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The Levant and Canaan

Biblical archaeology is an academic school and a subset of Biblical studies and Levantine archaeology. Biblical archaeology studies archaeological sites from the Ancient Near East and especially the Holy Land (also known as Land of Israel and Canaan), from biblical times.

Biblical archaeology emerged in the late 19th century, by British and American archaeologists, with the aim of confirming the historicity of the Bible. Between the 1920s, right after World War I, when Palestine came under British rule and the 1960s, biblical archaeology became the dominant American school of Levantine archaeology, led by figures such as William F. Albright and G. Ernest Wright. The work was mostly funded by churches and headed by theologians. From the late 1960s, biblical archaeology was influenced by processual archaeology ("New Archaeology") and faced issues that made it push aside the religious aspects of the research. This has led the American schools to shift away from biblical studies and focus on the archaeology of the region and its relation with the biblical text, rather than trying to prove or disprove the biblical account.[1]

The Hebrew Bible is the main source of information about the region of Palestine and mostly covers the Iron Age period. Therefore, archaeology can provide insights where biblical historiography can't. The comparative study of the biblical text and archaeological discoveries help understand Ancient Near Eastern people and cultures. Although both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament are taken into account, the majority of the study centers around the former.[1]

The term biblical archaeology is used by Israeli archaeologists for popular media or an English speaking audience, in reference to what is known in Hebrew as "Israeli archaeology", and to avoid using the term Palestinian archaeology.[1]


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:

Schools of thought

Main article: Biblical archaeology school

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.

Summary of important archaeological sites and findings

The caves at Qumran, where one of biblical archaeology’s most important findings of all time was found, in the valley of the Dead Sea.

Selected discoveries

Detailed lists of objects can be found at the following pages:

Biblical archeological forgeries

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 translated to "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.[4][5]

The object came by way of the antiques dealer Oded Golan, who was accused by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) of forgery, but after a 7 year trial he was acquitted on the grounds of reasonable doubt.[5] Another item that came from the same dealer was the Jehoash Inscription, which describes repairs to the temple in Jerusalem. The authenticity of the inscription is debated.[5]

Biblical archaeology and the Catholic Church

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.[6][7]

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.

In 1943, Pope Pius XII recommended that interpretations of the scripture take archaeological findings into account in order to discern the literary genres used.[8]

[...] 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.

Expert commentaries

[...]"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".[9]

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".[10]

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.[11] [...] 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.[12]

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....[13] 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...[14]

Tel Aviv University archaeologist Ze'ev Herzog wrote in the Haaretz newspaper:

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.[15][16][17]

Other scholars have argued that Asherah may have been a symbol or icon in the context of Yahwism rather than a deity in her own right, and her association with Yahweh does not necessarily indicate a polytheistic belief system.[18]

Professor Israel 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.[19] Professor Yoni Mizrahi, an independent archaeologist, agreed with Israel Finkelstein.[19]

Regarding the Exodus of Israelites from Egypt, Egyptian archaeologist Zahi Hawass said:

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.[20]

Other scholars dispute these claims. In his 2001 book The Old Testament Documents: Are They Reliable and Relevant? Evangelical Old Testament scholar Walter Kaiser, Jr. included a chapter entitled, "Does Archaeology Help the Case for Reliability?"[21] 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.[22]

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."[21] 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.[23]

Collins comments upon a statement by Dever:

“there is little that we can salvage from Joshua’s stories of the rapid, wholesale destruction of Canaanite cities and the annihilation of the local population. It simply did not happen; the archeological evidence is indisputable.”

This is the judgment of one of the more conservative historians of ancient Israel. To be sure, there are far more conservative historians who try to defend the historicity of the entire biblical account beginning with Abraham, but their work rests on confessional presuppositions and is an exercise in apologetics rather than historiography. Most biblical scholars have come to terms with the fact that much (not all!) of the biblical narrative is only loosely related to history and cannot be verified.[24]

— John J. Collins

As a young student, I heard a series of lectures given by a famous liberal Old Testament theologian on Old Testament introduction. And there one day learned that the fifth book of Moses (Deuteronomy) had not been written by Moses—although throughout it it claims to have been spoken and written by Moses himself. Rather, I heard Deuteronomy had been composed centuries later for quite specific purposes. Since I came from an orthodox Lutheran family, was deeply moved by what I heard—in particular, because it convinced me. so the same day I sought out my teacher during his hours and, in connection With the origin of Deuteronomy, let slip the remark, "So is the fifth book of Moses what might be called a forgery?" His answer was, "For God's sake, it may well be, but you can't say anything like that."

I wanted to use that quotation in order to show that the results of historical scholarship can be made known to the public—especially to believers—only with difficulty. Many Christians feel threatened if they hear that most of what was written in the Bible is (in historical terms) untrue and that none of the four New Testament Gospels was written by the author listed at the top of the text.[25]

— Gerd Lüdemann

See also


  1. ^ a b c William G. Dever (2011). "Biblical Archaeology". The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199892280.
  2. ^ "Find a dig: Biblical Archaeology Society". Cited April 18, 2016.
  3. ^ R. Dennis Cole, "Recent Developments in Biblical Archaeology," The Theological Educator, 49 (Spring 1994): 51–64. Cited April 18, 2016.
  4. ^ Forgers "tried to rewrite biblical history", Conal Urquhart, The Guardian, Friday 31 December 2004.
  5. ^ a b c Friedman, Matti. "Oded Golan is not guilty of forgery. So is the 'James ossuary' for real?". Retrieved 2022-12-06.
  6. ^ Catholic Church no longer swears by truth of the Bible, Ruth Gledhill, The Times, 5 October 2005,
  7. ^ The Gift of Scripture, Party Two, Section 14 The truth of Scripture, p17 Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales and Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Scotland, 2005,
  8. ^ Pius XII (30 September 1943). "Divino Afflante Spiritu Encyclical Of Pope Pius Xi On Promoting Biblical Studies". Retrieved 6 February 2013.
  9. ^ Dever, p. 357
  10. ^ Dever, p. 358
  11. ^ Bible gets a reality check, MSNBC , Alan Boyle
  12. ^ The Bible's Buried Secrets, PBS Nova, 2008
  13. ^ Dever, William G. (March–April 2006). "The Western Cultural Tradition Is at Risk". Biblical Archaeology Review. 32 (2): 26 & 76.
  14. ^ Dever, William G. (January 2003). "Contra Davies". The Bible and Interpretation. Archived from the original on 2007-02-02. Retrieved 2007-02-12.
  15. ^ Knopp, Lisa (2004) [2002]. "History". The Nature of Home: A Lexicon and Essays. University of Nebraska Press. p. 126. ISBN 978-0-8032-7814-1. Retrieved 10 August 2023.
  16. ^ Herzog, Ze'ev (29 October 1999). "Deconstructing the walls of Jericho". Ha'aretz. Archived from the original on 11 August 2021. Retrieved 13 January 2022.
  17. ^ Herzog, Ze'ev (29 October 1999). "Deconstructing the walls of Jericho". Ha'aretz. Archived from the original on 10 November 2001. Retrieved 9 February 2019.
  18. ^ Doedens, Jacob JT (January 2013). "Ancient Israelite Polytheistic Inscriptions: Was Asherah Viewed as Yhwh's Wife". Sárospataki Füzetek (1–2): 41–54 – via
  19. ^ a b "Senior Israeli archaeologist casts doubt on Jewish heritage of Jerusalem – Middle East Monitor". 20 February 2014. Retrieved 28 October 2016.
  20. ^ Did the Red Sea Part? No Evidence, Archaeologists Say, The New York Times, April 3, 2007
  21. ^ a b Kaiser, 2001, p. 97-108.
  22. ^ Kaiser, 2001, p. 98.
  23. ^ Kaiser, 2001, p. 108.
  24. ^ Collins, John J. (2008). "Old Testament in a New Climate". Reflections. Yale University: 4–7. ISSN 0362-0611. Retrieved 23 May 2022.
  25. ^ Craig, William Lane; Lüdemann, Gerd; Copan, Paul; Tacelli, Ronald K. (2000). Jesus' Resurrection: Fact Or Figment?: A Debate Between William Lane Craig & Gerd Ludemann (in Dutch). InterVarsity Press. p. 43. ISBN 978-0-8308-1569-2. Retrieved 13 August 2023. I wanted to use that quotation in order to show that the results of historical scholarship can be made known to the public—especially to believers—only with difficulty. Many Christians feel threatened if they hear that most of what was written in the Bible is (in historical terms) untrue and that none of the four New Testament Gospels was written by the author listed at the top of the text.


Further reading