The Bible & Archaeology

Ancient artifacts and the Bible illuminate each other in various ways, but it can be difficult to understand how this process works and how archaeological discoveries should be interpreted. In this book, Matthieu Richelle provides a concise, up-to-date introduction to the relationship between archaeology and the Old and New Testament Scriptures. He shows how historic physical artifacts and the biblical texts illuminate one another—creating a fascinating “dialogue” that sheds light on the meaning of both.  What emerges is a rich and balanced picture that enlivens our understanding of the Bible’s message, increases our appreciation for the historical and cultural contexts in which it was written, and helps us be realistic about the limits of our knowledge. This work is revised and updated from the original French translation.

It’s available here.

Originally published in French in 2012, Richelle’s volume is divided into six chapters:

  1. What Archaeologists Discover
  2. When Stones Speak
  3. The Limits of Archaeology
  4. The Bible and Archaeology: What Kind of Relationship?
  5. A Case Study: The Kingdom of David and Solomon
  6. Archaeology and Writing in the Time of David and Solomon

There are also a list of figures, a foreword, a preface to the English edition, a list of abbreviations, an Introduction, a conclusion, a bibliography, and the much dreaded endnotes, and, finally,  full color illustrations.

As Richelle moves through his material he has one goal in mind: the clear dissemination of those things which archaeology can do and those it cannot do.  This is not an introduction to method, it is an introduction to the limitations of archaeological knowledge, and it is superb.  Though a translation, it is fully revised and in many places expanded, so – at least to me – it is appropriate to call this a wholly new work.  Readers of the original French text will want to read the present rendition as it provides much that the earlier version lacked.

Those familiar with archaeological debates from the past decades will wonder where Richelle fits in the discipline.  Is he a ‘high chronology’ kind of guy or is he a ‘low chronology’ type?  He is, I’m very pleased to say, both, and neither.  Richelle is one of those rare characters in archaeological studies and biblical studies (and the two often overlap) who takes things case by case and decides upon the best evidence where he stands or sits on an issue.

Richelle methodically addresses the central issues of archaeological research:  what are the kinds of things archaeologists discover?  What do these things tell us about daily life in the ancient world?  What sort of written remains exist and what do they tell us, and what do they not tell us?

He also describes, really quite substantively, the limits of data interpretation and the limits inherent in excavations themselves.  But most importantly, at least to me, is his extraordinarily even handed discussion of the relationship of the Bible to archaeology.  Is ‘Biblical Archaeology’ an appropriate field of enquiry or are we already predetermining outcome by use of that label itself?  Is ‘Syro-Palestinian’ archaeology a more appropriate nomenclature?  And just how much should we use the Bible at all in terms of archaeological research?

In the fifth chapter Richelle offers his case study- David and Solomon.  Here he fairly and equitably describes the problem with traditionalist views.  He asks what is really at stake here.  And finally he offers his perspective.

The sixth and final chapter is a bit of a diversion.  Instead of addressing another case study it asks after the problem of literacy in the Davidic/Solomonic periods.  It’s a very intriguing investigation but it feels as though it doesn’t really belong and was added almost as an afterthought.  And I don’t mean that in any sort of negative way.  It just feels like an appendix and not part of the argument of the monograph.  Nonetheless, it is quite valuable, however it sits or why-so-ever it may be there.

The book at hand is the kind of work that every undergraduate course in Biblical Studies should include on its reading list.  It is the sort of work that persons introducing archaeological method should require.  And it is the type of volume that laypeople who have a subscription to Biblical Archaeology Review should read and digest before they look through another issue of that magazine.

In sum, it’s magnificent.