A CENTURY of biblical archaeology has been a great embarrassment to modern research. Because no other ancient world of Palestine had been known, it seemed better to present the Bible's world as history than to have no history at all. This has guaranteed that the Bible be misread. Biblical archaeology has exploited the Bible's story to provide Palestinian archaeology with historical gloss and relevance; it has resolutely failed to provide the Bible with an historical context that it might reasonably be understood as an intellectual and literary expression of the world in which it was written.
Archaeology has done much in recent years to reassert its academic integrity within the universities. It has taken its departure from the theologians, just as Assyriology and Egyptology did long ago. Yet, few have asked why theology has been willing to pay so high a price that it might claim a biblical story-world as historical. Why is an understanding of the Bible as fiction seen to undermine its truth and integrity? How does historicising this literature give it greater legitimacy? Has the authority of history replaced that of the divine in the theological imagination?
Traditions such as the Bible's, which provided ancient society with a memory and a past to be shared, are very different from the critical histories that play a central role in modern intellectual life. The difference reflects a perception of reality. The biblical view might be epitomised with the (ahistorical) axiom: "There is nothing new under the sun" (Ecclesiastes i, 9; compare John i, 1- 5). With this judgement, Solomon gives voice to the biblical perception that all of history is at the creation. Human history is but a transient reiteration of creation: nothingness and vanity in the face of divine reality. This is the Bible's view: not that which pale, demythologised variant biblical archaeology has given us. The Bible's theology does not allow us to read this book as if it were history. …