Do not leave the path


May 2017

Who Tells the Truth—the Bible or Archaeology?

Credibility of the Hebrew Bible as a source for ancient Israel’s history has been disputed since at least the mid-1970s, when the historicity of the patriarchs of Genesis suffered a serious blow in the works of Thomas L. Thompson and John Van Seters.1 Biblical scholars of the last 35 years or so thus split into two camps of thought: historical minimalism and historical maximalism. The minimalists would argue that most of the Hebrew Bible has little value for the study of history because it is made up of prose fiction, folk tales, legends and theological treatises, while the maximalists would defend the Bible’s claims regarding the early history of ancient Israel.2 In “Whom Do You Believe—The Bible or Archaeology?” in the May/June 2017 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, eminent archaeologist William G. Dever explores the difficult subject, giving BAR readers a sneak-peak of his upcoming book.

It is fair to acknowledge that Biblical archaeology had failed to deliver the evidence that the founding fathers of the discipline—William F. Albright and George E. Wright—thought it would in support of the Bible as history. But as much as Biblical archaeology fell short of the quest to “prove the Bible,” it helped to show just how misguided those initial expectations from Biblical archaeology were. As a result, many scholars have grown suspicious of the Biblical text, rejecting even the most central narratives of early Bible history, such as the Exodus, the military conquest of Canaan, the existence of the United Monarchy and, most recently, the very historicity of figures such as Saul, David or Solomon.

Aided by new trends in literary studies and coinciding with a more general shift in the European historiography, the skeptical views of historical minimalism seem to dominate especially in Europe. The maximalist views, on the other hand, were able to stand their ground in Israel and the United States, where the public discourse is generally more optimistic about the Bible and the early history of ancient Israel as portrayed in the Hebrew Bible.

The tangled tale of Biblical archaeology as practiced in the USA is best symbolized by two still fairly recent decisions by the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR), a leading academic institution devoted to the study of the Near East: ASOR changed the name of its popular journal from Biblical Archaeologist to Near Eastern Archaeology in 1998, and it also decided to separate its annual meetings from those of the Society for Biblical Literature.

Over the years, the discussion between minimalists and maximalists has been characterized by inflamed rhetoric and bitter personal attacks. This is a little more understandable if we acknowledge that the current discourse continues to be fueled by the insertion of moralistic views and matters of faith and even modern political agendas and nationalist sentiments. It is then also less surprising that the skeptical and often hyper-critical approach of the minimalists is labeled as cynical, nihilist and immoral by some maximalists. On the other side, the most radical voices occasionally transcend the minimalist–maximalist debate, calling for the dismissal of the whole of the Biblical studies as we know it because the field is allegedly obsolete and irrelevant to modern society.3


Called the Large Stone Structure, these massive walls excavated in the City of David belong to the original King David’s palace in Jerusalem, affirm many. What is the evidence for this claim? Circumstantial at best, caution others. Photo: Eilat Mazar.


One possibility is to deal with the Biblical texts and archaeological data independently and then look for “convergences,” suggests William G. Dever, Professor Emeritus of Near Eastern Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Arizona, who is arguably the most influential voice among the maximalists. But it did not escape Dever’s critics that in checking the Bible against material evidence (or vice-versa), archaeology is not speaking for itself. For his approach, Dever has been castigated with others for actually falling into the trap of “proving/disproving the Bible”—an honorable pursuit for some, a methodological trespass for others.

To be sure, Dever understands that both archaeology and the Bible as historical sources have their limits. An experienced archaeologist, Dever rightly points to the chronic cause of disappointment and frustration among Biblical scholars: people have been asking the wrong questions of archaeology!

At the same time—as his critics object—Dever acknowledges the privileged position of archaeological data as being closer to the “real” life and, hence, more reliable for the Bible history than are the Biblical texts, which were written or edited centuries after the supposed events that they relate. And while recognizing that most of the Pentateuch, or Torah, is contaminated by legendary and even fantastic materials, which might disqualify the first four books from historical consideration, Dever with other maximalists also believes that these Bible books are a result of long oral traditions with a real historical core and that history can be distilled from the books immediately following them: Deuteronomy through 2 Kings. Dever’s critics, therefore, point out that his positivist method based on verifiable data is incoherent and circular and that his scholarship actually demonstrates the pitfalls of any attempt to use Biblical archaeology in the quest of uncovering the “true” Bible history. Some critical voices would also question whether Dever’s cautious judgments about the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers still qualify as maximalist.

As should be apparent by now, the issues at hand are rather complex. And they are potentially explosive because they transcend the boundaries of academia and can touch on people’s core values and identities.

For William G. Dever’s latest thoughts on this multi-layered and slippery subject, read his article “Whom Do You Believe—The Bible or Archaeology?” in the May/June 2017 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, where Dever attempts to demonstrate how we can marry archaeology and the Bible in the study of ancient Israel.



1. See Thompson’s The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1974) and Van Seters’s Abraham in History and Tradition (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1975).

2. For an open confrontation between scholars of the two camps, read Hershel Shanks, “Face to Face: Biblical Minimalists Meet Their Challengers,” BAR, July/August 1997.

3. Hector Avalos, The End of Biblical Studies (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2007).

Meet King Tut’s Father, Egypt’s First Revolutionary

Picture of damaged bust of Pharaoh Akhenaten in German museum Neues

Sometimes the most powerful commentary on a king is made by those who are silent. One morning in Amarna, a village in Upper Egypt about 200 miles south of Cairo, a set of delicate, sparrowlike bones were arranged atop a wooden table. “The clavicle is here, and the upper arm, the ribs, the lower legs,” said Ashley Shidner, an American bioarchaeologist. “This one is about a year and a half to two years old.”

The skeleton belonged to a child who lived at Amarna more than 3,300 years ago, when the site was Egypt’s capital. The city was founded by Akhenaten, a king who, along with his wife Nefertiti and his son, Tutankhamun, has captured the modern imagination as much as any other figure from ancient Egypt. This anonymous skeleton, in contrast, had been excavated from an unmarked grave. But the bones showed evidence of malnutrition, which Shidner and others have observed in the remains of dozens of Amarna children.

“The growth delay starts around seven and a half months,” Shidner said. “That’s when you start transition feeding from breast milk to solid food.” At Amarna this transition seems to have been delayed for many children. “Possibly the mother is making the decision that there’s not enough food.”

Until recently Akhenaten’s subjects seemed to be the only people who hadn’t weighed in on his legacy. Others have had plenty to say about the king, who ruled from around 1353 B.C. until 1336 B.C. and tried to transform Egyptian religion, art, and governance. Akhenaten’s successors were mostly scathing about his reign. Even Tutankhamun—whose brief reign has been a subject of fascination since his tomb was discovered in 1922—issued a decree criticizing conditions under his father: “The land was in distress; the gods had abandoned this land.” During the next dynasty, Akhenaten was referred to as “the criminal” and “the rebel,” and pharaohs destroyed his statues and images, trying to remove him from history entirely.

Opinion swung to the opposite extreme during modern times, when archaeologists rediscovered Akhenaten. In 1905 Egyptologist James Henry Breasted described the king as “the first individual in human history.” To Breasted and many others, Akhenaten was a revolutionary whose ideas, especially the concept of monotheism, seemed far ahead of his time. And the archaeological record has always been thin enough to allow for excavations of the imagination. Dominic Montserrat, whose Akhenaten book is subtitled History, Fantasy and Ancient Egypt, noted that we often take scattered evidence from ancient times and organize it into narratives that make sense in our world. We do this, he wrote, “so that the past could be held up to the present, like a mirror.”

That modern mirror of Akhenaten has reflected almost every identity imaginable. The king has been portrayed as a proto-Christian, a peace-loving environmentalist, an out-and-proud homosexual, and a totalitarian dictator. His image was embraced with equal enthusiasm by both the Nazis and the Afrocentrist movement. Thomas Mann, Naguib Mahfouz, and Frida Kahlo all incorporated the pharaoh into their art. When Philip Glass wrote three operas about visionary thinkers, his trinity consisted of Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi, and Akhenaten. Sigmund Freud once fainted during a heated argument with Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung about whether the Egyptian king had suffered from excessive love of his mother. (Freud’s diagnosis: Akhenaten was oedipal, almost a thousand years before Oedipus.)

Archaeologists always tried to resist such interpretations, but key pieces of the puzzle were missing. Much study of Amarna has focused on elite culture: royal sculpture and architecture, and inscriptions from the tombs of high officials. For years scholars hoped for the opportunity to study the burial places of common people, knowing that Amarna’s brief window of existence—17 years—meant that a cemetery would provide a rare snapshot of everyday life. But it wasn’t until the early 2000s that a detailed survey of the surrounding desert finally located evidence of four separate cemeteries.

After the discovery, archaeologists and bioarchaeologists spent nearly a decade excavating and analyzing the largest of these cemeteries. They collected a sample of skeletons from at least 432 people, and their findings were grim. Of the burials where age at death was known, 70 percent of the individuals had died before reaching 35, and only nine appear to have lived beyond 50. More than one-third were dead before they turned 15. The growth patterns of children were delayed by as much as two years. Many adults had suffered spinal damage, which bioarchaeologists believe is evidence that people were being overworked, perhaps in order to build the new capital.

In 2015 the team proceeded to another cemetery, to the north of Amarna, where they excavated 135 bodies. Anna Stevens, an Australian archaeologist who directs the cemetery fieldwork, told me that excavators soon noticed something different about these burials. Many of the bodies appear to have been buried hastily, in graves that contain almost no goods or objects. There isn’t evidence of violent death, but family groupings seem to have broken down; in many cases it looks as if two or three unrelated people were tossed together into a grave. They were young—92 percent of the individuals in this cemetery were no older than 25. More than half died between the ages of seven and 15.

“This is very clearly not a normal death curve,” Stevens said. “It may be no coincidence that this area had the king’s limestone quarries. Is this a group of workers who are being conscripted on the basis of their youth—and effectively being worked to death?” In her opinion, one thing is clear: “It absolutely dispels any lingering sense that Amarna was a nice place to live.”

For Akhenaten, Amarna represented something pure and profoundly visionary. “No official has ever advised me concerning it,” the king wrote proudly of his founding of the brand-new capital city. He chose the site, a broad stretch of virgin desert above the east bank of the Nile, because it was uncontaminated by the worship of any god.

Picture of limestone stela with Akhenaten and Nefertiti and three daughters under the sun god Aten.

He also may have been motivated by the example of his father, Amenhotep III, who was one of the greatest builders of monuments, temples, and palaces in Egyptian history. Both kings were part of the 18th dynasty, which came to power after defeating the Hyksos, a group from the eastern Mediterranean that had invaded northern Egypt. The forefathers of the 18th dynasty were based in southern Egypt, and in order to drive out the Hyksos, they incorporated key innovations from their enemy, including the horse-drawn chariot and the composite bow. The Egyptians professionalized their military, and unlike most previous dynasties, the 18th maintained a standing army.

They were also skilled at diplomacy, and the empire eventually stretched from current-day Sudan to Syria. Foreigners brought new wealth and skills to the Egyptian court, and the effects were profound. Under Amenhotep III, who ruled from around 1390 to 1353 B.C., the style of royal art shifted in ways that would be described today as more naturalistic.

Even as Amenhotep III welcomed new ideas, he was also looking back to the distant past. He studied the pyramids of kings who had lived more than a thousand years earlier, and he incorporated traditional elements into festivals, temples, and royal palaces. He continued to worship Amun, who was the patron god of the city of Thebes. But Amenhotep III also began to emphasize Aten, a form of the sun god Re, portrayed as a solar disk, that recalled older patterns of worship.

The king’s son took the throne as Amenhotep IV, but during the fifth year of his reign he made two momentous decisions. He changed his name to Akhenaten—Devoted to Aten—and he decided to move the capital to the site now known as Amarna. The king called his city Akhetaten, or Horizon of the Sun Disk, and soon this stretch of empty desert became home to an estimated 30,000 people. Palaces and temples were built quickly, at astonishing scale—the Great Aten Temple, the city’s largest ritual complex, was nearly a half mile long.

Meanwhile Egyptian art was also being revolutionized. For centuries strict traditions had defined the correct subject matter, proportions, and poses of paintings and sculptures. Under Akhenaten, artisans were unleashed from these guidelines. They created lifelike, fluid scenes of the natural world, and they began to portray Akhenaten and his queen, Nefertiti, in unusually natural and intimate poses. Often the royal couple would be shown kissing and caressing their daughters; one scene even featured the king and queen about to get into bed together. The portrayal of Akhenaten’s features seems designed to shock: massive jaw, drooping lips, and elongated, otherworldly eyes.

In the king’s vision, religion became radically simplified. Egyptians worshipped as many as a thousand gods, but Akhenaten was loyal only to one. He and Nefertiti functioned as the sole intermediaries between the people and Aten, taking on the traditional role of the priesthood. Nefertiti was named co-regent, and while it’s unclear whether she wielded political power, her religious and symbolic status was highly unusual for a queen.

All of this must have threatened priests of the old order who served Amun. After a few years at Amarna, the pharaoh ordered work crews to gouge out all images of Amun in state temples. It was an act of unbelievable boldness: the first time in history that a king had attacked a god. But revolutions have a way of turning against their greatest enthusiasts, and this violence eventually would consume Akhenaten’s own creations.

I arrived at the site of the Great Aten Temple one day just as Barry Kemp found a piece of a broken statue of Akhenaten. Kemp is a professor emeritus from Cambridge University who directs the Amarna Project, and he’s worked at the site since 1977. He’s spent more than three times as many years digging through the city’s ruins as Akhenaten spent building it.

“This is beautifully made,” he said, holding up the piece of carved stone statuary, on which only the king’s lower legs were visible. “This is not accidentally damaged.” Amarna archaeology has a forensic quality because so many artifacts were deliberately destroyed after the sudden death of the king around 1336 B.C. His only son and heir was Tutankhaten, no more than 10 years old, who soon replaced the “Aten” in his name with the title of the god that his father had hated: Tutankhamun. He abandoned Amarna and returned to the old traditions. Tutankhamun died unexpectedly, and soon the head of the army, Horemheb, declared himself pharaoh—possibly the first military coup in history.

Horemheb and his successors, including Ramses the Great, dismantled Amarna’s royal buildings and temples. They destroyed statues of Akhenaten and Nefertiti, and they omitted the names of the heretic king and his successors from official lists of Egyptian rulers. This act of damnatio memoriae was so successful that it was one of the reasons Tutankhamun’s tomb escaped significant looting in the Valley of the Kings. Tut’s tomb may even contain further secrets—during the past year archaeologists have been investigating signs of possible hidden doorways in two walls of the burial chamber. In pharaonic times generations of looters usually combed through such tombs, but Tut’s was largely left intact. People simply forgot that it was there.

AKHENATEN’S NEW CAPITALEgypt’s two primary capitals in centuries past were the strategic and religious centers of Memphis and Thebes. But Akhenaten built a new capital, Amarna, on an isolated patch of desert, signaling a break from Egypt’s religious and ideological past.


They also forgot most details of Amarna life. Kemp’s recent excavations have shown that the Great Aten Temple was destroyed and rebuilt sometime around Akhenaten’s 12th regnal year. The piece of statuary that he showed me dated to this event—it had been shattered at the command of the king himself, not his successors.

“It’s an odd thing for them to have done, from our perspective,” Kemp said, explaining that Akhenaten used such fragments as the foundation for a new, revised temple. “The statue is no longer needed, so they reduce it to hard core. We have no commentary on what’s going on.”

But other evidence is often remarkably intact. Ancient settlement sites were usually located in the Nile Valley, where millennia of floods and habitation destroyed original structures. In contrast, Amarna is situated in the desert above the river, where drinking water had to be hauled in. This was why the site was uninhabited before Akhenaten, and it’s why it was abandoned so completely. Even today you can still see the original brick walls of Amarna houses, and broken pottery is everywhere. It’s possible to visit the 3,300-year-old building where the famous painted bust of Nefertiti was excavated by a German archaeological team in 1912.

Kemp told me that he was originally attracted to Amarna by the intact city site, not the outsize figure of Akhenaten. He believes that too many modern characteristics have been ascribed to the king, and in Kemp’s opinion, even the word religion is “mischievous” when applied to ancient Egypt. Like most scholars nowadays, he does not describe Akhenaten as a monotheist. The word is too charged by subsequent religious traditions, and during Akhenaten’s reign most Egyptians continued to worship other gods.

Nevertheless, Kemp can’t entirely resist speculating about the king’s character. He’s impressed by the changeability of Akhenaten’s mind and by his ability to force workers to carry out his whims. At the Great Aten Temple, Kemp showed me traces of several large mud-brick offering tables that would have once been heaped with food and incense as part of rituals. The number of these tables is staggering—more than 1,700. “It’s an insight into his mind, a man with a rather obsessive literalist mind,” Kemp said. He once wrote: “The danger of being an absolute ruler is that no one dares tell you that what you have just decreed is not a good idea.”

This lack of accountability probably also inspired artistic freedom. Ray Johnson, who directs the Chicago House, the University of Chicago’s research center in Luxor, believes that Akhenaten must have been “wildly creative,” despite his obsessive and despotic tendencies. “The later artistic representation at Amarna is so beautiful you could cry,” Johnson said. “Akhenaten rejected his own early exaggerated art style for a much softer naturalism later in his reign. The representations of women in particular are incredibly sensual.

Johnson has recently pieced together broken wall reliefs and statuary from collections scattered all around the world. Digitization makes work like this faster. Johnson showed me a virtual “join” in which he had matched a photograph of one fragment located in Copenhagen with another in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “They’re 4,000 miles apart, but I realized that they join,” he said. The connection reveals a surprising scene: Akhenaten performs a ritual not with Nefertiti, but with Kiya, another wife, who didn’t have the status of queen.

A small number of scholars are involved in such work, and the ones I met seemed to have a softer view of Akhenaten, perhaps because of intimate contact with the art. This proved to be the king’s most lasting legacy, at least until his rediscovery in modern times. His city and his ritual practices were quickly abandoned, but the Amarna artistic style influenced subsequent periods. Marsha Hill, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, told me that handling Amarna’s sculpture fragments makes her feel more positive about Akhenaten.

“Everybody likes revolutionaries at some level,” she said. “Someone who has a real good, strong idea that makes it seem like things are going to get better. I don’t see him as destructive. Of course, it didn’t work out. It usually doesn’t. Steam builds up under the ground until it explodes, and then you have to put it all together again.”

This story appears in the May 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine.

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