How to avoid biblical archaeology food fights: one archaeologist’s advice

How to avoid biblical archaeology food fights: one archaeologist’s advice October 15, 2013

This recent post by Steven Collins concerning the role of archaeology and the Bible (namely, the Old Testament) is worth looking at. I don’t endorse it completely, but I find what he has to say generally to be a good starting point. Read it for yourself and see what you think.

Collins’s main issue is with the extremes of “minimalists” and “maximalists.” The former tend toward a default skepticism about the historical value of the Bible, while the latter holds a skeptical posture toward archaeological evidence that is seen to undermine biblical literalism and/or inerrancy.

The heart of the article is here:

I think there is a better way to approach this—a reasonable, scientific methodology that is willing to go wherever the evidence leads and, if necessary, set aside preconceived ideas about biblical origins and narratives in favor of a more fair and balanced treatment of both archaeological and biblical data. If both ‘sides’ are willing to admit that no scholars are infallible or in possession of all the facts, then we can view points of correspondence (or lack thereof) between text and tell with better objectivity.

In short, we need to talk! And we need to do so without thinking that we, individually, must come away with a victory for our own point of view. Has archaeology gone too far in throwing out the Bible? Yes! But have some scholars gone too far in throwing out archaeology? Yes!

As a remedy, Collins advocates a “dialogical” approach, which he sums up under five points.

  1. Stop thinking of each other as “fringe lunatics” and each much try to see its own biases (not just the biases of the other guys).
  2. “Both sides need to think scientifically in terms of observation, degrees of correspondence between biblical and ancient Near Eastern history, and the incorporation of new or better evidence.”
  3. With respect to geography at least, the Bible is a very valuable source of information.
  4. Be open to new ideas when evidence from various areas, including the Bible, converge.
  5. The Bible should not be cut loose from historical study because of it’s religious bias, since other ancient texts are used to reconstruct history even though they exhibit bias. (Collins states this twice, and I think it is his strongest point.)

As I said, I think this approach is helpful as a general orientation.

I don’t know Collins’s work, but my gut tells me there is some latent apologetic agenda here, though I am happy to be wrong. (Note his school’s doctrinal statement:”…we humbly submit our minds to the Bible by embracing Scripture [the ancient Hebrew Tanakh and the New Testament] as the only written, divinely inspired representation of reality given by God to humankind, speaking with absolute authority in all matters upon which it touches.”) Still, his advice is sound: be open to evidence from wherever it comes and don’t give in to extremes as a matter of philosophical bias.

Having said that, note that Collins admits that the dominant trend among archaeologists is minimalism, though not necessarily the highly charged extremist variety. There are real reasons for this minimalist trend, especially concerning pre-monarchic Israel, and I am left wondering how Collins would address this. For example, what is Collins’s view concerning the conquest of Canaan and the exodus, both of which are at odds significantly with archaeological data. How would Collins’s call for balance be implemented here?

Collins’s own archaeological work, which he references in the article, is at Tall [i.e., Tell] el-Hammam, a large Bronze Age (between 3600-1700 BCE) site, whose “design and complexity is unparalleled in the southern Levant.” Collins suggests some connection between this site and Sodom, but his more central point in this article is that he found this site by taking seriously the geography of Genesis 13-14.

I think pointing out how and where the Bible aids in the study of ancient history is great, provided we maintain the balance and objectivity Collins has already called for.

Simply put, no one should simply conclude that geography “proves” the historicity of Genesis 13-14, a conclusion that I fear some might quickly jump to (Collins does not, at least here). Just as reasonable (and I feel much more reasonable) is the following scenario: the biblical stories, written during the monarchic period at some point, echo distant tales and memories of the region, perhaps experienced by Israel’s distant ancestors or simply adopted from the general lore of this region.

Anyway, as I said, the post is well worth reading.


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  • Brian s

    Archaeology is not a science. Karl Popper made that crystal clear. It uses science as well as history, lierature, etc. The findings of archaeology must be interpreted, but they are not ‘scientific findings’. They tell us what possibly happened. It makes sense to me, for instance, to assume that some ancient reference to ‘David’ confirms at least some of the biblical record.

    • Robert

      The Bible is not a “record” it is a spiritual work codified in the 5th century BC. An archaeological find that makes reference to the sons of David does not “confirm” anything in the Bible, even the existence of David as an actual person may have been invented by this “tribe”, as has often happened in other cultures. Religious people should stop looking to archaeology to confirm their beliefs, and instead turn to Faith.

    • Klasie Kraalogies

      Karl Popper is not the pope. His demarcation of science is wrong – for instance, mathematics, which on many levels is almost inseparable from science (say theoretical physics, or Information Theory). But basic math axioms cannot be refuted – therefore, math isn’t science, courtesy of Popper. Quantum Mechanics cannot really be expressed without math – so therefore, Quantum mechanics isn’t science? What about logic? One could go on – tight definitions often prove very leaky… 🙂

      See this paper:

      • Brian s

        My reference to Popper was simply to point out that archaeology is not a science. It is not about Popper himself, and nobody has disputed Popper on this point. Archaeology courses are not in the science departments of universities (that I know of), they are under either anthropology or history. No philosopher or scientist acquainted with the philosophical underpinnings of science claims that archaeology is anything but a mixture of some science and some history, etc.

        • Klasie Kraalogies

          Brian, what I am pointing out is that rigid definitions of what science is, and what it isn’t, tend to break down. Archaeology relates to paleontology and geology, and botany and genetics etc etc on the one side, and history and linguistics etc etc on the other side. Even linguistics is becoming more mathematical, and grades into information theory, which itself relates to many parts of math and formal logic etc.

          Anthropology relates to zoology (via primatology), as well as to sociology and eventually philosophy – which relates back to logic and then math. It also relates to economics – and on and on we go.

          The boundaries are very fluid. Popper is wrong.

  • Brian P.

    “Go wherever the evidence leads” has a corollary: “Don’t go where the evidence doesn’t lead.”

  • Rick

    Although the resources and research would be different, his general recommendations would be good for politicians dealing with the government shutdown.

  • Rick

    The Christian Science Monitor did a similar story over the weekend.

    • Rick

      From that story:

      “Yet Mazar, perhaps Finkelstein’s most articulate debating partner over the past 15 years, has written a critique of the critics. He has argued that “one cannot avoid asking whether scholars who are trying to deconstruct the traditional ‘conservative bias’ are not biased themselves by their own historical concepts. In other words, it seems to me that the same charges used against conservative traditional biblical archaeologists can be made against a broad spectrum of minimalists, revisionists, post-modernists, or whatever term we use for a variety of current writers.”
      Still, despite all the controversy surrounding the dig, many experts see the work at Qeiyafa and other sites around the country yielding something vital – bringing the Bible to life.
      “In my own mind, it’s helped me say, ‘Geez, these things are not coming out of thin air,’ ” says Jonathan Waybright, a professor of religious studies and archaeology at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, who has worked on digs in Israel for 25 years, most recently at Qeiyafa. “It’s adding substance to the biblical story.”

      • Yes, what Mazar said makes a lot of sense to me.

        William Dever stated something similar about the minimalists.

        By the way, how do you view the Exodus?

        • Rick

          I currently view Exodus as describing at least some core event that actually happened, but later editors may have updated and added to some of it to reflect theological insights into Israel’s history and their current (at the time of the edit) situation.

  • Bryan Hodge

    Jens Bruun Kofoed’s Text & History: Historiography and the Study of the Biblical Text (Eisenbrauns) and Provan, Long, and Longman’s book, A Biblical History of Israel (WJK) have good discussions of these issues.

    My concern is that Point 1, which is often seen in the mainstream position along with Point 2 and 4, seems to contradict Point 2 and 4, since “bias” often refers to one’s metaphysics and the epistemology rooted in those ultimate beliefs. If that is the case, secondary beliefs can be adjusted within it, but not the governing assumptions concerning the text, with which all sides (minimalists, maximalists, and those that fall within various degrees of those two schools) come to the data (whether speaking of the material culture or text).

  • Susan_G1

    Interesting article and good points. I’m not sure that his capitulations (though welcome) matter, though, because, as he stated,

    In short, we need to talk! And we need to do so without thinking
    that we, individually, must come away with a victory for our own point
    of view.

    This doesn’t happen much, or often enough. We overly often talk at people. It’s a natural thing to do, and even intelligent people often don’t recognize when they do it. When it comes to people with vastly differing opinions, it’s even worse.

  • JayRaskin

    You can get historical data about the 1930’s from reading early “Batman” comic books. It doesn’t make “Batman” a history book, a true book or even a very useful one for understanding history. Given the contradictory ideological uses of the text, it is absurd to think that it can serve as any kind of road map to history. How useful is the idea of a God making the world in six days and resting on the seventh day to understanding the actual processes of the creation of the universe over a fifteen billion year period?

    • Rick

      That is why understanding the genre of each book in the Bible is important.

      • Dan Ortiz


  • “Just as reasonable (and I feel much more reasonable) is the following
    scenario: the biblical stories, written during the monarchic period at
    some point, echo distant tales and memories of the region, perhaps
    experienced by Israel’s distant ancestors or simply adopted from the
    general lore of this region.”

    Oh yeah, I definitely agree! I generally believe that archeology does not disprove a small exodus of semitic slaves under the direction of a charismatic man who had a religious experience underway.

    I think that many atheist and liberal scholars overestimate the scope of archeological findings.

    As I explain in this post I believe that archeology does not disprove, for example, that a part of Israel began worshiping Yahweh very early on.

    What, to my mind, disproves Biblical inerrancy is the utter immorality of certain descriptions of God’s behavior which is very similar to that of the tribal deities of the neighboring folks.

  • Robert

    Biblical archaeology is not a matter of having two extremes, you have real archaeologists that know that the dirt never lies, and base their findings on *what they find* – and then you have people with the Bible in hand who go out to prove their faith or support a nationalist agenda. These aren’t extremes, they are two completely different approaches, and Collins is clearly in the latter camp.

    • True enough, they should go there to test their faith and not to prove it.

    • Jim V

      Robert – the idea that “dirt never lies” is ridiculous. Archeology is not a hard science like physics or chemistry. It requires a healthy dose of interpretation and theorizing, always with the idea that some later digging could prove you wrong. Which means that biases of all types WILL enter into those interpretations and theories. This does not mean that archeology is to be dismissed – far from it. But to dismiss Collins in the manner that you have demonstrates your bias, not his. Of course, if you were to prove to me that you just recently discovered a previously unknown Bronze Age city and that you are an expert in the field, I would be more than happy to retract my criticism. I doubt, however, that you can. I’ve known several archeology professors over the years (not all ANE archeologists) and they all have a healthy dose of humility about the specificity they are able to reach in their field that you seem not to understand.

  • James

    “Both sides need to think scientifically” because, I would say, archaeology is indeed a scientific study from either minimalist or maximalist points of view. C.S. Lewis started a faith journey when for him the link between imagination and reason started to gel. ‘Pure (scientific)’ reason was leading in circles whereas literary and mythological imagination were opening doors to spirit and life. Christian (biblical) faith contains both storylines crisscrossing merrily.

  • Jim V

    So, let me get this straight, Collins demonstrates a real life way in which the minimalist position prevented archeologists from discovering a major city/fortress from the Bronze Age that was lying, literally, under their nose (i.e., very close to well-worn archeological digs), but you are still doubting his argument that the current minimalist approach regarding the Bible is preventing modern archeologists (and possibly those who study the Biblical text and rely on modern archeology to determine historicity) from seeing historical value to the book? Interesting. I wonder, Dr. Enns – if someone like Collins discovered additional archeological evidence that did support the historicity of parts (not all, just parts) of the pre-monarch stories, would your analysis of any part of the OT change or would you, like so many academics to which Collins is trying to appeal, dismiss such evidence because it doesn’t fit the theory you’ve adopted and worked through – or, more to the point, because you perceived it as supporting the “apologetic” theories you oppose?

  • If the authors of Centuries of Darkness are correct – and they contend that no one has yet refuted their thesis – then the present accepted chronology of pre-7th century BCE is off by 250 years. Once one corrects for this discrepancy, the narratives of the Exodus, conquest of Canaan, and the unified monarchy of Israel fit the archaeological data rather well.

  • A. W. Thules

    You wrote “I don’t know Collins’s work, but my gut tells me there is some latent apologetic agenda here, though I am happy to be wrong.”

    I believe you are (wrong). Your conclusion is based upon a false knee-jerk suspicion about his motives. Collins isn’t interested in apologetics, however there is context that explains where Collins is coming from. To understand this you need to understand the conclusions he’s arrived at given his current excavations (meaning for the last decade).

    Biblical archaeology is a touch-point for controversy for many reasons. One of them is the apparent disunion between the biblical record and history. As Collins himself says people are generally willing to see historical convergence at some point after Iron II (the emergence of the united kingdom), but not before. Before Iron II the historicity of the biblical record is thought to be suspect.

    Therefore, finding a historic Sodom and Gomorrah is met with great scepticism since the existence of these cities pre-dates Iron II. Traditionally, archaeologists have sought Sodom and Gomorrah south-east of the Dead Sea which is where popular tradition places them. Sodom and Gomorrah were placed biblically at the heart of a metropolis known as the cities of the plain (a collection of cities). No single city appears to have existed south-east of the Dead Sea, so no metropolis of cities appear to have.

    However, for the last decade Collins has been digging at Tall el-Hammam in Jorden (north-east of the Dead Sea). He has found not only a single city but a collection of cities closely related and connected by roads, with one particular city as the hub in which he discovered a “Middle Bronze 2 house covered in a thick, meter-deep layer of ash and destruction debris. One room had a clay-lined silo installed in the floor, and two broken storage jars were present.” This layer of ash within this city is apparently prevalent throughout the MIddle Bronze 2 period. He has images on the Tall el-Hammam site. Burnt grain ash within storage jars in this house show signs of very rapid high-temperature (near instant) heating.

    Collins appears to have found a site that seems best explained by the biblical Sodom/Gomorrah except that using the bible to make this identification is met with great hostility in the archaeology community, and bucking against the tradition that Sodom and Gomorrah were south-east of the Dead Sea is met with hostility in the biblical studies community.

    Collins is facing hostility on 2 sides. Collins is therefore interested in using the biblical record to justify his conclusion that Tall el-Hammam may be the biblical Sodom and so bridging the difference between the archaeology and biblical studies community is in his best interest.

    Apologetics has very little to do with it.

  • Sometimes I wonder how much ability Satan has to control which evidence becomes available when. I’m not a creationist; I don’t believe the fossils were put there to test our faith. But I also know that partial presentation of evidence is often used to convince people of something in an allegedly rational way. Part of perseverance is the willingness to be resistant toward evil attempts to convince us of something. All I’m really saying is that this issue is a bit trickier than it may seem.

  • David

    Question: Who do you think honors the “go where the evidence leads” approach more? The minimalists or men like Collins? My bet is on the non-minimilists who seem to take the only ancient text they have to guide them (Scripture) that is filled with geographical, sociological, and historical data. Do the minimalists trust the ANE documents or do they see them as creations ex nihilo as they do the pre-monarchic period?