Magness-Archaeology and History

Okay, enough with the theology.  Not that I promise to avoid theology in the future or even today. Everything has something to do with theology.  But my main interests include history and texts and archaeology in the Ancient Near East especially as they relate to Jewish and Christian development.

Anyhow today I began to read The Archeology of the Holy Land by Jodi Magness.  She teaches at the University of North Carolina and has previously written about the archeology of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls and the archeology of early Islamic settlement in Palestine.  The Archeology of the Holy Land was published in August of 2012.

In her introduction I notice right away that she has some technical and academic definitions of the boundaries of her field.  She distinguishes archeology from history. Archeology has to do with objects found at archaeological sites: artifacts.  History has to do with written accounts: texts.  Of course, she agrees that sometimes archaeologists find texts and that those texts are artifacts.  The Dead Sea Scrolls would be an example.  But texts like our Bible, the LLX, Philo, or Josephus, are strictly the realm of historians, while archaeologists deal with stuff that has been dug up or found at ancient sites.

She also says that human and animal remains, although archaeologists may discover them, are not strictly the province of archaeologists.

I see that these boundaries help academic specialists keep their fields straight.  This aspect is my job and that aspect is somebody else’s job.  But I almost always use the word “history” in a much broader sense to mean the study of the past or even what actually happened in the past. I would include natural history.  I would include oral history.

I am afraid that narrowing the field has resulted in the excluding of relevant evidence. In the study of Israel, there are now those who strongly discount the evidence of the biblical texts.  Magness addresses this herself, saying that the biblical texts are less useful because the writers had biases and agendas.  They were not interested in writing actual history.  This is true.  The texts do not give us precision.  But Magness discusses how artifacts like radio-carbon samples, coins, and pottery do not give us precision either.

Skilled interpreters have to make judgments about all these things.  History is an approximation. But it is not utterly relative.  There are things we can know.  I read a post-modernist history of the Battle of Gettysburg.  The author deconstructed myths about that battle.  But most of what he discounted seemed pretty trivial.  That Lee was defeated there remains a rock-solid fact of history.

Magness gives a very helpful overview of how today’s archaeologists try to date their finds.  I remember in seminary being bored by discussions of pottery styles and how these can help date ancient finds.  But Magness’s discussion of this was interesting, and I think it is a subject that is hard to make interesting.  Some of what archaeologists do is dreary, detail work.

I should mention the scope of Magness’s work.  She does not deal with the archeology of the holy land in the first temple period, or the settlement period, or the patriarchal period except in a brief overview of the bronze and iron ages.   Her focus is on the era that starts with the Babylonian occupation.  She concludes with the early Islamic rule in Jerusalem in the seventh and eighth centuries C.E.


About theoutwardquest

I have many interests, but will blog mostly about what I read in the fields of Bible and religion.
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