Historical Notes: The Bible has no need of archaeology

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A CENTURY of biblical archaeology has been a great embarrassment to modern research. Because no other ancient world of Palestine had been known, it seemed better to present the Bible's world as history than to have no history at all. This has guaranteed that the Bible be misread. Biblical archaeology has exploited the Bible's story to provide Palestinian archaeology with historical gloss and relevance; it has resolutely failed to provide the Bible with an historical context that it might reasonably be understood as an intellectual and literary expression of the world in which it was written.

Archaeology has done much in recent years to reassert its academic integrity within the universities. It has taken its departure from the theologians, just as Assyriology and Egyptology did long ago. Yet, few have asked why theology has been willing to pay so high a price that it might claim a biblical story-world as historical. Why is an understanding of the Bible as fiction seen to undermine its truth and integrity? How does historicising this literature give it greater legitimacy? Has the authority of history replaced that of the divine in the theological imagination?

Traditions such as the Bible's, which provided ancient society with a memory and a past to be shared, are very different from the critical histories that play a central role in modern intellectual life. The difference reflects a perception of reality. The biblical view might be epitomised with the (ahistorical) axiom: "There is nothing new under the sun" (Ecclesiastes i, 9; compare John i, 1-5).

With this judgement, Solomon gives voice to the biblical perception that all of history is at the creation. Human history is but a transient reiteration of creation: nothingness and vanity in the face of divine reality. This is the Bible's view: not that which pale, demythologised variant biblical archaeology has given us. The Bible's theology does not allow us to read this book as if it were history.

On the other hand, when we sketch a history of Palestine's Bronze and Iron Ages independent of the theological biases of biblical archaeology, field archaeologists and historians are able to offer a quite detailed view of this region's ancient society, its development and its history. It is a story of farmers and shepherds, of villages and markets. It is about local patrons and their clients and all the early ways of life that mark this corner of the Mediterranean. Drawn almost entirely from anthropology, archaeology and historical geography, this picture differs from what biblical archaeology and theology offer us.

The problem has not been that the Bible is exaggerated or unrealistic, and it is certainly not that the Bible is false. The Bible is surprisingly realistic and truthful - on its own terms. The Persian and Hellenistic intellectual world in which the Bible has its roots knew little about ancient Near Eastern gods. It knew even less about God - and this is part of the problem that modern theology has with the Bible.

The movers and shakers of the ancient literary world were sceptical about religion and about traditional views about gods. Many rejected the gods outright and made fun of them. Unwilling to attribute human passion and personal will to the transcendent, the Bible's writers were suspicious of the traditional stories that made gods too personal. As He is epitomised in Job and II Kings, the Bible's God is silent and absent. Formal religious practices and the comforts of piety are seen as nonsense or worse. Traditional beliefs are misleading at best. Ultimate reality and the truly divine are transcendent, beyond understanding. God is unknown.

Without equivocation, the true meaning of the divine escapes the writers of the Bible as it escapes us, but that is how human beings know.

Thomas L. Thompson is the author of `The Bible in History: how writers create a past' (Jonathan Cape, pounds 25)