Official Blog of the Bishop of Durham

The Reality: Archaeology Can, and Does, Disprove the Bible

Posted by NT Wrong on September 7, 2008

In a recent review of Lester Grabbe’s Ancient Israel: What Do We Know and How Do We Know It?, Brian B. Schmidt offers some compelling arguments for why archaeology can, and does, disprove the Bible:

“One issue that repeatedly comes up for mention in [Grabbe’s] Ancient Israel, and one that has proven to be a nagging point of ambivalence for the present reviewer, is the due recognition to be attributed to archaeology’s impact on recent historical investigations into early Israel. In the reams of secondary literature now available on the topic, one can find Grabbe’s shared sentiment that archaeology cannot ‘prove’ one scenario or another (23; somewhat surprisingly, such sentiment has been expressed in one form or another from several perspectives represented in the contemporary historical debates pertaining to early Israel, whether maximalist, minimalist, moderate, or otherwise). While the term ‘prove’ itself indeed proves to be rather elusive when left unqualified, it is often the case that under the same cover an author who disregards the provability of archaeology will (unwittingly?) demonstrate in another context, often by means of a survey of the historical or biblical or Syro-Palestinian archaeology or by offering the conclusion that archaeology has in fact been the deciding factor or linchpin in the transformation of how Israelite history is done in contemporary scholarship, that archaeology has indeed offered historians ‘proofs’ of one sort or another.

For example, Grabbe follows the general consensus that in a post-1975 historians’ world, the ‘patriarchal world’ is no longer interpreted historically by the vast majority (23; with the exception perhaps of the neo-fundamentalists and fundamentalists whom Grabbe describes on 21-23) and that the related biblical narratives themselves do not contain reliable, extensive historical recollections of the events or persons contained therein (yet, perhaps they contain isolated, and one might add, recontextualized, snippets of ancient historical data and/or memories?). Well, for all these winds of change which have decisively blown through the last three decades of scholarship on the patriarchal age, what did we come to know, and how did we come to know it? As Grabbe notes, we came to know that the patriarchal stories are comprised of a more pervasive legendary character, and we came to know that legendary character over the course of [the] latter half of the twentieth century by means of the growing archaeological data base accompanied by a newly emergent interpretive framework for that data base and one independent of the former, rather narrowly reconstructed, pseudo-biblical constraints. For the vast majority of historians, archaeology has presented us with the unavoidable conclusion that the world imagined in the biblical narratives pertaining to the patriarchs is not the second millennium BCE world of the ancient Near East, though the biblical text might preserve, whether inadvertently or by design, isolated relics of that age. Archaeology and the biblical text simply parted ways on matters of a broad historical orientation. The biblical texts were simply composed as something other than history.

This begs the question: Did not archaeology ‘prove’ something here — or at least make a compelling argument for overturning the traditional, rather restrictive imposition of the biblical framework on the interpretation of material cultural data? Did it not ‘prove’ that older notions regarding the generic affinities formerly attributed to the patriarchal narratives were inadequately based on the assumed historicity of those stories? Has archaeology not also ‘proven’ in some meaningful sense of the term that the issue when analyzing a biblical text should not be the text’s historical reliability or unreliability (as if those were our only two possible choices) but simply the text’s generic affinities (e.g. if a specific text possesses pronounced mythical or legendary elements as [one of?] its dominant literary generic affinities, why should the question of its historical reliability of unreliability even be raised)? If there remains a relevant question of a historical orientation for a particular text whose generic proclivities do not point in the direction of historiography, would it not be more appropriately one concerned with the potential ’embeddedness’ of isoated historical data?”


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