BMCR 1997.12.06

1997.12.06, Archaeology and Biblical Interpretation

, Archaeology and biblical interpretation. London: Routledge, 1997. 1 online resource (xv, 176 pages) : illustrations, maps. ISBN 9780203135877 $59.95 (hb); $18.95 (pb).

1 Responses

This collection of essays, originally papers given in 1994-95 to the Royal Irish Academy, intends to show how archaeology can help illuminate our understanding of biblical texts. In many ways this book covers the same ground, but with less breadth, as a collection with the same title which appeared a decade ago. 1 After an introductory chapter on the relationship of biblical studies to archaeology, successive chapters follow on select topics: the origins of the ancient Israelites in Palestine, polytheism in ancient Israelite religion, Qumran and its inhabitants, Herod’s Temple, the historical Jesus, and early Byzantine Christianity in Palestine.

The collection’s editor, John R. Bartlett, begins the volume with a methodological discussion of the relationship between archaeology and the Bible. He gives a concise and competent overview of the history of archaeological investigation in Palestine, although the reader is given the shocking news that Helena was Constantine’s wife rather than his mother (3), and the questionable claim is made that, in spite of the wealth of information in the writings of Herodotus, Strabo, Xenophon, and numerous other Greco-Roman authors, Egypt and Mesopotamia were known prior to their modern archaeological discovery primarily through the Bible. A more serious shortcoming for Bartlett is that, even though he clearly states that archaeology cannot “prove” the Bible as was once naively thought, and claims to opt for the desirable middle-ground, i.e., the dual use of the Bible and archaeology for a “reconstruction of biblical history” (13), he nevertheless seeks to limit archaeology to the ancillary role of clarifying our understanding of biblical texts. This is possible, Bartlett claims, because archaeology deals with data, whereas the Bible as a literary product is necessarily colored by its authors’ interpretations. While appearing reasonable, such mutual use of biblical and archaeological material, with the latter subordinate to the former, is nothing more than the circular argumentation used for decades by the Albright school in its worst excesses to affirm the historicity of biblical events. 2 Moreover, the contrast of mute, or so-called objective, archaeological data with ideologically biased ancient literature is specious in that it overlooks the fact that those mute data are themselves of necessity given a voice, namely that of the modern interpreter, a creature as biased as any ancient author. Bartlett’s desire to neutralize archaeology from any real challenges to the Bible’s historical truth is clear in his remark that “Archaeological research may once have found the tomb of Jesus and may yet find the grave of Moses, but such discoveries will not demonstrate the uniqueness of Yahweh or the resurrection of Jesus” (11). So far so good, but Bartlett does not examine the necessary corollary to his claim: that while archaeology cannot confirm certain historical or theological claims found in the Bible, it can provide evidence which challenges those claims or demands their revision. Returning to Bartlett’s hypothetical example, in addition to discovering the tomb of Jesus, archaeology could also have found first-century skeletal remains in it. Or, and this is an actual example, archaeology can find evidence that the kind of large-scale state bureaucracy claimed by the Bible for David and Solomon is not present in 10th-century BCE Palestine. 3 In both of these cases, archaeological data would have something to say about the resurrection of Jesus or Yahweh’s promise to David of an everlasting covenant.

William Dever’s essay deals with the settlement of the Israelites in Palestine, an issue that has exercised scholars and archaeologists for almost a century. He clearly lays out the evidence that argues against the conquest model described in Joshua and Judges and advocated by the Albright school. Dever himself, citing the work of Volkmar Fritz in support, stresses the cultural and material continuity that exists in Palestine throughout the Late Bronze-Early Iron Age transition. Drawing upon the surface surveys of Israel Finkelstein, 4 Dever argues that the Israelites (or, more properly for him, “proto-Israelites”) are first attested in the archaeological record in Late Bronze-Early Iron Age settlements in the central Judean highlands and are characterized by, among other things: 1) small, unwalled villages consisting of clusters of houses lacking any large monumental architecture; 2) technological traits such as plaster-lined cisterns, iron tools, and terrace farming; 3) a supposedly distinctive four-room houseplan; 4) ceramic continuity with the Late Bronze lowland culture. For Dever this combination of factors combines to create an “archaeological assemblage” (30) indicative of the proto-Israelites. These characteristics also corroborate the description in the books of Joshua and Judges of emerging Israelite society as impoverished, agrarian, family/clan based, and egalitarian.

The shortcomings of Dever’s argument can be grouped under three headings. First is the methodological question facing archaeologists concerning ethnicity. In the absence of epigraphic remains, monumental architecture, artwork, or certain ceramic assemblages, it is difficult, if not impossible, to determine the ethnicity of a site’s inhabitants. Yet this is precisely what Dever claims to do when he ascribes to the Israelites “a new ethnic consciousness that we must presume” (42) in the light of archaeological data, even though the characteristics he lists as indicative of proto-Israelites have little to do with ethnicity, being instead signs of technological advancement. This equation of Israelite material culture with technological advancement is all the more curious given that Dever goes to great lengths to emphasize the relative simplicity of these villages in architecture and layout. The only trait of these highland sites which can be seen as illustrative of ethnicity, namely the ceramic assemblages, clearly denotes the inhabitants as culturally continuous with the indigenous Bronze Age lowland inhabitants. Consequently, if one were forced to make an ethnic identification of these highland sites, the evidence would demand that one classify them as Canaanite rather than Israelite. Why then does Dever maintain that these sites, located where and when they are, are Israelite? Simply because that is where the biblical text tells him to look for Israelites. Here, as in Bartlett’s opening article, we see that circular argumentation which subordinates archaeology to the Bible. The archaeological data provided by these sites are evidence of the historical veracity of elements in Joshua and Judges; yet it is those very texts which guide the interpretation of the archaeological data.

The second problematic area for Dever lies in his interpretation of biblical texts, specifically in his reliance upon the sociological analysis of Norman Gottwald. 5 Gottwald’s claim that the nascent Israelites practiced an egalitarianism based upon their radically new religious sentiments in opposition to the oppressive Canaanite system of city-states has come under withering criticism since it first appeared almost twenty years ago, mainly for its naive understanding of both the biblical texts and the application of social theory to ancient culture. For Dever to assume the accuracy of Gottwald’s model and make it the foundation of his identification of proto-Israelite ethnic markers greatly weakens his argument.

It is this uncritical use of biblical material that leads to the third shortcoming of Dever’s argument, namely an ideological bias which sees the Bible both as an accurate representation of ancient Israelite history and evidence of the uniqueness of Israelite religious understanding compared with that of other ancient Levantine cultures. And so Dever will say that the biblical authors “claimed to be inspired by God” (20), or that “much about ancient Israel still remains a mystery, if not a miracle” (47). Such statements eschewing an historical outlook in favor of a theological one are surprising coming as they do from Dever, who has been adamant in numerous publications that the archaeology of Palestine should be a discipline distinct from biblical studies. 6 Such claims concerning the uniqueness and/or superiority of the bible and its religious outlook in comparison to contemporary cultures have long been discredited, and Dever has difficulty steering between the Scylla of biblical uniqueness and the Charybdis of ancient Israel’s striking similarities to its larger cultural contexts.

Andrew D.H. Mayes discusses ancient Israelite religion in light of the graffiti found in the Iron Age site of Kuntillet Ajrud in the Negev which refer to “Yahweh of Samaria and his Asherah” and to “Yahweh of Teman.” Mayes sets forth and then refutes the once widely accepted claim that Israelite religion was rigidly monotheistic from its earliest days. He also appears to resist the temptation to classify any datum about ancient Israelite religion which contradicts its monotheistic portrayal in the Bible as an infrequent aberration from the norm. Mayes’s argument is straightforward and moderate. The “Asherah” in one graffito is not the name of the Canaanite goddess, but rather refers to the pole used for cultic purposes that is repeatedly mentioned in the Bible. Following Mark S. Smith, 7 Mayes understands the Kuntillet Ajrud texts to be evidence of the gradual assimilation by Yahweh of other gods and their characteristics, a phenomenon observable also in Yahweh’s contact with Ba al and El. “Yahweh became the God of Israel in the sense that it was only of Israel that Yahweh was God, before Israel became the people of Yahweh in the sense that Israel acknowledged only Yahweh” (64). He clearly lays out the main issues surrounding the graffito concerning Yahweh and his Asherah, i.e., the relationship of the text to pictures on the same artifact, and the grammatical problem of the possessive suffix “his” in attempting to understand Asherah as a divine name. Mayes’s work could have been supplemented, however, by reference to a 1995 volume on Israelite religion in the Persian period 8 which, while dealing with a time frame later than that of the Kuntillet Ajrud texts, would have helped clarify some of his discussion of polytheism and aniconism in ancient Israel. It is also curious that, in a book replete with photographs and illustrations, Mayes would not include the fine drawings of the graffiti that have been used in other works.

Sean V. Freyne discusses Roman period archaeology in the Galilee in an attempt to show that “those who seek to support their picture of Cynic influences on Jesus and his audience cannot do so unambiguously on the basis of the archaeological evidence” (138). Freyne’s main targets are John Dominic Crossan, Gerald Downing, and Burton Mack who, among others, see elements of Cynic philosophy both in the early Christian literary portrayal of Jesus and in the content and rhetoric of the speech of the historical Jesus. Yet Freyne also critiques much of the newer scholarship on the historical Jesus for its lack of sophistication concerning the use of archaeological data in making historical arguments. Arguing against archaeology’s claims for objectivity, as put forward by Bartlett in his methodological discussion (see above), Freyne clearly acknowledges the bias of interpreters of archaeological data (120). While he offers some healthy correctives to the unsophisticated use of archaeology by some researchers on the historical Jesus, most particularly concerning claims made for the cultural influence of Roman cities such as Tiberias and Sepphoris on the remainder of the Galilee, this reviewer would be more interested to see Freyne’s impressive command of the archaeological record brought to bear on Crossan’s thesis concerning the challenge of early Christian teaching to ancient Mediterranean peasant life and patronage in Roman society. Freyne presents data relevant to this question in his article when he talks of the symbiotic relationship between rural agrarian peasants and urban markets, but there is room for more constructive work.

The three remaining chapters, by Bartlett on Qumran, Brian Lalor on the Temple Mount and Herodian architecture, and Claudine Dauphin on a Byzantine basilica at Dor, fall under the category of fine pieces of work which outline clearly for the reader the data available along with their various interpretations. They each provide the reader with an admirable overview of their subjects, along with sound preliminary discussion of the secondary literature which can be further pursued by means of well assembled bibliographies.

In the final analysis, despite the shortcomings of some of the contributions in this volume, it remains a book that should be read. For the beginner it offers an easy point of entry into the vast world of archaeology as it pertains to the Bible; while it does not break any new ground for the professional, it provides quick access to a wealth of information (textual and pictorial) about some of the more important sites and current issues in the field. The helpful bibliographies, numerous plans and photographs, and affordable price make this already worthy book even more appealing.

1. Leo G. Perdue, Lawrence L. Toombs, and Gary Lance Johnson, Archaeology and Biblical Interpretation. Atlanta: John Knox, 1987.

2. One of the most thorough critiques of this method is Thomas L. Thompson, The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives. Berlin: DeGruyter, 1974.

3. David Jamieson-Drake, Scribes and Schools in Monarchic Judah: A Socio-Archeological Approach. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1991.

4. The Archaeology of the Israelite Settlement. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1988.

5. Although Dever will critique Gottwald’s thesis that the ancient Israelites were Canaanite peasants who revolted against petty rulers of city-states, his reliance on Gottwald is evident in his use of certain biblical terms denoting family, clan, and tribe to help explain the layout of small Iron Age settlements (27), as well as his claim that early Israelite culture is typified “probably. . .by radical, reformist ideology” (41). Gottwald’s major work ( The Tribes of Yahweh: A Sociology of the Religion of Liberated Israel 1250-1050 B.C.E. New York: Maryknoll, 1979) draws upon an earlier article by George Mendenhall, “The Hebrew Conquest of Palestine,”Biblical Archaeologist 25 (1962) 66-87.

6. See his “Syro-Palestinian and Biblical Archaeology,” in Douglas A. Knight (ed.), The Hebrew Bible and Its Modern Interpreters. Chico: Scholars Press, 1985. 31-74.

7. The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1990.

8. Diana V. Edelman (ed.), The Triumph of Elohim: From Yahwisms to Judaisms. Kampen: Kok Pharos, 1995.