Saturday, January 02, 2010

The Boom and Bust of Biblical Archaeology

This post continues a series I started on November 24th. I've tried to give each entry a stand-alone quality so that you don't have to go back and read all of the previous posts.

The series began with an overview of the history and character of American Evangelicalism. Since then, these posts have examined the interaction between biblical scholarship (especially Old Testament studies) and Evangelicalism. I'm using Christianity Today magazine as the main indicator of where popular Evangelicalism has stood and what it has said. I welcome your questions and comments.

From its beginning in 1956, Christianity Today magazine provides plenty of evidence that in the early years American evangelicals viewed biblical archaeology, far more than any other factor, as the antidote to what it considered to be destructive, modernistic theories about Scripture. Frequently, no specific examples are cited. Instead, one finds the bare assertion that, whereas the anti-supernaturalistic liberals have theorized against the traditional views, recent archaeological finds have overturned their unfounded ideas and exonerated that what the Bible asserts is factually true.

Along this line, for example, William Sanford LaSor reviews Nelson Glueck’s book Rivers in the Desert and quotes with glee the statement , “It may be stated categorically that no archaeological discovery has ever controverted a biblical reference. (p. 31).” [1]

Two months later R. K. Harrison says, “It is almost a commonplace today for Old Testament scholars to admit that recent archaeological discoveries have demonstrate the essential historicity of events mentioned in the Old Testament.”[2]

In a later article on “British Old Testament Study,” Harrison complains that, in spite of increasingly-severe attacks from archaeological sources, liberals still hold on to the Documentary Hypothesis of Pentateuch and similar positions. According to Harrison, liberal critics appear appear indifferent to the fact that the approach they have adopted is becoming less and less defensible. Part of the reason for this attitude, he says, may be that most British Old Testament scholars have had little or no first-hand experience in archaeology, being trained almost exclusively in literary analysis. They do not attach due importance to archaeological findings. [3]

An interview with the great archaeologist W. F. Albright (at left), published in January 1963, must have been a highlight for readers of CT. Informed by an array of evangelical Old Testament scholars, an editor, presumably Carl Henry, asked the questions. One easily detects in Albright’s answers a good number of carefully-worded caveats and disclaimers. Nonetheless, he gives the magazine much that it wants to print. The interview includes, for example, the following exchange:

CT: Would you view a reference in the biblical narratives as a presumptive evidence of historical veracity?

Albright: Certainly.

Later in the interview, Albright is asked about how recent archeological discoveries have impacted scholarly attitudes toward the Documentary Hypothesis. In his reply, Albright says:

The study of the Dead Sea Scrolls has dealt a crushing blow to the minute critical analysis of the early books of the Bible that has prevailed since Wellhausen.

Still later he says:

the ‘School of Wellhausen’ is only one of many ideological systems built on arbitrary philosophical postulates and baseless historical presuppositions. [4]

In a piece that appears five years later, Albright is heard to say that proving the accuracy of Scripture “remains important and new confirmations are turning up almost daily.” [5] Following the Six-Day War, the vision of a victorious Israel and a united Jerusalem fired evangelical enthusiasm. According to John Montgomery, even those with limited exposure to the recent discoveries had been overwhelmed by “the amazing degree to which the archaeology of the past fifty years has confirmed the precise historicity of the Bible.” [6]

In a short article, D. J. Wiseman reports that findings from a recent excavation near Mosul, Iraq “include the earliest references to the capital city of Samaria and to King Johoash outside of the Old Testament.” Indeed, such Bible-confirming discoveries occur “so frequently that such finds now tend to go unnoticed.” [7]

Likewise, Edwin Yamauchi declares, “it may be safely said that the mass of archaeological evidence has strikingly confirmed the traditions and corrected radical skepticism.” Quoting D. Winton Thomas he adds, “Archaeological research will, we may believe, continue steadily to show that the Old Testament narrative is essentially trustworthy . . . ” [8]

Ten years later, in 1979, Samuel Shultz reviews The Bible in Its World, by Kenneth A. Kitchen (at right). Shultz summarizes:

Against the background of second and third millennium documents currently available, he suggests that these narratives are not legend or fiction but are closest to the historical class of literature. Kitchen is cautious in relating archaeology to the Scriptures. For example, rather than flat assertions, he simply observes that anyone in Joseph’s position would have been in close contact with writing, and that in the Middle Bronze period when alphabetic writing seems to have been invented, there is ‘the attractive (but totally unproven) possibility of patriarchal traditions being put into such script, in West-Semitic, from the seventeenth/ sixteenth centuries B.C. onwards, as the basis of what later we now find in Genesis. [9]

Here one notices a cautiousness that was unheard of in the early years. And by 1984, there is evidence of a realization that all of those celebrated discoveries combined with a new generation and wider array of interpreters has broken up the old and certain system. Gone forever are the days when one scholar, such as Albright, could dominate the field with his views. The explosion of new information made a standard synthesis like Albright’s Archaeology of Palestine, very dated. Yet no one immediately stepped forward to provide a good synthesis of all the new discoveries. [10]

This helps to explain how it was that on the subject of biblical archaeology the pages of CT fell nearly silent. One of the few entries in the last 25 years is a fine piece by Kevin D. Miller on the work of Egyptologists Kenneth Kitchen and James Hoffmeier. The two scholars are reported as fending off the large number of “biblical minimalists,” giving evidence and establishing a historical background against which Abraham, Joseph in Egypt, Moses and the Exodus, and subsequent Bible personalities and events may be presumed historical. [11] Nonetheless, by the 1970s, real interest in reporting the latest archaeological discoveries and what they mean to the conservative cause was all but forgotten, an obvious parallel to the treatment of biblical studies.

[1] CT, III (March 16, 1959), 37.

[2] CT, III (May 25, 1959), 5.

[3] CT, V (February 13, 1961), 12.

[4] “William F. Albright: Toward a More Conservative View,” CT, VII (January 18, 1963), 4-5.

[5] CT, XII (June 21, 1968), 3.

[6] CT, XII (August 16, 1968), 47.

[7] CT, XIII (January 3, 1969), 31.

[8] CT, XIII (February 14, 1969), 13.

[9] CT, XXIII (April 20, 1979), 31.

[10] CT, XXVIII (March 16, 1984) 51.

[11] “Did the Exodus Never Happen?” CT, XXXXII (September 7, 1998), 44-51.


Stoned-Campbell Disciple said...

There has been no new W. F. Albright for sure ... probably because there is no one who has his incredible encyclopedic mind. Certainly the field of archeology has moved beyond the early days of CT. But it would be interesting to see how Albright would have responded to the claims of some one like Philip Davies ...

Frank Bellizzi said...

Yes, it would be interesting to see what Albright would do and be in our day.