Biblical archaeology school

Biblical archaeology school

:"This article presents information on Biblical archaeology as an academic movement; for major excavations and artifacts relating to Biblical archaeology, see Biblical archaeology"

The Biblical archaeology school is the name given to a school of archeology founded on the work of William F. Albright, Director of the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR), (now the W. F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research) through the 1920s and 1930s and editor of ASOR's "Bulletin" until 1968.

Albright and his followers believed that archaeology could and should be used to shed light on the Biblical narrative, particularly the Old Testament. The influential academic positions held by Albright and his followers, and their immense output - Albright alone was the author of over a thousand books and articles - made their work immensely influential, especially in America, especially among ordinary believers who wished to believe that archaeology had proved the Bible true. In fact the members of the school were not biblical literalists, and their main concern was to discriminate between those parts of the biblical story which were true and those which were embellishments.


The foundations of biblical archaeology were laid in the 19th century with the work of antiquarians such as Johann Jahn, whose manual of biblical antiquities, "Biblische Archäologie", (1802, translated into English 1839) was immensely influential in the middle years of the 19th century. Jahn's book, and Edward Robinson's bestselling "Biblical Researches in Palestine, the Sinai, Petrae and Adjacent Regions" (1841), prompted a group of English clergymen and scholars to found the Palestine Exploration Fund "to promote research into the archaeology and history, manners and customs and culture, topography, geology and natural sciences of biblical Palestine and the Levant" in 1865; [ [ Palestine Exploration Fund website, Introduction to the PEF] ] it was followed by the Deutscher Palästina-Verein (1877), the École Biblique (1890), the American School of Oriental Research in (1900), and the British School of Archaeology in (1919). The research these institutions sponsored, at least in these early days, was primarily geographic, and it was not until the 1890s that Sir Flinders Petrie introduced the basic principles of scientific excavation, including stratigraphy and ceramic typology. [ [ David Noel Freedman and Bruce E. Willoughby, "Biblical Archaeology", MSN Encarta] ]

William F. Albright and the Biblical Archaeology school

The dominant figure in 20th century biblical archaeology, defining its scope and creating the mid-century consensus on the relationship between archaeology, the Bible, and the history of ancient Israel, was William F. Albright. An American with roots in the American Evangelical tradition (his parents were Baptist missionaries in Chile), Director of the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR), (now the W. F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research) through the `1920s and 1930s, editor of ASOR's "Bulletin" until 1968, and author of over a thousand books and articles, Albright drew biblical archaeology into the contemporary debates over the origins and reliability of the Bible. In the last decades of the 19th century Julius Wellhausen put forward the documentary hypothesis, which explained the Bible as the composite product of authors working between the 10th and 5th centuries BC. "This raised the question whether the Genesis through 2 Kings material could be regarded as a reliable source of information for Solomon’s period or earlier." [ [ J. Maxwell Miller, "History or Legend", "The Christian Century", February 24, 2004, p. 42–47. From] ]

Post-Wellhausen scholars such as Hermann Gunkel, Albrecht Alt and Martin Noth were suggesting that the written texts studied by Wellhausen rested on a body of oral tradition which reflected genuine history, but which could not themselves be regarded as historically accurate accounts of events. Albright saw archaeology as the search for the physical evidence which would test these theories through the comparative study of ancient texts (notably those from Ebla, Mari, the Tel Amarna and Nuzi) and material finds. In his conception biblical archaeology embraced all the lands mentioned in the Bible, taking in any finds which could "throw some light, directly or indirectly, on the Bible." [ [,M1 Peter Moorey, "A Century of Biblical Archaeology", p.54ff] ] By the middle of the 20th century the work of Albright and his students, notably Nelson Glueck, E. A. Speiser, G. Ernest Wright and Cyrus Gordon, had produced a consensus that biblical archaeology had provided physical evidence for the originating historical events behind the Old Testament narratives: in the words of Albright, "Discovery after discovery has established the accuracy of innumerable details of the Bible as a source of history." [W.F.Albright, The Archaeology of Palestine, 1954 edition, p. 128, quoted in [ Walter F. Kaiser, "What Good is Biblical Archaeology to Bible Readers?", "Contact" magazine, Winter 05/06, at] ] The consensus allowed the creation of authoritative textbooks such as John Bright's "History of Israel" (1959). [ [,M1 John Bright, "A History of Israel", 4th edition] ] Bright did not believe that the stories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph could be regarded as reliable sources of history, or that it was possible to reconstruct the origins of Israel from the biblical text alone; but he did believe that the stories in Genesis reflected the physical reality of the 20th–17th centuries BC, and that it was therefore possible to write a history of the origins of Israel by comparing the biblical accounts with what was known of the time from other sources. [ [ G. W. Ahlstrom, Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 95, No. 2 (Apr. – Jun., 1975), review of John Bright's "History of Israel" (4th edition)] ]

Biblical archaeology today

The Albrightian consensus was overturned in the 1970s. Fieldwork, notably Kathleen Kenyon's excavations at Jericho, did not 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, were being rejected by the archaeological community. The challenge reached its climax with the publication of two important studies: In 1974 Thomas L. Thompson's "The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives" re-examined 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." [ [ Thomas L. Thompson, "The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives: The Quest for the Historical Abraham", 1974, p.328, quoted in a review by Dennis Pardee, Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 1977] ] and 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." [ [ John Van Seters, "Abraham in History and Tradition", 1975, p.309] ] At the same time a new generation of archaeologists, notably William G. Dever, criticized 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 as 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," [ [ Joel Ng, "Introduction to Biblical Archaeology", 2003 (revised 2004), at] ] and should be abandoned and replaced with a regional Syro-Palestinian archaeology operating within a processual framework. [ [ Don C. Benjamin, "Stones & Stories: an introduction to archaeology & the Bible", 2008, p.16] ]

Dever was broadly successful: most archaeologists working in the world of the Bible today do so within a processual or post-processual framework: yet few would describe themselves in these terms. [ [ Don C. Benjamin, "Stones & Stories: an introduction to archaeology & the Bible", 2008, p.7] ] The reasons for this attachment to 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, and with the unwillingness of biblical scholars, both conservative and liberal, to reject the link between the Bible and archaeology. [ [ Ziony Zevit, "Three Debates About Bible and Archaeology: The 'Biblical Archaeology' Debate", Biblica 83 (2002) pp.2–9] ] The result has been a blurring of the distinction between the theologically-based archaeology which interprets the archaeological record as "substantiating in general the theological message of a God who acts in history," [Specifically this was the view of Albright's student G. E. Wright and his "Biblical Theology" school which became popular in America in the 1950s. See [ Andrew G. Vaughn, review of William 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" (2001), RBL 2003] ] and Dever's vision of Syro-Palestinian archaeology as an "independent, secular discipline ... pursued by cultural historians for its own sake." [William G. Dever, quoted in [ Ziony Zevit, "The Future of Biblical Archaeology: Reassessing Methodologies and Assumptions", 2001] ]


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