The End of Biblical Studies

by Hector Avalos

Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2007 399 pp.
$32 (hardcover)

Reviewed by John Merrill

The reviewer of a book should declare up front any material biases, so here is mine: I am a supporter of the Biblical Archaeology Society and believe that Biblical archaeology is both useful and fascinating. Thus, it is disconcerting to discover a book entitled The End of Biblical Studies, whose third chapter begins, “Biblical archaeology lies in ruins …” According to author Hector Avalos, the entire field is so riddled with shoddy practices, erroneous conclusions, religious and political bias and downright forgery, that its usefulness has come to an end. His criticisms, which include not only Biblical archaeology but also Bible studies, together with virtually all the practitioners of these two disciplines, are sweeping and unremitting. But instead of being constructive, Avalos’s arguments come off in the end as an exercise in emotional nihilism whose conclusions seem ultimately self-defeating.

This is a pity because Avalos clearly knows his subject well, and many of his criticisms, although not necessarily new, deserve to be taken seriously. However, in too many cases he seems to be setting up “straw men”—that is, seemingly glaring flaws in the field of Biblical archaeology and Bible studies that only he has the insight to perceive. Moreover, most of the evidence he uses to defeat these straw men are the result of the painstaking work of the selfsame scholars whose efforts Avalos would now have us consign to the dustbin.

Take, for example, Avalos’s discussion of the difficulty of recovering original texts. Should it really come as a surprise that truly “original” texts are in some sense irretrievable, given the transition from oral transmission to written text, scribal error and/or doctrinal editing, and ultimately translation? And is it not the case that the specific difficulties in textual transmission that Avalos discusses have themselves been discovered and illuminated by painstaking scholarship, scholarly work that Avalos now asserts should come to an end? Avalos may well be correct that the goal of recovering “original” texts is elusive, in the same sense that Plato once observed it to be impossible for humans to achieve perfection. Nevertheless, Plato thought humanity was improved by the pursuit of perfection, and similarly it is difficult to see that generations of Biblical scholarship have not enhanced our understanding of these important texts.

On the subject of Biblical archaeology, Avalos proceeds from a sort of existential argument that says, in effect, we cannot know for sure any historical fact. For example, was Julius Caesar really murdered in 44 B.C.? Our information is at best third-hand and separated by large gaps of time from the actual event. And if we cannot “know” for sure about Julius Caesar, how much less confidence can we have in the historical validity of the Bible?

To bolster his argument, Avalos cites the sometime circularity of archaeological methods: For example, one has an inscription about a king with some letters missing. One thinks the inscription dates from the ninth century B.C., so one begins to fill in the missing letters by scanning a list of kings from that era. It is true that archaeologists are often required to make inferences of this sort, to fill in gaps because their evidence is incomplete or damaged. And for Avalos, who will not assume the sun will rise in the east tomorrow without absolute “proof,” the use of incomplete information seems hopelessly flawed. Because archaeological evidence is by its very nature fragmentary, he concludes the entire discipline is an exercise in futility. But as the 18th-century mathematician Thomas Bayes has shown, the world may be full of uncertainty, but uncertainty is susceptible to systematic analysis. Instead of throwing up our hands in despair (like Avalos), the task of the scholar is to marshal the evidence and make the best inferences possible. And while it may be true, that some do this better than others, uncertainty by itself is insufficient reason to give up.

Avalos takes particular delight in reporting that certain artifacts, once deemed authentic, have been declared forgeries by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA). It seems ironic that the author who accepts virtually nothing as conclusive, now posits the findings of the IAA to be somehow definitive. However, the IAA process is fraught with many of the same deficiencies that Avalos condemns elsewhere: committee members who lack qualifications in the key issue affecting authenticity, political bias, flawed science, etc. And the IAA’s findings of forgery have been disputed by a number of qualified experts. Thus, in this instance at least, the author seems guilty of the very sort of error—that is, the acceptance of unproven assertion as fact—that he accuses others of making.

In sum, while many of Avalos’s criticisms are valid, it is difficult to see where his logic takes us. The exhortation that we abandon Biblical studies and Biblical archaeology seems, in the end, to be suggesting that we throw the baby out with the bath water. This is not an outcome that this reviewer would choose nor, presumably, would the preponderance of BAR readers.

John Merrill is a contributing editor of BAR.


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