The Times and Life of Edward Robinson

Robinson’s contributions in biblical geography, and by extension archaeology, were closely tied in origin to the missionary movement.

By Jay Williams
The Walcott-Bartlett Professor of Religious Studies
Hamilton College
May 2003

Edward Robinson (1794-1863) is often described as the father of Biblical Archaeology but, strictly speaking, that description is wrong on at least two counts. First, a perusal of theological seminary catalogues from the early 19th Century indicates that something called “Biblical Archaeology” was already being taught before Robinson ever left for Syria-Palestine. What was presented probably would not count as Biblical Archaeology today, but the subject as such was already recognized. In fact, Johann Jahn published the first volume of his Biblisch Archaeologie in 1805. Second, and perhaps more important, Robinson did not conceive of himself as an archaeologist but rather preferred to be thought of as a Biblical geographer. The only digging he ever did was to clear away a little debris around the Tomb of the Kings near Jerusalem. He described terrain and identified sites, often quite accurately, but he did not excavate or even co-excavate any sites.

Whether he was an archaeologist or a geographer, however, is not the subject I would like to consider today. Rather, my concern is with the political dimensions of his work, which was, no matter what it is called, the foundation of archaeology in the Holy Land. That is, I would like to consider not what he discovered but the political world that allowed him to do his work and the possible political ramifications of what he did.

Although there had been many travelers in the Holy Land in the late 18th and early 19th Century, Robinson was really the first person of the modern period to travel in Palestine who was both thoroughly trained in Biblical Studies and who took the study of the geography of the Holy Land as his primary aim. The reason is fairly obvious: the Ottoman Empire, the long-time foe and bête noir of Christendom had little interest in having “Franks,” as they called them, roaming around and examining their territory. Studying someone else’s geography seemed to the Ottomans, as it would seem to us, highly suspicious. Certainly, they did not want Christian missionaries entering their empire to make Christians out of the people of the land. The Porte accepted as subjects Jews and Orthodox and Marionite Christians, for they were indigenous believers whose traditions had been there before Islam even entered the land but was adamant about new conversions and threatened punishment by death for those Muslims who converted to Christianity. Islam was not just a religion but was the law of the land. To forsake Islam was considered an act of treason. Even the non-Muslim religion took on a political tone, for the Orthodox were considered under the protection of Russia and the Marionites under France.

In any event, in 1832 a considerable change occurred. Mohammed Ali, an Albanian, had been appointed Governor of Egypt and had worked very hard to [move the country toward industrial development and economic self-sufficiency. Arriving on the scene shortly after the French were driven from Egypt in 1801, supposedly to reestablish Turkish authority in the region, Ali quickly established his own authority. However, after years of living under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, Greek citizens of area began to rise up against their oppressors.] To stop their revolt against Empire, the Porte called upon Mohammed Ali to come to his aid. This he did successfully, and as a result the Sultan promised to place Greece under his control. When that plan, because of further Greek successes, failed to materialize, Ali demanded that Syria-Palestine be given to him instead. The Sultan refused, and in the ensuing military struggle, Mohammed Ali gained control of the region. In fact, if Western powers had not intervened, he probably would have won the whole empire for himself.

In any event, the result was that in 1832 Egypt gained hegemony over Syria-Palestine and to curry favor in the West, became far more liberal in its policies toward travelers and missionaries. Up until this time, Protestant missionaries to the region had met largely with frustration. In fact, the center of the mission remained in Malta because of the monumental difficulties in establishing any toehold in West Asia itself. After Mohammed Ali’s rise to power in the region, however, missionaries found it easier to establish at least a beachhead in Mount Lebanon and then in Jerusalem. Fortuitously, it was Eli Smith who came to head the mission in Beirut, learn the language and folkways of the region, and then meet his old friend and teacher, Robinson, while on leave in America. Doubtless, he told Robinson about the easing of restrictions, and together they planned the trip which was to transform Biblical Studies.

Robinson was successful in his epoch-making journey in 1837 not only because he was allowed to travel so freely but because his guide, Eli Smith, already had had---thanks to Mohammed Ali’s policies---a number of years’ experience in the region and could negotiate the many difficulties which they would face. Robinson had studied Arabic but was by no means fluent. Had he not had Smith with him, one may suspect that very little would have been accomplished. It should also be added that when he got to Jerusalem, he met several more missionaries who also aided him in his work. Had he traveled to Palestine but a few years later, he would have found Mohammed Ali no longer in control, the Jerusalem mission closed, and travel to many areas virtually impossible.

Of course, Eli Smith, the missionary, had to explain to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions just why he spent several months leading Robinson around Palestine, doing geographical rather than evangelical work. After all, he was being supported by them and not by the government or by an historical or geographical society. His report to them indicated that, in fact, this journey was to survey the Bedouins to see what missionary work could be done among them. And, upon his return, he produced an article for The Missionary Herald on exactly that subject. I mention this in order to point out that missionaries were very much involved with politics, too. They had to satisfy the folks back home who supported them financially that they were working hard at their task and that they were, in fact, making some headway in the evangelization of the world. The latter was difficult to argue, for what sort of headway can you make in a country that forbids its subjects, under penalty of death, to convert?

The answer, in part, was to find people who were not subject to such a penalty. One group of people was, of course, the Christians who were already there. Even though they had clung to their faith for centuries against strong pressure from the Muslims, the missionaries (and Robinson) regarded them as only “nominal Christians” who needed education in the true and simple gospel. The idea was that if you could give such people a western education, western science would free them from their superstitions, and they would quite naturally become Protestant. Indeed, it is clear from even a cursory reading of the missionaries that the great enemy of Christ is superstition and that that superstition is best overcome by the introduction of a scientific world view. Thus Eli Smith, himself, gave lectures on modern astronomy to interested people in Beirut. Still another group under consideration for conversion were the Jews. Mr. Nicholayson, whom Robinson met in Jerusalem, was sent to the area from a London organization that specialized in the conversion of Jews to Protestant Christianity. When Robinson arrived, there were already plans underway to build a Church in Jerusalem for that specific purpose. The whole plan, however, broke down when it was discovered that part of the land considered for the site did not belong to the mission at all. Shortly after Robinson’s trip, the mission closed down and little more was accomplished for some time.

Still another group who especially interested the missionaries was the Druze. Robinson, in Bibliotheca Sacra, devotes a rather long article to a discussion of their beliefs and situation. What made them of interest to the missionaries was that they were not really Muslims and hence were potentially convertible. At the same time, they were not under the protection of any Western power as the Marionites and Orthodox were. Some of the missionaries had the idea that if the English could take them under their protection, this would give England a toehold in the Near East and would also be of great benefit to the missionaries who would then have a definite group to missionize who were not Christian or subject to execution. Robinson apparently thought this was a worthy idea, but the English diplomats fumbled the ball and nothing ever came of the idea. In any event, it is quite clear that the missionaries and Robinson, too, thought that political control of the Eastern Mediterranean littoral was a desirable goal.

Part of the justification for this view, according to Robinson, came from the Palestinians themselves. He writes:

The people in general in this part of the country, were ready to give us information, so far as they could; and seemed not to distrust us. Here too we found the same general impression, that our object was to collect information and survey the country, preparatory to the arrival of the Franks; and here too we were addressed in the usual phrase: “Do not be long.” Indeed, the inhabitants everywhere appeared, for the most part, to desire that the Franks should send a force among them. They were formerly tired of the Turks; they were now still more heartily tired of the Egyptians; and were ready to welcome any Frank nation which should come, not to subdue, (for that would not be necessary,) but to take possession of the land. (Biblical Researches II, 369)

It may very well be that some Palestinians did think that way. I, myself, have met Palestinians who prefer to live under the Israeli government because they were formerly so unhappy with the Turks and the British. Nevertheless, this sort of view expressed in the West surely gave great encouragement to the colonialist movement. Certainly the West should gain political power in Asia; that is what the local inhabitants want! And they want it quickly. European and American civilization are obviously superior, for modern science has proved itself true. In this pre-Darwinian era when science, Scottish Common Sense philosophy, and evangelical Protestant piety still formed a very potent triumvirate, it seemed obvious to those in the fold that nothing in the world could stand in their way. The enemy was superstition.

Superstition, in fact, was Robinson’s basic enemy, too. Indeed, one of the attractive features of his work is that he does not repeat the old stories and legends about sites but tries to look at them afresh, without the Medieval legends to get in the way. Perhaps for that reason, he never so much as entered the Latin convent where many visitors before him had stayed, nor did he, on his first trip, even go inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. In one sense, this was all an expression of his scientific objectivity. He eschewed superstition in order to concentrate on the facts.

At the same time, this objectivity was also a clear expression of the strong anti-Catholic stance of his church and his culture in general. Although the New School Presbyterians agreed with the position that Luther and Calvin took against the Roman Catholic Church, they added another, in some ways more telling, objection. The Catholic Church stood condemned in their eyes because it fostered superstition and idolatry. To show that some of the most revered sites of the Orthodox and Catholics were mistakes, based upon misinformation and superstition, was to reconfirm Protestantism’s most common complaint: the Catholics teach things which are factually and scientifically untrue.

It should also be noted that although Robinson and the New School Presbyterians were the enemies of superstition, they did not at this time apply their critical reasoning or scientific method to the Scriptures themselves. For Robinson, at least, the Bible was, by definition, true and beyond criticism. Hence, by extension, since Protestants were the correct interpreters of Scripture, they, too, were really beyond superstitious inclinations. Thus, it was for him superstitious to maintain that the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is located correctly but quite rational to believe that two-and-a-half-million Israelites could live for forty years in the Negev desert.

After returning to Germany in 1838, Robinson spent more than two years completing the massive three-volume description of the trip and his findings. While Union Theological Seminary waited for its errant new appointee to assume his position as Professor of Christian Literature, E.R. was producing a vast, erudite, and ponderous work that was to enhance greatly his reputation as a Biblical scholar. The three volumes were published in 1841 and immediately became popular. Within a relatively short space of time, the first printing of 5,000 copies sold out. Subsequent editions were also very well received. The question is why? Why should such a very detailed, indeed in places quite boring, work receive such an enthusiastic reception? One can understand Biblical scholars and geographers having some interest but not the ordinary citizen.

There are doubtless many reasons for its popularity, including Robinson’s own penchant for promotion through teasers---interesting little articles about one or another phase of the trip---placed in newspapers like the New York Evangelist. High on the list of reasons, however, should be the way in which the work, sweetly and scientifically, undercuts Roman Catholic holy pilgrimage sites. Protestant America felt itself to be more and more under seige. Every day brought more shiploads of immigrants from Ireland and Germany to add to the growing Catholic population. The old dream of a pious, Protestant America was dying. Now Robinson confirmed through the most exact measurements and explorations what Protestants had long believed: that Catholicism was superstitious. Robinson, by refuting those Medieval legends and identifying so many Biblical sites, had recaptured Palestine for Protestantism. His was a one-man, Protestant crusade that seemed invincibly victorious. Buyers did not really need to read the books. To point to them on the bookshelf was enough to confirm Protestantism’s most ardent hopes.

Catholics, of course, recognized the danger. Robinson came under attack from no less a person that John Henry Newman. Biblical Researches was banned in Catholic Austria. But in England, America, and Protestant Germany, it was heralded as one of the great works of the century. Science had conquered legend, reason, superstition. Robinson was lauded with honorary degrees and a gold medal from the Royal Geographical Society.

There was still another way in which Robinson’s work conquered, for he dug behind not only the Greek and Latin names for sites, but the Arabic names as well. One of the primary ways in which he identified the sites of antiquity was by examining their modern Arabic names. Curiously, after so many centuries of history, these names often contained a clue as to a place’s earlier, Biblical identity. So Robinson and Smith payed close attention to Arabic place names but only to overcome them. It would be as though a modern Iroquois was to find in modern names, like Oneida and Canajohaire and Schenectady, the real names of the places and redraw the maps of the area accordingly.

As the writers of the Bible knew, naming is a powerful action, for it gives power over that which is named. Hence, Jews came to believe that it is blasphemous to name or speak the name of God, for in so doing one claims control. What Robinson did was to rename the ancient land according to the English corruptions of the ancient names. It was to plant in the Land of the Book the conquering flag of the People of the Book. The land that Protestants had explored in Bible reading had now been rediscovered geographically. In the midst of the Ottoman Empire was their land, the holy land of their faith and dreams. The recovery of the old (but corrupted) names had made it theirs.

Thus, although it may not have been Robinson’s intention, he helped to do what Edward Said has said every orientalist attempts. According to Said, orientalism is the way the West dominates, restructures, and has authority over what Europeans and Americans designate “the orient.” The peeling away of the present in order to privilege the ancient past, a past which the West regards as its own, is an act of orientalism.

Certainly, in all this I do not wish to denigrate the work which Robinson did. His contribution to Biblical Studies was enormous and was the great spur that led to the development of archaeology in the Holy Land. His contributions, however, should not blind us to the political implications of his work. Biblical geography and, by extension, archaeology, were closely tied in origin to the missionary movement. They also grew out of that 19th Century synthesis of Calvinism, Scottish Common Sense Philosophy, and natural science that so dominated American thought. Just as the missions had overt political ties and implications, so, too, did Robinson’s work, which can be seen as an extension of the Protestant mission to Syria-Palestine.

While his colleagues sought to win souls to their movement, Robinson worked to convert the land itself to Protestantism. That conversion was not a governmental conversion. The British and then the Israelis would follow much later to accomplish that. His conversion was an intellectual one, but once it was accomplished, it was only a matter of time before political change took place. The fact that it was eventually the Jews and not the Protestants who did the conquering matters less than that the land of the Bible was once more reclaimed by the West. In fact, the victory by the Jews made it easier, for Protestants did not have to feel guilty about the conquest. Digging in someone else’s backyard to discover the remains of someone to whom the digger relates but who is unrelated to the owner of the yard is an act of great political consequence. The movement that Robinson began has been that sort of work, and all the scientific objectivity of the archaeologist cannot erase the political implications.

Jay Williams is a distinguished Walcott-Bartlett Professor of Religious Studies at Hamilton College

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