The NGSBA Mission
The Nelson Glueck School of Biblical Archaeology is an academic institution with an active field research program. Our work focuses on the Land of Israel, asking both universal questions about the development of human society and more particular ones concerning the special nature of ancient Canaan and Israel and the world of the Bible. The universal and particular mesh well together; so much of modern history is determined by what occurred in antiquity. The ethnic and religious schisms of our region, and the attending political conflicts, have their roots in antiquity.
We believe that a rigorous, academic approach to archaeology and the Bible can lead to new insights into the roots of our cultural identity. The passions and ideologies of peoples that inhabit the land of Israel today still carry with them the legacy of these identities.
While research and academic excellence are important, we feel that archaeology can and should have a role to play in society. Archaeology is fun, intellectually satisfying and it brings people together. The NGSBA practices archaeology as a public enterprise for people who want to experience the detective work and adventure we do.
We endeavor to bring together different communities that might not otherwise meet—Arabs and Jews, families from towns on the periphery and families from congregations in the USA, for example. Digging together and learning together leaves a mark that lasts a lifetime.
History of the School
The Nelson Glueck School of Biblical Archaeology was established in 1963 by Nelson Glueck, an ordained rabbi and respected field archaeologist and president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion at the time. The campus was initially called Hebrew Union College Biblical and Archaeological School, founded to provide a base for American scholars and researchers engaged in Near Eastern studies. Until the 1948 war the research center for such scholarship had been the American School of Oriental Research (now the Albright Institute) in east Jerusalem. When, following the war, it became difficult for scholars to move between east and west Jerusalem and between Israel and Arab countries, Glueck decided to create an alternative center in Israeli west Jerusalem.
In the beginning an American scholar was appointed director annually, but in 1968 William G. Dever became its first permanent director; he was followed by Joe E. Seger in 1971.
At a time when Reform Judaism was not exactly welcomed by the orthodox establishment of Israel, archaeology was seen as a foundation for the realization of reform Judaism’s spiritual connection with the Land of Israel. Archaeological research was considered almost sacrosanct by Israel’s secular establishment, and it didn’t hurt that Glueck was well connected.
The School began a long-term archaeological project at Gezer in 1964 under the direction of G. Ernest Wright. The enterprise contributed to the School’s rapid development into a major archaeological center. In addition to introducing new excavation methods, the Gezer project inaugurated the use of student volunteers in the field. The School also undertook excavations at Jebel Qa’aqir and Khirbet el-Qom. Final reports of the Gezer excavations appear in the School’s Annual Series. A Manual of Field Excavation was published in 1978 (now out of print).
Following Glueck’s death in 1971 and the election of Alfred Gottschalk as president of HUC-JIR, the name of the School was changed to the Nelson Glueck School of Biblical Archaeology. In 1974 Avraham Biran, just retired as director of the Israel Department of Antiquities and Museums, was appointed director and the school took over the Tel Dan excavations, which became its major project and the longest on-going excavation in Israel. Other excavations were carried out at ‘Aro’er, Yesud HaMa’alah, Ras el-Kharrubeh, Deir es-Sid, Tel Ira, Shiqmim, Gilat and Nahal Tillah (the last three directed by then-assistant director Thomas E. Levy).
In 2003 Avraham Biran retired and David Ilan, then at the Department of Archaeology and Near Eastern Civilizations at Tel Aviv University, was appointed director. The NGSBA is now focusing on publication of previously excavated material and the development of programs that are socially aware and community oriented.
An integral part of the School is its Skirball Museum, which exhibits the artifacts from the School’s archaeological projects. The exhibits are topical with an emphasis on archaeological objects as works of art and as expressions of the cultural and historical processes that affected the biblical world.
What is Biblical Archaeology
Biblical archaeology, “is a branch of biblical studies, an interdisciplinary pursuit that seeks to utilize the pertinent results of archaeological research to elucidate the historical and cultural setting of the Bible” (W.G. Dever “Biblical Archaeology”, in the Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Ancient Near East, vol 1, p. 318). Biblical archaeology must carry out scientific archaeology according to international standards of best practice, but its research questions will be derived from the study of the biblical text. At the same time, professional scholarship and a nuanced academic approach to the biblical text must inform biblical archaeological research.
An archaeologist working in the Levant (often called the Holy Land: Israel, Palestine, Jordan and Lebanon) need not be a biblical archaeologist; archaeological research in Israel does not require an agenda determined by biblical studies. Still, almost all archaeological work in our region dealing with the Bronze and Iron Ages (circa 3500-586 BCE) and the classical periods (circa 586 BCE – 200 CE) will in some way be biblical archaeology.
The first archaeology in Israel and Palestine was biblical archaeology; the excavations of the French consul de Saulcy in Jerusalem in 1856 uncovered what was called the “Tomb of the Kings” (of Judah), though it was later determined to be the much later (1st century CE) tomb of Queen Helena of Adiabene. Subsequent expeditions in Jerusalem (Warren), Gezer (Macalister), Tell el Hesi (W.F. Petrie) and Megiddo, Jericho and Shechem (Schumacher and Sellin) were all expedited to illuminate the biblical text.
Following the hiatus of World War I, archaeology entered a “golden age” ushered in by the British mandate over Palestine (1917-1948). Great institutions of learning such as Harvard University, the University of Chicago and the American Schools of Oriental Research begin large excavations at Megiddo, Samaria, Tell Beit Mirsim and Tell en-Nasbeh, for example. While excavation and data processing techniques had improved, the biblical orientation of archaeology remained intact, some would say to the detriment of objective scientific inquiry. Scholars such as W.F. Albright, John Garstang, Gordon Loud and Robert Engberg were at the forefront of this outpouring of biblical archaeology.
Following the establishment of the State of Israel archaeology continued in the same vein under scholars following the lead of Albright, Wright and Glueck. Yigael Yadin, Benjamin Mazar, Avraham Biran, Nahman Avigad, Ruth Amiran, Trude Dothan and Yohanan Aharoni were at the vanguard of Israeli scholarship, while Kathleen Kenyon, Nelson Glueck and G.E. Wright were most prominent amongst the foreign scholars of this period.
In the 1970s and 1980s archaeology in Israel and Palestine witnessed the development of a schism between the traditional biblical archaeology and a new, more positivistic, scientific archaeology (often called “processual” archaeology) that emphasized environment, meticulous data collection and analysis with quantitative methods. Research questions now had anthropological underpinnings with more univeral application. This was forwarded by newly prominent prehistorians such as O. Bar Yosef, archaeologists with a geographical orientation (Finkelstein and other students of Aharoni) and American researchers such as W.G. Dever. For the most part, however, Israeli archaeology maintained its visceral biblical orientation.
By the 1990s processual archaeology had become more dominant (Herzog, Finkelstein, Levy and Garfinkel) and interpretive, cognitive archaeology (sometime called “post-processual” archaeology) began to take hold as well. Interpretive archaeology emphasizes individual agency, the importance of symbolic behavior, the consulting of historical sources, when they exist, and the influence of a researcher’s own worldview on his or her scholarship. Bunimovitz, Chesson, Faust, Phillip, Ilan and Greenberg are some of the scholars who have adopted this approach.
Biblical archaeology still plays an important, even dominant role in Levantine archaeology. But it is, for the most part, an archaeology better informed of more modern approaches and methods. Much of the work being done now in Israel and Jordan results in data that have implications that are universal, local and biblical, all at the same time. The Nelson Glueck School of Biblical Archaeology does biblical archaeology without apology, because we aim to do, first and foremost, good archaeology.
Why does Progressive (Reform) Judaism sponsor archaeological research?
The connection between archaeology and progressive Judaism was initiated by reformed Rabbi and archaeologist Nelson Glueck (1900-1971). Most of Glueck’s work was carried out in the desert of the Levant – the Negev, Sinai, and Transjordan. Glueck’s aim was to illustrate and document the formative experience of Israelite-Jewish peoplehood. In his view, the Bible preserved the historical memory of the Jewish people. At the same time, he acknowledged that the Bible was primarily a theological document and as such there was no point in trying to “prove the Bible” (Biblical Archaeologist 22/4 : p. 106).
Today we take this approach one step further. Modern Biblical scholarship recognizes that the biblical text was compiled and written by people of brilliant intellect and vision over a period of hundreds of years. These people, scribes, and prophets were a product of their times and their writings reflect their cultural milieu. The biblical writers did use archival material with earlier origins and there is much that is historical in the biblical text. But the Bible is theological and political in nature, its intention was to galvanize a fragmented people and forward an ideology of unity under the Davidic Dynastic and its clerical annex. While Reform Judaism holds that this text is divinely inspired, it also holds that an individual has the right to decide whether to subscribe to any particular belief or not. In any event, the way we see it, one of the jobs of biblical archaeology is to investigate the historical and human context of the Bible’s compilers and the cultural origins of this context.
All Jews have an obligation to study the traditions that have been entrusted to us.
The study of archaeology raises difficult questions about the biblical text and about Jewish origins; Judaism encourages a healthy skepticism. We believe that a people that question its origins, as it questions its behavior and its faith, will, in the end, be a stronger people—one that is not threatened by intellectual challenges to its legitimacy and one whose adherents and potential adherents will be enthralled by its questioning, its intellectual honesty and its spiritual resilience. In this way, the study of archaeology is part of an ongoing Jewish renaissance based on Torah study and spiritual renewal.
Archaeology is a proven means of elevating Jewish literacy.
The tangible expression of our people’s past, in the form of archaeological sites and artifacts, puts the mosaic of history in context. Ideas were born in particular times and places, in real houses and temples, containing real people, pots and frescoes. Material culture reflects these ideas. The seal impressions from the City of David in Jerusalem include those belonging to scribes mentioned in the Bible; perhaps some of whom inked the first versions of Deuteronomy and the Book of Kings on parchment or papyrus. The tiled synagogues of Tzipori overlooking the luxuriant Beit Netofa valley were the locus of rabbinical debates described in the Talmud.
Reform Jews are heirs to a vast body of beliefs and practices embodied in TORAH and the other Jewish sacred writings. We differ from more ritually observant Jews because we recognize that our sacred heritage has evolved and adapted over the centuries and that it must continue to do so. If Judaism were not capable of evolution–of REFORM–it could not survive. Archaeology is capable of documenting the evolution of our heritage by means of material culture. It demonstrates the human ability to fail and suffer catastrophe but also to adapt and improve.
Reform Judaism accepts and encourages pluralism.
Judaism has never demanded uniformity of belief or practice. But we must never forget that whether we are Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, or Orthodox, we are all an essential part of Klal Yisrael — the worldwide community of Jewry. Archaeological research demonstrates, in no uncertain terms, that Israel and Judaism have always been heterogeneous and pluralistic. While the Temple in Jerusalem was the premier cult place in the Iron Age, other temples existed at Arad and Kuntillat Ajjrud in the Negev and at Tel Dan in the far north.
The Talmudic period synagogues of Israel were designed to accommodate the demands of the community. Some communities, such as those at Baram or Rehov for example, proscribed human images (orthodox?), while others (e.g. Beit Alpha and En Gedi) include exuberant portrayals of the human figure.
In the same spirit, archaeology shows that people of different traditions and beliefs have coexisted in the Land of Israel and can still do so. Our research does not demonstrate Jewish exclusiveness or prior claims on the Land of Israel. It demonstrates Jewish roots but does not discount the claims of Palestinians, Moslems, Christians and others to roots of their own. Rather than reject these claims we should embrace them and discuss them.
One of the guiding principles of Reform Judaism is the autonomy of the individual.
A Reform Jew has the right to decide whether to subscribe to particular beliefs or practices. The Nelson Glueck School of Biblical Archaeology has adopted a platform that requires that investigators be reflexively aware of their own background and motivations. This platform also emphasizes the individual and free will, or “agency”. While we are interested in societies and social systems, in the environment and its restrictions, we are also keenly aware of human individuality, symbolic behavior and cognitive factors that impact on human behavior and the resulting material culture.
A people created “in the image of God,” should also be dedicated to Tikkun Olam — the improvement of the world. Our new community archaeology projects are carried out in this spirit. We at the Nelson Glueck School of Biblical Archaeology feel that archaeology can make a difference to people and society, here and now. People excavating with their neighbors, in their own backyards, develop a sense of rootedness and common destiny—a sense of community. People from different ethnic groups or religions working in a square together get to know each other and hopefully, over time, lose their fear of “the other”.
For an explanation of the tenets of Reform Judaism see the web pages of the Union for Reformed Judaism.
Our founder: Nelson Glueck (1900-1971)
Born in Cincinnatti, Ohio in 1900, Nelson Glueck was one of the foremost leaders in the field of biblical archaeology and Reform Judaism. He read the benediction at the swearing-in ceremony of President John F. Kennedy.
At the age of 23, Glueck was ordained as a Reform rabbi by the Hebrew Union College and four years later was awarded his Ph.d at Jena, Germany, for his dissertation on the biblical concept of hesed (the Hebrew term for goodness or divine kindness). Until World War II he worked with William Foxwell Albright at the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem (ASOR, now the Albright Institute) and at Albright’s excavation of Tell Beit Mirsim. Later, Glueck himself served as director of ASOR, as well as having a faculty position at HUC in Jerusalem.
Glueck was a prolific scholar, excavator and surveyor. His early work centered on the exploration of Transjordan, where he identified over 1000 ancient sites, and the Negev, where he found another 500. His excavation of the Nabatean temple at Khirbet et-Tannur did much to forward knowledge of Nabatean religion and cult, and his books Exploration in Eastern Palestine (I-IV, 1934-51), The Other Side of the Jordan (1940), Rivers in the Desert (1959), and Deities and Dolphins (1966) established him as the foremost expert on the deserts of Palestine and their ancient inhabitants.
After the war, Glueck became president of the Hebrew Union College, and then president of the combined HUC-Jewish Institute of Religion, a position he held until his death in 1971. He created the HUC Biblical and Archaeological School in Jerusalem in 1963, the same year that he appeared on the cover of Time magazine. In 1972, the institute was renamed the Nelson Glueck School of Biblical Archaeology.
Glueck believed that the Hebrew Bible contains historical memory, but one that cannot be proven. He felt that the spirit of the Israelites was still alive in modern Israel, instilling that belief in both his students and his colleagues. Today, our research paradigms may differ from those of Glueck’s day, but his enthusiasm and scholarly integrity remain with us always.
Publications of Nelson Glueck:
The Other Side of the Jordan (ASOR), 1945.
Exploration in Eastern Palestine IV:1-2, 1952.
The River Jordan: Being an illustrated Account of Earth’s Most Storied River, London, 1954.
Rivers in the Desert: An Adventure in Archaeology, London, 1959.
Deities and Dolphins: The Story of the Nabataeans, New York, 1965.
Hesed in the Bible, Ohio, 1967.
Further reading about Nelson Glueck:
Brown, J. and Kutler, L. 2006. Nelson Glueck: Biblical Archaeologist and President of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Cincinnati.
Walberg, G. 1992. The Nelson and Helen Glueck Collection of Cypriot Antiquities, Cincinnati (with a biography of Nelson Glueck). Astrom.
Fierman F.S. 1986. Rabbi Nelson Glueck – an Archaeologist’s Secret Life in the Service of the OSS. Biblical Archaeology Review 12(5), pp. 18-35.
Baron A.G. 1978. The Glueck Survey: Issues and Problems in the Archaeology of the Negev.
Ann Arbor.Vogel E.K. 1975. Negev Survey of Nelson Glueck: Summary. Eretz-Israel 12, pp. 1*-17*.
Gordon W.J., Vogel E.K. and Wiener T. 1962. Nelson Glueck: A Bibliography. Philadelphia.
Past director: Avraham Biran (1909-2008)
Avraham Biran (Bergman) was born in 1909 in Petah Tikvah, grew up in Rosh Pina and was educated at the Reali School in Haifa, where he also taught for a short while. In 1930 he moved to the United States where he received his MA at the University of Pennsylvania and his Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Between 1935 and 1937 he was a research fellow at the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem (now called the Albright Institute). During this time he participated in the excavations of Tell Jerisheh and Ras el-Kharrubeh in Palestine, at Irbid and Tell el- Khleifeh in Transjordan and at Tepe Gawra and Khafajeh in Iraq.
Facing economic realities, Biran left the field of archaeology in 1937, when offered the post of District Officer in the Jezreel Valley by the British Mandatory Government, which he held until 1945. He managed to carry out an archaeological survey with Ruth Amiran (then Bransteter) in those years (published in 1941) but had no real time for archaeology until many years later. In 1945 Biran became District officer of Jerusalem, a post he held until 1955, during which time he was also a member of the Mixed Armistice Commission with Jordan.
In 1955 Biran moved to the Foreign Ministry and became Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles until 1958. During this time he cultivated friendships with a number of the leading Jewish families of the western United States, many of whom became faithful supporters of Biran’s work. Following his stint in Los Angeles, Biran was appointed Head of the Armistice Committees Department in the Foreign Office until 1961.
Avraham Biran returned to archaeology, as director of the Israel Department of Antiquities and Museums in the years 1961-1974. While director he directed or co-directed the department’s excavations at En-Gev, Tel Amal, Tel Zippor, Lahav, Ruqeish and Yesud Hama’ala. In 1966 he embarked upon the most important project of his lifetime, the excavation of Tel Dan.
In 1974 Biran retired as director of the Israel Department of Antiquities and Museums and became director of the Nelson Glueck School of Biblical Archaeology of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Jerusalem until 2002. He continued the Tel Dan excavations, which became the longest ongoing expedition –33 years – in Israel. He also carried out excavations at Aroer and Tel Ira in the Beersheba basin, and limited excavations at Ras el-Kharrubeh, Deir es-Sid and Yesud Hama’ala.
Biran served for many years as the chairman of the Israel Exploration Society (IES), chairman of the Israel Government Names Committee, president of the Israel chapter of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) and a member of the Government Coins Committee.
In 1984 he received the Percia Schimmel Award from the Israel Museum for distinguished contribution to archaeology in the Land of the Bible. In 2002 he received the Israel Prize, Israel’s highest honor.
Apart from numerous articles published, he authored Biblical Dan and coauthored and edited Dan I: A Chronicle of the Excavations, the Pottery Neolithic, the Early Bronze Age, and the Middle Bronze Age Tombs (with D. Ilan, and R. Greenberg), Dan II: A Chronicle of the Excavations and the Late Bronze Age “Mycenaean Tomb”, (with R. Ben-Dov), and edited Temples and High Places in Biblical Times.
Avraham Biran retired as director of the Nelson Glueck School of Biblical Archaeology at the age of 93! He is remembered as one of the most interesting and entertaining archaeological lecturers ever. He was often a keynote speaker at the annual meetings of the American Schools of Oriental Research; while most lectures attracted an audience of twenty to sixty people, Biran’s talks would fill a hall of hundreds, and this was true of universities, churches and synagogues throughout the world. He spent hours preparing these public appearances, something more archaeologists would be wise to emulate. The public was immensely important to him, perhaps even the most important. We continue to maintain these values and to consolidate and enhance Avraham Biran’s honored legacy.
For further information on the life and times of Avraham Biran see the Biblical Archaeology Society’s publication Celebrating Avraham (Washington D.C. 1999). For an account similar to the above and some personal recollections see the memorial article that appeared in the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research No. 353 (2008).
Every year the NGSBA director submits a report to the president of approximately 4-5 pages in which he or she summarizes the activities of the previous year and makes projections for the coming year. These reports are a good indicator of the school’s strengths, successes and shortcomings. The most recent of these are available below as PDF files.