Monday, 24 April 2017

Book review: "Biblical Archaeology: A Very Short Introduction", by Eric H Kline

I enjoyed this, a well-written canter for the layman through an absolutely vast field. The book is divided in two. First, a summary of the development of Biblical archaeology over the last two centuries, from resourceful but not always very expert amateurs seeking to prove the historical truth of Scripture to the hi-tech and professional multi-disciplinary teams of twenty-first century archaeology. These MDTs are no longer primarily interested in establishing the veracity or otherwise of the Bible, but in answering a huge range of questions about how people in the Holy Land lived, fought, worshipped, ate, moved and died between approximately 2000 BC and the late first century AD.

Second, Kline gives us a brief survey of what exactly archaeology tells us about the reliability of the Biblical accounts, with a particular focus on the Old Testament, which is more amenable to archaeological proof or disproof as it covers a much longer span of time and is concerned with kings, conflict, migrations, settlements, conquests etc., in a way that the New Testament isn’t. The NT is mostly concerned with ideas and speech, and with a relatively small number of people who were for the most part socially and politically unimportant by contemporary standards. There are important NT details that can be checked archaeologically – the existence of Pilate was confirmed recently via a contemporary inscription, for example, and a plausible though not definitive identification has been made of the bones of Caiaphas the High Priest – but they are relatively few.

The general impression given is that the OT histories are relatively well supported by the archaeological data, e.g. the Tel Dan Stele that seems to confirm the existence of the House of David, though there is (as yet?) almost no evidence that the Exodus happened in the way that the Bible says, nor does the Israelite settlement of Canaan seem to have occurred quite as narrated. There is still a considerable scholarly debate about how and over what kind of timescale the people now known as the Jews came to inhabit the region in such numbers. That is not to say that the Biblical accounts of those events are entirely unreliable or false, merely that they must be read alongside the historical evidence and with a sensitivity to genre (for example, ancient accounts of battles were not intended to be read as literal descriptions of what had happened). It would also appear, as one might expect, that the Bible accounts become less well-evidenced archaeologically as you get further back into the past, and to semi-legendary figures like the patriarchs.  
The book ends with an entertaining and cautionary coda looking at some of the controversies around Holy Land archaeology, inevitable in such a politically and religiously contested region. One example is the incredible long-running saga of the Ossuary of James, the supposed last resting place of the supposed brother of Jesus. Kline warns us to be wary of non-specialists who come to Biblical archaeology with a clear agenda, as well as the charlatans and conmen only too happy to fake inscriptions.


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