Review of William Foxwell Albright, Archaeology and the Religion of Israel
Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 8 (2008) - Review

William Foxwell Albright, Archaeology and the Religion of Israel (New introduction by Theodore J. Lewis; Old Testament Library; Louisville/London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006).  Pp. xlix + 247.  Paper, US$39.95.  ISBN 0-664-22742-2.


It is a truism to claim that W. F. Albright was the most influential twentieth-century scholar of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament in North America. This claim would be valid simply on the basis of his vast scholarly output of well over one thousand items of bibliographic merit. In addition, he trained a whole generation of exceptional disciples, who in turn went forth and educated many of the most significant members of the subsequent generation of scholars. But it was not only in the field of Hebrew biblical studies that Albright left his mark. If anyone could claim to do so, he modestly referred to himself as an “orientalist,” not in Edward Said’s sense, but in the sense of a scholar who was able to make contributions to seemingly all fields of study dealing with the ancient Near East (or “Orient”), in addition to classical studies and many of the other fields subsumed under the western humanistic fields of inquiry. Albright thus exhibited a breadth and depth of learning that few aspired to in his day and none can hope to emulate in the modern age, when the explosion of knowledge has made it difficult, if not impossible, to keep up with the state of the field in one’s own area of expertise, let alone in others.

            Unfortunately, for most students nowadays the name of Albright conjures up some worn books to be found on dusty library shelves or miscellaneous references to ancient journals buried deep in footnotes. Hence, this reissue of one of Albright’s most accessible grand syntheses is to be welcomed, as it allows and encourages a new generation to delve into the mind of one of the seminal thinkers in the field. And yet, this book is to be approached with caution on two fronts: First, nothing ages as gracelessly as scholarship, particularly that which is based on archaeological discovery, whose conclusions are prone to be changed and overturned at any instant with the next shovelful of dirt removed from a site. In spite of Albright’s frequently expressed conviction that his proposals withstood the tests of time, many of his conclusions appear today to be reflective of an older and more naive era. Second, Albright’s language is oftentimes cringe-inducing for the (post)modern reader, who is generally less inclined than Albright to render value judgements in a scholarly context (e.g., Albright speaks of sexual “perversion” in regard to homosexuality [p. 18], referring to superstition he uses the terms “moronic and uneducated” [p. 28], much of modern art is dismissed as a descent to “primitive savagery or pathological abnormality” [p. 34], those with whom he disagrees are “scholars of second rank” [p. 60], Canaanite religion provided a “crude polytheistic background” to the “far superior” Israelite religion “both conceptually and ethically” [p. 94], etc.). In spite of Albright’s avowed adherence to scientific methodology, he was nonetheless a religious conservative whose interpretations of non-Israelite cultures reflected his personal theological stance. Nowhere is this more blatant than in the title of another one of his works to which he regularly refers in the work under consideration: From the Stone Age to Christianity, which implies a teleological progression in the human experience from the nadir of “primitivism” to the zenith of Christian revelation.

This reissue of Archaeology and the Religion of Israel is a composite work, whose Redaktionsgeschichte may be uncovered using tools similar to the archaeological and philological ones so beloved of Albright. The book was originally published in 1942. During Albright’s lifetime, it was republished another four times. The current edition includes – what I presume to be – a photomechanical reproduction of the original, to which is appended Albright’s list of “Addenda and Corrigenda to the [third] 1953 Edition” (pp. 223-30).  Introducing the volume is his “Preface to the 1968 Edition” (pp. vii-xii), in which he briefly adds to and updates his material on a chapter by chapter basis. In the light of the forty years that have passed since that time, Albright’s claim that “surprisingly little of its [i.e., the book’s previous editions] content is antiquated” (p. vii) has clearly been superseded by the explosion of archaeological and textual research over the last four decades. Rounding out the book’s opening section is an excellent and well-documented new “Introduction to the Westminster John Knox Press Edition” (pp. xii-xlix), in which Theodore J. Lewis, himself an intellectual grandchild of Albright’s, places the work of Albright in a broader scholarly context, discusses and critiques a number of Albright’s scholarly theories, and presents a reasoned argument why one should still engage the writings of this seminal – yet seemingly outdated – thinker.

Albright’s Archaeology and the Religion of Israel itself is divided into five chapters. The first is devoted to “Archaeology and the Ancient Near Eastern Mind” (pp. 1-35), in which the author presents his theories on the development of the human mind and culture from its primitive and savage state to the unparalleled perfection of Israelite thought and religion. In spite of his oftentimes painful value judgements, what emerges is Albright’s vast learning and ability to synthesize materials from an enormous array of cultures and times, while engaging what were at the time the latest anthropological theories.

The second chapter, on “The Archaeological Background of Old Testament Religion” (pp. 36-67), provides a survey of the major texts and material remains available to Albright in his reconstruction of Israel’s religious heritage. As a philologist and an archaeologist, both types of evidence play central roles in his work. Indeed, he castigates those whose command of the one or the other (or both!) is insufficient yet who dare to venture into the scholarly discussion poorly armed. His criticism of archaeologists for interpreting as cultic any object whose function they do not understand is as relevant today as it was in his time (p. 43).

The chapter on “Archaeology and the Religion of the Canaanites” (pp. 68-94) focuses on his interpretation of the texts from Ugarit and the writings of Sanchuniathon (Sanchunyaton) as transmitted by Philo of Byblos. Experiencing as he did the discovery of Ugarit and the decipherment of its language, Albright was one of the first to understand the significance of the finds and attempt to analyze them and determine their application to the history of biblical religion and culture. It is in this area that his work remains freshest.

The opposite may be claimed in regard to his chapter on “Archaeology and the Religion of Early Israel” (pp. 95-129). While admiring his amazing ability to synthesize seemingly disparate pieces of information, one is struck by how far the field has moved away from Albright’s basic presumptions regarding the development of ancient Israel’s religion. While there are certainly some mainstream scholars today who would ascribe to the figure of (a) Moses the introduction of the worship of Yhwh into the Israelite community, the dominant tendency in modern scholarship is to view the emergence of Israelite monotheism as the product of a long and gradual development in Israel’s theology, culminating by about the mid-sixth century BCE. According to Albright’s reconstruction, Moses introduced monotheism to Israel already in the thirteenth century, and his depiction of Israel’s religion bases itself on this assumption. One wonders how Albright, who claimed “that only hypercritical pseudo-rationalism can reject its essential historicity” (p. 96), would react to the current state of the field.

Albright’s final chapter on “Archaeology and the Religion of Later Israel” (pp. 130-75), which refers to the time as of Solomon, continues his presentation based to a great extent on what appears for modern eyes to be a non-critical understanding of the development of the biblical text and traditions. Thus he claims that the biblical account of Solomon’s reign and its glories are reflected in the archaeological record, a claim that would certainly be disputed by a large plurality if not a majority of modern scholars. The state of the religion against which the prophets later railed is attributed by Albright to a “paganizing movement” that acted against the “Mosaic monotheism” that he identified in the architectural plan of Solomon’s temple (p. 155). It is significant that in spite of his conservative attitude toward the witness of the biblical text in matters such as the attribution of monotheistic Yahwism to Moses (cf. pp. 175, 177), the historicity of the Conquest or of the glories of the Davidic and Solomonic empire, Albright was able to depart from the biblical text when its presentation conflicted with his own, such as in the case of “the copper serpent which tradition attributed to Moses” (p. 164), since that would call into question his fundamental presumption regarding the pristine nature of Mosaic faith.

While his conclusion that “orthodox Yahwism remained the same from Moses to Ezra” (p. 175) would find few adherents outside of orthodox or fundamentalist circles today, it is not so much the conclusions that Albright reaches that make his work so valuable even for the modern reader, but the questions he poses and his wide-ranging and circuitous route to advancing his theories that still have much to offer the reader who–in the words of Lewis in his introduction–“cannot fully understand many aspects of ancient Near Eastern (especially biblical) studies without an appreciation of how they were shaped by Albright and in many ways still evidence his imprint” (p. xlviii).

Carl S. Ehrlich
York University