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IN ANOTHER PART OF THE WORLD, it would have been a straightforward public-works project. A highway was too narrow to handle the increasing flow of traffic, so the authorities brought in heavy equipment to widen it. Partway through the job, however, a road-leveling tractor uncovered the opening to a cave no one knew was there. Work came to an immediate halt, and within hours a scientific swat team descended on the site to study it.

That's the law in Israel, where civilization goes back at least 5,000 years and where a major archaeological find could be lurking under any given square foot of real estate. Just about every empire since the beginning of Western history has occupied these lands, or fought over them, or at least passed through--Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, Turks, Crusaders--leaving behind buildings or burial places or artifacts. Which is why there were about 300 active digs this year in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza--an area no bigger than New Jersey.

It's also a major reason why Israel has seized the opportunity to stage "Jerusalem 3000," a 17-month festival of art, music and archaeological exhibitions commemorating the 3,000th anniversary of the city's original conquest by the ancient Israelites. The festival, which opened in September, admittedly has more to do with luring tourists than with unraveling ancient history. And it has heightened resentment among Palestinian Arabs, who insist that Jerusalem belongs to them and fear that the Israelis' passion for excavating everything in sight threatens Islamic holy sites in the city, around the country and in surrounding areas.

But the celebration serves as a reminder that the region has witnessed a very special sort of history. For nearly 3 billion Jews, Christians and Muslims, this is the Holy Land, the place where the Bible and Koran say Jesus and Abraham and King David and King Solomon all walked the earth. Each spadeful of dirt an archaeologist turns up could yield evidence about how, and even whether, these and other biblical figures actually lived. As Hannukah and Christmas approach, believers around the world are attuned more than ever to the significance of archaeological finds of the past century, and especially the past few years, in establishing the reality of the events underlying their faith.

Some of the Bible's most familiar names, places and events, in fact--the Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; King David, the slayer of Goliath; Moses and the Israelites' flight from bondage in Egypt; Joshua's conquest of the Promised Land and the gloomy prophecies of Jeremiah--are being seen in a new light thanks to a flood of recent discoveries. And archaeologists are always seeking new evidence that might help resolve some still-unanswered questions: Did Moses really exist? Did the Exodus happen? Did Joshua fight the Battle of Jericho? Did Jesus drive out the money changers? When--and why--were the earliest books of the Bible written?

At first, the Israelis who excavated the newly uncovered cave by the highway thought they'd found just that sort of evidence. Inside the rocky opening, located about 20 miles northwest of Jerusalem, were 23 burial containers filled with bones. A hasty analysis seemed to show that letters on one stone box spelled out part of the name Hasmonean, a family of Jewish patriots, also known as the Maccabees, whose encounter with a miraculous oil lamp is now celebrated in the lighting of Hannukah candles.

For the first time, it appeared, there was physical proof that this legendary family, known only from the words of the Apocrypha, actually existed. The discovery, announced last month, set off an international wave of excitement (and protests from ultra-Orthodox Jews, who believe that any tampering with human remains violates Jewish law). Then, two weeks ago, came disappointing word from the Israeli Antiquities Authority: the letters on the crypt had been misinterpreted. There is no reason to believe these were the bones of the Maccabees after all.

Such are the frustrations of life in the scientific minefields of biblical archaeology. Digging up the past is always a tricky business, as researchers attempt to reconstruct ancient societies from often fragmentary bits of pottery or statuary or masonry. But trying to identify artifacts from Old Testament times in the Holy Land is especially problematic. For one thing, virtually no written records survive from the times of King Solomon or earlier. The ancient Israelites, unlike many of their neighbors, evidently wrote mostly on perishable papyrus rather than durable clay.

Moreover, the whole subject is touchy because almost everyone has a stake in Scripture. Jewish and Christian ultraconservatives don't like hearing that parts of the Bible could be fictional. Atheists can't wait to prove that the whole thing is a fairy tale. And even for the moderate majority, the Bible underlies so much of Western culture that it matters a great deal whether its narratives are grounded in truth.

For every discovery like the Maccabees' burial cave that doesn't pan out, there seems to be another that does. Few scholars believe that miracles like Moses' burning bush or Jesus' resurrection will ever be proved scientifically; they are, after all, supernatural events. Conversely, few doubt that the characters in the latter part of the Old Testament and most of the New--Nebuchadnezzar, Jeremiah, Jesus, Peter--really existed, though some will always doubt parts of their stories.

But a series of crucial discoveries suggests that some of the Bible's more ancient tales are also based firmly on real people and events. In 1990, Harvard researchers working in the ancient city of Ashkelon, north of the Gaza Strip, unearthed a small silver-plated bronze calf figurine reminiscent of the huge golden calf mentioned in the Book of Exodus. In 1986, archaeologists found the earliest known text of the Bible, dated to about 600 B.C. It suggests that at least part of the Old Testament was written soon after some of the events it describes. Also in 1986, scholars identified an ancient seal that had belonged to Baruch, son of Neriah, a scribe who recorded the prophecies of Jeremiah in 587 B.C. (Because Jews and Muslims don't consider the birth of Christ to be a defining moment in history, many scholars prefer the term B.C.E. to B.C. It stands for either "Before the Christian Era" or "Before the Common Era.") Says Hershel Shanks, founding editor of the influential magazine Biblical Archaeology Review: "Seldom does archaeology come face to face with people actually mentioned in the Bible."

In what may be the most important of these discoveries, a team of archaeologists uncovered a 9th century B.C. inscription at an ancient mound called Tel Dan, in the north of Israel, in 1993. Words carved into a chunk of basalt refer to the "House of David" and the "King of Israel." It is the first time the Jewish monarch's name has been found outside the Bible, and appears to prove he was more than mere legend.

On the other hand, say many scholars, much of what is recorded in the Bible is at best distorted, and some characters and events are probably totally fictional. Most scholars suspect that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Judaism's traditional founders, never existed; many doubt the tales of slavery in Egypt and the Exodus; and relatively few modern historians believe in Joshua's conquest of Jericho and the rest of the Promised Land. In the most extreme view, all of the above are complete fabrications, invented centuries after the supposed fact.

These discoveries and theories, and many more, are vigorously contested on all sides by archaeologists, religious scholars and historians. On some things just about everyone agrees. The Bible version of Israelite history after the reign of King Solomon, for example, is generally believed to be based on historical fact because it is corroborated by independent accounts of Kings and battles in Egyptian and Assyrian inscriptions of the time.

Prior to that, though--before about 930 B.C.--the experts disagree on just about everything. At one pole in this scholarly version of Crossfire is the group known as the maximalists, who consider the Bible a legitimate guidebook for archaeological research. At the other are the minimalists, or biblical nihilists, who believe the Bible is a religious document and thus can't be read as any sort of objective account. "They say of Bible material, 'If it cannot be proved to be historical it's not historical,'" explains Frank Moore Cross, professor emeritus of Oriental languages at Harvard, who puts himself somewhere in the middle.

First maximalists, then minimalists, have dominated biblical archaeology at one time or another. For early explorers, who began visiting the Holy Land in earnest in the middle of the last century, the Bible was--well, their Bible. The first serious researcher was Edward Robinson, an orientalist at New York City's Union Theological Seminary. In 1837 and 1852 he journeyed to Palestine and identified hundreds of ancient sites by questioning Arabs, who had preserved the traditional names for centuries. Robinson pinpointed Masada. He found a monumental arch supporting the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. "He did more than anybody before or after for biblical topography," says Magen Broshi, curator emeritus of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Robinson's excursions set off a wave of exploration that has never let up. Many of the early visitors weren't close to being objective; they were out to vindicate the Bible as history, not to test it. Toward the end of the century, that led to a backlash, especially among liberal German Bible critics. Their equally preconceived position was that the Bible is essentially a myth.

The pendulum swung the other way again in the 1920s, when William Foxwell Albright appeared on the scene. A professor of Semitic languages at Johns Hopkins and the son of a Methodist missionary, he took a much more scientific approach than most of his predecessors. Rather than assume that the Bible was either entirely accurate or completely fictional, he attempted to confirm Old Testament stories with independent archaeological evidence. And under his considerable influence, biblical archaeology finally became a disciplined and scientific enterprise.

Although he was prepared to see the Bible proved wrong in its particulars, Albright assumed it was accurate until proved otherwise. He assumed the existence of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, for example, and then used circumstantial physical evidence to deduce that they probably lived around 1800 B.C. He accepted the idea of the Exodus from Egypt and military conquest of Canaan (Palestine), and went on to date those events at about 1200 B.C.

Albright's intellectual heirs, including Israeli archaeologists Avraham Biran and the late Yigael Yadin, made similar assumptions. Said Yadin a few years before his death in 1984: "The Old Testament for me is a guide. It is the authentic history of my people." The Bible says, for example, that King Solomon fortified the cities of Hazor, Gezer and Megiddo during his reign. Sure enough, Yadin went out in the late 1950s and found a city gate at the ruins of Hazor, and dated it to Solomon's time, in the 10th century B.C. When he found that early explorers had discovered a similar-looking gate at Gezer, he assigned that to Solomon's era too. And because the Bible mentions Megiddo in the same breath with the other cities, he looked for--and conveniently found--a third gate at Megiddo, and concluded that Solomon had built them all.

Modern critics point out that this approach can be scientifically perilous. Says John Woodhead, assistant director of the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem: "It's a circular argument. Yadin used the data to prove the verse, and the verse to prove the dating of the cities." In fact, says David Ussishkin, director of the Tel Aviv University Institute of Archaeology, the gates at the the three cities don't come from a single period at all. "Hazor is probably Solomonic," he says. "Megiddo is definitely later. Gezer is either/or."

In the case of the Patriarchs, the problems are even worse. There is no direct evidence, other than the Bible, to suggest that Abraham's exploits--his rejection of idolatry, his travels to Canaan, his rescue of his nephew Lot from kidnappers in the Canaanite city of Laish (later renamed Dan)--ever happened. And critics contend that several of the kings and peoples Abraham supposedly encountered existed at widely separated times in history.

In reaction to these and other inconsistencies arising from overreliance on the Bible, a second wave of superskeptics emerged over the past five years. At last month's annual meeting in Philadelphia of the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion, the pre-eminent conference on Bible scholarship in the world, they were out in force. And while there were differences among what individual scholars believed, radical minimalist John Van Seters of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, summed up many of their commonly held positions. The oldest books of the Old Testament, he declared with Pope-like confidence, weren't written until the Israelites were in exile in Babylon, after 587 B.C. There was no Moses, no crossing of the sea, no revelation on Mount Sinai.

Just as the believers had to yield in the face of evidence that contradicts their assumptions, though, so have the naysayers. It's a truism in archaeology that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Digging up the past is a hit-or-miss proposition. And one hit can demolish a mountain of skepticism. Among the discoveries that strengthen the Bible's claim to historical accuracy:

In 1979 Israeli archaeologist Gabriel Barkay found two tiny silver scrolls inside a Jerusalem tomb. They were dated to around 600 B.C., shortly before the destruction of Solomon's Temple and the Israelites' exile in Babylon. When scientists carefully unrolled the scrolls at the Israel Museum, they found a benediction from the Book of Numbers etched into their surface. The discovery made it clear that parts of the Old Testament were being copied long before some skeptics had believed they were even written.

In 1986 archaeologists revealed that several lumps of figured clay called bullae, bought from Arab dealers in 1975, had once been used to mark documents. Nahman Avigad of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem identified the impressions stamped into one piece of clay as coming from the seal of Baruch, son of Neriah, a scribe who recorded the doomsday proclamations of the prophet Jeremiah. Another bore the seal of Yerahme'el, son of King Jehoiakim's son, who the Book of Jeremiah says was sent on an unsuccessful mission to arrest both prophet and scribe--again confirming the existence of biblical characters.

In 1990 Frank Yurco, an Egyptologist at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, used hieroglyphic clues from a monolith known as the Merneptah Stele to identify figures in a Luxor wall relief as ancient Israelites. The stele itself, dated to 1207 B.C., celebrates a military victory by the Pharaoh Merneptah. "Israel is laid waste," it reads, suggesting that the Israelites were a distinct population more than 3,000 years ago, and not just because the Bible tells us so.

In 1993 Avraham Biran of Hebrew Union College--Jewish Institute of Religion and Joseph Naveh of the Hebrew University announced they had found an inscription bearing the phrases "House of David" and "King of Israel." The writing--dated to the 9th century B.C., only a century after David's reign--described a victory by a neighboring King over the Israelites. Some minimalists tried to argue that the inscription might have been misread, but most experts believe Biran and Naveh got it right. The skeptics' claim that King David never existed is now hard to defend.

Last year the French scholar Andre Lemaire reported a related "House of David" discovery in Biblical Archaeology Review. His subject was the Mesha Stele (also known as the Moabite Stone), the most extensive inscription ever recovered from ancient Palestine. Found in 1868 at the ruins of biblical Dibon and later fractured, the basalt stone wound up in the Louvre, where Lemaire spent seven years studying it. His conclusion: the phrase "House of David" appears there as well. As with the Tel Dan fragment, this inscription comes from an enemy of Israel boasting of a victory--King Mesha of Moab, who figured in the Bible. Lemaire had to reconstruct a missing letter to decode the wording, but if he's right, there are now two 9th century references to David's dynasty.

Having seen science confirm the Bible in some instances and tear it down in others, most scholars have edged toward a middle-of-the-road position. As the Biblical Archaeology Review's Shanks puts it, "You can't look at the text literally. It wasn't written as modern history is written. But on the other hand, it's certainly not made up."

While most archaeologists agree with Shanks' sentiments in principle, that still leaves plenty of room for disagreement over parts of the Old Testament where the evidence is contradictory or still absent, including slavery in Egypt, the existence of Moses, the Exodus and Joshua's military conquest of the Holy Land. The Bible's accounts of these people and events are among the most familiar stories in the Old Testament. But even scholars who believe they really happened admit that there's no proof whatsoever that the Exodus took place. No record of this monumental event appears in Egyptian chronicles of the time, and Israeli archaeologists combing the Sinai during intense searches from 1967 to 1982--years when Israel occupied the peninsula--didn't find a single piece of evidence backing the Israelites' supposed 40-year sojourn in the desert.

The story involves so many miracles--plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, manna from heaven, the giving of the Ten Commandments--that some critics feel the whole story has the flavor of pure myth. A massive exodus that led to the drowning of Pharaoh's army, says Father Anthony Axe, Bible lecturer at Jerusalem's Ecole Biblique, would have reverberated politically and economically through the entire region. And considering that artifacts from as far back as the late Stone Age have turned up in the Sinai , it is perplexing that no evidence of the Israelites' passage has been found. William Dever, a University of Arizona archaeologist, flatly calls Moses a mythical figure. Some scholars even insist the story was a political fabrication, invented to unite the disparate tribes living in Canaan through a falsified heroic past.

Unlike the Exodus, the story of Joshua and the conquest of Canaan can be tested against a rich archaeological record. The scientific consensus: bad news for the biblical account. According to the Book of Joshua, the Israelite leader and his armies swept into Canaan, destroying cities including Jericho, Hazor and Ai, after which the Israelites settled the land.

Archaeology tells a more complicated tale. Historians generally agree that Joshua's conquest would have taken place in the 13th century B.C. But British researcher Kathleen Kenyon, who excavated at Jericho for six years, found no evidence of destruction at that time. Indeed, says Dead Sea Scrolls curator emeritus Broshi, "the city was deserted from the beginning of the 15th century until the 11th century B.C." So was Ai, say Broshi and others. And so, according to archaeological surveys, was most of the land surrounding the cities. Says Broshi: "The central hill regions of Judea and Samaria were practically uninhabited. The Israelites didn't have to kill and burn to settle."

Instead, argues Tel Aviv University archaeologist Israel Finkelstein, the settlement of the Promised Land was a gradual process over a long period, and involved people both from within Canaan and from outside. "Some came from the Hittite country, some from the desert to the east and some from the south," he says. "I would also accept the idea that a core emanated from Egypt, and these people brought with them the idea of monotheism." Only after they had united in a sort of tribal league did they become the Israelites, and while they undoubtedly fought their neighbors for territory, it was only after they were firmly established in Canaan. An alternate theory: the Israelites were simply a breakaway group of Canaanites fed up with the existing society.

Just because most scholars no longer accept Joshua's war of conquest, though, doesn't mean the question is settled by any means. Conservatives have plenty of ideas about how the tide could swing back to a more biblical interpretation. Experts like Abraham Malamat, a biblical historian at the Hebrew University, suggest that no evidence exists of destruction at Ai, for example, because the city was in a different location 3,000 years ago. Bryant Wood, director of the pro-Bible Associates for Biblical Research, insists that his own research supports Joshua's assault on Jericho. Perhaps, he suggests, Kathleen Kenyon was biased, or just got it wrong.

Defenders of the Exodus story have theories too, though their case remains circumstantial. There's no Egyptian record of the Israelites' departure, they suggest, because the losers would never have recorded such a major defeat. People may have been looking in the wrong part of the Sinai for remains of the Israelites' wandering, or perhaps the Israelis were in northwest Arabia all along. Anyway, say many scholars, what nation would falsely claim to have been enslaved?

Even the widely accepted notion that the Patriarchs were mythical figures has been challenged. Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen of the University of Liverpool offered what has been called an "extraordinary demonstration" in Biblical Archaeology Review earlier this year that the stories about Abraham are plausible. Drawing on nonbiblical records, Kitchen argued that everything from the quoted price of slaves to the style of warfare to the laws of inheritance in Abraham's day is amazingly consistent with the Bible accounts.

Is he right? Most scholars don't think so, but one crucial discovery--an independent, ancient chronicle of Abraham's wanderings, perhaps--could change their minds in an instant. Similarly, a single discovery could erase all doubts about the Exodus or the sacking of Jericho or just about anything else in the Bible. And new Bible-related discoveries and theories crop up all the time. Early next year, Biblical Archaeology Review will be reporting on two of them. The first is another impression of the scribe Baruch's seal, this one with a fingerprint on the edge that was presumably made by Baruch himself. The second is an analysis that claims to fix the precise location where the Ark of the Covenant (the "Lost Ark" of Raiders fame) was stored. That's sure to be controversial; the author contends that it must have been placed in a rectangular indentation on the outcropping beneath the Dome of the Rock, the sacred Muslim shrine on the Temple Mount.

All of these finds are useful and interesting. But what scholars truly yearn for--what might even be called the Holy Grail of biblical archaeology--is a royal archive from before the time of King David or King Solomon. No such archive has ever been located inside Israel, although surrounding countries have yielded many from the same era. Sighs Amnon Ben-Tor, a Hebrew University archaeologist: "It's like striking oil. Everywhere but here."

Many scholars believe the archive must exist, though, and Yigael Yadin even thought he knew where it was: in the ancient city of Hazor, in northern Galilee. At his death, Yadin was planning a major dig there to find the clay tablets he was sure lay hidden beneath the surface. His protege, Ben-Tor, has inherited the project. To date, Ben-Tor has found only a few uninformative tablets. But Hazor is the largest biblical site in the country, and it will take years of digging to explore it fully.

If and when Ben-Tor or his successors locate the archive, the effect on biblical scholarship would be be profound. Instead of relying on half-legible inscriptions and fragments of clay and stone, historians would suddenly have access to huge amounts of information, set down not to advance religious ideas but to record secular events. The historical accuracy of much of the Bible could be settled, one way or the other, almost at a stroke.

Many professional archaeologists maintain that such questions are irrelevant. Says the British School of Archaeology's Woodhead: "I'm not interested in whether there was a David or a Solomon. I'm interested in reconstructing society: what was traded in clay pots, whether the pots or the contents were traded, where the clay was from ... I don't deal with the Bible at all." And even those who do deal with the Bible insist that their emphasis is science, not Scripture. Says Broshi: "Archaeology throws light on the Bible. It has no business trying to prove it."

Yet for ordinary Jews and Christians, it's impossible to maintain scientific detachment about ancient clay pots and fallen stones and inscriptions being dug up in the Holy Land. Hundreds of millions of people grew up listening to Bible stories, and even those who haven't set foot in a church or synagogue for years still carry with them the lessons of these stirring tales of great deeds, great evil, great miracles and great belief. Many may be able to accept the proposition that some of the Bible is fictional. But they are still deeply gratified to learn that much of it appears to be based on fact. Says Harvard's Cross: "To suggest that many things in the Bible are not historical is not too serious. But to lose biblical history altogether is to lose our tradition."