings and misinterpretations, as you said. But after 40 years in the battleground of Biblical archaeology, I’ve become immune. All I can do is offer my interpretations, hope that people will take the time to read them, and that they will hopefully find them interesting and convincing.

What would you say has been the biggest change in archaeology in the past 40 years since you began your excavations?

Well, the most important… I think there were two or three important processes. First is the introduction of methods that comes from exact sciences. This is something very dramatic that has taken place in the last 20 years or so. Ancient DNA, Geoarchaeololgy, residue analysis, radiocarbon, paleo-climate studies and the like have the potential to dramatically change what we know about the past. 

Second is a process that took place when I started studying archaeology. I refer to the understanding that in order to reconstruct the past one needs to look not only at the excavation of a single site, that is, at material culture, but also try to study the distribution of people in the landscape, that is, settlement patterns in antiquity. This comes from results of archaeological surveys, not excavations. 

The third change is the fact that at least some of us have been liberated from uncritical way of looking at ancient texts, especially the biblical record but not only. We understand better today the sophistication of the text, its complexity and the many layers that are found in it and that need to be pilled-off in order to reconstruct history.

In view of the turbulent times and shaky governments around the Middle East and North Africa do you feel that our historical heritage is threatened and what do you believe is the future or if you like faith of archaeology in these regions?

I don´t know, I’m not a prophet. I know nothing about the future, I hardly comprehend the past [hearty laughter] and I definitely don´t understand the present. So my situation is very precarious.There is definitely a danger to our shared heritage of the ancient Near East and like everybody else I am deeply worried; but I’m short of being able to help. I’m horrified watching the pictures on TV but then, what can I do?

What advice would you give to future archaeologist and scholars that aspire to walk in your trails?

I actually have a list somewhere at home, of things I wish to say one day about this, perhaps when I will celebrate my 80th birthday. In that list some of the notes are cynical and others are more serious. Among the latter, what may be the most important advice is to take a critical approach both to archaeology and to ancient texts.

Another good advice – especially for field projects – is to work in reliable teams, that is, to choose your team properly. I have been very lucky to work with wonderful young people. But I would give myself some credit and say that it was not only good luck but also a matter of choosing the right students and colleagues. These are two of many advices I can give. For the rest, wait until my 80th anniversary...

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