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.

Book Review: Matthieu Richelle, The Bible and Archaeology

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.

Examples of the Value of Archaeology (Part 3)

1873 Wood Engraving

Southern Temple Excavations. There is a great deal of archaeological activity around the southern end of the Temple. Since the first two examples I used concern the Old Testament, I will focus on the importance of these excavations for New Testament studies. There are few who would deny the Western Wall represents the walls built by King Herod to expand the Temple Mount.

In 1838 E. Robinson, one of the first archaeological explorers of Jerusalem, discovered the remains of an arch on the southwest corner of the Temple Mount. Photographs show that this arch was only a few feet above ground level at the turn of the twentieth century, and even in 1968 it was near ground level with a vegetable patch growing beneath. Today, visitors to the archaeological park can see the arch some twenty feet from the ground level. Archaeologists have excavated to the level of the first century streets. The arch is part of a stairwell from ground level to the Temple Mount.

Photo Taken May, 2009

One of the most spectacular finds in this area was the “trumpeting stone” from the corner of the wall. On the inside of the parapet is an incomplete inscription saying “to the place of trumpeting.” The stone was 138 feet above the street level! It appears that a priest or Levite would sound a shofar (Josephus, JW 4.582, b. Sukk. 5:5).On the southern end of the Temple Mount a stairway goes up from the street level to a double gate and triple gate. It is likely that there was a plaza at the base of the steps, and there are several public ritual baths near the steps. The double gate is built in the Herodian style, although it was filled in by the Crusaders and a building was added by the Umayyads, nearly covering the entrances. Since the other since of the gate is now part of the Al Aska Mosque, detailed investigation is impossible. Ritmeyer suggests that this may be the Beautiful Gate mentioned in Acts 3, although it is impossible to know for certain. These gates opened up into the Royal Stoa, a huge area on the south end of the Temple Mount.

Trumpeting Stone

In summary, the southern Temple excavations demonstrate what Jerusalem looked like during the ministry of Jesus and the Apostles. The archaeology of the Southern Temple area gives the physical context of last week of Jesus life and the early part of the book of Acts. Let me suggest one application of this physical context to the book of Acts. As is well known, on the day of Pentecost 3000 people respond to the preaching of the apostles and were baptized. In Acts 4:4 and additional 5000 believe. How is it possible to baptize such large crowds in the Temple area? The only real possibility are the many mikvoth around the Temple area, including the pools of Siloam and Bethesda. I think that the baptism of Acts 2 and 3 is a self-baptism in one of the many ritual pools around Jerusalem. In this case, the archaeological context helps explain a detail of the text.

Examples of the Value of Archaeology (Part 2)

Khirbet Qeiyafa in the Valley of Elah. The Valley of Elah is the site of the well-known story of David and Goliath (1 Sam 17). The valley is about 18 miles southwest of Jerusalem, the ruins of Qeiyafa are on top of a hill that borders the valley to the north. The small settlement was protected by a casement wall and two gates, but was destroyed. The site is significant for several reasons. First, it is certainly an Israelite site dating to the early Iron age, or the kingdom of David. It is along the border of Judah and Philistia, indicating that there were indeed tensions along that border during the time of David requiring a military post to guard the valley.

The most significant artifact to be found at Qeiyafa is a small ostracon (pot sherd) with some early Hebrew writing on it. William Shea offers a unique translation of the text which recognizes that some of the letters are in fact pictograms. His suggested translation of the first two lines is a command to the king to “not make two servants of the judge and the prophet” (604). He suggests that the text was “written in a time of transition” from local judges and prophets to kings. These lines would be advice to a king to not usurp the tradition roles of the judges or the prophets. As Shea puts it, the judge and the prophet may have diminished in authority when the monarchy was established, but they were to continue “independent of the king” (610).

There are other suggested readings of the text, some differing a great deal from Shea’s reconstruction. For example, Gershon Galil of the University of Haifa renders the second and third line as“judge the slave and the widow and the orphan and the stranger.” Despite the variety of suggested readings, they all sound like advice to the king, whether that advice sounds like the voice of a prophet or a sage. After reading 2 Sam 23:1-7 and Prov 31:1-9, I would suggest that whatever the Qeiyafa Ostracon is, it represents advice to a young king on how to rule wisely. This advice reflects a transition from the rule of Judges to Kings, exactly as 1 Samuel records.

Examples of the Value of Archaeology (Part 1)

Introduction. I have been asked to give a “top ten archaeological finds” list on a few occasions. There are in fact far more major finds that I would be able to list in a single article or seminar. The list of inscriptions and other monuments mentioning biblical characters in the Old Testament is quite long given the relatively minor status of Israel in the ancient Near East. For the New Testament, the archaeology of Ceasarea, Bet-Shean, Sephoris, and Tiberias shows the Roman influence on Jewish life during the time of Jesus. The Dead Sea Scrolls are of monumental importance for understanding the Jewish religion in the first century. I have chosen to focus the attention of the rest of this paper on just two examples from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament which are both important as biblical history, but are also relatively recent and exciting.

The City of David in the Silwan Valley. The City of David was a Jebusite citadel captured by David in 2 Sam 5:6-9. There were a number of structures built along the ridge from the Temple Mount down to the end of the Kidron and Hinnom valleys. The City of David is best known for Hezekiah’s Tunnel, a tunnel cut through the stone to reach the Gihon Spring at the bottom of the valley. The Siloam Inscription was found in this tunnel in 1880 and has been in Istanbul since 1890. The inscription is one the most important artifacts ever found in Israel since the inscription commemorates the place where workmen joined the two tunnels, connecting the City of David to the Pool of Siloam at the bottom of the hill. Robert Coote comments that “it is the nearly unanimous view of historians that the Siloam tunnel is Hezekiah’s conduit, and that the inscription in it was written shortly before 701 B.C.E.” The tunnel is mentioned in 2 Kings 20:20 and 2 Chron 32:30, and is alluded to in Isaiah 22:11. It is unfortunate, on the one hand, that the inscription does not mention Hezekiah. But, on the other hand, any mention of Hezekiah might have been grounds for claiming that the inscription is a fake or dates from a later time.

Recent excavations at the City of David have uncovered hundreds of bullae, or seal impressions dating to the eighth and seventh centuries B.C. These impresses are seals placed on a papyri document as a legal seal. That so many of these little seals have been found is an indication that there was an administrative center which houses a large number of legal documents. It is likely that a fire destroyed the archive, burning the paper but hardening the seals. One seal bears the name “Gemaryahu ben Shafan” (Jer 36:10) and another seal discovered in 2008 appears to have the name Gedeliah, son of Pashur, an administrator in the last days of the kingdom of Judah (Jer 38:1). In summer of 2011 a small golden bell was discovered near the bottom of the valley. The bell may have been sewn into a priestly garment in the first century (Exod 28:33), although it is not certain that the bell came from a priest nor is it clear when the bell was made (it likely dates to the late Second Temple Period, much nearer the time of Jesus than Solomon!)

The excavations at the City of David are a good example of the politics of archaeology in Israel today. Since the archaeological work runs along the border of the village of Silwan. Israeli archaeologists are constantly expanding their work, crossing into a village which is historically Arab. In 1967 the neighborhood was annexed by Israel, but the residents consider this an occupation. They view the work of archaeology as a kind of cultural imperialism since the work is done by Israelis for the purpose of proving that Jerusalem is a Jewish birthright. (Whether anyone actually does archaeology for this reason is debatable, but that is the perception in Silwan!) Any further encroachment into the valley will be met with resistance, yet there is much to be learned by working in the valley. Likely there is no solution, whatever compromises are reached will be entirely political.