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Historical Biblical Archaeology and the Future: The New Pragmatism

July 2012 (116.3)

Book Review

Historical Biblical Archaeology and the Future: The New Pragmatism

By Thomas E. Levy. Pp. xvi + 375, figs. 39. The David Brown Book Company, Oakville, Conn. 2010. $39.95. ISBN 978-1-84553-258-1 (paper).

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This provocative volume consists of 22 essays that look primarily at the future of historical biblical archaeology. Written by leading archaeologists and anthropologists working in the Levant, as well as prominent biblical scholars, the papers were commissioned in 2006 on the occasion of the establishment of the Norma Kershaw Endowed Chair in the Archaeology of Ancient Israel and Neighboring Lands, endowed by Norma and Reuben Kershaw at the University of California, San Diego. The first occupant of the chair also happens to be Levy, the editor of the volume.

After an initial preface by the editor, the 22 papers are divided among four sections: (1) “Into the Future—New Trends in Historical Biblical Archaeology” (five papers); (2) “Some Applications” (six papers); (3) “From Text to Turf” (five papers); and (4) “In Perspective” (six papers). Levy sets the tone in the opening chapter of the first section, “The New Pragmatism: Integrating Anthropological, Digital, and Historical Biblical Archaeologies.” Here, he espouses what he calls “a pragmatic approach to historical Biblical Archaeology” (9). He stresses that this approach, which includes bringing advancements in methods and theory into the discussion, will help propel the discipline of historical biblical archaeology to higher levels of research by developing new and innovative ways of investigating and discussing sacred and other historical texts in conjunction with the archaeological record.

As I understand it, Levy’s “New Pragmatism” would combine the best elements of processual and postprocessual archaeology with historiographical and literary/religious studies and blend them together with a rigorous scientific methodology (9–13). A Neo-Pragmatist, as one might dub its practitioners, would ask problem-oriented questions, conduct background research, and then build and test hypotheses through experimentation and analysis of the data collection. He or she would then examine the results from different theoretical points of view, keeping clearly in mind the specific historical context and circumstances in which the observations, experiments, and data collection have taken place, “until the most parsimonious explanation is achieved” (11).

In this brief review, I am not able to comment in depth about each paper, but overall I found the contributions to be uniformly interesting and thought-provoking, with some more readable than others, as is almost always the case in such edited volumes. I found myself wishing, however, that more of the papers had been written with Levy’s explicit goals and aims for New Pragmatism in mind, as those by Killebrew (ch. 9), Magness (ch. 20), and Joffe (ch. 21) seem to have been. Perhaps such specifically directed contributions could be the nucleus of Levy’s next edited volume, with a firm editorial hand at the helm to keep the contributors and contributions focused and to give this fledgling approach a fighting chance at survival.

Thus, for example, Killebrew’s contribution, “The Philistines and Their Material Culture in Context: Future Directions of Historical Biblical Archaeology for the Study of Cultural Transmission,” asks about the transmission of Aegean-style material culture in the eastern Mediterranean. She begins by reviewing different methodological and theoretical approaches to culture transmission, especially as applied to the Philistines (158–59). She then summarizes the recent archaeological evidence for early Philistine material culture, including pottery, cult, architecture, crafts/technology, and cuisine, that challenges the “20th-century Eurocentric hyper-diffusionist migration interpretations” (156), which frequently portray the Philistines as simply Mycenaean refugees fleeing the Greek mainland at or near the end of the Bronze Age (159–62). After examining the results, she hypothesizes that two types of diffusion—stimulus and complex—represent approaches that can be used to clarify aspects of the cultural transmission of Aegean-style culture (162–63). She concludes with suggestions for new directions in research that might contribute to a more pragmatic understanding of the Philistines in the context of historical biblical archaeology.

Similarly, in her contribution, “The Archaeology of Palestine in the Post-Biblical Periods: The Intersection of Text and Artifact,” Magness asks about future prospects for the archaeology of Palestine in the post-biblical periods. She begins by reviewing and summarizing the present state of biblical and post-biblical archaeology in academia (320–21) and then does the same for the controversies surrounding Qumran, the effect of postmodernism on Qumran archaeology, and the influence of sensationalism on archaeology in general (321–24). She then hypothesizes that “the refusal of some scholars to consider the literary and archaeological evidence from Qumran as part of an integrated whole” (324) is the consequence of academic overspecialization. She concludes with suggestions for how we might ensure that graduate students are able to deal competently with different kinds of evidence, archaeological and otherwise, which in turn will ensure the future of the discipline (324–26). These include recommendations as basic as maintaining contacts with nonarchaeological colleagues and advising and training students so that they are competitive in the job market but also promoting education and dialogue across national and international as well as disciplinary boundaries (326).

In his contribution, Joffe asks about “The Changing Place of Biblical Archaeology: Exceptionalism or Normal Science?” He begins by reviewing the physical, sociointellectual, and political environments of biblical archaeology, as well as the role of religion in the 21st century, including the extent of biblical literacy (328–38). He then summarizes some of the recent changes in the political economy of universities, including the near bankruptcy of Brandeis University in 2009 (338–40), and hypothesizes a future net loss in biblical archaeology jobs at American universities as a result of the fact that senior professors have “failed to institutionalize their own positions” (339). He concludes that biblical archaeology is scientific in practice and that it is subject to many of the same constraints as archaeology worldwide. However, he suggests that it also faces “distinct intellectual challenges” and that there are special constraints that make it exceptional, including the need to move between artifact and text to create “historical” archaeology, as well as the need to move between prehistory and history to understand contexts and create longue durée reconstructions (343–45).

Interestingly, in Dever’s contribution, “Does ‘Biblical Archaeology’ Have a Future?,” which is appropriately the last article in the volume (ch. 22), the author concludes that biblical archaeology is currently at a crossroads, stating that there is no simple answer to the question, what is the future of biblical archaeology (349, 358)? Levy’s New (or Neo-) Pragmatism, however, already suggests a way forward, as he states at the beginning of the volume: “When methodological advances are used in conjunction with new theories, as well as those borrowed from anthropology, other fields of social sciences, and the humanities, it is possible to produce innovative interpretations in historical Biblical Archaeology that go beyond description and move beyond identifying important congruencies between the Hebrew Bible (and other ancient texts) and the archaeological record” (12).

Clearly, Levy’s suggestion, and indeed the volume as a whole, is aimed at the current practitioners in the field, encouraging them to move forward, perhaps in ways that they may not have previously envisioned. I agree with Levy and suggest that it is indeed time to move beyond both processual and postprocessual archaeology and to embrace this new pragmatic paradigm—one that has a commonsense marriage of archaeology, texts, theory, historical method, and scientific methodology and will allow us to move beyond current boundaries, borders, and crossroads. Hopefully, this book represents the beginnings of such a movement.

Eric H. Cline
Department of Classical and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations
The George Washington University
Washington, D.C. 20052

Book Review of Historical Biblical Archaeology and the Future: The New Pragmatism, by Thomas E. Levy

Reviewed by Eric H. Cline

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 116, No. 3 (July 2012)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1163.Cline

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