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.
This testimony became grist for the mills of the liberal, positivistic ‘Biblical Theology’ movement that achieved great popularity starting in the 1950’s and has had a profound influence on what has been taught subsequently in both Christian and non-Orthodox, Jewish settings since then. What distinguished this movement from more conservative approaches was its ability to discern a difference between the reliability and accuracy of the Bible’s historical descriptions as tested by archaeological investigations and the theological predications of the text12. Predications were raised to prominence as ‘proclamation’ while events tested and not found wanting were esteemed as witnesses to the proclamation. Events found wanting, such as the enslavement of Israelites in Egypt, were classified as ‘myth’, their lack of historicity ignored, and they were milked for their kerygmatic predications alone.
In proposing the term ‘Syro-Palestinian archaeology’, Dever explicitly declared that he had given up on the term with its associative links to exegesis and theological explication. He may have been perceived as attacking religion. He certainly was perceived correctly as attacking those arguing from denominationally normative (or Biblical) theology to archaeological interpretation. But, to the best of my knowledge, he did not raise this as a general issue in public presentations.
Dever lost the debate. It was almost inevitable. There are many more teachers of 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 archaeologists might discover. The call for a change in terminology was intended to sever the connection between the archaeological and the theological, to disallow any claims that archaeology of the physical had implications for the metaphysical, and to delegitimize any interpretative authority that theologically driven Biblicists might claim over archaeological data.