Thursday, May 01, 2008

The rise and fall of Biblical Archaeology

A friend used to make his living partly by delivering talks on Bible animals to church groups. At the Anglican Cathedral of New York, near my home, there is a charming A garden displaying Biblical plants. Such efforts reveal a widely felt wish to visualize aspects of the Scriptures.

Since the fourth century Christians have been undertaking pilgrimages to the Holy Land in order to see the places where the Lord and others stood. Jews go them one better by actually immigrating to Israel. One of the motives is to witness in person the major sites of the Bible.

This practice responds to a sense that reading the texts, prayer, and religious ritual, while of great importance, were not enough. There must be. at some point, a tangible link with the revered figures and events. Ultimately, this meant visiting the loca sancta, the places where the revered figures actually walked and lived, in the Middle East. For Christians (who during the Middle Ages and afterwards could not easily make the pilgrimage to the Holy Land, relics fulfilled a similar purpose.

As the Ottoman period drew to a close, visits became more practical. At the sites, one could obtain guidance from dragomans and cicerones, who would offer sometimes fantastical accounts. Naturally, the desire grew to learn more. This knowledge could be increased by the possibility of looking beneath the surface, through excavation if possible. Hence, the appearance of Biblical Archaeology.

In fact this approach had roots outside the Middle East. Towards the end of the sixteenth century the catacombs became accessible in the city of Rome. Under the patronage of the popes, much was done to recover objects that had been lost to view for a thousand years or more. This was done under the umbrella of Christian Archaeology. In some ways this was not an objective discipline, as it was conducted with the aim of documenting Catholic claims, especially those that pertained to the presumed apostolic foundation of the church.

Excavations in sites of Biblical and related interest began in the Middle East began in earnest in the nineteenth century. Sponsored by several types of institutions, these were not monopolized by an particular confessional allegiance, as the Roman ones were. Yet another subtext intruded, a political one. We know that the excavations of Sir Leonard Woolley and others in the Middle East were in part a vehicle for British imperial ambitions. With this background it is not surprising that subtexts should intrude in excavations that more specifically targeted Palestine.

In many ways the emergent discipline of Biblical Archaeology came to be personified by William Foxwell Albright (1891-1971), an energetic American protestant scholar. As editor of the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research between 1931 and 1968, Albright exercised deep influence over both biblical scholarship and Palestinian archaeology, an influence greatly advanced by his prolific writing and publishing (over 1,100 books and articles). His lead was followed by his students George Ernest Wright, Frank Moore Cross, and David Noel Freedman. That the latter was Jewish seemed a happy augury that the Albrightian program would be a broad, objective one.

Alas, this impression is incorrect,and Albright’s concepts and conclusions, especially those relating to biblical archaeology, have been overturned by developments after his death. While Albright was not a Biblical literalist, in many ways his views seem naive today. He saw the archaeologist's task as being "to illuminate, to understand, and, in effect, to ‘prove’ the bible." In this Albright's American Evangelical upbringing--he was the son of two missionaries-- was clearly apparent. He insisted, for example, that "as a whole, the picture in Genesis is historical, and there is no reason to doubt the general accuracy of the biographical details" (that is, of figures such as Abraham and Melchizedek). Similarly he claimed that archaeology had proved the essential historicity of the book of Exodus, and the conquest of Canaan as described in the book of Joshua and the book of Judges. Nothing today is left of this approach amongst mainstream archaeologists. As one observer noted, "[h]is central theses have all been overturned, partly by further advances in Biblical criticism, but mostly by the continuing archaeological research of younger Americans and Israelis to whom he himself gave encouragement and momentum... The irony is that, in the long run, it will have been the newer "secular" archaeology that contributed the most to Biblical studies, not ‘Biblical archaeology’."

The Albrightian consensus collapsed in the 1970s. Fieldwork, notably Kathleen Kenyon's excavations at Jericho, had failed to support the conclusions the biblical archaeologists had drawn, with the result that central theories squaring the biblical narrative with archaeological finds, such as Albright's reconstruction of Abraham as an Amorite donkey caravaneer, faced rejection by the archaeological community. The challenge reached its climax with the publication of two major studies. In 1974 Thomas L. Thompson's The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives reexamined the record of biblical archaeology in relation to the Patriarchal narratives in Genesis and concluded that "not only has archaeology not proven a single event of the Patriarchal narratives to be historical, it has not shown any of the traditions to be likely." In 1975 John Van Seters' Abraham in History and Tradition reached a similar conclusion about the usefulness of tradition history: "A vague presupposition about the antiquity of the tradition based upon a consensus approval of such arguments should no longer be used as a warrant for proposing a history of the tradition related to early premonarchic times."

At the same time a new generation of archaeologists, notably William G. Dever, had begun to criticize the older generation for failing to take note of the revolution in archaeology known as processualism, which saw the discipline as a scientific one allied to anthropology, rather than a part of the corpus of the humanities linked to history and theology. Biblical archaeology, Dever said, remained "altogether too narrowly within a theological angle of vision.” He held that it must be abandoned, to be replaced by a regional Syro-Palestinian archaeology operating within a processual framework.

Dever was broadly successful. Arguably most archaeologists working in the world of the Bible today do so within a processual or post-processual framework, even though few explicitly so describe themselves. The reasons for the retention of the old nomenclature are complex, but are connected with the link between excavators (especially American ones) and the denominational institutions and benefactors who employ and support them. Repeatedly, the link between the Bible and archaeology has been shown to be tenuous at best, yet few seem willing to explicitly disavow it. Such frankness could be a career-destroying move.

In 1956 Albright and his associates launched the Anchor Bible Commentary Series. Although a range of views is presented, the center of gravity of the series is Albright’s views, as interpreted more recently by his disciple David Noel Freedman, the general editor. Now consisting of some 80 volumes, it is unfortunate that this series represents the most advanced scholarship in the eyes of the unsuspecting. (I gave away most of my volumes.)

Today the Biblical Archaeology Review conveys much useful information to the general public. The editors have not retained the outdated approach of Albright. Sometimes reading between the lines, we learn that archaeology has not “proved” that the Bible was right, but actively undermined its credibility. To their credit the BAR editors have given a place to the radically corrosive findings of the so-called minimalists, whose views are become increasingly mainstream.



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