Biblical Archaeology

By the 1920’s, popular opinion, even in the US, was described by the expression “God Is Dead”, and those who believed in the historicity of the Bible were “roasted” and ridiculed as anti-intellectuals. Prohibition ended in failure and was appealed. Science had been producing physical evidence, such as skeletons of Neanderthal Man, to support the theory of evolution. The Bible had little physical support from archaeology, which certainly bolstered the idea that the Bible is nothing more than a myth. This was about to change.


When William Foxwell Albright, who would soon become the world’s greatest Biblical archaeologist, arrived in Palestine around 1920, he did not believe the Bible could be taken literally. He was a disciple of Wellhausen’s Documentary Hypothesis. Excavations at Ashkelon and Shiloh, however, led him to reject the Documentary Hypothesis and create a pottery sequence that could enlighten Biblical studies. “The purpose of his archaeological research, he said, was to refine archaeology’s ability to aid Biblical studies.”¹ His agenda, in fact, was to demonstrate the failure of the Wellhausen reconstruction in three areas:

  1. Show that the Patriarchs were historical figures,
  2. show that the Mosaic law came from the supposed time of Moses,
  3. and demonstrate that the Babylonian Exile and return actually took place.


Although Albright did not go further than archaeology, G. Ernest Wright at Harvard developed theological conclusions from Albright’s work. Melvin Grove Kyle, another conservative archaeologist, was not ashamed to take the position that the Bible should interpret archaeology rather than the inverse. Yet another well-known pottery specialist with a conservative viewpoint was Nelson Glueck.


In spite of Wright’s enthusiastic efforts to see history as the revelation of God, critics evidently caused him to lose confidence the archaeology’s ability to be objective and conclusive. Kathleen Kenyon’s work that put Jericho outside the assumed time for Joshua must have had an effect on him. Then Paul Lapp and Père Roland de Vaux condemned using the Bible to confirm archaeology. By 1970, Wright had lost his faith in the role of archaeology to confirm the Bible.


Although Biblical archaeology played a significant role for fifty years, it was replaced around 1970 by an anthropological approach, as expressed by archaeologists like William G. Dever. “Today archaeology students are trained primarily in anthropology, not in Biblical studies.”² No big name is left to carry on a positive approach to Biblical archaeology, but the debate continues, even though mainstream archaeology has moved to the left.


David Rohl, for instance, as an archaeologist with an unbiased agnostic theology, has written since the 1980’s in defense of the historicity of the Old Testament. On one hand, he sees Biblical archaeology as a failed discipline because “the last ninety years have provided embarrassingly little archaeological evidence”.³ On the other hand, he proposes that the problem can be fixed through his New Chronology. The problem especially came to light through the work of Dame Kathleen Kenyon. He recognized, “It was her discoveries at Jericho which would have such an crucial influence on the late twentieth century’s rejection of the ‘historical’ Bible.”³ Having been burned twice by overzealous believers, Levantine archaeologists will be skeptical of any approach involving faith. The New Chronology, however, is being tested and debated to see if it really does provide the promised validation of Biblical history.

¹Davis, Thomas W. “Faith and Archaeology—A Brief History to the Present,” Biblical Archaeology Review 19, no. 2 (1993): 54–59.
² ibid.
³David M. Rohl, Pharaohs and Kings: A Biblical Quest (New York: Crown Publishers, 1995), p. 300, 301.

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