Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Fortress wall at Qeiyafa
I recently got a copy of The Future of Biblical Archaeology, but I am not sure what that term, 'biblical archaeology,' means anymore.  There is a somewhat innocuous use of the term, referring to something like the archaeology of the 'Holy Land.'  However, it also has a more partisan use which is used derisively by some and approvingly by others.  Biblical Archaeological Review and its editor Herschel Shanks proudly uses the term, while American Society of Oriental Research changed the title of its journal from Biblical Archaeologist to Near Eastern Archaeology because they were uncomfortable with it.

In The Future of Biblical Archaeology, the opening article by Ziony Zevit addresses the history of this situation.  William Dever is important to the conversation because in the 1970's he began arguing that what is known as biblical archaeology should be considered Syro-Palestinian Archaeology.  Dever's call for a shift in terminology "was intended to sever the connection between the archaeological and the theological," and to make it clear that a particular biblical interpretation cannot hold sway over archaeological data. (Zevit, 17)

However, this wasn't likely to be successful because, 
there are many more teachers of the Bible in the world than there are archaeologists working in the Iron Age period, and the overwhelming majority of these teachers work in denominational settings with explicit and implicit theological programs that are a priori to whatever archaeologist might discover. (Zevit, 17)

Zevit concludes that the the terms have gone their separate ways, finding their own audiences.  Syro-Palestinian archaeology is now relegated to scholarly circles, utilized by departments of anthropology and history.  Biblical archaeology has become the favored term of undergraduate courses, magazine and newspaper stories, and the way that archaeological finds are communicated to the public. 

I agree with all of this, but I also think that the matter has unfortunately morphed into the minimalist/maximalist debate, which I have previously blogged about.  Essentially, the issue is about how reliable one considers the Bible to be with regard to historical concerns of the early 10th c. BCE, the time of David and Solomon, but it has come to be a proxy argument about how one views the Bible, or one's political opinion about the modern state of Israel.  

On the ASOR blog, archaeologist Steven Collins engages this and asks, "Has Archaeology Gone Overboard in Throwing Out the Bible?"


I have observed that scholars on both extremes of what I often call the Bible believe-o-meter have adopted structurally similar, but opposite, approaches. Minimalists, to the extent possible, do not allow the Bible to intersect with their archaeology. Maximalists, as far as possible, throw out archaeological conclusions that challenge ‘traditional’ interpretations of biblical texts, allowing only data that harmonize with their textual preconceptions...

I think Collins is essentially right, but perhaps overstating the divisions by presenting it in the simplistic terms which are found in the public discourse around the issue.  The matter is complicated, but often whether or not one uses the term 'biblical archaeology' is a signal to which camp one belongs and often falls along conservative/liberal political lines. One archaeology podcast even compared the rivalry between Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University as the fight between the Israelites and the Philistines. Sometimes following the arguments, particularly in reading BAR, reminds me of our American political discourse, with all data falling clearly into one camp (Fox News: David was a strong king with a large kingdom) or another (MSNBC: David was a tribal chieftain and Jerusalem was insignificant).  

A recent article in the Christian Science Monitor, by Christa Case Bryant, asked 'What archaeology tells us about the Bible.'  Case Bryant writes about Khirbet Qeiyafa and the debate over David.  I found this to be a very good introduction to some of these issues, the people involved and the sites which are essential to the debate.  It is a very good place to start learning about these issues, without being presented a straw man argument for one side or the other as one so often does find. 

Isaac M. Alderman
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