Biblical Archaeology, the scientific study of historical remains and records related to the Jewish and Christian religions, and specifically to the Bible. Accounts of Christian pilgrimages dating from about the 4th century provided the only information about biblical sites until the 19th century, when modern exploration of Palestine began.
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The American scholar Edward Robinson gained the title father of Palestinian archaeology through the publication of his book Biblical Researches in Palestine (1841). During succeeding decades the mapping of the Holy Land and the identification of biblical sites progressed rapidly under the auspices of such societies as the Palestine Exploration Fund (1865), the Deutscher Palästina-Verein (1877), the École Biblique (1890), the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem (1900), and the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem (1919). In Palestine, however, the deliberate excavation of specific biblical sites, as distinguished from geographical study, did not commence until the 1890s, when the British archaeologist and Egyptologist Sir Flinders Petrie intuitively developed what were to become the principles of systematic excavation for all later archaeologists: stratigraphy, or the art of untangling the debris layers in a mound; and ceramic typology, the study of changes in pottery styles for clues to chronology. Early Palestinian excavation work, before World War I, focused on such major biblical sites as Jerusalem, Gezer, Megiddo, Jericho, and Samaria.
After World War I a second stage in biblical archaeology was led by the American scholar William Foxwell Albright, who, with his colleagues, transformed archaeology from a largely intuitive affair into a scientific discipline. Fieldwork moved from treasure hunting to the dating of pottery, architecture, and artifacts. A political history of Palestine began to emerge, complementing the biblical accounts. In the late 1920s and 1930s excavations continued at Megiddo, Jericho, and Samaria and were begun at Tell Beit Mirsim and Bethel. Further advances in fieldwork were made after World War II, when the British scholar Dame Kathleen M. Kenyon introduced a new methodology at Jericho and Jerusalem. She dug in smaller squares of 5 m by 5 m (about 16 ft by 16 ft), leaving intervening vertical walls, or balks, in which debris can be seen in section. Digging proceeded by natural stratification, separating soil layers, or loci (sing., locus). This new excavation procedure made it possible to separate debris layers and the objects they contained with greater precision. In the late 1950s and 1960s G. Ernest Wright, David Noel Freedman, and other Americans, along with such Israelis as Yigael Yadin, Moshe Dothan, Benjamin Mazar, and Nah-man Avigad, excavated at new and old sites—Hazor, Shechem, Ashdod, Taanach, Gezer, and again Jerusalem—using this approach.
Throughout the 1970s archaeology was influenced by natural science, social science, and environmental studies. Computer programmers, geologists, anthropologists, climatologists, soil scientists, and zoologists worked with archaeologists to gather data and interpret the information. These and other specialists were working in the early 1980s at sites such as Tel Hasi, Caesarea, Aphek, ‘Akko (ancient Acre), and the City of David in Jerusalem.
Such books as The Westminster Historical Atlas to the Bible (revised ed., 1956) by Wright and Floyd V. Filson and The Macmillan Bible Atlas (revised ed., 1977) by Yohanan Aharoni and Michael Avi-Yonah rest upon a century of intensive exploration and excavation. New atlases and surveys are continually being published and incorporate new archaeological discoveries and theories.
Continuous study and reinvestigation of cities throughout Palestine have helped to establish the sequences of habitation and destruction, to refine knowledge of the urban culture and architecture, and to define the settlement patterns of the inhabitants and the migrations of new peoples into the area. For example, past research at Megiddo and Jericho and recent investigations at Bab edh-Dhra and Numeira have disclosed much about the early Bronze Age civilization of the 3rd millennium bc. New data from middle Bronze Age ‘Akko can be combined with information from Shechem, Gezer, and Aphek to recover an urban culture that developed in Palestine about 2000 bc; these great cities were fortified with earthen ramparts, masonry facings, and massive entryway gates. New theories regarding the conquest of Canaan by the Israelites under Joshua have been proposed because of the conflicting archaeological data. Destruction levels of the 13th century bc occur at Megiddo, Hazor, Aphek, Bethel, Ashdod, Gezer, and Deir Alla, but not at ‘Arad, Heshbon, Jericho, Ai, and Gibeon. Evidence indicates extensive sociopolitical disruption and turmoil in Palestine at this time, but does not support unequivocally the biblical picture of a complete Israelite conquest.
Important background information concerning the period of the United Monarchy has also been discovered. During excavations at the old City of David in 1980, Yigal Shiloh uncovered an Iron Age palace of the 10th century bc, a major building of the era of David and Solomon. Work undertaken between 1955 and 1958 at the huge site of Hazor in southern Galilee served to reemphasize the extent of Solomon's provincial building enterprises. Characteristic of this work are the casemate wall systems (two parallel walls, with an intervening space, joined by crosswalls at intervals) with four entryway gates that are found there and at Gezer and Megiddo. Work undertaken between 1963 and 1965 at Masada, along the western shore of the Dead Sea, uncovered the fortress-retreat of Herod the Great. The elaborate and well-preserved remains of a three-tiered palace testify to the lavish building program of this Romanized Oriental monarch at the beginning of the Christian era.
Among the most important archaeological discoveries have been numerous inscriptional materials. In 1967 at Deir Alla, in Jordan, extensive written fragments were found in an Iron Age temple. The most important of these concerned pagan traditions about the prophet-seer Balaam, apparently the same person memorialized in Numbers 22-24. The probable date of these inscriptions is the 8th century, perhaps toward 700 bc. Many ostraca (broken pieces of pottery) with Hebrew writing have been discovered in excavations at ‘Arad, Beersheba, Quntillet Ajrud, and Izbet Sartah (ancient Ebenezer). Recently a huge pottery fragment was found containing a summary of the Egyptian system of numbers written out in ink, presumably for use by scribes. The discovery of the Qumrān scrolls and other manuscript fragments along the western shores of the Dead Sea since 1947 has revolutionized the understanding of later Jewish history and of New Testament background. These materials, dating from as far back as the 3rd century bc, have provided valuable information about the state of the biblical text well before its stabilization in the 1st century ad . They have also supplied important data supporting the Greek version of the Pentateuch and other books as a reliable witness to a Hebrew original that was different from the text used as a source of modern Bible texts. See Bible; Dead Sea Scrolls.
Since the 19th century extensive investigations have been carried out throughout the Middle East, as well as in Greece and Italy, that have made the larger world of the Bible living and real. During a series of expeditions by the British in the mid-19th century, the great library of the 7th-century bc Assyrian king Ashurbanipal was uncovered at the site of ancient Nineveh (near modern Mosul, Iraq). In this library were found tablets with the Babylonian stories of creation and the flood, a discovery that set the biblical accounts in Genesis in a wholly new light. Cuneiform documents from ancient Mari (modern Tell Hariri) in western Syria have clarified the origins of Old Testament prophecy, the identification of place names, and the concept of tribal nomadism. The tablets of ancient Nuzi (modern Yorgham Tepe) in northern Iraq have provided scholars with information concerning legal customs of the 15th century bc, customs with parallels in the patriarchal narratives. Letters from Canaanite kings to their Egyptian overlords, found at Tall al ‘Amārinah in Egypt, have shed light on the political situation in Palestine about 100 years before the Israelite conquest. Numerous law codes from the libraries of great Assyrian and Babylonian kings have provided analogies and parallels to the law codes of the Old Testament.
From 1929 to the present, excavations by the French at Ra’s Shamrah (ancient Ugarit) in western Syria have produced thousands of tablets belonging to the period between 1400 and 1200 bc, written in Ugaritic (see Semitic Languages). Many of these are literary in character, describing the exploits of the gods of the Canaanite religion, among them the storm deity Baal (title of Hadad) mentioned frequently in the Old Testament. Moreover, the poetry of Ugarit has strong affinities with that of the Bible. They share much in the way of vocabulary, structure, and the use of figures of speech and other literary devices.
In 1945, at ancient Naj‘Ḩammādī in Upper Egypt, some 50 Gnostic writings in Coptic were discovered. They could be dated to the 4th century ad, but investigation of their character and content showed that they were translations of Greek works of perhaps the 2nd century, thus placing them among the earliest known sources for Gnostic Christianity. These writings have proved invaluable for understanding the evolution of Christianity in Egypt, especially in its nonorthodox forms. The complete Naj‘Ḩammādī collection was published in English in 1977. See Gnosticism.
Since 1964, an Italian expedition under the direction of Paolo Matthiae has exposed at ancient Ebla (modern Tell Mardīkh), in central Syria, royal palaces, a monumental city gate, rampart, temples, and private houses. From 1974 to 1976, thousands of tablets and fragments of tablets belonging to the early Bronze Age (perhaps c. 2500 bc) were found. The tablets are written in cuneiform and represent two languages. The first is Sumerian, for which cuneiform was devised, and the second is Semitic, the actual language of the Eblaites and of many other peoples scattered throughout the Middle East. These texts have shed new light on commerce and culture in 3rd-millennium Syria and supplied considerable information about both languages at this stage of their evolution. In 1979 the statue of a Syrian king was found at Al Fakhkhārīyah in the Habur region of Syria. The statue, inscribed in Assyrian and Aramaic and dated around 1000 bc, could be of the greatest value for linguists, especially Aramaists, as this is one of the longest inscriptions of such an early date in that language. Having a parallel text in Assyrian enhances its value.
See also Archaeology; Palestine.