Biblical Archeology

Putting the Bible on the Map. To relate archeology to the Bible record properly requires coordinating four major areas of research.

Anson F. Rainey, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Near Eastern Languages at Tel Aviv University at Ramat Aviv, Israel. He translated the book The Land of the Bible: A Historical Geography by the Israeli archeologist Yohanan Aharoni from Hebrew in 1967. He also edited and translated the Armana tablets, numbers 359-379.


The opening article of this series (see MINISTRY, November, 1978) examined briefly the strengths and limitations of archeology and suggested that sometimes archeology tends to focus on discovered objects to the neglect or even distortion of the written sources.

Of all the books held sacred by the great world religions, the Bible seems to be the only one requiring some geographical knowledge for its understanding. Why is that so? Because a basic element of Biblical faith is the belief in divine revelation through historical events. Since history takes place in space and time, geography (the study of space on the earth's surface) and historical geography (the study of a particular geographical area during the passage of time) become important in a correct understanding of the Bible.

To bring Biblical studies down to earth and put the Bible on the map, we must coordinate the evidence from four major areas of research—physical geography, philology, linguistics, and archeology.

Physical geography in the modern sense has been concerned with the land of the Bible ever since the first explorations in the wake of Napoleon's campaign. Cartographers such as Heinrich Kiepert and geographers such as Karl Ritter utilized the information brought back by Edward Robinson, Eli Smith, and other scholars.

The survey of western Palestine con ducted by a team of British Royal Engineers marked a great milestone of the nineteenth century. The Memoires accompanying their map contained detailed descriptions of the mountains, bodies of water, and the visible archeological remains of each area. Today, maps of Palestine are constantly under revision, based on surveys begun during the British and French mandates and continued by the governments of Israel, Jordan, and other neighboring states.

Philology, the study of ancient texts, includes textual criticism, literary analysis, language and style—in short, all the familiar aspects of Biblical research. Even in the Biblical text we find a concern for geographical annotation. For example, most of the place names in Genesis 14 are clarified by the addition of the more recent name—"Bela, which is Zoar" (verse 2), "En-mishpat, which is Kadesh" (verse 7)—evidencing a concern that the reader be able to orient himself geographically. Some towns that in the pre-Israelite period had different names from those in use at the time of the Bible writer are carefully designated. (See Judges 1:23 and 18:29 for reference to Bethel, formerly called Luz, and Dan, earlier known as Laish.) In order to appreciate fully the significance of certain passages, the Biblical writers felt that one should know where they took place.

Modern philological research in ancient Israel must utilize both the Bible and the growing body of texts in Egyptian, Babylonian, Hebrew, and other Semitic dialects that date to the Biblical period. Such Bible versions as the Septuagint and Vulgate, as well as the Rabbinic writings and the works of the Church Fathers, are essential tools. Medieval Arab geographers and pilgrim itineraries are also important (though the latter are fraught with difficulties).

Toponymy, the study of place names, has been the subject of linguistic analysis for more than a century. The great pioneers Eli Smith and E. H. Palmer, as well as other scholars, have utilized the ancient sources mentioned above in an attempt to establish the early form and meaning of names. The Arabic names recorded during the past 150 years are also analyzed and compared with their ancient counterparts. Some of the names have been remarkably preserved from the earliest written records (twentieth century B.C.) to modern times.

Archeology is a many-faceted discipline. The most dramatic archeological activity, of course, is excavation of an ancient site, but for historical and geographical purposes the survey (an examination of the earth's surface) is tremendously important. Today, various teams are conducting an intensive survey, kilometer by kilometer, to record every trace of ancient remains. Museum re searchers and other specialists are studying the materials brought to light by - these excavations and surveys.

Yet, all this flurry of activity must not be allowed to obscure the fact that our main concern is with history. Material culture does have its own story to tell, but it can do so only when direct contacts with the written sources can be demonstrated, thus creating a true historical framework. Neighboring countries to Israel (Egypt, Syria, Iraq) have enriched us with thousands of inscriptions; Palestine has been very poor in this regard.

The link between archeology and history is often geography. If we can identify a site with a town known from historical sources, then we can know something of the recorded history of a place and thus perhaps correlate it with the excavation. An important check in correlating historical sources and excavated evidence at a given site is that site's period of occupation. But how does one know when the site was occupied?

A cornerstone in Palestinian archeology is the use of pottery vessels and fragments for dating purposes. The changes in pottery form and technique are as easily recognizable to a trained eye as the different designs of automobile grills. However, the relative dating of pottery is one thing; the absolute dating is another. One cannot simply pick up a piece of an ancient pot and pronounce what year it was made. To give a fixed historical date, the archeologist must find the pottery in a layer that can be accurately related to some known historical event. If the pots come from a floor or tomb where datable coins also are found, his job is relatively easy. But in the Old Testament period, coins were not yet in use (they didn't appear until postexilic times). Datable inscriptions would also help, but they are few and far between. Usually the archeologist must depend on circumstantial evidence alone.

Thus it becomes very important that as archeology interprets the discoveries made in the field, it correlates correctly the information found in the ancient written sources regarding the historical geography of the area. For example, 1 Kings 16:24 reads: "And he [Omri] bought the hill Samaria of Shemer for two talents of silver, and built on the hill, and called the name of the city which he built, after the name of Shemer, owner of the hill, Samaria." When archeologists began their work at Samaria, they took 1 Kings 16:24 to mean that Omri was buying an unoccupied hill on which to build his city. If so, the earliest re mains (the deepest) would date from about 850 B.C., the time when Omri built his city. But when the finds were published, and the date of 850 B.C. was as signed to them, both American and Israeli scholars protested that the pottery found in the lowest level, below the floors of the first fortified citadel, resembled ceramics dated elsewhere, not to the eighth century, but to the tenth or early ninth centuries B.C. They asserted that the excavators should have associated the pottery shards not with the first fortification walls, but with a previous occupation.

The basic error of the Samaria excavators lay in their interpretation of 1 Kings 16:24. The town was named Samaria (Hebrew Shamron) after Shemer, its former owner. When Omri purchased the site, it was apparently not an unoccupied hill but a developed settlement of the Shemer clan. Perusal of passages such as 1 Chron. 4:1-23 shows the intimate relationship between the clan structure of an Israelite tribe and the geographical place names in its territory. This fundamental truth of historical geography the excavators ignored.

The lesson is that pottery can "prove" impossible claims. The archeologist must either have a sound philological training or risk basing his interpretations on an inadequate understanding of the historical geography revealed in the written sources.

(Concluded in March)

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Anson F. Rainey, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Near Eastern Languages at Tel Aviv University at Ramat Aviv, Israel. He translated the book The Land of the Bible: A Historical Geography by the Israeli archeologist Yohanan Aharoni from Hebrew in 1967. He also edited and translated the Armana tablets, numbers 359-379.

January 1979

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