The Complicated History of Religion and ArchaeologyHistorians in the News
tags: Israel, Palestine, archaeology, Jerusalem, religion, ancient history, Biblical history
The Temple Mount is one of the most popular destinations in the ancient city of Jerusalem. In Arabic, it’s known as Haram al-Sharif — "the Noble Sanctuary." Considered the holiest site in Judaism and third holiest in Islam, it is where, according to the Bible, King Solomon built the first temple for the Jews. It's also said to be the location where Abraham offered his son Isaac as a sacrifice, and where the Prophet Muhammad made his Miraculous Night Journey to the throne of God. The golden Dome of the Rock atop the Temple Mount commemorates that event, which is sacred in Islam.
While visiting such hallowed ground today, it's easy to forget that the Temple Mount’s significance maybe wouldn't be known without the archaeological excavations and discoveries that began more than 150 years ago.
Biblical archaeologists have long been motivated by their faith to explore the historicity of biblical events. Today, these researchers are trained in the field, but that wasn't always the case. "The first archaeological endeavors in the Holy Land were conducted not by archaeologists but by theologians, biblical scholars, and engineers primarily interested in locating places mentioned in the Bible," writes Eric Cline, in his book Biblical Archaeology: A Very Short Introduction.
Cline, an anthropology professor at George Washington University, credits an American minister, Edward Robinson, with many early archaeological discoveries across the Holy Land. Robinson explored Palestine in 1838 with an American missionary who was fluent in Arabic and identified more than 100 sites mentioned in the Bible. Some noteworthy finds included the Siloam Tunnel and Robinson's Arch at the Temple Mount, which was named in Robinson's honor.
Though Cline notes that Robinson's contributions were religiously motivated, his efforts are still recognized by academic archaeologists today. And Robinson was far from the last to be inspired by religion to explore the ancient world. A surprising number of findings have come to light by religiously-motivated archaeologists and religious organizations. "Interest in the ancient Mediterranean, driven by religious organizations, led to a lot of early descriptive and chronological work that was useful when we knew very little," says John Henderson, an anthropology professor at Cornell University.