The Bible and Archaeology

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The Bible and Archaeology

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For centuries the Bible was accepted as true and accurate. Then, in recent centuries, it came under blistering attack.

Archaeology is the recovery and study of the material remains of past people's lives and activities. It involves the excavation and systematic study of their tools, weapons, cookware, inscriptions and other objects and remains. Biblical archaeology is a smaller subset of the broader field of archaeology, limited to the study of ancient civilizations in the ancient Middle East, the geographical setting of the events recorded in the Bible.

Modern biblical archaeology is a fascinating and sometimes controversial subject. Its aim, in general, is to compare the findings of archaeology to the writings of the Bible. Biblical archaeologists seek to establish the historicity, or the lack thereof, of the people, places and events of the Bible.

For many centuries the events of the Bible were accepted as a true history. The great sagas of the Bible were approved as accurate down to the smallest details. However, with the arrival of the "Enlightenment" of the 17th and 18th centuries, this outlook began to change. Scholars began to exalt human reason and scientific exploration above the Bible, mounting a frontal attack on Scripture.

Biblical heroes and other towering personalities, as well as their experiences as recorded in Scripture, came to be considered by many scholars as mere myths. The existence of mighty empires, some of which were recorded in the Bible as having ruled for centuries, was doubted or even denied. Skepticism became the rule of the day among "critical" scholars.

Where previous generations had taken the Bible at face value, now a supposedly enlightened generation viewed it with doubt. The net effect was to deal a staggering blow to the credibility of the Bible in the minds of many people.

Earlier, when the Bible was translated into several languages in the post-Reformation era after the comparative illiteracy of the Middle Ages, the Bible had become for many people their one and only textbook of ancient history. They regarded it as the unerring Word of God.

But, after the tinkering of critical scholars, the Bible began to be viewed as suspect by many historians. Englishman Arnold Toynbee summed up their view when he referred to the Old Testament as merely "human compositions of varying degrees of religious and historical merit." He further stated that those who accepted it as factual "set a religious premium on an obstinate stupidity" (A Study of History, Vol. 10, 1957, p. 260).

Given this mind-set, archaeologists who sought to excavate and evaluate the ruins of past ages and to report the credibility of the Bible in an honest manner faced an uphill struggle. The field of science in general had grown biased against the Bible, with some archaeologists themselves among the leading critics.

The testimony of history

Sir William Ramsay, an English historian and prolific writer, was a product of a mid-19th-century education and of this pervasive antibiblical bias. He believed the historical accounts in the book of Acts had been written not in the time of the apostolic Church, but considerably later—in the mid-second century. If this were true, the biblical book of Acts could not have been written by Luke, the traveling companion of the apostle Paul, and could only be a fabricated history.

Luke claimed to have been with Paul as the two men trudged over the cobblestoned roads of the Roman Empire. He wrote as one who watched as Paul was used by God to bring a young convert back to life after a fatal fall (Acts 20:8-12). Ramsay was skeptical of the historicity of Luke and the historical record of Acts and set out to disprove it.

After many years of detailed study of the archaeological evidence, Ramsay came to a disconcerting conclusion: The historical and archaeological evidence came down solidly in favor of Luke's having written the book of Acts in the first century, during the time of the apostles. Rather than Luke being a historical fraud, Ramsay concluded that there are "reasons for placing the author of Acts among the historians of the first rank" (St. Paul the Traveller and the Roman Citizen, 1925, p. 4).

Ramsay became convinced of Luke's reliability because Luke wrote about the work of the early Church as it was intertwined with secular events and personalities of the day. In Luke's Gospel account we are introduced to Pontius Pilate, Herod the Great, Augustus and other political players. In Acts we meet an even larger assemblage, including Sergius Paulus, Gallio, Felix, Festus and Herod Agrippa I and II.

Luke not only writes about these people, but he mentions details, sometimes relatively minute facts, about them. "One of the most remarkable tokens of [Luke's] accuracy is his sure familiarity with the proper titles of all the notable persons who are mentioned ... Cyprus, for example, which was an imperial province until 22 BC, became a senatorial province in that year, and was therefore governed no longer by an imperial legate but by a proconsul. And so, when Paul and Barnabas arrived in Cyprus about AD 47, it was the proconsul Sergius Paulus whom they met " (F.F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? 1981, pp. 82-83).

Luke mentions other particulars about the offices and titles of officials of the Roman Empire. In every case he gets it right, as confirmed by archaeological discoveries many centuries later. As Ramsay discovered, to show such accuracy required that the author be well versed at the time in the intricacies of politics of the day over a wide region—with no readily accessible reference works to check. Few of us could do as well if quizzed about the exact official titles of national and international political figures today.

Accuracy: a test of credibility

Such fine details of the historical setting make the Bible interesting, but they also put an author, such as Luke, to the test—and the Bible along with him. If he makes a mistake in his reporting, then his work loses credibility. How does Luke survive the test?

F.F. Bruce, professor of biblical studies, says of Luke's work: "A writer who thus relates his story to the wider context of world history is courting trouble if he is not careful; he affords his critical readers so many opportunities for testing his accuracy. Luke takes this risk, and stands the test admirably" (p. 82).

Some scholars maintain that Luke was wrong in his report of a Roman census around the time of the birth of Jesus Christ (Luke 2:1-3). They argued that Quirinius was not governor at this time because he was given this position several years later. Critics also argued that there was no census then and that Joseph and Mary were therefore not required to return to their native Bethlehem at the time.

Later archaeological evidence, however, showed that Quirinius served two terms as an important Roman administrator in the region and that the events described by Luke were indeed possible (Bruce,
pp. 86-87). Indeed, Luke tells us that Jesus was born at the time of the "first census" under Quirinius (verse 2, NIV), strongly indicating that Quirinius conducted a census in both his first and second administrations in the area. It turned out that those who had challenged the biblical account had done so without all the facts.

Professor Bruce goes on to observe that, when we see Luke's habitual accuracy demonstrated in details that have been historically verified, there is ample reason to accept his credibility in general. And indeed, archaeological discoveries have repeatedly supported Luke's accuracy and attention to detail.

Much yet to be discovered

A relatively small part of the remains of the biblical world has been excavated. Of some 5,000 known sites of archaeological significance in the Holy Land, only about 350 have been excavated, and of these only about 2 to 3 percent have been extensively excavated—and excavation of as little as 4 percent of a site is considered extensive. Of those that have been excavated, it is a fact that the entire Bible holds a remarkable track record of accuracy when compared with the finds unearthed through archaeology.

As professor Walter Kaiser Jr. wrote, "Biblical archaeology has greatly enhanced the study of the biblical texts and their history" (The Old Testament Documents: Are They Reliable and Relevant? 2001, p. 97). He also stated: "The facts, from whatever source, when fully known have consistently provided uncanny confirmation for the details of Old Testament persons, peoples and places by means of the artifactual, stratigraphical and epigraphic remains [and] evidence uncovered" (ibid., p. 108).

Much of the Old Testament came under heavy assault from the guns of the anti-inspiration scholars when the winds of doubt swept through the 19th century. Speaking of this time and its effects, archaeologist Kenneth Kitchen wrote: "Time and again in Old Testament studies, we are told that 'history knows of no such person' as, say, Abraham or Moses, or ... the battles of Genesis 14, for example. However such phrases are totally misleading. They simply cover the ignorance not of 'history' personified but of the person making this claim" (The Bible in Its World: The Bible and Archaeology Today, 1978, p. 48).

Dr. Kitchen's statement shows that the historicity of Old Testament personalities and their worlds cannot be buried. It is important to note that scholars at one time doubted the existence of empires, of entire populations and of many of the Bible's central characters. In the face of a growing mountain of evidence, skeptics have many times been forced to recant their earlier claims.

Evidence supports biblical accounts of the patriarchs

For example, some critical scholars have questioned the existence of the patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They rejected the biblical view because no clear archaeological evidence was known to exist.

Yet the biblical documents describe Abraham and his world in considerable detail. The specific customs of this society as described in Genesis 15-16 are, in fact, attested to in tablets found at Nuzi, near the city of Asshur in Assyria. The documents "pertain to matters such as inheritance and property rights, slavery, adoption, and the like" (Eugene Merrill, Kingdom of Priests, 1996, pp. 38-39).

Some scholars once claimed that the unusual events described in these two chapters of Genesis, such as the episode of Abraham fathering a child for his wife Sarah by her handmaiden, Hagar, were fabricated. The same scholars had to back down when the Nuzi tablets demonstrated that such surrogate practices were commonplace in the culture of that time when a woman was infertile.

Similarly, Genesis 37:28 tells us that Joseph's brothers sold him as a slave for 20 shekels of silver. Clay tablets discovered in the region dating to the 18th and 19th centuries B.C., the time in which Joseph lived, show that the going price for slaves at the time was indeed 20 shekels.

By later centuries, however, the price of slaves had increased greatly. In the eighth century B.C., it had risen to 50 to 60 shekels. By the fifth to fourth centuries B.C., the price was 90 to 120 shekels (Kenneth Kitchen, "The Patriarchal Age: Myth or History?" Biblical Archaeology Review, March-April 1995, p. 52).

Had a Jewish scribe dreamed up the story of Joseph in the sixth century B.C., as many biblical critics argue, why wasn't Joseph's price given as 90 to 120 shekels? If the story was fabricated more than a thousand years after it supposedly happened, how did the author know the selling price of a slave a thousand years earlier? The obvious answer is that the Genesis story is an accurate account of contemporary events.

What about the Exodus?

Many skeptical scholars and archaeologists have disputed the biblical record of the Israelites' Exodus from Egypt because no confirmed physical evidence outside of the Bible has been found to bear witness to these events. They believe that these stories were invented many centuries later.

The truthfulness of the Exodus is important to the authenticity of the Bible because it is obvious that the event was considered to be of monumental importance in the establishment of Israel as a nation. The Israelites looked back on this event as the foundation of their faith. Many biblical passages testify as to how important they considered it to be. Either a people known as Israel existed, dwelt in Egypt and left there or we simply cannot trust the Bible.

Professor Kitchen offers a sound explanation as to why there is little physical evidence of Israel's dwelling in Egypt. "The [Nile] Delta [where Israel dwelt] is an alluvial fan of mud deposited through many millennia by the annual flooding of the Nile; it has no source of stone within it ... The mud hovels of brickfield slaves and humble cultivators have long since gone back to their mud origins, never to be seen again.

"Even stone structures (such as temples) hardly survive, in striking contrast to sites in the cliff-enclosed valley of Upper Egypt to the south ... Scarce wonder that practically no written records of any extent have been retrieved from Delta sites reduced to brick mounds ... with even great temples reduced to heaps of tumbled stones" (On the Reliability of the Old Testament, 2003, p. 246).

Dr. Kitchen also explains why no records regarding the Exodus are to be found among Egyptian historical inscriptions and records: "As pharaohs never monumentalize defeats on temple walls, no record of the successful exit of a large bunch of foreign slaves (with loss of a full chariot squadron) would ever have been memorialized by any king, in temples in the Delta or anywhere else" (ibid.).

In other words, the proud Egyptians, who were the greatest military power of the world in that day, would not have left a record of a complete and total humbling of their pretentious leader and the destruction of his army. In fact, the Bible stands alone among ancient writings of the region in recording the military defeats of its own nation. The vain leaders of that era boasted about their triumphs and victories, but never chose to record their humbling defeats.

Events and people verified by archaeology

Some make the claim that Israel was not a significant power during the days of the Egyptian dynasties. They believe Israel was no more than a loose amalgamation of impotent tribes.

The objective evidence, however, points to a different conclusion. An ancient object that intertwines biblical and Egyptian history was discovered by the archaeologist Sir Flinders Petrie in 1896. It is known as the Israel Stele because "it contains the earliest known mention of Israel " (ibid., p. 26). This black granite stele contains boastful inscriptions commissioned by Pharaoh Merenptah about his victories in battles and refers to Israel being "laid waste." The stele dates from 1207 B.C. (Biblical Archaeology Review, September-October 1990, p. 27).

Israel's journey from Egypt to Canaan after the Exodus is recorded in Scripture as well. The Bible provides place names that figure prominently in the journey, with Numbers 33 supplying a detailed listing of sites on the route. Detractors have disputed the historical record, denying that these settlements existed at this early period in history because archaeological remains have not been found for the time in question.

One of these is the settlement of Dibon, in what is now southern Jordan (Numbers 33:45). No archaeological remains have been found at that site that date earlier than the ninth century B.C. Does this mean there was no city there when the people of Israel traversed the area?

Recently some scholars have seen the need to recant their claim that Dibon could not have existed at the time of the Exodus. Egyptian records verify the existence of Dibon during this time. Lists of ancient Egyptian routes mention Dibon as a stop along one of the routes through that area.

Not only did Dibon exist in that day, but it was significant enough to occupy the attention of Ramses II, who "sacked the city in the course of a military campaign in Moab" soon afterward (Charles Krahmalkov, "Exodus Itinerary Confirmed by Egyptian Evidence," Biblical Archaeology Review, September-October 1994, p. 58).

The city of Hebron also figured in the Israelite conquest of Canaan. "So Joshua went ..., and all Israel with him, to Hebron; and they fought against it" (Joshua 10:36). Although some critics have asserted that no city existed at Hebron during this time, the Egyptian map lists tell otherwise. A list of cities that Ramses II ordered to be carved on a temple wall in Amon lists Hebron (Biblical Archaeology Review, September-October 1994, p. 60). Archaeology at the site itself also confirms that it was a fortified, thriving city since the time of Abraham (September-October 2005, pp. 24-33, 70).

André Lemaire, an expert in ancient inscriptions, notes that some scholars have gone so far as to maintain that "nothing in the Bible before the Babylonian exile can lay claim to any historical accuracy" ("'House of David' Restored in Moabite Inscription," Biblical Archaeology Review, May-June 1994, pp. 31-32). Yet time after time scholars have had to backtrack from earlier statements as additional archaeological evidence has come to light.

An example of this was the Hittites, for a long time known only from the biblical record. "Until the discovery of the Hittite empire at the beginning of the last century, the 'Hittites' mentioned in Genesis 10:15 as descendants of Canaan were unknown ... But in 1906 Hugo Winckler began excavating a site known as ancient Hattusha ... in what we today call Turkey. As a result a people whose existence was seriously doubted previously is well documented with literally tens of thousands of clay tablets" (Walter Kaiser, The Old Testament Documents: Are They Reliable and Relevant? 2001, p. 102).

Another group whose existence was not known outside of the Bible until recently is a people called the Horites. Genesis 36:20-21 states that they were the sons of Seir the Horite. The biblical record was vindicated when "late in 1995 came word that the capital city of the Horites, Urkesh, had been discovered buried beneath the modern Syrian town of Tell Mozan, some 400 miles northeast of Damascus, on the border with Turkey ...

"The three hundred acre site has already yielded over six hundred items with some form of writing, often on drawn figures on clay seals ... This most dramatic find again demonstrates that the text of the Old Testament is extremely reliable" (Kaiser, pp. 103-104).

Does archaeology prove the Bible?

What should we say about the biblical record thus far? The skeptic can always point to elements that have yet to be specifically verified. But we should never forget that specific parts of the Bible assuredly have been upheld by archaeological discoveries. The burden of proof is on the skeptics. In the wake of such evidence as that shown in this chapter and available in many other sources, it is up to them to prove their case.

Frank Gaebelein, an eminently qualified author and general editor of The Expositor's Bible Commentary, has remarked that "the attitude of suspended judgment toward Bible difficulties ... is constantly being vindicated, as archaeology has solved one Biblical problem after another, and as painstaking re-examination of discrepancies has finally led to answers" (The Expositor's Bible Commentary, 1979, Vol. 1, p. 31).

Dr. Steven Ortiz, codirector of excavations at the site of biblical Gezer, commented in a 2007 Internet interview that "serious scholars, even if they're not believers, even if they don't think this [the Bible] is a sacred text, still consider it to be history because things match up so well." Dr. Aren Maeir, excavation director at the ancient Philistine city of Gath, in another 2007 Internet interview said simply, "You can't do archaeology in the land of Israel without the Bible."

In view of the real evidence, the doubter might do well to reconsider his position and commit his life to serving God. If he waits until every tiny issue is resolved in his own mind, he might ignore or reject a call from God Himself. He could be depriving himself of the blessings available to those who have committed themselves to learning and following God's way of life.

The objective use of archaeology has demonstrated the truthfulness and technical accuracy of the Bible. This chapter has demonstrated some of the factual evidence that verifies the biblical record. More will continue to be discovered.

As archaeologist Nelson Glueck concluded: "It may be stated categorically that no archaeological discovery has ever controverted a Biblical reference. Scores of archaeological findings have been made which confirm in clear outline or in exact detail historical statements in the Bible. And, by the same token, proper valuation of Biblical descriptions has often led to amazing discoveries" (Rivers in the Desert: A History of the Negev, 1959, p. 31).

The Bible is the inspired Word of God, and its accuracy continues to be validated by the spade of archaeology.