A new free online course from Bar-Ilan University is going where few Israeli diplomats have trodden. With funding from Digital Israel, a joint venture of the Council for Higher Education and the government, last week the university launched a new massive open online course (MOOC) called “Biblical Archaeology: The Archaeology of Ancient Israel and Judah.”
Students from Malaysia, Pakistan, Oman, and United Arab Emirates — countries that do not recognize the modern State of Israel — have joined hundreds of other curious minds from locations as far-flung as the Caribbean’s Saint Vincent and the Grenadines to study the Holy Land’s ancient biblical archaeology.
Far from “proving the Bible,” the eight-week course provides an introduction to biblical archaeology, which it defines as “an archaeological enquiry into the cultural background of the peoples, regions, periods and cultures in which the biblical texts were formed.” It concentrates on the scientific, evidence-based study of ancient Israel and Judah during the Iron Age (ca. 1200-586 BCE).
A new class drops every Wednesday. In the first, introductory lesson students hear brief lectures, twist and turn virtual 3-D models, read source material, and “visit” archaeological sites and leading experts.
The course is taught in English by preeminent Israeli archaeologist Prof. Aren Maeir, of the Martin (Szusz) Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology. The United States-born, Israel-raised Maeir leads a class of over 1,000 with almost 400 students from the US, circa 300 from Israel, several dozen from other English-speaking countries, and an intriguing 27 categorized as coming from an “Unknown Country.”
Personable in real life and onscreen, Maeir is an excellent guide for the multi-disciplinary field that is archaeology today. For over two decades, he has led excavations at Tell es-Safi/Gath, the biblical Gath of the Philistines and home of Goliath, where his team utilizes tools ranging from intricate dental utensils to high-tech aerial drones and laser GPS points for coordinates.
But the modern field of archaeology goes well beyond tools and gadgets and is now on the forefront of interdisciplinary research. At this reporter’s recent summer visit to Maeir’s excavation, he was joined by colleagues from across the field, including archaeo-botanists and archaeo-zoologists — essential members of the modern archaeological team who study artifacts onsite and under the microscope.
In the course as well, students are introduced to the wide array of scholars now necessary for deep archaeological research.
“The format of the course is very different from most standard teaching methods around the world. Today, courses, such as this one, demonstrate the reform that is taking place in teaching and in learning at universities in Israel and around the world,” said Maeir in a press release. One striking reform is the ability to learn at home, at your own pace.
In the first lesson, students are taught fundamental basics such as the definition of pre-history — basically, the time period prior to the invention of writing, circa 3,300 BCE — and that 99 percent of archaeology concentrates on that period. They learn principles of stratigraphy and typography of artifacts, and hear about the many steps an archaeologist takes in choosing an excavation site.
Maeir emphasizes the importance of “tight spatial control” in the excavation process, in which archaeologists must carefully mark locations, draw sections of a site, describe artifacts and take photographs. In short, he quips, archaeologists could be described as a group of people suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder.
Unlike the dated attitude of the many Indiana Jones-type adventurers of the early 19th-20th centuries, Maeir also emphasizes the archaeologist’s obligation to not only discover new artifacts, but to publish them.
“The stage of writing is as crucial a stage as any of the other parts,” he said. “It is our moral duty to the public because the public funds our excavations.”
Maeir also does not shy away from the potentially contentious areas of biblical archaeology. He acknowledges that in the past the field has been used to further agendas for political or religious use, but claims he sees a strong effort by most professionals to “distance themselves from entangling modern ideologies.”
In a segment in which he explains why he calls the course “Biblical Archaeology,” he presents other names given to the field, including the Archaeology of Palestine, the Archaeology of the Southern Levant, and the Archaeology of Bronze and Iron Age Eastern Mediterranean, each of which connotes its own political perspective, he said.
Again reiterating that he and most other contemporary archaeologists are not setting out to “prove the Bible,” Maeir said he feels comfortable calling the field “biblical archaeology” because it is the study of the remains of the civilizations noted in the Bible.
“For the most part, contemporary practitioners of biblical archaeology deal with the relationship between the archaeological remains and the biblical text in a more sophisticated manner, in concurrence with modern biblical research,” Maeir explained.
“While the archaeological remains are still very relevant for understanding aspects of the biblical texts, and biblical texts can be useful for the interpretation of the archaeological remains, straightforward and ‘naïve’ connections between the finds and the biblical texts are more rarely suggested among most practitioners in the field,” he said.
Get all that? Good, because along with short movies, frontal lectures and reading material, the class also has frequent quizzes.
Produced by Online Academe, the free MOOC sits on the platform of Harvard University and MIT-founded online learning provider edX. Registration is ongoing and students can join through mid-February.