Biblical Archaeology—Between Christians and Jews

There is a built-in tension between religious studies and academic ones in the humanities, including archaeology. The students in the yeshivas see themselves as protected within “the tent of the Torah” and any egress to the academic world opens one up to the dangers involved in exposure to opinions and worldviews that are contrary to the religious world.

See also, The Changing Landscape of Israeli Archaeology (Routledge, 2023).

By Hayah Katz
Kinneret College on the Sea of Galilee
March 2024

Religious Christians participated in the geographical-historical study of Palestine from its onset during the 19th century (Silberman 1982, Goren 2020). The development of the archaeology of Palestine during the first half of the 20th century was also connected to scholars who came from this background (Dever 1980, 1985, Davis 2004). One might assume that like these researchers, there would have also been observant Jewish archaeologists working in this field. However, in contrast to religious Christians, who were part and parcel of the archaeological study of the Holy Land until the 1980s, the observant Jewish community had reservations about archaeology in general, and of biblical archaeology in particular. This avoidance stands out especially in light of the significance given to this topic in the Israeli public sphere in the first twenty years of the existence of the State of Israel (Feige and Shiloni 2008, Greenberg and Hamilakis 2022, Katz 2023).

The Flourishing and Decline of Christian Biblical Archaeology

Biblical archaeology has its roots in the first half of the 19th century, when German research began to establish a connection between archaeological sites in Palestine and the descriptions that appear in the Bible. This concept, dubbed by them hebräische Archäologie, focused mainly on reconstructing biblical reality in the light of archaeological remains (Benzinger 1894). Societies for biblical archaeology were founded during the second half of the 19th century in both London and New York. Their main purpose was to communicate the efforts made during this period in the study of the ancient Near East. It should be noted that while some of these associations did not see their role as a verification of the Bible but as the study of the written sources included in “Semitic archaeology,” others represented an approach that places a greater emphasis on the religious aspect of archaeological research. These associations created a complete identification between the archaeology of Palestine and biblical archaeology. Preoccupation with the archaeology of Palestine became significant after the British conquest of the country in the First World War. Following the establishment of the British Mandate for Palestine, the restrictions that had existed under Ottoman rule were removed, and the British supported and even encouraged archaeological research. Due to the British government’s attitude towards antiquities and archaeological research, from the early 1930s biblical archaeology became the main branch of research in the archaeology of Palestine.

            The “golden age” of biblical archaeology occurred between the 1930s and 1970s. Many of the American scholars who were affiliated with the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem came from within the religious establishment. A significant percentage of the excavators in the American expeditions acquired their education in theological seminaries and the archaeological research they conducted was directly influenced by their religious perceptions. It seems that until the 1960s, religious Christian scholars played a central role in the study of the archaeology of Palestine. Some of these scholars, who had a deep affection for the biblical stories, saw archaeology merely as a tool for reconstructing the reality that appears in the biblical narrative, while the goal of others was not only to present the cultural background of the biblical narrative but also to verify the Bible through archaeology (Davis 2004). Examination of the excavations conducted during this period by American scholars with a religious affiliation shows the emphasis given to biblical sites. These sites include Tel el-Ful—associated with Givat Shaul, Tell Dothan, Shechem, and Beit El. The only scholar who bridged the gap between the two worlds was Nelson Glueck. Glueck, a Jewish rabbi, played a significant role in the field of biblical archaeology. However, his approach to the subject seemed different due to his affiliation with Reform rather than Orthodox Judaism.

            From the 1970s onwards, a change can be seen in American archaeologists’ approach to the study of the archaeology of Palestine. One of the most significant scholars to influence this process was William G. Dever, who argued against the religious Christian bias of archaeological research. Dever, who was active in the school of process archaeology (or the “new archaeology,” as it was formerly known) that developed during the 1960s and 1970s in the United States and England, called for the secularization of “biblical archaeology” by creating an alternative, which he defined as Syro-Palestinian archaeology. His main argument was that the archaeology of Palestine should expand its areas of interest to research questions that do not deal with biblical history (Dever 1980, 1985, 2010). There is no doubt that Dever’s call had a great impact and even if in practice, excavations are still conducted as they were in the past, in terms of the scholars’ worldview, classical biblical archaeology aimed at “verifying the Bible” has been replaced by excavations aimed at investigating past events, including those for which ancient biblical descriptions form one historical source among others for the reconstruction of the period. Moreover, unlike past scholars, who studied Semitic languages and the Bible as well as archaeology, today the practice of archaeology now requires specialization in specific fields. Thus, archaeologists dealing with the Bronze and Iron Ages are no longer polymaths who make a direct connection between the fields in their own research.

The Attitude of Observant Jewish Society to Archaeology up to the 1980s

During the years in which archaeology occupied a central place among religious Christian scholars, observant Jews were absent from this world. Moreover, even when observant Jews began to integrate into archaeological research, their research did not include archaeological fieldwork. An example of this duality of research in fields related to archaeology but not conducting actual fieldwork that includes excavations can be found in the work of Yehoshua Brand. In 1946, Brand submitted his dissertation, which dealt with pottery in Talmudic literature, to the Hebrew University (Brand 1946). Although he specialized in archaeology as part of his studies, and one of his supervisors was Eliezer Sukenik who was a faculty member in the Department of Archaeology, the doctoral dissertation was written as part of the Department of Talmud. In his research, he identified the vessels that appear in the Talmudic literature based on archaeological finds. Brand continued to deal with this subject after 1948, but he did not become part of the hegemonic archaeological establishment.

            The absence of observant scholars was even more pronounced after 1948, in view of the central place that archaeology occupied in Israeli society. An examination of the number of religious workers who joined the Israel Department of Antiquities and Museums (IDAM) during the years 1948-1967 shows that there were only a few such employees, and moreover, that they joined it at a junior level and were not required to study archaeology. The absence of observant faculty members in the Department of Archaeology at the Hebrew University is particularly noticeable in comparison with those who taught during these years in the Department of Biblical Studies (Katz 2023: 10-11).

            From the 1980s onwards, a change is apparent, evident in the involvement of observant students in archaeological research. Examining the non-participation of the observant community in archaeological activity during those years indicates that it is impossible to pinpoint a single reason for this phenomenon. Why observant Jews refrained from engaging in archaeology in general, and in biblical archaeology in particular, must be interpreted as due to a combination of several factors, some more significant and some less, but together shaping a reality in which the religious public was reluctant to take an active part in archaeological excavations and research. Herein, I will discuss two differences between Jewish and Christian societies regarding the practice of archaeology in general and biblical archeology, in particular. 

Between Theology and Rabbinics

In Jewish society there is a clear distinction between sacred and secular studies. Sacred studies take place in a yeshiva—a separate institution that is not connected to the academic world. Thus, the observant young man studying in the yeshiva delves only into sacred studies and is not exposed to other fields of knowledge. The European universities were anchored from the beginning in a religious worldview, and from their inception during the Middle Ages, the study of theology took place alongside studies in other fields of knowledge. The first universities comprised four faculties: the seven liberal arts, theology, law, and medicine, of which theology was considered the most important. The student who sought to study theology was required first to acquire knowledge in additional sciences, as they were perceived as a stage that prepared him for the acquisition of religious knowledge. This change was related to the study of Aristotelian philosophy, which was included within the liberal arts. The connection between the two fields studied at the same time, Aristotelian philosophy and theology, led to the use of logic and philosophy for the study of theology from the 12th century onwards. While Aristotle’s works in Latin translation did challenge Christian theology and even led to conflicts with the church and the popes, they also continued to serve lecturers who taught theology at various universities and largely formed the basis of academic theology (Asztalos 1992: 409-412, 420). As a result, there was a fundamental change in the way theology was studied in universities and later, even in Christian seminaries, since the humanities were not perceived as a threat to religious studies.

            In the Jewish religious world, on the other hand, there is a built-in tension between religious studies and academic ones in the humanities, including archaeology. The students in the yeshivas see themselves as protected within “the tent of the Torah” and any egress to the academic world opens one up to the dangers involved in exposure to opinions and worldviews that are contrary to the religious world. This conception of religious Jewish education underlies the ethos of yeshiva study, in contrast to the starting point of academia in general and the field of humanities in particular, which sees educating the student in critical independent thinking as its supreme value. Moreover, apart from having to deal with the critical approach, academic studies, especially in archaeology, include theories that deny the values and beliefs of the pious and require them to become acquainted with approaches contrary to their faith. The establishment of the Department of Land of Israel Studies at the religious Bar-Ilan University in 1973 (Safrai 2006) offered, for the first time, the possibility for students to begin to specialize in this field without fear of losing their faith.

Bible Study in Observant Jewish Society

The lack of interest in biblical archaeology is also related to the attitude that has existed in observant Jewish society regarding the study of the Bible. Throughout the years of Exile, the study of the Gemarah (also called the Talmud) was the central axis around which religious activity was concentrated.[1] Since Judaism focuses mainly on keeping the commandments and observing the halakhah (all the laws and commandments according to which Jews must live), the Gemarah was of practical importance because by studying it, it was possible to know the existing halakhah and continue to create new rulings for future generations (Breuer 2003: 83-97). It is not possible to learn the interpretations of the commandments and their implementation from the Bible alone. Moreover, while the study of halakhah and its further development enabled practical progress and provided intellectual challenge for learners, similar achievements cannot be reached in the study of the Bible, in the way it is done in the yeshivas. Exceptions to this attitude were the medieval sages of Northern France and Germany (Ashkenaz). They often engaged with the Bible, and it occupied an important place in their discussions with their students. Over time, however, even in these yeshivas, dealing with this subject became the private study of individuals and did not characterize all yeshiva students. In general, it can be said that the Bible lessons given in the were mainly the “Portion of the Week” sermons delivered every Friday night, which discussed the portion of the Torah read the following morning in the synagogue. Even this lesson did not usually deal with the study of the biblical text itself but viewed it through the lens of the Sages’ commentary (Stampfer 1995: 48; Breuer 2003: 118-123).

            A second reason motivating the unenthusiastic attitude toward the Bible in the religious world that led to the avoidance of Bible study is related to problems arising from literal interpretation in the study of the Bible. The concern was that studying the Bible without filtering its content through the interpretation of the Sages may give rise to critical and potentially heretical questions.With the rise of the Enlightenment movement (Haskalah),[2] another factor was added to religious Jewish society’s reluctance to study the Bible. The Haskalah opposed the study of the Gemarah and the halakhah, and hence, shifted the focus from the Gemarah to the literal study of the Bible. This approach led to real opposition in the yeshivas to Bible study in general, and to its literal study in particular. Thus, from the end of the 19th century, the study of the Bible in Eastern European yeshivas became not only undesirable but forbidden, and those who engaged in Bible study were immediately suspected of abandoning Jewish tradition (Breuer 2003: 128-129).

Biblical Archaeology—Between Christians and Jews

This secondary significance of the Bible in the Jewish worldview contrasts with Protestant Christianity. The dominance of Protestant scholars in the field of biblical archaeology is primarily related to the fundamental principles of Protestant thought. Faith based on “by Scripture alone” (sola scriptura), which means personal reading and interpretation of the Scriptures by the believers, created a familiarity with the stories of the Bible, and the sites mentioned there, from a young age. It was mainly scholars of this stream of Christianity who were concerned with proving the historical reality of both the Old and the New Testaments, as they, more than others, were challenged by the undermining of the historical veracity of Scripture. In this context, the role of archaeology was to serve primarily as an auxiliary science, whose purpose was to illuminate and validate biblical stories and to deal with critical theories dealing with the historical questions of early Israel (Davis 2004: 21-27).

            In contrast to the Protestant Christian intellectual world, in which the Bible was given a central place and therefore biblical criticism was perceived as a threat to the foundations of faith, within religious Jewish society, the study of the Gemarah was given prime importance and therefore biblical criticism was perceived as an attack on Judaism, yet was not viewed as posing a real danger undermining religious life itself. Thus, it seems no coincidence that when observant Jews began to engage in archaeology, they evinced less interest in finding tangible remains of the historical significance of the “Land of the Bible,” and most turned to later remains from the period of the Mishnah and the Talmud (1st-5th centuries CE). This period was closer to their interests and a direct line connected the theoretical study of the Mishnah and the Gemarah, in which these archaeologists engaged during their study in yeshiva settings, and the study of the material culture of these periods.

            Fundamental changes that occurred both in Israeli society and in the religious Jewish community from the 1980s onwards have affected the interest of observant Jews in archaeology in general, and biblical archaeology in particular (Katz 2023). The attitude to archaeology before the mid-1980s stemmed from a combination of reasons. Similarly, the change in the mid-1980s was also not caused by a single reason. Regarding Jewish-Christian relationships, it can be assumed that following Dever’s impact during the first half of the 1980s, the Christian religious aspects of biblical archaeology were weakened, and it was no longer seen as the exclusive domain of religious Christian researchers. As a result, observant Jewish students felt less deterred, and it became easier for them to enter the field.



Asztalos, M. 1992. “The Faculty of Theology.” In A History of the University in Europe. Volume 1, Universities in the Middle Ages, ed. H. de Ridder-Symoens, 409–441. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Benzinger, I. 1894. Hebräische Archäologie. Freiburg: Mohr.

Brand, Y. 1946. “Jar (Hasab), Oil-lamp and Amphora.” Ph.D. dissertation, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. (Hebrew)

Breuer, M. 2003. Oholei Torah: The Yeshiva, Its Structure and History. Jerusalem: The Zalman Shazar Center. (Hebrew)

Davis, T.W. 2004. Shifting Sands: The Rise and Fall of Biblical Archaeology. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Dever, W.G. 1980. “Biblical Theology and Biblical Archaeology: An Appreciation of G. Ernest Wright.” Harvard Theological Review 73: 1–15.

Dever, W.G. 1985. “Syro-Palestinian and Biblical Archaeology.” In The Hebrew Bible and Its Modern Interpreters, ed. D.A. Knight and G.M. Tucker, 31–74. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

Dever, W.G. 2010. “Does ‘Biblical Archaeology’ Have a Future?” In Historical Biblical Archaeology and the Future: The New Pragmatism, ed. T.E. Levy, 349360. London: Equinox.

Feige, M. and Z. Shiloni, eds. 2008. Archeology and Nationalism in Eretz Israel. Sde Boker: The Ben-Gurion Institute.

Goren, H. 2020. “The Loss of a Minute Is Just So Much Loss of Life”: Edward Robinson and Eli Smith in the Holy Land. Turnhout: Brepols.

Greenberg, R. and Y. Hamilakis. 2022. Archaeology, Nation, and Race: Confronting the Past, Decolonizing the Future in Greece and Israel. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Katz, H. 2023. The Changing Landscape of Israeli Archaeology: Between Hegemony and Marginalization. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

Safrai, Z. 2006. “Study of the Land of Israel as an Academic Subject: The History of the Department of Land of Israel Studies.” In Bar-Ilan University: From Concept to Enterprise, Vol. I, ed. D. Schwartz, 257–278. Ramat Gan: Bar-Ilan University Press. (Hebrew)

Silberman, N.A. 1982. Digging for God and Country: Exploration, Archeology, and the Secret Struggle for the Holy Land, 1799-1917. New York: A.A. Knopf.

Stampfer, S. 1995. The Lithuanian Yeshiva. Jerusalem: The Zalman Shazar Center. (Hebrew)



[1] The Talmud (Gemarah) is an anthology of texts that were written as a commentary on the Mishnah that had preceded it. The Talmud developed in the late Roman and Byzantine periods, and over the years, became the most studied halakhic book in the yeshivas and formed the basis of the rulings that obligate the observant Jew. The term “Gemarah” refers to the description of the study of the Talmud in the yeshiva world.

[2] The Jewish Enlightenment (Haskalah) movement occurred in Central and Eastern Europe from the last third of the 18th century and during the 19th century and was part of the general European Enlightenment. This movement, that represented “modern” society, promoted liberal ideas and ideological critique, as well as working for Jewish cultural and spiritual renewal and the revival of the Hebrew language as a vernacular.

Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.