In recent years, ethnoarchaeology and the use of ethnographic analogy have come under increasing criticism. Analogy seems necessary because, as post-industrial academics, archaeologists worry that they do not possess the knowledge necessary to interpret archaeological materials directly and thus must consult with coeval ‘premodern’ peoples to develop interpretive baselines. In this paper, we draw attention to a form of scholarly enquiry – 19th-century Bible customs books – that faced a similar challenge and used methodologies that parallel archaeology's use of ethnoarchaeological data. These were books written by missionaries who lived in Palestine for extended periods of time and studied Palestinian life to make sense of obscure elements of the biblical text, believing that life there had remained fundamentally unchanged for the past three thousand years. Using the Bible customs books as a kind of ‘cautionary tale’ typical of ethnoarchaeology, we argue that a consideration of this literature brings into focus some of the challenges faced by archaeologists’ use of analogy. Specifically, Bible customs books expose significant issues in how relations are conceptualized between archaeologists, others and ancients, and show how a strict empirical focus in ethnographic research can insulate key assumptions from critical scrutiny.