The movement known popularly as biblical archaeology is principally an American phenomenon. Its parent disciplines are Syro-Palestinian archaeology and biblical studies. The history of biblical archaeology can be divided into four phases.

Premodern Period.

The emergence of both Syro-Palestinian and biblical archaeology really began in the mid- to late nineteenth century with the rediscovery through exploration of ancient Palestine, following that of Mesopotamia and Egypt. This was also the period that witnessed the birth of modern literary-historical criticism of the Bible. Thus, the romance of discovery and the challenge of vindicating the historicity of the biblical accounts combined to create the movement that came to be called biblical archaeology. Its objective was to bring external “proofs,” provided by archaeological discoveries, to bear directly on such problematic issues as the patriarchal and conquest eras, Moses and monotheism, and other issues where faith and history seemed to intersect. The method of biblical archaeology was to excavate (in reality, to “mine”) select sites thought to be identified with places and events in the Bible. From their recovered remains a “political history” would be written—of great men and public events—that could be correlated directly with the biblical texts for the purpose of corroborating the texts (or at least the writers' interpretation of the texts). However, despite mounting enthusiasm for archaeology in biblical circles in late nineteenth-century Europe, neither American biblicists nor American scholars in any disciplines, except for the philologist Edward Robinson, were involved in Palestinian archaeology until nearly the end of the century. [See the biography of Robinson.]

The first actual fieldwork in Palestine was carried out for the British Palestine Exploration Fund (1865– ) by the legendary Sir William Flinders Petrie, at Tell el-Ḥesi in southern Palestine (possibly biblical Eglon) in a six-week season In 1890. [See Palestine Exploration Fund; and the biography of Petrie.] American involvement in fieldwork finally materialized when Frederick Jones Bliss directed a follow-up season In 1893. [See the biography of Bliss.] It was Bliss who, In 1903, delivered the Ely Lectures at Union Theological Seminary in New York City—Robinson's old school—under the published title The Development of Palestine Exploration (New York, 1906). It was the first comprehensive survey of the field. The combination of Bible and archaeology, evident at the beginning of American archaeology in Palestine (dating back in fact to Robinson's explorations In 1838), was to remain characteristic. Some subsequent American excavations, such as those of George Andrew Reisner at Samaria In 1908–1910, were carried out under secular auspices; however, the growing fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the early twentieth century—named for the six-volume series of Evangelical theology called The Fundamentals (the first ones published in about 1909—and its divisive impact on American religious life set the scene for the flowering of biblical archaeology.

Heyday: 1920s–1960s.

World War I brought a halt to all archaeological fieldwork in the Near East. The year 1919, however, marked the dawn of a new era. In that year the fledgling British Mandatory Government established a Department of Antiquities in Palestine and promulgated a modern antiquities law; and Americans founded the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago and began to plan for an in-country institute and year-round field operation at Tell Megiddo, in the Jezreel Valley. Perhaps the most significant event, as it turned out, was the arrival in Jerusalem of a young American scholar, William Foxwell Albright, at the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR), which had been established In 1900 but had neither a building, a program of fieldwork, nor a long-term director. [See American Schools of Oriental Research.] Albright became unarguably the most prominent and influential Orientalist of the twentieth century. [See the biography of Albright.]

Albright was the director of ASOR from 1920 to 1929 and again from 1933 to 1936. He also directed field campaigns at Tell el-Ful (biblical Gibeah) In 1922 and Tell Beit Mirsim (biblical Debir?) from 1926 to 1932. His mastery of the pottery of Palestine and his ability to establish the results of excavations in the broad context of the whole of the ancient Near East quickly placed him in the forefront of Palestinian archaeology. Furthermore, it was he who really established biblical archaeology as a legitimate enterprise, at least in principle. Under both his influence and direct tutelage there developed a pattern that included the deliberate choice of biblical sites for excavation; financial and institutional backing drawn from church-related organizations (largely Protestant); field staffs made up almost exclusively of biblical scholars, seminarians, and clerics; and an agenda that subjugated strictly archaeological methods and objectives to what were perceived as the larger issues of biblical interpretation (largely in the Hebrew Bible). Projects of this type were those of Albright himself at Tell el-Ful, Bethel, and Tell Beit Mirsim In 1922–1934; of the Pacific School of Religion at Tell en-Naṣbeh In 1926–1935; of Haverford College, Pennsylvania, at Beth-Shemesh In 1928–1933; and, of course, the American excavations in the 1950s–1960s at such sites as Dibon, Heshbon/Ḥesban, Shechem, Ai, Ta῾anach, Gibeon, and other sites in modern Israel and Jordan (see below).

The biblical archaeology movement dominated American Palestinian archaeology (though not continental) from the 1920s through the 1960s, and it still has a few wistful defenders. In retrospect, it appears that the movement constituted a chapter in American religious life, and particularly in theological development, as seen in connection with the biblical theology movement in the 1950s by Albright's protegé G. Ernest Wright and others (Dever, 1985, 1993). [See the biography of Wright.]

Albright had furthered the original historical aims of biblical archaeology, such as the attempt to use archaeology to confirm the essential historicity of the patriarchs, of Moses and early monotheism, and of the Israelite conquest of Canaan. Wright, however, went further in deliberately joining the issue of “faith and history”—a characteristic theme of the Neo-Orthodox theology movement of the 1950s—with developments in Syro-Palestinian archaeology. Unlike Albright, Wright was an ordained clergyman and a leading biblical scholar—indeed he was Parkman Professor of Divinity at Harvard. As Wright stated the issue: “Now in Biblical faith everything depends upon whether the central events [i.e., the call of Abraham, the promise of the Land of Canaan, the conquest under Joshua, etc.] actually occurred” (God Who Acts: Biblical Theology as Recital, London, 1952, p. 126).

To many, especially in Europe, Wright's position appeared dangerously close to fundamentalism, even more so than Albright's historicism. By the mid-late 1960s, however, the biblical theology movement had waned, and the stage was set for American Syro-Palestinian archaeology to move toward independent status. Nevertheless, up until that time much of postwar American archaeology in the Holy Land remained in the traditional biblical mold. That included Wright's own excavations at Shechem (1956–1968); the work of Joseph A. Callaway, a professor at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, at Ai (1964–1969); the work of Paul Lapp, a Lutheran clergyman, at ῾Iraq el-Amir (1961, 1962), Ta῾anach (1963–1968), Tell er-Rumeith (1967), Bab edh-Dhra῾ (1965–1967), and elsewhere; the excavations of James B. Pritchard, professor of religious thought at the University of Pennsylvania, at el-Jib (1956–1962) and Tell es-Sa῾idiyeh (1967); and the project of Siegfried H. Horn, Lawrence T. Geraty, and others at Ḥesban (1968–1978).

“New Archaeology”: 1970s–1980s.

It may be significant that all the above excavations were of sites in Jordan, where Americans with a Christian theological background apparently felt more at home after the partition of Palestine In 1948. Although a vigorous Israeli national school was developing in the new State of Israel, there were no American-directed excavations there until the long-lived project directed by William G. Dever, Joe D. Seger, and others at Gezer (1964–1974, with final seasons In 1984 and 1990). Gezer was followed by other projects under Gezer-trained personnel: at Tell el-Ḥesi (John E. Worrell, Lawrence E. Stager, and others, 1971–1983); at Galilean synagogue sites and at Sepphoris, in separate projects (Eric M. Meyers and Carol Meyers, and then James F. Strange, 1970–1981 and 1984– , respectively); at Lahav (Seger and Dan P. Cole, 1976– ); at Tel Miqne (Seymour Gitin, with Trude Dothan of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1981– ); at Ashkelon (Stager and others, 1985– ); and other sites. Other American excavations of this and later periods in Israel included large projects at Caesarea (Robert J. Bull and Lawrence E. Toombs, 1971– ); at Tel Anafa (Saul S. Weinberg and Sharon Herbert, 1968–1981); Tel Jemmeh (Gus van Beek, 1970–1982); and Be'er Resisim in the Negev (Dever, jointly with Rudolph Cohen of the Israel Department of Antiquities, 1978–1980).

The Gezer excavations proved to be a microcosm of developments in the field of archaeology. They transformed “biblical” archaeology beyond recognition, gradually bringing about the emergence of the discipline of Syro-Palestinian archaeology by the mid-1970s. There occurred in this enterprise what the scientist/philosopher Thomas S. Kuhn (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Chicago, 1970), has termed a paradigm shift. In this case it was a practical consensus about improving field and recording techniques. It was not a deliberate and profound intellectual reorientation—the development of a systematic body of theory as this was understood in other branches of archaeology or in the social sciences generally (that is, in fact, yet to occur).

From the late-1960s through the mid-1980s biblical and Syro-Palestinian archaeology borrowed elements of a trend in Americanist New World archaeology that came to be called the New Archaeology. These “external factors,” as we shall call them, in the demise of biblical archaeology, need only be enumerated briefly here, since they have been amply treated elsewhere (Dever, 1993; Drinkard et al., 1988). The principal aspects of the New Archaeology follow:

  • 1. An orientation that is more anthropological than historical, away from particularization toward the study of culture and culture change generally
  • 2. A “nomothetic” approach that seeks to formulate and test the lawlike propositions that govern cultural processes (thus, “processualist” archaeology)—and thus to develop a body of theory that qualifies archaeology not only as a discipline but as a science
  • 3. An ecological thrust that emphasizes technoenvironmental factors (rather than simply evolutionary trajectories) in the role of adaptation in culture change
  • 4. A multidisciplinary strategy that involves many of the physical sciences and their statistical and analytic procedures in attempting to reconstruct the ancient landscape, climate, population, economy, sociopolitical structure, and other subsystems (often using the model of General Systems Theory)
  • 5. An insistence on an overall, up-front “research design” for projects that integrate all of the above, and thus advance archaeology as a culturally relevant enterprise.

Radical as these trends were to conventional “biblical archaeologists” in the 1960s, many aspects were prefigured in developments already taking place in the field of Syro-Palestinian archaeology, or “internal factors” in change. These included the following:

  • 1. The recent stratigraphic revolution led by Kathleen M. Kenyon and others that promised total retrieval, automatically generating data so copious and varied they required analysis by specialists
  • 2. The growing complexity and costs of excavation, especially in Israel, which was pushing the field inevitably toward professionalization
  • 3. Field schools and student volunteerism—which not only constituted an intellectual challenge but broke the monopoly of biblical scholars on dig staffs and thus contributed to the secularization of the discipline
  • 4. The increasing sense that “biblical archaeology” was not only parochial but had failed to achieve even its own limited agenda of historical-theological issues.

Another major factor in American Syro-Palestinian archaeology's “coming of age” was competition with other national schools and their approaches. The European schools, while not ignoring the connection between archaeology in the Holy Land and the Bible, had taken differing approaches: some completely secular (the British); others aligned with the religious establishment, largely through a state church that located Palestinian archaeology academically in state university departments of theology (the Germans); and still others viewing clerics and secular scholars alike involved in Near Eastern archaeology generally (the French). The significant difference was that none of the European schools was haunted by the specter of fundamentalism, as the American school had historically been. At the same time, none of these schools possessed the perseverance to enable them to survive as a major force in Syro-Palestinian archaeology as it evolved into a mature discipline in the 1980s.

The Middle Eastern countries themselves had developed national schools only in the 1960s, well after the establishment of the State of Israel and the end of the mandatory governments in Syria, Jordan, and Iraq. Arab countries wanted little to do with either the Bible, the ancient history of Israel, or the search for Western cultural and theological roots in the Holy Land. However, their national schools, as they developed in the 1960s and later, did not manage to avoid bias toward pan-Islamic culture or escape the pull of nationalism. All in all, however, archaeology in Arab countries has developed recently, with all the strengths and weaknesses of the field generally. American involvement from country to country is difficult to assess because of rapidly changing political configurations. In the early 1990s American fieldwork and influence in Jordan are strong, thanks to the work of the American Center for Oriental Research (ACOR) in Amman since 1968. British and German institutes also exist but are less conspicuous. American and other foreign projects continue in Syria on varying scales, while Lebanon is virtually closed to all archaeologists.

The situation in Israel is in many ways unique. Israelis claim that they connect with the biblical past not necessarily in the sense of formal religion, certainly not theologically—since most of the archaeologists are neither personally observant nor academically trained in Bible and religion—but emotionally and directly. They maintain that the Hebrew Bible is, after all, the virtual constitution of the modern state; that for Jews displaced for centuries, even secular Jews, digging for their past in the soil of the Holy Land is a vital matter of identity, an existential quest no one has the right to deny them. They have a point, although the argument is somewhat disingenuous, and it can lead to nationalist extremes. In any case, Israeli archaeologists who use the phrase “biblical archaeology” for popular consumption, or for an English-speaking audience, do so with a meaning that differs from typical American usage, and partly to avoid the awkward term “Palestinian.” (In Hebrew, the common designation is simply “the archaeology of Eretz-Israel, the “Land of Israel,” exactly parallel to the archaeology of Jordan or Syria.) The most recent syntheses by Israelis of archaeological results (Amihai Mazar, Archaeology of the Land of the Bible 10,000–586 B.C.E., New York, 1988; Amnon Ben-Tor, ed., The Archaeology of Ancient Israel, New Haven, 1992) have not been matched by American archaeologists working in Israel. The 1990s have, however, been witness to several major and a number of smaller American field projects, most coordinated with ASOR through the W. F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem. Despite the changing balance of Israeli and foreign-sponsored work, it is obvious that the leadership has shifted to Israeli archaeologists, who now dominate the field through extensive excavations, surveys, and publications. [See Israel Antiquities Authority; Israel Exploration Society; Survey of Israel.]

The overall general impact of the American-generated New Archaeology must be assessed. As biblical archaeology moved from a relative backwater into the mainstream of archaeology in the 1970s it was considerably influenced by the New Archaeology then current, especially by its much more anthropological than historical orientation, and its concern with culture and culture change (so-called “processual archaeology”). Yet, if the full impact of the New Archaeology was felt, it was so only belatedly: the antihistorical attitude and theoretical thrust toward positivist philosophies of science were rejected outright; and the actual changes were more a matter of style than of substance. The real contribution of the “New Archaeology” lay first of all in its commitment to multidisciplinary methods and its insistence on explicit, self-conscious statements of methods and purpose, as we have seen. Second, the broad overriding ecological approach placed all archaeological research in the broad context in which it belongs. These aspects of Americanist “New Archaeology” should remain features of Syro-Palestinian archaeology as it moves into the next phase of its own development.

A still newer approach to recovering the past developed in the late 1980s: the postprocessualist archaeology. Specifically identified with several British archaeologists such as Cambridge's Ian Hodder (cf. Reading the Past: Current Approaches to Interpretation in Archaeology, Cambridge, 1986), this approach rejects the positivism, scientism, and determinism of the more extreme expressions of the New Archaeology. It returns to more traditional, symbolic, ideological (or “mentalist”), and historical explanations of culture change. It views “context” (Hodder's preferred term) as broader than the ecological setting—as embracing the concept of culture in its widest sense. This more balanced and eclectic approach may be particularly congenial to future Syro-Palestinian and biblical archaeologists.

Current Status: Two Disciplines.

The trends of the 1970s and 1980s resulted in sweeping and probably permanent change. American Syro-Palestinian archaeology has emerged as an autonomous academic and professional discipline, often quite independent of biblical studies, with its own appropriate aims and methods. The change of name from biblical to Syro-Palestinian archaeology (reviving Albright's original designation in the 1930s) is now widely used, appropriately reflecting the new reality. That is to say, this field is simply a branch of Near Eastern or Levantine archaeology—the other accepted branches being Egyptian, Anatolian, Mesopotamian, and Iranian archaeology (Cypriot archaeology may straddle the border between Near Eastern and classical archaeology).

The specialization of Syro-Palestinian archaeology focuses primarily on ancient Canaan, which includes biblical Israel in the Iron Age. No longer “the handmaiden of history,” as a former generation put it—and especially not of biblical history—Syro-Palestinian archaeology has come of age as a parallel but unique means of investigating the past, based not on texts alone but primarily on material culture remains. The archaeology of ancient Palestine as a cultural entity is still allied with biblical and ancient Near Eastern studies, ancillary and contributory disciplines. Increasingly, however, it is multidisciplinary, linked also with general archaeology, with social and cultural anthropology, with the social sciences, and even with the natural sciences, when analytical procedures are required.

The secularization of Syro-Palestinian archaeology also poses a challenge. The long-dominant understanding of the history of ancient Israel as unique, or Heilsgeschichte (“salvation history”), has given way to an approach that sees ancient Israel and Canaan in terms of Siedlungsgeschichte, the long, complex settlement history of the ancient Near East generally (similar to la longue dureé of Fernand Braudel and historians of the annales school). Invoking the deus ex machina of divine purpose does nothing to elucidate the actual phenomena of culture and culture change, even in ancient Palestine. Syro-Palestinian archaeology, as a basically historical discipline, deals with the problem of reconstructing ancient events, or “What happened?” Exegesis and theology deal with the question “What did/does it mean?” These may indeed be complementary tasks; however, honest inquiry demands that they be kept separate, at least initially. Syro-Palestinian archaeology has now matured to where it is ready to assume its proper role in this and other dialogues. Ironically, it is the new “secular” archaeology that promises to contribute most to biblical studies, precisely because it is indifferent, in the best sense of the word (below).

Toward a Dialogue.

Biblical archaeology—or “the archaeology of Palestine in the biblical period”—is not a surrogate for Syro-Palestinian archaeology, or even a discipline at all in the academic sense. It is a branch of biblical studies, an interdisciplinary pursuit that seeks to utilize the pertinent results of archaeological research to elucidate the historical and cultural setting of the Bible. In short, biblical archaeology is what it always was, except for the brief Albright-Wright period. The crucial issue for biblical archaeology is properly conceived as a dialogue to achieve the proper relationship between its understanding and use of archaeology on the one hand, and its understanding of the issues in biblical studies that are fitting subjects for archaeological illumination on the other.

What is that relationship? That is, what can archaeology and biblical studies contribute to each other? First, archaeology is unique in providing an immediate context in Canaan in which to situate the places, peoples, and events of the Bible—most of which would otherwise be without any external witness, and therefore are problematic for the historian. In particular, most aspects of the daily lives of ordinary people would not be known because the biblical writers and editors were, rather, preoccupied with the grand schemes of their own brand of theocratic history. The Sitz im Leben (“life-setting”) that the form-critical and traditio-historical schools of biblical scholarship sought for specific biblical texts and larger blocks of material remains at best a Sitz im Literatur, apart from the real-life setting archaeology and archaeology alone can provide.

Second, archaeological discoveries, including the textual evidence recovered through excavation, enable us to paint the broader canvas of ancient Near Eastern peoples and cultures, against which Israel's distinctiveness (if not her uniqueness) can be more accurately portrayed and fully appreciated. Such comparative cultural study, based on archaeological investigation and its unique angle of vision on the past, provides a perspective that no other approach can, certainly not one based on minute internal analysis of the texts alone. Finally, archaeology can contribute to questions of faith and morality, although not by offering “proofs.” It does, however, have its limits: archaeology illuminates, but cannot confirm; it brings understanding, but not necessarily belief. Yet, a grasp of the material reality of ancient Israel, in all its variety and vitality, can make the Bible both accessible and credible.

The dialogue can be viewed from the opposite perspective, that is, what can biblical studies contribute to Syro-Palestinian archaeology? It can interpret the texts of the Bible in the light of the best modern tools of philology, literary-critical, exegetic, and hermeneutic principles. Because this is a complex, highly specialized task, teamwork among specialists is required. Here the contribution of biblical scholarship to archaeology is essential because the Hebrew Bible is virtually all the literature there is for Iron Age Palestine. Despite the limitations of theological biases, biblical literature provides a wealth of information on conditions in Palestine, as well as an outline of its political history and ideology—at least of the ruling classes, scribal schools, and theological circles that produced the Bible in its final version. Archaeology is not “mute” without texts, as biblical scholars such as Martin Noth and others have long maintained; however, its voice is amplified considerably when textual records are available and happen to accord well with the interpretation of material culture remains.

There is little to be said about archaeology and New Testament studies in this context. Biblical archaeology has been almost exclusively the province of scholars of the Hebrew Bible—largely because of the long sweep of biblical history, the vast setting of the ancient Near East, the paucity of direct extrabiblical historical testimony, and the complex historiographic issues involved. By contrast, the New Testament covers a brief, extremely well-documented period in Roman Syria-Palestine and Asia Minor. In addition, the theological issues involved in the study of Christian origins have not been thought amenable to archaeological investigation in the same way as the origins of early Israel.

[See also New Archaeology. In addition, the sites mentioned are the subject of independent entries.]


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William G. Dever