The following Christianity Today editorial originally appeared in Oct. 23, 1995, issue of the magazine.
Christians and Jews owe a lot to biblical archaeology. Over the past century, archaeologists have repeatedly confirmed and illuminated the historicity of the biblical record. Although, as Calvin taught us, we trust the Bible because of the inner witness of the Spirit, having physical evidence that confirms the historical context of God's saving acts bolsters our faith.
But will biblical archaeology survive? An acerbic essay entitled "The Death of a Discipline," published recently in the lively Biblical Archaeology Review, decries the trend in American universities to downgrade or eliminate programs in biblical and Middle East archaeology. According to the author, William Dever of the University of Arizona, the secular academic institutions that have been leaders in this field (Arizona, Chicago, UCLA, and Harvard, among others) have failed to keep their programs fully operational. In Dever's case, his institution has decided to cancel their program. Likewise, writes Dever, religious schools have cut back their commitments to biblical archaeology. (Counter to Dever's argument, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary has made a strong commitment to biblical archaeology and continues to educate specialists at the master's level.) The picture Dever paints is bleak. Other archaeologists interviewed by Christianity Today quickly noted Dever's gift for hyperbole, but they joined him in sounding the alarm: the situation is indeed serious.
Alarums and Excavations
We urge evangelical Christian institutions to stand in the gap, to create academic programs and cooperate in field archaeology ("digs") and to promote the importance of biblical archaeology in our churches. This is an expensive, but necessary undertaking.
It is necessary because biblical archaeology has not only enlightened our reading of Scripture (the recently discovered Tel-Dan inscription, for example, illuminates the character of David's dynasty) but has often confirmed the Bible's historicity.
It is necessary because, over the past 10 to 15 years, Middle Eastern archaeology has shifted from interpretation of the evidence in the light of the written records (including Scripture) to a bias against giving Scripture the benefit of the doubt. Dever himself bears responsibility for much of this secularization and has alienated the constituency most likely to cheer and financially support the archaeology of the Middle East: committed Jews and Christians. Believers must once again firmly grasp the task and conduct original research in a faith-friendly manner.
It is necessary because our therapeutic culture has divorced Christian faith from its narrative and historical framework. The faith is often repackaged as a set of timeless insights about God and human nature. But Christianity, no matter how many insights it brings with it, is at its core about the life and death of the Messiah in ancient Palestine and about the covenant people into whose midst he was born. The discipline of archaeology helps to ground our faith in the concrete context of the times and places where God has acted.
It is necessary because, as the discipline shrinks, there are fewer places where archaeologists can study their specialty at the doctoral level. Without the cooperation of the broader evangelical community, no Christian college alone will be able to lift the load of a research-driven program. Thus the discipline may indeed become moribund.
All of this will require ventures in faith and goodwill from donors and institutions. Christian institutions are not so well endowed as Chicago, Harvard, or Johns Hopkins. Therefore, consortiums, not individual colleges or seminaries, will have to work together without yielding to the temptations of turf wars. Dever mentions as an example of a successful consortium the Madaba Plains Project in Jordan, which has been operated for nearly 25 years by a group of Seventh-day Adventist schools.
Reinvigorating biblical archaeology also requires faith because archaeological field work is expensive, requiring much money and many willing workers. There is a role not only for institutions, but also for foundation support and private "deep-pocket" initiatives, such as the Scriptorium Project, currently excavating a fourth-century monastery in Egypt.
Despite the daunting costs and the complexity of the undertaking, we believe that there is enough interest among evangelicals to make new efforts worthwhile. Wheaton College (the only Christian college at this time to offer an undergraduate major in biblical archaeology) has found that a little advertising has generated greater student interest in their program.
Evangelicals are committed to fostering a belief in the trustworthiness of Scripture. That requires both argument and evidence. And the evidence, buried in the tells of the Middle East, requires painstaking excavation and analysis. Who will provide the funds? Who will lead the way?
This Christianity Today editorial originally appeared in Oct. 23, 1995, issue of the magazine.
Today is day five of Christianity Today's Archaeology Week.
Yesterday: Listening to the Fifth Gospel | The sun-baked ruins of the Holy Land have a story to tell. By David Neff
Wednesday: What Do the Stones Cry Out? | Beware of claims that archaeology disproves—or proves—the Bible is true. By Christian M.M. Brady
Tuesday: 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
Dever's "Death of a Discipline" article is not available online, but the issue it appeared in can be purchased via the Biblical Archaeology Review website. Neil Asher Silberman's response to Dever's article is available in PDF format here.
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)