A Study of W.F. Albright and How Biblical Archeology Helped Shape His
William Foxwell Albright was first and foremost a believer in the religion of Christianity, a fact that greatly influenced his role as a Biblical archeologist, or "historian of religion," according to critical scholars like J. Edward Wright and David Noel Freedman.
Yet Albright himself never claimed to be anything more than dedicated to interpreting "the unfolding scroll of history," in which he saw the Revelation of Christianity -- the fulfillment of the prophets of the Old Testament.
Or, more appropriately, as Albright himself wrote in 1940, the purpose of his work was "to show how man's idea of God developed from prehistoric antiquity to the time of Christ, and to place this development in its historical context."
In other words, Albright sought to illustrate in a real, contextual way the truth of the Christian Scriptural verses, which depicted the life of Christ and the works of the first Apostles in the Near East. While this scholarly mission of his made him renowned among adherents to Christianity, he garnered little more than criticism from scholars who rejected what they perceived to be his religious bias. This paper will show how Albright's acceptance of Christianity as a religion established by God both aided his development as a Biblical archeologist and marked him by critics as one (so they argued) whose view of history was prejudiced toward the Christian perspective.
Background: A Controversial Figure
If Albright is today something of a controversial figure within certain circles of Biblical scholarship, it may stem from the clash of worldviews made inevitable by the evolution of scientific inquiry since the abandonment of scholastic inquiry at the end of the Middle Ages. In one sense, Albright represented the old worldview, in which the historical account of the world (as in, for example, the Book of Genesis) could be taken at face value once one accepted the idea that Scripture was itself the inspired Word of God and could not err. As a new worldview, motivated by skepticism and empiricism, began to dominate the field of scientific inquiry in the Age of Enlightenment, the old worldview found itself in contention with the new. The Bible became just another historical artifact: Its veracity as a historical document was only accepted by religionists. Since faith, however, was viewed by some empiricists as unscientific, it has become inevitable that Albright should today figure in the field of Biblical scholarship as something of a controversial figure. That the ultimate clash should be framed by two religious worldviews which echo the ancient dichotomy that separated Christians from Jews in the first century is telling of conflict at the heart of the matter: Albright was a Christian believer, while many of his critics denied the divinity of Christ.
For Albright, proof of the divinity of Christ was clear from the narratives recorded in the New Testament. If doubt was cast upon the idea of whether the events recorded in Scripture really occurred, Albright spent his life and career in study of the Near East in order to verify the claims of the New Testament. The evidence he uncovered he used to support the claims of the New Testament and to show how Jesus Christ was the fulfillment of the Mosaic Covenant with the Jews. However, in spite of the empirical evidence he collected, some scholars refuse to accept Albright's premise. The fact remains that Albright's scholarship is viewed by those who reject the idea of Christ as Messiah as nothing more than the effect of cultural bias on his part. In other words, Albright is viewed as having set out to prove something unverifiable -- namely, that Christ is God. Since the existence of Christ Himself remains a supernatural mystery, some empiricists (especially those like Tatum, Wright, and Thomas Thompson) contend that Albright himself was misled by his own desire to verify a religious belief. In short, it is the argument of the new worldview of skepticism and agnosticism against the old of scholasticism and faith.
As William P. Brown shows in his "Introduction" A History of Israel, written by a John Bright, an early disciple and pupil of Albright's, Albright's lesson was clear -- "that a full grasp of ancient Israel's identity required not only a rigorous historical method but also a sensitivity to Israel's religion."
Brown's indication serves primarily to highlight the primary idea that was central to Albright's work, which was the evolution of Semitic religious belief and how Christianity resulted from it. If scholars on both sides of the debate accuse one another of partiality either to belief or unbelief, it is not surprising considering the contentious place in history that Christianity has always held. Christ is either God or he is not -- and even in the realm of Biblical scholarship, empirical science, and archeology, that point makes all the difference.
Albright and the Principles of Hermeneutics
In this sense, Albright may be seen as carrying out the basic hermeneutic principles of exegesis. According to John Hayes and Carl Holladay, exegesis is an exercise in "leading" -- which is to say that a Scriptural exegesis acts as a kind of interpretation, helping people to understand more fully the Word of God.
The basic hermeneutical principles may be understood as follows: 1) Historico-grammatical interpretation, which relies upon the original Hebrew, Greek, or Aramaic texts only when deemed necessary to obtain a clearer understanding of the Latin vulgate translation of Scripture written by Jerome in the 4th century; 2) Official interpretation of the texts of Scripture, recognized and authored by the Church; 3) Reverence, since for believers Sacred Scripture is the inspired Word of God and all study of it should be enacted in a spirit of humility, prayer, and devotion; and 4) Inerrancy, which is a term used by believers to simply expresses the idea that since Scripture is the Word of God, any claims that it contains internal contradictions or errors must be discounted. It is according to these principles of hermeneutics that Albright set to work in the field of Biblical archeology.
Such is evident in his 1936 essay "How Well Can We Know the Ancient Near East?" Here he illustrates a certain awareness of the dichotomy in which his studies placed him when he remarks that "it is not strange that students of the Ancient Orient must often be asked to give reason for their faith in the value of their chosen field of investigation."
His recognition of the antagonism shown to students in his chosen field is evidence of the fact that the worldview which Albright and other scholars like him represented was at certain odds with the worldview of modern empiricism, which questioned the value and validity of the claims of Scripture. Albright's scholarship therefore as a Biblical archeologist was questioned by the same establishment in so far as it set out to validate those very claims. In their estimation, this removed Albright and those like him from the field of scientific inquiry and placed them squarely in the field of religion. Albright's objection to his opponents was simply that "the study of the ancient Near East stands on the frontier of humanistic research, since it is perhaps the most difficult branch of learning to justify on obvious utilitarian grounds."
Such an objection, however, hardly served to justify his approach to scientific inquiry -- especially since he approached it with the faith of the old worldview. Obviously he understood as much and was fully aware of the utilitarianism of the academic world in which he and those like him labored.
It may be suggested, therefore, that Albright's work was not a labor of utilitarianism like so many of today's empiricists but rather a labor of love. This is not so extraordinary a claim as it first may seem. Albright's religious belief was rooted in Christianity and there is no greater testament to the authenticity of his belief than his work itself. Albright believed in a Christian creed that asserted that love over data -- indeed, that asserted that love was the highest reason. Albright's religious forefathers, after all, were men like Augustine and Paul. His work in Biblical archeology was his way of bridging the distance between himself and the modern generation and the ancient doctors and saints of the Church -- and Christ Himself. Albright's study into the Near East was not to question the data passed down from generation to generation (accepted by faith and reason or rejected on grounds that the data was spurious). Albright accepted it on grounds of faith and reason, uniting the two just as the old world did, especially in the scholastic work of Aquinas and the Summa Theologica. Albright's scholarship was an archeological support of the scholastic beams set up by the medieval Aquinas. Scholars who disputed the worth of Aquinas' Summa were no less skeptical of Albright's enterprise, since the two were one in the same camp.