Sure enough, as I mentioned in the preceding entry, archaeology has found its way to the front page of the daily papers this week, alongside the coalition crisis, the disengagement plan, and our first Olympic gold medal. It seems that a paper has been published arguing that findings from the ancient site of Qumran indicate that previous assumptions about the site must be called into question. Why is this not a dry academic debate?
Qumran is the site of a settlement near the Dead Sea, southeast of Jerusalem, that dates from the period of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans i.e., around the time of Jesus. It is very near the caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. Many archaeologists (and non-archaeologists) became convinced by the remains there that the Qumran community represented the intersection of three lines: the Essenes, an ascetic, messianic sect described by the contemporary historian Josephus; the Dead Sea Scrolls, copies of biblical books as well as internal practical and theological documents from some kind of ascetic, messianic community; and the early Christian church. The more appealing the theory became to more people, the more the evidence seemed convincing everything from benches that must have been the scribes benches to garbage dumps with no non-kosher bones. Whether direct or indirect, whether for sure or just maybe, that three-way connection was standard tour-guide knowledge. And now along comes a scientific archaeologist and suggests that there are too many questions, too many conflicting findings, too many wishful assumptions, for the whole conceptual structure to remain standing. More is at stake here than professional pride and scientific accuracy. Archaeology here plays a role in peoples identity, in their sense of connection with a living past, in their rootedness in the land. Debunking the Qumran story will not pass without a fight, especially by various Christian scholars.
Similarly, in recent years the romantic custom of hiking the land, Bible in hand, and discovering the remnants of important biblical sites like Jericho has been undermined by improved archaeological technology that has found, for example, that the site labeled Jericho was uninhabited during the period associated with Joshuas conquest. Indeed there are schools of archaeology that now question many of our biblical images; e.g., the conquest as described in Joshua, the grand empire of David and Solomon. On the one hand, there are those revisionist archaeologists who are looking to disprove the Jewish historical connection to the land. On the other hand, there are archaeologists, even Jewish, Zionist ones, who are simply trying to figure out what we really can learn from the stones, without looking through romantic-biblical or modern-ideological lenses.
There is an interesting collision of values and interests in this discussion. If we insist that the historical truth of the Bible is important to us then we should desist from archaeology, which by definition, as a science, will not bend its truth according to a sacred text. That means that there is always the risk of conflict. And conversely, if we believe in intellectual honesty and freedom of scientific inquiry, then we have to be prepared to compartmentalize our truths and place the Bibles importance outside of the range of archaeological verification or debunking.
In the context of the controversy over Joshuas conquest and settlement, William Dever, a veteran American archaeologist, nicely describes his own moderate take on this dilemma:
without some historical and cultural context, the biblical stories seem to float in an unreal, fantastic, unverifiable world. Archaeology can often make the stories more tangible, more credible, by situating them in a real time and place and thus giving us a context in which to relate them to us in our world. That does not mean, however, that archaeology can prove the Bible to be true In the end, with all our best efforts, we moderns may come up with a sort of minimal core history. But each of us will have to decide for ourselves what we think the ethical, moral, and religious significance of that history was and is.