(Part II will appear in the next issue)

Archaeology is today one of the most important fields of scientific research. Digging up the past and interpreting the findings are the chief occupations of many scholars; and in no part of the world is archaeological interest more concentrated than on the lands of the Bible. Consequently, the results of this intensive activity are of great interest and concern. To what extent has archaeology confirmed the biblical record?

No archaeologist now living has rendered more conspicuous service in this important field than Dr. William F. Albright of Johns Hopkins University. Biblical archaeology has particularly claimed his interest and enthusiasm. His contributions have been varied and highly important; his word is for many the last word. He has trained a number of able men who, forming what may be called the Albright School, are assuming more and more leadership in this field.

In a recent article in The Christian Century, Dr. Albright deals at some length with the “Return to Biblical Theology.” He describes himself as a scientist and historian and claims that “It is misleading to insist on any fundamental difference between the nature of historical and scientific knowledge.” This is followed by such statements as: “In the center of history stands the Bible”; “There has been a general return to appreciation of the accuracy, both in general sweep and in factual detail of the religious history of Israel”; “To sum up, we can now again treat the Bible from beginning to end as an authentic document of religious history.” Declaring that “Christianity stands today at one of the most critical junctures of history,” he concludes: “There is only one way out of the apparent impasse: we must return again to the Bible and draw new strength from the sources of Judeo-Christian faith.”

Such statements will lead many readers to conclude that Dr. Albright has freed himself from the toils of negative criticism and become a thoroughgoing Bible believer. The January issue of Eternity singles out this article as “the magazine article of the year” and describes it as “a devastating attack on the failure of biblical criticism and a return to a far more conservative position. While it does not accept the complete inspiration of the Bible, Albright’s scholarship destroys the old modernism.…”

Truthfulness And Uniqueness

No one would rejoice more than the writer of this article if he could believe that Dr. Albright has destroyed “old modernism.” Unfortunately, the evidence does not bear out this claim. Dr. Albright’s article itself contains statements which make us pause: “It must be emphasized, however, that vindication of the historicity of the Bible and clarification of its meaning do not involve a return to uncritical belief in ‘verbal’ inspiration and do not support an ‘orthodoxy’ which insulates the Bible from the real world of today.” If we understand Dr. Albright correctly, he is referring to two matters which are closely related. These are the truthfulness of the biblical record and the uniqueness of the history which it records.

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Biblical history as it lies before us is pervaded by redemptive supernaturalism. The Bible declares God’s mighty acts for the salvation of mankind; and the uniqueness of his dealings with ancient Israel is expressed in the words of the psalmist, “He hath not dealt so with any nation: and as for his judgments, they have not known them” (Ps. 147:20). We are concerned to know whether Dr. Albright is prepared to do full justice to the supernaturalness and uniqueness of the Bible.

Dr. Albright has written a vast number of articles on matters relating to the Bible and several important books. The most important of the latter is From the Stone Age to Christianity, which appeared in 1940. It has been reprinted three times with minor revisions and translated into German, French, and Hebrew. Since 1946 there has been no change in the text of the English edition. But the latest printing (The Anchor Edition of 1957) is provided with an “Introduction” (23 pages) designed to cover the most important developments since 1946. We have the right to assume that where the Introduction makes no comment and the statements of the present text agree with the text of 1940, there has been no significant change in the author’s position in the interval, nearly a score of years, since this volume first appeared.

In referring to the advances which have been made between 1940 and 1956, Dr. Albright assures us that “none of these discoveries has in any way changed my attitude with regard to the basic positions taken in 1940 and maintained ever since.” What are these basic positions?

Albright And Wellhausen

It has been frequently claimed that Dr. Albright has broken with the Wellhausen tradition. There is some basis for this claim. He has insisted since 1940, as he reminds us, on “the primacy of archaeology in the broad sense” and “on the primacy of oral tradition over written literature” (p. 2). He now insists on “the substantial historicity of patriarchal tradition” and he has grown “more conservative” in his attitude to Mosaic tradition. Yet he tells us that “The oldest document in the Bible which has been preserved to us in approximately its original form is the Song of Deborah” (Recent Discoveries in Bible Lands, p. 90)—a statement which might be quoted from Wellhausen or one of his school. This is remarkable in view of the fact that it is now generally recognized that alphabetic writing goes back at least to the time of Moses, while writing is referred to nearly forty times in the Pentateuch. It is decidedly significant that the proof of the early use of alphabetic writing has been followed by a vigorous assertion of the superiority of oral tradition.

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Dr. Albright considers the date of the pentateuchal documents “a very important question” (p. 251). He believes that J and E were separately transmitted “being written down not later than 750 B.C.” (p. 250). He dates D (Deuteronomy) in the time of Josiah, but insists that it was not “a pious fraud” but an earnest attempt to recapture and express the Mosaic tradition (p. 319). He holds that the Priestly Code “can hardly be pre-exilic.” This indicates that Dr. Albright still accepts in general the Documentary Analysis of the Wellhausen School, modified, as we have indicated, by the oral-tradition emphasis of the Form Critical School.

Reliability Of Early History

But we are particularly concerned with the question of historicity. The revelation at Sinai is the great theme of four books of the Pentateuch. Is it reliable history? Dr. Albright tells us: “In spite of the four centuries or so during which stories of Moses’ life were transmitted orally before being put into fixed from, they ought, accordingly, to be at least as historically reliable as the accounts of Zoroaster and Gautama (Buddha) which were transmitted much longer by oral tradition” (p. 252). Elsewhere he has said: “At present the whole early history of the faith established by Zoroaster is obscure; we do not know where or when he lived, what the nature of his teachings was, or how much of the Avesta is his” (Recent Discoveries, p. 57). This would seem to indicate that Zoroaster is not a strong analogy for the historicity of Moses! He argues strongly that Moses was a monotheist. But he tells us: “We are handicapped in dealing with this subject by the fact that all our literary sources are relatively late, as we have seen, and that we must therefore depend on a tradition which was long transmitted orally” (p. 257).

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How reliable was this tradition? According to repeated statements in the Pentateuch (for example, Gen. 46), all the sons of Jacob and their families went down into Egypt. Dr. Albright tells us that “not all the Hebrews from whom later Israel sprang had participated in the Exodus under Moses” (p. 277). According to the census in Numbers 2, the Israelites who left Egypt and journeyed to Moab under Moses numbered 603,550 adult males. These figures are given with much detail and are carefully checked by the figures for the half-shekel ransom money (Exod. 38:25–28; cf. Exod. 30:11–16). The census of Numbers 26 gives a slightly smaller total. According to Dr. Albright, these counts have been proved to be “recensional doublets with a long manuscript tradition behind them” and the original must have belonged “to the United Monarchy and probably to the time of David (2 Sam. 24)” (p. 253). This means that these two registrations which are definitely stated to have been taken by Moses must be regarded as two variants of the one census ordered by David centuries after Moses’ time. Certainly this does not indicate appreciation of the “accuracy” of the biblical record in its “general sweep.” As to what we may call the “factual detail”—the 603,530—Dr. Albright gives no reason for rejecting these figures. By accepting the late date of P, Dr. Albright is able, despite his insistence on the reliability of oral tradition, to transmute the two Mosaic numerations into two recensions of a single Davidic census, and thereby make possible the reduction of the figures to proportions which the secular historian can readily accept. This is one way of getting rid of the supernatural in the biblical records.

The Miracles And History

Another way to accomplish this is to relegate the supernatural to the sphere of the “super-historical.” Dr. Albright apparently does not use this word, but his treatment of the outstanding miracles of the New Testament—the Incarnation and the Resurrection—seems to imply it. He assures his readers that while the historian cannot and should not deny these biblical “facts,” yet they belong to a domain which the historian may not enter. “The historian qua historian, must stop at the threshold, unable to enter the shrine of the Christian mysteria without removing his shoes, conscious that there are realms where history and nature are inadequate, and where God reigns over them in eternal majesty” (p. 399).

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Such a conclusion is, of course, utterly contrary to the statements of Scripture and the claims which Christians have always made on the basis of them. The Resurrection is, indeed, a miracle, a mystery, and that God should raise the dead seems to many “a thing incredible.” But Paul, after referring to the evidence from prophecy and history for the fact of the Resurrection (1 Cor. 15:1–8), declares, “But now is Christ risen from the dead and become the first fruits of them that slept.” It was not the proclamation of the philosophical doctrine of a future life, but the historical fact of the Resurrection, an event by which the crucified Jesus was declared to be the Son of God, with all that this implied, which turned the ancient Greco-Roman world upside down and made the Gospel the power of God unto salvation to a sin-cursed world.

Dr. Albright does not reject the supernatural as such but his attitude is that the supernatural is either what we may call sub-historical, due to “empirico-logical” thinking and explainable as legend, myth, or folk-lore, or supra-historical, belonging to a domain which the historian cannot enter. This makes it quite clear, we regret to say, that Dr. Albright’s thinking along archaeological lines is, to say the least, unfriendly to the pervasive supernaturalism of the Bible. We may rejoice with him that the names of the midwives said to have served Israelite women at the time of Moses have been proved (1954) to be good Northwest-Semitic women’s names in the Second Millennium B.C., and we may hold with him that “This is a minor detail, but since some of the most eminent scholars have declared these names to be fictitious, it is significant.” But if the amazing increase of Israel in Egypt has no historical basis, this detail does not help us much.

We are living in an age which is pervaded by “scientific” naturalism. It is most important, therefore, that Christian people everywhere face up to the fact that the “religious history” of the Bible is supernatural to the core and that the supernatural events which it records are its most important and most precious content. In the last analysis, the attitude of higher criticism is anti-supernaturalistic. Dr. Albright assures us that “vindication of the historicity of the Bible and clarification of it do not involve a return to uncritical belief in verbal inspiration.” What here concerns us is simply the question whether vindication of the “historicity” of the Bible means the proof that the Bible is trustworthy and true. Unless we are greatly mistaken, Dr. Albright’s objection is not to the doctrine of “verbal inspiration” as such, but to any doctrine as to the trustworthiness of Scripture which in his judgment brings it into conflict with what he considers to be the assured results of archaeology.

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We Quote:


Author and Journalist

At the bottom of the professional scale are clergymen. Protestant ministers are paid less than factory workers (but many of them have housing provided without charge).—In The Status Seekers, p. 101.


Executive Secretary (since 1932), Board of World Missions, Presbyterian Church, U.S.

Our salaries do not necessarily have to conform to those of the business world. There is an element of dedication peculiar to the work of the church which I am loathe to surrender. If the salary is sufficient for a livelihood, that is enough for me. Personally, I have always thought that I was overpaid.—During General Assembly consideration of a report that salary scales of the assembly’s boards and agencies are too low.

Oswald T. Allis, Ph.D., D.D., formerly professor of Old Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary and Westminster Theological Seminary, is the author of The Five Books of Moses, Prophecy and the Church, The Unity of Isaiah, and a number of articles for religious periodicals.

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