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

What Is Biblical Archaeology and What Does It Do?

Strictly speaking, the word “archaeology” (derived from the Greek words archaios, “ancient,” and logos, “knowledge”) means the study of the past. However, the term is commonly used to describe a particular aspect of the study of the human past, namely, the material remains of ancient peoples. It deals with the realia, the physical objects, of everyday life—the buildings in which people lived and worked, the tools and vessels (containers) they used, the ways in which they earned their livelihood, the nature of their settlements, the clothes they wore, their implements of war and of worship, the manner in which they buried and memorialized the dead.

To this list of the tangible remnants of the people of the ancient world, one must also add the written remains of antiquity. In the case of biblical studies, such epigraphic discoveries have had a powerful impact upon our understanding of the Bible. Documents and inscriptions in abundance have been recovered from the lands surrounding the territory of ancient Israel. These materials have provided an invaluable perspective on the nature and content of biblical literature (see “Historical Contexts,” p. * 33, and “Literature of the Ancient Near East,” p. * 57). Although relatively few written sources have survived from ancient Palestine itself, the few scattered inscriptions, seals, and fragments of pottery with writing on them have all immeasurably enhanced our knowledge of certain features of ancient Israelite life. Most important and dramatic of all the epigraphic discoveries has been that of actual biblical scrolls. The collection of scrolls and fragments of scrolls that have survived in the area of the Dead Sea constitute an unprecedented and unparalleled source of information about the nature of the biblical canon and of its formation and transmission (see “Dead Sea Scrolls,” p. * 101).

Thus, archaeology in its most inclusive sense involves all products, written and non-written, of human existence. In the case of written materials, the discoveries of texts in Near Eastern lands outside the biblical heartland have not been the result of archaeological work that could be characterized as “biblical archaeology.” That term, therefore, has a special meaning that makes it different from any other “archaeology” preceded by an adjective.

Many scholars debate the very legitimacy of the designation “biblical archaeology,” since it does not always have the direct relationship to field work that characterizes terms for archaeology in other parts of the world. In many ways, it makes more sense to refer to the archaeology of any area by a regional designation. So, for example, excavation of the large Mesopotamian cities that have yielded epigraphic remains so critical for biblical studies comes under the purview of “Mesopotamian archaeology.” But it could also be called “biblical archaeology” in the sense that its discoveries do pertain to the Bible.

According to the system of regional designation, the archaeological recovery of materials from the holy land itself is called Syro-Palestinian archaeology. Such a term allows for the fact that the excavation of a site with even the most direct biblical connection can also provide materials that precede or postdate the biblical period. Hence the excavation of such a site in its entirety might not be properly called biblical archaeology. Similarly, despite the best advance planning and survey work, an archaeologist cannot possibly know what sort of discoveries lie beneath the surface of an ancient ruin. The discovery of remains of the biblical period or those relating to biblical texts may be the hope of an excavation team; but in scientific terms, field projects cannot be so specifically defined. Thus, the excavation of a site selected because of its explicitly biblical connections may yield much material that bears no relationship at all to biblical studies.

Because of such considerations, biblical archaeology is a term best applied to whatever material remains contribute to an understanding of biblical literature and life in biblical times, from wherever such data might be acquired. In that sense, biblical archaeology would not normally refer to the actual process of designing and carrying out an archaeological survey or excavation; that is the task of Syro-Palestinian archaeology. Instead, biblical archaeology is a specialized, interpretive discipline that seeks to relate material realia to places, persons, paraphernalia, and processes mentioned in or alluded to by a literary document, the Bible. Field archaeologists who have such an enterprise in mind are often called biblical archaeologists. But field archaeologists significantly removed from such considerations also may provide data for biblical archaeology. For example, the use of analogy is of considerable importance in reconstructing the past in any part of the world. Hence, the knowledge gained about an ancient society in as distant a place as South America or Australia could potentially contribute to our understanding of the biblical world.

Since its beginnings in holy land exploration by the American biblical scholar Edward Robinson in 1838 and 1852, biblical archaeology has historically been most valuable in establishing a context for the customs, events, beliefs, objects, and places recorded in the Bible. Context can refer to very simple matters, which we might call illumination of biblical texts. A given passage may refer, for example, to a certain musical instrument that is not part of our current repertoire of instruments. But if we can identify it with an excavated example, we will have a much better idea of its size, shape, and perhaps also of its musical capacity. We will know in a way not otherwise possible what the biblical author saw or imagined in reference to such an object. The biblical text gains a visual dimension, if not also an auditory dimension in this case, by recourse to an archaeological discovery.

Context, of course, can refer to much more complex issues. If we are to be rescued from the notion that the Bible somehow emerged all at once, fully formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus, we must learn as much as we can about the lives of the people whose experiences are reflected in the great diversity of literary genres that constitute the biblical corpus (see “Literary Forms,” p. * 12). If we see the Bible as the collective work of countless and mostly nameless authors, whose identities are forever hidden from our view, we nonetheless can better understand their unique contributions to our western religious and cultural heritage by seeing them in social and political context. We gain access to this context in part by examining the settlements or cities in which they might have lived and by following the fate of such places over the course of the biblical period.

Indeed, much of biblical archaeology has been what we might call political archaeology. That is, it has served the traditional goals of political history; it has helped to chart the course of events mentioned in the great story of Israel that runs through the Hebrew Bible. To the extent that Palestinian sites can be identified with places mentioned in the Bible, biblical archaeologists have traced the development, frequent destruction, and habitual rebuilding of such sites and have sought to correlate the archaeological evidence of such aspects of a site's history with the biblical record. The destruction debris, for example, of a Palestinian tell * A tell, or city-mound, is an artificial hill resulting from the accumulated debris of successive settlements at a site over a long period of time. can usually be quite accurately dated by the kind of artifacts (notably pottery) it contains. Such information is then juxtaposed with the biblical account of the conquest of the city in question.

The contextual dimension that such political history using archaeological data can provide, like the more simple, descriptive contextualizing functions of archaeology, has been a central goal of biblical archaeology since its inception. The reason for this prominent interest is that the correlations made between objects mentioned in the Bible and artifacts recovered from the debris of the millennia, as well as the connections made between events chronicled in the text and those that have left their mark in the long-buried remnants of biblical cities, serve to ground the biblical materials in a tangible reality. The texts themselves, in the written form in which we have them, are later by many centuries if not millennia than the events they purport to describe. How can we test the authenticity of the core life experiences reported about the individuals or peoples that form the central focus of the biblical story? Discovering that the details of the biblical stories ring true to the way of life in the time periods they signify validates the biblical text. Archaeology can provide an independent witness to the authenticity of the biblical experience.

As a source of information about the biblical world that is independent of the sacred texts produced by that world, archaeology has another important function. Not only does archaeology yield information about and background for what the text presents; it also provides data for dimensions of ancient life that the text ignores or even suppresses. Archaeology is thus an important corrective to the notion that the facts and features of life among biblical peoples as preserved in the Bible are accurate reflections of the way all members of those groups actually acted or thought.

Social scientists have long pointed out that there is often a discrepancy or disjunction between what formal texts, such as scripture, contain and what daily reality was like. Texts may often be more a reflection of the ideal than the real. Archaeology along with the Bible can thus be seen as providing the two views that together give us a stereoscopic picture of the biblical past—two different angles of vision provide the depth that a single picture can never yield.

This is an important yet often unheralded function of archaeology, for it sometimes produces perspectives that are not congenial to those who hold the biblical text as the accepted norm, for antiquity as for the present. For example, a modest corpus of ancient Hebrew seals * A seal is a small object made of a hard substance, bearing a design and/or inscription, which could be transferred to wax or clay, usually to mark ownership or authenticity. has been recovered from Palestinian sites. A number of these seals, the use of which implies the right to transfer ownership of goods and to sign legal documents, belonged to women, thus apparently contradicting the impression one has from the Bible that such operations were male prerogatives. An even more controversial example regards the very nature of biblical monotheism. Was ancient Israel fully monotheistic before the period of the second temple (515 B.C.E. to 70 C.E.)? Various artistic and epigraphic remains, especially some apparently referring to a consort for Yahweh, seem to indicate a plurality of beliefs among the Israelites. Clearly, archaeologically recovered data allow for a much more nuanced view of the complexity of the society and beliefs of the biblical people than would otherwise be possible.

Notes:

* A tell, or city-mound, is an artificial hill resulting from the accumulated debris of successive settlements at a site over a long period of time.

* A seal is a small object made of a hard substance, bearing a design and/or inscription, which could be transferred to wax or clay, usually to mark ownership or authenticity.

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