The Bible as a Source of Testable Hypotheses
By Hershel Shanks
In the highest, most sophisticated levels of professional Biblical archaeology, there is a certain prejudice against the Bible.
I take as my text a passage from a new book of which (full disclosure) the Biblical Archaeology Society, publisher of BAR, is a copublisher with the Israel Exploration Society. The book, written by my good friend Ronny Reich of Haifa University and excavator of the City of David, is titled Excavating the City of David (reviewed in this issue). It is a magnum opus that will be read and studied a hundred years from now; but it does treat dismissively the excavation of another good friend, Eilat Mazar of the Hebrew University. (Ronny even accuses Eilat of acting “unethically,” but that is another matter.)
One of Eilat’s crimes, according to Ronny, is using the Bible as a guide to where to excavate. Let me unpack this: As Eilat read the Bible, it seemed to indicate just where King David’s palace might be buried in the City of David—at least, it did to her. On this basis, she decided to dig there.
This was highly improper and unscientific, according to Ronny. When he heard that Eilat was using reasoning like this to find King David’s palace, he knew immediately that, proceeding in this way, “she would certainly find that building” (emphasis in original).
According to Ronny, that is the wrong way to proceed. Eilat, in my vernacular, has it bass ackwards. Ronny refers to “minimalists,” who do it properly, “correlat[ing] their teachings first and foremost to the archaeological findings” and only then looking at the Bible. Ronny counts himself as one of these “minimalists,” who permit the use of the Biblical text “only if it is supported by another historical source (for example, Assyrian documents) or clearly supported by appropriate, unambiguously dated archaeological data (for example, an inscription found on a site).”
I would have thought that Eilat would have been praised for proceeding quite scientifically—according to the vaunted scientific method that has produced so much for our civilization. As I understand it, you formulate a hypothesis and then you proceed to test it, either proving or disproving it. Eilat had a hypothesis and she wanted to test it by digging.
But you can’t do that in the case of the Bible, according to Ronny…
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