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.
In view of these sound reasons, it appears puzzling that Dever’s reasonable case failed to carry the day. There were three major types of objections to it: the first, institutional, reflecting enlightened self-interest; the second, semantic; and the third, by far the most complex, theological.
Institutional objections: Most full-time archaeologists from the United States and virtually all from Europe and Israel were inclined to favor Dever’s suggestion; Biblicists and theologians, however, were divided. Furthermore, the overwhelming majority of excavators interested in Biblical periods who work in Israel and Jordan were not full-time archaeologists. Most are employed at seminaries or denominational institutions where they teach Bible or courses with names like ‘Ancient Israelite Civilization’ and the like. They were reluctant to adopt and promote terminology suggesting that archaeology was irrelevant to their work as Biblicists. Furthermore, the terminology proposed by Dever might have fostered perceptions of archaeology inimical to their tasks of procuring financial support from generous patrons and granting institutions and of recruiting individual volunteers for digs.
Semantic objections (or justifications): Among those who recognized the essential validity of Dever’s concerns, many wished to maintain the term ‘Biblical Archaeology’. They argued on Albrightian grounds that it was both useful and meaningful when referring to Iron Age archaeology in Israel and Jordan. ‘Biblical archaeology’ was appropriate because although it alluded to canonical scripture, the collocation was commonly understood as referring to a particular people in a particular place and time: Israelites in the Land of Israel from the Iron Age until the days of Ezra and Nehemiah in the Persian period which followed the Iron Age, i.e., c. 1200-332 BCE (when the referent of ‘Biblical’ was the Hebrew Bible). It could even cover Jesus, Paul and the early church (when the referent was the New Testament). With this sense, it resembled terms such as ‘Roman’ or ‘Greek’ applied as adjectives to branches of classical archaeology. Consequently, the debate was just so much semantic quibbling. Finally, there was no valid reason to eliminate the adjective ‘Biblical’. Just as ancient written sources are used by classical archaeologists when interpreting their finds, the Bible is used in interpreting finds from Iron Age Israel.
Theological objections I: Complicating this delicate situation was the fact, generally unknown to people who came of age after the 1950’s, that ‘Biblical Archaeology’ was an old term, well established