Lawrence E. Stager (1943–2017)
Larry received his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1975, with a dissertation dealing with desert farming. He went on to teach Syro-Palestinian archaeology and Biblical archaeology at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago from 1973 to 1985, before returning to an endowed chair at Harvard as the inaugural Dorot Professor of the Archaeology of Israel and as Director of the Semitic Museum from 1985 to 2012. In his more than 40 years of teaching, Larry served as primary supervisor of over 50 doctoral students. He directed excavations at Idalion, Cyprus; at Carthage, Tunisia; and, from 1985 to 2016, the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon, Israel. Larry was named a member of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. In 2016, he received the Percia Schimmel Prize from the Israel Museum for his contributions to archaeology in Israel, an honor rarely given to a non-Israeli scholar.a In 2018, the Israel Exploration Society will publish a volume of Eretz-Israel in his name—just the third gentile to receive this honor.
It is hard to overestimate the influence that Larry had on the field of Biblical archaeology; he revolutionized the field. To get a sense of his contribution, it is worth reviewing the scholarly landscape of the 1970s. After the death of William F. Albright, unexpectedly followed by the death of G. Ernest Wright, Biblical archaeology as a discipline was no longer fashionable. Archaeology in the United States was in the midst of a revolution, throwing off past ways in favor of new “scientific” methods. In such a context, admitting to being a “Biblical archaeologist” was a bit like walking into a chemistry lab and admitting to practicing alchemy. This same American revolution in archaeology also looked askance at archaeologists around the world (including those in Israel) who were not up-to-date on the latest archaeological theory or jargon.From the beginning, Larry stood above these trends. He was secure enough in himself that he did not feel the need to limit what he could study or from whom he could learn. His training had already taken him to sit under the tutelage of Nahman Avigad, Roland de Vaux, Yigael Yadin, Trude Dothan, and others, and he found their understanding of the past to be incredibly stimulating. He had worked under Frank Moore Cross, William Moran, and Thomas O. Lambdin and saw great value in continuing to use the Bible, with the appropriate critical background, as a source for understanding the past.
As Larry thought about Biblical archaeology for the 21st century, he reconceived the relationship between Biblical studies and archaeology in order to emphasize what both disciplines could do best. In the past, the caricature (and often the sad reality) was that Biblical archaeology only served to “prove” or “disprove” the Bible. Did Abraham exist? Did David kill Goliath? Archaeological remains could never hope to answer many of these questions with any certainty, and this narrow focus ignored the real evidence that archaeologists discovered in the field.
As Larry thought about these relationships, he turned to the Annales school of French historians, led by Fernand Braudel. For Braudel, the everyday events of history take place in the context of longer social trends, which are themselves played out on the geographic landscape. To understand the events, you need to understand how they fit into these longer historical tendencies. For Larry, this framework was extremely helpful. To understand the Biblical poem of Deborah and Barak, for example, one first needed to apprehend tribes, pastoralism, family structure, and village commerce as understood through archaeology. Then, all of this needed to connect to the geography and ecology of ancient Canaan. Together, these broken fragments could be restored by the expert historian into the story of the emergence of Israel or the beginnings of monotheism.
Larry used archaeology and the Bible with a skillful awareness of what each discipline could contribute to the larger stories of history. He wrote on the Philistines, early Israel, Deborah, Abimelech, David, the Israelite family, child sacrifice, and the destructions of Nebuchadnezzar. Many of his research ideas became award-winning articles in Biblical Archaeology Review. Larry’s best statement on Biblical archaeology was his book Life in Biblical Israel, co-written with Philip J. King. Together, all of his works charted a way forward for future generations to realize that Biblical archaeology is a fruitful discipline that benefits from the heritage of archaeology in Israel and the ancient writings preserved in the Bible.
“Giant of Iron Age Research: Lawrence E. Stager (1943–2017)” is excerpted from the article “‘The Nobles of the People Dug It’: Remembering Three Archaeological Giants” in the July/August 2018 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
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