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William Foxwell Albright, the son of missionary parents, eagerly pursued his college education as a young man of faith. Finally, he received the coveted Ph.D.—but at a significant cost. His faith had been destroyed by the 19th-century German school of higher criticism. The leading exponents of this school of higher criticism, Julius Wellhausen and Franz Delitzsch, were out to prove that the Old Testament history of the Bible was mere fiction. Why? Wellhausen and Delitzsch were known as anti-Semitic.
Old Testament history is the history of the Jewish people and their glorious nation—Israel. It is not a coincidence that anti-Semitics would attempt to destroy the history of the Jewish people as a nation raised up by God. They did this by teaching that most of the books of the Bible were fiction written long after the Babylonian exile or even in the Hellenistic Period. This treacherous ploy effectively wiped Israel out of the annals of history as a significant independent nation. The Old Testament Jewish record of a wonderful Jewish State was allegedly a fictitious propaganda tool concocted to create a false sense of pride and achievement that would inspire an aggressive Jewish people to dominate others. Fortunately, Albright, almost single-handedly, would destroy this ploy. But first, his credentials.
William Foxwell Albright, considered the dean of 20th-century archaeology, was a legend in his time, America’s leading archaeologist. He earned the nickname “the great authenticator” because of his ability to quickly date archaeological artifacts. During his extraordinarily fruitful life, Albright produced over 1,100 books and articles, was awarded 30 honorary doctorate degrees, and institutions were named after him. Albright received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1916, where he mastered Hebrew, Akkadian (Babylonian), Spanish, French, German, Latin, and Greek. Albright was the leading Orientalist of his Age.
In 1920, Albright arrived in Jerusalem and made his home at the American School of Oriental Research, which was renamed the William Foxwell Albright Institute of Archaeological Research a year before his death. He was Director of the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem from 1922-1929 and 1933-1936. During this time Albright also took a professorship at John Hopkins in 1927 and was W. W. Spence Professor of Semitic Languages from 1930-1958.
Albright held many other significant organizational positions, such as the presidency of: Palestinian Exploration Society (1921- 1922, 1934-1935); American Oriental Society (1935-1936); Society of Biblical Literature (1938-1939); and the International Organization of Old Testament Scholars (1956-1957). He served on various committees of the American Philosophical Society, in particular the Research Committee, and was a recognized authority on the Qumrân (Dead Sea) Scrolls. Albright did significant archaeological work, excavating such sites in Palestine as Gibeah (Tell el Fûl, 1922), Tell Beit Mirsim (1933 – 1936), and the Timna expedition in South Arabia (1950-1951).
Will the Real God Stand Up?
Albright’s excavations dealt with the ancient nations in the Land of Canaan that later became the Land of Israel. He unearthed the Canaanite nations’ religious practices, who worshiped gods and goddesses. He found their deities lied; they stole, they murdered, and committed adultery. To a skeptic like Albright, god was nothing more than the figment of man’s imagination, a reflection of himself. Man steals, lies, murders, and commits adultery—therefore, his god does the same thing.
But when Albright excavated the ancient civilization of Israel, he was astonished! Not only was their social structure different, but he discovered that the Israelite God did not steal; he did not lie or murder. The Israelite God was a God of ethics that were contrary to man’s passions. The God of Israel was not a figment of the imagination of the Israelites. They did not make him or create him. Could Israel’s God be the genuine God—the true and living God of the universe? Albright, the skeptic, was becoming Albright the theist—a believer in the God of Israel.
The impact of the contrast of the God of Israel versus the false pagan deities drove Albright to conclude that the God of Israel was a personal God—the pagan deities were human personalities with all the frailties and vices of human beings. The God of Israel was always thought of and represented as a person with the emotions of human beings, but with none of their frailties.
The Bible—God’s Revelation to Man
At first, Albright had been determined to use the spade of archaeology to challenge all aspects of biblical history. After all, Albright had written his Ph.D. thesis in defense of the German school of higher criticism that biblical history was mere fiction. But his archaeological discoveries turned him into a believer in the Judaic Bible. Albright concluded:
The excessive skepticism shown toward the Bible by important historical schools of the 18th and 19th centuries . . . has been progressively discredited. Discovery after discovery has established the accuracy of innumerable details, and has brought increased recognition to the value of the Bible as a source of history.
Undoubtedly, archaeology has confirmed a substantial historicity of Old Testament [the Judaic Bible] tradition.
The Bible and Higher Criticism
Regarding higher criticism, the fact is that, as yet, no solid proof has ever been produced for its ideas. None of the supposed source materials of the Pentateuch or the book of Isaiah have ever been found. And ancient fragments of Daniel have been uncovered, suggesting that that book was already highly esteemed just a few years after the higher critics claim that it was written!
A theology professor declares: “It cannot be proved in any particular case that Biblical books arose in a fraudulent manner as described by the critical school. It is one thing for that school to assert such a thing, it is quite another thing for them to prove it.” (Wick Broomall in Biblical Criticism) An archaeologist adds: “It cannot be emphasized too strongly that there is hardly any evidence at all in the ancient Near East for documentary or literary fabrications.” (W. F. Albright in From the Stone Age to Christianity) True, higher criticism continues to flourish. But this is because it harmonizes so well with today’s secular way of thinking, not because it has been proved.
Another reason for believing the Bible is that it contains a reliable history of the human race. Higher critics under the leadership of Wellhausen have attacked its historicity from beginning to end, but America’s leading archaeologist speaks of “the total breakdown of Wellhausianism under the impact of our new knowledge of antiquity.” Archaeology has vindicated the Bible in regard to “the record of the Patriarchs, the early poetry of Israel, the contrast of Israelite faith with the Canaanite religion, the Exile and Restoration, and the Gospel of John.” Yes, “archaeological data have . . . demonstrated the substantial originality of the Books of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, of Ezra and Nehemiah beyond doubt, they have confirmed the traditional picture of events as well as their order.”—The Bible After Twenty Years of Archaeology, W. F. Albright.
According to one Albright, ‘nothing has been discovered by archaeology to shake the faith of the Christian in the Bible in the slightest.’ archaeologists often differ among themselves. It is not surprising that some disagree with the Bible while others agree with it. Nevertheless, some scholars are coming to respect the historicity of the Bible in general, if not in every detail. William Foxwell Albright represented one school of thought when he wrote: “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.” (History, Archaeology, and Christian Humanism, by William Foxwell Albright, 1964, pp. 294-296.) Albright went on to say: “In any case the Bible towers in content above all earlier religious literature; and it towers just as impressively over all subsequent literature in the direct simplicity of its message and the catholicity [comprehensive range] of its appeal to men of all lands and times.” (History, Archaeology, and Christian Humanism, pp. 294-296.)
In reference to the writings of the Gospels, liberal scholarship claims that they are myths and legends. It takes time for myths and legends to develop. So the question, When were these books written?, is important. Michael Grant, a historian, says that the Greek New Testament’s historical writings began “thirty or forty years after Jesus’ death.” (Jesus—An Historian’s Review of the Gospels, by Michael Grant, 1977, p. 180.) Biblical archaeologist William Foxwell Albright cited C. C. Torrey as concluding “that all the Gospels were written before 70 A.D. and that there is nothing in them which could not have been written within twenty years of the Crucifixion.” Albright’s own opinion was that their writing was completed “not later than about 80 A.D.” Others come up with slightly different estimates, but most agree that the writing of the “New Testament” was completed by the end of the first century.
What does this mean? Albright concludes: “All we can say is that a period of between twenty and fifty years is too slight to permit of any appreciable corruption of the essential content and even of the specific wording of the sayings of Jesus.” (From the Stone Age to Christianity, by William Foxwell Albright, 1957, pp. 383, 387; The Anchor Bible, Mark—A New Translation With Introduction and Commentary, by C. S. Mann, 1986, Vol. 27, p. 76.) Professor Gary Habermas adds: “The Gospels are quite close to the period of time which they record, while ancient histories often describe events which took place centuries earlier. Yet, modern historians are able to successfully derive the events even from these ancient periods of time.”—Ancient Evidence for the Life of Jesus, by Gary R. Habermas, 1984, p. 40.
In other words, the historical parts of the Greek New Testament are worthy of at least as much credence as secular histories. Indeed, in the few decades between the events of early Christianity and their being recorded in writing, there was no time for myths and legends to develop and be universally accepted.
Albright found the biblical account of the origin of nations unequaled in comparison to the distorted legends of secular history:
“The Table of Nations” in Genesis 10, according to Albright, “remains an astonishingly accurate document.”
Hebrew national tradition [the Judaic Bible] excels all others in its clear picture of tribal and family origins [of other nations]. We look in vain for anything comparable in Egypt and Babylonia, Assyria and Phoenicia, Greece and Rome. There is nothing like it in the tradition of the Germanic peoples. Neither India nor China can produce anything similar since their earliest historical memories are literary deposits of distorted dynastic traditions . . . .
A Powerful and Caring God
Albright was awed with the God of Israel. Here was a God who was all-powerful, caring, and above all trustworthy. A God who dared to create man in his likeness—possessing intelligent, moral values and free will. A God who could nurture, not coerce, that free will for the eternal welfare of all. Finally, Albright had found a God to whom he could entrust his life.
The so-called gods of the ancient nations were tribal or ethnic in dominion. Yahweh, the God of the universe, was concerned with the welfare of all humankind. True, He had chosen to reveal Himself for the most part through Israel. But, far from showing partiality, the Jewish people were held to greater responsibility commensurate with their greater enlightenment and blessings. God’s severe chastening on Israel was part of how God was revealing His character and purposes to both the Jewish people and to humankind.
Down through history, few nations have suffered as Israel. Yet, God preserved them. No ancient polity has been destroyed, its people scattered to the ends of the earth, then, nearly 2,000 years later regathered to their ancestral homeland to be reborn as a nation. What a miracle of history! The details of this national destruction, dispersion, centuries’ sojourn in diaspora, regathering and rebirth were all predicted in Scripture.
Albright could no longer consider the Laws of Israel as the evolutionary accumulation of the wisdom of man codified by the sages of Israel. The Laws of Israel were not man-made. They were Divine. The shaking, thunder, lightning and trumpet of Mt. Sinai were not a myth. Indeed, this phenomenon testified to the presence of God. The spectacular excitement, demonstrations and fireworks accompanying the 4th of July, the Chinese New Year, May Day, etc., fade into insignificance compared to one of the greatest celebrations in human history—God giving His Laws to the people of Israel through the mediation of Moses. God’s Law was not only to guide Israel, it proved to be a beacon light for all humankind. To the degree that nations heeded God’s Law, they were the better for it. How could such an awesome occasion occur without Divine spectaculars?
Albright’s conviction that the Laws of Israel defy crafting by finite man—that they are the crafting of an infinite God—still stands. This was the God Albright discovered by confirming the authenticity of the Judaic Bible with the spade of archaeology.
His objectivity only equaled Albright’s quest for truth. Few scholars have attained such objectivity in research.
“…My initially rather skeptical attitude toward the accuracy of Israelite historical tradition,” Albright recalled, “had suffered repeated jolts as discovery after discovery confirmed the historicity of details which might reasonably have been considered legendary.”
F. C. Moore concurred when he wrote, “More than any scholar of his generation, I believe, Albright has been open to change and to novelty . . . openness and flexibility are hallmarks of his scholarly faculties.”
Y. Yadin wrote: “Few indeed are the scholars who are as ready as he [Albright] is to modify or reject their personal theories in the light of new finds or justified criticism. It is this rare quality which had enabled Albright to absorb successive waves of new information and thus remain in the vanguard of research and learning . . . nor is he reluctant to abandon his own theories, even if this leads to the collapse of an entire section of his teachings.”
William Albright stated: “The profound moral and spiritual intuitions of the Bible, which form a unique revelation of God to man through the channels of human experience, are just as true today as they were two or three thousand years ago.”