Context is Everything

The Jewish world just completed one of our three pilgrimage holidays, Sukkot, called by the ancient rabbis “the Festival”. It was a time when, according to tradition, all of Israel would assemble at the Temple in Jerusalem for the observance of the holiday. Underneath the streets of modern Jerusalem, archeologists have uncovered a street that may have been the path used by Jews to get to that most holy place.

Like everything in Israel, unearthing an ancient street there is complicated. It lies below an Arab neighborhood in East Jerusalem, and the project is sponsored by a right-wing organization whose mission it is to expand the Jewish presence in the city. I have seen part of this road, called either the “Stepped Street” or the “Pilgrim’s Path”, and it is quite something to lay eyes on buried flagstones that haven’t seen the light of day since the destruction of the Temple and which were perhaps used in ceremonies described in the Talmud.

The excavations raise difficult questions. In Israel, archeology has always be used for ideological ends. In the 19th century Christian scholars flocked to the land to discover the roots of their faith. In the 20th and 21st centuries Israeli scholars have searched for proof of the Bible and evidence of the Jewish people’s connection to the land. At the same time, the field of archeology has grown as a science, committed to dispassionate inquiry and discovery.

Should an archeologist go looking to find evidence which proves his or her beliefs? This question crops up in a number of different ways. How should we name the various periods of history? For example, should we call it the early Biblical period or the Iron Age? Since archeology works in layers, should we focus on the strata of Jewish history and ignore the rest?

In fact, one of the controversies of the Stepped Street dig is that the layers are not being examined in the most optimal form. Normally a dig is conducted by removing strata one by one, working from the top down so that the archeologist can study the finds in their proper context. Since the Stepped Street is under a living neighborhood, the researchers have to use a reinforced tunnel and dig horizontally, which may impede the ability of scholars to place pieces in their correct time period.

In archeology, as in life, context is critical. To pull something out of the earth, without knowing where it came from and when it was placed there, is of little use to science. I recently read an article about the ancient epic poem “Gilgamesh”, which is a very old work, but was pulled out of the ground only a few hundred years ago. In that sense it is actually very new, without a tradition of interpretation like the Bible. Scholars are still not quite sure what “Gilgamesh” means because it came to use mostly out of context.

The Bible, on the other hand, is itself the basis of our religious tradition. It is the context for so much of our culture, which is why Biblical archeology so fascinates us. Each time an exciting new discovery is found in the dust of the land of Israel, the text seems to come alive, lending more contour to a work that has shaped our world.

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