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biblical archaeology, term applied to the archaeology of the biblical lands, especially those of the ancient Middle East. While the thousands of written texts found in the languages of the ancient Middle East illuminate the Bible itself, the artifacts uncovered by archaeologists help re-create the cultural setting of its time.
Biblical archaeology developed in earnest in the early part of the 19th cent. when the British biblical scholar Edward Robinson traveled across Palestine and opened the way for study of the area. The founding (1865) of the Palestine Exploration Fund in Great Britain further encouraged research; by 1900 biblical archaeological societies had been formed in Germany, France, and the United States. The system developed by Flinders Petrie at Tel-el-Hesy (see Eglon (2)) to date pottery is of the greatest importance for the archaeology of Palestine, where spectacular monuments and written material are rarely found. Other important excavations in Palestine were undertaken at Jericho by John Garstang and others, as well as at Megiddo, Samaria, Gibeah (1,) Beth-shan, Lachish, Ezion-geber, and Hazor (1.) Outside Palestine the important archaeological discoveries in the old lands of Egypt, Sumer (see also Ur), Babylonia (see also Gilgamesh and Hammurabi), Assyria, Byblos, Nuzi, Ugarit, and Jordan (see also Moabite stone) did much to increase knowledge of the Bible.
The Palestine Dept. of Antiquities, founded 1918, encouraged research until the turbulent years preceding the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948; since that time some of the most important archaeological work in Palestine has been conducted by Israeli archaeologists, e.g., the excavation of the ancient tel (an artificial mound formed by the debris of settlements of ancient cities) of Joppa in 1948 and 1955 and the work at Arad from 1962 to 1967. Herod the Great's impressive building projects at Caesarea are being extensively investigated. Outside the borders of Israel, a large cache of clay tablets came to light in 1975 at Ebla (Tell Mardikh in Syria)—the center of a large Caananite empire that flourished c.26th–23th cent. B.C.
After two centuries of biblical archaeology, it is possible to read the Bible in a new light. It has become clear that ancient Palestine was an integral part of the whole cultural area of the ancient Middle East. Archaeology confirms the existence of fertility cults in Canaan and supports the theory that there was not a sudden era of conquest by Hebrew tribes in the premonarchical period. Excavations have also failed to find evidence that would support many of the biblical descriptions of the monarchial period.
Archaeology cannot confirm theological truths or articles of faith. However, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 and in the subsequent decade and the finds at sites in the vicinity of Qumran have revolutionized the understanding of Judaism in the New Testament era. The discovery of several manuscripts of the Greek New Testament of the 2d and 3d cent. A.D., the finding of the Nag Hammadi corpus of Gnostic scriptures in 1946, and the steady publication of Egyptian papyri in the 20th and 21st cent. have enlarged perceptions respectively of the accuracy of the New Testament text, the diversity and vibrancy of early Christianity, and the kind of Greek in which the New Testament was written.
See A. Negev, ed., Archaeological Encyclopedia of the Holy Land (1972); H. D. Lance, The Old Testament and the Archaeologist (1981); P. Matthiae, Ebla: An Empire Rediscovered (1981); W. G. Dever, Recent Archaeological Discoveries and Biblical Research (1990); A. Mazar, Archaeology of the Land of the Bible 10,000–586 B.C.E. (1990); F. M. Cross, The Ancient Library of Qumran (1995).