Four Books that Show How Archaeology and Ancient History Should Be Done

The world of biblical archaeology (though we could perhaps just say “the world”) has lately been in a bit of an uproar over the publication of James D. Tabor and Simcha Jacobovici’s bestselling new book The Jesus Discovery: The New Archaeological Find that Reveals the Birth of Christianity.

According to the publisher’s book description posted on Amazon, it’s

“The story of a stunning new discovery that provides the first physical evidence of Christians in Jerusalem during the time of Jesus and his apostles.

“In 2010, using a specialized robotic camera, authors Tabor and Jacobovici, working with archaeologists, geologists, and forensic anthropologists, explored a previously unexcavated tomb in Jerusalem from around the time of Jesus. They made a remarkable discovery. The tomb contained several ossuaries, or bone boxes, two of which were carved with an iconic image and a Greek inscription. Taken together, the image and the inscription constitute the earliest archaeological evidence of faith in Jesus’ resurrection. . . .

“There is no doubt that this is one of the most important archaeological discoveries ever made. The Jesus Discovery is the firsthand account of how it happened and what it means.”

As it turns out, however, there is some doubt that Tabor and Jacobovici’s findings constitute “one of the most important archaeological discoveries ever made.”

Duke University’s Eric Meyers has written a rather scathing review of the book for the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR), saying: “The book is truly much ado about nothing and is a sensationalist presentation of data that are familiar to anyone with knowledge of first-century Jerusalem. . . . We may regard this book as yet another in a long list of presentations that misuse not only the Bible but also archaeology.”

Eerdmans author and eminent archaeologist Jodi Magness has also weighed the research behind the book and found it wanting: “As a professional archaeologist, it pains me to see archaeology hijacked in the service of non-scientific interests, whether they are religious, financial, or other. . . . It is a shame that sensational claims such as this one get so much popular and media attention.”

The “popular and media attention” seems destined to keep on coming for Tabor and Jacobovici’s work. For the more discerning reader, though, we’re featuring on our website this month an assortment of scholarly-yet-accessible works on biblical archaeology and the Dead Sea Scrolls — books that showcase the best in Ancient Near Eastern archaeological and historical studies.

Here’s just a small sample:

The Lives of Ordinary People in Ancient Israel
The Lives of Ordinary People in Ancient Israel

The Lives of Ordinary People in Ancient Israel

In this book William Dever — who has spent more than thirty years conducting archaeological excavations in the Near East — addresses the question that must guide every good historian of ancient Israel: What was life really like in those days?

Dever presents his answers in a book that is far from a run-of-the-mill “history of Israel.” Writing as an expert archaeologist who is also a secular humanist, Dever relies on archaeological data, over and above the Hebrew Bible, for primary source material. He focuses on the lives of ordinary people in the eighth century B.C.E. — not kings, priests, or prophets — people who left behind rich troves of archaeological information but who are practically invisible in “typical” histories of ancient Israel. Illustrated by photos, maps, charts, site plans, and specially commissioned drawings, Dever’s work brings vividly to life a world long buried beneath dusty texts and stony landscapes.

The Lives of Ordinary People in Ancient Israel is set for release next month but is available for preorder now.

Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit
Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit

Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit: Jewish Daily Life in the Time of Jesus

When Jodi Magness critiques Tabor and Jacobovici’s archaeology, she certainly has the authority to do so. Not only is she Kenan Distinguished Professor for Teaching Excellence in Early Judaism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, but she also has participated in twenty different excavations in Israel and Greece, including as codirector of the 1995 excavations in the Roman siege works at Masada.

In Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit Jodi Magness puts her extensive knowledge and experience to work as she unearths “footprints” buried in both archaeological and literary evidence to shed new light on Jewish daily life in Palestine from the mid-first century B.C.E. to 70 C.E. — the time and place of Jesus’ life and ministry.

Magness analyzes recent archaeological discoveries from such sites as Qumran and Masada together with a host of period texts, including the New Testament, the works of Josephus, and rabbinic teachings. Layering all these sources together, she reconstructs in detail a fascinating variety of everyday activities — dining customs, Sabbath observance, fasting, toilet habits, burial customs, and more.

Click here to order Jodi Magness’s Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit: Jewish Daily Life in the Time of Jesus.

The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bible
The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bible

The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bible

James C. VanderKam is John A. O’Brien Professor of Hebrew Scriptures at the University of Notre Dame and a member of the international team responsible for preserving and translating the Dead Sea Scrolls. When he puts out a new book on the Dead Sea Scrolls (as he has done this winter), it’s certainly worth a look.

Although the value of the Dead Sea Scrolls for biblical studies is well known, it can be difficult to remain on the cutting edge of Dead Sea Scrolls scholarship. In The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bible VanderKam offers detailed summaries of significant ways in which the scrolls can enrich the reading and study of the Bible. Each chapter brings readers up-to-date with the latest pivotal developments, focusing on relevant information from the Scrolls and expounding their significance for biblical studies. It’s essential reading for all who work at understanding biblical texts and their contexts within the ancient world.

Click here to order The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Bible by James C. VanderKam.

The Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism
The Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism

The Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism

This comprehensive and authoritative volume is the first reference work devoted exclusively to Second Temple Judaism. A striking and innovative project, it combines the best features of a survey and a reference work:

  • 13 major essays synthesizing significant aspects of Judaism in the period between Alexander the Great and the Bar Kokhba Revolt
  • 520 alphabetical entries, many with cross- references and all with select bibliographies
  • 130 illustrations, including photos, drawings, and plans
  • 24 maps
  • 270 authors from 20 countries

The Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism is ecumenical and international in character, bringing together the contributions of a superb group of Jewish, Christian, and other scholars. With equal attention paid to literary and nonliterary (archaeological and epigraphic) evidence, this substantial volume will prove to be an invaluable resource for scholars, students, and general readers alike.

John Barton recently reviewed this groundbreaking reference work in London’s Times Literary Supplement. “I do not think there is now a better guide to Early Judaism than the Eerdmans Dictionary,” he wrote, adding that it “opens a door into a fascinating and complex world of ideas, texts, and practices.”

Click here to order The Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism, edited by John J. Collins and Daniel C. Harlow.

Click here to browse the entire collection of this month’s featured biblical archaeology and Dead Sea Scrolls books on our website.