First Person: Is “Bible” a Dirty Word?

As published in the September/October 2015 Biblical Archaeology Review

hershel-shanksDoes Near Eastern politics affect archaeology? Unfortunately, yes.

I was reminded of this during a recent interview I had with two leading American archaeologists, Eric and Carol Meyers.a From them, I learned that one of America’s premier archaeological organizations, ASOR (the American Schools of Oriental Research), changed the name of its popular magazine Biblical Archaeologist to Near Eastern Archaeology over the objection of its members because this was the only way they could get articles about archaeology being conducted in Arab countries; these sources apparently objected to anything “Biblical,” as in the name Biblical Archaeologist.

Similarly Oxford University Press, I learned from the Meyerses, changed the name of its new archaeological encyclopedia from The Oxford Encyclopedia of Biblical Archaeology to The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East to enable the editors to obtain entries about archaeology in Arab countries.

A pattern begins to emerge. Another prominent American archaeologist, Øystein (“Sten”) LaBianca, digs in Jordan at Tall Hisban, probably the site the Biblical writer had in mind when referring to Heshbon, a city in Moab that refused to allow Moses to pass through on the Israelites’ trek to the Holy Land (see Numbers 21:21–31; Deuteronomy 2:24; Joshua 12:1–2; Judges 11:19–26). Sten told me that he once persuaded the Jordanian authorities to post a sign near the site directing visitors to “Tall Hisban—famous biblical, classical and Islamic archaeological site.” Soon after the sign was posted, the word “biblical” was obliterated.b “Biblical” was apparently not kosher.

While this might not be surprising in Jordan, it would be in England. A conference was recently held at University College London titled “Digging Up Jericho.” Scholars from England, the United States, Holland, Italy, Denmark and the Palestinian Department of Antiquities presented papers. No scholars from you-know-where were on the program.

Although the two-day conference was called “Digging Up Jericho,” none of the papers dealt with whether the excavation revealed any information—positive or negative—about the Biblical account of the destruction of Jericho. The Bible was apparently verboten. No one would ever know the Bible dealt with the site.

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The keynote address was given by Professor Lorenzo Nigro of the Sapienza University of Rome, who has led a major new excavation at Jericho. This reminded me of my own brief connection with this excavation. In the spring of 2012, I met an archaeologist in Jerusalem who was associated with this excavation. When she told me about it, I naturally thought of the possibility of an article in BAR. I mentioned this to her, and she seemed to be receptive. We decided to go to the site and talk further about it. We had a great visit, and on the way back we agreed on the general outline of an article that she would write for BAR. I then confirmed this in an email. Her article would generally be about the new excavation. The great Neolithic tower was still the most impressive surviving part of the site, however. A great Middle Bronze (16th century B.C.E.) wall had been destroyed and was subsequently reused. Had the tradition of this wall’s destruction been incorporated into the Biblical account of the destruction of Jericho?

In my email to her confirming the assignment, I concluded with my usual paragraph: “You may have other or additional matters that you want to include. I would guess that your manuscript will be about 12 double-spaced pages, but it can be a little more or a little less. Just say what you have to say, and when you’ve said it, stop. If in doubt, include it.”

She replied, “Many thanks for your email. Everything is clear … It was a great pleasure to accompany you to Jericho.”

But then, after a delay, came another email from her: “I am trying to find a solution to the proposed article. As I told you, there are many people involved and supervisors for the Jericho excavations, and we need to cooperate. So at the present moment, it is not the time for me to submit an article by myself. I hope you can understand my position and the balance I have to keep. Maybe in the future.”

I replied:

I have been thinking a lot about why this didn’t work. We were both so excited by the idea of this article when we went to Jericho together. It seems to me there are two possible reasons why you didn’t write this article we agreed upon: (1) You are not the director of the excavation, and you were fearful that the director would not approve of your doing this. (2) Because the site is in the West Bank, you were concerned that a discussion of Jericho in the context of the Bible would not be approved by the authorities and perhaps not by the dig director.

She replied: “You are partly right. And there are other reasons—for sure the political situation is not easy … I hope there will be other occasions to cooperate in the future.”

So the article is in abeyance—most likely permanently. When we will learn how the new excavations might enlighten our understanding of the Biblical references to Jericho remains a question.



a. Hershel Shanks, “Biblical Archaeology: Whither and Whence,” BAR, March/April 2015.

b. First Person: “LaBianca’s Four Different Kinds of ‘Past,’” BAR, July/August 2012.


More on Jericho in the BAS Library:

Ronald S. Hendel, “Biblical Views: Giants at Jericho,” Biblical Archaeology Review, March/April 2009.

Bryant G. Wood, “Did the Israelites Conquer Jericho? A New Look at the Archaeological Evidence,” Biblical Archaeology Review, March/April 1990.

Piotr Bienkowski, “Battle Over Jericho Heats Up: Jericho Was Destroyed in the Middle Bronze Age, Not the Late Bronze Age,” Biblical Archaeology Review, September/October 1990.

Bryant G. Wood, “Battle Over Jericho Heats Up: Dating Jericho’s Destruction: Bienkowski Is Wrong on All Counts,” Biblical Archaeology Review, September/October 1990.

Ehud Netzer, BAR Readers Restore and Preserve Herodian Jericho,” Biblical Archaeology Review, November/December 1978.

Suzanne F. Singer, “The Winter Palaces of Jericho,” Biblical Archaeology Review, June 1977.

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  • Wes says

    Within the context of this thread, I don’t know how what to say save that

    I would be interested in seeing more background on Cyrus as well either from archeological findings or writings.

    Unfortunately, unless much more remains under lock and key in private collections, I suspect that shedding light on many mysterious issues or reconstructing rationales for writings will remain difficult on account of how much has been lost in the sacking or burning of ancient libraries – deliberate or inadvertent.

  • D. says

    There is an archaeology of the text here also.In the Genesis Rabbah 19, the serpent begins walking on two legs but is cursed by The Infinite to crawl.The mistake Eve was pushed(literally) into by the serpent was believing what Adam had told her that it was okay to touch the tree and that led to her to partake of the fruit.Your point about chapter 3 is interesting but for me it aligns with the contradictory stories of the creation of Adam and Eve in chapters 1 and 2.I believe the chapter 2 version to be a counterfeit but legitimate theologically as a challenge from The Infinite.Your point about the magi shows what I consider to be an example of how 45:7 has unfolded in the NT as a labyrinthine subtext which is at variance to its meaning.I believe Yeshua/Jesus knew this.To take one example of many in the NT:why did he refer to Peter as Satan a few verses after referring to him as “this rock”(Matt16:15-23)?It was surely a challenge to any believer.Cyrus is referred to as “God’s anointed”(45:1) the Zoroastrian connection is severed because there is no ruling deity in that faith who is good and evil or indeed in any other religion. Was Cyrus a Deist or a Zoroastrian who asked questions of his theological stand? The only authoritative biography about him is an academically lightweight book written in the nineteenth century.

  • Wes says


    Just to acknowledge that I see something of what you are driving at:

    The notion of a talking serpent being a devil appears to me as a notion taken up in the NT after a long lapse from Genesis chapter 3. Why that should happen? Cyrus and Zoroastrian successors might have had something to do with it. Consider that the NT begins with the quest of 3 magi..

    .Another argument for Middle Eastern perspectives when doing Biblical archeological research.

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