There have been two diaries in the last two days presenting somewhat contrary positions on recent findings about the destruction of the ancient city called Tall El-Hammam, in present day Jordan, during the middle of the second millennium B. C. E. One favors the proposal that the city was destroyed by a meteor, and the other raises serious questions about that conclusion. The discussion was prompted by a recent story in the journal Nature that links the ancient city and its destruction to the biblical story of Sodom. I’m not writing to adjudicate between the two positions, but to clarify an issue that arises from both of them.

I am a specialist in the field of biblical studies, which means that I teach, do research, and write about a particular set of ancient texts that emerged mostly in Southwest Asia during the Iron Age. A major reason these texts are important is that they became sacred literature for multiple religious traditions. It makes them of great interest to a lot of people. I am not an archaeologist, that is, I do not engage in archaeological fieldwork. Some of the work I do, like this, makes significant use of archaeological findings, so I read a lot of archaeology.

An important transformation has taken place over the last several decades as the field has moved away from the dominance of religiously motivated work. Use of the term “biblical archaeology” has been common, as illustrated in the names of the two leading publications in the field, Biblical Archaeology Review and The Biblical Archaeologist. The latter is one of the publications of the American Schools of Oriental Research and, as you will see from the link, it has changed its name to Near Eastern Archaeology (the ethnic bias of that name is a matter for another discussion). The way these two publications operated were quite different. Biblical Archaeology Review tended to be sensationalist, with glossy covers and breathless reports of new discoveries, which routinely confirmed something about the Bible. Consequently, it became entangled some of the biggest scandals in that area of archaeology, such as the “James Ossuary,” the “Jesus Family Tomb” in Talpiot, and the “Jehoash Tablet.” The Biblical Archaeologist/ Near Eastern Archaeology tended to operate more like a scientific journal. This could be frustrating of course because by the time information appeared here it was often a decade old, having been carefully developed, shared for review and critique among small groups of experts, presented at academic conferences for feedback.

The way “biblical archaeology” was named and typically practiced was somewhat backwards. The motivation of the work, the ways its findings were framed, and the way conclusions were presented were often distorted because of this inappropriate relationship between the work and its purpose. Archaeological work in Southwest Asia concerning the late Bronze Age and iron Age periods should be done like all other archaeological work, using the same techniques and scientific principles. The results might be useful to somebody like me, but they might not.

So, there is a reason why the recent news of findings at Tall El-Hammam looked like “biblical archaeology” to some. It was quickly connected in many places to the biblical story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19. This may or may not have influenced the findings of the original article in Nature, but it appeared in almost all of the immediate responses to it. Like this and this and this. This kind of evidence can draw ideological lines in strange ways. While some who might define themselves as “biblical archaeologists” find confirmation in this kind of evidence, others refute it simply because it does not fit a literalist biblical timeline, which would need the destruction of Sodom to happen several hundred years earlier. A natural explanation of the event may help confirm the story for some, but raise questions about divine causation for others.

The results of this find should be debated and worked out scientifically. The quick move to connect it to a biblical story sells magazines and newspapers and generates mouse clicks, but distorts the process of finding and evaluating evidence.

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This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.


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