William Foxwell Albright: The Dean of Biblical Archaeology

William Foxwell Albright has been credited as the founder of biblical archaeology. Among peers he is known as “the Dean of Palestinian archaeologists”[1] due to his contributions in the historical credibility of the Bible as a source in archeology. As the leading scholar of biblical archaeology in the 20th century, “his work helped establish the Bible’s value in historical studies”.[2] In her article on the history of biblical archaeology, Rachel Hallote has commented, “It is hard to think about the early years of American biblical archaeology without coming up with the name William Foxwell Albright”.[3] Albright has been considered an expert on Semitic languages and was world renown for his work on the Dead Sea Scrolls. His excavation work has served not only as a valued effort in the corroboration of biblical accuracy but also as the model for scientific work in archaeological excavation. Despite Albright’s accomplishments there are those who have a more skeptical view toward the usage of the Bible in archaeological studies and in recent years have turned away from the postulations of the “Albright School”[4] toward a more critical view of the Bible in archaeological history. Critics of Albright assert that his methodology of using biblical references in conjunction with archaeological excavation is a flawed technique that presupposes biblical truth and is wrought with bias. To the minimalist critic, the label, Biblical Archaeology, has no place in modern science and should be replaced with the term Syro-Palestinian archaeology.[5] Advocates of the “Albright School” have defended not only the work of Albright but also his approach of biblical archaeology altogether. Nonetheless, notwithstanding the refutation of critics, the achievements of Albright have been recognized universally and his legacy has lived on through the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem. This article will review the person and accomplishments of William Foxwell Albright, a scholar and pioneer in biblical archaeology.

The Person of William Foxwell Albright

William F. Albright was born in Coquimbo, Chile on May 24, 1891 to Methodist missionary parents, Wilbur and Zephine Albright. In 1921, he married Ruth Norton with whom he had four sons. Albright suffered a stroke and died on September 19, 1971 in Baltimore, Maryland at the age of 80. During his lifetime, Albright was an prominent scholar who received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University, in 1916, where he went on to become professor of Semitic Languages from 1929 – 1959. Before his academic career, Albright was the Director of the American School of Oriental Research (ASOR) in Jerusalem during 1920 – 1927.[6] While serving as Director, ASOR “became a universally recognized center of research and learning”.[7] While at ASOR under the leadership of Charles Torrey and James Montgomery, Albright was able to lead “large-scale, American-led excavations in Palestine”.[8] It was his archaeological work during these years that solidified his young career as an accomplished archaeologist. Most notable of his excavation sites was Tell Beit Mirsim, which was recognized as “a model of excellence in excavation”.[9] In 1956, Albright was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Science, one of the oldest and most prestigious honorary societies. In 1969, he was further accorded the prestigious title “Nobleman of Jerusalem”, which is Israel’s highest honor.[10] In 1970, shortly before his death, in recognition of his contributions to archaeology, the ASOR was renamed in his honor to the Albright Institute of Archeological Research (AIAR).[11] Today, “AIAR in Jerusalem is the oldest American research center for ancient Near Eastern studies in the Middle East”.[12]

The Contributions of William Foxwell Albright

While serving as Director as ASOR, Albright’s greatest accomplishment was for his contribution in confirming the authenticity of Dead Sea Scrolls. During the spring of 1947, Muhammed adh-Dhib, a Bedouin shepherd discovered the first seven scrolls in a cave around the cliffs of the western shore of the Dead Sea. After passing through many hands and generating great interest, in March of 1948, Albright was presented with the scrolls and he was the premiere scholar to confirm their authenticity. Soon after his confirmation, on April 11, the first press release was distributed announcing the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls with expert credit given to Albright.[13] This accomplishment gave Albright recognition both within the archaeological world and also the public.

While the Dead Sea Scrolls authentication was Albright’s most notable achievement, it was his work in pioneering the field of biblical archaeology that has had the most prolific impact lasting for generations. Known as the leading theorist and practitioner, Albright was “a leading voice of twentieth-century biblical archaeology, a field that aimed to demonstrate empirically the Hebrew Bible’s substantial historicity”.[14] Although Albright was not a biblical literalist attempting to prove the theology of the Bible, this is not to say that he did not believe the Bible to be historical fact. Albright was recognized as having introduced a “critical assessment of the historical context of the scripture, instead of merely teaching it as Gospel”.[15] Initially, Albright was skeptical toward the historical accuracy of the Bible but upon undertaking several excavations he would change his position. Stephen Alter explains, “Based on his resulting explorations in the Holy Land, his initially rather skeptical attitude toward the accuracy of Israelite historical tradition had suffered repeated jolts as discovery after discovery confirmed the historicity of details which might reasonably have been considered legendary”.[16] As a scholar, an archaeologist, and a Christian, Albright fought to oppose those who discredited the Bible as a source for archaeological exploration. “He insisted on accuracy of data and logical reasoning. His work blended the natural sciences and the humanities, chiefly Hebrew religion and Greek philosophy”.[17] Albright contested the position of higher criticism to which the Bible was nothing more than ancient mythology and had no place in field research of Hebrew history. Through his excavation work in Israel and repeated discoveries of biblical places and names, “Albright made it his lifelong ambition to challenge these critical conclusions”.[18]

Although Albright’s work received no shortage in critics, his contribution to dating methods using Ceramic Typology was well respected and set the index in Near East pottery dating. As Fienberg has stated, “He is considered one of the originators of Near Eastern pottery chronology”.[19] While there are those that have been critical of Albright’s method in identifying pottery seriation, the reference point on which he established has been considered “archaeological fact”.[20] In her book Facts on the Ground, Nadia Abu El-Haj explains:

Further developing the method of ceramic typology/chronology first introduced into Palestinian archaeology by Flinders Petrie the century before, Albright produced a more developed system for chronological specification. He distinguished “ceramic features of the new material culture that appeared in the central hill country… in Iron I” during his excavations at Tell el-Ful, ceramic features that he ultimately named “Israelite”. It was not on the basis of any specific material finds (say, an inscription) that Albright first identified such pottery forms as characteristically Israelite, however. Rather, that conclusion was derived from his assumption regarding who this new culture in early-Iron Age Palestine had to be. Nevertheless, once detached from that initial textually based reasoning, which specified the identity of the pottery forms, the presence or absence of Israelite pottery enabled subsequent excavators to ascertain the location of Israelite sites and strata, now on the basis of empirical evidence, or archaeological facts.[21]

Albright’s contribution to scholarly writings consists of more than a thousand titles and includes more than a dozen books of his own in addition to collaborations.[22] His major titles include: Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan, The Archaeology of Palestine: From the Stone Age to Christianity, and The Biblical Period from Abraham to Ezra. He was also the editor of the Anchor Bible Commentary Series on Jeremiah, Matthew, and Revelation. For decades, students of biblical history have studied books that either were written by Albright, or that he consulted on and was referenced as an expert source.

In his 1939 book, The Israelite Conquest of Canaan in the Light of Archaeology, Albright proposed his Conquest Hypothesis that “assigns authority to the biblical narrative and asserts both an invasion and successive conquest”[23] of the Promised Land. Albright’s theory has been the central point of controversy among critical scholars who deny the biblical account of Israel’s conquest. These minimalist skeptics propose a more subtle integration based on breeding over a long period of time. Zachary Smith defends Albright’s position in stating, “Adherents of the Conquest Hypothesis consider the account preserved in Joshua to be essentially historical. In the 1960s, G.E. Wright developed Albright’s consensus. Later, Yigael Yadin’s archaeological work demonstrated evidence of destruction and burning of the city of Hazor in the Late Bronze Age, congruent with the Biblical account in Josh 11:1–13”.[24] In recent years further investigation has been done on the site of Jericho, as well as other sites in the area, to reveal more positive evidence in favor of Albright’s Conquest Hypothesis that Israel did conquer the Promised Land in a series of successive conquests and not, as the minimalists suggest, slowly assimilating into Canaanite society by breeding.

The Criticism of William Foxwell Albright

Those who are critical of Albright’s methodology do so not against the results he produced through archaeological excavation but rather in the manner in which he achieved those results. The critics view the technique of locating and dating archaeological sites and artifacts, based on solely the Bible, as a preconceived notion and tainting the approach. This tactic is frowned upon for generating a bias on found evidence and imposing faulty assumptions due to only the biblical text as support. While a valid consideration in its protest, this is not the case in which Albright conducted his archaeological excavations. As Stephen Alter observes:

Albright believed through the greater part of his career that the comparative study of ancient Near Eastern myth and folklore was essential to a right historical assessment of both the Old and the New Testament. He also believed, at least as applied to the Old Testament, that this kind of inquiry actually complemented archaeology, including archaeology in its Bible-confirming manifestations.[25]

It was as a result of repeatedly discovering Israelite artifacts as well as locations, names, and relics that aligned precisely with the biblical text, which were responsible for Albright’s impulsion of biblical archaeology. Feinberg further explains, “Albright moved from an initially skeptical attitude toward the accuracy of the Old Testament to an insistence on the substantial historicity of the Mosaic record and the antiquity of Israelite monotheism”.[26] To pose a rebuttal against his critics, it is specifically because of the archaeological evidence that Albright came to believe in the Bible as a historically accurate text and not because he assumed it to be such. As Randall Price puts it, “Albright used archaeology to interpret the Bible, and not vice versa”.[27] The fact that Albright abandoned a skeptical mythological view of the Bible for a historical one is credit to an openly minded critical thinker who followed where the evidence led.

The Legacy of William Foxwell Albright

In appreciation of his efforts in Near Eastern archaeology, the American School of Oriental Research (ASOR) was renamed the William F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research (AIAR). This honor was given to Albright for his recognition not only as a former Director of ASOR but also of his impeccable scholarship in both archaeology and biblical studies. The Albright Institute of Archaeological Research is dedicated to the “disciplines of the Archaeology of Palestine and Biblical Studies, the Albright continues to be a major research center and to strive for excellence in scholarship”.[28] Albright Fellows from all over the world gather at AIAR in Jerusalem to “exchange information and ideas with hundreds of researchers from countries in the Eastern Mediterranean basin”.[29] The reputation of AIAR as excellence in scholarship is due to its advancement in literary, historical, and cultural studies of the ancient Near East. In addition, AIAR “provides annually a wide range of programs and facilities for doctoral and post-doctoral research, as well as information-sharing, internship and field work programs for more than 3,000 persons”.[30] Today students are learning under the name and methods of Albright as the research center continues to progress the ideals of biblical archaeology for future generations to benefit from.

To say that William Foxwell Albright was an important scholar in the history of archaeology is an understatement. The shaping of biblical archaeology under Albright has earned him the informal title of Dean of Biblical Archaeology. While his critics continue today to attempt to remove the Bible from historical reference and place it within mythology, it is the evidence itself that gives the greatest support to the “Albright School”. Through the same method of using the Bible as a source for locating ancient cities and structures, modern archaeologist have uncovered sites that corroborate biblical history. As each decade passes more and more evidence from ancient history begins to reveal that the Bible is full of historical accuracy. While archaeology cannot verify theological statements, it can corroborate that the person, place, things, and time of those statements are valid. As Price further states, “While it is better not to speak of ‘proving’ the Bible through archaeology, archaeology nevertheless has great value in relation to validating the history of the Bible”.[31] This validation can be credited to scholars who subscribe to the “Albright School” as well as to the man himself as the pioneer of biblical archaeology. Albright would be proud to see the legacy he has left behind and the influence his methods have had on the world of archaeology. He would be proud to know that the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research is carrying the torch of excellence in scholarship and biblical archaeology. He would also be proud of the many biblical historically accurate discoveries made, over the more than 40 years since he died. William Foxwell Albright would be very proud of what archaeologists have uncovered in support of biblical archaeology but I do not think he would be surprised at all. Albright believed with all his heart that the Bible represented historical truth and through his tireless work and the same methods used by those after him we can now know with all our minds that such is true.

[1] C.L. Feinberg, “Albright, William Foxwell,” ed. J.D. Douglas and Philip W. Comfort, Who’s Who in Christian History (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1992), 14.

[2] “William Foxwell Albright.” Notable Names Database (NNDB). http://www.nndb.com/people/783/000082537/

[3] Rachel Hallote. “BEFORE ALBRIGHT Charles Torrey, James Montgomery, and American Biblical Archaeology 1907-1922.” Near Eastern Archaeology 74, no. 3 (September 2011): 156-169. Religion and Philosophy Collection, EBSCOhost.

[4] Feinberg, 14. – The “Albright School” has become a coined phrase of former students of Albright who serve in prominent academic positions.

[5] Randall Price. The Stones Cry Out: What Archaeology Reveals About the Truth of the Bible. (Eugene, Or.: Harvest House, 1997): 322.

[6] “William Foxwell Albright.”

[7] Feinberg, 14.

[8] Halite.

[9] Feinberg, 14.

[10] Ibid.

[11] “History of the W. F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research.” W. F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research. http://www.aiar.org/.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Harold P. Scanlin, The Dead Sea Scrolls & Modern Translations of the Old Testament (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1993).

[14] Stephen. G. Alter, (2012), From Babylon to Christianity: William Foxwell Albright on Myth, Folklore, and Christian Origins. Journal of Religious History, 36: 1–18.

[15] “William Foxwell Albright.”

[16] Alter.

[17] Feinberg, 14.

[18] Alter.

[19] Feinberg, 14.

[20] Nadia Abu El-Haj, Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001): 116.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Feinberg,14.

[23] Smith, “Settlement of Canaan,” ed. John D. Barry and Lazarus Wentz, The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2012).

[24] Ibid.

[25] Alter.

[26] Feinberg, 14.

[27] Price, 325.

[28] “History of the W. F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research.”

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Price, 329.

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