Contrary to the quest of many biblical archaeologists in years past, today's "new image" of excavating ancient Near Eastern sites isn't focused on proving that the Bible is an ancient historical document.
Yet there's no reason to shy away from comparing scientific findings to biblical text, either, says a longtime archaeologist.
The challenge is to use caution, rather than leaping to what seem to be "logical conclusions" about findings that go well beyond the actual science involved with high-profile finds, some of which turn out to be forgeries.
That is according to Aren Maeir, chairman of the department of archaeology and Land of Israel Studies at Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv. Rather than trying to "verify beliefs according to archaeological remains," Maeir said archaeologists driven by science are leaving those kinds of discussions to theologians. Archaeologists seek to provide information on what they find in the ground, when they believe it originated and how it may or may not play into theological discussions.
The current spate of Near Eastern excavations began not as a way to "prove" the Bible as a historical text, but as a 19th century project by the British army to update its topographical maps.
Maeir recently told students at Brigham Young University that geopolitical considerations played a large role in early excavations shortly after the state of Israel was formed in 1948. Many archaeologists were looking specifically to help establish the ancient legitimacy of Jewish claims to the land of Palestine, which had been occupied by the Turks for centuries before World War I.
That approach has "come under a lot of criticism, mostly among 99.9 percent of Israeli archaeologists, but here and there it still exists, usually from very specific groups within the political spectrum in Israel."
Today, there is a move in some quarters of the profession to "dump the whole premise of biblical archaeology and just look at sites from a clearly archaeological perspective, rather than enmesh it with an ideological, religious or nationalistic perspective," he said. Some are looking to abandon the term "biblical archaeology" in favor of "Near Eastern archaeology."
Yet that approach is espoused "by those who have a very strong ideology in the other direction," Maeir said, and don't believe there is any historical accuracy in the Bible.
"Very often these critics come from a very small group that's not necessarily representative of what the public is interested in hearing," he said.
Not that scientists should conduct research based on what the public is looking for, he said, but findings have to be presented in layman's terms with explanations that don't require an advanced degree. "We can be extremely sophisticated in naming things, but if we use titles that turn off the public, then we're missing our mark."
Because interest is so great in legitimate finds, Maeir said the public should be more critical in examining the credentials of those who announce major "breakthroughs" that "prove" something in the Bible.
Those who do so, he said, almost always are not professional archaeologists; have not been published in refereed, scholarly professional journals; and talk of sensational finds in a way that later is proven to be a gross misunderstanding of fact or an outright fraud.
• Mt. Ararat as the site where Noah's Ark was found. "This one happens every five or 10 years," yet nothing has been found to verify the claim.
• The Shroud of Turin. "We know clearly now it was made in the Middle Ages. It has been scientifically tested and dated clearly to the 14th Century."
• The tomb of Jesus' family. Among the most recent "discoveries," the tomb has been the subject of several documentary films and books, but Maeir said what isn't discussed is the commonality of the names found in the tomb. "There's nothing exceptional about having a Jesus and a Miriam and a Jacob" in the same tomb, he said.
• The ossuary of Jesus' brother, James. "It turns out the box was found only with the 'James' part on it. Someone else added the words, 'brother of Jesus."'
Certainly legitimate finds are made, he said, though archaeologists are skeptical sometimes for years about declaring something is an ancient document or object until detailed research and methodological studies can be done. A case in point was the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Maeir's work for the past decade has focused on excavating ancient Gath, a large Philistine city believed by many to be the home of Goliath from the biblical story of David and Goliath. Findings include letters on a pottery shard that represent "one of the earliest Canaanite inscriptions we have" that are similar to "how we understand the development of the name Goliath. But this is not Goliath's cereal bowl," he said.
Among his most important tools are meticulous field methods, recording and analysis; an active and critical engagement with the interface between artifacts and the biblical text; a skepticism that precludes "automatic and senseless connections" between what is found in the ground and what the Bible says; and intensive use of multi-disciplinary studies that look at every scientific aspect of what is found.
Using such methods, Maeir said he believes biblical archaeology should continue, with a "very sophisticated but non-parochial viewpoint. There's no reason to be afraid to use archaeological remains to understand the reality embedded in the biblical text, even if it's not popular in the post-modern world."For information on Maeir's excavations at Tell es-Safi (known as Gath), see www.dig-gath.org.