BAR 38:05, Sep/Oct 2012
Archaeological Views: Should Archaeology Be Used as a Source of Testable Hypotheses About the Bible?
In his First Person column in the July/August 2011 issue of BAR,a Hershel Shanks argued that the Bible can be a source of a testable hypothesis. In other words, an archaeologist should be able to open the Bible, read a verse, formulate a hypothesis, and then conduct an archaeological excavation in order to prove or disprove the hypothesis.
At first blush, this seems like an entirely appropriate and scientific approach. Yet Hershel laments that this approach is often criticized by archaeologists and suggests that scholarly protests are based on prejudices against the Bible. He further challenges that this same kind of approach would be acceptable with other Near Eastern texts.
I think Hershel is wrong; such concerns are not born of a prejudice against the Bible and have little to do with the Bible per se. The issue is not the use of texts to generate hypotheses or identify research questions. The potential problem lies in the circularity of then returning to a text with the notion that it has been “proven” or “disproven.”
The debate about the relationship between text and archaeology is not unique to Biblical archaeology. Attempts to use archaeology to test the validity of texts go back much farther. The Chinese historian Sima Qian (c. 145–85 B.C.E.), the author of Shi Ji, a grand history of China’s dynastic empires, tested the accuracy of historical records through ancient artifacts (and especially objects with inscriptions). In ancient Greece, Thucydides argued that graves dug up on Delos displaying Carian burial customs confirmed a tradition that the Carian people had once lived on the island.
There are more recent examples as well. In the 1980s and 1990s, there was a particularly acrimonious debate over the use of texts in Mayan archaeology. Since Mayan glyphs had been translated relatively recently, scholars who worked with those texts argued that their research provided greater evidence for Mayan culture since they could now write a proper “history.” Archaeologists, however, feeling marginalized by this new shift in the discipline, countered that the texts told the story of only a very small group of elites, while archaeology provided a broader picture of Mayan culture.
So Hershel’s idea is not new. But does it work?
In the 1980s, there was a movement by some archaeologists to treat material culture and the archaeological record as “text,” but this experiment has mostly been abandoned. The problem is that artifacts are not texts in this way (although many texts are artifacts). Texts, rather, are conscious attempts at communication that historians use to reconstruct the past. Somebody, somewhere, wrote these texts to communicate particular ideas for particular reasons, and trying to understand those reasons is fundamental to historical and cultural interpretation.
Sometimes archaeological evidence was consciously constructed as well; as such, we can talk about “reading” ancient art in similar ways that we think of reading ancient texts. But more often than not, archaeologists use social scientific approaches to try to make sense of the leftover traces and artifacts of ancient cultures. In other words, texts and material culture provide different information about different aspects of ancient life, and while there may be overlap, this overlap should not be assumed.
Much of my own work has been devoted to comparing textual and archaeological data from the Late Bronze Age coastal city of Ugarit in modern Syriab in an attempt better to understand Bronze Age economic practices. The results of the comparison surprised me. I found that the conclusions drawn from textual evidence were very different from those based on material culture. The two types of evidence did not contradict each other, but neither did they confirm each other. Rather, they supplied very different types of information about the city’s economic life.
The economic texts, mostly found in the palace, suggested a highly organized and administered city where people had very distinct jobs and specialized skills. Most of the production involved agriculture and the manufacture of products like wine, olive oil and textiles, all supervised by the palace.
Archaeologically, however, the houses of the everyday people of Ugarit seemed to reflect a domestic economy where each household (or neighborhood) managed its own farming and made its own clothes and tools. In elite, nonroyal houses, there were both texts and artifacts indicating that wealthier residents made a living from trade and diplomacy.
Now some may disagree with my conclusions about Ugarit’s economy, but I think most would agree that simply using one set of evidence to test the other would have yielded negative and contradictory results. The comparison, however, of different types of evidence allowed a complementary (and, to my mind, richer) view of life in Ugarit, showing the inherent complexity of ancient economics.
When we bring the Bible back into the question of using texts and archaeology in tandem, the situation is even more complex. Although some BAR readers may argue that the Bible presents a straightforward and easily comprehendible view of the history of ancient Israel, I’d point to the Queries & Comments section of any issue of BAR where reader letters reflect a diversity of understandings (many contradictory) about what is written in the Bible. The Bible is a heavily curated document, meaning that it has gone through significant editing to become the book that we know today. To uncover the complexity of the Biblical past certainly requires more than simply treating a Biblical verse as one would a scientific hypothesis (which was purposefully designed to be tested in a scientific fashion). The Bible is an extremely rich resource for scholars of the ancient past. But it needs to be treated as the incredibly complex resource that it is.
How then should an archaeologist use the Bible? We need to understand that archaeology and Biblical studies provide different types of information about the past. Instead of using one class of evidence to “prove” or “disprove” another, we should try to understand how the differences and similarities in the evidence can make sense together. By using as many types of evidence as we can and treating this evidence with the academic rigor expected of different fields of study, we then have access to multiple, potentially intersecting but rarely identical approaches to understanding the Biblical past.