The veteran archaeologist Gabi Barkay has been behind some of the most important discoveries concerning biblical Israel. In an interview, he speaks about his career, his most celebrated findings, and his attitudes toward reconciling the Bible with material evidence about ancient history. (Interview by Nadav Shragai.)
As an archaeologist, I’m not trying to prove anything. I want to find out what was. If my findings contradict what the Bible says—fine. If my findings match what the Bible says—that’s also fine. I have no intention of proving or disproving anything. My approach is detached from any ideology. I’ll accept anything that is discovered. . . .
I’m Jewish—very Jewish, a believer, a member of the community, who goes to synagogue. I’m like a chest of drawers. When I’m busy with archaeology, I open the scientific drawer. When I go to synagogue, I close it and open the religious drawer, and the contents of one don’t mix with that of the other.
I know that what the book of Joshua says about Joshua’s “leaps” [i.e., instances where a conquest in northern Israel is followed with improbable rapidity by a conquest in the south and vice-versa] and about the extermination of the Canaanites at sword’s point isn’t an accurate historical account. Things didn’t necessarily happen that way. I [also] know that every historical source contains the writer’s bias, and that the historical truth is much more complicated.
[On the other hand, in] the book of Joshua, which is not historical, the twelfth chapter contains a list of 31 kings that Joshua defeated, and we know that in the late Bronze Age there were about 30 Canaanite city-states in the land of Israel, so therefore this is a report that conforms to history. It’s written in Joshua 11:10 that “Hatzor formerly was the head of all these kingdoms.” We know from archaeology that Hatzor was in fact the largest of the Canaanite cities. This means that in the book that contains absolutely unhistorical stories, there are also true accounts that pass archaeological tests.