What Is Biblical Archaeology? A Full Breakdown

What is Biblical Archaeology? At first glance, the answer might seem forthright and simple. But below the surface, the answer really isn’t so forthright and simple as it might appear. Scholars have been divided about the name Biblical Archaeology and the scope of that discipline for decades. Even today, after decades of debate, there is still no consensus for the name and scope of the archaeology that is carried out in the lands and periods of the Bible. 

There are several issues surrounding the archaeology popularly known as “Biblical Archaeology.” A few of the questions are: 

  1. Does this archaeology seek to prove the Bible is true? This is a question of aims or goals. The primary issue under debate here is whether a historical discipline like archaeology can actually “prove” theological claims like those made in the Bible, which are not merely “historical.”
  2. Is Biblical Archaeology the same or different than any other archaeology that focuses on other times and carried out in other lands? This question seeks to ascertain the methodology and the science of this archaeology.
  3. Does Biblical Archaeology concern itself with only the countries and time periods discussed in the Bible? Obviously, this question seeks to answer which geographical limits and which time periods should be the focus.
  4. Shouldn’t the name for this type of archaeology be one that encompasses the entirety of these questions? If so, what term could possibly do that?

The conundrum started just after the beginning of the 20th century as archaeology began to take a more scholarly, scientific approach. Many Old Testament scholars of that time argued that the Old Testament contained very little that should be considered actual history. Those scholars argued that the Old Testament was so heavily borrowed from other ancient near eastern cultures and so influenced by later editors that it could not be considered an mere historical document.

Other scholars, like William F. Albright, disagreed with that historical appraisal of the Bible. Albright, who is now considered the foremost biblical archaeologist of the 20th century, believed archaeology could demonstrate the historical reliability of the Old Testament. In fact, Albright, and some of his students, argued so powerfully for the historical potential of archaeology that many interpreted this as an attempt to “prove” the Bible true. Some critics asserted that the Albright school was attempting to prove even the theological proclamations of the Bible. Albright, however, never stated that he intended to “prove” the Bible. In fact, many of Albright’s archaeological findings caused difficulties for the traditional interpretations of the Bible. 

Still, Albright stood firm on his belief in the historical ability of archaeology even as his brilliance in archaeology led to big advancements in the science of the discipline. His influence in the science of archaeology can still be felt today. Albright’s pioneering effort in pottery dating and relative dating are still mainstays for the dating of archaeological finds.

William Dever, a very famous and prolific archaeologist from the Albright school, a student of one of Albright’s students, was not and is not an advocate for the name Biblical Archaeology. Dever believes the name Biblical Archaeology is too biased. Dever has written and campaigned against the name Biblical Archaeology since 1972. In a more recent article titled “Whatchamacallit” Dever discussed some of the complexities of  trying to name the archaeology which is carried out in the Bible lands and biblical periods. In the article, Dever laid out three reasons why the name should be something other than “Biblical” archaeology.

  1. He argued that the name for the archaeology of the land and times of the Bible should be free of biblical biases. In other words, if archaeologists dig up the walls and remains of a destroyed city, they should be able to ask what happened here and when did it happen based on what the remains themselves can tell us, rather than first identifying the site with some city named in the Bible and then answering all of the questions about what happened and when it happened using the Biblical text before even considering what the remains might say independent of literary evidence.
  2. He thought the field of archaeology, even that archaeology of Bible times and lands, should be an autonomous discipline, not governed by questions from the Bible. Most of what archaeologists dig up in the lands of Israel and Judah even in the monarchic periods have little if anything to do directly with stories contained in the Old Testament. By limiting the questions and focus of the discipline to clarifying or confirming what is contained in the Old Testament creates a narrow focus that does not do justice to the myriad of discoveries awaiting us in the ground. 
  3. But Dever argued that the two independent disciplines – Biblical Studies and Archaeology should have a close and continual dialogue. By separating Archaeology from Biblical studies, it then becomes possible for each discipline to make connections to the other that are truly independent and complementary.

The name game, however, has continued even until now. In modern times, as funding is more and more difficult to secure, Seminaries, Bible colleges, and institutions who love and believe in the Bible are unwilling to support an archaeology not associated with the Bible. The name Biblical Archaeology is a helpful reminder to the benefactors of these entities. Furthermore, most archaeologists who excavate the biblical lands in levels from the biblical time periods, are mostly indifferent about the name. Many of them, especially the Israeli archaeologists, think the naming debate is a waste of time. These archaeologists are more focused on being sound in their research and digging methods. Their archaeological research has remained scientific, academic, and thorough throughout the debate.

So, you may be thinking that the question of “what is Biblical Archaeology?” remains unanswered. And you are correct. It is difficult to put a name on the archaeology of the Bible Lands and biblical periods. To date, every name put forth is either divisive, unclear, or just plain awkward. So, as we close our discussion, Biblical Archaeology persists as the name for the archaeology that focuses on the lands, people, and time periods of the Bible.

  1. William Dever, “‘Biblical Archaeology’—or ‘The Archaeology of Syro-Palestine’?” Christian News From Israel 22, no. 1 (1972): 21–22.
  2. William Dever, “Whatchamacallit?: Why It’s So Hard to Name Our Field” Biblical Archaeology Review (July/Aug. 2003).
  3. Ibid.

Select Bibliography

Albright, William Foxwell. From the Stone Age to Christianity: Monotheism and the Historical Process. Baltimore: John Hopkins, 1946.

Davis, Thomas William. “A History of Biblical Archaeology.” Ph.D. diss., University of Arizona, 1987.

________. “Faith and Archaeology: The interplay between scientific research and religious belief.” Biblical Archaeology Review 19 (March/April 1993): 54–59.

Dever, William. “‘Biblical Archaeology’—or ‘The Archaeology of Syro-Palestine’?” Christian News From Israel 22, no. 1 (1972): 21–22.

________. “Whatchamacallit?: Why It’s So Hard to Name Our Field” Biblical Archaeology Review (July/Aug. 2003).

Freedman, David Noel. “William Foxwell Albright In Memoriam.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, no. 205 (Feb. 1972): 3–13.

Gitin, Seymour. Gezer III: A Ceramic Typology of the Late Iron II, Persian and Hellenistic Periods at Tell Gezer, vol. III. Jerusalem: Nelson Glueck School of Archaeology, 1990.

________. “The House that Albright Built.” Near Eastern Archaeology 65, no. 1 (March 2002): 5–10.

________. An Introduction to the Archaeology of Eretz-Israel. Jerusalem: Hebrew Union College, 1976.

Long, Burke O. Planting and Reaping Albright: Politics, Ideology, and Interpreting the Bible. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997.

Shanks, Hershel. Biblical Archaeology From the Ground Down. 90 min. Biblical Archaeological Society, 1999. DVD.

Van Beek, Gus W. “W. F. Albright’s Contribution of Archaeology.” In The Scholarship of William Foxwell Albright: An Appraisal. Papers Delivered at the Symposium “Homage to William Foxwell Albright,” ed. Gus W. Van Beek, 61–73. Rockville, MD, 1989.

________. “William Foxwell Albright: A Short Biography.” In The Scholarship of William Foxwell Albright: An Appraisal. Papers Delivered at the Symposium “Homage to William Foxwell Albright,” ed. Gus W. Van Beek, 7–15. Rockville, MD, 1989.

Wright, G. Ernest. “Biblical Archaeology Today.” In New Directions in Biblical Archaeology, ed. David Noel Freedman and Jonas C. Greenfield, 167–86. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1969.