Why “biblical archaeology” so very often equals “pseudo-archaeology”

An aerial view of Jericho showing the ruins of...
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There are doubtless many who consider themselves “biblical archaeologists” who are a genuine passion for archaeology and science and approach their work scientifically, allowing the data to lead them to whatever conclusion it must.

But it seems that the focus of “biblical archaeology,” by and large, isn’t about science rather mythology. Specifically, convincing the world that mythology isn’t mythology. There’s a lot of history in the Judeo-Christian scriptures. Lots of it. Unfortunately, there is a lot of political and ideological propaganda in it along with etiological myth. The story of Joshua’s conquest of Israel appears to be one such culmination of propaganda and origin myth, which is constantly hammered by “biblical archaeologists” as a path of “proof” that every word of the bible is true. It’s not enough to lean on these mythical stories as sources of inspiration and inquiry, in much the same way we do Sumerian and Akkadian texts. Because of religious fundamentalism, these stories must be literally and divinely true.

Except they just don’t pan out that way when science is applied to the sites mentioned in the Joshua story. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of place-names in the biblical narrative which match quite well. But this is also true of nearly all the great works of cultural literature in antiquity (Gilgamesh, Homeric epics, etc.).

Take Jericho, for instance. Kathleen Kenyon excavated this site between 1955 and 1958. Her results showed that the destruction of Jericho was at around 1500 BCE, during the period that Egypt was expelling the Hyksos, so it was very likely destroyed by the Egyptians. In addition, Kenyon’s results demonstrated that the site was abandoned by the alleged “conquest” in the 13th century BCE.

More recently, Bryant Wood attempted to contest the dating of the destruction level at Jericho. Wood’s key point of evidence is a radiocarbon sample that was among the many samples collected by Kenyon. He puts a lot of words and a few other points of more spurious evidence around it, talks it up like he’s being fair and balanced, but comes down on the side of a 1440 BCE date during the Late Bronze Age. Did you see it? If you go to his article on the site linked, the key piece of evidence he cites as his source is footnote # 39, which leads to Kathleen Kenyon’s fifth volume on her excavations report: Excavations at Jericho Volume 5: The Pottery Phases of the Tell and Other Finds (Jericho 5) (London: BSAJ, 1983). Her co-writer was Thomas A. Holland also an archaeologist.

But here’s the problem with Wood’s key point of evidence: it doesn’t exist.

The British Museum retracted the date due to the discovery of calibration problems with the equipment used to take the radiocarbon measurements. Once the date was corrected for the sample, it was consistent with Kenyon’s original 1550 BCE destruction date for Jericho IV. For corroboration, in the event that you might think there’s a vast secular conspiracy to suppress archaeological data and biblical mythology, you could have a gander at Bruins and van der Plicht, who also dated samples found in the same layer (charred cereal grains) independently and without any intention of proving or disproving Wood’s speculations. Their data falsified Wood’s and supported the conclusion that City IV was destroyed around 1550 BCE. Clearly during the Hyksos conflict and probably sacked by Egypt.

To my knowledge, Wood has never, ever retracted or revised his conclusions. In the face of scientific evidence and empirical data, this is, itself, is evidence of bad science. Indeed, the very nature of starting with a conclusion (that biblical narratives like Joshua’s “conquest” are proof of supernatural beliefs) then sorting out the material record so as to fit that data, is pseudo-archaeology.

Now Wood is at it again. He claims to have “discovered” Ai -a site that was discovered in 1933 by Judith Marquet-Krause. The site and Marquet-Krause’s conclusions were confirmed by Joseph Callaway, an archaeologist of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, albeit quite reluctantly:

For many years, the primary source for the understanding of the settlement of the first Israelites was the Hebrew Bible, but every reconstruction based upon the biblical traditions has floundered on the evidence from archaeological remains […] the primary source has to be archaeological remains ((Dever, William (2003) <i>Who were the early Israelites and where did they come from?</i>, quoting: Callaway, Joseph A. [1985]).

The “biblical archaeology” venture which includes Wood appears to be mostly a tourism / evangelism scam than an actual excavation if you look at this post on the same site. It’ll be interesting to see what evidence he has to support the apparent notion that the site which has been known as Ai for the last 80 years isn’t. It must be some extraordinary evidence indeed. But , if his track record is any gauge, it will probably be spurious data, cherry-picked to concur with pre-conceived conclusions, while contradicting data are carefully swept aside, discarded and ignored.

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About Carl Feagans 398 Articles
Professional archaeologist that currently works for the United States Forest Service at the Land Between the Lakes Recreation Area in Kentucky and Tennessee. I'm also a 12-year veteran of the U.S. Army and spent another 10 years doing adventure programming with at-risk teens before earning my master's degree at the University of Texas at Arlington.

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