I have had a long-standing public disagreement with my friend Bill Dever, one of the United States’ leading archaeologists, concerning the term “Biblical archaeology.” Some years ago Bill argued that Biblical archaeology was not an academic discipline at all and therefore the term should simply be abandoned.a More recently, he has somewhat modified his stand; now he speaks of the “new Biblical archaeology,” which he defines as a dialogue between Syro-Palestinian archaeology, as he prefers to call his field, and Biblical studies.b
Until now, the battle has been over the word “Biblical.” But this is dangerous doctrine: We need people who are experts on archaeology and the Bible—or on the Bible and archaeology. We cannot depend on separate experts who get together and talk. To be effective, we need people who can handle, deal with and understand from the inside the materials of both disciplines. Only in that way can archaeology adequately inform and be incorporated into Biblical studies. (This is not to say that archaeologists cannot also work on problems that they consider unrelated to the Bible.)
This line of reasoning occurred to me in quite a different connection. We are about to go to press with what I hope will be a groundbreaking new book. It is called Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism—A Parallel History of the First Six Centuries. Among the staff, we call it Parallel History. It is a kind of sequel to a highly successful book that we previously published called Ancient Israel—A Short History from Abraham to the Roman Destruction of the Temple. In each of these two books, we enlisted eight or nine experts to write a chapter apiece, which I then edited. There is a difference between the two, however. In Parallel History, we are telling two different stories—in effect, interweaving them chapter by chapter, first a chapter relating to one story (Christianity) and then a chapter relating to the other Judaism). In considering the experts invited to participate in this project, some people fell into one camp the history of one or the other—and some into the other. But no one was a candidate for inclusion in both camps—or in both stories. You were either an expert in early Christianity or in the development of rabbinic Judaism, but not in both.
When it came time to publish the book, a leading American textbook publisher queried college, university and seminary teachers as to whether they might use Parallel History in one of their courses. Although the book was beautifully written by world-renowned experts, the answer was almost universally no. The reason was that there is apparently no existing course in the entire United States covering the subject matter of this book. You can take a course in early Christianity or in rabbinic Judaism, but you cannot take one on both, in other words, on their parallel development. The reason is simple. There is almost no one who can teach it. Or, to be more specific, there is almost no expert on, say, patristics, who is also an expert on the Talmud. The two disciplines are separate and distinct.
This book may create a new course. It may even change the way this obscure period is taught. We hope so. What a wonderful experience it would be for college, university and seminary students of either faith to study the history of this period in a parallel, coordinate, co-equal way—to ask parallel questions in the development of each story. That it has not happened until now is, I am sure, a result of the way academic disciplines are divided—and therefore the way academicians are divided.
A third example, involving the Dead Sea Scrolls: The scrolls are of extraordinary importance in fleshing out the Jewish background of nascent Christianity. The scrolls are, quite simply, 800 original Jewish religious documents from the time of Christianity’s birth and from the centuries just before that. Regardless of what else we might have to enlighten us about this period, the scrolls would stand in the front rank. Every New Testament scholar should want to be intimately familiar with them, to mine them for the light they can shed. This would be true even if we had numerous other sources for this period. The fact is, however, we have precious little from this time. The Dead Sea Scrolls are virtually the only original manuscripts from this period. Other than the scrolls, our principal sources are copies that have gone through a tendentious editorial process, and they are later in time, sometimes much later. The New Testament Gospels take up chronologically almost precisely where the Dead Sea Scrolls leave off. The writing of the Gospels began with Mark in about 70 A.D. and ended with John about a century later. Moreover, for the faith community of Christians, the New Testament is the object of study; it is the end-product we are trying to understand. What else do we have? Answer: Some history written in Rome at the end of the first century by a Jewish historian named Josephus; the Mishnah, a Jewish legal text collected in about 200 A.D.; the Talmud, which reached closure 200 years and 400 years after the Mishnah (the Palestinian Talmud and Babylonian Talmud respectively); and the Dead Sea Scrolls! In the light of this extreme paucity of textual material, the Dead Sea Scrolls should be of major importance to every New Testament scholar.
Yet they are not. Most of what is being written about the Dead Sea Scrolls and Christianity is the work of people who specialize in the scrolls. Most New Testament scholars make precious little use of the scrolls in elucidating early Christianity. It is almost as if they were never discovered. Perhaps this will change in the years to come, as scroll texts become increasingly accessible and understood. As of now, however, only a very small percentage of New Testament scholars are conversant in a serious way with the Dead Sea Scrolls, and still fewer apply them to their New Testament writings.
The burgeoning of knowledge has led to professional specialization in almost all fields, not just in Biblical studies. There are no more Albrights in our field. Few, if any, scholars today would have the chutzpah to write a book called From the Stone Age to Christianity, as Albright did.
But specialization also has its dangers. Although one human brain can contain just so much, scholars must nevertheless be courageous as well as cautious. We need people who can understand from the inside more than one restricted body of literature and more than one method for extracting history. We need scholars who will dare to be synthetic, who are grounded in the details of more than one area of specialization. We need scholars who welcome the new material as a challenge, not a curse, and who will lead us to an ever-fresh understanding of where we have come from.
I have had a long-standing public disagreement with my friend Bill Dever, one of the United States’ leading archaeologists, concerning the term “Biblical archaeology.” Some years ago Bill argued that Biblical archaeology was not an academic discipline at all and therefore the term should simply be abandoned.a More recently, he has somewhat modified his stand; now he speaks of the “new Biblical archaeology,” which he defines as a dialogue between Syro-Palestinian archaeology, as he prefers to call his field, and Biblical studies.b Until now, the battle has been over the word “Biblical.” But this is dangerous doctrine: We need […]