Hershel Shanks’s First Person in the July/August 2013 issue of BAR
Why are you interested in Biblical archaeology—or at least interested enough to be reading a Biblical archaeology magazine?
Some people are interested in it because they think it will validate the historical truth of the Bible. I guess that’s OK, although it’s not my shtick. I’ve always felt you’ve got a weak faith in the Bible if you need archaeology to validate it. On the other hand, archaeology does sometimes provide exciting evidence, for example, that indeed David existed and was the father of a dynasty, as shown by the Tel Dan stela.a
But archaeology also sometimes provides evidence that seems to refute the Biblical account. That is the case, for example, with the Israelite conquest of the land as described in the Book of Joshua. The various cities that the Israelites supposedly conquered simply cannot be lined up with the archaeological evidence. As I conclude after analyzing the evidence in the new third edition of our book Ancient Israel, “The conquest tradition in the Book of Joshua is therefore better seen as a literary, theological account, rather than an historical one.”b (But see the article on the conquest of Hazor.)
In his autobiography Freeing the Dead Sea Scrolls, BAR editor Hershel Shanks outlines his experiences as an archaeology outsider and his scrapes with governments, nomads and scoundrels.
Many people are interested in Biblical archaeology because it fleshes out the Biblical world for them. It makes the Bible come alive as a real world and not only as a text grounded in faith. This is certainly legitimate—and exciting. Thanks to archaeology we now have examples of the architecturally distinct houses the Israelites lived in (although some others also lived in these four-room houses), the pots they cooked with, the ovens (tabuns) they baked bread in, the olive oil presses from which they got their olive oil, the lamps they used to find their way in the dark—and on and on. Archaeology can also fill in, for example, the broader characteristics of an egalitarian Israelite society (see article in this issue).
All this is certainly a legitimate reason for your interest in Biblical archaeology. One of the greatest thrills of volunteers on an archaeological excavation is finding and holding a simple pot that was held thousands of years ago by a human being just like you. Suddenly, in a little pot, you feel the sweep of humanity of which you are a part.
For me—and no doubt for many of you as well—archaeology also enriches my striving to understand. I confess I don’t have that kind of secure faith that leaves me without questions. For me, the Bible does not have answers so much as questions. It is a magnificent record of human beings struggling for answers to the same kinds of existential questions that consume me. No, I don’t believe the day was extended by the sun’s standing still (see Joshua 10:13). This represents not an answer but magnificent effort to find an answer, a “why” on many levels. Much of the Bible is like this. Sometimes the Biblical text provides an answer; sometimes it doesn’t, only questions. The Biblical author is struggling to find an answer, just like me. Archaeology fleshes in the picture. Just as the text provides a spiritual time-bridge, so archaeology provides an artifactual space-bridge. It brings us together. We are all heirs to this timeless, spaceless culture, striving to understand.
In its way archaeology humanizes the Bible. It reveals the world in which these people—like me—struggled. They didn’t find all the answers. And certainly I haven’t. But we are brothers in the struggle. And I am heir to the inspiring record of their struggle. They have left an enormously enriching reflection of their effort. Archaeology for me, in addition to its other fascinations, connects me to them in a kind of hands-on, tangible way.
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.
In short, archaeology helps me to understand and relate to my ancestors in a different way, in a different dimension that enriches my connection to them—both through the text of the Bible and by holding a pot that they held.
I respect those people of faith who find answers where I do not, where I find only questions. They, too, have a legitimate way of incorporating archaeology into their world view. And I welcome them to the pages of BAR.
Bottom line: There are many ways of grounding an interest in Biblical archaeology—by people of faith, by strugglers like me and for people who find these ruminations irrelevant.
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a. See “‘David’ Found at Dan,” BAR 20:02.
b. Hershel Shanks, ed., Ancient Israel—From Abraham to the Roman Destruction of the Temple, 3rd ed. (Washington, DC: Biblical Archaeology Society, 2011), p. 66.
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Jaice is missing the point.
I think some people would like not to see the truth as it is, and give credence to their own interpretation, so that they can live the way they please and not the way that God intends.
Dear Mr. Shanks,
Your article has moved my soul. I have always held a fascination for archaeology since childhood; likewise, I have always loved GOD and his Christ. As I grew older, my spiritual journey was sought through historical events and prophetic teachings in the Bible. It is a literal account (my belief) of GOD’s direction to mankind, which in turn, brings us back to him. It is the bottom line. There is no need to strain at a gnat; only to swallow a camel.
. . . “Just as the text provides a spiritual time-bridge, so archaeology provides an artifactual space-bridge. It brings us together. We are all heirs to this timeless, spaceless culture, striving to understand.”
What a great quote!
My answer to your question, Mr. Shanks, would be the same as yours, only much less beautifully expressed! The scriptures are, to me, like the pot you mentioned: a deep connection with an evolving faith that struggles with the big questions, and helps us answer them provisionally in our own time, in our own way, in our own hearts. Every discovery that illuminates how our spiritual ancestors lived helps us better understand their expressions of faith through the scriptures. They were expressing their faith, not writing a literal history and science of their physical world, and the archaeology shows us that. Our faith should not need “confirmation” through archaeology, by taking as fact what they never offered as fact, but as their best expressions of faith, even conflicting visions of God and Jesus. I appreciate the work of archaeologists who make these people of faith real to me.
Thanks for the ruminations!