Alexander to Constantine Archaeology of the Land of the Bible (Vol. 3)
By Eric M. Meyers and Mark A. Chancey
(New Haven and London: Yale Univ. Press, 2012), xv + 392 pp., $40 (hardcover)
Reviewed by Morten Hørning Jensen
This book bears a heavy weight. Not only is it the third volume in the highly regarded Yale University series Archaeology of the Land of the Bible, it also covers an unusual amount of material—from the advent of Hellenism to the Byzantine period—and all this in 300 pages. To lift such a boulder out of the trench, two distinguished scholars have joined forces. Eric Meyers is a seasoned archaeologist and a leader in the field; Mark Chancey is a historian and theologian with a number of acclaimed publications behind him.
In the introduction, the authors make two important points clear. First, they aim at a “broad audience” including scholars, students and the general public. Second, they have chosen to present the material chronologically rather than by category. That is, instead of outlining developments within architecture, pottery and so on, they advance mainly through historical periods beginning with the Persian period and covering the Greek kingdoms, the Hasmonean period, Herodian rule, the revolts and onward to the emergence of Christianity.
How well do the authors complete the daunting task they have set before them? On a whole, very well, indeed. You feel safe in their hands due to a mix of balanced discussions and an intimate knowledge of the most recent and often unpublished excavations. Especially, I value the places where controversial topics are treated from more than one side, providing the reader with a first hand feeling of research in action.
In addition to the chronological chapters, a number of chapters are devoted to special topics. In my judgment, these are actually the best, having a more defined focus. One chapter deals with history and archaeology in connection with the Dead Sea Scrolls. With zest and enthusiasm, the authors not only tell the tale of the archaeological and textual finds, but they also go through the scholarly debate on the connection between Qumran, the scrolls and the Essenes. In an informative way, they equip the reader to appreciate more than one side of the discussion, while not holding back from arguing their own case. I also found the chapter on early Judaism and the rise of the synagogue as an institution to be exemplary. The authors provide a highly valuable and readable overview of the evolution of the synagogue, informed by the latest findings (such as Magdala*) as well as by the dating difficulties of several of the early synagogues. They likewise deal with the purity question, bringing the reader up to speed by outlining the most recent discussions concerning the termination date of Jewish ritual baths (mikva’ot).
On the flip-side of the coin, the editorial decision to proceed chronologically leaves the overall presentation with two weak sides. The authors seem to have felt compelled to narrate the political history in too great detail as if they were presenting a regular historical analysis illustrated by archaeology, rather than the other way round. Another weakness is the editorial decision to omit comparisons within different categories across periods. To my mind, this omission is a costly one. After all, the very backbone of archaeology is a comparison over the long view. It would have been helpful if at least a small number of excurses provided overviews of developments of different kinds of architectural styles, building types, pottery styles and burial customs, to name but a few. At the very least, one would expect internal crossreferences when the same issue is treated in several chapters.
This will not, though, shake my overall judgment. Meyers and Chancey have accomplished an impressive piece of work, negotiating and balancing many interests into a readable and informative overview of a field that has generated an enormous amount of new material just in the past 30 years. At one and the same time, they provide an introduction for the student and a fresh update for those who are already acquainted with the field. For this we should be very grateful!
* See Joey Corbett, “New Synagogue Excavations in Israel and Beyond,” BAR, July/August 2011; Hershel Shanks, “Major New Excavation Planned for Mary Magdalene’s Hometown,” BAR, September/October 2007.