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Biblical archaeology involves the recovery and scientific investigation of the material remains of past cultures that can illuminate the periods and descriptions in the Bible, be they from the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) or from the New Testament, as well as the history and cosmogony of Judaism and Christianity.
The principal location of interest is what is known in the relevant religions as the Holy Land, which from a Western perspective is also called the Middle East. In contrast, Near Eastern archaeology deals with the Ancient Near East, or Middle East, without giving any special consideration to whether its discoveries have any relationship with the Bible.
The scientific techniques used are the same as those used in general archaeology, such as excavation and radiocarbon dating.
In order to understand the significance of biblical archaeology it is first necessary to understand two basic concepts: archaeology as a scientific framework and the Bible as an object for research. Archaeology is a science, not in the Aristotelian sense of cognitio certa per causas but in the modern sense of systematic knowledge. Vicente Vilar expands on this point by stating that archaeology is both art and science: as an art it searches for the material remains of ancient civilizations and tries to reconstruct, as far as possible, the environment and the organizations of one or many historical epochs; as a relatively recent modern science, and as Benesch has said, it is a science that is barely 200 years old but that has, however, substantially changed our ideas about the past.
It might be thought that archaeology would have to disregard the information contained within religions and many philosophical systems. However, apart from the great deal of factual material that they provide such as places of worship, holy objects and other scientifically observable things, there are other aspects that are equally important for scientific archaeological investigation such as religious texts, rites, customs and traditions. Myths are commonly used by archaeologists and historians as clues to events or places that have become hidden in the background, a process that Rudolf Bultmann calls "demythification" – the most notable example being Homer’s poems and the myth-infused city of Troy. This contemporary perception of the myth, mainly developed by Bultmann, has encouraged scientists such as archaeologists to examine the areas indicated by the biblical tales.
Biblical archaeology is the discipline occupied with the scientific investigation and recovery of the material remains of past cultures that can illuminate the times and descriptions of the Bible, a broad swathe of time between 2000 BC and 100 AD. Other authors prefer to talk about the "archaeology of Palestine'" and to define the relevant territories as those to the east and west of the River Jordan. This indicates that "biblical archaeology" or that of Palestine is circumscribed by the territories that were the backdrop to the biblical stories.
The raison d'etre of biblical archaeology derives from the fact that it allows an understanding of the peoples that inhabited the Holy Land. It allows an understanding of their history, culture, identity and movements. This makes it possible to know the exact location of the stories and compare them with fact. Regarding this, Pietro Kaswalder has noted that previously the American and Israeli school of biblical archaeology saw archaeology as proof of the veracity of the biblical stories, as can be seen in the work of authors of the stature of William F. Albright, G. Ernest Wright and Yigael Yadin. However, archaeologists today do not try to prove the stories in the Bible, but rather to discover the historical context in which it was written. Using this approach, introduced by Kaswalder, it is possible to shed light on the following, according to the classification presented by the Catalan papyrologist Joan Maria Vernet:
The geographical area that circumscribes the area of interest for biblical archaeology is obviously the biblical lands, also known as the "Holy Land". There are many points of view regarding the exact extent of this area, however, biblical archaeology specifically concentrates on the Land of Israel, Palestine and Jordan, the area called the southern Levant. Many researchers are also interested in other areas that are mentioned in the biblical tales and which have a great importance for their connecting thread: Egypt, Syria and Mesopotamia which are of interest to scientists interested in the Tanakh. Asia Minor, Macedonia, Greece and Rome have greater connections with the stories from the New Testament.
In the same way that the spatial criteria vary according to the various points of view of the different researchers, there are also a variety of dates that are of interest. Kaswalder comments that:
The following list of periods for Syro-Palestinian archaeology is based on the table provided in Biblical Archaeology: A Very Short Introduction, pp. 33–34 up to the end of the Iron Age, and from the definitions provided by the Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, p. 55, for later periods.
The study of biblical archaeology started at the same time as general archaeology and obviously its development relates to the discovery of highly important ancient artifacts.
The development of biblical archaeology has been marked by different periods:
Biblical archaeology is the subject of ongoing debate. One of the sources of greatest dispute is the period when kings ruled Israel and more generally the historicity of the Bible. It is possible to define two loose schools of thought regarding these areas: biblical minimalism and maximalism, depending on whether the Bible is considered to be a non-historical, religious document or not. The two schools are not separate units but form a continuum, making it difficult to define different camps and limits. However, it is possible to define points of difference, although these differences seem to be decreasing over time.
Detailed lists of objects can be found at the following pages:
Biblical archaeology has also been the target of several celebrated forgeries, which have been perpetrated for a variety of reasons. One of the most celebrated is that of the James Ossuary, when information came to light in 2002 regarding the discovery of an ossuary, with an inscription that said "Jacob, son of Joseph and brother of Jesus". In reality the artifact had been discovered twenty years before, after which it had exchanged hands a number of times and the inscription had been added. This was discovered because it did not correspond to the pattern of the epoch from which it dated.
The objects in the following list generally come from private collections and were often purchased in antiques markets. Their authenticity is highly controversial and in some cases they have been proved to be fakes.
The majority of excavations and investigations carried out in the area where the biblical narratives are set mainly have the objective of casting light on the historical, cultural, economic and religious background to the texts, therefore their main objective is not usually proving the veracity of these stories. However, there are some groups that take a more fundamentalist approach and which organize archaeological campaigns with the intention of finding proof that the Bible is factual and that its narratives should be understood as historical events. This is not the official position of the Catholic Church.
Archaeological investigations carried out with scientific methods can offer useful data in fixing a chronology that helps to order the biblical stories. In certain cases these investigations can find the place where these narratives took place. In other cases they can confirm the veracity of the stories. However, in other matters they can question events that have been taken as historical fact, providing arguments that show that certain stories are not historical narratives but belong to a different narrative genre.
[...] the interpreter must, as it were, go back wholly in spirit to those remote centuries of the East and with the aid of history, archaeology, ethnology, and other sciences, accurately determine what modes of writing, so to speak, the authors of that ancient period would be likely to use, and in fact did use. [...]Let those who cultivate biblical studies turn their attention with all due diligence towards this point and let them neglect none of those discoveries, whether in the domain of archaeology or in ancient history or literature, which serve to make better known the mentality of the ancient writers, as well as their manner and art of reasoning, narrating and writing.[...]— Pius XII, Encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu, paragraphs 35 and 40
Since this time archaeology has been considered to provide valuable assistance and as an indispensable tool of the biblical sciences.
[...]"the purpose of biblical archaeology is the clarification and illumination of the biblical text and content through archaeological investigation of the biblical world."— written by J.K. Eakins in a 1977 essay published in Benchmarks in Time and Culture and quoted in his essay "Archaeology and the Bible, An Introduction".
Archaeologist William G. Dever contributed to the article on "Archaeology" in The Anchor Bible Dictionary. In this article he reiterates his perceptions of the negative effects of the close relationship that has existed between Syro-Palestinian archaeology and biblical archaeology, which has caused the archaeologists working in this field, particularly the American archaeologists, to resist adoption of the new methods of "processual archaeology". In addition he considers that: "Underlying much scepticism in our own field [referring to the adaptation of the concepts and methods of a "new archaeology", one suspects the assumption (although unexpressed or even unconscious) that ancient Palestine, especially Israel during the biblical period, was unique, in some "superhistorical" way that was not governed by the normal principles of cultural evolution".
Dever found that Syro-Palestinian archaeology had been treated in American institutions as a sub discipline of bible studies, where it was expected that American archaeologists would try to "provide valid historical evidence of episodes from the biblical tradition". According to Dever "the most naïve [idea regarding Syro-Palestinian archaeology] is that the reason and purpose of "biblical archaeology" (and, by extrapolation, of Syro-Palestinian archaeology) is simply to elucidate facts regarding the Bible and the Holy Land".
Dever has also written that:
Archaeology certainly doesn't prove literal readings of the Bible...It calls them into question, and that's what bothers some people. Most people really think that archaeology is out there to prove the Bible. No archaeologist thinks so. [...] From the beginnings of what we call biblical archaeology, perhaps 150 years ago, scholars, mostly western scholars, have attempted to use archaeological data to prove the Bible. And for a long time it was thought to work. William Albright, the great father of our discipline, often spoke of the "archaeological revolution." Well, the revolution has come but not in the way that Albright thought. The truth of the matter today is that archaeology raises more questions about the historicity of the Hebrew Bible and even the New Testament than it provides answers, and that's very disturbing to some people.
Dever also wrote:
Archaeology as it is practiced today must be able to challenge, as well as confirm, the Bible stories. Some things described there really did happen, but others did not. The biblical narratives about Abraham, Moses, Joshua and Solomon probably reflect some historical memories of people and places, but the 'larger than life' portraits of the Bible are unrealistic and contradicted by the archaeological evidence.... I am not reading the Bible as Scripture... I am in fact not even a theist. My view all along—and especially in the recent books—is first that the biblical narratives are indeed 'stories,' often fictional and almost always propagandistic, but that here and there they contain some valid historical information...
This is what archaeologists have learned from their excavations in the Land of Israel: the Israelites were never in Egypt, did not wander in the desert, did not conquer the land in a military campaign and did not pass it on to the 12 tribes of Israel. Perhaps even harder to swallow is that the united monarchy of David and Solomon, which is described by the Bible as a regional power, was at most a small tribal kingdom. And it will come as an unpleasant shock to many that the God of Israel, YHWH, had a female consort and that the early Israelite religion adopted monotheism only in the waning period of the monarchy and not at Mount Sinai.
Professor Finkelstein told the Jerusalem Post that Jewish archaeologists have found no historical or archaeological evidence to back the biblical narrative on the Exodus, the Jews' wandering in Sinai or Joshua's conquest of Canaan. On the alleged Temple of Solomon, Finkelstein said that there is no archaeological evidence to prove it really existed. Professor Yoni Mizrahi, an independent archaeologist, agreed with Israel Finkelstein.
Really, it’s a myth,... This is my career as an archaeologist. I should tell them the truth. If the people are upset, that is not my problem.
Conservative scholars[who?] dispute these claims. In his 2001 book The Old Testament Documents: Are They Reliable and Relevant? Evangelical Old Testament scholar Walter C. Kaiser Jr. included a chapter entitled, "Does Archaeology Help the Case for Reliability?" Kaiser states:
[T]he study of archaeology has helped illuminate the Bible by casting light on its historical and cultural location. With increasing clarity, the setting of the Bible appears more vividly within the framework of general history.... by fitting biblical history, persons, and events into general history, archaeology has demonstrated the validity of many biblical references and data. It has continued to cast light, whether implicitly or explicitly, on many of the Bible's customs, cultures, and settings during various periods of history. On the other hand, archaeology has also given rise to some real problems with regard to its findings. Thus, its work is an ongoing one that cannot be foreclosed too quickly or used merely as a confirming device.
Kaiser goes on to detail case after case in which the Bible, he says, "has aided in the identification of missing persons, missing peoples, missing customs and settings." He concludes:
This is not to say that archaeology is a cure-all for all the challenges brought to the text--it is not! There are some monstrous problems that remain--some created by the archaeological data itself. But since we have seen so many specific challenges over the years yield to such specific data in favor of the text, a presumption tends to build that we should go with the text until definite contrary information is available. This methodology that says that the text is innocent until proven guilty is not only recommended as a good procedure for American jurisprudence, but it is recommended in the area of examining the claims of the Scripture as well.
The following is a summary of important excavations and surveys:
|Year||Site||Biblical name||Excavated by||Comment|
|'rediscovered' Petra on August 22, 1812.||Al Khazneh||Al Khazneh||Johann Ludwig Burckhardt||Al Khazneh ("The Treasury"; Arabic: الخزنة) is one of the most elaborate buildings in the ancient Jordanian city of Petra.|
|1841||Survey||N/a||Edward Robinson||Robinson's Biblical Researches in Palestine, the Sinai, Petrae and Adjacent Regions, based on his survey of the Near East conducted over several years, proposed biblical names for modern sites.|
|1871–77||Survey||N/a||Charles Warren||The Survey of Western Palestine, published by the Palestine Exploration Fund, reflected Warren's detailed field surveys in Palestine and especially the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Major discoveries included the foundation stones of Herod's Temple, the first Iron Age Hebrew inscriptions (jar handles with LMLK seals), and water shafts under the City of David.|
|1890||Tell el-Hesi||Eglon||Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie||The site was believed at the time to be the biblical Lachish, but is now commonly identified with Eglon. Petrie noticed strata exposed by waterflow adjacent to the site, and popularized details of pottery groups excavated therefrom. This marked the introduction of scientific stratigraphy to Palestinian archaeology.|
|1891–92||Tell el-Hesi||Eglon||Frederick J. Bliss||N/a|
|1898–1900||Tell es-Safi||Gath?||Frederick J. Bliss and R.A.S. Macalister||N/a|
|1898–1900||Az-Zakariyya||Azekah?||Frederick J. Bliss and R.A.S. Macalister||N/a|
|1898–1900||Tell ej-Judeideh||Moresheth-Gath or Libnah?||Frederick J. Bliss and R.A.S. Macalister||N/a|
|1898–1900||Tell Sandahannah||Mareshah?||Frederick J. Bliss and R.A.S. Macalister||N/a|
|1902–3, 1907–9||Gezer||Gezer||R.A.S. Macalister||The Gezer calendar was discovered on the surface during this excavation.|
|1905–7||Galilee||Galilee||Herman Kohl, Ernst Sellin, and Carl Watzinger||A survey of ancient synagogues|
|1907–9||Shechem||Shechem||Ernst Sellin and Carl Watzinger||N/a|
|1908, 1910–1||Samaria||Samaria||David G. Lyon, Clarence S. Fisher, and George A. Reisner||N/a|
|1911–3||Beth Shemesh||Beth Shemesh||Duncan Mackenzie||N/a|
|1921–3, 1925–8, 1930–3||Beth Shean||Beth Shean||Clarence S. Fisher, Alan Rowe, and Gerald M. Fitzgerald||N/a|
|1922–3||Tell el-Ful||Gibeah?||William F. Albright||N/a|
|1925–39||Megiddo||Megiddo||Clarence S. Fisher, P.L.O. Guy, and Gordon Loud||N/a|
|1926, 1928, 1930, 1932||Tell Beit Mirsim||Eglon or Debir–Kirjath Sepher?||William F. Albright||N/a|
|1926–7, 1929, 1932, 1935 excavated||Tell en-Nasbeh||Mizpah in Benjamin||William Frederic Badè||N/a|
|1928–33||Beth Shemesh||Beth Shemesh||Elihu Grant||N/a|
|1930–6 excavated||Tell es-Sultan||Battle of Jericho||John Garstang||Suggested that remains of the upper wall was the wall described in the Bible, and dated to around 1400 BCE.|
|1931–3, 1935 excavated||Samaria||Samaria||John Winter Crowfoot||N/a|
|1932–38||Lachish||Lachish||James L. Starkey||The excavation was terminated when Starkey was killed by armed Arabs near Hebron while on his way to the opening ceremonies of the Palestine Archaeological Museum in Jerusalem|
|1936–40||Beit She'arim||Beit She'arim||Benjamin Mazar||N/a|
|1948–50, 1952–5 excavated||Jaffa||N/a||Jacob Kaplan||N/a|
|1952–1958 excavated||Tell es-Sultan||Battle of Jericho||Kathleen Kenyon||Site very much older than putative dates of Conquest of Canaan.|
|1954, 1959–62 excavated||Ramat Rahel||N/a||Yohanan Aharoni||N/a|
|1955–8, 1968||Hazor||Hazor||Yigael Yadin||N/a|
|1956–7, 1959–60, 1962 excavated||Gibeon||Gibeon||James B. Pritchard||N/a|
|1961–7 excavated )||Jerusalem (City of David)||N/a||Kathleen Kenyon||N/a|
|1962–7||Arad||Arad||Yohanan Aharoni and Ruth Amiran||N/a|
|1962–3, 1965–72||Ashdod||Ashdod||Moshe Dothan||N/a|
|1963–5 excavated||Masada||N/a||Yigael Yadin||N/a|
|1964–74||Gezer||Gezer||G. Ernest Wright, William G. Dever, and Joe D. Seger||N/a|
|1968–78||Jerusalem (southwest corner of the Temple Mount)||Temple Mount||Benjamin Mazar||N/a|
|1969–76||Beersheba||Beersheba||Yohanan Aharoni and Ze'ev Herzog||N/a|
|1969–82||Jerusalem (Jewish Quarter)||Jerusalem||Nahman Avigad||N/a|
|1975–82||Aroer||Aroer||Avraham Biran||Aroer is an Israelite town in the Negev Desert, not to be confused with the Moabite Aroer located in Jordan|
|1977–9, 1981–9||Timnah||Timnah||Amihai Mazar and George L. Kelm||N/a|
|1978–85||Jerusalem (City of David)||Jerusalem||Yigal Shiloh||N/a|
|1979–80||Ketef Hinnom||N/a||Gabriel Barkay||N/a|
|1966–1972||Et-Tell||Ai||Joseph A. Callaway|
|1981–2, 1984–8, 1990, 1992–6||Ekron||Ekron||Trude Dothan and Seymour Gitin||N/a|
|1994–ongoing||Megiddo||Megiddo||Israel Finkelstein and Eric H. Cline||N/a|
|1996–2002, 2004–ongoing||Tell es-Safi (identified as biblical Gath of the Philistines)||Gath||Aren Maeir||N/a|
|1997–||Tel Rehov||Amihai Mazar||N/a|
|1999–2001, 2005||Tel Zayit||Libnah||Ron Tappy||N/a|
|2005||Ramat Rahel||N/a||Oded Lipschits||N/a|
|2005||Nahal Tut||N/a||Amir Gorzalczany and Gerald Finkielsztejn excavated||N/a|
|2007||Khirbet Qeiyafa||N/a||Yosef Garfinkel and Saar Ganor||N/a|