Biblical Archaeology

Over the past few decades, for a number of reasons “Biblical Archaeology” has fallen out of favor in the academy. One of those reasons, very much a charicature of the best of the field, was the perception that its practitioners were out to “prove the Bible.” Undoubtedly there were secondary and tertiary applications of the findings of Biblical Archaeology, usually tied to confessional interests, which abused the data, indeed claiming them to have proved the Bible correct in various ways.

Here is how G. Ernest Wright, one of the most eminent of the proponents of Biblical Archaeology defined the field in the beginning of his book on the subject:

Biblical archaeology is a special “armchair” variety of general archaeology. The biblical archaeologist may or may not be an excavator himself, but he studies the discoveries of the excavations in order to glean from them every fact that throws a direct, indirect or even diffused light upon the Bible. He must be intelligently concerned with stratigraphy and typology, upon which the methodology of modern archaeology rests and of which more will be said later in this chapter. Yet his chief concern is not with methods or pots or weapons in themselves alone. His central and absorbing interest is the understanding and exposition of the Scriptures.
Biblical Archaeology (Westminster Press, 1962), 17.

Interestingly, Wright describes Biblical Archaeology as a tool of exegesis, yet one rooted in realia rather than literary theory. Nowadays, some modern Biblical critics regard the Biblical texts as wholly fictional, tendentious, and lacking in all connection to realia, so to draw on archaeology for illuminating realia as Wright describes above is, in such perspectives, ludicrous. Such a severe disjunction is, however, generally considered extreme and unwarranted. The Bible is a document originating in the ancient Near East, in a particular territory, and describes various people, places, and events in that territory and others. And while various items of realia, the remains of cities, and so on do indeed support numerous elements of the Biblical narratives, to take those direct and indirect corroborations and illuminations and state that the entire Bible is thereby “proved” in its entirety by them, is likewise unwarranted. Wright also deals with this abuse:

In this perspective the biblical scholar no longer bothers to ask whether archaeology “proves” the Bible. In the sense that the biblical languages, the life and customs of its peoples, its history, and its conceptions are illuminated in innumerable ways by the archaeological discoveries, he knows that such a question is certainly to be answered in the affirmative. No longer does this literature project from the chaos of prehistory “as though it were a monstrous fossil, with no contemporary evidence to demonstrate its authenticity.” Yet the scholar also knows that the primary purpose of biblical archaeology is not to “prove” but to discover. The vast majority of the “finds” neither prove nor disprove; they fill in the background and give the setting for the story. It is unfortunate that this desire to “prove” the Bible has vitiated so many works which are available to the average reader. The evidence has been misused, and the inferences drawn from it are so often misleading, mistaken, or half true. Our ultimate aim must not be “proof,” but truth. We must study the history of the Chosen People in exactly the same way as we do that of any other people, running the risk of destroying the uniqueness of that history. Unless we are willing to run that risk, truth can never be ours.
Biblical Archaeology, 27.

That’s a very enlightening passage, which puts into relief much modern vituperation against Biblical Archaeology, complaints about “Albrightian” approaches, and so on. Wright was well aware, as was Albright, that the data were being misused by some unscrupulous authors in order to “prove the Bible.” To lump Albright, Wright, et alia, and this misuse of Biblical Archaeology together with such misuse is either misinformed or dishonest. Biblical Archaeology itself, properly understood as defined in the first quote above from Wright, is a perfectly legitimate practice. It is, in all actuality, simply archaeology.

On the other hand, since the term “Biblical Archaeology” has become entirely associated with that misuse, from the late twentieth century critical scholarship has been moving away from use of the term. Especially illustrative of this is that the journal The Biblical Archaeologist, published by the organization American Schools of Oriental Research, experienced a name change in 1998 to Near Eastern Archaeology. Largely this was due to the fact that the journal generally comprised articles that had nothing to do with biblical subjects, but the former name’s connotation indeed played a role, as discussions upon the proposition of the name change revealed.


  1. I wonder if you would comment on the formal attempt to discredit all archaeology in Israel made by Nadia Abu El Haj in her book Facts on the Ground.

  2. Hi Anna. Well, I haven’t read the book, only a number of reviews of it, which were sufficiently detailed to indicate that it’s something I’ll never need to waste time reading. The politicization of archaeological findings can be done and has been, though it certainly shouldn’t be done. Most importantly, nothing indicates that it has always been done, which from what I can gather is her angle: that all pre-Classical period findings have been only opportunistically, and not realistically, interpreted as Jewish in support of Judaism and particularly Zionism and the establishment of the State of Israel. There are a large number of Israeli archaeologists who specialize in post-Biblical (Byzantine, Islamic, Crusader, etc) periods, and likely she ignores them except where convenient to her idealogically-driven point. I have no sympathy for her idea. There is sufficient documentation from outside the borders of Israel to either directly or indirectly verify details (including various kings’ names, battles, and city destructions) or the broad outline of the history of Israel and Judah (cultural context in a wider focus) as depicted in the Hebrew Bible, and this evidence cannot be dismissed. On her part, writing a book that shows her to be a tool of the Palestinian Authority’s antisemitic party line is inexcusable. Of course, one wonders if she would come up with some “archaeological” support for Jewish Temple denial, renaming the Western Wall Plaza, “al-Buraq Plaza,” the existence of Islam from the foundations of the world, and other such drivel. I wouldn’t be surprised by any of that, but I am surprised that some people thought such a book was something worth publishing! Properly speaking, her work is more apologetic rather than archaeological.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *