Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Rediscovering Hezekiah's tunnel

I once had a date, sort of, in Hezekiah's tunnel in Jerusalem. My friends started calling it "Hezekiah's Tunnel of Love" in honor of that event. Seems like a long time ago :)

This month's Biblical Archaeology Review has an excellent article on the expanding discoveries at the tunnel. It's an underground water way, over 1700 feet long, dug by the Judahite king Hezekiah (II Kings 18-20) in the late eighth century BCE. The tunnel traverses a winding course from the Gihon Spring (Jeruslem's only natural water source) to the Pool of Siloam (Shiloach). Hezekiah's engineers dug it in anticipation of a siege by the Assyrian king Sennacherib, because the spring was outside biblical Jerusalem's walls. The article discusses some recent finds and conclusions that illuminate how such engineering was done in the early Iron Age. From Assyrian records, the siege is most likely to be dated to 701 BCE.

In 1880, an inscription in paleo-Hebrew (not the post-Babylonian script used today) was discovered in the tunnel. It commemorates the completion of the tunnel and describes in vivid terms how the water started to flow when the two teams of workmen, converging from the two ends, met up. The inscription was taken to the Istanbul Archaeological Museum, where it still sits today.

In the late 1990s, a particularly foolish group of "biblical minimalists" asserted that the Tunnel inscription dated from Hellenistic times (third century BCE, after Alexander the Great). The hard scientists struck back, and the minimalists had to beat an embarrassing retreat. The most recent work on Hezekiah's Tunnel demonstrated the antiquity of the tunnel anew, with radiocarbon dating of twigs and leaves left in the tunnel by the engineers. The date: eighth century BCE.

Although they rarely say it, the minimalists frequently insinuate that their claims are modern, skeptical, and "scientific." Their frequent target is an invented straw man ("biblical maximalists"). This dispute is sometimes echoed in the popular media, with the same insinuation intact. The minimalists have even, on occasion, attempted to attack Jewish presence in Palestine as late as the Dead Sea Scrolls era (second and first centuries BCE).

The truth is very different. While scarcely fundamentalists, the "hard" scientists know that the northern Israelite and southern Judahite kingdoms were real and were destroyed by the Assyrians in 721 and the Babylonians in the 586 BCE, respectively. Post-exilic Jewish presence in the land in the Persian (539-332 BCE), Hellenistic (332-37 BCE), and Roman eras (after 37 BCE) is massively attested and beyond question. The minimalists are made up of historians and literary critics, coming into frequent conflict with the "hard" sciences of archeology, epigraphy, and linguistics. It's the minimalists who are anti-science, not their opponents.

POSTSCRIPT: The complete body of Dead Sea Scrolls texts is about to be published online by the Israel Antiquities Authority.

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