Where Are the Orthodox Biblical Archaeologists?
An unshakable question has been clinging to the bottom of my shoe for all of twenty years now. As co-director and area supervisor for the Bethsaida Archaeology Project I have been actively involved in overseeing excavations and writing reports at the site generally accepted as the ancient Galilean village where Jesus of Nazareth called his first disciples; however, as an Orthodox Christian I am at a loss to explain why over the span of two decades, almost without exception I have encountered no Orthodox Christian archaeologists working in Palestine. As Jon Seligman of the Israel Antiquities Authority confirms, “Indeed, the involvement of Orthodox Christians in the archaeology of the Holy Land has been limited.”
It should be clear that I am not talking about ecclesiastical oversight of pilgrimage and touristic sites on the part of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, or the Russian Orthodox Church’s Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society. I am also not discounting the work of Orthodox biblical scholars who incorporate archaeological findings in their scholarship. I am referring to dedicated professionals and institutions who not only dig in the field, but publish archaeological reports and deliver their findings at professional conferences. Moreover, having led volunteers from Mexico, Germany, Austria, France, and Poland, apart from sponsoring two Romanian Orthodox volunteers from an archaeology class I teach at the University of Bucharest, I have never had a volunteer from an Orthodox-majority nation (although I realize that economic factors may be at play). It appears that Orthodox Christians worldwide exhibit significantly less interest in the material culture of the biblical world than western Christians. Having queried Orthodox clergy and laity on the topic, I find attitudes toward biblical archaeology to be largely positive or at least neutral, their collective response summed up along the lines of “generally interested, but not terribly so.”
Personally speaking, as Professor of Old Testament, my professional involvement in archaeology has never been for the sake of proving or disproving the Bible, a neutrality that may have something to do with the answer I seek. Moreover, I almost never identify myself as a biblical archaeologist except to titillate non-Orthodox Christians. But twenty years in the field has equipped me to lecture confidently and credibly about how and where the Bible does or does not meet the facts on, rather under the ground. Expressed as a Venn diagram the intersection between Bible and archaeology is slim. Archaeology contributes to the accumulation of scientific knowledge about human culture, but it defies literal and historical interpretation, sending one back to the biblical text to excavate there instead.
Exactly why the general Orthodox Christian attitude toward modern biblical archaeology contrasts sharply with their western Christian counterparts remains an elusive question perhaps better left to cultural anthropologists or historical philosophers. At least part of the answer may to be rooted in Orthodoxy’s greater embrace of metaphysical approaches to the material world, ever open to the mystical, as well as its unique and diffuse appropriation of Scripture, both of which stand in sharp contrast to the scholastic and nominalist embrace of natural realia that gave rise in the West to Enlightenment-era materialism. This is not to say that Orthodoxy devalues material aspects of earthly reality or that scholasticism never completely rejected the ultimate realism of Plato, only that (generally speaking) Orthodoxy is more at ease with the idea of accepting the material world’s metaphysical integration with ultimate reality, permeated by the divine energies. The fact that scholasticism and nominalism greatly influenced the Reformation and its concomitant embrace of biblical criticism may account for why Protestant archaeologists and exploration societies in particular, blazed the trail in developing the field of modern biblical archaeology.
Another factor that may account for the apparent aloofness of eastern Christians over modern biblical archaeology finds analogy in Islamic attitudes toward archaeology. Unlike Jewish and western Christian efforts to reify the biblical narrative through the recovery and interpretation of material remains, Islamic archaeology is apparently unencumbered by the need to produce material evidence for literal and historical interpretations of the Qur’an; rather, it focuses on the study of human cultural remains in places where Muslims live or once lived. By contrast, for the past century and a half traditional biblical archaeologists, almost all Protestants operating under the questionable assumption that the Bible offers a consistently reliable historical and geographical record, traversed Palestine with the proverbial “Bible in one hand, shovel in the other,” trying to demonstrate the factual historical and geographical accuracy of the Bible once and for all.
There may yet be one more factor at play in the scarcity of Orthodox archaeologists, namely political reaction to the anti-Palestinian stance of the modern state of Israel. To be sure, in an address before the Society for the Exploration of the Land of Israel and its Antiquities in 1950, David Ben-Gurion, founding father of the modern state of Israel, proclaimed that archaeology’s chief mission was “to contemporize our past and actualize our historical continuity in the country [emphasis mine].” Even before Ben-Gurion’s mandate the politicization of archaeology had already begun. Citing Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) records, Albert Glock, founding director of Birzeit University’s Institute of Archaeology, argued that Palestinian Arabs living within the approximately 11,000 square-mile territory experienced the eclipse of their culture even before the Israeli War of Independence (known to Christians and Muslims as al-Nakba, the Catastrophe), by which time 3,780 antiquity sites had been registered, most of which Bible-related. Even as Israeli archaeologists were denied access to the archives of the Palestine Department of Antiquities, they still inherited well over a century of Mandate-era excavation reports. On the basis of this, Israel has continued to promote Bible-related antiquities as political monuments at the expense of Palestinian dignity and culture, giving rise to renowned British archaeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler’s observation that in Palestine “more sins have probably been committed in the name of archaeology than on any commensurate portion of the earth’s surface.”
This political manipulation of archaeological data, which includes assigning Hebrew toponyms at the expense of Palestinian history and supporting illegal settlements, has adversely affected Orthodox Christian and Muslim Arabs living in the West Bank and Gaza. During the British Mandate period (1920-1948), Arab Christians made up roughly ten percent of the largely Muslim Arab population. Today, Orthodox Christians make up slightly less than two percent of the Palestinian population living in the West Bank and Gaza, and about eight percent of the roughly 1.4 million Palestinian Arabs living within the borders of Israel.
For those with political concerns, myself included, one solution has been to encourage the investment of money, time, and attention to Palestinian interests while in Israel, a pushback, albeit a small one, against the many injustices they face – including interrupted access to clean water. Following the dig in 2014, I brought my volunteer cohort to spend a few days in East Jerusalem, where I arranged an audience with His Eminence Archbishop Theodosios (Hanna), one of only two Palestinian Arab archbishops in the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, perceived by the Israeli government as a troublesome political activist. Following this we entered the West Bank to visit the historic village of Taybeh, the last fully Christian village in the West Bank, where we were graciously hosted by a local resident, Orthodox educator and writer Dr. Maria Khoury. The feedback I received from the students was overwhelmingly positive. Having spent two weeks digging up the world of Jesus and visiting magnificent historical monuments that illumine the world of the Bible, they were unanimous in extolling their visit with His Eminence and at Taybeh as the most informative and meaningful experiences of the entire expedition.
As I continue to think through this question of Orthodox involvement in archaeology, I am satisfied with the thought that Orthodox Christians probably need not become archaeologists in order to invest themselves in the land of the Bible. I am still left with the lingering question of why we do not; but because the roots of our Orthodox faith run deep through the strata of two millennia of faithful Palestinian Arab Christian witness to life in the Holy Land, perhaps we might find other ways to explore human culture by actively taking interest in their lives, both past and present.
Nicolae Roddy is Professor of Old Testament at Creighton University, a Jesuit institution in Omaha, Nebraska, and Visiting Professor of Archaeology at the University of Bucharest. For twenty years he served as co-director and area supervisor for the Bethsaida Archaeology Project at the foot of the Golan Heights, near the Sea of Galilee. He welcomes comments and conversation at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.