Biblical Archaeology

General Information

The term biblical archaeology refers to archaeological investigations that serve to clarify, enlighten, and enhance the biblical record. Its development, from the 19th century, has been largely tied to the history of research and excavation in ancient Palestine.

The American clergyman and biblical scholar Edward Robinson played a fundamental role in recognizing that an acquaintance with the Holy Land was essential to an understanding of biblical literature. After traveling in Sinai and Palestine, he published Biblical Researches in Palestine (1841), which inspired many other scholars to follow his lead. The British founded the Palestine Exploration Fund (PEF) in 1865, and in 1867 the first PEF expedition was sent to Jerusalem to search for specific biblical sites, among them the location of Solomon's temple.

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Pioneering excavations were undertaken in 1890 by Flinders Petrie at Tell el-Hesi, 26 km (16 mi) east of Gaza. His development of a relative scale of dating based on changes in pottery at successive levels of excavation was of immense importance for biblical archaeology, since sites in Palestine have yielded relatively few historical monuments or records. A notable exception is the site of Qumran on the Dead Sea, where the first of the important Hebrew and Aramaic manuscripts known as the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered (1947).

By the early 1900s, American, German, and French archaeological teams also began excavations in Palestine, directed primarily toward those cities mentioned in the Bible. Pre-World War I excavations included work at Gezer, Jericho, Megiddo, Ta'anach, Samaria, and Beth-shemesh. William Foxwell Albright directed the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem (founded 1910) in 1920-29 and 1933-36. His excavations at Tell Beit Mirsim (1926-32), supplied the framework for establishing the chronology of ancient Palestine based on ceramic typology, which is still used today with only minor changes. The Palestine Department of Antiquities, established in 1918, played a major role in archaeological research until the state of Israel was formed in 1948. Since then, Israeli archaeologists have conducted several important excavations, including Yigael Yadin's work at Hazor (1955-58 and 1968-70) and at MASADA (1963-65), Yohanon Aharoni and Ruth Amiran's work at Arad (1962-67), and Yigal Shiloh's finds at the City of David in Jerusalem (1978-85).

Although biblical archaeology concentrates on excavating and interpreting biblical sites, archaeological material of either the pre- or post-biblical era is often uncovered as well. For example, the excavations of the American archaeologist James Pritchard at Gibeon, in addition to revealing the rock-cut water system mentioned in 2 Samuel, produced important pottery from a Bronze Age cemetery. Excavation at the important biblical site of Jericho has revealed little of significance dating from later than the 2d millennium BC. Its remains from 6 millennia earlier, however, show a large walled city that is the oldest known settlement in the world.

An important function of biblical archaeology has been to describe a setting in which the stories of the Old and New Testaments achieve a new and vivid meaning. Inevitably, however, more problems have been discovered than have been resolved. The question of the nature and date of the Exodus and the manner of the conquest of Palestine by the Israelites is still open to debate, despite the large number of excavated sites. Since the Israelites left no characteristic artifacts during the early years of their settlement, it is virtually impossible to determine whether the destruction of a site in the 13th century BC was the work of the Israelites or the Egyptians. Sometimes the archaeological evidence seems to contradict the biblical record. Thus, although the city of Ai is recorded as having been captured by Joshua, no remains dating from the appropriate period were found during its excavation, which suggests that the site was unoccupied at the time of the supposed conquest.

Jonathan N. Tubb

Bibliography: Dever, William G., Archaeology and Biblical Studies (1974); Kenyon, Kathleen M., Archaeology in the Holy Land, 4th ed. (1979); Negev, Avrahem, ed., Archaeological Encyclopedia of the Holy Land (1974; repr. 1980); Millard, A. R., Treasures from Bible Times (1985); Paul, Shalom, and Dever, William, eds., Biblical Archaeology (1973); Thomas, Winton D., Archaeology and Old Testament Study (1967); Wright, G. Ernest, Biblical Archaeology, rev. ed. (1963).

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in December 1997.

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