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William Foxwell Albright

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William Foxwell Albright

William F. Albright
William F. Albright
Born William Foxwell Albright
(1891-05-24)May 24, 1891
Coquimbo, Chile
Died September 19, 1971(1971-09-19) (aged 80)
Baltimore, Maryland
Nationality American
Education Upper Iowa University
Occupation archaeologist

William Foxwell Albright (May 24, 1891 – September 19, 1971)[1] was an American archaeologist, biblical scholar, philologist, and expert on ceramics. From the early twentieth century until his death, he was the dean of biblical archaeologists and the acknowledged founder of the Biblical archaeology movement. His student George Ernest Wright followed in his footsteps as the leader of that movement, while others, notably Frank Moore Cross, Raymond E. Brown, and David Noel Freedman, became international leaders in the study of the Bible and the ancient Near East, including Northwest Semitic epigraphy and paleography.


Albright was born in Coquimbo, Chile, the eldest of six children of American evangelical Methodist missionaries Wilbur Finley Albright and Cornish American Zephine Viola Foxwell.[2] Albright was an alumnus of Upper Iowa University.[3] He married Dr. Ruth Norton in 1921 and had four sons. He received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland, in 1916 and took a professorship there in 1927, remaining as W. W. Spence Professor of Semitic Languages from 1930 to his retirement in 1958. He was also the Director of the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem, 1922–1929, 1933–1936, and did important archaeological work at such sites in Israel as Gibeah (Tell el-Fûl, 1922) and Tell Beit Mirsim (1933–1936).[4]

Albright became known to the public for his role in the authentication of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1948,[5] but made his scholarly reputation as the leading theorist and practitioner of biblical archaeology, "that branch of archaeology that sheds light upon "the social and political structure, the religious concepts and practices and other human activities and relationships that are found in the Bible or pertain to peoples mentioned in the Bible."[6] Albright was not, however, a biblical literalist; his Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan, for example, putting forward the view that the religion of the Israelites had evolved from polytheism to a monotheism that saw God acting in history—a view fully in accordance with the documentary hypothesis and the mainstream opinions of the preceding two centuries of biblical criticism.[7]

Although primarily a biblical archaeologist, Albright was a polymath who made contributions in almost every field of Near Eastern studies: an example of his range is a BASOR 130 (1953) paper titled "New Light from Egypt on the Chronology and History of Israel and Judah," in which he established that Shoshenq I—the Biblical Shishaq—came to power somewhere between 945 and 940 BC.

A prolific author, his major works include Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan, The Archaeology of Palestine: From the Stone Age to Christianity, and The Biblical Period from Abraham to Ezra. He also edited the Anchor Bible volumes on Jeremiah, Matthew, and Revelation.

Throughout his life Albright was honored with numerous awards, honorary doctorates, and medals, and was given the title "Worthy One of Jerusalem"—the first time the award had been given to a non-Jew.[8] He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1956.[9] After his death, his legacy continued as a large number of scholars, inspired by his work, became specialists in the areas Albright had pioneered. The American Schools of Oriental Research is now known as the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, in honor of Albright's exceptional contributions to the field.[10]

Influence and legacy

Albright's publication in the Annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research, 1932, of his excavations of Tell Bir Mirsim, and further descriptions of the Bronze Age and Iron Age layers of the site in 1938 and 1943, marked a major contribution to the professional dating of sites based on ceramic typologies, one which is still in use today with only minor changes. "With this work, Albright made Israeli archaeology into a science, instead of what it had formerly been: a digging in which the details are more or less well-described in an indifferent chronological framework which is as general as possible and often wildly wrong".[11]

As editor of the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research between 1931 and 1968, Albright influenced both biblical scholarship and Palestinian archaeology. [10] Albright used this influence to advocate "biblical archaeology", in which the archaeologist's task is seen as being "to illuminate, to understand, and, in their greatest excesses, to "prove" the bible.".[12] In this Albright's American Evangelical upbringing was clearly apparent. He insisted, for example, that "as a whole, the picture in Genesis is historical, and there is no reason to doubt the general accuracy of the biographical details" (i.e., of figures such as Abraham). Similarly he claimed that archaeology had proved the essential historicity of the Book of Exodus, and the conquest of Canaan as described in the book of Joshua and the book of Judges.

In the years since his death, Albright's methods and conclusions have been increasingly questioned. Fellow Biblical archaeologist William Dever notes that "[Albright's] central theses have all been overturned, partly by further advances in Biblical criticism, but mostly by the continuing archaeological research of younger Americans and Israelis to whom he himself gave encouragement and momentum ... The irony is that, in the long run, it will have been the newer "secular" archaeology that contributed the most to Biblical studies, not "Biblical archaeology."[13]

Biblical scholar Thomas L. Thompson contends that the methods of "biblical archaeology" have also become outmoded: "[Wright and Albright's] historical interpretation can make no claim to be objective, proceeding as it does from a methodology which distorts its data by selectivity which is hardly representative, which ignores the enormous lack of data for the history of the early second millennium, and which wilfully establishes hypotheses on the basis of unexamined biblical texts, to be proven by such (for this period) meaningless mathematical criteria as the 'balance of probability' ..."[14]

Published works

  • The Archaeology of Palestine: From the Stone Age to Christianity (1940[15]/rev.1960)
  • Views of the Biblical World. Jerusalem: International Publishing Company J-m Ltd, 1959.
  • Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan: An Historical Analysis of Two Contrasting Faiths (1968)
  • The Biblical Period from Abraham to Ezra

See also


Further reading

  • "Papers delivered at the Symposium 'Homage to William Foxwell Albright', the American Friends of the Israel Exploration Society, Rockville, Maryland, 1984."

External links

  • Official AIAR website
  • William Foxwell Albright, in Historical Handbook of Major Biblical Interpreters
  • National Academy of Sciences Biographical Memoir
  • Question and answer session with William F. Albright after his lecture, Archaeology and the Hebrew patriarchs
  • Archaeology and the Hebrew patriarchs
  • Archaeology and the prophets of Israel
  • Light from archaeology on oral and written literature

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