The Illumination of Archaeology

Recently (July 2017) there was a story about “ancient Canaanite DNA” disproves the Bible. For example, The Independent in the UK had this headline: “Bible says Canaanites were wiped out by Israelites but scientists just found their descendants living in Lebanon.” Except, of course, that the Bible says no such thing. This comes up with reasonable frequency, some discovery offers interesting insight into the world of the ancient Levant, but in order get clicks and sell stories they are framed as disproving the Bible (and occasionally proving the Bible). I wrote this article back in 2003. Much has happened in the 14 years since this was published, not least with regards to the “James Ossuary” and information can be found with the aid of your assistant G. Oogle. A version of it was published by Christianity Today, but is now behind a paywall. I have decided to post my earlier, unedited draft, for those who might be interested. 

In the last 12 months two remarkable artifacts, purporting to date from the biblical period, albeit a millennium apart, were revealed to the world and sparked a great amount of debate. The first was announced at a time when I was toying with how I might begin an article about the implications of contemporary archaeological discoveries on the study of the Bible. I heard Robert Siegel on NPR’s All Things Considered lead into a story saying, “News now of what may be the oldest reference to Jesus ever found by archaeologists.”1 The story was, as most people know by now, about the publication of Andre Lemaire’s report on a stone ossuary, or “bone box,” whose Aramaic inscription reads, Ya’akov bar Yosef akhui Yeshua, “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” Further adding to the curious coincidences, it happens that October 23rd, only two days after this announcement, is the Feast of St. James. The new year brought with it the second dramatic archaeological revelation. This time the object was claimed to date from the 9th century BCE and record the dedication of King Jehoash’s renovations of the Temple. The text closely parallels that found in 2 Kings 12. So archaeology was once again in the news and this time the discovery seemed to confirm some aspect of the Bible. In the months since these initial reports came out 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 (many scholars still feel that the James ossuary may indeed be genuine), but if these two examples are a guide it could appear that the only archeological “discoveries” that support the Bible are ones that have been forged.

This brings me to the initial reason that I began writing this piece. There have been a number of recent articles and television specials on educational channels in which experts had been cited as saying that archaeology has disproved the Bible. The authorities assert with supreme confidence that the evidence revealed through archaeological research has clearly and incontrovertibly proved that the Bible is, on various points, simply false. The most clearly articulated and perhaps most widely disseminated argument of this kind recently published was Daniel Lazare’s article, “False Testament: Archaeology Refutes the Bible’s Claim to History” (Harper’s Magazine, 2002). Lazare asserts, “In the last quarter century or so, archaeologists have seen one settled assumption after another concerning who the ancient Israelites were and where they came from proved false.” So, is archeology revealing the Bible to be nothing more than a web of deceit conjured up by priests and disciples in order to maintain their powerbase or is the earth simply yielding further evidence that the Bible is nothing less than God’s holy writ? To argue either position would grant archaeology far too much authority.

Sola Scholastica?

The problem is that those who accept the various reconstructions presented by scholars without analysis, as Lazare apparently has done, are no more objective than the “fundamentalists” who are so easily targeted for scorn today. The reality is, of course, that there are many excellent scholars, both Jewish and Christian, who continue to accept the Bible as inspired by God and authoritative, but who also read it critically. This critical reading of the Bible also 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. Lazare, and others like him, has simply traded the unquestioned authority of Scripture for an unquestioning faith in (certain) scholars. Not all scholars are in agreement, however, and this is often over looked or set aside as (to quote Lazare) “dogma masquerading as scholarship.” Many archaeologists and biblical scholars look at the same evidence and come to very different conclusions. It is all a question of methodology.

Reading archaeological evidence is much like reading a text. It is commonplace for a particular doctrine to be set aside as a “bad reading” of the Bible (consider the ongoing debate regarding ordination of women), 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 what an object was used for or what its importance was and is.

Turning to the most famous archaeological discovery of the last 100 years, one that concerns primarily texts although there are remains of various sorts involved, we can see the difficulties with archaeology quite clearly. Beginning in 1947 a number of texts were discovered near the Dead Sea, most of them found in situ. Once these texts were in the hands of scholars (the story of which is one of the great tragedies of modern academic hubris, see Lawrence Schiffman, Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls) debate ensued as to their authenticity, date, and importance. Eventually carbon-14 dating was used, other artifacts found near the scrolls were dated based upon pot shape, coins, and so on. But accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS), a refined form of carbon-14 dating, can only offer us a date within 100 years or so, thus to this day the primary basis of dating these manuscripts is the paleographic evidence. Paleography is the analysis of ancient handwriting and is as much an art as it is a science. The result is a subjective ordering of manuscripts relative to one another and relative to other ancient documents whose date is more certain. (In fact, the AMS tests run on Qumran fragments often gave dates as much as 200 years older than the dates offered by paleographers.)2 The majority of scholars agree that most of the texts date from the late second and first centuries BCE.

There is still much debate as to the ultimate origin of these texts (were they originally part of the library in Jerusalem and brought to Qumran for safe keeping during the revolt against Rome or were they copied and composed at the site of Khirbet Qumran?), who wrote the non-biblical texts (should this group be identified with the “Essenes” described by the ancient Jewish historian Josephus or some other heretofore unknown Sadducean sect?), and what is the significance of these texts (do the non-biblical texts represent a significant theological movement held by many Jews or was it just a small splinter group?). These are just three of the many questions that have kept scholars busy for over 50 years and will continue to do so for many more. Of additional interest to our current question is the fact that meaning and interpretation of the non-textual physical remains from Khirbet Qumran continues to be widely debated. There is a wealth of material from the site (coins, pottery, inkwells, a grave yard, etc.) and yet there is serious and earnest debate about the precise nature and purpose of the site. (A key issue is whether or not the scrolls, found near the site, but not in it, are in fact related to the domestic remains.) Just because we have the raw data does not mean that we know what it means. Texts are much more straightforward in this respect. If we have so much difficulty with artifacts that were found in relatively good condition, in situ, and can literally be read, why should we feel more confident about, say, a purportedly 2000 year old campsite containing nothing more than animal bones and bits of crockery?

Perhaps the most common attack of minimalists is that archaeologists have not uncovered evidence of, 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 3300 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 and it is obvious that the biblical text has to be read, interpreted, placed within a historical context, and examined for authorial bias, but, as I have said, this is also true of the archaeological evidence and 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 so on. 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 BCE 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 BCE, which would mean that Joshua could not have destroyed Jericho in the mid 1400’s, the traditional date for the conquest based upon and extrapolation from 1 Kings. 6.1.3 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 BCE along with the existence of many small settlements in the hill country during the 13th and 12th centuries BCE. Furthermore, a stele dating to the time of Pharaoh Merneptah (1224-1211 B.C.E.) 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-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. Once again 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 NT 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 CE 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. 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 BCE. (All books of the Hebrew Bible except Esther are attested in addition, of course, to many extra-biblical 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. Regardless of one’s perspective, the Bible describes events and actions that are beyond verification. How can one prove the parting of the sea? If the 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 then Christianity would not be faith, it would be knowledge.


  1. NPR : All Things Considered for October 21, 2002 []
  2. For an excellent overview see James C. VanderKam’s The Dead Sea Scrolls Today (Grand Rapids,MI: Eerdmans, 1994). []
  3. 1Kings 6.1 “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 BCE. 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. 40 (like 7) 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 that “a long time after the Israelites came out of Egypt.” []

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