What Do Archaeologists Do With the Bible?

Understanding the relationship between archaeology and the Bible

What Do Archaeologists Do With the Bible?

“What do archaeologists do with evidence from both archaeology and the Bible?” asks columnist Fredric Brandfon.

In the July/August 2011 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Hershel Shanks’s First Person dealt with Ronny Reich’s new book, Excavating the City of David.* In Reich’s book he commented on Eilat Mazar’s excavations, also in the City of David, where she claims to have found King David’s palace.** Reich objected to Mazar’s archaeology methods and questionable use of archaeology and the Bible–predicting that she would find David’s palace and then conducting an excavation in which she claimed to have located exactly what she set out to find.

According to Fredric Brandfon in his Archaeological Views column “Digging a Hole and Telling a Tale,” the controversy between Reich and Mazar, while characterized by Shanks as one over scientific and archaeology methods, may be characterized from another point of view. He believes the argument between Reich and Mazar is more about understanding that basic question, “What do archaeologists do with the Bible as a source of evidence about the past?”

In general, Brandfon says, archaeologists and historians have approached the relationship between archaeology and the Bible in three ways. First, scholars of the 19th and early 20th centuries sought to use archaeology to corroborate the Biblical text. Although modern archaeology methods did furnish some evidence that seemed to support the Biblical account, such as the city gates found at Hazor, Megiddo and Gezer that many attributed to Solomon (1 Kings 9:15), other discoveries, like the lack of a Late Bronze Age settlement at Jericho, flatly contradicted the Bible, particularly the story of Joshua’s conquest.

Frustrated with finding little evidence that actually corroborated the Bible directly, archaeologists in the mid-20th century began to see archaeology as providing material and cultural context for the Bible’s stories. Even if evidence of specific Biblical events or personalities could not be found using archaeology methods, what was most often discovered in excavations—houses, pottery, weapons—could provide the material background to daily life in the Biblical period.

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Finally, by the end of the 20th century, according to Brandfon, archaeologists were using their discoveries, along with new archaeology methods like regional survey, to make original claims about the history of ancient Israel, quite separate from the stories preserved in the Bible. These “archaeological” stories provided insight into questions about which the Bible has little to say, such as how and when early Israel transformed from a tribal village society into an urbanized state society. Somewhat ironically, however, these archaeological stories of social change and state formation are often still populated by Biblical personalities and peoples, from the Israelites, Judahites and Philistines to the first kings, Saul and David.

Given these disparate ways of thinking about archaeology and the Bible, writes Brandfon, it’s not surprising that archaeologists like Eilat Mazar and Ronny Reich, who no doubt agree on basic archaeology methods, can vehemently disagree on how the archaeological and Biblical evidence relate to one another.



* Hershel Shanks, First Person, “The Bible as a Source of Testable Hypotheses,” Biblical Archaeology Review, July/August 2011.

** See Eilat Mazar, “Did I Find King David’s Palace?” Biblical Archaeology Review, January/February 2006.

Based on Fredric Brandfon, Archaeological Views, “Digging a Hole and Telling a Tale,” Biblical Archaeology Review, January/February 2012.

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