Richelle, Matthieu. The Bible and Archaeology. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2018. 132 pages + 16 pages of color plates; Pb; $14.95.  Link to Hendrickson

This new publication from Hendrickson is a translation of Richelle’s La Bible et l’archéologie (Excelsis, 2012). This edition has been significantly revised, updated, and enlarged. Alan Millard contributed a forward and the book concludes with thirty-two color photographs (eight pages). As the title implies, this book is focuses the archaeology which would interest a reader of the Bible, although the concerns only the archaeology of ancient Israel. There is little in this book on the archaeology of Asia Minor or other sites in the ancient Near East.

The first three chapters of the book attempt to lower the expectations most people have for archaeology and the Bible. Unfortunately the only experience most people have with archaeology is watching the Indiana Jones movies. Although there have been some spectacular finds in the history of archaeology, most of the work of archaeology deals with far less exciting details. The evidence is always fragmentary and provisional (107). The first chapter describes what archaeologists actually discover, beginning with ancient cities. Richelle outlines the problems associated with even identifying an ancient location and the types of civic architecture associated with most sites.

Perhaps the most exciting discoveries archaeologist make are texts. The second chapter of the book is devoted to what kinds of texts are usually discovered, from royal stelae to clay tablets and ostraca. Richelle also discusses papyri and scrolls, including the Dead Sea Scrolls. Finding an inscription is only half the job. Richelle discusses the problems facing epigraphers as they decipher and interpret these written documents. He briefly mentions the extremely vexing problem of forgeries.

In the third chapter Richelle describes the limits faced by archaeologists as they try to interpret the data. For example, it is often extremely difficult to identify ancient sites and date finds accurately. Ultimately, archaeologists offer interpretations of data and all interpretations must be tentative. Excavations are always partial and often archaeologists fail to publish full reports for scholars to examine. As is often observed, real archaeologist love to dig, but hate to write.

The final three chapters deal with the relationship between the Bible and archaeology. This chapter begins with a summary of the often bitter debate over the role of the Bible in doing archaeology in Israel. Some of the earliest archaeologists went out with a spade in one hand and a Bible in the other. These so-called biblical maximalists accepted the Bible first and found what they expected to find in the archaeological record. On the other end of the spectrum, the so-called minimalists only use physical evidence from archaeology and have little interest in the Bible as source of historical information. Richelle argues for a balance view which makes judicious use of the Bible in archaeology. Since both sources are fragmentary, it is important to use one to illustrate the other. The Bible is “a precious source at the level of historical interpretation, but it must not prescribe in advance what should be discovered during excavations” (108).

To illustrate this problem, Richelle offers a case study using recent challenges to the traditional view of David and Solomon (chapter 5). The traditional view is that David and Solomon existed and biblical archaeology would point to several Iron Age sites as evidence for a central authority in Israel (the city gates at Megiddo and Gezer, for example). In Jerusalem the stepped structure at the City of David and evidence from the Ophel imply an Iron Age expansion of Jerusalem. However, all this evidence can be interpreted differently by re-dating sites (a “low chronology”).

The final chapter of the book extends this discussion to the lack of inscriptions from the time of David and Solomon. If there was a kingdom of David and Solomon in the tenth and ninth centuries B.C.E. with an extensive administration center in Jerusalem, where are the inscriptions? It is a fact there are very few examples of writing from the period, far less than in other areas explored by archaeologists (Egypt, for example). Richelle argues the absence literary texts in the archaeological record does not necessarily correlate with the development of a culture.  But he also outlines the development of a scribal tradition in ancient Israel.

Conclusion. This short book is a good introduction to the problematic nature of the Bible and Archaeology. It is perhaps too brief; since the book uses endnotes, there are only 108 pages of actual text. The Hendrickson website claims the book has 168 pages, but that is not the case.


NB: Thanks to Hendrickson for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.