The Chasm Between the Media and Biblical Archaeological Scholarship

Archaeological Views by Eric M. Meyers in the March/April 2014 issue of BAR

In the March/April 2014 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Duke University scholar Eric M. Meyers questions academic Biblical and archaeological communication with popular media. We invite our readers to share their thoughts on popular presentation of scholarship in our field, Biblical history/archaeology conversations in your communities and the best way that we, as a website, can help bridge this chasm. Your thoughts are greatly appreciated! —Ed.  

Eric M. Meyers

Eric M. Meyers

Unfortunately, today a seemingly impenetrable divide separates lay studies and sermons, on the one hand, from the academic study of the Bible and archaeology, on the other. To this we may add the yawning gap between what scholars do and what much of the media does. For example, an ABC special that aired last year showing Christiane Amanpour and her son watching the sunrise from Mt. Sinai more or less ignored the state of the archaeological field today. This show could have been produced a generation ago.

I do not think the American public is apathetic or indifferent. On the contrary, as many readers of BAR know, a small cadre of devoted readers pride themselves on staying attuned to the most recent developments in the field of Biblical archaeology. In relation to the larger population of the United States as a whole, however, this is a very small group. When we add the fact that the media is hesitant to take on some of the real current questions that are challenging the field, the situation is even worse.

What we in academia observe is a stubborn refusal by large sectors of the population to accept climate change and global warming as factors to be taken seriously. But cancer research—everyone takes that seriously. The study of religion—and especially the Bible and archaeology—often falls into the former category.

Let me offer a few examples. If a rabbi, priest or minister sermonizes about Biblical Israel or the Exodus, there is almost zero chance of hearing any serious consideration of the complexities of Israel’s ethnogenesis: Did Israel emerge from Egypt as a fully developed people whose singular experience under slavery led to the almost immediate birth of monotheism and Israelite religion as we know it? The maximalist/minimalist debate, now a generation old and the subject of thousands of articles and books, has hardly inspired the Bible-reading public to alter its long-held views. As someone who regularly lectures on these subjects, I am usually nonplussed when people ask me, “Why have I never heard that before?”

Interested in the latest archaeological technology? Researchers at the UCSD’s Calit2 laboratory recently released the FREE BAS eBook “Cyber-Archaeology in the Holy Land — The Future of the Past,” featuring the latest research on GPS, Light Detection and Ranging Laser Scanning, unmanned aerial drones, 3D artifact scans, CAVE visualization environments and much more.

Having a more nuanced view of Israel’s origins need not run counter to Biblical faith and might not be so threatening if one were to examine more fully the dynamics of the transition from the Late Bronze Age to the Iron Age. In fact, one might just discover factors that would enhance our understanding of the Biblical record, although in slightly altered ways. For example, perhaps the recollection by a small group of newcomers (or indigenes) recently escaped from enslavement created an environment in which new ways of living could be envisioned in the highlands of Canaan that were different from the more hierarchical norms that dominated the cultures surrounding them. What if King David was not as mighty as the Bible portrays him? What if Jerusalem was not the shining city on the hill before the beginnings of urbanism under King Hezekiah? Perhaps recognition of such history might actually lead us to a greater sensitivity for what the Biblical personae achieved in such short order. And it might also lead us to a more appreciative and faithful reading of the Biblical narrative.

Even touring the Holy Land and its array of Biblical sites and national parks can be misleading. The sign-age is often overtly political, and many of the presentations in films, brochures and websites can be wildly different from what is currently accepted in academia.

How can we change things? We all know that the print medium is in serious decline. Most of us teaching in colleges and universities are aware that the humanities are also in steep decline. That is true for courses in religious studies and the Bible, as well as archaeology, though there are many exceptions. MOOCS (massive open online courses) are becoming more common, and some of the biggest names in higher education are experimenting with them, including Duke and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. But until TV journalism, as well as major magazines and newspapers in print and online, catch up with the field and turn to real experts for advice, the larger public is destined to remain ill-informed.

Outreach education sponsored by seminaries could do a lot more in this area. In my own state of North Carolina, there are nearly 3,000 courses per year in public high schools that teach aspects of the Bible and Biblical history in a variety of settings, and yet there is no resource for those teachers so that they can be up-to-date on Biblical studies.

The Society of Biblical Literature’s new online resource, Bible Odyssey [not yet published], will, one hopes, go a long way to rectify this situation.

Our free eBook Ten Top Biblical Archaeology Discoveries brings together the exciting worlds of archaeology and the Bible! Learn the fascinating insights gained from artifacts and ruins, like the Pool of Siloam in Jerusalem, where the Gospel of John says Jesus miraculously restored the sight of the blind man, and the Tel Dan inscription—the first historical evidence of King David outside the Bible.

Eric M. Meyers is Bernice and Morton Lerner Professor of Judaic Studies in the department of religion at Duke University and director of the Center for Jewish Studies.

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  • Dabar says

    As a theologian I take a great interest in what the latest archaeological speculation is. But I am aware that it is only that, Another shovel full of dirt could totally alter current, and widely held, academic consensus. I will never forget, as a young undergraduate, being told by my lecturer that King David was unknown outside the Bible, and probably never existed. That very same year someone shoveling dirt in Tel Dan, came across the now famous inscription. The Bible has stood the test of time. All too often scholarship hasn’t. It is not ignorance that prevents academic consensus from being preached from the pulpit – it is simple wisdom.

  • Serug says

    As a former minister I can tell you that congregations have no time for complex arguments and academic dissertations coming from the pulpit on a Sunday morning. The expectations are different and it is also irrelevant to what is being done, we are worshiping, we are teaching people how to live that faith on a daily basis, not giving academic presentations. I would like and have been pressing for more biblical education in relation to history and geography during the Sunday School hour and presenting special lectures in my own church but these always have to take place outside of the Sunday WORSHIP (emphasis on worship) hour and when we can think on other things.

  • PETE says

    One additional comment, “Digging for the Truth,” an Archaeology adventure-education show, which premiered in January, 2005…has since become the highest-rated series in the history of The History Channel” (Wikipedia). There’s something here worth considering from the point of view of revenue generation and Archaeology.

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