Layer by Layer

A Primer on Biblical Archaeology

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Ellen White
  • Winona, MN: 
    Anselm Academic
    , December
     120 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Ellen White has produced a helpful survey of biblical archaeology as a result of her years immersed in the discipline as a university professor, editor, and archaeologist. She has written Layer by Layer: A Primer on Biblical Archaeology to introduce her readers to the often-misunderstood field where biblical studies and archaeology intersect.

In five chapters, White corrects misconceptions and clarifies what biblical archaeology is and is not; she surveys the methodologies of archaeology and biblical studies and concludes with a test case to demonstrate how the two disciplines relate. It is an accessible introduction with plenty of interesting examples and clear explanations. Review and discussion questions are included at the end of each chapter along with recommended reading for further study. Key terms are defined, there is a helpful glossary in the back, and it is short too—just over 100 pages. And yet for having such a short length, it packs significant value within its narrow binding by fulfilling White’s intent to inform. 

Readers will quickly find that biblical archaeology is not a silver bullet that has the power to unquestionably prove or disprove the historical accounts recorded in Scripture. Nor should we mistakenly consider archaeology a pure science. It requires a great deal of interpretive art to best account for the data.

Another helpful clarification, according to White, is that biblical archaeology is not concerned with uncovering newsworthy material. In fact, it is almost entirely focused on understanding how daily life looked in the past, she writes. There is a high degree of agreement in all of these areas mentioned so far, but readers may be surprised to learn that there is still disagreement over the seemingly simple question of what biblical archaeology is. There is a longstanding tension between the "biblical" side and the "archaeology" side. And the history of biblical archaeology provided in chapter 2, "The Bible and the Spade," demonstrates how this debate is ongoing. Proponents on one side have called for total secularization, while proponents on the other side have sensationalized claims and ignored findings that have not met their purposes. So what is biblical archaeology? White, attempting to strike a balance, calls biblical archaeology "an interdisciplinary endeavor that takes place in the intersection between biblical studies and the various subdisciplines of archaeology" (37).

For such a short book, it could arguably have been even shorter if an extraneous and unneeded chapter on biblical exegesis was omitted or at least shortened. I understand the author wants to foster a dialogue between archaeology and exegesis, but including a fairly elaborate manual on exegesis via chapter 4, "Engaging Exegesis," is not necessary. White walks readers through the standard "world of the text," "world behind the text," and "world in front of the text" in an overly detailed manner.

As a result, students may lose sight of the book’s purpose when they have to read explanations of specialized exegetical considerations such as literary features and textual criticism. White views the historical-critical method as the preferred approach to interpreting Scripture. In her estimation, the Bible has a theological purpose that does not necessitate historical accuracy when it speaks to the events it describes. Thus, it follows  that she is openly biased in her view that one interprets Scripture by looking through the lens of archaeology. When there is an incompatibility between text and archaeological data, White doesn’t allow the Bible to take primacy over the spade.

Without a doubt, archaeological insights can aid our interpretation of Scripture and vice versa. But for White, biblical studies and archaeology are engaged as equals in an “intricate dance" (101). Whether you agree or disagree, there is value to considering this relationship further, and I am glad she has raised the question. 

In a culture where our primary exposure to archaeology is through fedora wearing, whip-wielding adventurers, building up from the basics is a wise approach. This book successfully achieves its purpose of introducing readers to biblical archaeology. It would work well as a supplemental textbook in a course on biblical studies. Interested readers will likely find themselves itching to join an archaeological dig.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Brent Niedergall is Associate Pastor at Victory Baptist Church in Port Coquitlam, British Columbia and doctoral student at Maranatha Baptist Seminary.

Date of Review: 
June 29, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ellen White was Senior Editor at the Biblical Archaeology Society.



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