Scratched Silver and Painted Walls: Can We Date Biblical Texts Archaeologically?

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This article is a contribution to ongoing discussions about the problem of dating biblical texts. Initially, it sketches briefly progress in dating--defining "progress" as movement toward a designated goal that is measurable by the success with which researchers are able to determine and eliminate incorrect answers to their questions--made by employing literary, socioanthropological, and linguistic criteria. It then considers the usefulness of archaeological discoveries for such dating through an evaluation of what might be learned from Iron Age inscriptions with biblical connections discovered in excavations, concluding that "the contribution of archaeology to dating biblical texts is nil."


Biblical texts are not easily dated, particularly with regard to their terminus a quo. Terminus ad quem dates are more readily provided, but the safer the date, the later it is. There is little value for contemporary research in knowing that all of the extant books in the canon of the Hebrew Bible were completed by the beginning of the first century B.C.E. As a consequence, the discoveries of biblical manuscripts at Qumran are not important to the history of biblical literature, only to the history of the transmission of the text.

Biblicists and historians interested in the history of the literature in its being made and being produced and in what such literature may reveal about Israel's social, political, and religious history about 1000-400 B.C.E., require tighter chronological controls that will enable dating to within decades, as is the case with Egyptian pottery, and not dating within centuries as is the case with Syro-Palestinean Iron Age pottery. No archaeologist has uncovered a seventh century temple containing Ur-Deuteronomy, perhaps the first canonized book of the Tanak, in palaeo-Hebrew script. The revolution in scholarship that such a find would cause in scholarship were Ur-Deuteronomy to be found in an eighth century archaeological context with a colophon signed "Isaiah" can easily be imagined.


Absent such discoveries, bibliology has progressed in its attempts to date texts through disciplined inferences from data examined within paradigms that are regularly examined and critiqued. The underlying methodologies of bibliology and other forms of historical inquiry have been successful in producing important answers to questions. The fact that the answers have changed and that we no longer accept all or many of the earlier ones is an indication of such progress. Progress, understood as movement toward a designated goal, in this case, responses to particular questions about dates, is measurable by the success with which researchers are able to determine and to eliminate incorrect answers to their questions.

From the beginning of critical, historically oriented bibliology in the middle of the nineteenth century, progress in dating specific pericopes, genres, and books has been achieved, even giving rise to the sub-disciplines of Form Criticism and Redaction Criticism, the latter of which possesses distinctive ties to the History of Ideas. Work in dating Pentateuchal sources, however, stalled by the teens of the twentieth century as Pentateuchal criticism itself became an ignored research paradigm, especially in the United States. In recent decades, however, it has become the renewed focus of interest and debate both here and abroad. (1)


Early scholars attempting to date texts achieved much. First and foremost, as part of the modernist movement whose foundations lie in seventeenth century science, philosophy, and religious thought, they were involved with the disenchantment of nature, social orders, claims to political authority, and claims of religious authorities. Disenchantment eliminated the mystique of conventional authority and enabled questioners to evaluate the basis of traditional answers to questions such as "How could Isaiah of Jerusalem know about Cyrus? …