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Bible and Archaeology: Another try

By Emeritus Professor Philip Davies
University of Sheffield, England
September 2012

How should the historian deal with the biblical texts on the one hand and archaeological data on the other? The collapse of “biblical archaeology” has left many scholars without any agreed procedure. At one pole is a clique clinging to “biblical historicity”; at the other pole are those who want to construct a purely archaeological history. Between the poles lie the rest of us, apparently uncertain as to how to proceed. Some claim that biblical texts and archaeology largely do not intersect, and others that the biblical texts have virtually no relationship to history, some work ad hoc. I’m not going to provide names here, because any individual scholar may resent being crudely labelled.

Here, instead, I’m going to sketch a basic methodology, based on three principles. First: the issue does not relate only to biblical texts that describe the past, that appear “historiographical”. Second: there is no question of comparing raw biblical data with raw archaeological data; in each case the data have to be processed—that is, interpreted through technical means. Third: biblical texts and archaeological data, once processed, are largely compatible and can be compared and integrated. The historian, whoever it is, must therefore be able to understand, interrogate and apply the results. There are still very few (if any) archaeologists sufficiently competent in the techniques of textual (especially historical-critical) exegesis. There is a greater number of biblical literary-historical critics au fait with the increasingly technical understanding of modern archaeological research. But this is not a turf war between two disciplines: the point is that the historian must deal with a range of historical-critical operations on biblical texts, but also with differing archaeological reconstructions (Iron I-IIa chronology,Iron II and Persian period Jerusalem, Nehemiah’s wall, Bethel, Gezer, Tell Qeiyafa, and many more) and gaps where data are missing or adequate excavation has not been carried out. Raw data, biblical or archaeological, are absolutely out!

Archaeology deals with actual artefactual relics and what they might tell us about the material culture of those who left them. The biblical texts can also be described as a kind of tell in which has accumulated over time the debris of literary activity. Excavation is the common tool of the literary-historical critic and the archaeologist, and stratigraphy is a key method. The difference is that the biblical tell, apart from a few clues, does not display its stratigraphy and does not reveal the artefacts that make it up. These artefacts are the many literary texts that once must have existed in order for the extant biblical texts to have come into being. There is little doubt that such texts did once exist as material artifacts: ostraca, papyri, clay, skins, graffiti, whatever. But they are lost.1 The work of literary-historical critics is to reconstruct these artefacts but also to create a stratigraphy, first from the extant biblical text, but then across texts. In other words, they create ‘virtual artifacts’, something that might have been recovered in an excavation, had it survived. That such artefacts existed is obvious, but reconstructing them involves a lot of conjecture, more conjecture than archaeologists need in order to interpret their data. But it’s a matter of degree. To me it seems that the process are analogous. What is more, just as archaeological data from a tell can be used to reconstruct aspects of how previous inhabitants lived, what they ate, their social organization, religious beliefs and more, so reconstructed texts from the biblical tell can reveal not just words, but worldviews and ideologies.2 Both also use stratigraphy to convert data into sequences.

How should the historian integrate the two? I would say archaeology must have a logical priority, since in order to reconstruct a virtual literary artifact, the biblical scholar needs to know as much as possible about the history of the societies that will have produced it, and here archaeology, having real artefacts, is less subject to conjecture. Too much literary-historical work still operates in a vacuum or in a historical context generated by the text itself. Recreating virtual artefacts must obey the (interpreted) evidence of archaeology.

What next? The historian might be tempted to consider whether these virtual artifacts contain(ed) statements about the past that might reveal what other sources cannot tell us. But if the information can be corroborated from elsewhere, it is not new knowledge, though the corroboration is useful. If the statement is unverified, it cannot give us knowledge of the event. Of course it can be asked whether the creator of a virtual artifact might have been in a position to know something he states to have happened. But that is unproductive speculation. The important datum is that the creator made the statement, or told the story: that itself illuminates the mind and something of the culture of the author and perhaps of his audience, even his society. Take the scribe of an Assyrian campaign list (a real, not virtual artefact): we can’t tell if he knew the truth of what he was inscribing, nor even if the monarch knew what had been written. And these texts do not in themselves give us reliable data about Assyrian military campaigns (for example): victories are invented, defeats ignored, numbers exaggerated, enemies destroyed without remnant on an annual basis. We can possibly work out roughly what happened, but the direct historical value lies in the function of the rhetoric and the placing and effect of inscriptions that hardly anyone could actually read: this informs us about the cultural system in which the text functioned.

What is more serious about the “historicity” aspect is the assumption that “historiographical” texts are more valuable than others, whereas they are not: all biblical texts can in principle be converted into virtual artefacts that would illuminate the culture of their own time and place. This is more important than speculation about individual events. The history of the world has been shaped much less by what may have happened in Palestine between 1200 BCE and 100 CE than by the records of what people thought happened, or claimed happened, or invented. The biblical tell is not full of historical facts, but full of images of the past—“cultural memory”. Now here is an area of social science that I think offers a real possibility of partnership with the ambitions of archaeology to understand the societies of the past.


1 The predicament of the historian of ancient Palestine/Canaan is sometimes compared or contrasted with that of the classical historian, who also has texts and archaeological data to utilize. But we know the author and date of most classical texts, vastly reducing the degree of hypothesis needed. The stratigraphy is already there.

2 I want to acknowledge that the two popular books by Finkelstein and Silberman represent a real attempt to integrate archaeology and biblical texts in something like the way I am advocating. But they do not bring sufficient literary-historical expertise to the creation of their virtual literary artefacts, and they fall into the trap of basing a great deal of their synthesis on a hypothesis about the reign of Josiah that not even the uninterpreted biblical texts, let alone archaeology, warrants. Finkelstein’s more recent work on Persian period Jerusalem, moreover, fails to acknowledge that Haggai, Zechariah, Chronicles, ben Sira, Daniel and other biblical texts point to virtual artefacts contradicting his view that no literary composition took place in Jerusalem between Josiah and the Hasmoneans. I hope he stays on the right path and does not wander into archaeological fundamentalism.