Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary has the largest evangelical archeology program. It’s also the only evangelical institution to offer a doctoral degree in the field. But this school year will be its last.

“We will no longer offer degrees in archaeology because they are incongruent with our mission to maximize resources in the training of pastors and other ministers of the gospel for the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention,” Southwestern announced in a statement.

Southwestern also suggested that its decision was linked to the spread of COVID-19, and the pandemic will curtail some digs this year, says John Monson, associate professor of Old Testament and Semitic languages at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

But ultimately, Monson doesn’t think that the disease is the greatest threat to the discipline.

“This is a field that's been around since Napoleon Bonaparte, so about 1799, and it's weathered a lot more than this coronavirus,” said Monson, whose archaeological fieldwork has taken him to Syria, Lebanon, and numerous excavations in Israel. “And there's always been an interest in the Bible and there still is an interest in the Bible in much of the world today. … I think the bigger challenge is going to be continued interest on the part of Christians and particularly evangelical institutions.”

Monson joined digital media producer Morgan Lee and editorial director Ted Olsen to discuss where Southwestern’s shutdown of their program leaves the state of biblical archeology, how apologetics fits into this discipline, and what happens when what Scripture suggests and what is found on the ground doesn’t exactly line up.

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The transcript is edited by Bunmi Ishola

Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode #208

What was your initial reaction to the news that Southwestern would be shutting down its Biblical archaeology program? Did it surprise you at all?

John Monson: No, not at all; institutions make priorities and things come and go.

I think essentially, I would say it's being swept along with larger tides of the age, which is trending much more towards the sciences and less towards the humanities. And that's understandable—although Archaeology is a hybrid between social science, hard science, and humanities.

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But I think there are two other major elements here, at least in my view, that’s playing into this choice. One is that not only are we in a post-Christian culture, but we're also in a post-Biblical church. The Church was anchored in the Bible historically, but there's a lot more competition for people's attention these days. And the Bible itself needs to reassert its place.

And secondly, I think it's an epic fail on the part of the guild. You can get all kinds of itemized information, but where's the glue? Where's the larger context? Where's the understanding of why this matters? And I think that the guild has really failed, and maybe also the church, by not being more deliberate in giving a take-home value for understanding the text through Archaeology.

Help us understand the larger landscape in the history of biblical archaeology. What exactly is it? And what separates it from other types of archaeology?

John Monson: Archaeology is essentially “doing history.” And humanity has been doing history for a long, long time. Even in the pre-writing eras, people were doing history through iconography and storytelling and so forth.

So Archaeology is the distinct exploration of human culture within the framework of seeing what has gone before through artifacts and context. History is largely accessible through texts, but history can be supplemented with real human activity and things that are recorded in artifacts and in other contextual resources.

Archaeology really took off with the exploration of the “new” worlds by the Europeans and Americans. They were engaging in various conquest and were curious about what they were seeing. They began to find monuments and began to scratch around and find out that there was a lot that could be extracted from the ground.

What makes Biblical Archaeology peculiar is that it's linked both to the history and to the text of the Bible.

CT has covered some of the fights between the minimalists and the maximalists in biblical archaeology, and how the effort to prove the Bible, to add context to the Bible, or to disprove the Bible. How does that fit in here?

John Monson: There are a couple of narratives here. With all the debates around the turn of the century, there came to be an urgent question about the reliability of the Bible and also a question about miracles in the Bible. Should we be taking the Bible as a reliable historical source and also as the normative text for one's faith and for one's life? And of course, Biblical Archaeology came in the middle of it because there were a number of people who felt if you could find records of things in non-Biblical texts that matched the Bible, how can you say the Bible is not reliable?

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And then a lot of conservative, evangelical Biblical archeologists lost credibility for a season because they basically tried to make Archaeology say things that it didn't really say. It became more of a quest to support and prove the Bible than an illumination of the Bible. It became an annex of apologetics rather than an annex of Biblical interpretation and understanding. So then there was a little bit of a challenge to integrate the intellectual “scientific pursuit” with the faith pursuit. And I think that this prior generation of archeologists was a little too aggressive in trying to fight a larger theological battle through the venue of Archaeology.

In the last year, there has been a considerable number of news stories about fights over different biblical archeological discoveries. Is this a new thing or has this always been a part of biblical archaeology?

John Monson: You have to think of it as entering into a super, supercharged environment. And the so-called Christian fundamentalists are not the only fundamentalists in the room. There are quite a few secular fundamentalists who are absolutely adamant that the Biblical texts do not hold historical truth.

The problem that often presents itself in Biblical Archaeology is that we're getting an artifact that we don't always know its complete history, especially if it's coming out of the antiquities market. And with manuscript fragments, you get them from all over the place and there’s the issue of determining the legitimacy of the manuscript and the claims it's making because it's like taking the drop out of the ocean.

So it becomes supercharged when everyone in the room with an agenda—there are those who are adamant that the Bible is not a reliable source and there are those who are adamant that it is because their faith and life depend upon it.

Is this a field that younger students are still passionate about getting into? Or has the interest in the field waned over the years?

John Monson: Biblical Archaeology is partly tied to the fate of Biblical studies and the history of the church and perhaps the Jewish community as well.

It’s also a subset of what people would call Near-Eastern Archaeology, where the Biblical text is not really part of the conversation except when it’s alongside other ancient Near-Eastern texts. There’s a whole generation of Ancient Near-Eastern archeologists who are at evangelical schools doing Near-Eastern Archaeology as a professional guild. They invoke Archaeology to understand the Bible in their personal faith, but they do their professional work just like you would be a biologist or a zoologist or a teacher of math.

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From your experience, what passions are people and new students coming in with when they decide to pursue biblical archaeology?

John Monson: I think there are a couple of different strands and categories. There are those who have had an interest in history and the idea of piecing together pottery and whatever. They are in it out of genuine curiosity. And then you've got those who are really want to understand the Bible better. So they could've gone into linguistics and they could've gone into theology, but a small strand of them will go into Archaeology.

But I think it's important for us to remember that if Jesus Christ did not rise from the dead, then to quote Paul, “We're wasting our time.” If you don't have Moses as a real historical figure, if you don't have Abraham and if you don't have David, and you don't have Joshua, then you don't have Jesus. And if you don't have Jesus, then you don't even have that little thread of a creed that you're hanging on to with the virgin birth and the resurrection.

So I think it's important for us to not get swept into categorizing what's legit and what's not. And the problem is, the further back we go, the broader strokes we have to use for painting because the days of Abraham are very different than the days of Josiah or the days of Ezra or Nehemiah, or even the days of Jesus, where we have much more clarity and much more data.

We want a pixelized picture and what we mostly get is a portrait. But sometimes the caricature and the portrait communicates more than a pixelized picture, doesn't it?

How do biblical archeologists determine what is significant? And could you share examples of some of the most significant discoveries in the past decade?

John Monson: The basic movement in Archaeology has gone from an accidental treasure hunt to a legit scientific pursuit. And so today's archeologists want to have a research question: Am I exploring village life in the first century or during Jesus’ life? Or am I exploring a historical problem that is related to this site? Although, some Archaeology comes about through necessity because of development.

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Both types of excavations have yielded things in a very purposeful and strategic way. So for example, a little more than 10 years ago, one of the great finds was the famous Tel Dan inscription [29:04]. While archeologists were digging in the area, they found an inscription that mentioned battles between the kings of Israel and the kings of Aram-Damascus. And in that text, it says “I utterly destroyed them…so-and-so from the house of David.” While it doesn't prove everything in the Bible, it’s another data point, another dot you can connect, to bring more refinement to our picture of the Biblical world.

Another big one in the last 10 years is when the Islamic authorities emptied and dumped the material from the Temple Mount out into the wilderness. Shifting through that material has revolutionized our understanding of the period of Jesus and the temple in Jerusalem.

Another really big one is Qeiyafa in the lowlands of Judah. It towers above the place where David met Goliath. And it represents an Israelite fortress that expanded Israel's control westward towards the Philistines, right during the period of Saul and David. And not only is it a strategic site that we have the name for, but it also had a small shrine that had a small model of the temple or tabernacle. And there were also inscriptions there that had statements which sounded like Biblical material and were datable to the time of Saul and David.

So things like that are rounding out our understanding of how people lived, what motivated them, what were the geopolitical developments, and even some of the religious developments. So those are all things that are giving us very good anchors for making the Bible come to life. And along the way, maybe even giving us significant support for a favorable interpretation of these events of scripture.

Are there archeological discoveries from the past decade that you would say have challenged or undermined the Biblical narrative?

John Monson: Kathleen Kenyon, when she excavated Jerusalem 50 years ago, said, “Doing the Archaeology of Jerusalem is like performing acupuncture on an elephant.” You have this massive city that's been destroyed 20 times. How are you going to find anything remaining there?

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One challenge is that we get very, very little information from architecture, and there’s relatively scarce pottery, from the time of Solomon. And what do we read about the time of Solomon? It was a city, where gold was more plentiful than stone, and it was the center of the Near-Eastern world at that time. Well, does that measure up to what we excavate in Jerusalem? Absolutely not. There is relatively very little from the days of Solomon.

For people of faith, that's a challenge. Does it mean we throw out the Bible? No. Does it mean we manufacture desperate explanations? No. What it does mean is that we put one and one together as we do in other Biblical sites and other cultures. And we say Solomon's empire was a large kingdom governed by a relatively small town. We have examples of that from other Near-Eastern cultures that tell us we should be looking for small regional power and a relatively small city that was immensely wealthy for a brief time. Now, that may sound like a desperate conclusion, but that's just putting one and one together.

I always encourage my students to put one and one together and see where the datasets lead you. And then, to be honest about their faith. You’re going to get no bigger challenge than trying to explain the resurrection, no bigger challenge than trying to explain the virgin birth, and no bigger challenge than explaining any number of other things. And Biblical Archaeology is small fry compared to those challenges.

How has the coronavirus impacted archeological digs? And what about the Israel and Palestine conflict?

John Monson: This is a field that's been around since Napoleon Bonaparte, so about 1799, and it's weathered a lot more than this coronavirus. And there's always been an interest in the Bible and there still is an interest in the Bible in much of the world today.

In the broader scope of things, Archaeology has had to adapt to the Middle East, especially in an age where nationalism and pride in one's culture has taken root. The countries there are proud of their heritage and kind of upset that the Western powers pillaged their heritage for a time to fill their museums. There are now lots of local archeologists and you will not find a more excavated land than the land of the Bible.

I think the bigger challenge is going to be continued interest on the part of Christians and particularly evangelical institutions.

Has being in the world of biblical Archaeology helped you read the Bible better? And are there any areas where you’ve had to break out of Archaeology mode to be able to read the Bible as a believer?

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John Monson: One might think of it with an analogy to music. My son plays the French horn, my other son plays the cello. When they're playing for a recital, they may be in one mode. When they're playing at church, they may be in a different mode. When they're horsing around, they may be in a different mode. And then when they're in their lessons, they're in an entirely different mode. I think it’s the same technique being invoked, just with a different mindset in each case.

But I don't think those boundaries need to be firmed up at all. At least not for me. I think for every archeologist and every Bible scholar, there's something beautiful about exploring the sometimes challenging and, of course, mysterious word of God. The Bible is telling a story to show who God is, and how his creation and creatures should behave in response to Him. And to be perfectly honest, I think the goal of every believer, whether they're an archeologist or not, is to read the Bible as a legit story of human characters, the Lord himself being among those human characters and condescending to become human among those characters.

I think we should read the Bible in a way that doesn't have to be, “Now I've got my devotional cap on. Now I got my academic cap on. And now I have my teaching cap on.” I think they very much can be blended together. And I think we have to go back even to the Reformation and look at the work of the early church fathers and mothers. Their work was done out of the joy of learning the Bible, not some external professional demand. It was an exploration of both the Word and the author of the Word.