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Biblical Archaeology: An Interview with Hershel Shanks

"The Bible is primarily a theological document. Its main purpose is spiritual nourishment. But it's also a very human document, set in a time and a place, and peopled by real human beings."

Lee Duigon
  • Lee Duigon,
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Editor's Note: Bible-believers can't help wanting to know more about "Bible times." How did people live in the age of David and Solomon or in the time of Christ? What did they eat? How much did they travel? What were their houses like?

Other readers want to know: How true is the history we read in the Bible? Did these events really happen? Did these kings and prophets and apostles really live?

These questions lead many to the archaeology of Bible lands and times—and many of them to an internationally popular magazine, Biblical Archaeology Review. Now in its 30th year of publication, BAR's 125,000 international subscribers enjoy monthly articles by some of the top archaeologists in the world, highlighted by abundant full-color photos, opportunities to participate in "digs" in the Holy Land—and, of course, the latest controversies.

BAR founder and editor Hershel Shanks recently shared with Chalcedon some of his views on the role of Biblical archaeology today.

"Biblical archaeology," said Hershel Shanks, editor and founder of Biblical Archaeology Review and founder of the Biblical Archaeology Society, "is anything archaeological that illuminates the Bible in some way. Biblical archaeologists try to put the Bible in context—the context of daily life in the ancient world or the context of history.

"Archaeology brings the Bible to life in a special way. It lets you visit the people who lived in those times. You see the kinds of lamps they used, the houses they lived in, the way they traveled, the kind of food they ate, and how they prepared it."

Archaeologists have learned, for instance, that the typical Israelite house was built on a unique pattern that makes it easy to distinguish from a Canaanite dwelling.

"The Bible is primarily a theological document. Its main purpose is spiritual nourishment. But it's also a very human document, set in a time and a place, and peopled by real human beings."

What Archaeology Can't Do

Does archaeology "prove" the Bible? Can it?

"All archaeologists today would agree that's an inappropriate aim," Shanks said. "You don't go into archaeology to prove the Bible. Biblical archaeology got a bad name a generation ago because some did try to do that. But that's no longer an issue.

"If you need archaeology to prove your faith, you must have a pretty weak faith."

The Bible narrative is laden with miracles, he said—a fact that puts limits on the applicability of archaeological science.

"A miracle, by definition, is not demonstrable. For example, we can't prove that the Red Sea parted for the Children of Israel to cross over. How could there be any geological proof of that?

"What can you imagine that would prove to you that Abraham existed? He lived thousands of years ago in a tent and he moved around a lot.

"But there are historical events described in the Bible," Shanks said, "and archaeology does have some relevance here. Was there an Exodus? Some archaeological facts suggest an answer, but they don't prove an answer. There's a tremendous amount of uncertainty in Biblical history—at least as far as archaeology is concerned."

Another difficult topic for archaeologists is Israel's conquest of the Promised Land.

"Most archaeologists today don't see evidence of a swift conquest, as described in the Book of Joshua," Shanks said. "On the other hand, the evidence we do have makes you more sensitive to the Book of Judges.

"The point is, we do get some evidence for the events described in the Bible. Sometimes the evidence seems to contradict the Bible. And some of these apparent contradictions, in the long run, actually enrich your understanding of the Bible."

Believers vs. Minimalists

One of the hot scholarly controversies chronicled by BAR is the ongoing battle between Bible-believers (maximalists) and the "minimalists"—archaeologists who claim the Bible narrative is mostly propaganda and fiction generated by Jews fairly late in their history.

At the heart of this controversy is a debate over the historical existence of a United Monarchy of Israel under David and Solomon, as described in the Bible.

"There are two kinds of minimalists," Shanks said, "those who say Solomon didn't exist at all and those who say David and Solomon were petty chieftains who never had a mighty kingdom.

"We have found very little evidence from Solomon's time. Jerusalem, for instance, is a very complicated archaeological problem. So much has been dug up, recycled, and built over by later residents. We do have some diplomatic correspondence between the Pharaoh of Egypt and the Canaanite king of Jerusalem in the 14th century B.C. So although the physical evidence of that time has disappeared, there must have been a city there."

The minimalists' arguments, Shanks said, "are not sophisticated at all; archaeologically, they are based on a wrong chronology and ideologically driven.

"I think there is evidence of Solomonic architecture in the Holy Land, very grandiose for its time. At Megiddo, Gezer, Hazor, we have some very fancy Solomonic architecture.

"Then there's the Tel Dan inscription, discovered in 1993, which mentions the dynasty of David within 100 years of when he lived. This discovery confounded the minimalists."

The inscription, which reads "belonging to the House of David," was carved into a piece of building stone that had been re-used as part of a gateway in another Iron Age structure.

"Another exciting find," Shanks said, "was a silver amulet from the 6th century B.C., containing the oldest surviving quotation from the Bible—a verse from the Book of Numbers." The artifact dates to before the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem, weakening the position of those who claim Jewish priests composed the Bible during the Babylonian captivity.

"That's the excitement of Biblical archaeology," Shanks said. "You never know what you're going to find."

The Bible narrative, he added, often provides its own credibility. "For example, those passages in Kings and Chronicles, which describe how Solomon built the Temple with the help of Hiram of Tyre, who provided building stone, expert craftsmen, and cedars of Lebanon—if they were fiction, they would've said Solomon did everything himself, without any help from anyone."

'James, Brother of Jesus'

One of the most exciting and controversial finds in recent years is the "James Ossuary." This is a stone box used to hold a dead man's bones, in keeping with Judean burial customs of the 1st century A.D. Many others have been found, including one that once held the bones of the high priest, Caiaphas, who figures prominently in the Gospel of John.

On the controversial bone box is inscribed the line, "James, brother of Jesus." Some believers have hailed it as a genuine relic of the James whom St. Paul calls "the Lord's brother" (Galatians 1:19).

The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) has branded the inscription a forgery. The antiquities dealer who produced it is under a criminal indictment, and the artifact itself is in police custody.

Over the past year, Shanks and BAR have been very critical of the IAA's report on the James Ossuary.

"The IAA geologists say there's a modern coating [patina] over the inscription," he said. "That layer either covers a forgery, or it's there because the box has been cleaned in modern terms.

"As for the inscription itself, no experienced paleographer [paleography is the study of ancient scripts] has questioned it on paleographic grounds. They say the inscription is good. The language and the letters conform to the usage in James' time.

"It's a complicated matter. Other Israeli geologists gave the artifact good marks before the IAA report came out, and they've stuck by their findings. So, you have a dispute among scientists."

The indictment of the dealer is also "very strange," Shanks said. "The indictment says the first part of the inscription is authentic; the only part that's a forgery is 'brother of Jesus.' But the IAA report made no such distinction.

"They [the IAA] haven't shown it's a forgery. They've questioned hundreds of witnesses, and they haven't found a single accomplice.

"The James Ossuary should be studied by an international team of experts. There is plenty of support for the position that it's authentic."

The Audience

Although BAR features articles by world-class specialists, the magazine is tailored to a general audience.

One of its more innovative stunts last year was to offer a $10,000 reward to anyone who could create a forged artifact that would fool the experts—an effort to show how hard it is to manufacture such artifacts. The only takers were a group of homeschooled children in New England—who did a pretty good job, the magazine reported, but not good enough.

The controversies often spill over onto BAR's "Letters" column. As an indication of how high feelings can run when Biblical archaeology is involved, BAR has published a collection entitled, "Please Cancel My Subscription!"

Lee Duigon
  • Lee Duigon

Lee is the author of the Bell Mountain Series of novels and a contributing editor for our Faith for All of Life magazine. Lee provides commentary on cultural trends and relevant issues to Christians, along with providing cogent book and media reviews.

Lee has his own blog at

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