The discipline of archaeology is still relatively new compared to other subjects. Every year, new discoveries are shaping the way scholars view the history, people and religion of the Ancient Near East (henceforth ANE). Admittedly to most, their approach to these topics began with religious presuppositions tied to either a Christian or Jewish background. The Western/Modern desire to “prove” the Bible with archaeology is unique to the Judeo/Christian religions who has used it apologetically in response to scientific work done in the Middle East. When addressing these two very different fields of archaeology and biblical studies, scholars have been placed on a spectrum in which they have been labeled as “maximalists” and “minimalists,” referring to the integration of the comparative biblical data with the historical, archaeological data.
A minimalist perspective assigns little to no historical value in the biblical text, more specifically the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible. These texts are considered late (6th - 5th centuries BCE) and do not contain solid, historical context to the archaeological data. Therefore, any attempt to integrate biblical data with archaeological data is useless and hurtful to the discipline. Proponents of this view are Neils Peter Lemche, Thomas Thompson, Philip Davis, and Israel Finkelstein along with others from Tel Aviv University.
The complete opposite side of the spectrum, which is the maximalist prospective, is held by many “conservative” scholars who have embraced the archaeological finds and employ them apologetically and polemically. However, this typically leads to a surface-level reading of the biblical text and also results in archaeology used as an evangelism tool in order to combat skeptics. An extreme maximalist view is just as dangerous as the minimalist view, in that it limits the text according to its historical value rather than what it has to say theologically. Toward the end of this study, I will attempt to give a healthy view of both the Bible and archaeology, addressing weaknesses and strengths to linking both ideologies.
Pioneers of Biblical Archaeology
Prior to the Enlightenment (17th and 18th Centuries CE) the Bible was the authority on most scientific and biological issues. The characters and events in the narrative were assumed to be historical and most universities and centers for higher education where, first and foremost, places of theology and training grounds for clergymen. Early in the 17th Century, a skepticism formed around the Church and a desire for philosophical rationalism fell upon the major scholars of the world. The miracle narratives of the Bible were in question as were its divinely inspired nature. Perhaps the subject of the most critique was that of Mosaic authorship and the composition of the Pentateuch (or Torah, Genesis – Deuteronomy). German scholar Johan Eichhorn, influenced by French scholar Jean Astruc, were of the first to formulate the “older documentary hypothesis” suggesting that the book of Genesis was composed by two identifiable source, the “J” source (called the Yahwist) and the “E” source (the Elohists), referring to places in Genesis where the author subscribes to the name of God either as his covenant tetragrammaton, “YHWH,” or the generic name for God, “Elohim.” Later scholars eventually identified two other sources, “P” (the Priestly source) and “D” (the Deuteronomist) respectively.
This eventually led to the German school of thought led by Julius Wellhausen in 1878 and his revolutionary work, Prolegomena zur Geschichte Israels in 1883. Thus the “JEPD” Theory (otherwise known as the Documentary Hypothesis, “DH”) was born and became standard in biblical scholarship as the way to correctly interpret the Pentateuch in the 19th century continuing into the 20th century. This period of modernism along with Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species ushered in a century of apologetics and polemics in biblical studies by conservative scholars’ frontline attempts to “dig up” proof of the Bible by means of archaeology in the Middle East.
Prior to work in the Palestine under the British Mandate, convergences with archaeological data and the Bible were already underway in Mesopotamia and Egypt. Discoveries such as the Rosetta Stone in Egypt, and the Behistun Inscription in Iran, unlocked the language of hieroglyphics and cuneiform in such a way that allowed orientalists and scholars to study ancient empires lost by time. Continued work by the British in the late 19th century resulted in the excavations of Nimrud and Nineveh, and successfully brought in a new discipline of “Assyriology.” This quickly introduced connections to the Patriarchal period and texts contemporaneous to the Mesopotamian Empires.
After growing support from the Western world in data collected from the Middle East, organizations such as the Palestinian Exploration Fund (PEF) and the Society for Biblical Archaeology were created, and efforts were made to explore and excavate in Palestine. Pioneers in archaeological work in the Levant include names like Charles Warren, William Flinders Petrie, Earnest Sellin and George Reisner began excavations in Palestine under the authority of the British Mandate. Their successes ushered in the “Golden Age of Archaeology” which attracted mass attention to Europe and America. William Foxwell Albright, G. Ernest Wright and Yigael Yadin began a scientific standard which addressed the historical reliability of the Old Testament.
The Death and Resurrection of "Biblical" Archaeology
William G. Dever, a disciple of G. Ernest Wright, and former director of the Program for Ancient Near Eastern Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Arizona, has been at the forefront in the discussion of “biblical archaeology.” He entered the field as a Protestant clergyman but became enamored with archaeology while studying under Wright and working at the Shechem excavations. He eventually tried to breath new life into archaeology by divorcing it entirely from biblical studies, instead allowing it to function under the subject of anthropology. He argued that the Hebrew Bible only deals with a specific time frame in Israel’s history, the Middle Bronze age (2000-1550 BCE) to the Persian Period (538-400 BCE) in the Old Testament, a span of approximately 1500 years. The questions asked of archaeology relating to the Bible are only limiting the discipline in its scope. Archaeology can also answer questions to the Neolithic Period/Stone Age (8,500 BCE) through the Early Bronze Age (2400-2000 BCE) in Palestine (a span of 6,500 years).
Dever even championed for a name change from “biblical archaeology” to “Syro-Palestinian Archaeology” to include more dialogue from archaeologists who specialize in different time periods and locations in the Levant which include Anatolia, Syria and Lebanon. This would also expand the discipline by introducing experts in different fields such as anthropology, metallurgy, chemistry, botany, GIS (global information systems), etc.
This name change was not received ceremoniously. He was accused of killing a discipline which his predecessors had established and mastered. However, there came another problem with the name change. The mass media attention in the early and mid 1900s was gathered on the assumption that archeology was discovering new and exciting data which illuminated the Bible. Although it ushered in new scientific studies on archaeological work in Palestine, there was a divorce from dialogue with those in biblical studies. On a separate note, archaeologists, whose funding for excavation and publishing depended on benefactors, immediately saw that philanthropists (especially religious) were less inclined to fund Syro-Palestinian archaeology rather than the more intriguing “biblical archaeology.” Dever later revised and even accepted the era of “New Biblical Archaeology” as the methods of the discipline had been established scientifically as well as benefited from the interested gathered by those involved in biblical studies.
Unfortunately for some, the change went from a divorce, to complete mistreatment of the biblical text as an ancient document. Mainly from the Copenhagen School and those from the Tel Aviv School, a minimalistic view was the only correct to way to perform archaeology in the Levant and address the theology and nature of the Hebrew Bible. The prevailing view of those whom fall into this camp, believe the Hebrew Bible to be a product of the Persian Period (5th Century BCE) or even to the Hellenistic Period (3rd to 2nd Centuries BCE). Most conservative scholars typically do not have a problem dating some of the biblical texts to a Hellenistic or Persian redactor/compiler, however the minimalist school believe most of the Hebrew Bible to be propaganda created to establish a national identity to the Jews and give them claim to the land from their Hellenistic/Persian rulers and Arab neighbors.
Finkelstein and co. have adjusted their chronology of the many occupations in Israel and have questioned the evidence (or lack thereof) of major biblical periods such as the patriarchal period, the Exodus, the Conquest, and the Judean Monarchy. The remainder of this paper will address these three subjects which have been argued on the basis of archaeology providing both sides along with the data.
The Patriarchal Model
Albright had been one the first to attribute the patriarchal period to the Middle Bronze Age I and began his chronology with the text. He assumed that sites with an EBIV/MB I and II (19th and 18th Centuries BCE) occupations showed signs of migration from Mesopotamia into Palestine. However, Dever, Thomas Thompson and Van Seters attacked Alrbight’s models based on the evidence of nomadism and pastoralism. Rather, it appeared that the MBII was an already flourishing occupation at many sites, such as Gezer, Shechem and Bethel (Davis 2004, 155).
The minimalist position of the Patriarch Narratives have been challenged by several conservative scholars, namely John Bimson, Alfred Hoerth and Kenneth Kitchen. They have argued that archaeology cannot prove the existence of Abraham and the Patriarchs, but rather it suggests that a nomadic family could have existed and migrated in the time from of EBIV or in the MBII periods. Additionally, most sites have continual occupation in the EBIV or MBII periods with the exception of perhaps Beer-Sheba however Kitchen notes that the town “Beer-Sheba” may be a later editorial referring to a settlement (Kitchen 2006, 336). Kitchen also addresses a popular argument of the use of camels in the patriarchal narratives in which claims that the domestication of such animals happen much later. He argues however, that there is quite a number of archaeological finds referring to the domestication of camels found in the Egyptian Fayum (Pottery A), a MB tomb at Tell el-Far’ah along with others (Kitchen 2006, 339).
The Patriarchal model has mainly come under attack as a result of textual studies along with the Documentary Hypothesis (DH). It seems that as conservative scholars are scrutinized for their presuppositions and bias towards the Hebrew Bible, the same can be said by those whom hold to the DH while evaluating archaeological data.
 Gen 24:10-64, 30:43, 31:17, 32:7, 34, 37:25.
The Conquest Model
When archaeology began in Palestine, one of the main sites of interest was Jericho. Excavated in the 1930s by a British archaeologist by the name John Garstang, he claimed to have discovered the 13th century walls (Late Bronze Age) based on early methods of excavation and ceramic analysis. In the 1950s, Dame Kathleen Keyon further excavated the site revealing two walls from different periods. The first, an impressive MB fortification which surrounded the site with massive stones (megaliths). The second wall was the one discovered by Garstang which he dated to the LB period. However, after revaluation, Kenyon proposed that Garstang had misdated the wall based on ceramics and instead dated Garstang’s LB period to the Early Bronze Age. She claims that if there was a LB period at Jericho, it was a minor occupation and an unwalled settlement. This would, of course, bring to question the formidable city by which was destroyed by the Israelites in the Joshua account. The read more about Jericho's excavations see my previous post here.
This revaluation of Jericho brought into question the Conquest Model proposed by Albright and E. G. Wright. Several sites have clear destruction layers in the LB period (the time of Joshua 14th or 13th Centuries BCE) such as Lachish, Bethel, and Hazor. However, some sites have yet to show any destruction or no occupation at all in the LB period. This has led to some scholars to revaluate the Conquest Model and propose different models of their own. The prevailing model amongst secular scholarship is the “Peasant Revolt Model” proposed by G. E. Mendenhall. This theory explains that the emergence of the Israelites are not from an external group of people moving into the land of Canaan, but rather and internal uprising of lower-class peasants who overthrow their Canaanite overlords (Mendenhall 1962, 66-87). This theory has clear Marxists tones to it and is based more off of social theory and literary evidence in the Amarna correspondence rather than archaeological data. The archaeological data he eluded to in his research is that Israelite and Judahite sites reflect architectural and ceramic traditions based off of the MB and LB Canaanite settlements. However, Finkelstein’s own regional survey in the Judean hill country show a massive population increase in the Early Iron I in this area (Finkelstein 1993). There are some similar Canaanite traditions but for the most part, scholars agree that this is evidence of a migration of a new ethnic group into the Levant (Stager 1998, 123-175). They would even go as far as to consider them “Israelite” since these traditions continue through the remainder of the Iron age in Palestine.
 Other models include the Peaceful Infiltration Model, Symbiotic Model and more popularly, the Peasant Revolt Model.
 G. E. Mendenhall, 'The Hebrew Conquest of Palestine', BA XXV/3 (1962), pp. 66-87.
The Search for King David
Perhaps the loudest of these arguments has been the ongoing debate between Finkelstein and Yosef Garfinkel, chair of archaeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, on the subject of the historical David along with the status and significance of the Judean Monarchy. Finkelstein in his controversial book The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of the Sacred Text brought some of the skepticisms of biblical history to the mainstream public that had been researched for the past two decades. It received both praise and criticism from archaeologists and scholars from either side.
A quick summary of the book will show that although Finkelstein and others have an appreciation of the biblical text as a piece of literature, they rather abandon it completely for archaeology as the primary and secondary source of their research. They argue for a late date composition of the Hebrew Bible (Persian or Hellenistic Periods) and give no historical merit to the kingdoms of Saul, David and Solomon. Finkelstein also attempted to push his chronology lower than others have suggested it, almost a full century. He leaves room for the Northern Kingdom of Israel on account of the overwhelming archaeological evidence and inscriptions dating to or alluding to the period of the Omride kings. However, he argues for the kingdom of Judah to be a minor chiefdom, if anything at all. He echoes what some other scholars such as Philip Davis has said in the past that “the biblical ‘empire’ of David and Solomon has not the faintest echo in the archaeological record-as yet” (Davis 1992, 67).
This of course is an “argument from silence” which is a dangerous presupposition in archaeology. The published work of this book came out in 1992 when the skepticism of David was at its highest. The very next year, the Tel Dan Inscription was discovered bringing the debate back and giving conservative scholars new life. The artifact is a victory stele supposedly written by an Aramean king, Haz’el of Aram Damascus. Hazael is mentioned several times in the Bible as the King of Aram (1 Kngs 19:15-17, 2 Kngs 8:8-29, 9:14-15, 10:32, 12:17-18, 13:3-25, 2 Chron 22:5-6, Amos 1:4). Haz’el described his campaign against the Israelite kingdom and mentions, by name, the “House of David.” This shows that David was not simply a myth but existed and was remembered as a founder of a dynasty by an extrabiblical source 140 years after his life from a kingdom outside of Israel (Biran 1993).
Excavations at Khirbet Qieyafa have also reinvigorated the historicity of the Judean kingdom. Located in the Elah Valley, it is fitting that the location of this site is the place of his legendary battle against the Philistine giant, Goliath. Michael Hasel and Yosef Garfinkel believe near the site of Qeiyafa was the Israelite “encampment” with the valley between described in 1 Samuel 17. Only one Iron Age II phase was found in almost every area of the khirbet, A – F with large quantities of restorable pottery. Their result showed a fortified city with a casemate city wall and two gates to the west and south. It has been suggested that the city is the biblical “Sha’arayim” mentioned is several places in the Bible as it is listed in the vicinity of Azekah and Soccoh (Josh 15:36, 1 Sam 17:52, 1 Chr 4:31). Their contribution to the Judean Kingdom debate show a chronology and transition from Iron I and IIA, a pottery repertoire of the 11th-10th centuries, as well as answer questions to other subjects like: settlement pattern in Judah, social organization, city planning in the Iron Age, early writing with the Qeiyafa Ostracon, early administration and cultic activities (Garfinkel, Ganor and Hasel 2014). This material culture gives evidence to a larger administration and government than that of a small chiefdom in the Judean Hill country in the 10th Century.
Conclusions and a Healthy Alternative
This has been a very brief summary of the current debates in archaeology along with an evaluation of the maximalist and minimalists views of the biblical data. As mentioned before, it is best to treat these issues along a spectrum and not necessarily as polarizing labels as they are typically used. No true scholar or academic can be wholly a maximalist or a minimalist because the nature of archaeology is in constant flux. New discoveries are uncovered every year which sometimes radically change the way we view chronology, history, and literature. It is somewhat useless to label certain scholars as maximalists or minimalists because they find themselves sliding up and down the spectrum in order to keep up with research and hold to their academic integrity.
Additionally, if one has indeed labeled themselves as one of these polarizing identities, they have admitted to abandoning the pursuit of knowledge and have closed themselves off from any dialogue which may be challenging to their presuppositions. This is not how good scholarship is performed. We do not purse a question with the conclusion already answered in our minds. A healthy alternative to this debate is to keep searching and remain open to new and exciting discoveries that give us a better understanding of daily life in the ancient Near East which may ultimately help us to better interpret the Bible.
Abright, W. F.
1939 The Israelite Conquest in the Light of Archaeology. BASOR 74: 11-22.
Biran, A. and Naveh, J.
1993 An Aramaic Stele Fragment from Dan. IEJ 43:81-98
2004 Shifting Sans: The Rise and Fall of Biblical Archaeology. Oxford University Press: Oxford.
1992 The Search of Ancient Israel: A study in Biblical Origins. Bloomsbury T&T Clark.
1992 Archaeology and the Israelite ‘Conquest.’ ABD ed. David Noel Freedman vol 3. 545-58. New York: Doubleday.
1988 The Archaeology of the Israelite Settlement. Jerusalem: IES.
1993 Archaeological Survey of the Hill Country of Benjamin. Jerusalem: IAA.
Finkelstein, I. and Silberman, N.
2002 The Bible Unearthed. Touchstone: New York.
Garfinkel, Y. et all.
2014 Khirbet Qeiyafa: Vol 2: Excavation Report 2009-2013 Stratigraphy and Architecture (Areas B C D E). IES.
Mendenhall, G. E.
1962 The Hebrew Conquest of Palestine. BA XXV/3: 66-87.
1991 A Century of Biblical Archaeology. Westminster/John Knox Press: Louisville.
1985 Israelite Settlement in Canaan. Biblical Archaeology Today. Ed. Janet Amitai, 83-87. Jerusalem: IED.
1998 Forging and Identity: The Emergence of Ancient Israel. Pp 123-175. The Oxford History of the Biblical World. Ed. Michael D. Coogan. Oxford University Press: New York.
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