Studying the Ancient Israelites: A Guide to Sources and Methods by Victor Matthews (Part 1)

Introducing the interdisciplinary approach required to understand the world of the Ancient Israelites

Excavation at Gezer

Apart from grammar and semantics, one of the main hermeneutic tools any serious Bible student needs to understand is the historical and cultural context of the Bible. This, needless to say is not a minor subject given that the historical context of the OT alone spans at least one thousand years and covers many civilisations. While nothing will substitute for a working knowledge of the major ancient Near Eastern / Mediterranean civilisations contemporary with Israel, arguably the best place to start is to restrict one’s focus to the ancient Israelites, both to acquire knowledge that is immediately applicable to Biblical study, and to learn the general methods which can be readily applied to other areas. In Studying the Ancient Israelites: A Guide to Sources and Methods Victor H. Matthews, an Old Testament scholar and professor of religious studies at Missouri State University has written an introductory text that achieves both goals.

Matthews divides his book into five main sections, historical geography, archaeology, literary approaches, social sciences, and history / historiography. Anyone who has even a nodding acquaintance with the latter four sections will be aware that these are highly controversial areas, raising the question of whether Matthews’ book will betray the sympathies of its author. Matthews to his credit immediately heads off such concerns, both by acknowledging the controverted nature of these disciplines and laying out aim to be as disinterested as possible

Some attention will also be given to why such a study can become contentious and controversial. The intent here is not to take sides, but rather to describe the tensions, being respectful of all perspectives. By providing readers with an orientation to the study of the ancient Israelites, this volume can place them on a better footing for navigating these controversies. In other words, it is intended to be a starting point and hopefully a catalyst for further study and investigation.1

Pure objectivity is of course not possible, and Matthews en passant does hint at a position which is critical both of Biblical literalism and hyperscepticism

It is not my purpose in this volume to take sides with either the maximalists or the minimalists. However, I do not recommend that the Bible be placed on a pedestal or under glass as if it were a sacred relic that cannot be assailed.2

That stance would place him in the broad scholarly mainstream, and indicates that his aim is thankfully not apologetic but pedagogical. Matthews aims not to take sides, but to instruct the neophyte on how to study ancient Israel.

Historical Geography

Starting with historical geography is an eminently sensible approach if only because as Matthews notes, many students of ancient Israel are unfamiliar with the geography of the ancient Near East, and in particular the role geography played in the formation of these cultures.3 Moving on from the latter point, Matthews emphasises that his main goal in this section is not just introducing the reader to the physical geography of Israel, but to look at how geography shaped their identity, and how that identity created an idealised geography on which they could project their self-image

Although I do intend to provide a basic orientation to the physical geography of the region, my intent is primarily to make it clear how the ancients viewed their world. They created geographies, both physical and ideal, that were part of their national identity. For instance, to say that Israel’s dimensions extended “from Dan to Beersheba” (1 Sam. 3:20) or “from Lebo-hamath to the Wadi of Egypt” (1 Kings 8:65) makes perfect sense to the ancient audience, but leaves us scratching our heads, not only because of the unfamiliar terms but because these boundaries do not, as we understand it, match the actual political borders of Israel. Instead, they reflect the Israelites’ understanding of the Promised Land, regardless of more practical considerations. This tells us that complexities have been pushed aside in favor of a catchphrase that bolsters national pride or provides a sense of inclusiveness.4

One particularly useful case employed by Matthews to show the relevance of geography to understanding the ancient Israelite world is Amos’ denunciation of the nations, which when correlated with their location

Graphic from Matthews
Graphic from Matthews

shows that Amos “literally [took] his audience full circle, touching on each of their neighbors before zeroing in on them and their sins.”5 The full psychological impact of Amos’ denunciation can be easily missed if we do not have a complete mental map of the land of Israel and its neighbours.


As Matthews’ goal is introducing the student to study methods, this section is more about the practical aspects of archaeology, rather than a study of the findings. Therefore, he is quick to disabuse the reader of any misconception that archaeology “proves the Bible true”, and emphasises the real-world problems both in excavation and in interpretation

In the course of this chapter I will focus on how archaeology is the study of ancient artifacts, whether they be material (e.g., ceramics) or textual (e.g., the Bible) remains. Since this volume is geared to the study of the ancient Israelites, I will place greatest emphasis on the artifactual remains of that culture, including the biblical text. Some people are under the impression that archaeology can be used to prove the biblical account. It cannot do this. The reality is that archaeology has very real limitations, chief of which is the destructive nature of time, the elements, and successive inhabitants of the region who systematically reused building materials and dug pits through ancient occupation layers. It is not unusual for an archaeologist to be systematically and carefully removing layers of soil within a measured square and suddenly discover a plastic drink container mixed in with Roman or Iron Age pottery. While real evidence illuminates the material culture of the peoples who once inhabited ancient Canaan, Philistia, Transjordan, Phoenicia, and Syria, a complete picture is not possible, and conjecture often is more typical of archaeologists than hard and fast conclusions.6

Most readers will have little appreciation of the multi-disciplinary nature of modern archaeology, the unglamorous day-to-day grind, and the considerable planning that takes place before shovel hits the ground. This includes examining ancient records in order to correctly identity your site, conduct a ground survey, use ground penetrating radar to fix the area most likely to yield significant finds, assemble a multidisciplinary team, and construct a plan for each season of excavation indicating what you want to examine. This alone should serve to remind people why the claims of amateurs such as Ron Wyatt deserve to be treated with suspicion as the odds of them having carried out the considerable planning required to correctly identify the site and having the required multidisciplinary team to interpret the data are minimal at best.

A helpful aspect of this chapter is Matthews’ recognition that archaeology is not just about excavating tombs and palaces, but also providing insight into village life. An often-repeated aphorism is that the Bible was written for us but not originally to us, and the simple fact is that aspects of material culture, which were understood by the original audience are now lost to us without archaeology:

Perhaps because houses were simply part of the backdrop of everyday life, there are no explicit descriptions of the steps taken in building a personal dwelling in the biblical narrative. Houses simply existed, and the narratives or legal pronouncements about them mention only certain aspects of a house in the context of telling the story. The insights we can gain on the construction of ancient houses from archaeological excavations create a fuller picture when combined with what little appears in the biblical text. This further highlights our inability to obtain a “Polaroid picture” of ancient Israel’s housing situation by simply reading the Bible. Material culture is best studied from material remains.7

Matthews concludes by highlighting the opportunities (ability to reconstruct ancient Israel, concrete evidence of items mentioned in the Bible, an opportunity to understand the ancient culture, insight into non-elite people) and limitations (incomplete nature of excavation, subjectivity in interpretation, inability to prove/disprove the Bible, archaeological evidence subject to reinterpretation, but not if the previous excavators destroyed data by overzealous excavation), and this is perhaps the best take-home message from his section. Archaeology provides insight, not proof.8


  1. Victor H. Matthews, Studying the Ancient Israelites: A Guide to Sources and Methods (Grand Rapids, MI; Nottingham, England: Baker Academic; Apollos, 2007), 9.
  2. ibid, 101
  3. ibid, 10
  4. ibid, 11
  5. ibid, 36–37. Graphic from Matthews.
  6. ibid, 60
  7. ibid, 76
  8. It however can disprove some interpretations of the Bible when the material evidence flatly contradicts those interpretations.

Author: Kenneth Gilmore

Ken is a Brisbane-based medical practitioner whose interests include Syro-Palestinian archaeology, Ancient Near Eastern mythology, Second Temple Judaism, Historical Jesus studies, and cats.