More on Biblical Archaeology

In a very interesting article, “Is Glueck’s Aim to Prove that the Bible Is True?” (Biblical Archaeologist 22.4 [1959], pp 101-108), George E. Wright continues on the topic of contrasting Biblical Archaeology proper with “proving the Bible.” After the publication of Nelson Glueck’s Rivers in the Desert: A History of the Negeb, a non-technical introduction to his post-War survey of the Negev, J. J. Finkelstein took issue with some of Glueck’s statements, namely this quite striking pronouncement on p. 31 of that book: “It may be stated categorically that no archaeological discovery has ever controverted a biblical reference.” There is also Glueck’s reference to “the almost incredibly accurate historical memory of the Bible, and particularly so when it is fortified by archaeological fact” (p. 68). And while Finkelstein is also reported in the article to have taken issue with some statements of Wright, these two are of more interest, particularly for discovering a seemingly purposeful misreading of intention through selective quotation or memory on Finkelstein’s part.

Within the greater context of the book, Glueck says of the Bible, “Saga and song, legend and myth, fact and folklore were woven into the text to illustrate and emphasize this central theme. Those people are essentially of little faith who seek through archaeological corroboration of historical source materials in the Bible to validate its religious teachings and spiritual insights” (as quoted by Wright, “Is Glueck’s Aim…” p. 106). Obviously Glueck, by his own words, was not interested in “proving the Bible” and indeed found it instead a misdirected enterprise. Being a student of Albright, however, Glueck was also certain of the “historical memory of the Bible,” which Wright describes in more detail thusly (pp 104-105):

The early historical traditions of Israel cannot be easily dismissed as data for history when such a variety of archaeological facts and hints make a different view far more reasonable, at least as a working hypothesis, namely, that the traditions derive from an orally transmitted epic which has preserved historical memories in a remarkable way, that “pious fraud” was not a real factor in the production of the traditions, and that in Israel aetiology was a secondary, never a primary, factor in the creation of the epic.

While one may question the specificity of relying upon particularly an “orally transmitted epic” as the role of the transmission of the “historical memory of the Bible,” as writing should not be summarily dismissed as though impossible, the rest of Wright’s statement is certainly valid, highlighting the unlikelihood of two of the most-often suggested alternatives to a relatively accurate “historical memory of the Bible” in light of incidental corroborations through archaeology. “Pious fraud” is often used to posit the wholesale fictional status of the historical layer of the Bible, while “aetiology,” a subcategory of “pious fraud,” is used to suggest that the stories were invented to explain, in the lack of a general mythology, the origins of various natural features, locales, and customs. When, however, the Bible is understood as a theologizing commentary written on an historical substrate, which is precisely how Albright, Glueck, Wright and many other excellent scholars have viewed and do view it, and when excavations throughout the Near East continued to bring to light things like the writings of Egyptian and Mesopoatamian kings previously known only from the Bible, as well as their cities and artifacts of their cultures, and indeed the rediscovery of the Hittites themselves, found in histories transmitted from ancient times to our own day only in the Bible, one is perfectly justified in finding this “almost incredibly accurate historical memory of the Bible” quite impressive. Finkelstein’s objection in this case seems simply to be rooted in a viewpoint of antagonism toward historicity in the Bible, one that is still quite alive as a bias toward the texts today, when it is perhaps even more vociferously proclaimed. In that sense, not much has changed over the last five decades in Biblical Studies aside from the volume.

Regarding the other Glueck quote (“It may be stated categorically that no archaeological discovery has ever controverted a biblical reference.”), Finkelstein does something quite odd in taking information from Wright. The non-archaeologist Finkelstein insists the archaeologist’s statement to mean something that it does not. The situation is this: in answer to Glueck’s quoted statement, Finkelstein brings up Jericho, quoting from Wright’s 1957 first edition of Biblical Archaeology on Kathleen Kenyon’s then-ongoing excavations at Jericho: “The most surprising and discouraging result of the work so far has been the discovery that virtually nothing remains at the site between 1500 and 1200 B.C.” Finklestein, however, objects to Wright’s wording, as Wright describes (“Is Glueck’s Aim…” p. 101-102):

Finkelstein asserts that the word “virtually” is simply a scholarly hedge for “nothing,” and that what I am actually saying is that the site was unoccupied in the Late Bronze Age. Furthermore, says Finkelstein, my word “discouraging” in this connection “speaks volumes on the subject of scholarly detachment in the area of biblical studies.” He continues: “The dictates of the new trend, which requires that every contradiction between archaeological evidence and the Biblical text be harmonized to uphold the veracity of Scripture, has apparently driven Dr. Wright—in this case at least—beyond the reach of common sense.”

I would rather say that Finkelstein was here beyond the reach of common decency! As Wright describes (p. 108), and as Finkelstein would certainly have known had he bothered to read the Jericho materials available at the time, that there were fourteenth century (Late Bronze II) remains found on the tell above the spring, and Late Bronze materials found in reused MB tombs, thus Wright’s “virtually nothing,” as commonly taken and as intended to mean “not very much at all,” is perfectly accurate. Interestingly, Wright further says (p. 108):

This information from Jericho was said to be “disappointing,” and the reason is this: not only is it now difficult to interpret the biblical narrative of the fall of Jericho, but it is impossible to trace the history of the tradition. For my part, I do not believe that it can any longer be thought “scientific” simply to consider stories such as this one either as pure fabrications or as “aetiologies.” They have had a long history of transmission, oral before written, and they derive from something real in history, no matter how far removed they may now be. In a number of instances, both the origin and history of a given tradition can be made out by historical, form-critical, and other methods of study. But the problem of Jericho is more of a problem than ever, precisely because the history of the tradition about it seems impossible to penetrate.

What an utterly fascinating perspective! We are now fortunate to have a compelling reassessment of the Jericho data that indicates a city present in LB I (Bryant G. Wood, “Did the Israelites Conquer Jericho?” Biblical Archaeology Review 16.2 [Mar/Apr 1990], 44-58; rejoinder: Piotr Bienkowski, “Jericho Was Destroyed in the Middle Bronze Age, Not the Late Bronze Age” BAR 16.5 [Sept/Oct 1990], 45-46, 69; surrejoinder: Bryant G. Wood, “Dating Jericho’s Destruction: Bienkowski Is Wrong on All Counts” BAR 16.5 [Sept/Oct 1990], 45, 47-49, 68-69) that actually can give us a better understanding of the development of the tradition. Wright might be surprised to find this reassessment leading back to the older, 15th century date for the Exodus and Conquest, however understood. I doubt that he would back away from this implication however, as Wood’s command of particularly Late Bronze pottery sequences is unquestionable, and Wright was always adamant about the supreme importance of this admittedly tedious specialization in archaeological training. In any case, I find myself much in sympathy with Wright’s description of seeking an understanding of the relationship of the Biblical traditions with any other potentially related realia, including other documents which may be related directly or indirectly, even to the extent of simple cultural background materials. At the very least, Wright shows a nascent concern with contextual analysis that can link Biblical Studies and other Ancient Near Eastern studies areas, as though something of a forerunner to Hallo’s Contextual Approach (as described in William W. Hallo, “Compare and Contrast: The Contextual Approach to Biblical Literature,” pp 1-30, in Scripture in Context III: The Bible in the Light of Cuneiform Literature. eds. William W. Hallo, Bruce William Jones, Gerald L. Mattingly. Ancient Near Eastern Texts and Studies 8. Lampeter, Dyfed, Wales: Edwin Mellen Press, 1990; with the same article, slightly edited, appearing as chapter 3, pp 23-34 in William W. Hallo, The Book of the People. Brown Judaic Studies 225. Atlanta, Georgia: Scholars Press, 1991). It’s particularly interesting to find this link between Biblical Archaeology and the Contextual Approach. With consideration, the connection is quite obvious, though initially jarring. One might even see the two, Biblical Archaeology and the Contextual Approach, as a kind of double-helix Biblical Studies DNA, one strand representing comparative and contrastive studies of realia related to the Bible, and the other comparative and contrastive studies of texts related to the Bible.

If anything, this article by Wright answering Finkelstein does manage to show one thing. Despite the changes that have occurred throughout the last half century in Biblical Studies, particularly in the introduction of new specializations, approaches, and labels, the “minimalist” versus “maximalist” controversy was very much alive even in the 1950s, and indeed, according to another article of Wright’s (“Neo-Orthodoxy and the Bible,” Journal of Bible and Religion, 14.2 [May 1946], 87-93), it was in fact already very much alive in the 1940s and even before, including even then the fearful and inaccurate fulminations against “fundamentalists” on the part of liberal theologians. What is the lesson of this story?

וְאֵין כָּל־חָדָשׁ תַּחַת הַשָּׁמֶשׁ

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