EXCERPT Since the onset of “scientific” Middle Eastern archaeology in the mid-19th century and the deciphering of ancient languages and texts, biblical scholarship has come to understand the indispensable relevance of ancient Near East (ANE) studies to the historical, cultural, and religious background of the Scriptures, in particular of the Old Testament…

Introduction

Since the onset of “scientific” Middle Eastern archaeology in the mid-19th century and the deciphering of ancient languages and texts, biblical scholarship has come to understand the indispensable relevance of ancient Near Eastern (ANE) studies to the historical, cultural, and religious background of the Scriptures, in particular of the Old Testament. In fact, the Old Testament situates itself in that very environment as early as the Patriarchal Age (ca. 2600–1900 BC), if not earlier. The interface of these two related but different fields of study has subsequently found expression in two major ways, depending on the faith-stance of those seriously engaged in study of the respective sets of comparative data:

1. Scholars inclined to assign little or no historical or cultural validity to the Old Testament narratives suggest that either those narratives are late, retrospective renditions of traditions that enjoyed wide currency in Israel’s larger milieu, or that the alleged commonalities between the textual evidence from the ANE and the OT are illusory, coincidental, or derived from common stock.

2. On the other hand, conservatives of many varieties have largely embraced the findings of archaeological research and have employed them heuristically, apologetically, or even polemically. Sadly, the extremes of both positions have resulted, in the first case, in an even stronger denial of any independent historical reality to OT texts (a position known as “minimalism”), and in the second case, a naive, uncritical “proof’ of connections between archaeology and the Bible which, in fact, are incorrectly perceived or illegitimately employed to make a case for the reliability of the OT where no such case can be made on those grounds (misguided “maximalism”).1

Overview of Middle Eastern Scholarship

Since the focus of this article is on comparative studies and not on an exhaustive description of archaeology in general nor on all the aspects of OT criticism, only a few highlights of each can be explored.

First is a consideration of the ancient Near East. Religious pilgrims and other travelers from time immemorial have criss-crossed the Middle Eastern world searching for this place or that considered to be sacred because of their mention in the Bible or of the interest they generate through legends and traditions. Some, of course, were easily found either because of continuous occupation for thousands of years or deeply embedded tradition about sites that might or might not turn out to be correct. Among these in Palestine can be listed Bethlehem, Nazareth, Jerusalem, Damascus, and obviously such natural features as the Mount of Olives, the Jordan River, Mt. Carmel, Mt. Hermon, the Dead and Red Seas, and Lake Gennesaret (Sea of Galilee). Virtually all other places were lost beneath the soils of the Holy Land or gave evidence of their existence only in meager surface finds that had no way of being identified or even dated.

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