Slate deputy editor David Plotz was online at Washingtonpost.com on Thursday, Jan. 17, to discuss his recent travels to Israel to search for archaeological evidence of the Bible’s stories, an extension of his “Blogging the Bible” project. An unedited transcript of the chat follows.
David Plotz: Hi, this is David Plotz. Let’s talk about the Bible, archeology, and belief.
Bethesda, Md.: What was the most impressive site that you saw while over there?
David Plotz: It’s funny, because the whole country is so extraordinary. From a sheerly aesthetic perspective, Masada and Herodion can’t be beat. They are so incredibly beautiful, and so amazingly situated, and their histories are so compelling that you can hardly breathe while you are there. For archeological fun, I loved the Maresha excavation where, with Dig for a Day, you can play at archeology.
Brooklyn, N.Y.: Mr. Plotz’s article concerning the archaeological site known as the City of David contains several factual errors. The most blatant is that Mazar claims to have found the remains of David’s palace. She makes no such claim. In her article that appeared in Biblical Archaeology Review—which is linked to in Mr. Plotz’s article—Mazar makes no such assertion. She merely posed a rhetorical question: “Have I found King David’s palace?” It was not a statement of fact but a well-thought-out question that will generate funding for the excavation. It is a technique often used by archaeologists.
washingtonpost.com: The Palace of King David (Or Not)(Slate, Jan. 15)
David Plotz: It’s complicated. Mazar is usually careful to qualify what she says about the Palace of David. However, her rhetorical questions and the way she marshals the evidence point readers strongly in the direction of: This IS the palace of David. What’s more, Elad, the organization that oversees the City of David excavation and that is connected with her funding, makes no such qualifications. I listened to the official tour guides at the City of David, and they say: This IS the Palace of David.
Washington: Aside from a greater understanding of the Bible, what were you (secretly?) hoping to find by taking this trip to Israel? Did you have any underlying religious motivation not mentioned in the article?
David Plotz: I didn’t have an unmentioned religious motivation. I did have an unmentioned book motivation, which is that I was also gathering material for a chapter in a book that will be based on my “Blogging the Bible” series for Slate. Actually, it’s not fair to say I had no religious motivation: I have been struggling with the questions of: How much of the Bible is true, and if it’s not true, should it affect what I believe. To that end, my trip helped me realize how much of the later Hebrew Bible is documented, and how little of the early, fun parts are. And I just loved being around so many interesting fellow Jews, grappling with deep questions of belief and identity.
Savannah, Ga.: Yes, the Essenes were weird, but so were all the sects and cults of Second Temple Judaism: The Pharisees would become the rabbis who transformed Judaism into a picayune concern with minutiae; the Jewish Christians were the forerunners of the Crazy Christians, who believed in a resurrected criminal as God in the flesh. Why focus only on the Essenes?
David Plotz: I focus on the Essenes because the Essenes are the ones who wrote and saved the Dead Sea Scrolls. They present us, as their intellectual heirs, with an interesting problem: They’re truly weird, and their beliefs are sometimes disturbing, yet they helped save our civilization. They tell us who we are. I wanted to focus on this puzzle: How can we revere these people who were actually kind of appalling? Also, I focus on the Essenes because Qumran is such an amazing spot, truly the end of the earth.
Cambridge, Mass.: In what way has this experience changed how you read the Bible?
David Plotz: Good question! I was never a Biblical literalist, so it’s not as though going to Israel and seeing that there is scant evidence for say, Samson, disillusioned me. It brought much of the later Bible to life for me: Seeing Hezekiah’s tunnel in Jerusalem, for example, allowed me to see the war with the Assyrians in a new light, realize how it might have been fought. And seeing Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, made me suddenly realize how my ancestors had given up everything in order to save their books. It has made me cherish the Bible much more as the glue of Judaism, made me recognize that it is the book itself—and the saving of it—that preserved Jews as a civilization.
Washington: I guess my problem with all of this is that it leads to the concept of “sacred or holy soil,” and I can’t think of a more destructive concept in history, unless it’s that of a superior race. Is there any chance that any amount of archaeology might falsify any of the Bible’s stories, and if so, that it might disabuse people of the idea that their particular piece of soil is holy and therefore worth dying (or killing others)?
David Plotz: Great great point! I hope you will read my final entry on Friday, where I finish with just the same question. I find the Western Wall of the Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest spot, a confounding place! It’s wonderful to gather with all the world’s Jews, but there’s something almost idolatrous in the way that place has been made sacred. If there is a God, sure. he is everywhere at all times. Saying this particular place is more holy than others troubles me. It also, as you say, can be a source of terrible conflict. On the other hand, it is that notion that Israel is holy land that has helped Israel grow into the great nation that it is. The theological foundation is essential to the secular state. So it’s complicated!
As for your other question, has archeology falsified Bible stories? The answer is yes, lots of them. As you can read in Kugel’s fabulous book, How To Read the Bible, archeology has falsified essentially the entire Torah. There is no evidence of any patriarchs, no evidence of a flood. More disturbingly, there is no evidence that the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, or had an exodus from there, no evidence that the Israelites ever conquered Canaan. In fact, almost all archeologists now agree that Israelites ARE Canaanites. But does that archeological evidence “destroy” Judaism or Christianity? Only if you are a literalist. The laws, traditions, lessons remain.
Washington: What’s your opinion of the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky.?
washingtonpost.com: A Monument to Creation(Post, May 27)
David Plotz: I’ve never been there, but my wife, Hanna Rosin, who used to cover religion for the Post, actually went there recently and wrote a piece for the New York Times (boo, hiss, enemy!) about it. I think it’s weird. I find it incredibly troubling that a significant plurality of Americans believe in the literal truth of Creation. And I find it even more troubling that Creationists are harnessing bogus science to support these beliefs.
Albany, N.Y.: Dude, you aren’t getting Jerusalem syndrome, are you? Your piece on the Dead Sea Scrolls just vibrated. Blogging the Bible rocked, but this “follow-up” is amazing. Maybe I’ll go to Africa and see if I can lose my irony, too. Your mom must be so proud. You rock.
washingtonpost.com: The Weirdo Cult That Saved the Bible(Slate, Jan. 17)
David Plotz: Thanks. I think. (Unless this a super-double-secret layer of sarcasm that I am not getting).
Detroit: I went to Israel during the ‘60s and ‘70s and have visited most of the major archeological sites. What new discoveries or sites have been found since then that you feel would be worth seeing if I returned?
David Plotz: Great question: The City of David excavations, just outside the old city walls in the Arab town of Silwan, are amazing. These were on the Jordanian side, pre-’67. Whether or not they have found the Palace of King David there, they have certainly found some fascinating stuff—an astounding fortress protecting the town spring, some wonderful Book of Kings-era houses, the wall of Nehemiah.
Herodion is also incredible, especially now that they have found the tomb of Herod. One place I didn’t get but which I heard is spectacular is Tel Dan, way up by the Lebanese border. It has been excavated in recent years by David Ilan, and he has found a temple built at around the same time as the first temple in Jerusalem.
Arlington, Va.: David—is there any contemporaneous evidence of the existence of any of the Biblical characters? Thanks.
David Plotz: There’s essentially no evidence for anyone before King David, which is not that surprising, because not much written evidence of any sort survives from the pre-Davidic period. There are a few mentions of David himself, but they all date a century after he lived, nothing contemporaneous. And, if I am remembering correctly, there was a reference to Goliath found. By the time of David’s grandson Rehoboam, there starts to be contemporaneous evidence, and many of the people in the book of Kings and afterward show up in writings and documents of the time. Unfortunately, this means that leaves most of the fun part of the Bible still in the realm of myth.
Jerusalem: Mr. Plotz, in your article on Herodion you said that in Israel the Bible is used as a tool for nationalism. I would like to respond to this and to ask a question. The Bible is the history of the Jewish people. This is why some secular people here in Israel also love the Bible. This is simple, but maybe strange for many people in the world to understand—they look at the Book only as religious people.
When we Israelis open the Bible to show our past we are not being religious. The Romans threw us out and we have come back to our country. Wouldn’t you agree it is too simple saying the Bible is a tool for nationalism, as if we are using the Bible to make something new? The nation of Israel is an ancient people, not a new nation. Thank you.
washingtonpost.com: Inside the Desert Fortress(Slate, Jan. 15)
David Plotz: The Bible is a history of the Jewish people, not the history. Most of the history of the Jewish people is not in the Bible. I think the uses of the Bible are manifold, in Israel and elsewhere. Some Israelis draw on it for religious reasons, others for historical reasons, others for political reasons, others for aesthetic reasons. And it’s certainly true that in modern Israel, ancient stories (like Masada, which is not biblical, or the conquest of Canaan, which is) have been repurposed for explicitly political purposes.
Tour Guides/David’s Palace: Wow. Well you can ask for no more in the way of scientific gravitas than a tour guide. We could. But it sounds like you couldn’t!
David Plotz: You’re willfully missing my point. Mazar allows a tiny bit of wiggle room, but essentially points people directly to: Palace of David. Elad, through which everyone who visits the City of David must pass and which controls public access to it and which for all intents and purposes represents the City of David to the world, calls it the Palace of David.
Washington: Were you aware of A.J. Jacobs’ similar book project, The Year of Living Biblically, prior to your blogging/digging projects? If not, how can you explain this (possibly) recent revival of “secular bible study” in literature? Does it have much to do with the recent emergence of books like God Is Not Great by your colleague Mr. Hitchens? If you were aware of Jacobs’s book, how did it affect your own project, “Blogging the Bible”?
David Plotz: AJ and I are now friends. We discovered each other when we were both midway through our projects. He’s a wonderful, funny writer, and he’s written a really delightful book. AJ’s book didn’t affect “Blogging the Bible,” and “Blogging the Bible” didn’t affect AJ. I was well into my blog before I heard about AJ, and AJ was well into his year of living biblically before he saw my blog. We both gulped, and then realized it was no problem for either of us. We’ve even done a Web video chat together on bloggingheads.com
Kensington, Md.: The Bible is a fascinating and important historical document, but you may have noted through the years that its followers believe it was written by an all-knowing magic figure who lives in the heavens. Have you in your work found any shred of evidence for the validity of these fantastical notions? Thank you!
David Plotz: I’ve found no evidence that it was written by an all-knowing magic figure. On the other hand, I can’t prove that it wasn’t.
Beit Shemes, Israel: Although much of “ancient” Israel is in the Judean Hills—what is now called the West Bank—the rest of modern Israel was also part of Biblical Israel. Areas such as the Galilee, the Valley of Elah (as you mentioned yourself) and the Negev all played major roles in the Bible. Beersheba, a town in the Negev, played an important role in Abraham’s life. Also, many of the Talmudic sages of the post-Biblical era lived in the Galilee.
David Plotz: Fair point. I do think it’s funny that the coastal population centers where 75 percent of Israelis live were the lands of the Philistines. That was where the enemy was, back in Bible days.
A.J. Jacobs: Were you intentionally dodging the second half of my question, which asks for your opinion on the late abundance of books being published on this topic?
David Plotz: Oh, no dodge. I don’t have a great explanation. The atheist books are blowback against the growing religiosity of politics in the Bush years. But I can’t explain me and AJ—we just got interested at the same time, I guess.
Patrick Henry College, Va.: You’re married to Hanna Rosin, who wrote God’s Harvard, about Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Va. Has there been any blowback post-publication for your wife? I liked the book quite a bit.
David Plotz: Thanks. Hanna’s book God’s Harvard is awesome. The rise of Huckabee really demonstrates the phenomenon she was writing about.
David Plotz: Thanks for all the questions, and good bye.