By GUSTAV NIEBUHR
Archaeologists working at excavation sites like Megiddo in northern Israel, above, say that no evidence has been found to confirm biblical stories about a united monarchy ruling over a large area from Jerusalem or about the wanderings of the Jews in the desert during the Exodus.
The Bible's account of King David is so well known that even people who rarely crack the Good Book probably have an idea of his greatness.
David, Scripture says, was such a superb military leader that he not only captured Jerusalem but also went on to make it the seat of an empire, uniting the kingdoms of Judah and Israel. Thus began a glorious era, later amplified by his son, King Solomon, whose influence extended from the borders of Egypt to the Euphrates River. Afterward, decline set in.
Yet what if the Bible's account doesn't fit the evidence in the ground? What if David's Jerusalem was really a rural backwater -- and the greatness of Israel and Judah lay far in the future?
Lately, such assertions are coming from some authorities on Israel's archaeology, who speak from the perspective of recent finds from excavations into the ancient past. "The way I understand the finds, there is no evidence whatsoever for a great, united monarchy which ruled from Jerusalem over large territories," said Israel Finkelstein, the director of the Institute of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University.
King David's Jerusalem, he added, "was no more than a poor village at the time."
Statements like these have earned Finkelstein -- who is leading excavations at Megiddo, a vitally important site for biblical archaeology in northern Israel -- a reputation as a fascinating but controversial scholar. His reports from Megiddo that some structures attributed to Solomon were actually built after his reign have touched off fierce debate in Israel.
Within a larger context, what he says reflects a striking shift now under way in how a number of archaeologists understand Israel's past. Their interpretations challenge some of the Bible's best-known stories, like Joshua's conquest of Canaan.
Other finds have turned up new information that supplements Scripture, like what happened to Jerusalem after it was captured by the Babylonians 2,600 years ago.
In an interview by e-mail from the Megiddo site, Finkelstein said that not long ago, "biblical history dictated the course of research and archaeology was used in order to 'prove' the biblical narrative." In that way, he said, archaeology took a back seat as a discipline.
"I think that it is time to put archaeology in the front line," said Finkelstein, the co-author with Neil Asher Silberman of The Bible Unearthed, to be published in January by The Free Press.
His reference to past practices can be illustrated by a remark by Yigael Yadin, an Israeli general who turned to archaeology and who once spoke of going into the field with a spade in one hand and the Bible in the other.
Many archaeologists, both before and after the founding of the modern state of Israel, shared a similar approach: seeking direct evidence for biblical stories. This outlook was shaped either by their religious convictions or their Zionist views, said Amy Dockser Marcus, the author ofThe View From Nebo (Little Brown), a wide-ranging and engaging book that describes in detail the shift in archaeology taking place in Israel.
The problem with that outlook, she said, is that "you can't help but go in and look at material and interpret material in a certain way." And that, she added, "led to certain mistakes."
In her book, Marcus -- formerly the Middle East correspondent for The Wall Street Journal -- notes that Yadin believed he had unearthed evidence in the ruins of a place called Hazor that corroborated the biblical account of how that Canaanite city had been destroyed. The Bible says Hazor fell to invading Israelites led by Joshua.
But these days, she said, an increasing number of archaeologists have come to doubt that Joshua's campaign ever took place.
Instead, they theorize that the ancient Israelites emerged gradually and peacefully from among the region's general population -- a demographic evolution, not a military invasion.
"And that would explain how their pottery is so similar to the Canaanites', and their architecture, their script," Marcus said.
Finkelstein makes the same argument: "Archaeology has shown that early Israel indeed emerged from the local population of late Bronze Canaan."
In addition, he said, archaeology has turned up no physical remains to support the Bible's story of the Exodus: "There is no evidence for the wanderings of the Israelites in the Sinai desert."
Asked how such conclusions have been received in Israel, Finkelstein replied that they have been producing a "quite strong and negative" reaction. But the anger, he said, was coming not from strictly Orthodox Jews ("who simply ignore us," he said) but from more secular Jews who prize the biblical stories for their symbolic value to modern Israel.
"I think that the young generation -- at least on the liberal side -- will be more open and willing to listen," he said.
Still, considerable disagreement exists among archaeologists on how to interpret many recent finds. And the new theories about ancient Israel are emerging against the backdrop of a raging dispute over the biblical "minimalists," a group of scholars who argue that biblical accounts of early Israel, including the stories of David and Solomon, have little, if any, basis in history.
(This debate was recently fought out in a lively issue of the Biblical Archaeology Review, a bimonthly magazine published in Washington, in which one of the minimalists, the British scholar Philip Davies, wrote that biblical accounts of early Israel were purely theological, not historical. In response, a major critic of the minimalists, the American archaeologist William Dever, wrote that ample physical evidence pointed to early Israelites living in the region's highlands 3,200 years ago, two centuries before the time of David and Solomon.)
But if many archaeologists are far less interested in trying to corroborate the exact biblical accounts than in how the area's ancient history fits into the larger picture of the Middle East, that change of perspective, Marcus said, reflects an intellectual shift among the people doing the digging.
Many current archaeologists, she said, were born in modern Israel and don't need a link to the biblical King David to think of themselves as part of the Israeli nation: "They see themselves as part of the broader Middle East."
Yet while archaeology is challenging some of the biblical narrative, it is also adding to it. At Megiddo, Finkelstein said, he found that the period 2,900 years ago -- the century following the rule of Solomon -- was a far more interesting and powerful time for the Kingdom of Israel than the Bible says.
Another tantalizing discovery, in 1993, turned up a stele with an inscription referring to the "House of David," the first real evidence that refers to the biblical king. Still other recent excavations have provided compelling new evidence about the lives of the residents of Jerusalem 2,600 years ago, when they were besieged by the Babylonian army, and about the nearby people of ancient Judah who did not go into exile in Babylon.
Marcus said that such discoveries illustrate how archaeology can restore information "left on the cutting room floor," as it were, by those who compiled the biblical narrative. "Archaeology is giving you back all this history," she said. "So archaeology doesn't just deconstruct the Bible, but reconstructs it."
From The New York Times Leisure Section, July 29, 2000. It should be noted that "David" is the name of an old Cannaanite god, which is likely the reason there would be an inscription with his name on it. In 1975 at Ebla, Syria, there were found 20,000 clay tablets, 4500 years old, a thousand years before the biblical David and Solomon supposedly lived. These tablets contain the names of various apparent Canaanite gods, such as "Ab-ra-mu (Abraham), E-sa-um (Esau), Ish-ma-ilu (Ishmael), even Is-ra-ilu (Israel), and from later periods names like Da-'u'dum (David) and Sa-'u-lum (Saul)."