Known Unknowns: In Search of the Truth at Khirbet Qeiyafa and Masada

Two new books attempt to get to the heart of archaeological mysteries from the Biblical and Second Temple periods.

Two of the most common questions I am asked by tourists are “Where did this happen?” or “Did this happen?” “Did Abraham sacrifice Isaac here?” they sometimes ask. I explain—trying not to denigrate their faith—that the binding of Isaac is not an event that can be historically verified, let alone situated. With the later books of the Bible, though, especially from 1 Kings onwards, the historical record becomes clearer. Archaeological remains begin to tally with the biblical account. Sometimes, as with the Lachish reliefs’ narration of the Siege of Lachish, external sources also confirm the account. Much of the detail, though, remains unclear.

Imagine an apocalypse. 3,000 years on, future archaeologists survey the devastation. They focus on an abandoned hillside where a city once stood, of which almost nothing now remains. All they have to go on are the remains of the city’s ring road; a large structure (maybe a shopping mall or a stadium?); some animal bones; a few ripped pages from a book which survived the cataclysm. Any conclusions reached from this would be tenuous, at best. And yet, this is the situation that archaeologists face as they try to record the history of the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea during the transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age. Acknowledging this paucity is vital. There is so much that we just don’t know.

Archaeologists, however, don’t normally start by saying “I don’t know.” They make claims, reach conclusions, create theories. The very term “biblical archaeology” draws attention to this. We do not call the archaeology of ancient Greece “Homeric archaeology,” nor the archaeology of ancient India “Vedas archaeology.” The Bible is so dominant in the Middle East that it overshadows the traditional names more commonly used for this era: the Late Bronze Age and Iron Age, and then (for those with a more expansive understanding of the era of biblical archaeology) the Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman periods.

The main divide among biblical archaeologists investigating the Old Testament period is between minimalists and maximalists. In broad terms, minimalists think the Bible is fictional unless archaeology demonstrates otherwise; maximalists believe the obverse. (Many—sensibly—place themselves somewhere between the two points of view.) One of the major disagreements between minimalists and maximalists concerns the historicity of King David. Until late in the twentieth century, the minimalists denied his existence. Then in July 1993, archaeologists discovered the Tel Dan Stele, in the far north of Israel. This is an Aramaic inscription, dating to the ninth century BCE, referring to a king from the “House of David” being defeated by Hazael of Aram-Damascus. (Some scholars argue that the term also appears on the Mesha Stele, from the same century.) With David’s existence seemingly confirmed, the debate shifted to whether biblical accounts of his reign are accurate. The maximalists argue that David had ruled over a strong, centralized kingdom, while the minimalists argue that David (and Solomon) actually ruled over a more tribal society. According to the latter view, the first centralized state only occurred a century later, in the northern Kingdom of Israel under the Omrid dynasty (884 to 842 BCE).

A recent book, In the Footsteps of King David: Revelations from an Ancient Biblical City, by the Israeli archaeologists Yosef Garfinkel, Saar Ganor and Michael G. Hasel, is the latest contribution to this debate. The ancient Biblical city is not, as some might expect, ancient Jerusalem. While Jerusalem plays an important role in the search for King David, more distant sites have taken center stage over the past decade. One of the most important sites is Khirbet Qeiyafa, on the western edge of the Shephelah (the Judean Lowlands) in the Elah Valley, between Socoh and Azekah. Garfinkel et al. led the most recent excavations of the site. The book focuses on the following key questions regarding King David: “Was he the head of a city-state or a tribal alliance; what was the geographic extent of his influence; what were the main sites under his rule; what was the level of administrative organization, etc?”

Khirbet Qeiyafa is a more recent Arabic name of uncertain vintage. Some scholars believe it means “the place with a wide view.” Unlike many other Arabic place names, though, it doesn’t preserve the name from the biblical period. The site, first identified in the nineteenth century, is situated at what was a strategically vital point on the border running between Judah and Philistia (in an interview with Haaretz, Garfinkel compared the region to the Alsace-Lorraine region of France/Germany), on the main road from the coastal plain to the hill country, close to where the battle between David and Goliath took place. As opposed to tels, which preserve many historical layers of settlement, khirbets were only settled for a limited period. According to the excavators, radiocarbon dating of olive pits discovered at the site suggest that Khirbet Qeiyafa was settled between circa 1025 and 975 BCE. The minimalists dispute this dating.

As the title of the book indicates, In the Footsteps of King David argues that Khirbet Qeiyafa was a major Judahite urban center, part of the Davidic kingdom. They also claim that it was originally the biblical Shaaraim (‘Two Gates’), on account of it having a western and southern gate. In the Bible, Shaaraim was the city towards which Philistines fled after David killed Goliath. They present four reasons in support of their claims. Firstly, the houses were constructed against the city’s casemate wall—a style of urban planning found only at four other sites, all within the Kingdom of Judah. This, they argue, is evidence of “central authority and administration.” Secondly, no pig bones were discovered (while cow, sheep and goat bones were in evidence), and the baking trays were unlike those found in Philistia. Thirdly, the so-called Qeiyafah Ostracon— approximately 70 letters in Canaanite script arranged on five lines, together with other inscriptions in a similar script—point to a literate population, contradicting the minimalist clam that the later editors of the Bible had no historical information about earlier eras (of the 18 words in the inscription, the maximalists claim, eight appear solely in the Bible). Fourthly, they found seven mazzebot (standing stones), three cult rooms, temple models, basalt altars, libation vessels and clay figurines.

This last point needs expanding. The Bible describes the development of a monotheistic, aniconic culture. As Garfinkel et al. remind us, though, it also says that people in the Kingdom of Israel worshiped the idols Baal and Asherah “on every high hill and under every green tree” (1 Kings 14:23). They note that over 1,000 clay figurines, portraying a naked woman holding her breasts, have been found in strata dating to the end of the First Temple period in Judah. These figurines (which look startlingly like big-breasted versions of Pez candy dispensers) are identified with the goddess Asherah. Minimalists claim this proves that monotheism and aniconicism didn’t develop for a number of centuries. Garfinkel et al. argue that the cultic finds at Khirbet Qeiyafah debunk these claims, and prove the emergence of a monotheistic culture as early as the tenth century BCE.

Predictably, their conclusions have attracted opposition. Israel Finkelstein, the Tel Aviv University professor most identified with the minimalist school in Israel, is not convinced that Khirbet Qeiyafa was Judahite; even if it was, he argues, this is not evidence of a major Davidic kingdom. Nor does he agree that it was Shaaraim. He argues that the supposed southern gate was no gate at all, and in any case there were other cities which also had two gates. As for the homogeneity of Judahite urban planning, he notes that the other examples of casemate walls were from the eighth century BCE. He isn’t even convinced by the absence of pig bones. Although his 2002 book The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and The Origin of Its Sacred Texts (written with Neil Asher Silberman) argues that the absence of pig bones is an indicator an Israelite identity, he now acknowledges that there are other non-Judahite sites lacking pig bones.

The Khirbet Qeiyafa Ostracon (a potsherd used as a writing surface) is equally contested. The writing is badly preserved and difficult to read, allowing for multiple—and conflicting—interpretations. The maximalist view is that it was written in Hebrew in late Canaanite script, thus proving the ability of Israeli scribes to compose complex literary texts as early as the start of the tenth century BCE. Others argue that there’s no proof it was written in Hebrew and not Canaanite.

Who are right—the minimalists or the maximalists? We don’t know. Given that the two sides can’t even agree on the accuracy of radiocarbon dating, all we have to go on is informed guesswork. These are the known unknowns, to use Donald Rumsfeld’s much-maligned but surprisingly useful formulation. Much of the problem, I think, is that the terms of the debate have been set by the Bible. Did David do this and that and where did he do it? In the case of Garfinkel et al., this approach leads to fantastical speculations like “When King David came from Jerusalem to supervise the western border of his kingdom, he could have slept here overnight.” Assuming that we never find the equivalent of the Dead Sea Scrolls for the Iron Age, we will never be able to answer those questions. But we can answer questions—however tentatively—about the material culture of the times, and its significance. Despite the hype, there is still something compelling about Garfinkel et al.’s ideas, and something churlish about some of Finkelstein’s objections—which themselves are often no less speculative. The claims about the casemate wall and the two gates seem rather tenuous, but the cultic finds and the absence of pig bones do seem to show the emergence of the monotheistic culture associated with the Jews, even if we are far from understanding exactly how it emerged.


As we enter the classical period, the history becomes clearer. This is primarily thanks to the written record, although archaeology still plays a key role. In first-century Judea, our knowledge of what happened far outstrips the geopolitical importance of the province. For this, we have one Yosef ben Matityahu, otherwise known as Josephus, to thank. Born in 37 CE to a prominent Jerusalem family, when the Jewish Revolt broke out in the 66 CE he became the commander of the rebels in the north, before abandoning the cause in murky circumstances. At the end of the Revolt he became a Roman citizen and spent the rest of his life in Rome, where he wrote a series of books on Judaism and Jewish history. These included The Jewish War, which describes the course of Judean history from the Hasmonean period until the end of the revolt.

The Jewish War is the subject of a volume in Princeton University Press’s “Lives of the Great Religious Books” series. Written by Oxford historian Martin Goodman, Josephus’s Jewish War describes the reception of Josephus’ book, from its publication to the present day among both Jews and Christians. (It’s striking that the series’ editors have classified The Jewish War as a religious book. It has no place in the Jewish or Christian canon; in fact both communities, at various times, have evinced outright hostility toward the text.) After describing the book and the aftermath of its publication, Goodman shows that “the spell cast by Josephus and his tale continues to have different effects on readers in accordance with their cultural and political predispositions.”

The most famous episode recorded by Josephus is the Roman siege of Masada, an isolated desert redoubt on the shores of the Dead Sea. Originally built by the Hasmoneans in the second century BCE, it was made famous by the Roman client king Herod the Great, who transformed it into one of his most important fortresses. Later in the century, Jewish rebels from the Zealot or Sicarri (“Dagger Men”) faction—the relationship between the two groups is still contested—captured it early in the revolt. It was conquered by the Romans at the end of the revolt in 73 CE. According to Josephus’s account, the nearly 1000 rebels at Masada chose to kill themselves, rather than be killed or enslaved by the Romans. First, the men killed their wives and children; then, because of the Jewish prohibition against suicide, they drew lots to decide who would kill who, so that only the last man would have to fall on his own sword.

This event inspires Jodi Magness’ Masada: From Jewish Revolt to Modern Myth. Magness, a professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, co-directed excavations in the Roman siege works at Masada in 1995. Like In the Footsteps of King David, Masada is aimed at a broad audience. Masada is Israel’s second-most visited heritage site, and the story of the mass suicide has loomed large in Zionist mythology. Magness’ book, though, has a much larger scope. As well as the chapters dealing with the archaeology and history of the site, it has sections about the surrounding area, and a comprehensive historical overview from the Maccabean period to the culmination of the Jewish Revolt—making it essential reading for anyone interested in the period.

What, then, really happened at Masada? Answers are provided by archaeology and Josephus: in many respects, they corroborate one another. The eight camps and circumnavigation wall which Josephus says the Romans built around the site have been excavated, as has the narrow spur which the Romans used to haul their siege tower up to the peak. As the Romans were closing in, Josephus tells us, the rebels frantically stripped the entire site of wood in order to build a new wall. When the Romans finally succeeded in hoisting the siege tower to the top of the spur, a fire broke out.

Just as the fire broke out a gust of wind from the north alarmed the Romans: it blew back the flame from above and drove it in their faces, and as their engines seemed on the point of being consumed in the blaze they were plunged into despair. Then all of a sudden as if by divine providence the wind veered to the south, and blowing strongly in the reverse direction carried and flung the flames against the wall, turning it into one solid blazing mass. God was indeed on the side of the Romans, who returned to camp full of delight, intending to assail the enemy early next day, and all night long kept watch with unusual vigilance to ensure that none of them slipped out unobserved.” (Josephus, The Jewish War (Penguin Classics), p398)

Next, Josephus tells us that the rebel leader, Eliezer ben Yair, gave an impassioned speech, exhorting the rebels to kill one another so as not to fall into the hands of the Romans. Josephus presents this speech as if he was there, dictaphone in hand, explaining that some of the women who had successfully fled the siege told the Romans what had happened (it was common in the Roman world for chroniclers to present invented speeches verbatim). “Let us do each other an ungrudging kindness,” Ben Yair proclaims, “preserving our freedom as a glorious winding-sheet.” After the speech, ten men were “chosen by lot to be executioners of the rest.” Famously, Yigael Yadin, the famous archaeologist, general, and politicians, uncovered clay pieces with names written on them, including that of Ben Yair. He concluded that these were the lots used by the rebels (another possibility is that they were tags for storage vessels). I tell my tourists this story in the room where they were discovered. “Is this sufficient proof for the mass suicide?” I ask. “Where are the bodies?” Thus far (and it is important to emphasize that, while Masada has been heavily excavated, there are areas around the mountain still to be dug), two sets of skeletons have been discovered: three in the northern palace, and 25 in a cave on the southeastern side, close to the siege ramp. The latter were accorded the honor of an official IDF military burial in the 1970s; but, as Magness notes, there are still doubts. Radiocarbon dating, as at Khirbet Qeiyafa, is inconclusive. The 25 were found next to pig bones, leading some to conclude that they were Roman or Byzantine. Even the three from the northern palace are not beyond dispute—one scholar, Joe Zias, argues that they were random bones dragged to the site from elsewhere by hyenas! As Magness shrewdly observes, “because Josephus is the only ancient author who describes the siege and fall of Masada, his testimony cannot be verified independently.”

What about the fire? Josephus tells us that Ben Yair implored the rebels to set fire to everything apart from the storerooms, so the Romans would know that the rebels hadn’t killed themselves because of a lack of food. However, many of the excavated storerooms showed signs of burning, and contained broken jars. “It was enough for them to leave one or two rooms with untouched victuals to show that they had not died through lack of food,” was Yadin’s response to this, a clear shifting of the goalposts. More recently, Ehud Netzer found that only 10 percent of the buildings on the mountain showed evidence of destruction by fire. “As we have seen,” Magness writes, “the archaeological evidence has been interpreted as either supporting or disproving Josephus’s testimony.” Where does that leave us?

As at Khirbet Qeiyafa, we don’t know. The archaeology, although inconclusive, seems to undermine Josephus’s narrative. Martin Goodman reminds us of the Sefer Yosippon, a Hebrew book thought to have been written in tenth-century Italy. Of unknown authorship, it was compiled using a number of Latin works, including the Latin translation of Josephus’s Jewish Antiquities. Tantalizingly, it says nothing about the plans for mass suicide. Instead, it says that only men and women were killed and that the men fought to the death. “The change is unlikely to be accidental,” Goodman explains. “It probably reflects debates within Judaism about the ideal of martyrdom to be found in earlier rabbinic stories about R. Akiva’s heroic suffering at the hands of the Romans.” Without finding the remains, the debate is unlikely to be resolved.

I am often asked if I believe there was a mass suicide at Masada,” Magness writes, “to which I respond that this is not a question archaeology is equipped to answer. The archaeological remains can be interpreted differently as supporting or disproving Josephus’s account. Whether or not the mass suicide story is true depends on how one evaluates Josephus’s reliability as an historian – a matter that I prefer to leave to Josephus to resolve.” Substitute the Bible for Josephus and the same words could apply to Khirbet Qeiyafa. By contrast with our age, where we have such an overabundance of information (imagine future historians having to trawl through social media to try to understand the coronavirus pandemic), the paucity of remains makes the drawing of conclusions regarding the extent of King David’s kingdom or what exactly happened at Masada extremely difficult. All we have are theories—sometimes convincing, but never unimpeachable. We will have to make do with known unknowns.

*Yosef Garfinkel/Saar Ganor/Michael G. Hasel, In the Footsteps of King David: Revelations from an Ancient Biblical City, Thames & Hudson, pp. 240

*Jodi Magness, Masada: From Jewish Revolt to Modern Myth, Princeton University Press, pp. 265

*Martin Goodman, Josephus’s The Jewish War: A Biography, Princeton University Press, pp. 186

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