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Uncovering Biblical Times? He Can Dig It

Ziony Zevit's lecture series on ancient Israel focuses not on famous people and events, but on how ordinary people lived day to day.

November 06, 2000|MARY ROURKE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The first time they met, Amy-Jill Levine from Nashville recognized Ziony Zevit immediately: He was the only man at LAX reading a book with a Hebrew title. In the world of biblical archeology, where Levine and Zevit spend a lot of their time, the closer modern life gets to the ancient Middle East, the better.

To help make that happen, Zevit does much more than read Hebrew. For the last 11 years, he has relayed news of the latest archeological finds from the Holy Land to Los Angeles with a lecture series at the University of Judaism, where he is a professor of linguistics.

Zevit, a wiry man in his late 50s with a gray beard, divides his time between California and Israel, collecting speakers along the way. Levine turned out to be a particularly popular one.

"Mind if I take off my shoes?" she asked an audience at the University of Judaism recently as she kicked off her high heels and kicked off the university's fall lecture series.

The audience answered with applause. Then she did something else you might not expect at a gathering about the history of the Israelites: Levine, a New Testament professor at Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville, lectured on Judaism in the time of Jesus. Three years ago, Zevit expanded the program to include New Testament subjects, partly because almost half of most audiences are Christian.

In the eight-part series, which continues through Dec. 11, scripture scholars like Levine, historians and archeologists as well as anthropologists do what Zevit himself has been doing since he was a teenager at Hamilton High School in Los Angeles.

"I've always been interested in the Bible, in its own historic context," he says. "Not what tradition says about it, but what it meant in its own time."

To find answers, he has spent years looking over archeologists' shoulders as they peel back the layers and see what the land has offered up lately.

For most of this century, Zevit says, scholars dug for facts that related to the biggest names in the Bible, from Noah and Abraham to Moses to David. "The work of biblical archeology was to link great events and famous people to the Bible."

This year's speakers reflect a newer direction in the field.

"Today, topics are more often about how people lived, what they ate, what a typical house looked like," Zevit says. The university's series includes lectures on the diet of ancient Israelites, the religion of their polytheist neighbors the Phoenicians (modern-day Lebanese) and daily life for the Bronze Age ancestors of the Jews.

One reason for the attention to smaller details is the highly specialized way modern excavations are organized. "At a typical dig, you'll see a support system that compares with a crime lab," Zevit says. He has met specialists who study only pottery shards, zoology, jewelry, bones or even pollen. Traces of pollen scraped off an ancient kitchen floor "begin to tell us about the flora and fauna of an era," Zevit says.

Improved procedures have disproved some older theories. Bones once presumed to be from the era of David, the second king of Israel, now appear to be from a much later era. "A specialist looked at them and said, 'medieval monks,' " Zevit explains. The skeletons' worn-down knee bones and the fact that the tomb once belonged to a medieval monastery were clues.

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Zevit, who does not include himself in the lecture series, is about to publish a book on the religions of ancient Israel that kept him shuttling back and forth to the Middle East for 15 years. The idea seems to have come to him when he worked on a high school term paper.

"I was bored and causing trouble," says Zevit. He was the kind of kid who mistrusted authority and needed to find out for himself. His history teacher treated his restlessness by sending him to the library to write a paper. He chose "the original religions of man" for his topic.

Zevit expected to become a doctor, but while attending USC he also took world religion classes and studied his own faith in night courses at the University of Judaism. By the time he reached graduate school at UC Berkeley, it was clear he had too many interests to fit into one degree program. Ten years later, in 1973, he finished getting a PhD in Near Eastern languages, including Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek and others relevant to the history of Israel and the Bible.

The parents were worried. "Will people actually pay you with a degree like that?" Zevit's father asked. The water-safety certificate he had earned in high school took on new meaning. Keep your certificate current, his father would tell him. You might need to get a lifeguard job on the side.

Paying for archeological excavations is a problem. Through most of the 20th century, funding came from wealthy amateurs, foundations, religious seminaries, which used the discoveries to bring Bible study alive for students, and universities such as Harvard and Chicago, which saw archeology as useful information for a well-rounded education.

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