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. Albright was an alumnus of Upper Iowa University. He married Dr. Ruth Norton (1892–1979) 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 sites in Israel such as Gibeah (Tell el-Fûl, 1922) and Tell Beit Mirsim (1926, 1928, 1930 and 1932).
Albright became known to the public for his role in the authentication of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1948, 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." 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.
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 Bible Series">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 "Yakir Yerushalayim" (Worthy Citizen of Jerusalem)—the first time the award had been given to a non-Jew. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1956. 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 School of Oriental Research, Jerusalem, is now known as the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, in honor of Albright's exceptional contributions to the field.
From the early twentieth century until his death, he was the dean of biblical archaeologists and the acknowledged founder of the Biblical archaeology movement. Most notably, coming from his own background in radical German historical criticism of the historicity of the Biblical accounts, Albright, through his seminal work in archaeology (and most notably his development of the standard pottery typology for Palestine and the Holy Land) arrived at the conclusion that the biblical accounts of Israelite history were, contrary to the dominant German literary criticism of the day, largely accurate. This area is still widely contested among scholars. His student George Ernest Wright followed in his footsteps as the leader of the biblical archaeology movement, contributing definitive work at Shechem and Gezer. Albright also inspired, trained and worked with the first generation of world-class Israeli archaeologists, who have carried on his work, and maintained his perspective.
Other students, notably Joseph Fitzmyer, S.J., 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. John Bright, Cyrus H. McCormick Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament Interpretation at Union Seminary in Richmond (PhD, Johns Hopkins, 1940), went on to become "the first distinguished American historian of the Old Testament" and "arguably the most influential scholar of the Albright school", owing to his "distinctly American commonsense flavor, similar to that of W[illiam] James". Thus Albright and his students achieved a very wide reach and were highly influential in American higher education from the 1940s through the 1970s, after which revisionist scholars of merit such as T. L. Thompson, John Van Seters, Niels Peter Lemche, and Philip R. Davies developed and advanced their own minimalist critique of Albright's view that archaeology supports the broad outlines of the history of Israel as presented in the Bible. Like other academic polymaths (Edmund Huesserl in Phenomenology and Max Weber in sociology and the sociology of religion), W.F. Albright created, advanced and soundly established the new discipline of Biblical Archaeology, which is taught now at major and even elite universities on a worldwide basis and has exponents across national, cultural and religious lines.
Albright's publication in the Annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research, 1932, of his excavations of Tell Beit 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".
As editor of the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research between 1931 and 1968, Albright influenced both biblical scholarship and Palestinian archaeology. Albright used this influence to advocate "biblical archaeology", in which the archaeologist's task, according to fellow Biblical archaeologist William Dever, is seen as being "to illuminate, to understand, and, in their greatest excesses, to 'prove' the Bible.". 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. William Dever claims 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.'"
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' ..."