Debating the Future of Biblical Archaeology

Roundtable session on the future of the field.
Photo by Glenn Corbett.

This past January, prominent archaeologists and biblical scholars from around the world gathered for a weekend of lectures and discussion at the Lanier Theological Library in Houston. The event, organized by Lipscomb University, was primarily a commemoration of the work and legacy of William Dever, the longtime leading voice of American biblical archaeology,* who celebrated his 90th birthday in November 2023. Nearly 20 scholars, including Gary Rendsburg, Jodi Magness, Thomas Levy, and many others well known to Biblical Archaeology Review readers, honored Dever with presentations about their latest discoveries and perspectives on the field.

But the event, titled “Paradigm Shift or Pitfalls: Does Biblical Archaeology Have a Future?” was also an opportunity to reflect on the state of the field and its future. At least on the surface, the discipline’s prospects appear bleak. Across U.S. higher education, smaller history, anthropology, and religious studies departments, where biblical archaeology and related fields tend to be taught, are reducing faculty or shuttering altogether. Even programs at elite research institutions face existential threats from declining enrollments and constant demands to show meaningful employment outcomes for students. Adding to the problem, the field’s leading professional associations—the American Society of Overseas Research and the Society of Biblical Literature—remain divided on many issues, including whether archaeology has any relevance for biblical studies and vice versa. Finally, the field suffers from a severe lack of representation and has not kept pace with changing social and demographic trends, at least within the U.S.

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William Dever delivering the conference’s public lecture.
Photo by Glenn Corbett.

At the same time, biblical archaeology is evolving in new directions that indicate it may yet have a future, though one perhaps removed from its traditional academic roots. In particular, Israeli archaeologists have taken the lead on most excavations in Israel, producing important results using the latest theoretical approaches and scientific methodologies. Similarly, many scholars in the U.S. are defining the field far more broadly, focusing on regional and comparative approaches that make biblical archaeology more relevant to contemporary concerns such as digital documentation and cultural heritage preservation. Perhaps most significant, however, a major focus of American biblical archaeology has shifted to Christian and especially evangelical colleges and universities, particularly those funded by wealthy philanthropists eager to support excavation, research, and student training in the lands of the Bible. These institutions are not only creating space and resources for new faculty, but also making concerted efforts to diversify the field by introducing archaeology and biblical studies to minority communities that have traditionally not taken part in them.

But even while recognizing these shifts in the field, the event’s participants emphasized the importance of scholarship that critically questions archaeology’s ability to “prove” the Bible. Rather, they argued, when done well, archaeology provides a unique perspective into the lives and times of the ancient peoples who experienced the stories and traditions preserved in the biblical text.


Related reading in Bible History Daily:


Danger: Biblical Scholar at Work

Old Sherds, New Science

Review: My Nine Lives


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