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Biblical Archeology Course 2, Lesson 1
Biblical Archaeology, A Detailed Introduction
Biblical archaeology is the archaeology that relates to, and sheds light upon, the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. It was given its theoretical framework, and enjoyed its most influential period, in the early to mid 20th century through the influence of William F. Albright; the American “biblical archaeology” school which he founded had a profound influence on both biblical scholarship and evangelical theology of the time, cementing the view that archaeology had demonstrated the essential truth of the Old Testament narrative, especially that part relating to the Biblical Patriarchs, the Exodus, and the conquest of Canaan. Many theological radicals tried to overthrow this stand, but despite this, the reliance of American field excavation on denominational support has meant that the Albrightian paradigm continues to influence contemporary archaeology in the region.
Background: The foundations of biblical archaeology were laid in the 19th century with the work of scholars 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, and Edward Robinson, whose Biblical Researches in Palestine, the Sinai, Petrae and Adjacent Regions (1841) became a popular best-seller, demonstrating that scientific research could verify the accuracy and trustworthiness of the bible. In 1865 the Palestine Exploration Fund was established by a group of English clergymen and scholars “to promote research into the archaeology and history, manners and customs and culture, topography, geology and natural sciences of biblical Palestine and the Levant”; 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; it was not until the 1890s that Sir Flinders Petrie introduced the basic principles of scientific excavation, including stratigraphy and ceramic typology.
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.”
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.” 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.” The consensus allowed the creation of authoritative textbooks such as John Bright’s History of Israel (1959). Bright was a theological radical but archeological discoveries forced him to 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.
Biblical archaeology today: The Albrightian consensus was attacked by many theological radicals in the 1970s. Since radicals have been gradually able to take over the control of funds and educational institutions, they constantly try to attack the historicity of the Bible. However, there is such an accumulation of hard facts by now that they have not been successful. Currently, the Biblical Archaeology Society, founded in 1974, remains the primary organization publishing and discussing discoveries and issues relating to Biblical Archaeology. There are many minor periodicals also devoted to this subject. New books keep being issued on this topic, popular as well as technical. [GFDL Article and Copyright]