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1. Current Attitudes On Bible History And Archaeology

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Attitudes between the 20s and the 30s and currently toward the Bible in the Ancient Near East, the role of archaeology and its impact on the Bible, as well as questions about whether there is such a thing as biblical archaeology have shifted dramatically. The following citations from Glueck and Wright in particular come from the fifties and sixties, when there was somewhat of an “Albrightian consensus” that was particularly salutary. Later we will discuss contemporary (1990’s) views, but for now let the men working with the Bible and archaeology in that era speak for themselves.

Nelson Glueck (Rivers in the Desert. p. 30ff) addresses the issue of the place of the Bible in the discussion of archaeology:

“The purpose of the biblical historian and archaeologist is, however, not to ‘prove’ the correctness of the Bible. It is primarily a theological document, which can never be ‘proved,’ because it is based on belief in God, whose Being can be scientifically suggested but never scientifically demonstrated.”1

“Those people are essentially of little faith who seek through archaeological corroboration of historical source materials in the Bible to validate its religious teachings and spiritual insights.”

“As a matter of fact, however, it may be stated categorically that no archaeological findings have been made which confirm in clear outline or in exact detail historical statements in the Bible. And, by the same token, proper evaluation of biblical descriptions has often led to amazing discoveries. They form tesserae in the vast mosaic of the Bible’s almost incredibly correct historical memory.”

G. Ernest Wright (“Is Glueck’s Aim to Prove that the Bible is True?” Biblical Archaeologist, XXII, December, 1959) defends the “Albrightian consensus” against the charge of holding to a biblical agenda:

“J. J. Finkelstein of the University of California presents a review of Rivers in the Desert (Commentary, April, 1959, XXVII No. 4). In actuality the article is not so much a review of Glueck’s discoveries as a critical essay on the question as to whether archaeology proves the historicity of the Bible. He takes #3 above as Glueck’s thesis and debates it.”

Finkelstein: “Wright says in his Biblical Archaeology, ‘The most surprising and discouraging result of the work so far has been the discovery that virtually nothing remains at the site between 1500 and 1200 B.C.’” (Jericho). Wright: “Finkelstein asserts that the word ‘virtually’ is simply a scholarly hedge for ‘nothing,’ and that what I am actually saying is that the site was unoccupied in the Late Bronze Age. Furthermore, says Finkelstein, my word ‘discouraging’ in this connection ‘speaks volumes on the subject of scholarly detachment in the area of Biblical studies.’ He continues: ‘The dictates of the new trend, which requires that every contradiction between archaeological evidence and the Biblical text be harmonized to uphold the veracity of Scripture, has apparently driven Dr. Wright--in this case at least--beyond the reach of common sense.’”

The Role of Fundamentalism

Wright: “There are many people both here and abroad who honestly think and frequently assert that Palestinian and biblical archaeology was conceived and reared by conservative Christians who wished to find support for their faith in the accuracy of the Bible. As a matter of actual fact, however, that is not the case at all. In the great fundamentalist-modernist controversy that reached its height before the First World War, archaeology was not a real factor in the discussion. Indeed, the discoveries relating to the antiquity of man and the Babylonian creation and flood stories were usually cited against the fundamentalist position. As for the excavations in Palestine, one need only call the roll of the leading American sponsors and contributors to indicate what the true situation has been: Harvard University (Samaria), University of Pennsylvania (Beth-Shan), University of Chicago (Megiddo), Yale University (Jerash), the American Schools of Oriental Research, etc. Palestinian archaeology has been dominated by a general cultural interest, and one can say that ‘fundamentalist’ money has never been a very important factor.2 Archaeological research by and large has been backed by the humanist opinion that anything having to do with historical research, with the investigation of our past is an obvious ‘good’ which needs no justification.”

Place of Albright

“The introduction of the theme, ‘archaeology confirms biblical history,’ into the discussion of scientific archaeological matters is a comparatively recent phenomenon. And it is to be credited to the pen of William Foxwell Albright more than to any other one person. Since the 1920’s, Albright has towered over the field of biblical archaeology as the greatest giant it has produced, and more than any other single person he has influenced younger scholars, Protestant, Catholic and Jewish, to take the subject seriously as a primary tool of historical research. At the same time, he has been a most important encouragement to young conservative scholars. Through his writings, they have come to realize that if they but master the tools of research, there is indeed a positive contribution that they can make to biblical research, and that the radical views which they could not accept do not necessarily find support in recent research.”

“Yet Albright has often been misunderstood at this point. He has never been a ‘fundamentalist’ (Note, for example, the robust attack on him as an old-fashioned liberal at heart by O. T. Allis, “Albright’s Thrust for the Bible View,” CT, May 25, 1959, Vol. III. 17, pp. 7-9), and the encouragement of that movement could scarcely be farther from his center of interest… At the same time Albright’s deep interest in ancient history and his mastery of several disciplines within it brought him to the conviction that a whole new environment for biblical study was emerging of which the 19th century knew nothing.”

“Consequently, at first in his popular writings and finally in his scholarly synthesis of the evidence (From the Stone Age to Christianity), he led the attack in the English-speaking world on the unexamined presuppositions of ‘Wellhausenism’ from the standpoint of ancient history and particularly archaeology. The early historical traditions of Israel cannot be easily dismissed as data for history when such a variety of archaeological facts and hints make a different view far more reasonable, at least as a working hypothesis, namely, that the traditions derive from an orally transmitted epic which has preserved historical memories in a remarkable way, that ‘pious fraud’ was not a real factor in the production or refraction of the traditions, and that in Israel aetiology was a secondary, never a primary, factor in the creation of the epic.”3

Conservative Archaeology

“This information from Jericho was said to be ‘disappointing,’ and the reason is this: not only is it now difficult to interpret the biblical narrative of the fall of Jericho, but it is impossible to trace the history of the tradition. For my part, I do not believe that it can any longer be thought ‘scientific’ simply to consider stories such as this one either as pure fabrications or as ‘aetiologies.’ They have a long history of transmission, oral before written, and they derive from something real in history, no matter how far removed they may now be. In a number of instances, both the origin and history of a given tradition can be made out by historical, form-critical, and other methods of study. But the problem of Jericho is more of a problem than ever, precisely because the history of the tradition about it seems impossible to penetrate.”

The Differences between the Continental and American Schools

Scoggin, J. Alberto, BA, XXIII, No. 3, September, 1960. Qinat sofrim tarbeh hokma. (The jealousy of scholars increases wisdom.) He presents the views of Albrecht Alt and his younger contemporary Martin Noth as opposed to the Albright school represented by John Bright, A History of Israel. The former argues for complete dismissal of the historicity of anything before the constitution of the Twelve-tribe League (Amphictyony) on Palestinian soil. Whereas the latter holds the essential historicity of the traditions underlying the sources. For a more detailed discussion of this cleavage and subsequent modifications, see DeVaux, The Bible and the Ancient Near East, pp. 111-122.

Attitudes in the nineties

W. F. Albright died in 1971. An issue of the Biblical Archaeologist was devoted to “celebrating and examining” his legacy. The editor says, “W. F. Albright represents, as it were, an Atlantis of biblical and Near Eastern studies, lingering in memory and story long after slipping beneath the sea.”4 Devers is particularly devastating in his evaluation of Albright’s work.5 He says, “The fact is the ‘Biblical archaeology’ of the classic Albright-Wright style is dead, either as a serious intellectual enterprise, or as an effective force in American academic or religious life.” He goes on to say, in spite of Albright’s arguments that there was a 13th century Moses who was a monotheist, “the overwhelming scholarly consensus today is that Moses is a mythical figure, that Yahwism was highly syncretistic from the very beginning; and that true monotheism developed only late in Israel’s history, probably not until the Exile and Return (see the state-of-the-art studies gathered in Miller, Hanson, and McBride 1987).”

Thus we have come full circle: Albright rejected the excessive higher critical claims for the non-historicity of the Bible, but now his position has been rejected. We must now speak of the new archaeology not Biblical archaeology.6

Kitchen argues that Albright’s views were good based on Mari (18th century) and Nuzi (15th century). There was wide travel, semi nomadism, West-Semitic personal names, and legal/social usage.7 Kitchen goes on to say that this data has been clouded by later treatments. Gordon dated Abraham in the 14th century and identified him as a merchant prince. Others identified him as a warrior hero. Albright himself identified him as a donkey caravaneer, a traveling trader rather than a pastoralist. Speiser gave a Hurrian interpretation based primarily on Nuzi. The Patriarchs began to look more like Hurrians than Hebrews! There was a reaction, he says, against Albright’s views in the 1970’s encouraged by old style “die hards” in Germany and America. It is nothing but old German rationalism. Those who are trying to “debunk” Albright include T. L. Thompson, The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives, 1974; J. van Seters, Abraham in History and Tradition, 1975; and D. B. Redford, “A Study of the Biblical Story of Joseph,” VTSup 20 (1970).8

Albright’s general views will continue to be presented in this outline for the simple reason that I believe many of his historical conclusions are correct.

During this same period (80’s-90’s), the issue of minimalism vs maximalism arose. A small number of advocates (Whitelam,9 Thompson,10 Davies,11 Lemche,12 Finkelstein,13 e.g.) exercising a disproportionate influence on the scholarly world, argue for no historicity of the Bible prior to the sixth century B.C. So, again, we have come full circle to the place where Albright began to debunk the hyper-critical views of the 19th century. See Dever (himself no conservative) debunking this.14 Kenneth Kitchen came out with his monumental work in 2003.15 In my opinion he devastates the arguments of the minimalists.

Thompson even argues against the Tel Dan inscription that specifically mentions the house of David coming from the ninth century BC. He desperately tries to find other meanings for the words.16 Kitchen makes a slashing attack on the biblical minimalists on pp. 449-500. See his discussion of Philistines and camels during the patriarchal time on p. 465. The lack of records regarding the exodus is discussed on p. 466. He interacts with Dever’s, Who were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From? on pp 468ff. “There seems to be a psychological hangover here; in the 1950s to 1960s, Albright and Dever’s much-hated ‘American Biblical Archaeology’ (plus theology) movement had believed in the patriarchs and exodus—so (irrationally) nobody now (two generations later) must either be allowed to study them seriously or to produce any data (no matter how genuine or germane) that do suggest their possible reality. In the light of what is now known, there is no excuse whatsoever for dismissing either the patriarchs (with a firm date line) or the exodus; see the entirely fresh treatments in chapters 6 and 7 above. The treatments given here by me are not based on Albright, Gordon, or the vagaries of the little local (and very parochial) United States problem of the long-deceased American Biblical Archaeology/ theology school. Archaeologists that ‘have given up hope of recovering any context that would make Abraham, Isaac or Jacob credible ‘historical figures’ (98) are not thereby rendered ‘respectable’; in fact, they simply do not know the relevant source materials (which are mainly textual), are not competent to pass judgment on the issues, and would be better described as pitifully ignorant, and can now be mercifully dismissed as out of their depth.”17


1But seeking confirmation of written documents by archaeology is not improper and practical for other documents than the Bible (Kitchen, Ancient Orient and the Old Testament, 169, 70).

2Schoville (Keith Schoville, Biblical Archaeology in Focus, p. 97) cites this statement and adds, “There is currently a trend, nevertheless, for increased financial and staff support derived from conservative circles.”

3Albright said, “In the center of history stands the Bible” (cited by J. M. Sasson, “Albright as an Orientalist,” BA, 56 [1993] 6).

4David C. Hopkins, “From the Editor,” Biblical Archaeologist 56 (1993) Inside cover.

5W. G. Dever, “What Remains of the House that Albright Built?”BA56 (1993) 32-33.

6See John van Seters (In Search of History) for a classical presentation of the newer perspective.

7See Provan, et al., A Biblical History of Israel, p. 115 for a recent discussion of Nuzi and the Patriarchs.

8K. Kitchen, The Bible in Its World, pp. 57-58. For a 1987 survey, see F. R. Brandfon, “Archaeology and the Biblical Text,” BAR 14 (1987) 54-59.

9Keith W. Whitelam, The Invention of Ancient Israel: The Silencing of Palestinian History, NY: Routledge, 1996.

10Thomas L. Thompson, The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology and the Myth of Israel, NY: Basic, 1999.

11P. R. Davies, In Search of Ancient Israel, Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1992.

12Niels Peter Lemche, The Israelites in History and Tradition.

13Israel Finkelstein and N. A. Silberman, The Bible Unearthed: Archaeologys New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts.

14William G. Dever, What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It? What Archaeology Can Tell Us about the Reality of Ancient Israel.

15K. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (OROT), Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003.

16 Kevin D. Miller, “Did the Exodus Never Happen?” Christianity Today, September, 1998, for a good discussion of the issues.

17Kitchen, OROT, pp. 468-469. See also a response to Dever in John Oswalt, The Bible among the Myths, pp.180-81.

Related Topics: Archaeology, History