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Puritans in Babylon: The Ancient Near East and American Intellectual Life, 1880-1930
By Bruce Kuklick
Princeton University Press
253 pp.; $29.95
Bruce Kuklick, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, is a scholar of unusual breadth. He has published substantial books on twentieth-century philosophy and nineteenth-century theology, but also on the modern presidency and on baseball in Philadelphia. Most of these earlier books are marked by skeptical, but also respectful, treatment of traditional faith. So it is as well with Puritans in Babylon, a revealing study of the motley crew of businessmen, ne'er-do-wells, academics, and adventurers who got formal study of the ancient Near East off the ground.
Kuklick is not overly concerned about details of archaeological practice; it is archaeology of head and heart that concerns him. The book does deal expertly with the pioneering American expedition to Nippur (south of Baghdad) and the emergence of formal academic disciplines to study the Middle East. But its central concern is how the historical mindset spurred by archaeological study undercut traditional Jewish and Christian belief in the historicity of Scripture. Kuklick's careful treatment of this complex subject includes sympathetic discussion of William Foxwell Albright, a leader in modern archaeology who yet retained a traditional faith. But Kuklick himself sides with those who saw modern archaeology assisting higher criticism of Scripture in a "reordering of the worldview of the twentieth-century thinker" that rendered traditional belief impossible. What makes this book so effective--but also so challenging--to those who would combine traditional faith and rigorous scholarship is Kuklick's own stance. He exhibits keen self-awareness, for example, that "many learned conclusions [rebutting traditional belief] were not compelled by the evidence but instead were produced by the culturally grounded inventiveness of scholars." But along with that critical self-awareness ...