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Archeology prof takes digs at some fellow academics


joshua brandt



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Armed only with a sonorous voice, an impish sense of humor and a malfunctioning projector, professor William Dever mounted a rousing defense of ancient Israel at a recent talk.

But as much as Dever, professor emeritus of Near Eastern archaeology at the University of Arizona, promised to avoid discussing “politics,” it was abundantly clear that when it comes to discussing archaeology and Jerusalem, politics lies just beneath the surface.

Consequently, the rapt audience at San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El listened as Dever verbally buried a group of academics he referred to as “secular fundamentalists.”

According to Dever, the group is intent on reducing ancient Israel to “foundation myths,” and derives its impetus from a less-than-scholarly locus.

“Most of these people are not Jewish,” said Dever in response to a question after the event. “They are largely Christian theologians who come from a place [northern Europe] that’s been infected with anti-Semitism for centuries, and their ideas reflect that. They’re also almost universally anti-American.”

Dever, who wrote “What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It?” said that the work was largely a response to the group of theologians, who Dever says have called him a “Nazi” on numerous occasions.

Dever’s spirited dismissal of the group wasn’t surprising given his enthusiasm for the earth that he has excavated for almost a half-century. The professor, who sits on the editorial boards of groups ranging from the American Journal of Archaeology to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Near Eastern Archaeology, commenced his talk with a personal tribute the city.

“Fifty years ago this summer, I first visited Jerusalem, and it changed my life,” Dever said. “Jerusalem looms large as a home to me — both spiritually and temporally,” he continued, adding that no city in the world can claim to be as archaeologically complex as Jerusalem. Given his personal milestone, the professor was a fitting invitee for the talk, which was titled “Jerusalem Through the Ages” and sponsored by the Northern California Board of Rabbis and several other Bay Area Jewish organizations.

Dever, whose soothing, crystal-clear baritone is reminiscent of a late-night DJ, remarked that a close friend of his said that “Dallas was man’s ‘yes’ to God’s ‘no.’” Dever remarked that he felt similarly about Jerusalem, which was built in a physically and culturally inhospitable environment.

“But against all odds, Jerusalem prevailed, and archaeology gives the lie to people who insist that there were no ancient Jewish cities,” Dever remarked. “Archaeology brings the Bible to life in the most vivid way possible — and that’s its ultimate beauty.”

Having said that, Dever, who showed about an hour’s worth of slides on archaeological discoveries (a process that was interrupted by the broken projector), conceded that the field was not without its pitfalls.

“In archaeology, if something is too good to be true — it probably is,” he said.

One of the closing comments made by the professor revealed both his wry sense of humor as well as his Epicurean proclivities.

“One of the surest ways we can determine that we’re dealing with ancient Jewish ruins is the absence of pig bones,” Dever said. “It seems that Jewish prohibition against pork goes back a long way,” he continued, before pausing.

“Which is very unfortunate.”





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