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

The Future of Biblical Archaeology

Although biblical archaeology cannot verify the spiritual component of biblical materials, recent developments in the conceptualization of archaeology as a discipline may lead us somewhat closer to comprehending the religious dimension of biblical texts. Archaeology in general has changed markedly in recent decades as the result of the emergence in the New World of what is known as the “new archaeology.” This development is not primarily an innovation in the process or method of excavation or exploration, although it does perhaps involve much closer attention to technological and ecological factors than has been traditionally characteristic of excavations, especially in Bible lands.

Rather, the new archaeology impinges on archaeological work more at the level of interpretation than at the primary level of the collection, description, and classification of material data. Its potential for biblical studies involves the broadening of the horizons of biblical archaeology. The task of biblical archaeology becomes more than a reconstruction of the material aspects of daily life in the ancient world. It becomes a challenging and ambitious integrative enterprise. It involves the combined use of archaeological data with all of its ecological facets, of biblical materials, and—and here is the “new” part for biblical archaeology—of comparative sociological and anthropological information and models.

The ultimate goals thus transcend the aims for historical and material reconstruction that characterized past generations of biblical archaeologists; they focus on the social existence of the various communities of people that appear in biblical texts, from the smallest communities (the family household), through clans, villages, towns, cities, and nations, to empires. The concern with sociopolitical dynamics is rooted in the attempt to understand why communities exist in the forms that they take, how those forms shift or stay the same in relation to historical and environmental variables, and how the mental life of any community—its self-awareness, its values, its belief system—serves both to reflect and to reinforce the social, political, and economic mechanisms by which it survives, or fails to survive, in the face of the vagaries of human existence.

The biblical archaeologists who have been most influenced by the advances in socio-archaeological theory in the past two decades are using the same archaeological and biblical data that their predecessors used. But they are asking different questions of the familiar material. They have new agendas, aimed at understanding individual and corporate life processes in the biblical world. In addition, they can also solve some problems in biblical studies that hitherto defied resolution.

As an example of the latter, the issue of whether or not there were scribal schools in monarchic Israel has long vexed biblical scholars. Such institutions are well attested in neighboring areas, but the epigraphic remains from Palestine and the biblical evidence are both indirect and inconclusive with respect to the question of the existence of such schools. Now, by using the wealth of material available from excavated sites and surveys, and by relating these data to what sociological research shows about contexts requiring a class of trained administrators, likely parameters for the existence of such literate personnel—scribes—can be posited. Specifically, the size and configuration of settlements, the construction of public works (e.g., water systems, city walls), and the appearance of luxury goods constitute a set of archaeological correlates to social patterns for which scribes would be necessary. For ancient Israel, the results are surprising: the training of scribes would not have been necessary until several centuries after the monarchy was established, and even then Jerusalem was the only urban center that might have warranted a formal school. (The question of literacy, it is to be noted, is quite separate, in a society using an easily learned alphabetic script, from the question of scribal schools.)

As for the new agendas—the attempts to understand the processes of human existence at all levels—here biblical archaeology has its richest potential. At its best, the new biblical archaeology can help us do more than envision the biblical world. Through the new analytical possibilities, it can also help us comprehend the dynamics of social, economic, and political life in biblical antiquity. In this way, perhaps we can come closer than ever before to reconstructing the life experiences that caused our biblical ancestors to draw their profound and powerful conclusions about the role of God in their lives and to make their compelling assertions about the ongoing relationship between God and humanity.

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