Following Jim West’s recommendation on his blog some time ago, I listened to Eric Cline’s interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education. Dr. Cline is Chair of the Department of Classical and Semitic Languages and Literature at George Washington University and has written several books on the subject of biblical archaeology. After listening to the interview I immediately ordered his new book, From Eden to Exile, and started reading through it this week.
In the introduction, Cline clearly spells out a dilemma facing serious scholars of biblical archaeology today. The field of biblical archaeology, at least as its results are presented to the general public, has been largely confiscated by charlatans with little or no training in archaeology (or serious scholarship in general) and yet who present their views as “scientific”:
While doing the research for this book, I became amazed and, frankly, appalled by the amount of pseudoscientific nonsense that has been published on these topics, especially on the Internet but also in book form. The vast majority of this work has not been produced by professional scholars but rather by amateur enthusiasts…These enthusiasts…all work outside of academia. As such, they are not held to the same standards of rigor, peer review, and scrutiny as professional scholars employed by colleges, universities, and other institutions of higher learning.
Cline is, of course, referring to the usual array of the intellectually vacuous who appear to speak authoritatively on the subject of biblical archaeology, but who in reality have not the foggiest clue about the nature of archaeological research: the Ron Wyatts and Bob Cornukes of the world, for example. But there is a continuum of problem enthusiasts here, some not as extremely ignorant, who nonetheless uncritically use archaeological data to advance their proselytizing efforts:
Some biblical maximalists – particularly those working outside of mainstream academia – seem to be closer to the enthusiasts in setting out with their own a priori set of assumptions, which are often stated outright in the mission or message statements on their Web sites. Others dilute their good and careful analysis of archaeological material and ancient literary sources with uncritical thinking or blatant proselytizing. In addition, both the maximalist and minimalist camps harbor individuals who abuse and occasionally distort the information.
It is refreshing to finally hear a professional archaeologist recognize the fact that spokesperson responsibility for the serious discipline of “biblical” archaeology has to be rescued from the public malfeasance that typically passes for legitimate commentary these days (I continue to use quotations around “biblical” only because I personally prefer the term Syro-Palestinian archaeology). This includes the local minister providing uncritical “archaeology proves the bible” assessments as equally as the crackpot Noah’s Ark investigators or creationists masquerading as archaeologists. Cline intends to raise the needed alarm:
Thus, one of the reasons I have written this book is to sound both a word of warning and a call to arms, because I believe that the general public deserves-and wants-better. It is high time that professional archaeologists, ancient historians, and mainstream biblical scholars take back their fields from the amateur enthusiasts, psuedoscientists, uninformed documentary filmmakers, and overzealous biblical maximalists and minimalists who have had, for the most part, free reign to do what they wish, without any regard to scientific method or an unbiased investigation for the truth.
Forgive my over-generalizing passion for this, but it is about time the battle cry was sounded. Archaeological science has been polluted by those Cline describes and we professional archaeologists should start being blunt (and public!) about the danger posed by both charlatans and proselytizers. Some of you know I have fought my own battles here in Lassen County with a local media willing to portray ignorance as science and I am pleased that the call for a rigorous defense of archaeological integrity is being made internationally. I look forward to continuing with Dr. Cline’s book. I am sure it is just the first salvo in the upcoming war to reclaim archaeology.
UPDATE: My apologies to Jim West - if I had been paying a little closer attention I would have realized he commented on some of the very same issues in an initial assessment of Clines book way back in May. Whoops...I'm just excited about the book!