Biblical archaeologists take part in a heated debate when deciding which archaeological sources to use. Should material culture be the sole basis for creating a testable hypothesis? Can an archaeologist create a testable hypothesis from an ancient text, and prove or disprove it with archaeological sources? How about using the Bible as a reference for deciding where to conduct archaeological fieldwork?
In the September/October 2012 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Kevin McGeough* responds to an opinion piece by BAR editor Hershel Shanks,** who suggested that using the Bible as a reference is comparable to any usage of an ancient text to form the basis of a testable hypothesis. Shanks suggested that an archaeologist using the Bible as a reference can still follow proper scientific method by creating a testable hypothesis, and then proving or disproving it through fieldwork. While this seems reasonable, this type of scholarship of often subject to criticism; Shanks considers this is a prejudice against the Bible, stating that these condemnations would not be leveled against the usage of other ancient text.
Kevin McGeough disagrees. He believes that reading a Biblical verse, formulating a testable hypothesis, and then conducting an archaeological excavation to prove or disprove it is an inherently circular process. Kevin McGeough states that this is not a prejudice against using the Bible as a reference; this logic applies to testing the validity of any ancient text. Ancient text should supplement artifactual archaeological sources, because “texts are conscious attempts at communication that historians use to reconstruct the past.” Kevin McGeough argues that “archaeologists use social scientific approaches to try to make sense of the leftover traces and artifacts of ancient cultures. In other words, texts and material culture provide different information about different aspects of ancient life, and while there may be overlap, this overlap should not be assumed.”
Kevin McGeough goes beyond the discussion of using the Bible as a reference; he broadens the discussion on ancient text to discuss archaeological sources at Bronze Age Ugarit.*** His own research shows that the ancient text and material record tell a very different story of Ugarit’s economy.
Traditional archaeological sources benefit from a complimentary relationship with ancient text, including the Bible. Kevin McGeough writes that “the Bible is an extremely rich resource for scholars of the ancient past. But it needs to be treated as the incredibly complex resource that it is… we need to understand that archaeology and Biblical studies provide different types of information about the past. Instead of using one class of evidence to “prove” or “disprove” another, we should try to understand how the differences and similarities in the evidence can make sense together.”
Read more in Kevin McGeough, “Should Archaeology Be Used as a Source of Testable Hypotheses About the Bible?” as it appears in the September/October 2012 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review in the BAS Library.
Or read it in the new BAR digital edition.
In the BAS lecture series DVD Texts and Contexts, familiar texts and historical questions take on new meaning as eminent scholars explore the latest in literary interpretation.
* Kevin McGeough, “Should Archaeology Be Used as a Source of Testable Hypotheses About the Bible?” BAR, September/October 2012.