Every now and again the Chronicle of Higher Education dips its trowel into the biblical archaeology debate. Those of us who’ve made extensive arguments based on ancient texts and artifacts know the territory a little too well. Archaeology, which largely grew out of biblical scholars attempting to “prove the Bible,” eventually started on its own track of scientific respectability with the predictable result of distancing itself from the Bible occurred. So far, so good. Then biblical criticism took a turn towards post-modern sensibilities. The truth cannot be known, and therefore the safest approach is to stop seeking any truth at all. Archaeologists in the know joined this venture (biblical scholars and archaeologists often cross borders in this exotic land), and began to deny historical Israel, as well as the rightly dismissed historical Abraham and Moses. Once you’ve walked a few leagues down that path, however, it is difficult to turn back. This is, of course, an over-simplified account of a complex dynamic, but the issues raised, as seen in the Chronicle, are real. Our perspective flavors our interpretation. If you don’t believe in a historical Israel you’ll never find one, no matter how hard you look. (A similar dynamic is at work in studies of religions and “paranormal” phenomena.) The word “evidence” is finessed as readily as fine hair treatments and the kinds of evidence that convince vary depending on the scholar. It is safest to admit we don’t know, sometimes.
The more troubling aspect, as far as I’m concerned, comes when the Chronicle introduces the concept of corporate sponsorship to archaeological digs. As an erstwhile volunteer on a dig (somewhere back in the Iron Age, it feels like now), I know that archaeology is frightfully expensive. There’s nothing like being on a dig to witness firsthand the amount of labor that goes into removing all that dirt–carefully! Carefully! Universities can’t afford it (stadiums don’t come cheap, you know!), so many digs rely on corporate donors–often television and film companies. And if you’re paying for footage, you want something to bring in watchers. An unnamed archaeologist quipped honestly in the Chronicle, “I don’t agree with everything they say in the films, but they pay me an awful lot more than I could ever earn from writing or teaching.” There it is, staring us straight in the face. The truth goes to the highest bidder.
That may sound benign enough, but in Israel especially, archaeology has high political stakes. You see, politicians are easily swayed by the “we were here first” argument. To get an idea of its specious nature, just ask a Native American! Proving the veracity of a David or Solomon no longer just gets God off the hook, it also builds the basis for claims against people who’ve been here an incredibly long time. The sad reality is that in archaeology, as in higher education, money speaks with an inordinately loud voice. As an agreed means of exchange, money is certainly important, but is it “true”? For those who’ve stopped short of the post-modern abandonment of that great philosophical ideal of Truth, we should be wary of allowing lucre to decide the issue. Those with money already help to decide what courses will be taught and what tels will be excavated. We run a real risk when we let those same people decide what will be considered the truth. In a society enamored of media and its ease of use, the truth is sometimes what comes across the television. There is another way, but it involves heavy digging and lots of reading. Maybe next time—but for now just pass the remote.