We are two longtime friends who teach at different universities, one a midsized private university (George Washington University in Washington, D.C.—Cline) and the other a branch campus of a large state university (Purchase College, State University of New York—Hallote). We offer a variety of different classes, but we have one in common: Biblical Archaeology. Each of us has taught the class numerous times over the years, with enrollments ranging from 25 to 110 students (depending on how early in the morning the class is offered!).
Teaching Biblical archaeology to undergraduates is very different from teaching the subject to graduate students. While we would have no qualms about discussing the intricacies and nuances of Iron Age IIA pottery, architecture or mortuary practices with graduate students, we cannot do so with undergraduates, for two main reasons.
1. Biblical archaeology is often the first—and often only—archaeology class these students will ever take. They need to grasp the basics before all else.
2. We need to devote quite a bit of class time to combating, or at least addressing, some of the misconceptions that students have about the field. Our students come in with knowledge about the subject primarily from television documentaries and their religious education. Many of them hold their faith dear, whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim or other, and either do not know what to expect or have questions about archaeology and the Bible, especially about Moses and the Exodus, Abraham and the Patriarchs, and Joshua and the Israelite Conquest of Canaan. When presented with the frequently ambivalent or even nonexistent data available to answer such questions, they respond in a variety of ways—intrigued, hostile, defensive, combative, accepting or neutral—but they are almost always interested and engaged.
This is why both of us begin each semester by warning students that exposure to the material may result in their questioning their faith and/or what they learned in Sunday school or Hebrew school. In particular, if they have taken the class to understand how archaeology confirms the Bible, we inform them that they might want to take some other class instead, because that’s not how Biblical archaeology works.
That is different from the real task of teaching Biblical archaeology. This subject covers a study of the lands and peoples of ancient Israel and the Near East from the early second millennium B.C.E. to the early first millennium C.E. We also know that we are going to have to address some very specific questions—from the whereabouts of Noah’s Ark and the Garden of Eden to whether the Ark of the Covenant ever existed and if the parting of the Red Sea can be linked to the eruption of Thera in the Aegean.
One of us (Cline) has chosen to be proactive in addressing these two distinct aspects of a Biblical archaeology course. For example, when discussing Late Bronze Age Canaan, in the first meeting, I feature an interactive PowerPoint lecture focusing on the pottery, architecture, material culture and burial customs of the period and its major sites, along with an overview of relevant textual discoveries such as the Amarna letters. During the second meeting, however, I specifically discuss the archaeological evidence for the Exodus, which almost always develops into a rough-and-tumble, no-holds-barred, free-for-all debate. Every student is invited to weigh in, present the relevant data and express his or her opinion, and no hypothesis is dismissed out of hand before it has been carefully considered by the entire class. And, just before we run out of time, I take a vote as to which hypothesis for the Exodus seems most likely; usually the choices are between an early date (c. 1450 B.C.E.), a late date (c. 1250 B.C.E.), a gradual process (taking place over 200 years) or a nonevent (i.e., created by the Biblical authors). The results of the vote change each semester, sometimes dramatically, depending on the character of the class.
The other (Hallote) takes a rather different approach. I try to get students to switch the questions they ask. Instead of having a discussion about “Did the Exodus happen?” I steer the conversation toward historiography and zero in on why the Exodus narrative became so important for Israelites and Judahites of the sixth century B.C.E., when some scholars believe the narrative was compiled. Then we discuss the threads of archaeological evidence that do exist, how they may or may not relate to what appears in the Bible, and talk about how histories are written.
Another major problem involves something completely basic and yet essential to the course: which textbook(s) to use. Between us we’ve tried them all, from Amihai Mazar’s Archaeology of the Land of the Bible to Israel Finkelstein’s and Neil Asher Silberman’s The Bible Unearthed. Choosing a textbook, however, is a little like Goldilocks and the Three Bears: one is too dense and detailed; another is not detailed enough. One is too biased, another is so impartial as to be bland and boring. And virtually none addresses both the “scientific” side of Biblical 078archaeology (i.e., the material culture) and the “religious” side of Biblical archaeology (i.e., did the Exodus take place?). So, we both usually assign at least two different textbooks and then supplement them with articles, including, of course, articles from past issues of BAR.
In the end, though, we both agree that this is one of the most rewarding classes that we teach, in part because we are always finding new ways to look at the evidence.
By the way, auditors are welcome, if there are any seats available …
We are two longtime friends who teach at different universities, one a midsized private university (George Washington University in Washington, D.C.—Cline) and the other a branch campus of a large state university (Purchase College, State University of New York—Hallote). We offer a variety of different classes, but we have one in common: Biblical Archaeology. Each of us has taught the class numerous times over the years, with enrollments ranging from 25 to 110 students (depending on how early in the morning the class is offered!). Teaching Biblical archaeology to undergraduates is very different from teaching the subject to graduate […]