Saturday, November 11, 2006

Is There a "Biblical Archaeology"? Some Comments

In reading the November/December issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, I happened to catch a letter by James K. Hoffmeier at Trinity International University objecting to the substance of a previous editorial from Professor Ronald Hendel at UC Berkeley. In “Is There a Biblical Archaeology?” (BAR July/August 2006), Hendel suggests that biblical archaeology in the tradition of William Albright has been largely abandoned. Albright sought to verify the historical nature of the Bible texts through archaeological excavation and research (although often portrayed in this manner, Albright’s theoretical perspectives on biblical archaeology were more complex and, like most scholars, changed through time). This endeavor, Hendel suggests, “…did not illumine the times of Abraham, Moses and Joshua. Rather, it helped to show that these times and events are largely unhistorical”. Hendel further opines that the only folks engaged in Albrightian style biblical archaeology are fundamentalists and evangelical Biblical scholars.

Hoffmeier disagrees with this assessment, accusing Hendel and others in the so-called “minimalist axis” of dismantling the Bible’s historicity. He cites in support William Dever’s assessments of minimalist (revisionist) archaeology as “anti-Biblical archaeology” and Dever’s criticism of minimalists for using data selectively and cavalierly. Hoffmeier further uses Thomas Levy and Mohammad Najjer’s recent archaeological work in southern Jordan supporting a re-thinking of the level of societal complexity achieved by the biblical Edomites. [In brief, the issue here is that the Bible refers to David having battled the “kingdom” of the Edomites in contrast to current archaeological data suggesting that the Edomites were a tribal level society at the time of David and unable to field an army of sufficient size to have been accurately described in the Bible. Levy and Najjer’s work suggests highland sites in the area have been overlooked and these suggest a higher level of Edomite complexity than previously thought]. Hoffmeier clearly thinks Biblical Archaeology is not dead, and in fact evangelicals are contributing significantly to its advance.

Two observations struck me while reading Hoffmeier’s letter and returning to the original articles that he cites. The first is that I question whether the whole minimalist/maximalist debate in biblical archaeology is really a construct of biblical fundamentalism more than it is a theoretical debate in archaeology. Supposedly “minimalists” see the Bible as offering little or no history verifiable through archaeological research. At the other end of the spectrum, “maximalists” see the Bible as mostly historical, documenting people, places and events frequently verified by archaeology. Although I have not read every piece on this subject, I simply don’t see those accused of “minimalism” defining themselves that way. What I generally see instead is maximalists defining any archaeology that disagrees with biblical literalism defined as “minimalist”. It is not just that there is a minimal view of the bible as historical; it is that suggesting any biblical passage fails a test of historical verification is itself considered a minimalist position. Along the supposed continuum from minimalist to maximalist, for fundamentalists and evangelicals it appears minimalism occupies the range from 0 to 99%.

Secondly, I see the same selective interpretation and quotation mining among those criticizing the axis of minimalism as I do among creationists and intelligent design activists criticizing evolution. Hoffmeier’s letter, far from convincing me that Hendel was incorrect in his assessment of Biblical Archaeology, suggests quite the opposite. Typical of those who seek to defend the theological nature of the Bible as historical in and of itself, what Hoffmeier doesn’t reveal about his sources’ positions on the matter is far more enlightening than what he actually cites. Hoffmeier cites Dever’s critique of minimalism as the quintessential last word on the subject. I do not claim to deny Dever’s position on the issue (and I would argue that he is correct in the selective use of data often seen in minimalist approaches to bible archaeology) but as usual there is a deeper context to the statement. Dever, in the very same article cited by Hoffmeier (Dever, W. G. 2006, The Western Cultural Tradition Is At Risk, Biblical Archaeology Review Vol 32 (2)) , indicates the following (p. 76):

We cannot turn the clock back on the time when archaeology allegedly “proved the Bible.” We must allow archaeology as it is practiced today to challenge, as well as to confirm, the Bible’s stories. Some things described there really did happen, but others did not. The Biblical narratives about Abraham, Moses, Joshua and Solomon probably do reflect some historical memories of actual people and places, but the “larger-than-life” portraits of the Bible are unrealistic and are, in fact, contradicted by the archaeological evidence. Some of Israel’s ancestors probably did come out of Egyptian slavery, but there was no military conquest of Canaan, and most early Israelites were displaced Canaanites. Monotheism may have been the ideal of Biblical writers, but many, if not most, Israelites throughout the Monarchy were polytheists.

For any fundamentalist defending the theological historicity of the Bible this is “minimalist” or “revisionist” archaeology! If you don’t confirm what we already know, then you’re not doing appropriate archaeology! Hoffmeier cites Dever again, specifically from the latter’s chapter on “The Current School of Revisionists” in his What Did Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It?, in an apparent effort to further show that archaeology is moving away from the minimalist/revisionist perspective and toward demonstrating the historical nature of the Bible. But while Dever clearly has issues with revisionism, they are base on issues of archaeology, not theology. In reference to his debate with Finkelstein (who, by the way, Hoffmeier clearly impunes as a bible revisionist – not at all the sense I get from actually reading Finkelstein's work!) on Israelite ethnicity, Dever notes following:

But it is significant that ours is a strictly anthropological and archaeological difference, one that has nothing to do whatsoever with biblical maximalists and minimalists…(p.43)

In citing Dever several times I cannot help but conclude that Hoffmeier is trying to conflate Dever’s critique of revisionism from a strictly archaeological and anthropological perspective with Albrightian bible archaeology. In this context it is interesting that Dever suggests Finkelstein, in questioning Israelite ethnicity on archaeological grounds, is an unwilling pawn in the minimalist-maximalist debate. However, I also wonder whether Dever is himself a victim in the manner in which his revisionist critique is selectively quoted by those defending a greater theological confirmation of the bible. Dever is correct: “Biblical” archaeology has changed dramatically over the last decades (and he himself is largely responsible for introducing such innovations as Binfordian processual archaeology to the methods employed by those conducting professional work in the land of the bible), but there are many who won’t let the extreme theological positions complete their overdue death.

Hendel is also absolutely correct: “The only children of this divorce who are still doing Biblical Archaeology in the Albrightian style are fundamentalists and evangelical Biblical scholars.” (Is There a Biblical Archaeology? BAR 32(4) 2006). Hoffemeir doesn’t accept this, and cites Dever to further his position. But ironically for Hoffmeier, Dever himself seems to accept Hendel’s proclamation:

What the revisionists seem to mean by “biblical” Israel is the Israel of mythic proportions. This is the Israel reflected in numerous “stories” that are embellished with exaggerations and fanciful features such as miracles, compiled partly from sagas, legends, folk-tales, and outright inventions. Above all, it is the story of an Israel that is set in an over-arching theocratic framework whose intent is always didactic. It aims not at historical narrative per se, but at elucidating the hidden theological meaning of events and their moral significance. Of course this “Israel” is not historical, except for revealing something of the historical context of its writers and final editors. But then few modern readers except Fundamentalists ever thought that it was. (Dever, W. G. (2001) What Did Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It? Pp. 46).

I can see no reason not to conclude that only Fundamentalists are conducting “Bible Archaeology”. Residents in my own town of Susanville have participated in these projects and then returned (along with their sponsors such as Carl Baugh) to proclaim that “archaeology is proving the Bible correct”; without having the foggiest notion about current methods or theological positions in archaeological research in the Middle East. Even the term “Bible Archaeology” has been dropped in favor of “Syro-Palestinian” archaeology!

I have often made the case that a methodological and philosophical connection exists between those who engage in traditional “Biblical Archaeology” and those who advocate Intelligent Design and other forms of Creationism (and by extension, why archaeologists should engage in the evolution-intelligent design debates and not eschew their responsibilities to their biology brethren). Finally, Hendel makes this connection in referring to Biblical Archaeology scholars of today and in doing so nails the core flaw of intelligent design:

But these scholars often eschew the critical methods of Biblical scholarship and historiography, and so relegate themselves to the margins of scholarship. They are like the advocates of creationism or “intelligent design” in the field of biology – they adopt critical methods when the results do not conflict with their theology.

Only fundamentalist advocate “Biblical Archaeology” and “Creationism” – the real scholars in archaeology and biology left these folks in the dust long ago.


Dan said...

The Solomonic Gates of Hazor Megiddo and Gezer are still the pilars of Albrightian archeology that are left standing. The excavation of the Gezer Gate has produced some excentric stories that may be of tangential interest on this topic. See

David said...

one problem in this debate is that the terms minimalist and maximalist are not well defined and are used with very different meanings. You seem to be using "maximalist" to refer to the position that the Bible is all true and that any criticism of the historicity of the bible makes one a minimalist. In that sense Dever is a minimalist. That is certainly a possible definition but it overlooks numerous differences among scholars who do not begin from the theological position that everything in the Bible is historical. Dever, for example, was criticising scholars who take the view that every historical event mentioned in the bible should be assumed to be false unless supported by other evidence. Others take the view that the broad outline of events reflect an historical reality and can therefore be used to help construct a history of the ancient middle east when properly used.

Christopher O'Brien said...

David, I agree the definitions of minimalist and maximalist are certainly subject to debate - my udnerstanding of them may not match someone else's usage. I would agree, however, that most people that come to mind when I use the word "maximalist" would definately think Dever is himself a minimalist. What prompted me to write some of this was my personal experience with people locally who go on volunteer expeditions and then come back certain that archaeology is "proving the Bible correct". These people would largely suggest that any questioning of their interpretation implies a minimalist position. Thanks for posting a comment!