The Contribution of Archaeology to Biblical Scholarship
Biblical scholarship needs the archaeologist, as it needs the anthropologist, epigraphist, the philologist, the Assyriologist, the classical scholar, the student of Qumran, the rabbinic scholar, and others for the interpretation of the biblical writings. Archaeology is not so much a method of biblical scholarship, as an intellectual discipline and practice, incorporating many methods and subject to many methodologies, assisting the modern interpretation of the Bible. The nature of its assistance is disputed, for several reasons: professional archaeologists reject the old view of archaeology as a handmaid to biblical scholarship or as a prop for belief, and biblical scholars sometimes find archaeologists naïve in their treatment of biblical evidence (and vice versa). It is important to be clear what archaeology can and cannot do for biblical scholarship.
(a) Illustrating General Cultural Background
Certainly archaeological work has vividly illustrated the material culture visible in the biblical writings—the ancient city with its walls, fortifications, gates, palaces, water systems, store-rooms, houses, streets, and general planning; the religious cult with its temples and local shrines, its altars and cultic furniture, the mikvaoth (ritual baths) in houses; agricultural life with its tools, buildings, livestock, and produce; military installations and weapons; evidence of administration and trade from written ostraca; monumental inscriptions and private letters; personal costume and jewellery; tombs and burial practices, etc. Archaeology can reconstruct both daily life in ancient Israel and Roman Judaea (see especially King and Stager 2001), and the wider economic and social scene (see especially Levy 1995), setting Israel and early Christianity in their wider historical contexts.
(b) Direct Biblical Connections
Archaeology, however, has produced less evidence that connects directly with the biblical narrative. The pool of Gibeon (2 Sam. 2: 13) may be the pool discovered at el-Jib by J. B. Pritchard. The present pool of Siloam, and the Siloam tunnel and inscription (rediscovered 1880), connect with the ‘pool and conduit’ mentioned in 2 Kgs. 20: 20; cf. Isa. 7: 3, Sir. 48:17). The tomb inscription of ‘[…]yhw’aser‘al habbayit’ in Silwan may be that of ‘Shebna who is over the household’ described in Isa. 22: 15. The stele of Mesha found in Diban certainly testifies to King Mesha (2 Kgs. 3) and to the Israelite Omri and his son (Ahab, though not named), but fits uneasily with the narrative of 2 Kings 3. A broken Aramaic stele from Tel Dan certainly refers to Hadad of Syria and, tantalizingly, to ‘the house of David’ and, less certainly, to the Israelite and Judaean kings ‘[Jo]ram, son of [Ahab]’ and ‘[Ahaz]yahu son of [Jehoram]’. Assyrian records refer to several kings of Israel and Judah, and Babylonian records to Jehoiachin (cf. 2 Kgs. 24: 12); the Assyrian capture of Lachish (701 BCE) is vividly portrayed on surviving limestone slabs from the Assyrian palace at Nineveh, now in the British Museum, but this event is not mentioned in the Bible. For the New Testament scholar, archaeology has produced an inscription at Caesarea naming Pontius Pilatus as prefect of Judaea, and an inscription from Delphi naming Gallio as proconsul of Achaia (probably for the year 51–2 CE, thus providing a useful peg for Pauline chronology: see Murphy-O'Connor 1983: 141–52). Such evidence at least confirms that the biblical texts speak of real people and actual events.
(c) New Evidence for the Historian
However, while archaeological evidence may illumine the cultural background, and confirm (especially from inscriptions) some details of the biblical record, it can produce problems for the scholarly historian. The archaeologist's account of the Middle Bronze Age in Palestine no longer offers a secure background for the patriarchal stories of the book of Genesis, as was earlier assumed (see Dever and Clarke 1977). The archaeological evidence for the Late Bronze–Early Iron I Canaan no longer supports the picture of an Israelite military conquest of Canaan given in the book of Joshua (see Finkelstein 1988; Dever 2003; Chapter 3 above). The archaeological evidence for a flourishing Solomonic tenth-century BCE city of Jerusalem is virtually absent, for whatever reason, and the attribution of the six-chambered gateways and attached walls at Gezer, Megiddo, and Hazor (cf 1 Kgs. 9: 15) to the work of Solomon in the tenth century BCE (Yadin 1958; Holladay 1995; Dever 1997, 2001) is now strongly challenged (Finkelstein and Silberman 2001: 135–45, 340–4). While the Deuteronomistic History, for reasons of its own, makes little of the Israelite kings Omri and Ahab, the archaeological evidence from Iron IIB (c.900–700 BCE) makes clear that it is their age, the ninth century BCE, that saw the establishment of the kingdom of Israel and its relative prosperity and independence through the eighth century until its destruction by Assyria in 722 BCE. The Deuteronomistic History explains the Assyrian destruction of Samaria by underlining Israelite religious apostasy (2 Kgs. 17: 7–18), and explains Jerusalem's preservation from like destruction by King Hezekiah's prompt political submission (2 Kgs. 18: 14) and religious penitence in time of crisis (2 Kgs. 19); but the Deuteronomist does not openly mention the brutal destruction of the city of Lachish so vividly presented by excavations at Lachish and by the reliefs at Sennacherib's palace in Nineveh (see Ussishkin 1997). The biblical writers convey the impression that when Nebuchadnezzar's army took Jerusalem in 587/586 BCE, the destruction of Jerusalem and Judah and the exile of the people to Babylon were total; archaeological evidence is limited, but while Jerusalem and sites in the south—Engedi, Lachish, Arad, and Beth-hakkerem (Ramat Rahel)—suffered destruction, there is some archaeological evidence that life at more northern towns—including Mizpah (T. en-Nasbeh), Gibeon (el-Jib), Bethel, and Gibeah (T. el- Ful)—continued as usual (see Barstad 1996). And finally, archaeology has given us visible evidence of religious and cultic practices condemned by the Deuteronomistic Historian; at Tel Dan in northern Israel, Biran has excavated a large cult site (cf. 1 Kgs. 12: 29; Biran 1994), and at Kuntillet ‘Ajrud (south of Kadesh Barnea) and Khirbet el-Qom (near Hebron) inscriptions suggest that the goddess Asherah was worshipped alongside YHWH as a consort (see Dever 1994: 149–51; 2001: 183–7; contra Mayes 1997: 63). The archaeological evidence for Solomon's Temple, however, remains indirect; see Dever 2001: 144–57, 172–98.
(d) Limitations of Archaeology
Archaeology thus certainly supplements the contribution of the historical texts to our knowledge of the history, culture, and religion of ancient Israel and early Christianity. Archaeology can present the physical history of a site and clarify the cultural context of a particular stratum of that site; but without written material, whether derived from literature, monumental or more ephemeral inscriptions, or from public or private documents written on papyri or leather, archaeology is limited. For example, it might offer vivid evidence for the life and destruction of a small Iron Age country town, but remain silent on the ethnicity or nationality of its occupants; to tell us that we need some human written record or oral tradition. It might present a stratum rich in artefacts, but remain silent about the length of time covered by that stratum; to tell us that we need some method of cross-dating with evidence from another site. Some scholars argue that an independent, objective history of Israel should be written on the basis of archaeological evidence alone, but there are important objections to this approach. First, any such history would be no more ‘objective’ than the scholars who wrote it; all archaeological discoveries need interpretation, and their interpretation will depend upon the historical presuppositions and concerns of the interpreter. Second, archaeological evidence always has gaps and is never complete; surveys do not see everything, excavation is necessarily selective, and in any case much of the evidence has already suffered human or natural destruction. There is no doubt that the historian should draw upon all available sources, whether literary or artefactual. The only serious question is how they should be used.