Quotations From Prof. W F. Albright's Writings
SEPTEMBER 19, 1971, William Foxwell Albright died at the age of 80. With his passing the world of Biblical and archeological scholarship lost one of the greatest minds of recent times and probably the greatest orientalist who ever lived. In an era of specialization he had the rare gift of competence in practically the whole field of Near Eastern studies, as his hundreds of published scholarly articles and his numerous books clearly show.
Let me briefly point to a few areas in which Dr. Albright made important contributions. In the field of Egyptology he published a book on the vocalization of ancient Egyptian, a vexing problem that has engaged generations of scholars because the ancient Egyptian writings contain no vowels. His unpublished doctoral dissertation dealt with an Assyro-Babylonian subject, the Gilgamesh Epic, and many articles of his early years were devoted to matters dealing with ancient Mesopotamia. He was the first to suggest the identification of Tell Hariri on the Euphrates with the large ancient city of Mari, which up to that time was unknown, an identification that later proved to be correct. He also made major contributions to Phoenician and Ugaritic studies, and showed the relationship of these nations with the Western world, notably the Greeks. He excavated in southern Arabia and was actively engaged in the recovery of the history and culture of the ancient Arabs.
In Sinai he studied the Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions and later published a book on the decipherment of this earliest of all alphabetic scripts, the ancestor of practically all alphabetic forms of writing. But his greatest contributions were made in Palestine, the country of the Bible par excellence. Where he lived for more than a decade, and excavated several Biblical sites such as Gibeah of Saul, Bethel, and Tell Beit Mirsim (possibly Kiriathsepher); here he became the greatest pottery expert of his time, and laid the foundations for Hebrew paleography, a science that made the dating of the Dead Sea scrolls possible when they came to light. Professor Albright was also a first-class Old Testament scholar who entered into discussions of every conceivable Old Testament subject, as the many scores of articles show that came from his versatile pen. And last, but not least, he can even be counted among New Testament scholars, as proved--if proof is needed--by his last published book, a commentary on the book of Matthew, co-authored with C. S. Mann, in the Anchor Bible series.
I valued Professor Albright as a respected teacher and dear friend. I read his articles and books as they came off the press during the past forty years. In the early 1930's, when I was a missionary in Java and Sumatra, I became a member of the American Schools of Oriental Research and of the (now defunct) Palestine Oriental Society, two organizations in which Albright was very active. By reading his published works I became at that time a fan of his. Later I had the privilege of being one of his students at Johns Hopkins University for a year. The friendship then formed remained strong until he died.
In his younger years Albright was strongly influenced by Paul Haupt, his teacher at Johns Hopkins University, who was a forceful defender of the critical Old Testament school of Julius Wellhausen. No wonder that Albright also be came a higher critic. However, the years he spent in Palestine and in archeological work there changed his outlook with regard to the historical reliability of the Bible. His first confession in this respect was made in an obituary written in memory of Prof. Melvin G. Kyle, his fellow excavator of three seasons at Tell Beit Mirsim:
The writer used to meet Dr. Kyle occasionally, before coming to Palestine in 1919, at learned society meetings. In those days, the fact that we were apparently at antipodes with regard to most crucial biblical and oriental problems seemed to preclude all real friendship. In the spring of 1921 Dr. Kyle came to Jerusalem with his family for a stay of several weeks as lecturer in the School, during the writer's year as acting director. The acquaintance then developed soon ripened into friendship. . . . We seldom or never debated biblical questions, but there can be no doubt that our constant association with the ever-recurring opportunity for comparing biblical and archaeological data has led to increasing convergence between our views, once so far apart. To the last, however, Dr. Kyle remained staunchly conservative on most of his basic positions, while the writer has gradually changed from the extreme radicalism of 1919 to a standpoint which can neither be called conservative nor radical, in the usual sense of the terms. --Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, No. 51 (September, 1933), pp. 5, 6.
Repeatedly he mentions in his writings the changes in outlook that he experienced as a result of his archeological work in Palestine. Referring to the first fifteen years after arriving in Jerusalem in 1919 he said:
During these fifteen years my initially rather skeptical attitude toward the accuracy of Israelite historical tradition has suffered repeated jolts as discovery after discovery confirmed the historicity of details which might reasonably have been considered legendary. --History, Archaeology, and Christian Humanism (New York, 1964), p. 309.
The result was that Dr. Albright's views after his Palestinian sojourn can be labeled as those of a man who belongs to the middle of the road. He was no longer a liberal critical scholar, nor did he become a fundamentalist in the usual sense of the word. He stated this quite clearly in 1938 after discussing the benefit of critical Biblical studies in certain areas:
By now the reader doubtless considers the writer an extreme liberal, full of enthusiasm for the triumph of scholarship, as represented by Wellhausenism, over obscurantist orthodoxy. Actually, this is not true, and the writer's position is as far re moved from the former as it is from the latter. --American Scholar, vol. 7, No. 2 (Spring, 1938), p. 179.
Already in his first book, The Archaeology of Palestine and the Bible, published in 1935, Albright began to defend the historicity of the patriarchal stories against the views of Wellhausen and his disciples, as the following statements show:
The orthodox critical attitude toward the traditions of the Patriarchs was summed up by the gifted founder of this school, Julius Wellhausen, in the following words: "From the patriarchal narratives it is impossible to obtain any historical information with regard to the Patriarchs; we can only learn something about the time in which the stories about them were first told by the Israelite people. This later period, with all its essential and superficial characteristics, was unintentionally projected back into hoary antiquity, and is reflected here like a transfigured mirage." . . . Practically all of the Old Testament scholars of standing in Europe and America held these or similar views until very recently. Now, however, the situation is changing with the greatest rapidity, since the theory of Wellhausen will not bear the test of archaeological examination. --Page 129.
After referring to many discoveries that provided parallels to certain patriarchal stories, Albright came to the following conclusion:
In view of these parallels it is difficult to see anything very remarkable in the conclusion which has been forced upon us by recent archaeological discoveries, that the saga of the Patriarchs is essentially historical. -Ibid., p. 145.
Conservative scholars are, we believe, entirely justified in their vigorous denunciation of all efforts to prove the existence of fraudulent invention and deliberate forgery in the Bible. They are equally within their rights in objecting most emphatically to the introduction of a spurious mythology and a thinly veiled paganism into the Bible. --Ibid., p. 176.
At about the same time Albright wrote a long treatise on "Recent Discoveries in Bible Lands" that was published as a Supplement to Young's Analytical Concordance to the Bible in 1936 (published separately and revised in 1955) in which he said about the discoveries in Bible lands:
Nothing has been found to disturb a reasonable faith, and nothing has been discovered which can disprove a single theological doctrine except that of verbal inspiration, which is not included in any standard Christian creed. --Page 4 (1955 ed.).
Almost twenty years later, in 1954, appeared a brief but remarkable article from Dr. Albright's pen, in which he summarized the results of archeological discoveries in relation to the Bible during the twenty years since his book, The Archaeology of Palestine and the Bible, quoted above, had been written, discoveries that easily dwarf "the sum of all relevant discoveries during the preceding century in" their "total impact on our knowledge of the Bible." After discussing many Biblical subjects which had benefited from recent archeological discoveries, he concluded his article with the following remarks:
In conclusion we emphasize the fact that archeological discovery has been largely responsible for the recent revival of interest in biblical theology, because of the wealth of new material illustrating text and back ground of the Bible. As the reader will have seen from this article, new archeological material continues to pour in, compelling revision of all past approaches to both Old and New Testament religion. It becomes clearer each day that this rediscovery of the Bible often leads to a new evaluation of biblical faith, which strikingly resembles the orthodoxy of an earlier day. Neither an academic scholasticism nor an irresponsible neo-orthodoxy must be allowed to divert our eyes from the living faith of the Bible. --Religion in Life, vol. 21, No. 4 (1952), p. 550.
Shortly before this article appeared, Dr. Albright had contributed a chapter entitled "The Biblical Period" to a work entitled The Jews, Their History, Culture, and Religion (New York, 1949). This chapter was later published separately and is still available as a Harper Torchbook under the title The Biblical Period From Abraham to Ezra (New York, 1963). Here he says with regard to the patriarchal stories of the Bible:
Eminent names among scholars can be cited for regarding every item of Gen. 11-50 as reflecting late invention, or at least retrojection of events and conditions under the Monarchy into the remote past, about which nothing was thought to have been really known to the writers of later days.
Archaeological discoveries since 1925 have changed all this. Aside from a few diehards among older scholars, there is scarcely a single biblical historian who has not been impressed by the rapid accumulation of data supporting the substantial historicity of patriarchal tradition. --Pages 1, 2.
When The Christian Century celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 1958, a series of articles appeared written by American and foreign theologians who discussed the current religious climate in the world. Invited to contribute to this series, Dr. Albright wrote an article significantly entitled "Return to Biblical Theology." In this remarkable article that is worth reading in its entirety he dealt with many subjects, such as the Dead Sea scrolls, Old and New Testament problems, and current theological trends. He stated with regard to the benefits the Bible has obtained from modern discoveries:
Thanks to modern research we now recognize its substantial historicity. The narratives of the Patriarchs, of Moses and the Exodus, of the Conquest of Canaan, of the Judges, the Monarchy, Exile, and Restoration, have all been confirmed and illustrated to an extent that I should have thought impossible forty years ago. --History, Archaeology, and Christian Humanism (where the article is republished as Chapter 14), p. 293.
In his concluding observations Dr. Albright points in this article to the fact that "Christianity stands today at one of the most critical junctures of history," being besieged by Communism, secular ism, paganism, neo-Gnosticism and other non-Biblical ' religious movements. He voices the following clarion call to a return to the Bible:
There is only one way out of the apparent impasse: we must return again to the Bible and draw new strength from the sources of Judeo-Christian faith. Like John the Baptist and Jesus, who turned back to the Prophets of Israel for inspiration, and like the great Reformers, who sought guidance from the Word of God, so must we reconstruct our religious thought on Biblical foundations. To all who believe in the eternal value of the Old and New Testaments, it is clear that God has been preparing the way for a revival of basic Christianity through enlightened faith in His Word.--Ibid., p. 297.
The intensive studies with the Dead Sea scrolls that soon after their discovery in 1947 came to Professor Albright's attention in the spring of 1948 while I was a student in his classes, led him to the conclusion that the Hebrew text (against all expectations) had been transmitted through the ages in a rather faithful way. He recognized that:
The greatest textual surprise of the Qumran finds has probably been the fact that most of the scrolls and fragments present a consonantal text which is virtually indistinguishable from the text of corresponding passages in our Masoretic Bible. ---Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, No. 140 (Dec., 1955), p. 28.
When he recognized this fact early in his studies of the Dead Sea scrolls, he realized its implications with regard to the scholar's obligations toward the text and warned the Biblical scholarly world against lighthearted emendations of the Hebrew text, a common practice of all commentators of the Old Testament, samples of which can be found on almost every page of any modern liberal Bible commentary:
It cannot be insisted too strongly that the Isaiah Scroll proves the great antiquity of the text of the Masoretic Book, warning us against the lighthearted emendation in which we used to indulge.
In a footnote to this sentence he adds:
This stricture applies equally to the writer, who reacted against the excesses of Duhm and Haupt (his teacher), but who still emended the text much too lightheartedly. --Ibid., No. 118 (April, 1950), p. 6.
This warning was repeated and strengthened five years later when Albright, in the republication of his supplement to Young's Analytical Concordance to the Bible in book form, said:
Nearly all other Hebrew biblical MSS from Qumran are very accurately copied and scarcely differ at all from the consonantal text of our Masoretic Bible. This fact proves conclusively that we must treat the consonantal text of the Hebrew Bible with the utmost respect and that the free emending of difficult passages in which modern critical scholars have indulged, cannot be tolerated any longer. --Recent Discoveries in Bible Lands (1955), p. 128.
Finally, I want to present two quotations from Dr. Albright's writings in which he defends the apostolic origin of all New Testament books against a host of modern liberal scholars who date the origin of several New Testament books in the second century.
In general, we can already say emphatically that there is no longer any solid basis for dating any book of the New Testament after about A.D. 80, two full generations before the date between 130 and 150 given by the more radical New Testament critics of today. --Ibid., p. 136.
All serious arguments for dating any of our N.T. books after the eighties of the first century A.D. have been swept away. --Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 76, No. 4 (Oct.-Dec., 1956), p. 238.
The foregoing quotations are samples of conclusions Dr. Al bright reached through his long and careful studies of the material, to a great extent discovered in re cent years, that sheds light on the Bible. In all fairness to him it should be pointed out that he did not believe that the first eleven chapters of Genesis were historical records. Therefore his remarks made in defense of the patriarchal period should not be used with regard to the Biblical Creation story or the story of the Flood. The same is true with regard to certain other views held by Dr. Albright that do not in every respect converge with those held by Seventh-day Adventists. On the other hand, the statements presented in this article show how an honest scholar through his archeological work came to conclusions that led him to defend many aspects of the Scripture, of which the foregoing quotations are no more than a sampling.
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