Biblical Archaeology in 2011: Marching On

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Excerpt In a continuing series of articles, I have highlighted the Annual Meetings of the American Schools of Oriental Research, or ASOR, in order to bring to ABR’s readers some of the latest research from the lands of the Bible and to demonstrate that, despite premature reports of its demise, archaeology relating to the Scriptures is very much alive and well. Last year the conference was held in San Francisco between Nov 23–26, 2011 and featured presentations by over 400 scholars on a very wide range of subjects, from prehistoric to Islamic times, and concerning work done in Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Cyprus, and more. Continue reading

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As in years past, some sessions are directly associated with biblical issues, such as “The Archaeology of Israel (I and II),” “Archaeology and Biblical Studies,” “The World of the Philistines,” “Hebrew Bible and Archaeology,” “Current Issues in Biblical Archaeology,” and a group of papers organized around the theme “The Archaeology of Meals and the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament in Its World: Foodways,” which surprisingly even retained the use of the term Old Testament in addition to the currently fashionable Hebrew Bible.  Moreover, there were a large number of individual submissions that dealt with the Bible and many others that related indirectly.

As usual archaeology pertaining to the Philistine domain is popular as many excavations are ongoing at sites, including Tell es-Safi/Gath, Ashkelon, and others. In addition to a report on the 2011 season at Gath, A paper by Eric Welch entitled, “A Mighty Fortress is our Gath” detailed findings on the reuse of Bronze Age fortifications by the Philistines in the Iron Age. The fact that they would do so should surprise no one, as such continuity from age to age was not uncommon. But if Iron Age inhabitants could reuse structures from the Middle Bronze Age at Gath, could not Late Bronze Age inhabitants of Jericho have done the same with Middle Bronze Age walls in that city, as argued by our own Bryant Wood?

The “Dark Prince” of biblical archaeology, William Dever, who so famously coined the term Syro-Palestinian Archaeology to displace Biblical Archaeology many years ago, delivered a paper ironically entitled “Bible Archaeology,” a topic on which he continues to inform and entertain sizeable audiences. It was an important presentation in which he traced the history of the discipline through the early years (1900–1975), an era during which Biblical Archaeology was a “peculiarly American movement.” Its death by 1985 was brought about by a maturation of the field—the demise of a “failed theological agenda” and increasing degrees of specialization, professionalization, and secularization, which resulted in improved field methods, theory, and interdisciplinary collaboration.

Dever went on to paint a rather dark picture of the present state of the field, as research funds have dried up, academic programs have closed or shifted their focus, and jobs for upcoming scholars are sparse. This is particularly the case in North America. He criticized the state of Israeli archaeology, which still calls the Bronze and Iron Ages “Biblical Archaeology,” which is confusing and misleading to others, he claims. All of this, in his view, has caused the discipline to “lose its center.” It is truly ironic to hear Dr. Dever lament the state of his discipline and witness his attempts to resuscitate the slain corpse of his arrows! Nonetheless, all ABR enthusiasts should cheer his advocacy of archaeology and biblical research.

Joseph Weinstein’s paper argued that the so-called Conquest narratives in the Book of Joshua are merely Iron Age replicas of Middle Bronze Age royal monumental inscriptions from the territories of Ephraim and Manasseh, which were still extant for the Israelites to access when surveys show they arrived in the Early Iron Age. Naturally, it does not matter whether any evidence of such inscriptions exists—the theory remains quite imaginative. It proposes that the Israelites and Joshua were stand-ins for the Hyksos of the collapsing 15th Dynasty in Egypt, from which its leader extended his control over areas later inhabited by Israel. Of the Exodus he states, “The impression of a massive invasion of refugees from the Delta is an illusion that arose from Joshua’s efforts to present himself as the successor to the 15th Dynasty and the resettlement in Canaan of a few selected refugees.” This theory is an unworthy attempt to salvage the biblical account using suspect evidence.

The session on “The Archaeology of Israel I” highlighted new discoveries in Israel, including Middle Bronze Age II fortifications in Jerusalem around the Spring of Gihon, which according to Ronny Reich of the University of Haifa, call for a new understanding of the site during the period, one which first appears in the epigraphic record in the form of incantation bowls from Egypt—the Execration Texts (c. 1850 BC). Hayah Katz presented findings from Tel ‘Eton in the Shephelah, a large Iron II site destroyed in the late 8th century BC with a pottery assemblage similar to Lachish III—likely further evidence of the Neo-Assyrian invasion of Sennacherib  c. 701 BC.

“Hebrew Bible, History and Archaeology” was dedicated to Anson Rainey, who committed his life to the study of history and the Bible. As many readers are aware, Rainey passed away in 2011. Though not an ally of ABR, particularly over his disputes with David Livingston on the location of Bethel, Rainey and his work always endeavored to further our understanding of the Bible.

Perhaps it was fitting then, that Dr. Daniel Browning from William Carey University, following in the Rainey tradition, mounted a spirited critique of the findings of Dr. Bryant Wood in “Hazor versus Jericho and Ai: Dealing with Mixed Archaeological Data in Evaluating the Joshua Narrative.” Coming from a scholar who styled himself a “maximalist” regarding the Biblical text, the paper was both surprising and disappointing—the former for its contemptuous dismissal of any “maximalist” (literal) reading of Joshua—and the latter for its utter lack of reference to physical evidence presented by Wood and others. All attempts by evangelicals to interpret the data (at Jericho, Ai, and Hazor) differently than Kenyon and others are reduced to “tactics,” all of which fail on the level of presupposition—failing to see the text as a theological and not a historical one. The real key to understanding Jericho and Ai is in the figures of Rahab and Achan, who are juxtaposed to drive the underlying theological agenda. Only at Hazor can archaeological finds be made to fit the conquest narrative. In singling out Bryant Wood, Browning’s failure to cite the ceramic and stratigraphic basis of Wood’s thesis is intellectually dishonest. His largely literary approach deserves a learned archaeological response, which was not provided in San Francisco. Perhaps it is time for Dr. Wood to mount a defense of his own at the next ASOR Meetings? 

The session on meals in the Hebrew Bible cited above featured a paper by Oded Borowski with one of the more creative titles, “’Better is a Dinner of Herbs, Where Love Is, Than a Stalled Ox and Hatred Therewith’ (Prov. 15:17): Special Meals in Biblical Lore.” Borowski took several passages in the Bible that mention eating at special occasions and attempted to find archaeological or extra-biblical evidence for them.

ASOR, very much like ABR, leans heavily toward archaeological study of the Old Testament. But at ASOR, papers on New Testament subjects were also read. The city of Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast of Israel has been investigated for many years. It played a vital role as the Roman administrative center to the province of Judea. It was where Paul was put under house arrest and appeared before several high officials in the Book of Acts. The most important historical source for the city founded by Herod however, is Josephus, who wrote long descriptions of the 1st century city. Barbara Burrell of Brock University is attempting to improve the Greek translation of his works on the basis of archaeological discoveries made at Caesarea.

A Corinthian capital at Caesarea was the subject of a talk by Moshe Fischer of Tel Aviv University—the only type among the three classical orders mentioned by Josephus as being present in the ancient city. A fragmentary example was found in the Temple of Augustus and Roma. Fischer elaborates on the uniquely Herodian style of the capital from Caesarea, which he sees as representative of the centralized well-controlled building program initiated by the king.

Finally, on a rather whimsical note, Mark Gstohl of Xavier University in Louisiana posed the question, “What Would Jesus Drink? How the Temperance Movement and Thomas Welch Changed Communion.” His thesis proposed that as Welch’s pasteurized grape juice became available, Protestant churches began to use it in their communion services. Then they followed with the theory that Jesus wedding feast miracle at Cana was an act of turning water into non-alcoholic wine. It was also a consequence of the movement to vilify alcohol consumption. Its result was an attempt to enlist Jesus on the side of temperance, one which continues to this day. I will leave to ABR readers to decide for themselves how persuasive they believe this argument to be!

Two papers delivered by ABR members are worth noting: Regular readers may be already familiar with the ongoing excavations at Tell el-Hammam co-directed by Steve Collins. His report consisted of a review of finds and insights from the 2010–2011 season. The massive (90 acre) site was continuously inhabited from the Early Bronze through the Middle Bronze Age followed by a hiatus until the late Iron I period. It was clearly the largest city in the area, and was ringed by a network of satellite towns and villages. Was it the ancient city of Sodom, as suggested by Collins? This is the question that has engendered controversy in the secular community. Perhaps future finds will provide the answer!

This author gave a talk entitled, “Mycenaean Bowls at Early Iron Age Tell Tayinat (Amuq Valley).” It outlined a subset of the Aegean-type assemblage featured at the site, which may be later attested epigraphically as the Kingdom of Palastin. The skyphos, or deep bowl was the most common component of a so-called Aegean drinking set found at many other contemporary sites, including the pentapolis of Philistia. However, the bowls from Tayinat exhibit a unique set of regional traits that distinguish them from similar types found elsewhere.

Once again, space prevents me from discussing many more papers addressing biblical places and issues at ASOR, not to mention the sessions at ETS (Evangelical Theological Society) of the NEAS (Near Eastern Archaeological Society). However, this should suffice to demonstrate we can rest assured “Biblical Archaeology” has not been eclipsed, but merely taken on new forms in keeping with a mature intellectual discipline, which “Syro-Palestinian Archaeology” has become. In the end, regardless of what we choose to call it, archaeological research will continue to provide fresh new insights in the Scriptures, both Old and New.    

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