Archaeology and Old Testament Biblical Theology

Archaeology and Old Testament Theology

Biblical theology provides the raw materials from biblical truth with which systematic theologians can create beautiful propositions.

Eugene H. Merrill

The term biblical theology is made distinctive by the adjectivebiblical. Gerhard Hasel astutely observed that “the Biblical theologian draws his categories, themes, motifs, and concepts from the biblical text itself,” as compared to the systematic theologian who “endeavors to use current philosophies as the basis for his primary categories or themes.”This definition was not intended as a trivializing subordination of systematic theology, for Hasel goes on to say in the same context, “the biblical and systematic theologians do not compete with each other. Their function is complementary. Both need to work side by side, profiting from each other.”2

A possibly useful metaphorical analogy from the mining of precious metals or stones is that biblical theology provides the raw materials from the mine of biblical truth with which systematic theologians can create beautiful and perfectly shaped theological propositions. However, they must never exceed the limits to which the materials can be pressed or, on the other hand, fail to make fullest use of their potential. Or again to speak analogically, biblical theology is the seedbed from which grows the full fruition of biblical revelation organized in a systematic, non‑contradictory, and understandable manner. For the conservative theologian of either kind, the Scriptures of the Hebrew and Greek Bibles are the Word of God, a revelation to be trusted in whatever it intends to say, whether about history, science, philosophy, sociology, or any other discipline. This includes biblical archaeology, which, after all, is an attempt to discover all the evidence possible from the fields of study just suggested and to discern how these evidences comport with the testimony of the Old and New Testaments.

Archaeology of the Levant was first undertaken by persons closely connected to the church and the Scriptures who in some instances had the clear agenda of “proving” the Bible by their discoveries. By the early 20th century, the field was largely taken over by scholars who, under the guise of “objectivity” and “the scientific method,” undertook their work with no concern for proving anything (or so they averred), but pursued their labors only for its own sake as a scientific enterprise. From that time until now, these two pursuits, with the same objectives respectively, have been engaged in unearthing the Holy Land and neighboring areas. A magnificent endeavor close to the heart of Adventism has been the Madaba Plains project in central Jordan, led by Adventist scholars such as Siegfried Horn, Douglas R. Clark, Lawrence T. Geraty, Oystein S. La Bianca, and Randall W. Younker. Their major work has centered on Tall Hisban, Tall Jalul, and Tall al ˋUmayri, the latter with its wonderful four‑room house, all of which have revealed important historical information such as the fact that the Transjordan was occupied and with major settlements in the Late Bronze era (ca. 1500–1200 B.C.), contrary to previous surveys and the claims of scholarship.   

What is fundamentally at stake in the archaeology–Bible engagement is the matter of authority. Conservatives generally cede authority to the Bible as God’s Word and therefore hold the sacred text to be without significant historical, scientific, or theological error. Scholars who claim that the Bible at best is only the witness of an ancient people to these perceived realities are quite ready to claim objectivity for themselves and to label those who differ as “obscurantists,” “pre‑suppositionists,” or, worse still, “fundamentalists”! In any event, authority from this point of view is to be located in archaeological and other scientific research whereby ancient times can be closely examined by themselves and for themselves without the biased intrusion of dogma.   

Most ideally, I suppose, archaeology ought indeed to be pursued without the objective of proving anything, finding satisfaction in whatever the spade turns up. If it should substantiate claims made by the Bible, all well and good; if it does not, and, in fact, shows the Bible to be in error, so much for that. But life is not that way. All conscientious scientific researchers look for some thing or some way to validate hypotheses or to reinforce provisional or even hoped‑for results.

A case in point is the disappointment expressed by NASA scientists that signs of life cannot thus far be detected on Mars. Should not scientists simply go about their work dispassionately with no emotional attachment to what they are doing? Why do they really care whether life exists on that planet or not? The answer, of course, is that in any field of research, including archaeology, the personal preferences and unavoidable emotional investment of the researcher in each case will cloud or inform or even distort the methods the individual employs and the conclusions he or she eventually reaches.   

The bottom line is that both texts and tells must be informed by “exegesis,” that is, subjected to the most rigorous and objective investigation possible so as to arrive at a proper understanding of what each is saying. Obviously, the materials thus examined are vastly different: Texts work with words, clauses, sentences, and larger literary contexts; whereas archaeology works with architecture, artifacts (chiefly pottery), and, in rare cases, with inscriptions. In the latter case, these, like biblical texts, must also be “read” through a process of decipherment, transcription, and interpretation in terms of genre, dating, and comparison to similar texts in the same or different languages. It is fair to say with regard to archaeology that mute as well as inscriptional remains can be as mishandled, misinterpreted, and bent to ideological presuppositions as readily as can biblical writings and with the same disastrous results.   

A contemporary example involves an evangelical archaeologist (hereafter, Mr. X) who claims to have found the site of ancient Sodom, destroyed, according to the Old Testament, in the time of Abraham (Gen. 18:20–33; 19:29). Most conservative scholars date Abraham to the end of the third millennium before Christ and the beginning of the second―that is, ca. 2000 B.C. Mr. X, however, has dated the destruction of his site, which he adamantly holds to be Sodom, at ca. 1600 B.C., 400 years later. Rather than conjecture that his dating of the destruction layer may be incorrect or that the site is not Sodom after all, he has argued that the biblical chronology is at fault or, at least, has been misinterpreted by those who place Abraham at an earlier period.

In making his case, Mr. X construes the 480 years of 1 Kings 6:1, which mark the period between the Exodus and the laying of the foundations of Solomon’s temple in 950 B.C., to be a multiple of 40 and 12, a position that is popular with those committed to a late-Exodus date. The 40, to him, is an artificial number used to indicate the length of an ideal generation; however, a normal, literal generation is more likely 25 years or so. Thus, the text, in his view, is really saying that there was actually 300 years between the Exodus and the temple, the former, on alleged archaeological grounds, now being 1250 B.C. Even with this adjustment, Abraham, who died 450 years before the Exodus (by this scheme at 1785), would have been off the scene as late as 1600 B.C. Clearly Abraham, by this reckoning, could not be contemporary to the destruction of Sodom in 1600, so Mr. X proposes that the entire patriarchal period must be moved forward to the Middle Bronze Age (2000–1550 B.C.) and beyond, into the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1550–1200 B.C.). This necessitates an entirely new set of dates for the great patriarchs with Abraham in old age at least as late as 1600, Isaac much less than the attributed age of 180 at his death, and Jacob likewise much younger than 147 at his death. The reason is that Moses and the Exodus, the conquest of Canaan under Joshua, and the period of the judges must all be compressed between the date of the death of Jacob and the commencement of David’s kingship at 1006. At the very least, this necessitates an Exodus date no later than 1250, a date acceptable to Mr. X.

To compound the complexity (a necessity if Mr. X’s postulation is correct), he reduces the ages of the patriarchs, regarding the figures as artificial, again a change mandated by his 1600 B.C. destruction of Sodom. Though he does not provide even hypothetical figures, a proposal such as halving the numbers to more reasonable lifespans would yield something like the following: If Abraham died at half the age attributed to him (87 rather than 175), perhaps 20 years after 1600, he would have been born in 1667 or so. Isaac, at the same truncated age of one‑half the biblical figure of 180 years (that is, 90), might have been born perhaps when Abraham was 90, or in 1577, and Jacob, when his father was 30 years old, in 1547. But Mr. X had already proposed that Jacob entered Egypt with the Hyksos, usually dated around 1730 B.C., thus eradicating either that suggestion or a birthdate that late.

This kind of tedious recitation of chronology demonstrates the resorts to which an archaeological benchmark, when taken as absolute, forces radical transformations of biblical data in the interest of preserving the authority of the benchmark as opposed to the authority of the biblical text read at face value. Surely it is more prudent to reassess the archaeological data in light of Scripture rather than vice versa.

The Relevance of Bibliology to Biblical Theology 

I began my classes on biblical theology for many years with the quip, “A defective bibliology will inevitably result in a defective theology,” a principle I still maintain. The reasons are many: (1) theology, especially biblical theology, is inextricably tied to the Bible; (2) how one views the nature of the Bible will determine to what extent it has theological authority; (3) the seriousness with which one takes the data of the Bible in every way it speaks has a direct relationship to the role those data will take in shaping a proper biblical theology; and (4) a legitimate biblical theology must be subordinated to the Bible itself when and if the Bible is properly interpreted and properly applied.

It is incumbent on the theologian to have a mastery of as many of the sub‑disciplines of biblical scholarship as possible. These include (1) a knowledge of the languages of the Bible (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek); (2) familiarity with the historical and cultural world in which the Old Testament texts were composed; (3) a comprehensive overview of the contents of the Bible and a grasp of how its integral parts intersect to create a single grand narrative of salvation history; (4) a knowledge of the historical‑critical approaches that profoundly affect popular conceptions of the nature and authority of the Bible; and (5) a sense of how the methods employed fundamentally shape biblical‑theological outcomes.   

This is particularly the case with the diachronic method through which theologians trace the theme or themes of the Bible throughout their historical, linear development. The principle involved is sometimes referred to as “progressive revelation” since it operates with the assumption that God revealed Himself and His purposes gradually through the course of biblical history as the recipients of that revelation became increasingly able to understand its truths and to live by them. The aforementioned prerequisites to undertaking the challenge of creating a diachronic theological system become more understandably critical when its linear dimension comes into play.   

However, the weakness of the diachronic method when applied to the Old Testament lies precisely in the fact that the flow of the biblical narrative cannot always be discerned in the non-historical literature of the material. This is notably the case in the poetic and wisdom literature and even in the prophets. In the former collection, many of the psalms offer no clues as to their authorship and/or setting and much of the wisdom material likewise lacks such helpfulness, especially Job and Proverbs. Some of the prophets are difficult to date (e.g., Obadiah and Joel) and others seem not to follow chronological sequence, Jeremiah being a good case in point. Therefore, these sections at least are difficult to square with a consistently diachronic approach.   

In some models of biblical theology, a more systematic path is followed, one hardly different from systematic theology in that it, like systematic theology, is built along synchronic lines. It prefers to disregard rigid historical and chronological strictures and to isolate themes or categories around and within which theological interpretation can be organized. The perceived deficiencies in this model are what led to the diachronic method in the first place, since it seemed that to flatten out theology without respect to the times and circumstances of the people who first produced and heard the sacred Scriptures was to disregard ordinary pedagogical principles of learning that included the notion that truth or facts can only gradually be assimilated as learners become more and more mature and capable of absorbing accumulating revelatory information.  

A rather recent media res approach, “canonical theology,” is so‑called in that it undertakes the task of deriving Old Testament biblical theology from the canonical order of the ancient Jewish tradition of the tripartite sequence of Pentateuch, Prophets, and Writings. A theology based strictly on this principle has the advantage of (a) eliminating consideration of the details of progressive revelation, on the one hand, and (b) forcing a presupposed and perhaps alien system onto the Procrustean bed of the text. However, this method also presupposes that the canonical shape reflects not only hoary Jewish tradition but also that the tradition was essentially divinely inspired. This is an assumption about canon formation never even hinted at in Jewish literature. Thus, although canonical theology bridges the yawning canyon between diachronic and synchronic methods, it has its own dogma that disallows complete objectivity.

In sum, the approach that views the Old Testament as a gradually unfolding record of God’s self‑disclosure seems best and least likely to cater to any given theologian’s own predilections or preferences. Gerhard Hasel, who opted for what he called a “multiplex approach” that, for the Christian, must also embrace the New Testament, put the matter as follows: “A multiplex approach leaves room for indicating the variety of connections between the Testaments and avoids an explication of the manifold testimonies through a single structure or unilinear point of view. The multiplex approach has the advantage of remaining faithful to both similarity and dissimilarity as well as old and new without in the least distorting the original historical witness of the text in its literal sense and its larger kerygmatic intention nor falling short in the recognition of the larger context to which the OT belongs.”3

With this brief consideration of bibliology and biblical theology and their interdependence as a foundation, it is appropriate now to step back and give thought to the interface between archaeology and Old Testament biblical theology.

Archaeology and Old Testament Biblical Theology 

Three considerations must come to the fore in the attempt to bridge these two separate and distinct disciplines, namely, (1) an absolutely unbiased and objective archaeological methodology; (2) a view of the Old Testament that its texts themselves take: that they claim to be the Word of God; but also as documents that they must be subjected to the most rigorous and objective exegetical and interpretive approaches possible; and (3) the obvious fact that the nature and character of the Bible itself determines both the content and shape of biblical theology. Only then can the interface between the “soft” science of theology and the “hard” science of archaeology be credible and mutually beneficial. The following steps are proposed if such results are to be achieved:

1. So‑called biblical archaeology cannot make the case that because it is archaeology done for the church or for the glory of God, it can bypass the normal standards of objectivity and personal disengagement. Whatever has proved to be acceptable method in the pursuit of archaeological method in general should be applied also to biblical archaeology no matter the outcome. If the result appears to weaken or even totally undermine the case for a biblically based interpretation of a text, then both the interpretation and the archaeological conclusions should be held in abeyance until a definitive harmonization or compelling reinterpretation of the data on either or both sides of the case can be achieved.

2. The Bible should not be considered a priori an illegitimate stepchild unworthy of consideration as a trustworthy historical document despite its primary purpose and function as a religious composition and even self‑claim to be divine revelation. The reasons for this trust (among others) are: (a) its generally agreed-upon historiographical literary genre, and (b) its remarkable record of conformity to known historical persons, places, and events obtained through centuries of painstaking efforts by secular archaeologists, epigraphers, philologists, editors, and historians. The persistence of cynics and skeptics in their denial of these established facts and the logical corollary that the Bible almost uniquely falls short of the standards expected of an historical artifact remains puzzling to scholars.

Three Recent Interfacings of Archaeology and the Bible 

Of the many possible examples of the mutual interconnectedness and interdependence of archaeology and the Bible, the three presented here are limited to the historicity of Israel’s United Monarchy period and especially of David and his reign. As to the latter, he is the principal figure in the books of 1 Samuel 16 through 1 Kings 2 and 1 Chronicles 3:1–9; 11:1–29:30, an astounding 59 chapters or 7.7 percent of the entire Old Testament. This is by far the most devoted to any single biblical character. Yet, the majority of modern critics either question or flatly deny David’s very existence. A logical adjunct to this is the same skepticism about the reality of a royal palace in Jerusalem of the scope and scale fitting a king of the Bible’s description of David and his realm. Therefore, the following rather recent discoveries are offered in support of the biblical narrative:

● The Tell Dan inscription (ca. 850 B.C.)

● The City of David project in Jerusalem (early 10th century B.C.)

● The fortress at Queyafa (OT Shar‘aim?) (early 10th century B.C.)

The Tel Dan Inscription. Wrapping up a day’s work at Tel Dan in the dig season of 1993–1994, an associate of Avraham Biran, the lead archaeologist, noted in the slanting rays of the late afternoon sun an irregularity in one of the stones that lined the gateway of the ancient site. Closer inspection revealed a worn inscription that, upon close study soon after, proved to be an Aramaic royal inscription from the reign of Hazael (841–801 B.C.) who at the time was at war with Israel to the south (2 Kings 8:12, 13;10:32, 33; 12:17, 18). Of special interest is the fact that the Aramean referred to his southern enemy not as Israel but as “the house [i.e., dynasty] of David.” Though by that time the nation was known more commonly abroad as Israel, it was also designated as the “house of so and so,” an example from the same period being the nomenclature “House of Omriâ” after the powerful father of Ahab, King Omri. For it also to bear the name “House of David” would therefore be not at all irregular. Against the arguments by some that the existence of a “House of David” need not be proof that such an individual actually lived is undercut by the analogous fact that the “Omri” in “House of Omriâ” can hardly be denied historicity.

The Khirbet Qeiyafa Inscription. For many years, a prominent site that lay near the proposed boundary between Israel and Philistia gave promise of yielding important information of some period of Israelite history. Many scholars identified it as ancient Shaaraim, “the place of two gates.” Recent excavation has not only confirmed this identification because of the double structure formation of the gates but also as an important outpost from the United Monarchy, probably the first half of the 10th century. Most remarkable is the discovery of an inscription in archaic Hebrew, now considered the oldest of its kind ever found in that language. Though no well‑known persons are mentioned in the inscription, it does refer to Philistine cities and suggests the kind of uneasiness along the border reflected also in biblical texts of the United Monarchy period (1 Sam. 13:1–7; 14:1–48; 17:1–54; 31:1–10: 2 Sam. 5:17–25; 21:15–22). In fact, Shaaraim itself is mentioned in 1 Samuel 17:52, though only as being on the route to Gath from the Valley of Elah following David’s dispatch of Goliath. The significance otherwise is that the site’s massive fortifications and public buildings bespeak the kind of project only a powerful and wealthy nation could produce. This could be only in the period of David and Solomon.

The City of David Project. Since 2005, Eilat Mazar has conducted a comprehensive, large‑scale excavation of the spur of land between the Kidron and Central (or) Tyropoean valleys just south of the Old City of Jerusalem, the so‑called “city of David.” She has begun her work where Kathleen Kenyon, Yigal Shiloh, Ronny Reich, and Eli Shukron left off excavation primarily in areas adjacent to the location where she has focused her work. On the basis of the monumental architecture, pottery, and other cultural indicators, Mazar has concluded that “the Large Stone Structure [of Iron IIA of the early 10th century] should be identified with King David’s Palace, built by the Phoenicians” and “it is a testament to the power of the ruling authority behind the endeavor.”4 Her opinion has only been reinforced in reports subsequent to 2009.

The interface of archaeology and biblical theology provides an excellent example of mutual interaction and the possibility, at least, of mutual enlightenment in the study of either or both these fields of inquiry. They are but two disciplines among many that could and perhaps should be addressed in tandem. The logical and epistemological issues at hand are not primarily ones of method—though obviously digging and reading are two different kinds of exercise—but of authority, priority, and commitment. If there is a cardinal sin in the adversarial comparative method, it is that of presupposing the outcome before one begins and doing whatever is necessary to predetermine the outcome by whatever means possible. In the case of the Bible and archaeology, so‑called “biblicists” are frequently accused of trying to “prove” the Bible by finding artifacts and formations that can be bent in the direction of providing that very proof; whereas, on the other hand, biblical scholars or historians of a more iconoclastic tradition can be said to be looking for evidence that undermines the “superstitious” or “fundamentalist” ignorance of those who regard the Bible as absolute truth, no matter the subject on which it speaks. While these may be caricatures in some sense, an element of ideological reality undergirds each.   

A second concluding point is that neither archaeology nor biblical scholarship should be undertaken by amateurs, that is, dilettantes who may be eager to do the hard work of each discipline but who are inadequately trained by learning and experience to do so. It is commonplace on a dig for a square supervisor to yell “stay off the balks” or “don’t trip over the strings.” Likewise, students of the Bible who know little or nothing of the languages, literatures, and theology of the Bible ought to avoid the pontification common to young scholars in particular but completely out of bounds for the ingenuous who may have grand motives but who can do great exegetical and theological harm. Of them one could also warn about the balks and the strings.   

However, solid training and impeccable method are not enough, and here is where the two undertakings may have to part company. What is at stake is truth and the kind of truth to be found in an ultimate sense only in God and in His revelatory word. Truth, of course, must be distinguished from mere fact, no matter how compelling, because facts are not self‑interpreting any more than the Bible is. Pottery, tombs, and implements also must, like Scripture, be subject to exegesis. They lie before us mute and meaningless unless they can be put into some kind of context that itself is not biased. Moreover, there is no life in pottery and other artifacts, no redemptive quality, no access to God, and here is where the novice can outstrip the scholar whether of the academy or the tall. Did not Paul ask, “Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (1 Cor. 1:20, NIV).

Archaeology and biblical theology may, and indeed, should interface, but where doubt lies as to truth and authority we do well to hearken to a man who lived in the archaeological period, as it were—to Joshua. To paraphrase: “Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the archaeological conclusions reached on the other side of the River, or the gods of secular scholarship in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord of the Word of our God” (Joshua 24:15).


Eugene H. Merrill, Ph.D., is an Old Testament scholar who has served as a Distinguished Professor of Old Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary in Texas.



1. Gerhard Hasel, Old Testament Theology: Basic Issues in the Current Debate (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1991), 195.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid., 207.
4. Eilat Mazar, The Palace of King David (Jerusalem: Shoham Academic Research and Publication, 2009), 64, 65.