Biblical Archaeology, which has been described as excavation with a trowel in one hand and a Bible in the other, is a specialised branch of archaeology that often seems to ignore the rules and standards required of real archaeology. Conducted for the most part, by people with an explicitly religious agenda (usually Christian or Jewish), it is a battleground between fundamentalist zeal and evidence-based scholarship in which religious, ethnic and national identities are contested and defined.

Our concerns are well expressed by Eric Cline (of George Washington University in Washington, D.C.) writing in the Boston Globe on 30th Sept 2007. His article is entitled Raiders of the Faux Ark.

Why ‘Biblical Archaeology’?

To an outsider, the very term appears contradictory, at least in the way its practitioners use it. Why not settle for ‘Middle Eastern Archaeology’? The answer, we suspect, is that the sub-discipline wants to dismiss any sceptical notion that archaeology and the Bible don’t mesh and that one undermines the authority of the other. They would much rather use archaeology to back up the stories presented in the Bible as a means of bolstering the faith of waverers. If we can’t find evidence for Solomon’s glorious empire, it must be that we’re not interpreting the archaeological data correctly and that a big discovery is just around the corner (the “Jehoash inscription’ leaps to mind in this context). If contemporary Roman documents don’t mention Jesus of Nazareth, why here’s an ossuary that belongs to James, his brother… It’s all very much centred around contentious objects, poorly-dated sites and great interpretative leaps that the non-religious may find astounding.

In this section, we look at some of the claims and counter-claims in this very active field of discourse.