What Can be Expected of ‘Biblical Archaeology’?
The question is an important one, because sometimes exaggerated claims have been made, of the ‘archaeology proves (or disproves) the Bible’ type. It is perhaps because archaeology has been thought to be more ‘scientific’ than other critical, exegetical, and theological approaches that words like ‘proof’ have been used. But it is essential to bear in mind that there is often as much interpretation involved in the understanding of an archaeological discovery as there is in the understanding of a biblical passage. The ancient identity of a site may be unknown or uncertain. A piece of ancient writing may be fragmentary, difficult to read or translate, and even if the translation is clear the precise significance may not be. The purpose or function of an artefact or structure may not always be easily or correctly understood.
Despite the difficulties and the need for caution, archaeology's contribution to the study of the Bible has been immense, not least in providing information about the wider context of the world in which those who produced the Bible lived and in which the biblical traditions are set. The section on ‘Israel and the Nations’ has shown that the fortunes of the inhabitants of Palestine often depended on the relative strengths and weaknesses of the great powers of the ancient Near East. The biblical writings were produced in the wider literary context of the ancient Near East. The suggestion that some biblical writings may show parallels to or even dependency upon those of other ancient peoples has sometimes been found to be disturbing, as though questioning or devaluing their special nature. Yet archaeology has made it possible to appreciate that the writers were able to draw upon a great variety of different types of literary expression and that their own claim to belong to an older and wider world is indeed justified. Judaism and Christianity developed in the midst of many and varied religious beliefs and practices, learning from some of them and coming into conflict with some of them.