Never judge a book by its cover, they say, and indeed, the laudatory quotes on the cover are usually best left unread. But the remark by Aren Maeir, quoted on the backcover of Eric Cline‘s Biblical Archaeology. A Very Short Introduction, that “this book is a gem”, is completely true. Being forced to stay at home by an acute bursitis of the knee, I read it in a couple of hours, and am very happy to have done so.
The book offers two histories. The first half is a history of the discipline, from Flinders Petrie to Albright to Yadin to Finkelstein, with some digressions about archaeolocal methods; the second half is an overview of the way in which archaeology confirms or contradicts the story told in the Bible. The final chapter deals with the notorious frauds of the last years: the pomegranate, the James Ossuary, and the Jehoash Tablet.
I write “contradicts”, but Cline himself writes that “the archaeological findings and the biblical account are asymmetrical”, which is probably a better way to phrase it. Written sources and archaeological finds are two types of evidence, and can be read in various ways. “Asymmetrical” is a nice way to express it, because there is often no real contradiction. We will never excavate the seven walls of Ecbatana mentioned by Herodotus, because it is a fairy-tale motif; that until 2012, we had no archaeological confirmation of Caesar‘s conquest of Belgium, was not worrysome, because his southern campaigns had been confirmed; Israel is not exceptional when archaeology does not say the same as the written sources.
It is for this reason that I was surprised by the title. Israel should not be exceptional and the expression “Biblical Archaeology” ought to be obsolete. “Syro-Palestinian Archaeology” is more accurate. Cline is aware of the problem: archaeologists digging in the Middle East are interested in much more than the Bible, which remains an important source among other sources, just like its reliability is one question among other questions. Cline quotes Amnon Ben-Tor, who said that eliminating the Bible from the archaeology of the Land of Israel is like depriving the discipline of its soul.
Cline seems to agree – at least, he offers no criticism. Yet, in spite of the fact that I generally agree with him, I must say that this is simply nonsense. No one is talking about eliminating the Bible, which will always remain a valuable source of information. We are talking about defocusing – other questions are becoming equally important, and we should abandon a name that is obviously misleading. It is just like “Classical Archaeologists” becoming “Mediterranean Archaeologists”: they are no longer only interested in the classical tradition, but have a wider scope.
This is one of the few points of criticism. Another one is the way Cline writes about the archaeological campaigns in Jerusalem after the Six-Day War. He writes that “the subsequent demolition and construction projects in the city enabled Israeli archaeologists to make important discoveries as they excavated in areas that had previously been inaccessible to them”. I don’t know whether that’s a euphemism or doublespeak.
But this is about everything I have to be critical about. This is really a nice little book. In 156 pages, Cline offers an extremely useful and readable introduction to Syro-Palestinian Biblical Archaeology, which I can sincerely recommend.