Archaeology, History, and Scripture

I’ve been trying to think of a way of introducing a series of posts I plan on writing. However, all of the introductions I have started writing have come off sounding incredibly stupid. So, I’ll just start out by saying that I have been thinking about archaeology, history, and the scriptures and I plan on writing a few posts about it.

For this first post I will just list some of the books I have found to be helpful in thinking about these topics. I recommend all of them. Unless otherwise indicated they are written for general audiences and are not too technical. Here they are, grouped by subject:

Old Testament

Getting a grip on the archaeology and history of the Old Testament is very hard to do. The time periods are vast, the number of interacting cultures is large, and there are (basically) four schools of thought as to how much of the Old Testament is historical. The four groups can be broken down as follows 1) Maximalists, 2) Moderate Critical with High Chronology, 3) Moderate Critical with Low Chronology, and 4) Minimalists. I plan on a full post explaining each of these schools and my assessment of each.

  • On the Reliability of the Old Testament K.A. Kitchen. A good summary of the maximalist position. K.A. Kitchen is an Egyptologist so many of the parallels and history end up referring back to Egypt. This is fine because much of the Old Testament which the maximalists defend but the other schools reject is based in Egypt. This is probably the most difficult book on these lists to read and won’t make much sense if you don’t already have a good background in the history and archaeology of the Ancient Near East and Egypt.
  • What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It?: What Archaeology Can Tell Us About the Reality of Ancient Israel William G. Dever. This is two books in one. First, it is a summary of the moderate critical with high chronology position. Dever has dug as an archaeologist for decades in Israel and knows the facts on the ground. Second, it is a defense of modernism against post-modernism from the position of a biblical scholar and archaeologist. This part of the book reads like The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom but dealing with the Bible instead of continental philosophy.
  • The Bible Unearthed Israel Finkelstein, Neil Silberman. This is probably the most readable book in the Old Testament section. Finkelstein is an Israeli archaeologist working in Israel. He represents the moderate critical with low chronology position. Silberman is a biblical scholar. Finkelstein knows the archaeology of Israel very well and constantly refers to the “facts on the ground” but never gets bogged down in technical details.
  • The Quest for the Historical Israel: Debating Archaeology and the History of Early Israel Israel Finkelstein, Amihai Mazar, Brian B. Schmidt. Amihai Mazar represents the moderate critical with high chronology position. The book is a series of essays debating the archaeology of the various phases of Bible written by Mazar and Finkelstein. Probably the second easiest book to read in the Old Testament section. The bibliography is outstanding.
  • The Israelites in History and Tradition Niels Peter Lemche. Lemche is the most careful scholar in the minimalist school. To be honest I have not read much of the minimalist school because their agenda seems so overtly post-modern and political. Put simply, their position on ancient Israel seems to have more to do with the political situation in modern Israel than with the findings of archaeology. Lemche seems to avoid this and is not polemical in this book.

New Testament

It’s much easier to get a handle on New Testament archaeology and history. The history of this period is much better documented which makes the archaeology of this period easier to do, easier to interpret, and for the most part less controversial. Also, the New Testament itself makes it easier because it does not deal with kingdoms, migrations, wars, exiles, and other things which tend to show up in the archaeological and historical records. The New Testament does not create an historical environment, it assumes one.

Also, the bulk of the New Testament focuses on the travels and teachings of just two people, Jesus and Paul. So, once you know the background (Late Second Temple Judaism and the Hellenistic Roman Empire) studying the historical and archaeological aspects of the New Testament is mostly an exercise in putting Jesus and Paul in those contexts.

  • The HarperCollins Visual Guide to the New Testament: What Archaeology Reveals about the First Christians Jonathan L. Reed. This book helps you get the feel of the world of the New Testament. There are tons of color pictures which help the reader visualize what things were like in the 1st century CE. Written by a practicing archaeologist for a general audience.
  • The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth Ben Witherington III. A good summary of all of the main works on the historical Jesus in the 80’s and 90’s by an Evangelical scholar. Each chapter summarizes one major approach to the historical Jesus along with a summary of at least one book which represents that approach. This is an excellent entry point to historical Jesus studies.
  • The Paul Quest: The Renewed Search for the Jew of Tarsus Ben Witherington III. Similar to his book on the historical Jesus. However, instead of focusing on particular approaches to Paul, he focuses on particular themes in Pauline studies. Witherington also adds a lot more original material in this volume than in his Jesus volume.
  • The Historical Figure of Jesus E. P. Sanders. Another good entry point to historical Jesus scholarship. Sanders is probably the preeminent English speaking scholar of second temple Judaism and early rabbinical thought, and he puts Jesus squarely in this context. Sanders shows Jesus to be an apocalyptic Jewish prophet, which is probably the widest held position on who Jesus was. It is also the oldest position held by critical scholars, having got its start with Albert Schweitzer and Wilhem Wrede at the turn of the 20th century.
  • Paul: A Critical Life Jerome Murphy-O’Connor. A very thorough biography of Paul. Murphy-O-Connor is quite eclectic but produces a very nicely researched and written volume. He knows the geography, archaeology, sociology, and anthropology of the Mediterranean world in the 1st century CE. The biography is speculative in places, but it’s loaded with solid information as well.

Book of Mormon

When dealing with the Book of Mormon and history and archaeology there is a tendency to get bogged down in apologetics. Hopefully, the following books give enough background material to know something about the issues but do not enter into the apologist/critic debate which can get quite boring at times.

  • An ancient American setting for the Book of Mormon John Sorenson. The original and most influential attempt to situate the Book of Mormon in an ancient American context. Sorenson is obviously very well versed in the ancient geography of southern Mexico and Guatemala, which is where he situates both the Jaredite and Lehite civilizations.
  • Does the Shoe Fit? A Critique of the Limited Tehuantepec Geography Deanne G. Matheny. A representative critique of Sorenson’s ancient American setting for the Book of Mormon.
  • Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs, Sixth Edition Michael D. Coe, Rex Koontz. A reader’s digest version of Mesoamerican archaeology up to the conquistadores, with the exception of the Maya. Coe is the probably the foremost Mesoamerican anthropologist in America. The book is part tour guide, part history, and part history of Mesoamerican archaeology. The book can bog down in technical details at times. However, this book disabused me of the notion that Mesoamerican anthropology/archaeology lacks empirical data and is not well developed. On the contrary, anthropologists have a pretty good grasp of the big picture of ancient America.
  • The Maya, Seventh Edition Michael D. Coe. The same as the previous entry, but dealing with the Maya.

Book of Abraham

The Book of Abraham is fascinating because, as far as I know, it is the only book of scripture, Mormon or otherwise, that is directly attributable to an archaeological relic. Hopefully the following books and web sites will give enough background to understand the main issues.

  • The Oxford Illustrated History of Ancient Egypt Ian Shaw. Good overview of ancient Egypt from Egyptian pre history right up to and including the Roman period. The pictures are good and make this a good introductory volume to ancient Egypt. My big complaint is that the book should have had more maps. The geography of ancient Egyptian cities is hard to track as Pharoahs seemed to change capitals more than I change my socks.
  • History of Ancient Egypt Bob Brier. Probably the best introduction to ancient Egypt. 48 lectures which cover pre historical Egypt to the Ptolemaic period. The lecturer is quite a character and makes the lectures feel more like a lunch time chat than a formal lecture. Brier has the distinction of being the only person to mummify someone using the ancient Egyptian techniques in the past 2000 years. The Tut lectures were entertaining (if speculative). He does dedicate one lecture to the Joseph in Egypt story and one to the Exodus. Many lectures deal with the evolution of Egyptian funerary practices which has direct application to the Book of Abraham.
  • Abraham in Egypt Hugh Nibley. A spirited defense of the Book of Abraham which focuses on the content of the book as it appears in the Pearl of Great Price, but which does not focus on the papyri which were involved in the production of the Book of Abraham.
  • Mormon Think: The Book of Abraham If you only have an hour to get an overview of the main issues in dealing with the Book of Abraham, this is a good start. The summary is pretty balanced but ultimately ends up agreeing more with the critics than with the believers and apologists.

8 Replies to “Archaeology, History, and Scripture”

  1. Thanks for the reading list. If I could add one for the Old Testament I would include Richard Gabriel’s “A Military History of Ancient Israel”. It offers excellent political and social history in addition to its military history. Although he replaces God with “The General”. So if you can get past that, the rest of it provides excellent context for O.T. events.
    Thanks again for the reading list, I look forward to looking at them.

  2. Excellent list! And I agree that Lemche is the least strident of the minimalists. Thompson and Davies seem so agenda-driven that they contribute little to the discussion, the very thing they accuse all other schools of thought of doing!

  3. “This part of the book reads like The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom but dealing with the Bible instead of continental philosophy. ”

    When I compare something to Allan Bloom, it is never a compliment, but I am guessing that you mean that the mentioned book is a running criticism of a wide range of works. Right?

  4. Yes, it is a sustained critique of a particular approach to biblical studies, much like Bloom’s is a critique of a particular approach to humanities and social sciences. Both the left and right produce this kind of work, Bloom’s is simply the most widely known so I chose it as a representative example.

    I guess you could call the genre “the academy is going to hell and here’s why” genre. For some reason I find those types of books pretty entertaining.

  5. just wondering what you mean by this:

    “The Book of Abraham is fascinating because, as far as I know, it is the only book of scripture, Mormon or otherwise, that is directly attributable to an archaeological relic.”

  6. g.wesley,

    I meant only that the papyri sold to Joseph Smith were found in archaeological digs in Egypt. Well, I say archaeological, but that means whatever passed for archaeology in the early 19th century. Basically, someone dug them up, Joseph bought them, and that was the beginning of the Book of Abraham.

    The Bible was not discovered through archaeology, but has a long textual transmission history. The Book of Mormon doesn’t count as being found through archaeology because, “An angel told me where to find it” it not usually acceptable for inclusion in an archaeological journal.

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