From the Stone Age to Christianity: Revisiting a “Commanding Voice” of Biblical Archaeology

Associate Professor of History Stephen Alter‘s latest publication appears in the March 2012 edition of the Journal of Religious History, Vol. 36, No. 1.  It is the first of what Alter hopes will be a larger project on the views of American Old Testament scholars concerning the ‘higher criticism’ of the Bible in the period between 1870 and 1930. Albright was a major figure in that story. Below is Alter’s abstract to his article entitled, “From Babylon to Christianity: William Foxwell Albright on Myth, Folklore, and Christian Origins.”

“American Orientalist William F. Albright (1891–1971) is remembered as a leading voice of twentieth-century ‘biblical archaeology,’ a field that aimed to demonstrate empirically the Hebrew Bible’s substantial historicity. Less well known is Albright’s research on Christian backgrounds, which by contrast reflected modernist theology’s skepticism about the gospel narratives’ literal truth. Drawing ideas from the ‘Pan- Babylonian’ school of biblical criticism, Albright invoked the influence of ancient Near Eastern myth and folklore on the Christ story, this being the culminating theme of his magnum opus From the Stone Age to Christianity (1940). Originally Albright believed that this mythological interpretation would reestablish Christianity’s intellectual credibility in the twentieth century and thus help revive New Testament theology. Yet in the latter part of his career he omitted the mythological thesis from his writings, apparently having concluded that it was harmful to orthodox Christian faith.”


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