By Matthieu Richelle; Translated by Sarah E. Richelle
(Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2018), 152 pp., 31 color plates, 1 map, $14.95 (paperback)
Reviewed by Eric H. Cline
Matthieu Richelle’s book The Bible and Archaeology comes at a time of increased interest in bringing Biblical archaeology to a wider audience. Others have recently published on this topic, but what sets Richelle’s book apart is that the author is an epigrapher, studying ancient inscriptions, originally under the direction of his teacher André Lemaire, who is well known to readers of BAR. Thus, although the majority of books on archaeology and the Bible mention the relevant ancient texts only in passing, Richelle makes them the centerpiece of much of his book.
He begins by explaining that the book is aimed at readers who are interested in “looking beyond sensationalist claims” and who want to learn what underlies the various controversies involving the Bible and archaeology. The opening chapter then discusses what it is that archaeologists discover, with topics ranging from ancient cities to evidence for daily life, including religious practices, trade, and international relations.
All of this is very well done, especially when it comes to explaining how some of the ambiguities inherent in archaeology and archaeological interpretation come to be, including differing interpretations of the same object or inscription. Throughout, Richelle shows his easy familiarity with appropriate Biblical verses, applying them in virtually every instance and example that he brings up, whether discussing objects, sites, or events.
Richelle’s expertise comes to the forefront in the second chapter, titled “When Stones Speak.” Here he briefly discusses the principal types of inscriptions and texts that have been found, from royal stelae (such as those erected by Neo-Assyrian kings, including Shalmaneser III), to clay tablets, papyri, other scrolls, and ostraca (inscribed potsherds). He further provides insight into some of the difficulties involved in deciphering, interpreting, and dating such texts, and he covers the problem of possible forgeries, which he examines in some detail on specific examples, such as the James Ossuary.
This then allows Richelle to address, in his third chapter, the similar difficulties faced by archaeologists, including (but not limited to) problems of interpreting the material that has been discovered during excavation. He provides additional examples beyond those cited in the first chapter, including a number of recent finds and heated discussions from just the past few years. These three chapters together form a coherent whole, making up the first half of the book.
In the second half of his book, Richelle takes on the task of discussing more directly the relationship between the Bible and archaeology. He lays out the various possible approaches in the fourth chapter, including using archaeology simply to prove or disprove the Biblical text, which he says is unreasonable to do, or considering Syro-Palestinian archaeology as an independent discipline altogether, as some have suggested. He ends the chapter by describing some real-life scenarios and suggesting the need for a balanced approach.
The fifth chapter is billed as a case-study of David and Solomon but focuses quite specifically on the pros and cons of Israel Finkelstein’s suggested Low Chronology. This subject remains hotly debated in academic circles, dealing with Finkelstein’s proposition that much of what was previously thought to be tenth-century material, linked to David and Solomon, should instead be redated to the ninth century and perhaps linked to later rulers, such as Ahab. As Richelle notes in the end, a compromise, known as the “Modified Conventional Chronology,” seems to have the most adherents at the moment.
In chapter 6, Richelle brings in the relevant textual evidence, and/or lack thereof, under the general heading “Archaeology and Writing in the Time of David and Solomon.” Here he includes a brief consideration of why there are so few inscriptions dating to the tenth and ninth centuries, as well as whether there was a “national” script or a standardized script at the time, and the “proper” context for some of the Biblical narratives.
Overall, this is a very readable introduction to the topic, packed with information and replete with scholarly citations in the endnotes for those intrepid readers who wish to pursue the issues further. Nevertheless, as a small and slim volume, it is necessarily limited in what it can cover, which means that some readers might wish for additional information and resources. Richelle is fully aware of this and provides just such a list toward the end of the book, for those hungry for more.
Eric H. Cline, Director of the Capitol Archaeological Institute at The George Washington University in Washington, DC, and currently co-director of the excavations at Tel Kabri in Israel, is the author of Biblical Archaeology: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford Univ. Press, 2009), which won the 2011 BAS Publication Award for “Best Popular Book on Archaeology.”
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