James Riley Strange, Excavating the Land of Jesus

Strange, James Riley. Excavating the Land of Jesus: How Archaeologists Study the People of the Gospels. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2023. xvi+192 pp. Hb; $29.99.  Link to Eerdmans

James Riley Strange is the Charles Jackson Granade and Elizabeth Donald Granade Professor in New Testament at Samford University and director of the Shikhin Excavation Project in Israel. He co-edited with David A. Fiensy Galilee in the Late Second Temple and Mishnaic PeriodsVolumes 1 and 2 (Fortress, 2014 and 2015). In this new introduction to archaeology, Strange says his book is not another “exercise in archaeological apologetics” but rather an explanation of what archaeologists think they are doing. He repeats throughout Excavating the Land of Jesus that archaeology is “problem-driven.” By this, he means that archaeologists begin with a problem and then try to solve it using existing archaeological methods or developing new methods.

Excavating the Land of Jesus

The main problem addressed by this book is reconstructing the social reality of 1st century Galilee during the earliest years of the “Judaisms that became Christianity” (1). This requires balancing archaeological methods and the text of the gospels to understand first-century Roman Galilee. He is clear that archaeology is not about proving the written account true or illustrating the text of the Bible (14). Archaeology might end up doing that, but that is not the goal of archaeology.

Like most archaeologists, he defines archaeology first by pointing out that it is not swashbuckling treasure hunting, as often portrayed in the movies. For Strange, “archaeology is the systematic recovery and interpretation of ancient human detritus for the sake of understanding human technologies, societies, and values” (10). Strange is interested in using archaeology to understand the lives of people in the past (Roman Galilee, Jesus, and his early followers), and that requires both archaeology and the biblical text. He does not dispense with the gospels but does not prioritize them.

The first chapter deals with the basics of archaeology: how do you know where to dig? As a test case, he uses Magdala. Although the New Testament mentions a town named Magdala near the Sea of Galilee, information in the New Testament and Eusebius. However, the town is mentioned in Josephus, later rabbinic literature, pilgrim reports, etc. Based on this information, archaeologists began to work at the village of el-Mejdel, thinking they would find the ancient town of Migdal. These excavations have turned up two synagogues, several mikvoth, and other evidence illustrating life in first-century Migdal. (I will point out that Joan Taylor challenged this identification (“Missing Magdala and the Name of Mary ‘Magdalene.” PEQ 146 (3): 205–223).

In the second chapter, Strange deals with the problem of how to dig. Here, he outlines the basics of the scientific method of archaeology. In this chapter, he discusses the importance of asking questions and making observations before doing any actual archaeological work. He uses several hypothetical cases to illustrate how archaeologists make their decisions.

In Chapter 3, he illustrates how to use archaeology to understand ancient people. Using the gospel of John as a test case, he tracks the geography of Roman Palestine by tracing Jesus’s movements. He concludes that “the limited view that the gospel of John provides the Judean and Samaritan hill countries, the Jordan valley, and the Beit Netofa valley of Galilee matches well with what we know or can infer from archaeological surveys and excavations. This is often the case” (97). The point here is that archaeologists use ancient texts, like the gospel of John, but also references in ancient literature to the Gallus revolt in 351 or an earthquake in 363 to explain what the find (destruction layers in the region). “Why use the ancient texts? The answer is simple: the texts prove themselves to be useful” (97).

Chapter 4 addresses using archaeology to understand ancient technology. There are some limitations to what archaeologists can understand about ancient peoples based on and examination of their technology. First, many objects are made from perishable materials, such as clothing, curtains, baskets, farming implements, household implements, etc. Second, no excavation of Roman Galilee records every object found. For example, the most common find in archaeology is a pottery sherd. Although they are used to date a site, few archaeologists save and record the total number of pottery shards discovered. There are just too many! Third, archaeologists do not find every object that survives. Strange mentions as an example corroded coins, which are often difficult to distinguish from the dirt in which they lie. Archaeologists sometimes find nails but not what they once held together. This means archaeologists have only fragmentary knowledge about ancient technologies (104). Strange uses olive oil production in Galilee as an illustration. This section has a detailed description of the process of making olive oil, a labor-intensive and intricate economic system.

Chapter 5 discusses what archaeology contributes to our understanding of ancient values of group identity. He surveys the kinds of human detritus found in Roman Galilee. These are mostly Jewish household items that are used to fulfill Halakhah not based explicitly on instructions from Scripture (ceramics, mikvoth, Herodian lamps, cups carved from chalk; use of ossuaries for secondary burial, synagogues, etc.). But archaeologists also find things that raise questions about Jewish practice—for example, domesticated pig bones with signs of butchering. He asks, who did that sort of thing? It could be the case that Jewish farmers raised pigs and sold them to Romans. But it may be the case that some Romans lived in otherwise Jewish areas and raised pigs. There may have been Jews who raised and ate pigs themselves. Sometimes, archaeology creates questions that have no answer.

In his conclusion, Strange asks a question that may be the main problem he wants to solve as an archaeologist: “With the ministry of Jesus, does Christianity emerge as a religious system at odds with the Judaisms of the day, or is it one of the Judaisms of the day, and if it is, how long did it remain so?” (152) Although it is obvious archaeology does help scholars understand the religious, social, and economic situation of early Christianity, can it help trace the so-called “parting of the ways,” the point when early Judaism started to differ from early Christianity?

One of the most fascinating sections of the book is a collection of responses to the question, “Why do archaeologists dig?” These reflections from working archaeologists provide valuable insights into what archaeologists “think they are doing.”

Conclusion. Excavating the Land of Jesus is a fascinating look into the science of archaeology. Strange introduces readers to the technical aspects of archaeology without being overly technical. With clear prose and helpful illustrations, this book is enjoyable to read! Readers interested in how archaeology illuminates the New Testament will enjoy many of his conclusions, although that is not the book’s purpose.

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

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