The Chasm Between the Media and Biblical Archaeological Scholarship

Archaeological Views by Eric M. Meyers in the March/April 2014 issue of BAR

In the March/April 2014 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Duke University scholar Eric M. Meyers questions academic Biblical and archaeological communication with popular media. We invite our readers to share their thoughts on popular presentation of scholarship in our field, Biblical history/archaeology conversations in your communities and the best way that we, as a website, can help bridge this chasm. Your thoughts are greatly appreciated! –Ed.  


 
Eric M. Meyers

Eric M. Meyers

Unfortunately, today a seemingly impenetrable divide separates lay studies and sermons, on the one hand, from the academic study of the Bible and archaeology, on the other. To this we may add the yawning gap between what scholars do and what much of the media does. For example, an ABC special that aired last year showing Christiane Amanpour and her son watching the sunrise from Mt. Sinai more or less ignored the state of the archaeological field today. This show could have been produced a generation ago.

I do not think the American public is apathetic or indifferent. On the contrary, as many readers of BAR know, a small cadre of devoted readers pride themselves on staying attuned to the most recent developments in the field of Biblical archaeology. In relation to the larger population of the United States as a whole, however, this is a very small group. When we add the fact that the media is hesitant to take on some of the real current questions that are challenging the field, the situation is even worse.

What we in academia observe is a stubborn refusal by large sectors of the population to accept climate change and global warming as factors to be taken seriously. But cancer research—everyone takes that seriously. The study of religion—and especially the Bible and archaeology—often falls into the former category.

Let me offer a few examples. If a rabbi, priest or minister sermonizes about Biblical Israel or the Exodus, there is almost zero chance of hearing any serious consideration of the complexities of Israel’s ethnogenesis: Did Israel emerge from Egypt as a fully developed people whose singular experience under slavery led to the almost immediate birth of monotheism and Israelite religion as we know it? The maximalist/minimalist debate, now a generation old and the subject of thousands of articles and books, has hardly inspired the Bible-reading public to alter its long-held views. As someone who regularly lectures on these subjects, I am usually nonplussed when people ask me, “Why have I never heard that before?”
 


 
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Having a more nuanced view of Israel’s origins need not run counter to Biblical faith and might not be so threatening if one were to examine more fully the dynamics of the transition from the Late Bronze Age to the Iron Age. In fact, one might just discover factors that would enhance our understanding of the Biblical record, although in slightly altered ways. For example, perhaps the recollection by a small group of newcomers (or indigenes) recently escaped from enslavement created an environment in which new ways of living could be envisioned in the highlands of Canaan that were different from the more hierarchical norms that dominated the cultures surrounding them. What if King David was not as mighty as the Bible portrays him? What if Jerusalem was not the shining city on the hill before the beginnings of urbanism under King Hezekiah? Perhaps recognition of such history might actually lead us to a greater sensitivity for what the Biblical personae achieved in such short order. And it might also lead us to a more appreciative and faithful reading of the Biblical narrative.

Even touring the Holy Land and its array of Biblical sites and national parks can be misleading. The sign-age is often overtly political, and many of the presentations in films, brochures and websites can be wildly different from what is currently accepted in academia.

How can we change things? We all know that the print medium is in serious decline. Most of us teaching in colleges and universities are aware that the humanities are also in steep decline. That is true for courses in religious studies and the Bible, as well as archaeology, though there are many exceptions. MOOCS (massive open online courses) are becoming more common, and some of the biggest names in higher education are experimenting with them, including Duke and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. But until TV journalism, as well as major magazines and newspapers in print and online, catch up with the field and turn to real experts for advice, the larger public is destined to remain ill-informed.

Outreach education sponsored by seminaries could do a lot more in this area. In my own state of North Carolina, there are nearly 3,000 courses per year in public high schools that teach aspects of the Bible and Biblical history in a variety of settings, and yet there is no resource for those teachers so that they can be up-to-date on Biblical studies.

The Society of Biblical Literature’s new online resource, Bible Odyssey [not yet published], will, one hopes, go a long way to rectify this situation.
 


 
Our free eBook Ten Top Biblical Archaeology Discoveries brings together the exciting worlds of archaeology and the Bible! Learn the fascinating insights gained from artifacts and ruins, like the Pool of Siloam in Jerusalem, where the Gospel of John says Jesus miraculously restored the sight of the blind man, and the Tel Dan inscription—the first historical evidence of King David outside the Bible.
 

 
Eric M. Meyers is Bernice and Morton Lerner Professor of Judaic Studies in the department of religion at Duke University and director of the Center for Jewish Studies.

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  1. Dean says

    “What we in academia observe is a stubborn refusal by large sectors of the population to accept climate change and global warming as factors to be taken seriously.” And this relates . . . how . . . to your message? Conflating issues in this manner is sure to discredit your argument; unless, perhaps, it appeals to those who agree with you on this unrelated issue. (Most in academia probably do agree. Are you just seeking to please your peers?) You speak of ‘a more nuanced view . .’, ‘perhaps the recollection . .’, ‘What if King David . .’, ‘What if Jerusalem . .’, etc. Are you asserting that archaeology reveals to you that these things are true? If you have a position, then state it honestly and defend it! The ‘chasm’ between your academic expertise and the media will not be bridged by such an oblique presentation as this. But your fellow academics may think it okay . . .

  2. Stephen Ray says

    It is Sad to not understand that the study of science is an old pursuit, for that which we call science today is based on a methodology that gives more credibility than those coming from esoteric philosophies and/or world views.
    The methodology to obtain scientific “truth” is that taken from the Bible’s law of multiple witnesses that in itself is highly underdeveloped in theologies of all time as far as I have been able to see it, but my resources are limited.
    This law is found in the Torah where Moses basically says in two corollaries the following:
    Corollary One – In the mouth of one witness shall no man be put to death.
    Corollary Two – In the mouth of witnesses two or three shall a matter be established even that toward putting a man to death for crimes worthy of such.
    Corollary One is found in a more correct translation of 2 Peter 1:20, “This first knowing that every prophecy of scripture is not of its own interpretation.” Also it is found in Jesus saying “If I bear witness of myself my witness is not true.”
    Corollary Two is found in Matthew 18 concerning the church discipline, and from the mouth of Jesus. Also in sundry of Paul’s letters, almost verbatim and especially in Hebrews which actually refers back to that law of Moses.
    Science can ONLY give us “truth” (according to the law of two or three witnesses) of things happening today concerning processes and rates. Scientific tools can be shown to work towards things historical in manners of forensics but they mainly cater to providing a list of “Possible Happenings.”
    The true knowledge obtained from many things past is in the eyewitness testimony, such as is the Bible, even of creation which has two accounts as well as the accounts of the flood.
    Understanding that the Bible is an archive of testimony will go a long way in explaining why it “appears” that the Bible has contradictions.
    Come on folk, SCIENCE today can give us a clue here, if you consider what it takes for two eyes seeing the same object in context though with slightly different details and even to a point of contradiction in order to torque the brain to interpret what we call 3-D view of our world. You see this pretty much in Paul’s 2 Corinthians 13:12 with the context of verses 8-13.

    Archaeology is far far inferior than the raw archive of eyewitness testimony that the Bible basically is, though I am not about to give up my BAR subscriptions I have had since the seventies of the last century. It keeps me abreast of the state of willful ignorance in academia. With a few good items of interest that are helpful…don’t stop funding the ventures, yet. Wait until I kick off and find the true confirming of real truth. While two or three witnesses suffices for man, God has seven witnesses that need to be satisfied. Oh….which would be the four directions, one from high up looking down and one from beneath looking up and one in the center facing all these directions. This is similar to the worldview of the Cherokee Indians.

  3. Dennis says

    Agreeing with Dean above. Conflating biblical archeology with climate change is a disservice to both disciplines. As a physicist who has studied climate I find its scientific basis is weak, and in science it is the data that rules, not projections into the future based upon computer models that are inherently limited and flawed. In the past two decades the computer models have diverged significantly from the actual temperatures as recorded by both ground and satellite sensors. In any other discipline not ruled by a confluence of politics, money, and agenda, this would be falsification.

    Biblical archeology on the other hand can never dig down to the 100% verification of biblical writings. After the last witness dies, we no longer have historical certainty. We can dig into the past to verify and validate historical references in the bible. However, we cannot recover this with 100% clarity as some of the evidence is erased by time.

    Science does not “give truth”. Science is a process that uses hypothesis tested by instrumentality to arrive at conclusions that can then be overturned when better hypotheses and instrumentalities are developed. The process which is science can be applied to both climate science and the bible, but at the end of the day the most common thread between the two searches are the biases of the humans doing the work.

  4. Dan says

    The field of archaeology has made a major error by accepting Assyrian chronology as its standard for dating ancient events in the ANE, and in doing so has rejected the chronology given in the Bible, which is far more accurate. The result is that one reads in academic publications and sees on television an almost constant barrage of doubt from archaeologists about the accuracy of the Bible for the period between Abraham and Jesus. Until biblical archaeology is ready to begin its inquiry by accepting that the Bible is accurate, I listen to the “research” of modern archaeologists with reservations. There seems to be an anti-Bible agenda in much of what is written and said by those academics.–Dan Bruce, The Prophecy Society ( http://www.prophecysociety.org )

  5. mark says

    Interesting article, maybe even more interesting responses from Dean and Stephen Ray. Let all things be established by two or more witnesses. Amen brothers! Amen!

  6. David says

    I am in agreement with Dean and Dennis above.I have advanced degrees in mathematics and engineering, and Dr. Meyers’ dismissive attitude towards skeptics of man-made climate change is an unforced error which detracts from the rest of his essay.

    I am aware that this is a journal of Biblical archaeology, so discussing climate change is rather off-topic. But it does make me question the rest of what Dr. Meyers has to say. I tend to be skeptical of anything that begins with a phrase like “What we in academia observe…” because all too often it is followed by sweeping assertions that the speaker never gets around to proving.

  7. Justin says

    This suggest maybe the general public isn’t aware that the Bible isn’t necessarily reliable and if only they understood we are finding this out more often all the time.
    No.
    The general public is most often under the impression that any research has been disproving the bible and discoveries in recent years are proving the bible is not historical. Or less than we used to believe.

    I was recently discussing this on a general opinon forum. No less than 20 ‘online atheists’ squealed in guffaws .. i mean absolutely chortling that I suggested archeologists have been discovery more and more places from the bible. They ‘knew’ that ‘obviously’ the only thing archeologists have been doing is proving most names and places in the bible did NOT exist at all. Or even ‘disproving them’.

    So there seems to be a disconnect between what this scholar imagines is the disconnect and what I’m getting all the time out there.

    And wow – the ‘climate change’ thing.. and what timing – just when that’s being debunked as junk science made to manipulate political action. Wow that was a disaster for this article. Says a lot though.

  8. Perry says

    The average church-going reader feels criticizing the Bible undermines his faith. If Moses didn’t lead a vast contingent across Sinai, how can we trust anything in the Bible? If David was the equivalentj of an area warlord, what do we do with the supposed Messianic prophesies? If Jesus didn’t say all the red letter words, how do we select which ones? By vote like the Jesus society? I have no problems personally with archaeological research, nor even the iconoclastic conclusions of some. I do however want to challenge the dissenting archaeologists -and the media- to be less “in your face” in communicating to the average Joe. May I quote Paul? “Be kind to one another.”

  9. Robert says

    I have to take issue with Stephen’s “eyewitness testimony that the Bible basically is”. In regards to the New Testament, at the least, this is just not true. The New Testament is polemic, not record. The new discovery of the long-lost Gospel of Judas is case in point. Those of us who understand (and practice as I do) Mysticism (modern ‘Gnosticism’) know that the ‘sacrifice’ at the climax of the Gospel of Judas is of self: JUDAS, *not Jesus*.

    The gnostic discoveries are a treasure trove of documentation showing how the “Betrayal” fiction got started. The new savior, the successor to ‘Jesus’ (whoever this fictional construct is meant to represent, both here and in the canon) is James the Just. ‘Judas’ is James. He has a ‘vision’ (44:25) wherein he is stoned by fellow disciples, something which in the record happened only to James (Hegesippus, Clement of Alexandria, Recognitions 1:70). And in ‘James’, a version of First Apocalypse of James from Nag Hammadi, the text just before gJudas in the Codex Tchacos, are found, at minimum, a dozen parallel details to the Betrayal, including the infamous ‘kiss’, inverted from a kiss of spiritual union, as it was originally written. Second Apocalypse of James has further support for James as successor savior.
    http://gnosis.org/naghamm/1ja.html
    http://gnosis.org/naghamm/2ja.html

    If these particular gnostic texts are not actually precedent to the canon, the tradition of James as preeminent leader of his day is well attested in gnostic literature — and early (Gospel of Thomas, 12, for example: “Go to James, for whom heaven and earth came into being”). Even early church leaders like Eusebius and Papias give rightful place to James as heir to Jesus. Too bad he was inverted into “betrayer” Judas (‘paradidos’ is “to deliver”, not “to betray”). Dr. Robert Eisenman found the same on James from the Dead Sea Scrolls, in the Lukan Acts 1 inversion of Judas, Matthias, and Joseph Barsabbas Justus as James covers. My book and website cover the case for James as full Master: judaswasjames dot com I’ll email a book pdf free to anyone emailing judaswasjames at AOL dot com

    Until the biblical studies field gets its own house in order, the blame for popular misunderstanding of what’s what, and what’s happening in the archaeology field, can only be placed at the doorstep of the biblical studies community. Learn about Mysticism! No one will ever understand the Bible without first understanding Mysticism. That is what the Bible IS. A good source of online information for Mystic teaching is RSSB dot org, and their booksite, Science of the Soul dot org. Titles are available at cost, shipped anywhere for free.

  10. Larry says

    Biblical chronologists take archaeology seriously but seldom archaeologists in the field. Meaning what? Meaning that historians such as Manetho and Syncellus had long ago identified the pharaoh of the Exodus as Amenhotep III, which is being totally ignored as an option for the time of the Exodus by archaeologists who prefer making comparisons to the time of Rameses II. Kathleen Kenyon who dug up Jericho, long ago indicated that the Israelites were the ones who destroyed LBA Jericho some time between 1350-1325 BC — but we seldom hear about that. Of course, based on that dating, the pharaohs of the Exodus end up being Amenhotep III and Akhneaten! An astronomical text called the KTU 1.78 dates year 12 of Akhenaten to 1375 BC which means he began his rule in 1386 BC. In that case, year 4 of Solomon should fall in 906 BC and his 40-year rule from 910-870 BC. Shishak’s invasion occurring late in his reign during a 6-year co-rulership with his son, Rehoboam (year 5) would fall c. 871 BCE, which is precisely where the radiocarbon-14 dating available from Rehov is also dating that event. So for those who are looking, you have a confirmation from history that Amenhotep III was the correct pharaoh of the Exodus, a confirmation from the fall of Jericho and now a confirmation of Shishak at the right time in 871 BCE.

    Thus Dan (above) hits the nail right on the head when he noted: “The field of archaeology has made a major error by accepting Assyrian chronology as its standard for dating ancient events in the ANE, and in doing so has rejected the chronology given in the Bible, which is far more accurate.” Correct. So allow me to be brief (blunt). Archaeologists are using an incorrect timeline. The Assyrian Period dated by a single eclipse is incorrectly matched to an eclipse in 763 BCE. When that occurs then Shishak gets misdated to c. 925 BCE. When the correct eclipse is used in 709 BCE, 54 years later, then Shishak gets dated correctly to 871 BCE, which is precisely in line with the C14 dating from Rehov! So this “minimalist” vs. “maximalist” debate is a total joke. Archaeology gives us the correct dating, but it is compared to a dysfunction timeline. So when archaeologists get serious about Bible chronology then they can be taken seriously. This is what needs to happen.

    1) The Bible’s own timeline must be used for comparisons, not the fake secular timeline. The Bible limits the rule of Darius I to just 6 years and also confirms that Xerxes and Artaxerxes were the same king. This is easily confirmed by secular records and evidence at Persepolis and at the Persian tombs at Naqshi-Rustam (i.e. Artaxerxes is buried between Darius I and Darius II, proving Xerxes was also known as “Artaxerxes” as per the Bible). So right or wrong, the Bible’s Persian Period is some 82 years shorter than based on revised secular records.

    2) The Bible’s timeline is best served by the connection between the appearance of Christ in 29 CE and the return from Babylon “69 weeks” earlier, meaning in 455 BCE. This means the 1st of Cyrus per the Bible must be dated to 455 BCE, whether that makes sense to historians or not. But having said that, since the Exodus is exactly 19 jubilees earlier than the return from Babylon, the Biblical date for the Exodus is 1386 BC. That is in agreement with Manetho and Syncellus that Amenhotep III, indeed, was the pharaoh of the Exodus. Of course, the reliability of the Bible in connection with the story of the 10 plagues takes on a brand new meaning when we realize that the monotheism of Akhenaten was a direct result of his response to the 10 plagues! In addition, as noted, once it is clear the Bible and the findings at Jericho both support the Exodus at the end of the rule of Amenhotep III, then that in turn contradicts the current Assyrian dating based on the 763 BCE eclipse. But it does not contradict the archaeological dating for Shishak, for instance, which would be dated c. 871 BCE by both C14 dating from Rehov, which in turn dates the Exodus to 1386 BCE, both forcing the coordinated Assyrian Period to be dated by the 709 BCE eclipse rather than the 763 BCE eclipse.

    3) Finally, there is also the discovery of the VAT4956, a text apparently created by Jews to preserve some references fror the original astronomy from the time of Nebuchadnezzar II hidden in a text that otherwise dates events to the revised date for year 37 of Nebuchadnezzar II in 568 BCE. The hidden dating was discovered in Lines 3 and 14 which match 511 BCE for year 37 of Neb2. Of course, following the Bible closely as well as Josephus, there is a 70-year period from the last deportation in year 23 of Nebuchadnezzar II to the 1st of Cyrus. If the 1st of Cyrus is correctly dated by the Bible to occur in 455 BCE, then 70 years earlier dates year 23 to 525 BCE (455 + 70 = 525 BCE). That means that year 37 would fall in 511 BCE, which in turn explains why we have an astronomical text that has two 511 BCE dates in it. So it is not that there is no evidence of these revisions. In fact, this text alone proves the current dating used by scholars is completely bogus, while forcing us to re-date year 37 to 511 BCE. But note what happens when we do that. This text as well would force a reduction going into the Assyrian Period of 57 years, which adjusts by 3 years to the 709 BCE eclipse, which reduces the Assyrian Period by 54 years. As discussed before, though, when you drop the dating of the Assyrian Period by 54 years, then Shishak’s invasion now dated to 925 BCE falls right where the C14 dating places it in c. 871 BCE!

    So does anyone get the picture? The archaeology from Jericho and from Rehov totally confirm the dating o the Bible, which dates the Exodus to 1386 BC. That’s why Biblical chronologists don’t take “Biblical archaeologists” seriously because they don’t know Bible chronology. What the archaeologists need to do is discover from archaeology that Xerxes and Artaxerxes were the same king and that the Persian Period was artificially expanded by some 82 years (i.e. remove 30 years from Darius I and Artaxerxes II, combine 21 years for Xerxes with Artaxerxes I, and remove 1 co-rule year out of 8 for Kambyses = 82 year reduction). Then once 455 BCE is the confirmed official date for the 1st of Cyrus, it’s a simple matter of using the VAT4956 to confirm year 37 to 511 BCE, and the 709 BCE eclipse to date the Assyrian Period, which in turn will date Shishak to 871 BCE which matches the C14 dating for that event. That in turn will confirm the Exodus at the time of Amenhotep III, which was already known and we suddenly understand why Akhenaaten became a monotheist like the Israelites. In turn, the fall of Jericho in 13840 BC can be ascribed to them as Kenyon has already noted to have occurred between 1350-1325 BC.

    When “Biblical archaeologists” finally get their act together and date the Exodus at the time of Akhenaten and Amenhotep III then they might be taken seriously. In the meantime, the archaeology itself tells them the Assyrian Period is dated too early when C14 from Rehov dates Shishak c. 871 BCE instead of 925 BCE, but they can’t see past the timeline they have been used to and which has been the official timeline all these centuries, even though now we can easily correct it with astronomy. When the Exodus is dated at the time of Amenhotep III and Akhenaen, then David and Solomon must get down-dated a half century which means David appears at the correct time for the “end of the Philistine pottery period” and Solomon at the time the great works at Megiddo and the time of “full statehood” of Israel occurred in the “early 9th Century BC.” The bible’s timeline and archaeology are thus in complete agreement. The fake secular timeline archaeologists are using and trying to promote as the Biblical timeline, contradicts the archaeology. It’s just that simple. C14 from Rehov dates Shishak to c. 871 BCE, so date him there and change the timeline — it’s not that difficult. Kenyon dates the fall of Jericho between 1350-1325 BC by the Israelites, so date that event there and figure out Akhenaten was the pharaoh of the Exodus. There is nothing wrong with the archaeology. The problem is incompetent timelines being used by archaeologists from the revised history of the Greco-Persian Period. The Bible is getting a bad rap from bad archaeologists, not bad archaeology.

  11. Justin says

    Larry – amazing post and I need to see you writing more articles and ebooks.

    I have to say this – the bible really does describe the Jews leaving Egypt as ‘Proto-Israelites’. Those defining characteristics of a unique and distinct culture with Moses, the Laws, the unique dress, diets all that – much of that, according to the bible, comes after the Exodus. And the same bible tells us a lot about the polytheism and everything else many were into.

    What I’m saying is that the author might be yawning about Bible Epic Movie ‘anachronism’ and that’s fine to correct but it’s not correcting the biblical account itself.

    Anyways, I shouldn’t be posting since Larry’s showstopper says more than I’d ever try and add to anything here. Epic Larry.

  12. Andy says

    Let’s face it, archaeology is not a real science, let alone an exact science. And archaeologists disagree with each other. And change their minds. And develop new hypotheses. And archaeological objects are sometimes produced which may or may not be fakes. Little wonder that the public have little confidence in archaeology. Little wonder that sermons bypass the latest archaeological claims and speculations. Interesting yes. But reliable? Take more than a little bit of salt, I reckon. As for putting archaeology in the same camp as cancer research and climate change – ridiculous. Get real, man, and keep your head down. Archaeology is an unimportant humanistic luxury that brings no benefit to ordinary people – that does not impact on the future of individuals or of the world.

  13. MARILYN COLLIER says

    Many people of faith feel like the “scientific” world simply wishes to demonize them or make them out as ignorant, less intelligent, and definitely less educated people. They’ve turned the scientist to “off.” Do you really wonder why they don’t listen to you? Why would they?

  14. Peter says

    Two short comments: 1) The fact that archaeology is in the media is a good thing – it means it gets attention and ratings, now we need to work on accuracy, which leads to 2) Is it time for a dedicated “Adventure Channel” that focuses on Archaeology and other disciplines in the wider-spectrum of humanity’s present and past, as well as adventure-related sports, tourism, travel, and education. NatGeo, Discovery, etc., have very little Archaeology-related content.

  15. Peter says

    One additional comment, “Digging for the Truth,” an Archaeology adventure-education show, which premiered in January, 2005…has since become the highest-rated series in the history of The History Channel” (Wikipedia). There’s something here worth considering from the point of view of revenue generation and Archaeology.

  16. Serug says

    As a former minister I can tell you that congregations have no time for complex arguments and academic dissertations coming from the pulpit on a Sunday morning. The expectations are different and it is also irrelevant to what is being done, we are worshiping, we are teaching people how to live that faith on a daily basis, not giving academic presentations. I would like and have been pressing for more biblical education in relation to history and geography during the Sunday School hour and presenting special lectures in my own church but these always have to take place outside of the Sunday WORSHIP (emphasis on worship) hour and when we can think on other things.

  17. Dabar says

    As a theologian I take a great interest in what the latest archaeological speculation is. But I am aware that it is only that, Another shovel full of dirt could totally alter current, and widely held, academic consensus. I will never forget, as a young undergraduate, being told by my lecturer that King David was unknown outside the Bible, and probably never existed. That very same year someone shoveling dirt in Tel Dan, came across the now famous inscription. The Bible has stood the test of time. All too often scholarship hasn’t. It is not ignorance that prevents academic consensus from being preached from the pulpit – it is simple wisdom.

Continuing the Discussion

  1. A view from the Chasm: Four changes biblical scholarship needs to make if they wish to positively engage faith communities. | Biblical Remains linked to this post on April 7, 2014

    […] in an article published in the March/April issue of Biblical Archaeology Review (published online here) has argued that an “impenetrable divide” exists between academic biblical and archaeological […]


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