Biblical Archeology and Christian Theology

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Archeology is the study of the human past through material remains. Although it is not routinely associated with theology, the two disciplines intersect at several important points. All biblical theology is built upon the Word of God, which the history of his people has transmitted. Archeology is a significant tool for understanding that history and is an essential component of sound exegesis. It connects the theologian to the biblical authors’ world and the events they describe.

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Archeology can illuminate the biblical text, and it often yields corroborative evidence which would seem to authenticate the biblical record. Currently, many evangelicals attempt to “prove the Bible” by appealing to archeological discoveries. In contrast, certain secular scholars sometimes seek to undermine biblical authority by their interpretation of the same evidence. These opposing views are best understood by examining the history of biblical archeology and appreciating the presuppositions each group brings to the biblical text and the material remains.

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History of Biblical Archeology. Biblical archeology is but one area of specialization within the relatively young discipline of archeology. It shares many of the same methods and approaches as other divisions of archeology such as Egyptian, Classical, and New World archeology. As its name implies, however, biblical archeology focuses upon the periods reflected in the biblical text and relies heavily upon the Old and New Testaments as legitimate historical sources. This has led to considerable debate as to whether biblical archeology is a scientific discipline in its own right or merely a branch of biblical studies.

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Before the 1800s little was known of the Bible’s cultural setting despite its central position in Western culture and religion. Renewed European contact with the Mideast, such as Napoleon’s campaign to Egypt in 1799, kindled a new interest in ancient Near Eastern cultures and the realia (material finds) which they left behind. In subsequent years a series of expeditions to Egypt and Mesopotamia yielded a vast quantity of artifacts and inscriptions, many of which were transported to Europe. A. H. Layard’s excavations in Assyria and Babylonia, for example, brought to light monumental art and architecture as well as numerous cuneiform documents. When deciphered, these documents were found to overlap significantly with the characters and events found in the biblical record. These findings stimulated a renewed interest in the setting of the biblical text. By the middle of the nineteenth century numerous American and European scholars visited the land of the Bible and recorded their explorations. Edward Robinson, C. Conder/H. Kitchener, Charles Warren, and others published valuable surveys of the topography and history of Bible lands.

Archeological exploration of the Holy Land began only in the 1890s with the work of the renowned Egyptologist Sir Flinders Petrie. During his excavations at Tell el-Hesi in the south of Israel/Palestine he introduced the technique known as “sequence dating.” He found that ancient mounds (or “Tells”) contain not only scattered ruins but superimposed layers of civilization built up and destroyed over time. Chronological changes in pottery styles and the presence of datable Egyptian finds helped Petrie reconstruct the history of the site. These principles are reflected in the title of his book A Mound of Many Cities, and they underlie all archeological inquiry in the Holy Land to this day.

Through World War I and subsequent years, a plethora of excavations followed. Dramatic discoveries were made by British, European, and American scholars at biblical sites such as Samaria, Beth-Shemesh, Gezer, Megiddo, Beth Shean, and Jericho. These were overshadowed by the work of William Foxwell Albright at Tell Beit Mirsim just after World War I. He refined Petrie’s methodology and trained several generations of American and Israeli archeologists. He successfully integrated archeology, biblical research, and ancient Near Eastern studies in dramatic new ways, often with stunning results. Albright’s work demonstrated the veracity of the biblical narrative and served as a corrective to the historical-critical school. According to Julius Wellhausen, the chief proponent of this school of thought, the Old Testament was a composite literary creation of limited historical value. In contrast, Albright showed that biblical episodes such as the life of Abraham and Joshua’s conquest belonged to specific historical and cultural settings. He refined the chronology of biblical history and related it to material finds whenever possible. Meanwhile, rigorous excavation by the British at Beth Shean, Lachish, and elsewhere brought significant improvements in archeological method and theory, as well as model publications which have yet to be surpassed.

In the aftermath of World War II the rapid pace of excavation resumed, now within the context of new political boundaries. Foreign teams worked in Transjordan and western Palestine under the auspices of the Jordanians while Israeli and American teams excavated in the new state of Israel. Local Israeli scholarship thrived under scholars who Albright had trained. Moreover, Yigael Yadin, Benjamin Mazar, Y. Aharoni, M. Avi-Yonah, and other prominent scholars attempted to reconstruct the historical geography of ancient Israel through the integration of surveys, excavations, and ancient sources. Since the 1950s excavation has continued at a swift rate throughout the land of the Bible as local scholars excavate with teams from their own universities.

Biblical Archeology Today. As of the 1960s, the field of biblical archeology faced new challenges. Under the influence of the social and natural sciences, the focus of archeology and anthropology migrated from typology and historical issues toward comprehensive study of humans as a species. While the new paradigm, known as “new archeology,” instituted many scientific improvements (such as zoology, spatial analysis, etc.) it also introduced new biases against the biblical text. In keeping with this trend, William Dever argued forcefully for the “liberation” of Near Eastern archeology from biblical studies. Hence “Syro-Palestinian archeology” was born. The Bible, it was argued, was never intended to be an historical document and should therefore be viewed with considerable suspicion when one reconstructs the history of the ancient Near East. This negative evaluation can in part be traced to developments in biblical studies and in the culture at large. Recent approaches to the Bible frequently emphasize literary issues at the expense of history and cultural setting. Moreover, since the Bible no longer plays a central, normative role in Western culture, naturally its historical accuracy would be reevaluated and, at times, challenged. The naturalism which underlies “new archeology” is therefore a logical development. By the early 1990s the very expression “biblical archeology” had largely given way to broader, generic terms such as “Syro-Palestinian archeology” and “archeology of the ancient Near East.”

The current debate among archeologists represents a continuation of this dispute, which arises from the presuppositions each scholar brings to the material finds and the biblical text. Two schools have emerged. The “Albright school” continues to emphasize the alliance between archeology and biblical studies, and they are often called the “maximalists.” The “minimalist” school represents the other end of the spectrum. This view, which dominates current literature, is blatantly antagonistic toward the biblical text. The Old Testament, it is argued, was primarily written during the Hellenistic period, long after the events it claims to describe. Every correlation between the Bible and the archeological record is, according to this view, suspect a priori. In the current intellectual and cultural climate, even moderate scholars who ascribe limited historicity to the biblical text are often denounced as “fundamentalists.” This view represents the secularization of the discipline.

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Case Study. The conquest of Canaan is representative of trends in current research and the thinking which lies behind them. Archeologists have long puzzled over the seeming discrepancies between the description in the book of Joshua and the archeological record itself. Whereas W. F. Albright and A. Alt sought to harmonize these two bodies of evidence, many contemporary scholars appeal to archeology alone and reject the biblical account as a late fabrication. However, recent investigations at Jericho, Hazor, and the region of Ai reveal destructions that correlate quite well with the period of Joshua. It is also significant that these three sites alone are singled out in the biblical account as being “burnt by fire.” Moreover, recent work by James Hoffmeier finds the Joshua account to be especially reliable when placed within its original cultural and historical context. Similar issues surround recent controversy about the archeology of the United Monarchy, known by some as the “lost tenth century.”

Summary/Emerging Issues. For the theologian archeology can be of value at several levels. First, it provides the cultural and historical setting of the individuals and events recorded in the Bible. It connects believers to the daily life of biblical characters and enables them to better understand God’s qualities and His purposes. Abraham, Joshua, Jesus, and Paul were immersed in cultural settings that are largely foreign to modern readers. As an exegetical tool, for example, archeology helps us understand the purpose of phrases such as “he was gathered to his fathers” (a reference to communal tomb architecture) and “woe to those who lie on beds of ivory” (referring to the affluence of Samaria). The site of Megiddo offers another example. Given its strategic importance, Solomonic palaces, and Omride fortifications, it is no surprise that it figures prominently in the history of Israel and in its future as well.

Second, archeology increases the believer’s confidence in Scripture, despite occasional ambiguities. The Aramaic inscription from Tell Dan is a case in point. It mentions the “house of David” and offers an extrabiblical account of the wars between the Arameans and the Israelites in the ninth and eighth centuries b.c. (cf. 2 Kings 6–8). Biblical archeology should nevertheless be used primarily as a tool of clarification to illuminate the biblical text. While it can be helpful for apologetics, it should not be viewed as merely a means of “proving the Bible.” A more nuanced approach is preferable.

Third, archeology helps to expose some of the presuppositions that underlie the field of biblical studies. One who denies the veracity of Bible is also likely to reject, at all costs, any corroborative evidence that supports the historical accuracy of the biblical text. Such views, according to L. E. Stager, Dorot Professor of Archaeology at Harvard University, are themselves “ideological positions carved in stone … intellectual forgeries of the first and post-modern order.” Biblical archeology is therefore a tool not only for understanding the mind of the ancients but also the mind of contemporary people, secular and Christian alike.

By J. M. Monson

Bibliography. A. Biran, Biblical Archaeology Today; A. C. Bouquet, Everyday Life in New Testament Times; M. D. Coogan, J. C. Exum, and L. E. Stager, eds., Scripture and Other Artifacts; J. Finegan, Archaeology of the New Testament; A. Hoerth, Archaeology and the Old Testament; J. Hoffmeier, Israel and Egypt: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition; V. Matthews, Manners and Customs in the Bible; A. Mazar, Archaeology of the Land of the Bible; J. McRay, Archaeology and the New Testament; R. Moorey, Century of Biblical Archaeology; K. Schoville, Biblical Archaeology in Focus; N. A. Silberman, Digging for God and Country; J. A. Thompson, Bible and Archaeology. Walter A. Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology: Third Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017), 89–91.

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