What is Biblical Archaeology

Biblical archaeology, “is a branch of biblical studies, an interdisciplinary pursuit that seeks to utilize the pertinent results of archaeological research to elucidate the historical and cultural setting of the Bible” (W.G. Dever “Biblical Archaeology”, in the Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Ancient Near East, vol 1, p. 318). Biblical archaeology must carry out scientific archaeology according to international standards of best practice, but its research questions will be derived from the study of the biblical text. At the same time, professional scholarship and a nuanced academic approach to the biblical text must inform biblical archaeological research.

An archaeologist working in the Levant (often called the Holy Land: Israel, Palestine, Jordan and Lebanon) need not be a biblical archaeologist; archaeological research in Israel does not require an agenda determined by biblical studies. Still, almost all archaeological work in our region dealing with the Bronze and Iron Ages (circa 3500-586 BCE) and the classical periods (circa 586 BCE – 200 CE) will in some way be biblical archaeology.

The Tomb of Helene of Adiabene (the The first archaeology in Israel and Palestine was biblical archaeology; the excavations of the French consul de Saulcy in Jerusalem in 1856 uncovered what was called the “Tomb of the Kings” (of Judah), though it was later determined to be the much later (1st century CE) tomb of Queen Helena of Adiabene.  Subsequent expeditions in Jerusalem (Warren), Gezer (Macalister), Tell el Hesi (W.F. Petrie) and Megiddo, Jericho and Shechem (Schumacher and Sellin) were all expedited to illuminate the biblical text. 

The Rockefeller Family and Breasted at Megiddo in 1929 Following the hiatus of World War I, archaeology entered a “golden age” ushered in by the British mandate over Palestine (1917-1948). Great institutions of learning such as Harvard University, the University of Chicago and the American Schools of Oriental Research begin large excavations at Megiddo, Samaria, Tell Beit Mirsim and Tell en-Nasbeh, for example. While excavation and data processing techniques had improved, the biblical orientation of archaeology remained intact, some would say to the detriment of objective scientific inquiry. Scholars such as W.F. Albright, John Garstang, Gordon Loud and Robert Engberg were at the forefront of this outpouring of biblical archaeology. 

Yadin in the Judean Desert

Following the establishment of the State of Israel archaeology continued in the same vein under scholars following the lead of Albright, Wright and Glueck. Yigael Yadin, Benjamin Mazar, Avraham Biran, Nahman Avigad, Ruth Amiran, Trude Dothan and Yohanan Aharoni were at the vanguard of Israeli scholarship, while Kathleen Kenyon, Nelson Glueck and G.E. Wright were most prominent amongst the foreign scholars of this period. 

In the 1970s and 1980s archaeology in Israel and Palestine witnessed the development of a schism between the traditional biblical archaeology and a new, more positivistic, scientific archaeology (often called “processual” archaeology) that emphasized environment, meticulous data collection and analysis with quantitative methods. Research questions now had anthropological underpinnings with more univeral application. This was forwarded by newly prominent prehistorians such as O. Bar Yosef, archaeologists with a geographical orientation (Finkelstein and other students of Aharoni) and American researchers such as W.G. Dever. For the most part, however, Israeli archaeology maintained its visceral biblical orientation.

T.E. Levy, Archaeology of Society in the Holy Land

By the 1990s processual archaeology had become more dominant (Herzog, Finkelstein, Levy and Garfinkel) and interpretive, cognitive archaeology (sometime called “post-processual” archaeology) began to take hold as well. Interpretive archaeology emphasizes individual agency, the importance of symbolic behavior, the consulting of historical sources, when they exist, and the influence of a researcher’s own worldview on his or her scholarship. Bunimovitz, Chesson, Faust, Phillip, Ilan and Greenberg are some of the scholars who have adopted this approach.

Biblical archaeology still plays an important, even dominant role in Levantine archaeology. Digging a 15th-16th cemetery at Tel DanBut it is, for the most part, an archaeology better informed of more modern approaches and methods. Much of the work being done now in Israel and Jordan results in data that have implications that are universal, local and biblical, all at the same time. The Nelson Glueck School of Biblical Archaeology does biblical archaeology without apology, because we aim to do, first and foremost, good archaeology.