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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.

The Bible and Archaeology

The results of archaeological investigations in many areas of the world have had a dramatic impact upon the study of history by calling into question previously text-based reconstructions. Barraclough (1979: 107) remarked some time ago that

the most significant and lasting result of archaeological discovery, however, is to have broken the historian's traditional reliance upon written records, and, in some instances at least, to have demonstrated the unreliability and mythical character of the information those records convey. Both in Anglo-Saxon England and in India for example, archaeological evidence indicates a radically different pattern of settlement from that put forward in popular traditions and literary texts.

This has been the case for many periods of Israelite history. It is not simply the case that evidence does not exist to support the claims in the narrative, as some critics assert, and that without this supporting evidence the texts are dismissed as fictional. The major problem for the historian is that in many cases the picture drawn from an independent analysis of the archaeological remains is at variance with the picture put forward in text-based reconstructions. The most spectacular shift in recent years has taken place in the reconstruction of the emergence of Israel in the Late Bronze-Iron Age transition, where it is generally accepted that the archaeological evidence points to a largely indigenous development for the high-land villages that traditionally have been associated with the emergence of Israel. Leaving aside the contentious question of how to identify Israelite material remains and the debate on ethnicity, most scholars are in general agreement that on the basis of the material remains the demographic changes taking place in the Late Bronze-Iron Age transition were largely indigenous. This is in striking contrast to the biblical traditions which emphasize Israel's external origins in the exodus and conquest traditions.

In such a situation, it is incumbent on the historian to try to explain the disparity between the two different pictures. There are numerous cases throughout the world where origin traditions have been shaped by later communities and then been treated as historical facts by historians (see Whitelam 1989). Such traditions often play a crucial role in the construction of identity at later periods. As such, they are important sources for the historian, but as witnesses to the thought peculiar to the time at which they were written, rather than necessarily the events which they describe. Japhet (1979) drew attention to the fact that the Chronicler offers an alternative tradition of origin, which suggests that Israel was always in the land. A comparison of the various traditions throughout the Hebrew Bible suggests that they offer competing claims to the land by those who were ‘returning’ from exile and those who had remained in the land. The problem with trying to write the history of the period from such narratives, as though they are a straightforward reflection of historical events, is that this privileges particular information, a particular perception of the past and its ideology. ‘The lines of national belonging’, as Raphael Samuel (1989) remarks, ‘so far from being instinctual, were constantly being withdrawn.’ Comparisons of Ezra-Nehemiah with Chronicles suggests competing notions of identity and competing representations of the past. The acceptance of the fossilized accounts in Ezra 2 and Nehemiah 9 or the genealogies of 1 Chronicles 1–9 as the definition of the post-exilic community privilege an exclusivist claim to the past. The danger is that because of the constant assertion that these are the principal or sole sources for this period, their notions of identity and belonging become the totality of lived experience for our histories. Groups which are not part of these texts do not then form part of the history.

The myth of the empty land, explored by Carroll (1992) and Barstad (1996), provides a classic example of the way in which the past is used to legitimitize the ‘new Israel’ through direct continuation with the ‘old’. Like many modern accounts, it presents ‘a myth of unchanging national identity’ (Samuel 1989: 17). The construction of the past and its retelling, in oral or written form, is the way in which particular groups define identity and their relationship to the present (Plumb 1969; Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983; Le Goff 1992).9 Barstad (1997: 57) notes that ‘this theological story does not tell us what Israel's history really looked like in ancient times’; nor does it allow the systematic study of the history of ancient society in all its ‘complexity and multifaceted reality’. Any people, groups, or events which do not conform to or contribute to the progression of this history are ignored. Where are the pastoral communities of Palestine, which throughout its history have been demographically and politically significant? As noted above, the transformation of Iron Age Palestine, which gathered momentum throughout the period, eventually leading to the revival of the towns with increasing fortification at some sites, began in the countryside as a response to the recession of the Late Bronze Age. How far it was the result of internal population displacement, external movements, or internal demographic growth is a matter of considerable debate. However, it is a process which has only become apparent as it is viewed over two to three centuries. The reordering of the countryside has been spectacularly revealed by the series of regional surveys conducted by Finkelstein, Ofer, Herzog, and many others. It is these surveys which have helped to revolutionize the study of the history of the Palestine in the Iron Age and undermine previous biblically based reconstructions. Although the surveys have revealed considerable regional variation, it was from within the delicate balance and continuum between peasants and pastoral groups that the revival began, leading over centuries to the transformation and realignment of Iron Age Palestine.10 See Lemche (1985) and Coote and Whitelam (1987) for the complexities of the social continuum in ancient Palestine and the complex interrelationships between pastoral and agricultural communities. The pastoral sector never disappears completely, since the economy of urban and nomad populations is interconnected, and the two coexist at all times (Naaman 1994: 233). This continuum between town, countryside, and pastoralism, a constant in the history of Palestine through the ages, is hidden in our biblical sources for the Persian and Hellenistic periods. Again, biblically based reconstructions have tended to focus upon the plight of Jerusalem and its immediate environs. Barkay (1992: 372) acknowledges that the effects were localized, with material continuity in many areas of Palestine outside the confines of Jerusalem and its immediate vicinity. The fact that such regional variation has become apparent only relatively recently again illustrates the concentration of attention on a small sub-region due to the overwhelming interest in the Hebrew Bible. Recent studies by Carter (1999) and Hoglund (1992) have revealed important regional variation in response to the events of the sixth century, with a reordering of the countryside, particularly in Judah. While biblically based constructions focus upon the glare of political events in and around Jerusalem, the results of recent archaeological surveys reveal something of a silent world which suggests an alternative understanding of the history of the period. At some points it complements the biblical traditions, but at others it offers a significant challenge to them.

The historian in using ‘all available evidence’ is constantly forced to make comparisons and critical judgements. The nature of the sources means that it is not possible to offer definitive reconstructions: historical reconstruction is a process of constant revision and re-analysis. Bloch (1954: 62–3) points out the importance of sources, such as archaeology as well as written sources, which were not designed to influence posterity:

Indeed, without their aid, every time the historian turned his attention to the generations gone by, he would become the inevitable prey of the same prejudices, false inhibitions, and myopias that plague the vision of those same generations. For example, the medievalists would accord but a trivial significance to communal development, under the pretext that the writers of the Middle Ages did not discuss it freely with their public. In a word, to resort to a favorite figure of Michelet's, history would become less the ever-daring explorer of the ages past than the eternally unmoving pupil of their ‘chronicles’.

Provan, Long, and Longman (2003: 6) ask the pertinent question: ‘Even though accounts of the past are invariably the products of a small elite who possess a particular point of view, can these accounts not inform us about the past they describe as well as the ideological concerns of their authors?’ It is entirely possible that this may be the case. However, where we have clear evidence that this is not the case, as in the traditions of Israel's origins, then the historian is forced to consider alternative explanations. It is precisely when the historian utilizes all ‘available evidence’—and that includes reading widely within the history of other times and other cultures—that it is possible to offer as comprehensive a picture as possible. Otherwise, we are restricted to the world and the world-view of the few who produced the texts on which we are reliant for the past.

Notes:

9 Barstad (1997: 57) notes that ‘this theological story does not tell us what Israel's history really looked like in ancient times’; nor does it allow the systematic study of the history of ancient society in all its ‘complexity and multifaceted reality’.

10 See Lemche (1985) and Coote and Whitelam (1987) for the complexities of the social continuum in ancient Palestine and the complex interrelationships between pastoral and agricultural communities. The pastoral sector never disappears completely, since the economy of urban and nomad populations is interconnected, and the two coexist at all times (Naaman 1994: 233).

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