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The Oxford Study Bible Study Bible supplemented with commentary from scholars of various religions.

The Limitations of Biblical Archaeology

As rich with potential as is the enterprise of biblical archaeology, so also is it fraught with problems. For one thing, as an interpretive process, it is subject to the difficulties of interpretation that are intrinsic to methods of dealing both with artifactual materials and with the biblical text. By their very nature, non-epigraphic archaeological remains are mute. Establishing their function, date, relationship to other artifacts, indeed their very character, is often a complex and controversial task, on which agreement may not be reached even among the excavators themselves.

The existence of divergent views about the characteristics of many archaeological remains means that the utilization of such material in studying biblical texts is not necessarily the straightforward procedure that we might imagine. Because of the concrete nature of the artifacts and buildings recovered by field work, there is a tendency to view archaeological evidence as objective, “hard” data. Although this may be true on one level, at the interpretive level it is misleading. A destruction layer in an ancient tell, which the biblical archaeologist would like to relate to a biblical narrative of military conquest, becomes a valid source of information only if its date can be successfully established.

But even then problems remain. An existing consensus on the date of virtually any archaeological materials is always subject to minor refinement, if not major revision, as new dating techniques as well as new materials become available. Furthermore, the evidence of destruction, to continue our example, even if securely located in a time period that can be related to events described in the Bible, never provides the identity of the perpetrator of the devastation. Thus an interpretive leap is involved in linking the debris in a tell with the details of a biblical narrative.

The problem of interpreting and reinterpreting material remains is often compounded by the existence of equally serious difficulties in understanding the evidence of the Bible itself. The plethora of biblical commentaries and the enormous body of scholarly literature dealing with scripture attest to the fact that the meaning of many biblical passages has not been clearly established. Again, to follow our hypothetical example of a city's destruction, scholars do not always agree on the dating of a biblical story. Furthermore, the date of the literary account itself may be far removed from the event being recounted. And to make matters even more complex, the apparently historical narratives in many parts of the Bible may be stylized, saga-like literature and not the eyewitness recording of contemporary events they seem to be. In short, the complexity of biblical interpretation provides as many potential pitfalls as does the complexity of archaeological interpretations for the task of the biblical archaeologist in bringing these two sets of data together.

The lesson of this dilemma of interpretation should be not to expect too much. Archaeology is clearly of enormous value in reconstructing the general biblical world. It is far less secure as a means of validating the specific biblical word. Archaeological evidence is more indirect than direct, and its extraordinary contributions to recapturing the realities of life in biblical antiquity rather than the verities of biblical texts should not be diminished by this realization.

At this point, one further misapprehension about what biblical archaeology can provide must be confronted. For many people, the fascination with archaeology in biblical lands derives from the expectation that archaeological materials will do more than provide general context for or even validate specific texts. That is, some believe that archaeology will “prove” the truth of the Bible. It may indeed be the case, though perhaps less common than we might expect, that archaeological data do confirm individual biblical passages. Yet what is meant by the truth of the Bible is not in fact subject to the kind of confirmation that archaeology can provide.

To illustrate this, let us again consider our example of a city's destruction. In the best of conditions the date of a conflagration level in a site that has been securely identified as the one mentioned in a biblical text can be convincingly related to the text's description of that site being razed at a specific point in biblical history. Archaeology might then be said to substantiate the historicity of the textual account. Yet it can never validate the textual claim. We must not forget that the Bible is not an ordinary chronicle of past events. Rather it tells its story to demonstrate its claim that God played an active role in the unfolding biblical story. The destruction of a city is thus ultimately ascribed to God's actions in delivering it into the hands of its conquerors.

The veracity of the Bible's claims about God's involvement in the world is of an order that can be neither proved nor disproved by archaeological information. Material remains can lead us into the world in which the ancients lived and in which they experienced the divine presence. But they cannot establish—nor can they contradict—the truth of the biblical claims about God. Dealing with the historical authenticity of biblical texts cannot be equated with revealing their spiritual truth.

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Oxford University Press

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