Ziony Zevit, «Three Debates about Bible and Archaeology», Vol. 83 (2002) 1-27
Three significant debates affecting perceptions of Israelite history, the Bible’s historiography, the relationship between this historiography and archaeology, and the dating of parts of the Bible’s literature have occupied Biblicists and archaeologists for the last 25 years. This article distinguishes the debates by analyzing the issues involved, the terminologies employed, as well as the professions of the protagonists engaged in each. It considers each within its own intellectual context. In light of these analyses, the article proposes a positive assessment of the contribution of these debates to the study ancient Israel’s history.
intellectual context, and to indicate how this approach promotes an intellectually healthy climate within which historical research may advance.
I. The ‘Biblical Archaeology’ Debate
The ‘Biblical Archaeology’ debate, provoked by Dever in the 1970’s, was about whether ‘Biblical Archaeology’ might be better termed ‘Syro-Palestinian Archaeology’2. Good reasons were elicited in favor of the change and it had much support among professional archaeologists and archaeological cognoscenti.
(1) Archeologists generally use adjectives referring to a period (e.g., Chalcolithic, Middle Bronze) and/or geographical region (e.g., Babylonian, Egyptian) and/or culture (e.g., Hittite, Roman) to describe the focus of their work; never an adjectivized book title. There is neither ‘Beowulf Archeology’ nor ‘Illiadic Archaeology’. In archaeological parlance, ‘Biblical’ was a vacuous word.
(2) Individuals employing the expression intended ‘Biblical’ to refer primarily to the historical periods during which personages mentioned in the Bible lived in the ‘Biblical world’. This latter term, became widely used in American scholarship under the influence of W.F. Albright, broadly recognized as the founding scholar of scientific Biblical archaeology in the land of Israel. As Albright used ‘Biblical Archaeology’, it encompassed all countries and cultures of the Middle East mentioned in the Bible or relevant to events portrayed there. Excavations in Spain and Syria, Tunisia and Arabia could be classified under its rubric. Used this way, ‘Biblical’ blanketed too much territory and was, as a result, not informative.
(3) ‘Biblical’ refers to nothing that archaeologists do as archaeologists, i.e., as experts in excavating, cataloguing finds, tracing the development and evolution of material culture.