Readers of Christianity Today are by now familiar with the debate surrounding the authenticity of the so-called "James Ossuary" and the Jehoash inscription. In the last few months, the Israel Antiquities Authority and a number of preeminent scholars in paleography (the science/art of reading scripts) have determined that both the James ossuary and the Jehoash inscription are modern forgeries. Discussion will no doubt continue, since many scholars such as Ben Witherington III still believe that the James ossuary is indeed genuine. But if these two examples are a guide, it might seem to some that the only archeological "discoveries" that support the Bible are ones that have been forged.
Before we become too morose, however, we should note that just last week Israeli scientists announced that they had confirmed through radiocarbon-dating that the tunnel commonly referred to as "Hezekiah's Tunnel"—widely believed to date to the time of King Hezekiah (727-698 B.C.) and the events described in 2 Kings 20:20—indeed dated to the eighth century B.C. So the pendulum swings again, and we can once more shout "Hurrah!" as science and archaeology prove the Bible.
But should we really be so concerned with what portions of the Bible archaeology seems to confirm or deny? What should be the importance of archaeology for faithful Christians and Jews?
Archaeology is a unique enticement for Christians of our era. We are called to live by faith, yet we also want tangible proof of that which we believe. The result is that we are eager to find evidence of David's kingdom, and are leery of those who claim that archaeology has disproved the Bible. The challenge is to read all our sources critically, whether it is the Bible or an archaeologist's report. Such a critical reading of the Bible includes evaluating and examining any new evidence that comes to light, whether through archaeology, linguistics, or other modes of research. The best scholars, regardless of faith convictions are those who apply critical thought to all the sources, whether textual or archaeological, tradition, or hypothesis. Those who believe that archaeology has disproved the Bible (see, for example, Daniel Lazare's 2002 article in Harper's Magazine, "False Testament: Archaeology Refutes the Bible's Claim to History") have simply traded the unquestioned authority of Scripture for an unquestioning faith in certain scholars.
Reading archaeological evidence is much like reading a text. It is not uncommon for a particular doctrine to be set aside as a "bad reading" of the Bible (consider the historical debate regarding slavery), but many do not seem to realize that all evidence requires reading or analysis. The analysis of archaeological remains is particularly fraught with difficulty. The first question is origin: Where and how was the artifact in question discovered? This was the biggest red flag for the two items produced in the last year. Both were of questionable provenance and came to the attention of scholars through a collector (and, in the case of the Jehoash inscription, through his lawyer). There was no way to authenticate its origin; there were no accompanying layers of earth, potsherds, or anything else to place it within a chronological context. Even when a proper dig allows us to know precisely where an artifact came from, what condition it was in, and its surrounding environment there is still the process of dating, analyzing, and figuring out precisely an object's original use and importance.
Perhaps the most common argument from "biblical minimalists" is to state that since archaeologists have not uncovered explicit evidence of an event, for example, the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, therefore it did not occur. They are forgetting the simple truth that a lack of evidence is not proof that something did not occur. I will be the first to admit that it would be very nice to have clear evidence of such a massive migration, but the paucity of physical remains in the desert from at least 3,300 years ago is hardly proof that the event never occurred.
We should also remember that we do have some evidence that these events occurred: the Bible, the collective memory of the Jewish people, and the fact that a nation known as Israel did indeed coalesce in that general time period and region. This is evidence that must be taken seriously. The Bible is the primary source of any evidence for Israel. Yes, the biblical text has to be read, interpreted, placed within a historical context, and examined for authorial bias—but this is also true of the archaeological evidence. To suggest otherwise would be intellectually dishonest.
None of this is to say that we should not take seriously the evidence and analysis presented to us by archaeologists. There is great precision in the science of modern archaeology, including the efforts of geologists, chemists, and others. In fact, the Israeli Geological Society still, at the time of this writing, maintains that the Jehoash inscription does in fact date to the 9th century B.C. based upon their analysis of the patina and chemical make up of the artifact. The paleographers, those who examine the form of the writing, orthography, and linguistics, maintain that it is a fake. Who is right, the paleographers or the "hard" scientists? What this teaches us is that we must guard against the fallacy that archaeology is a precise science that can produce irrefutable evidence. Archaeology is an imperfect craft because, like ancient texts, the evidence requires reading and interpretation by people who are often far from disinterested in the results.
Archaeology is our friend
So what is the appropriate role of archaeology in the study of the Bible? While not rejecting out of hand the possibility that archaeology may present a challenge to the biblical account of history or (as is most often the case) a traditional reconstruction of biblical history, students of the Bible should take a more constructive and conciliatory view of archaeology. The primary role of archaeology is that of illumination. Often the results of archaeological research yield information of great importance in matters mundane, such as the kinds of pots people used, how they cooked, wrote, and, in some cases, even what they wore. This is extremely important, since the Bible rarely give us such detailed information concerning the everyday life of ancient Israel and specifically about the lives of women. These gaps can be filled at least partially through archaeology.
One of the more famous examples of archaeology "proving" that the biblical account was false is with regards to the conquest described in the Book of Joshua. In the 1950's British archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon declared that Jericho had been abandoned by 1500 B.C., which would mean that Joshua could not have destroyed Jericho in the mid 1400s, the traditional date for the conquest based upon and extrapolation from 1 Kings. 6.1 (See note). This, it is argued, is evidence that an aggressive and decisive conquest never occurred. (Lazare alludes to this body of scholarship by simply stating, "the Old Testament account of that conquest turns out to be fictional as well.") Yet additional excavations have shown evidence of violent destruction of key sites in the mid 13th century B.C. along with the existence of many small settlements in the hill country during the 13th and 12th centuries B.C. Furthermore, a stele dating to the time of Pharaoh Merneptah (1224-1211 B.C.) contains a reference to Israel as a nation. It is the earliest extra-biblical reference to Israel in any source and means that by the time of Merneptah, Israel existed as a nation.
The archaeological evidence is somewhat confusing (and confused), but a broader view that combines the biblical text and this evidence creates a relatively consistent picture. If we do not insist upon a 15th century date for the exodus, then the archaeological evidence strengthens the history of settlement as portrayed in Joshua and Judges. The Book of Joshua tells us how a single dynamic leader was able to organize the tribes of Israel in military conquest, while the Book of Judges describes how, lacking that leadership, the Israelites were driven back after their initial success and forced to live in the hills (see Judges 1:27-2:4). In this instance, archaeology did not disprove the biblical account—rather it has forced a rethinking of traditional chronology. Once that adjustment has been made the biblical and the archaeological evidence support one another.
At times archeology can even substantiate claims about the text itself. The Dead Sea Scrolls offer a good example. For over a hundred years prior to their discovery, it had become commonplace for some scholars to dismiss the integrity of the biblical text. The assumption was that preserving the precise wording of such a large and diverse group of texts as the Hebrew Bible (not even considering the New Testament at the moment) could not have been transmitted from scribe to scribe over the millennia without all manner of errors creeping in. The fact that our oldest complete manuscript of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, the Masoretic Text (MT), only dated to the 10th century A.D. did not offer much assurance to those who believed that traditional scribes were as precise as they had professed to be.
Then came the famous discovery of the Bedouin in 1947. Suddenly our oldest texts of the Bible pre-dated the advent of Jesus. Scholars have now dated most of the biblical texts found at Qumran to the 2nd or 1st century B.C. (All books of the Hebrew Bible except Esther are attested, in addition to many extrabiblical texts). In this instance, a fortuitous archaeological find has demonstrated that the scribes had done a remarkable job of preserving the text. The differences between the biblical texts at Qumran and those of the Masoretic tradition are important only to linguists and textual scholars and have no serious bearing upon the meaning and context of the text. The changes are relatively slight.
But I don't think we should try and "prove" the Bible by archaeology either. There are plenty of books out there that claim to do just that, and I am as skeptical of them as I am of those that "disprove" the Bible. In both instances too much emphasis is placed upon what we may or may not be able to dig up. In the end one's analysis of archeological finds and biblical texts all come down to one's beliefs. The Bible describes events and actions that are beyond verification. How can the parting of the sea ever be proved? If an investigator assumes that the Bible is a pious fiction then no amount of evidence will convince her of its validity. There is always another explanation. But if the Bible is believed to be God's word (or one might even define it as inspired interpretation of events) then faith provides the hermeneutical key to reading both the texts and the archaeological discoveries. The discoveries of the archeologist and their subsequent evaluations are to be carefully read and incorporated into the Christian's (or Jew's) knowledge of the Bible and its context. The power of the Bible, however, is the insistence that the physical dimension of this world is only part of reality.
After all, if Jesus' death, resurrection, and ascension were documented facts that none could refute, we would not need faith. Christianity would be knowledge.
Christian M. M. Brady, D.Phil., received his doctorate from the University of Oxford and is Associate Professor of Jewish Studies at Tulane University
Note: 1 Kings 6:1 states, "In the four hundred eightieth year after the Israelites came out of the land of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon's reign over Israel, in the month of Ziv, which is the second month, he began to build the house of the LORD." The fourth year of Solomon's reign was (approximately) 957 B.C. Adding 480 to this yields a of 1437, add another 40 years for the "wandering" in the wilderness (according to Numbers they spent most of it at Kadesh Barnea) and the traditional date for the exodus is 1457. What is important to note in all of this is the use of numbers. Forty (like seven) is considered a "perfect" number (in fact, it is considered in the Bible as the length of a generation) and 480 is, of course, 40 x 12, another "perfect" number in ancient near eastern traditions. We should then understand 1 Kings 6:1 as saying "a long time after the Israelites came out of Egypt." (Return to text.)
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Today is day four of Christianity Today's Archaeology Week.
Yesterday: Top Ten New Testament Archaeological Finds of the Past 150 Years | How do shrouds, boats, inscriptions, and other artifacts better help us understand the Christ of the Ages? By Ben Witherington
Monday: Bones of Contention | Why I still think the James bone box is likely to be authentic. By Ben Witherington
Friday: Biblical Archaeology's Dusty Little Secret | The James bone box controversy reveals the politics beneath the science. By Gordon Govier
Tomorrow: Classic CT articles on why we dig, and a reflection on standing where Christ stood.
Christianity Today's earlier coverage of archaeology includes:
Did the Exodus Never Happen? | How two Egyptologists are countering scholars who want to turn the Old Testament into myth (Sept. 7, 1998)
Ossuary Questions Remain | Israel Antiquities Authority says "brother of Jesus" inscription is a forgery, but supporters say its report may be flawed (June 20, 2003)
Weblog: Israeli Officials Say James Ossuary, Joash Tablet are Fakes | Israel's Antiquities Authority unanimously calls James Ossuary inscription a forgery (June 18, 2003)
Weblog: Apostle Paul's Shipwreck Makes Headlines | Former U.S. ambassador tries to block book (May 15, 2003)
Books & Culture's Book of the Week: Oh, Brother | Most everyone agrees that the James ossuary is a significant find. Ask what it means, however … (Mar. 17, 2003)
The Unluckiest Church | Archaeologist predicts the future is grim for the ancient church's site (Feb. 6, 2003)
Christian History Corner: Finding God in a Box | Have archaeological discoveries like the James ossuary served or obscured the quest to verify the Bible? (Jan. 31, 2003)
The Dick Staub Interview: Dan Bahat on Jerusalem Archaeology | One of Israel's leading archaeologists talks about the importance of the Temple Mount and key historical finds in the Holy Land (Jan. 28, 2003)
Weblog: Experts Get a Closer Look at the James Ossuary (Nov. 26, 2002)
Weblog: James Ossuary Goes on Display as New Findings Emerge (Nov. 18, 2002)
Weblog: Ossuary Owner Will Go to Toronto After All (Nov. 11, 2002)
Weblog: Ossuary Owner Oded Golan Emerges to Defend Himself (Nov. 7, 2002)
Weblog: James Ossuary Display Might Be Delayed (Nov. 6, 2002)
Weblog: James Ossuary 'Badly Damaged' en Route to Toronto (Nov. 4, 2002)
Weblog: James Ossuary Contains Bone Fragments (Oct. 29, 2002)
Weblog: What Does James Ossuary Say About Mary? (Oct. 23, 2002)
Weblog: More Details Emerge on History of James's Bone Box (Oct. 22, 2002)
Stunning New Evidence that Jesus Lived | Scholars link first-century bone box to James, brother of Jesus (Oct. 21, 2002)
Herod's Stadium | Israeli archaeologists discover 2,000-year-old stadium. (Aug. 19, 2002)
Weblog: The Politics of a Hole in the Ground | U.S. News: Biblical archaeology matters politically (Dec. 19, 2001)
Bird Searches for Ark | World's highest-resolution commercial imaging satellite will investigate the "Ararat Anomaly." (Dec. 10, 2001)
Christian History Corner: Ghosts of the Temple | Soon after Jerusalem fell, the Roman Colosseum went up. Coincidence? (July 6, 2001)
Violence Puts Archaeologists Between Rocks, Hard Places | About half of the planned excavations in the Holy Land this summer have been canceled (June 27, 2001)
Christian History Corner: Case of the Missing Relic | A piece of Jesus' cross is stolen from a Toronto cathedral—or is it? (Oct. 20, 2000)
Rightly Dividing Biblical History | A journalist makes a case for Scripture's reliability. (May 30, 2000)
Temple Mount Artifacts Removed | Archaeologists upset over unsupervised excavations (Feb. 22, 2000)
Astronomer Discovers Star of Bethlehem | Rutgers University professor believes Jupiter, other bodies key to biblical mystery (Dec. 22, 1999)
Ancient Church Discovered in Gaza (May 24, 1999)
Holy Land Archaeology Imperiled (Feb. 8, 1999)
Signs of Canaanite Jerusalem Found (Oct. 5, 1998)
Temple Mount on Shaky Ground? (April 6, 1998)
Pottery Shard Points to Temple (Jan. 12, 1998)
Excavations Continue Despite Cutbacks (Mar. 3, 1997)
Do Photos Evidence Lost Edenic River? (Oct. 7, 1996)
Christians Recreate Jesus' Home (Feb. 8, 1999)
'Oldest Church' Discovered in Jordan (Sept. 7, 1998)
Disciples' Village Opens to Tourists (June 15, 1998)
Cloaked in Mystery | Those who believe it is Jesus' shroud point to features on it that seem unique to Jesus' death, including pathological ones (Nov. 16, 1998)
Jewish Scientists Enter Debate Over Shroud of Turin (Oct. 27, 1997)
The War of the Scrolls | Fifty years after the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, evangelical scholars are using them to demonstrate the reliability of the Scriptures (Oct. 6, 1997)
Dead Sea Scrolls: First English Translation Published (Dec. 9, 1996)
Indiana Jones and the Gospel Parchments | A sensationalist attempt to prove the authenticity of the Jesus story with a shred of papyrus (Oct. 28, 1996)