The Bible and Archaeology: How Archaeology Confirms the Biblical Record

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The Bible and Archaeology

How Archaeology Confirms the Biblical Record

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“I tell you that if these should keep silent, the stones would immediately cry out,” said Jesus (Luke 19:40 Luke 19:40And he answered and said to them, I tell you that, if these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out.
American King James Version×
). He was referring to what would happen if His disciples did not bear testimony of Him.

The original disciples aren't around to provide their eyewitness accounts of Jesus Christ, but we do have the inspired Word of God, which they, along with many others, wrote.

Significantly enough, we also have the testimony of stones that really can bear witness to the veracity and inspiration of God's Word. The physical evidence unearthed by present-day scientists can and does speak to us through biblical archaeology.

Archae, which comes from the Greek, means “ancient,” and ology, which comes from the Greek logia , means “science.” Archaeology, then, is the scientific study of ancient things.

Unearthing the origins of archaeology

Englishman Flinders Petrie is generally considered the individual who put archaeological methodology on a scientific footing. He is credited with transforming archaeology from a treasure hunt into a disciplined search for information about the past. It was not until the 19th century that scientific methods were rigorously applied to excavations of historical sites.

A curious fact of history is that the person who indirectly contributed to this process was not a scientist but the French emperor and conqueror Napoleon Bonaparte. During his conquests of Europe and the Middle East, Napoleon arrived in Egypt in the late 1700s hoping to build the Suez Canal and drastically reduce the navigation time for the trade route from France to India. In Egypt, before a battle in the vicinity of the famous pyramids of Gizeh, he told his soldiers, “Forty centuries are looking down upon you from these pyramids.”

His inquisitive mind led him to study the Egyptian culture and try to decipher strange drawings he saw in the ancient monuments. For that purpose, he brought along 175 French scholars and researchers, and together they set up an institute in Egypt to study the writings and ancient relics of the area.

The deciphering of the Egyptian hieroglyphics (a word meaning priestly or sacred writings) can be attributed mostly to a young scientist of that time, Jean François Champollion. Accurate translations were made possible largely by the discovery in 1799 of a large black basalt rock by French soldiers at the town of Rosetta. Later to be known as the Rosetta Stone, it bore a trilingual inscription in Old Egyptian hieroglyphic, demotic (a later, simplified form of Egyptian hieroglyphics) and Greek. With this stone as a key, Champollion in 1822 could finally decipher the ancient hieroglyphics.

The deciphering of the Egyptian hieroglyphics brought the culture of the Pharaohs to light, and the educated classes of Europe gained insight into this fascinating subject. Soon, many amateur archaeologists were on their way to fame and fortune, finding fabulous monuments and other treasures. Museums throughout Europe and America vied with each other to house these marvelous finds. The treasure-laden tomb of Tutankhamen, discovered in 1922, was one of the most spectacular. Many early archaeologists would be honored for their efforts and would become a part of history in their own right.

Deciphering ancient writing

Elsewhere in the region, strange writings on monuments and other objects were waiting to be deciphered. Curious scratches, resembling bird footprints, were found on thousands of hardened clay tablets. Initially, some scientists thought they were decorations rather than writing. Since the marks had apparently been made with a wedgelike knife in soft clay, the experts called them cuneiform, or letterforms made by cunei , Latin for “wedges.”

The credit for the deciphering of cuneiform would go mostly to an agent of the British government, Henry C. Rawlinson, stationed in Persia. He began a systematic study of cuneiform writing found on the Behistun Rock inscription, sometimes known as the “Rosetta Stone of cuneiform.”

Thousands of years earlier, Darius the Great, king of Persia, had on the face of this 1,700-foot cliff overlooking a valley engraved an account of his exploits. The inscription appeared in three scripts: Persian, Elamite and Babylonian in the cuneiform style of writing.

Over a period of two years, Rawlinson traveled to the site and made the perilous climb, dangling from a rope while painstakingly transcribing the inscription. By 1847, he had deciphered cuneiform writing, opening understanding of Babylonian culture and history to the world. For his efforts, Rawlinson received a knighthood from Queen Victoria in 1855.

Digging up forgotten cities

Another young British subject, Austen Henry Layard, drew inspiration from such discoveries and the fame it had brought men like Champollion and Rawlinson. Layard began digging in Iraq, home of the Assyrian and Babylonian empires thousands of years before. He unearthed great cities
mentioned in the Bible, including the ancient Assyrian capital, Nineveh, and Calah. Many of his finds, including enormous winged bulls and other important Babylonian and Assyrian artifacts, made their way to the British Museum. He, too, was knighted by Queen Victoria.

Not to be outdone by the French and British, German archaeologists also began their quest for riches and fame. One such explorer, Heinrich Schliemann, began searching for the legendary city of Troy, described by the ancient Greek poet Homer. Believing Homer's sagas to be pure imagination, contemporaries ridiculed Schliemann's efforts, thinking him to be on a fanciful search. But, incredibly enough, heeding the descriptions in Homer's Iliad and those by other Greek writers, Schliemann began to excavate. In 1871, he found the remains of the ancient city of Troy.

Following in the footsteps of these dashing adventurers came the patient archaeologists who would study and classify these discoveries in a systematic way, giving birth to the scientific methodology of field archaeology.

The age of skepticism

Unfortunately, the zeal for fame and treasure of many of these early archaeologists also led to unfounded claims of the discoveries of biblical sites. Some of these claims, such as the supposed discovery of King Solomon's mines and David's tomb, were later proved false. Seeds of doubt began to be planted regarding the accuracy of the biblical account.

The 20th century inherited the skepticism of the preceding hundred years. Charles Darwin and others, espousing theories of evolution, had posited explanations for the origin and development of living creatures apart from a divine Creator. Such notions encouraged a questioning of the historicity of the Bible.

Also strong in Europe was the thinking inspired by Karl Marx, who in an economic, materialistic interpretation of history, discounted God and miracles. Many scholars ridiculed the biblical accounts as myth. The Bible became fair game for higher criticism; a tugging match ensued between believers in the inspiration and accuracy of the Bible and scoffers.

Biblical and theological scholars of the day declared the Bible was more recent in origin than it claimed; some argued the people of the Old Testament did not even know how to read and write. Some scholars concluded that most of the Old Testament was little more than myth.

Authors Norman Geisler and Paul Feinberg observe: “Perhaps the best example of those who hold the 'reason over revelation' view are known as 'liberals' or 'higher critics.' Roughly speaking, this refers to a theological movement that sprung from the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century European thought. It was influenced by Spinoza, Kant, and Hegel, who concluded by human reason that parts or all of the Bible are not a revelation from God. Other higher critics have included men such as Jean Astruc (1684-1766) and Julius Wellhausen (1844-1918).

“In contrast to the historic, orthodox view that the Bible is the Word of God, liberals believe that the Bible merely contains the Word of God. When they apply the canons of human reason or modern scholarship to the Bible they feel that some parts of it are 'contradictory,' and others are simply myths or fables. Some Old Testament stories are rejected by these critics because the events seemed to be 'immoral'” ( Introduction to Philosophy, a Christian Perspective , 1980, p. 261).

Rejecting the divine inspiration of the Bible, archaeologists from liberal biblical institutes allowed themselves to be influenced by the age of skepticism in theology. Consciously or unconsciously, they became biased against the biblical account.

Skeptical of fall of Jericho

An example of such bias surfaced recently in the matter of dating the fall of Jericho. According to the biblical record, Jericho was destroyed by the Israelites under Joshua when they began their conquest of the promised land. However, excavations of the site of Jericho led some-most notably, renowned British archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon-to reject the biblical version.

In Biblical Archaeology Review , archaeologist Bryant Wood explains the earlier antibiblical view: “The archaeological evidence conflicted with the Biblical account-indeed, disproved it. Based on [archaeologist Kathleen] Kenyon's conclusions, Jericho has become the parade example of the difficulties encountered in attempting to correlate the findings of archaeology with the Biblical account of a military conquest of Canaan. Scholars by and large have written off the Biblical record as so much folklore and religious rhetoric. And this is where the matter has stood for the past 25 years” (Bryant Wood, Biblical Archaeology Review , March-April, 1990, p. 49).

Evidence reexamined

Yet a reevaluation of Kenyon's work showed that her conclusions challenging biblical chronology were suspect, while the biblical account gained the strongest supporting evidence. Wood observes that Kenyon's “thoroughgoing excavation methods and detailed reporting of her findings, however, did not carry over into her analytical work. When the evidence is critically examined there is no basis for her contention that City IV [the level of the city that was thought to correspond to Joshua's time] was destroyed . . . in the mid-16th century B.C.E. [before the Christian era]” (ibid., p. 57).

Time magazine added the following: “Over the past three decades, the consensus has gone against the biblical version [of the fall of Jericho]. The late British archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon established in the 1950s that while the ancient city was indeed destroyed, it happened around 1550 B.C., some 150 years before Joshua could have shown up. But archaeologist Bryant Wood . . . claims that Kenyon was wrong. Based on a re-evaluation of her research, Wood says that the city's walls could have come tumbling down at just the right time to match the biblical account . . . Says Wood: 'It looks to me as though the biblical stories are correct' ( Time , March 5, 1990, p. 43).

And so, the lively debate regarding the Bible's accuracy continues between conservative and liberal archaeologists.

Discoveries verify biblical accounts

As the 20th century has progressed, several archaeological finds verifying the biblical record have come to light. In the early 1900s, German excavators under Robert Koldewey mapped the ancient capital of Babylon and found that it closely corresponded to the biblical description. Egyptian history and culture generally matched the biblical accounts.

The archaeologist's spade has uncovered evidence of other ancient peoples mentioned in Scripture. One such example is the Hittite kingdom, mentioned only in the Bible, which had been dismissed by many critics as mythological. As Gleason Archer mentions: “The references [in the Bible] to the Hittites were treated with incredulity and condemned as mere fiction on the part of late authors of the Torah” (A Survey of Old Testament Introduction , 1974, p. 165). Yet, excavations in Syria and Turkey revealed many Hittite monuments and documents. These discoveries proved the Hittites to have been a mighty nation, with an empire extending from Asia Minor to parts of Israel.

Also important was the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, written in ancient Hebrew script. The scrolls were found in caves near the Dead Sea in 1947. Some of them are books of the Old Testament written more than 100 years before Christ's time. Nevertheless, questions raised by earlier critics about the Bible's authenticity have shaken the faith of many.

Added dimension in understanding

The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia explains: “There were nineteenth-century scholars who were convinced that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and perhaps even Moses were simply imaginary creations of later Israelite authors. But archaeology has put these persons in a real world. As a result, a scholar such as J[ohn] Bright, after devoting thirty-six pages to the subject, can write, 'the Bible's picture of the patriarchs is deeply rooted in history' . . . Archaeology supplies means for understanding many of the biblical situations[;] it adds the dimension of reality to pictures that otherwise would be strange and somewhat unreal, and therefore it provides an element of credibility. While the person of faith does not ask for proof, he does want to feel that his faith is reasonable and not mere fantasy. Archaeology, by supplying him with material remains from biblical times and places, and by interpreting these data, provides a context of reality for the biblical story and reasonability for biblical faith” (1979, Vol. 1, p. 244).

Archaeological discoveries in Egypt and Iraq have been valuable in confirming the biblical account. However, much evidence still remains beneath the surface. Much of the territory of the biblical kingdoms of Israel and Judah remains to be archaeologically explored.

Not until the end of World War I, when some of this area came under British control, did prolonged scientific surveys and excavations begin.

After the Balfour Declaration in 1917, Jews began to arrive in Palestine; the British, Americans and others were joined in digs by Jews in their ancestral homelands. Today there are some 300 sizable excavations underway in Israel, an extraordinary number for a country only 200 miles long and 60 miles wide.

Archaeology makes a believer

The abundance of archaeological evidence in support of the Bible can strengthen faith, and in some cases it has greatly contributed to giving birth to belief where none existed before.

An example of physical evidence building one's faith is the life of Englishman William M. Ramsay (1851-1939). Born in the lap of luxury, Ramsay was dutifully raised as a nonbeliever by his atheist parents. He graduated from Oxford University with a doctorate in philosophy and became a professor at the University of Aberdeen.

Determined to undermine the historical accuracy of the Bible, he studied archaeology with the aim of disproving the biblical account. Once ready with the necessary scientific tools and learning, he traveled to Palestine and focused on the book of Acts, which he fully expected to refute as nothing more than myth.

After a quarter-century of work, Ramsay was awestruck by the accuracy of the book of Acts. In his quest to refute the Bible, Ramsay discovered many facts which confirmed its accuracy.

He had to concede that Luke's account of the events and setting recorded in the narrative were exact even in the smallest detail. Far from attacking the biblical account, Ramsay produced a book, St. Paul, the Traveller and Roman Citizen , which supported it.

Eventually, William Ramsay shook the intellectual world by writing that he had converted to Christianity. Ironically, this man who set out to refute the Bible, found himself accepting the Bible as God's Word because of his explorations and discoveries. For his contribution to biblical knowledge with his many books, he was knighted also.

The study of archaeology can help fortify faith. It allows us to take a fascinating journey back in time to study the stones and artifacts that bear mute but compelling witness to the truth of Scripture.

What else has been found? Future articles in The Good News will describe discoveries that parallel and illuminate the biblical account. 

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