The Contributions of Archaeology
Perhaps no other area on the surface of the earth has been so extensively and intensively explored and excavated as has been the heartland of the biblical world, ancient Palestine. The beginnings of the investigation of the material remains of the land in which the Bible took shape virtually coincided with the emergence of the western fascination with the lost civilizations of the ancient world. For centuries, travelers from Europe to the Mediterranean world, many of them pious pilgrims drawn to Bible lands, had brought back tales of the monuments and ruins they had seen in the general vicinity of places mentioned in holy texts. But it is barely more than a century and a half ago that the scientific recovery of the material remains of biblical antiquity began.
Archaeology, and in particular biblical archaeology, holds such a fascination in the western mind that the results of archaeological work have penetrated the popular culture in a way that relatively few scientific endeavors can claim. Magazine articles, television documentaries, newspaper reports, and even feature films have all presented wide audiences with data recovered from the biblical world. Because of the availability of such material, it is difficult to remember how different our perception of the Bible and its people was even a generation ago.
Without archaeology, the content of the biblical text is somehow flat, distant, and remote. Without a sense of the reality of the biblical world and of the authenticity of its peoples and places, the Bible seems almost like a mythical document, its content somehow isolated from the fabric of human experience. To be sure, many texts have their own inherent vitality; many passages transcend their distance in time and space from today's readers. Yet, unlike most religious documents, the Bible is not an abstract theological treatise. It is a story, or series of stories, set in the real world; it deals with particular human beings who moved about in specific places. Yet in its very focus on particular moments and persons, it is a selection and thus a distortion. It cannot possibly provide us with all the details of the ancient setting that could help us understand the dynamics of human existence in biblical antiquity and could thus enable us to grasp the reality of the life experiences that have been captured in the biblical word. Those life experiences have become the vehicles for expressing profound ideas about the relationship between God and the world, and therefore any means of further understanding them, and thereby increasing understanding of the biblical word, are of great importance to us.