Redefining (Biblical) Archaeology

By Rami Arav
Department of Philosophy and Religion
University of Nebraska at Omaha
January 2013

Oxford Dictionary defines archaeology as: “The scientific study of the life and culture of ancient peoples, as by excavation of ancient cities, relics, artifacts, etc.” This is of course very narrow. It talks about ancient cities, relics and artifacts. Moreover, if we adhere to this definition, then the first biblical archaeologist digging for relics was Helen, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, in the 4th Century CE. Follow the storyline below and judge for yourself whether it suits what archaeology is about. In my opinion it does; she excavated to find relics and employed the best scientific tools she knew at the time.

In pursuit of relics that would serve as testimony to the Roman citizens who did not yet convert to Christianity, Helen made an excursion to the Holy Land (a term coined only in this period of time) to find the most important relic for Christianity; the Holy Cross. Since she came about 300 years after the crucifixion took place, she expected some troubles. However, Helen employed scientific means used in anthropology; that is, to interview the closest eyewitnesses. She had the feeling that if anybody knew where the true cross was, it would have been the Jews, the residents of Jerusalem in the time of Jesus. Moreover, she was convinced that Jews concealed this information, fearing that if it would be discovered, everyone would see the true testimony for themselves and immediately convert to Christianity. This is something the Jews would have opposed.

According to the “Legenda Aurea”, a medieval best seller written by Italian Jacobus de Voragine, and missing from Eusebius accounts, Helen summoned the Jewish sages and told them that if they did not tell her where the cross is buried, she would execute one each hour. They could not stand the threat and one elder told her that his grandfather (300 years earlier) witnessed the crucifixion and told him where it is located. This is almost an eye witness.

They went to the location as revealed by the elder and discovered there was a pagan temple on the site. To make things even worse, it was a temple of Venus (which otherwise was never recorded in Jerusalem). Could there be more defilement than this? Immediately Helen ordered the temple to be torn down and started the very first biblical archaeological excavation. This satisfies the definition of Oxford Dictionary’s “digging for relics.”

Did Helen find the True Cross? Yes, but it was not easy. In a cave below the temple, near the Golgotha, she discovered three crosses: one of Jesus and the other two were of the thieves. Did nobody wonder why the Romans would bury the crosses? Apparently it was an irrelevant question. Helen had problems with distinguishing the True Cross from the thieves. If it had happened today, we could check for DNA residue and compare it to the cave Simcha Jacobovici claims to be the tomb of Jesus or to first century tombs in Nazareth. However, DNA was not known to Helen. She did have other means though. Helen stopped a funeral and tested each cross on the deceased. One cross resurrected the dead concluding that this was the True Cross. For seventeen centuries since, millions of pilgrims have flocked to the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem and visited the cave where the cross was found, situated below the chapel of St. Helen.

As startling and amazing as it sounds, most people still think that this is the purpose of biblical archaeology: find ancient relics as the Oxford definition suggests and run a scientific study on it. But if the Oxford Dictionary suggests defining relics as an object from the past with sentimental interest or reverence, then scientific study and reverence to the objects studied do not seem to make a logical coherence. In short, it is either you are a scientist who draws your conclusions from empirical tests and data, or your goal is to look for relics. If the second is correct, then, like Helen and the True Cross, you surely will find plenty of relics. Similarly, if you meld politics in your science, whether it is archaeology or biology, your science will be impeded. You will neither do good science nor good politics. This, I believe, is true no matter of what side of the political arena you are. Science and religion, or science and politics do not go together.

Often times I encounter with the popular notion that the goal of biblical archaeologist is to prove the Bible correct. Some would go even one step further and suggest that the role of the archaeologist is to prove the Bible scientifically correct. What they usually mean by that is not that it is grammatically or literately correct, but that the literal reading of the Bible is the correct way to read it.

This is another archaic notion that should become obsolete. The attempt to prove the literal reading of the Bible correct was the main drive of biblical archaeologist during the end of the 19th century and almost to the middle of the 20th century. Some typical examples of literal reading of the Bible are the excavations of Sellin and Watzinger at Jericho at the early 20th century. At the dig they came out with sensational declaration: the walls of Joshua at Jericho were discovered! Meaning the very walls that were pulled down only by encircling them for six days and in the seventh day seven priests with Jubilee Shofars encircle the city seven times, and then in a given signal, the priest should blow the Shofars and the people should shout loudly, and the walls will come trembling down. These very walls were found – they claim. Everybody was happy; the literal reading of the Bible celebrated its victory. Here archaeology provided “evidence” to a conquest that, on its face, looks like magic. It took 20 years of scrupulous contemplation on behalf of Watzinger to admit finally that they made a terrible mistake in dating the walls. The Jericho walls are only one thousand years earlier than the 13th century BCE, the alleged period of Joshua. However, nobody seemed to be bothered by the facts, and the legend continues. Only with the resumed excavations of Kathleen Kenyon finally the truth broke out, with even a stronger blow on this legend. Not only there are no walls at Jericho dating from the time of Joshua, but the entire city of Jericho was laying in ruins for some centuries at the time his campaign. Chapter 6 in Joshua has to be reinterpreted and understood. There are, of course, still people who deny it, just like there are Holocaust denials. Moreover, the eminent scholar, William Diver, has shown that out of the 31 cities claimed by Joshua in Joshua 12, only Megiddo and Hazor have shown destruction form this period, and scholars still debate who was responsible for this.

So if biblical archaeology was to prove the literal reading of the Bible correct, it certainly failed its mission.

Many textbooks on world religions, which I teach very often, suggest that the role of the biblical archaeology is to find more texts. This request is usually coming from textual people and is quite arrogant. They sort of say, you dirty field archaeologists, work hard, shovel and sweat, find texts and we, at the air-condition offices will tell you what do they say and what do they mean. The role of biblical archaeologist is not to find texts although, if they do, it is always fun but this is not the goal.

As a matter fact, since the mid-20th century BCE biblical archaeologists have departed from these goals and to their surprise they discover that there is life without texts and without serving popular expectations. They are engage now in an endeavor to do much larger scope and much more exciting and interesting. It is to reconstruct ancient environment, not only artifacts, relics and old cities but the entire ancient environment.

This means that biblical archaeology in its new definition is not only about material culture. Ancient environment is more than human made material culture. It is about human in their environmental setting. It is true that even with this broad definition, the main feature of the archaeological material is mute. If historical documents may tell a story, archaeological materials are totally silent. Moreover, it does not even exist unless it is described. Its existence, therefore, is pending on the description given to it. Descriptions, no matter what, are always subjective. They will always reflect the author, his culture and his concerns. There are no objective histories and descriptions, despite what people in the popular media are claiming to tell us they do. A half-filled glass of water may be described as half empty or half-filled pending on the approach of the person who describes it. An optimistic person would probably say half-filled and a pessimistic person would say half-empty. I read recently in the Time an article about the latest clash between Palestinians in Gaza and the Israel. The newspaper reported that “156 Palestinians were killed and 6 Israelis died”. Of course, many more Israelis died on that week, but these 6 Israelis were killed by the rockets launched at their homes. But if you do not want to raise sympathy to the Israel, then they just “died”.

Back to biblical archaeology. Archaeological reports are not objective either. At Bethsaida for example, each season we retrieve about quarter of a million pottery shards and about this number of bones. Not all are kept, let alone published. Naturally, archaeological publications are very selective and tend to dwell on the spectacular, diagnostic, and the intact. “Non-diagnostic” pottery shards (meaning body parts) are often times discarded.

In order to overcome these deficiencies it is necessary not only to study the entire strata encountered at the site as R. Greenberg suggested in the previous op-ed, but it is important to involve in the research as many scholars and as many disciplines as possible in order to avoid biases. Multidisciplinary research is now the name of the game. The more views you present, the more disciplines involved, the less bias is your report and the closer to the historical truth you are.

Archaeology is basically a territorial study. It is important therefore to devote serious study to the area under the study. In this type of research geologist and geomorphologist are engaged in reconstructing the geographical and geological features of the region. On this backdrop experts on fauna and flora are added, human geographers are also involved, surveys are made to find the different settlements in the region, their size and interconnection. Zooming in from the large picture, archaeologists research the settlement patterns and city planning, and then zooming into public and private homes, house hold and functions of various elements in the house. Small finds are valuable and may reveal, manufacture, techniques, trade and commerce and dates. When this endeavor is done the environmental picture is complete.

We may compare a biblical archaeologist to a stage manager preparing the stage for a plot. Sometimes the plot fits the stage sometimes there are problems. For example the narrative of Eliezer going all the way to the city of Haran to fetch a bride for Isaac is impossible in a stage of the 21st century BCE if we take biblical chronology as it is presented in the Bible. The 9th centuries would fit the narrative much better, but then we have a huge problem with the chronology of the Bible. This what makes biblical archaeology so fun.

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