Science, Faith, and Biblical Archeology

By Alex Joffe
Monday, January 17, 2011

Biblical archeology was born out of twinned desires: to "illuminate" the world of the Bible and, ultimately, to prove the truth of the Word. Armed with a trowel in one hand and a Bible in the other, 19th-century archeologists in the Holy Land, most of them Protestant clergymen, had little difficulty finding what they were looking for. Their certainty came from within.

As the premises of the field changed in the 20th century, so did its practitioners. The enterprise is no longer undertaken by religious men driven by their faith but by professional, secular scholars following both their intellectual curiosity and local regulations mandating standards of historical investigation and preservation. But what has really changed? To some it might seem that the old certainty, born of religious faith, has been not so much lost as replaced by certainty of another kind, based on a faith in "science."

It can hardly be denied that, thanks to science, enormous strides have been made in facilitating the task not only of observation but of analysis. Computers have done for archeology what they have done for movie-making.  Gone are the days of surveyors standing beneath umbrellas and peering through theodolites, laboriously penciling their architectural and other finds on paper and animating them one by one, by hand. With the aid of digital equipment and sensors suspended from balloons, it is now possible to record precisely every rock, every potsherd, nearly every grain of sand. Entered into a computer, billions of data points can then be projected and manipulated on wall-sized monitors or with virtual-reality goggles. Ancient sites can be brought back to life like scenes out of Toy Story. Archeologists can walk through them, shifting the view, zooming in on items of interest.

There is more.  Only a few years ago, archeologists had to bag and tag metal objects or pollen samples, ship them off to labs around the world, and wait months or even years for results. Now, portable equipment can sit next to an excavation trench or in the dig house and produce results almost in real time. Questions about technological processes, the composition of materials and their places of origin, climates, diets, and many other things can be answered swiftly and used to guide excavations tomorrow rather than next year. The cost of such technologies is still steep but is dropping fast. Someday soon, it may not be necessary to excavate at all, but merely to scan deeply into sites or whole regions using sensors out of Star Trek, creating precise three-dimensional pictures down—who knows?—to the level of individual atoms.

When that day arrives, archeology may become something closer to a real science. But will it be more certain? Many archeologists seem to be betting on it—a forthcoming conference at Tel Aviv University, "Biblical Archeology and the Pursuit of Certainty," is devoted to the issue—but one may be permitted to doubt.  Much depends on the assumptions brought to the task of analysis. Much also depends on the questions being asked, and not only by archeologists.

Khirbat en-Nahas in southern Jordan is the largest site of ancient copper-mining known in the eastern Mediterranean, with mines and slag heaps extending for kilometers along desolate desert wadis. Research there is being directed by Thomas Levy of the University of California at San Diego. Who were the miners, and who were their customers? How were workers fed and directed, what tools and technologies did they use, what was the place of the enterprise in the larger economy of ancient commodities-trading? Such issues have indeed been addressed by the excavators, but they have been overshadowed by questions of chronology, and in particular by the question of whether the period of heaviest industry dates to the 10th or the 9th century B.C.E. Why so? Because the answer will bear on whether the site and its production can or cannot be correlated with the biblical account of the reign of King Solomon.

At Megiddo, in Israel, where the archeological project has been directed by Israel Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University, the historical issues are even more salient. The excavation at Megiddo encompasses periods ranging from the proto-urban Early Bronze Age (ca. 3600–2000 B.C.E.) to the very end of the Iron Age (in the Near East, ca. 1200–586 B.C.E.). But public attention has again focused on the finds relating to the putative periods of David, Solomon, and their successor kings. And again the reasons are understandable: Finkelstein happens to be the leading proponent of the controversial thesis that David and Solomon were not great kings presiding over a far-flung realm but rather provincial chiefs whose greatest triumphs were the products of the minds and hands of scribes writing centuries later.

In short, the Bible will not be ignored, either by scholars or by the public. With all the new data and up-to-date technologies, the core questions dominating the profession and its surprisingly large audience remain much the same as they were a century or more ago. And, at least so far, they do not admit of definitive answers. Even with scientific techniques, it remains difficult to establish the veracity of many biblical accounts—at least those to be dated before 900 B.C.E. King Hezekiah's preparations against Assyrian attack in the second half of the 8th century can be dissected on the ground, but David and Solomon still straddle the boundary between the literary and historical, and Moses and Abraham are altogether hidden from view. The larger truth, up to and including Truth with a capital T, remains elusive.

Is this a bad thing? The impulse to solve the problem of transcendence may uniquely complicate the enterprise of biblical archeology in perpetuity, coloring the very premises with which archeologists of differing dispositions approach their twin tasks of observation and analysis. But the impulse itself is nothing to be embarrassed about. Perhaps science and religion would strike Martians as two easily separable matters, but here on earth, where even scientific perceptions of reality are based on successive approximations made by relatively puny humans, they remain difficult to disentangle.

What does unify faith and science is the desire to understand ourselves. And in the end, that may prove to be not only biblical archeology's greatest strength but more than enough to propel it into the—by definition, uncertain—future.

Alex Joffe is a research scholar with the Institute for Jewish and Community Research. He has contributed a chapter to Historical Biblical Archaeology and the Future: The New Pragmatism, edited by Thomas E. Levy (Equinox). 

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