The relationship between archaeology and the Bible is not adversarial.
By Randall W. Younker
Early in this millennium, the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) aired a critically acclaimed special on the biblical book of Genesis. Though the program received numerous favorable reviews, a question that apparently prompted it had been lurking in the back of many minds. It was openly voiced in the October 21, 1996, Newsweek article: “But Did It Happen?” The cover of the October 25, 1999, issue of U.S. News & World Reportdisplayed a painting depicting Eve offering Adam an apple under which was the query, “Is the Bible True?” Both of these major news magazines point up a modernist question that continues to gnaw at people today: Is the Bible true?
Why does this question continue to haunt contemporary society? It is one thing to read and even enjoy the stories in the Bible; it is quite another to believe that they actually happened. If God actually entered into history through our space-time continuum—if the Bible stories are true and the claims that the Bible makes are real (e.g., Jesus is indeed returning to earth as Judge and Redeemer)—that would also mean that humans have certain moral obligations to God and to their fellow humans.
Importance of Biblical History to Faith
Both evangelical Christian philosopher Ronald Nash1 and theologian Gerhard Maier2 acknowledge that faith, and the personal relationship with God that they encompass, are impossible without history. This is because (as they argue) it is in historical events (both past and present) that we encounter God, come to know Him, and develop a personal relationship with Him. After supporting this with several scriptural examples, Maier comments: “Faith can only arise where God has previously, not thought, but acted. That is, it arises as biblical faith only in the realm of biblical revelation whose occurrence has extended itself into history.”3
The evangelical scholar Carl F. Henry points out that “God reveals himself . . . within this external history in unique saving acts.”4 Therefore, Gerhard Maier adds, we must insist that “historical acts” belong inextricably to divine revelation. “God is the ultimate ground of history. God revealed himself in history in such a way that his revelation could be discerned even in the midst of a fallen human race. When we speak of the historical nature of the Bible, we have in mind precisely that crossover of the eternal divine revelation into the present space-time world.”5
Significantly, Maier is careful to note that historical investigation alone cannot create faith, because faith requires a personal relationship with the one God who encounters us in the events of history. This encounter with God is not simply knowledge or persuasion on the intellectual level that God exists—many may believe in God’s existence but are not believers and will not be saved.
This is, in part, why believers are—or should be—reluctant to say that history (or archaeology) “proves” faith. By itself, it cannot. Nevertheless, history plays a crucial role because genuine interpersonal knowledge is impossible apart from historical knowledge.
As Nash points out, “To whatever extent faith knowledge is analogous to interpersonal knowledge, it is obvious that a faith commitment requires prior historical knowledge. Trust is inseparable from knowledge. When a person becomes a friend or falls in love, he makes a commitment that goes beyond what he knows; but nonetheless the commitment would never have been made without some prior knowledge.
The person making the commitment reasons that even though there may be much about this person he does not know, he knows enough to believe, to trust, to make a commitment that goes beyond the evidence. But the commitment is still based on some evidence.”6
Moreover, cognitive knowledge continues to be important, even essential, to interpersonal knowledge; historical knowledge continues to be relevant even after a personal commitment is made.
What Archaeology Cannot and Can Do
Archaeology, of course, is a scientific way of “resurrecting” history. Thus, its relevancy in exploring biblical history seems obvious. There are, however, a few things that archaeology cannot—or should not—do. For example, archaeology should not be considered a final authority with regard to biblical veracity. That is to say, archaeology’s purpose cannot be to prove the Bible. If archaeology is allowed that position of authority, the Bible’s own self-described authority is subjugated to one outside of the text.
Moreover, as Adventist archaeologist and Old Testament scholar Lloyd Willis notes, “Because archaeology is interpretive in nature [subjective] apparent contradictions are inevitable, and the Christian can then be left in a quandary. Faith should be in God and Scripture.”7
There are some other inherent weaknesses in archaeology that also make it unsuitable for serving as an absolute authority. It cannot generally prove the details of historically significant events, nor can it verify the theological dimensions of biblical events. For these and other reasons, archaeology does not provide a suitable foundation for faith.
Positive Contributions of Archaeology
In spite of these limitations, however, archaeology can do a number of positive things with regard to the Bible. For example, it can serve as a test for reconstructions of the biblical texts by historical critics. That is to say, archaeology can challenge bad theories about the Bible or, to put it in a more positive light, archaeology can provide a different point of view “against which to test . . . [a historical-critical] interpretation of the documents.”8 Second, archaeology can provide the contemporary setting and context—historical, cultural, linguistic, and religious—for the writing of biblical materials and the events these materials describe. In this sense, it can sometimes provide clarification. Third, it can, at times, offer corroborative evidence for the existence of specific people, places, and even events mentioned in the biblical writings.
The positive contributions of archaeology may not be essential for the believer, although it can be edifying for an already established faith. It can help the unbeliever, however, who is challenged by claims that the events and people of the Bible are fictitious. Of course, archaeological data cannot in themselves result in conversion—only the Holy Spirit can do that—but it can be information that the Spirit can use to positively impress a struggling individual.
Archaeology, Biblical People, and Events
It might be interesting and useful to see examples of the positive contribution of archaeology to the understanding of biblical history. From the very beginnings of modern explorations into the ancient Near East, archaeology has continuously verified the existence of people mentioned in the Bible as well as the occurrence of biblical events.
The first of these discoveries that has a direct bearing on the Bible was made in 1843, by Paul Emile Botta, a French consular officer and antiquarian. He was excavating at Khorsabad, also known as Dur Sharrukin (Sargon’s Castle), in Iraq. He found a number of cuneiform tablets as well as bas-reliefs with inscriptions. When he brought these back to Europe, a scholar named Longperrier was able to make out the name Sar-Gin on one of the inscriptions. He was able to identify this name with Sargon, the king of Assyria mentioned in Isaiah 20:1. This appears to be the first biblical character whose existence was confirmed independently of the Bible.
In 1846, an Irish clergyman named Edward Hincks was able to read the name of king Nebuchadnezzar (II) and his father on clay bricks that travelers had brought back from Mesopotamia. This both confirmed the existence of this person noted in the Book of Daniel, as well as his claim to be a great builder of Babylon.
About this same time, British archaeologist Austen Henry Layard was excavating the twin sites of Kuyunjik and Nebi Yunus (traditional site of Jonah’s grave), both of which turned out to be part of biblical Nineveh.9 Among the biblically significant finds uncovered by Layard was the Black Obelisk (1846). On it, scholars were able to identify the names of people mentioned in the Bible: Shalmaneser (III), the same person mentioned in 2 Kings 17:13; and Jehu, son of the house of Omri. Jehu, of course, was the king of Israel known for his aggressive chariot driving (2 Kings 9:20). By 1853, Layard, with the help of his epigraphers, was able to claim that he had found nearly 55 rulers, cities, and countries mentioned in both the Old Testament and the newly discovered Assyrian texts.10
While many additional finds have been made since 1850, some of the recent discoveries have been equally exciting. These include the probable ossuary of Caiaphas, the high priest who presided over part of Jesus’ trial; the discovery of King David’s name on an Aramaic stele from Tel Dan; the name of Baruch, Jeremiah’s scribe (as well as his fingerprint); and the seal of King Hezekiah.
Archaeology has also provided dramatic historic, cultural, linguistic, and religious insights into the fall of Lachish, recounted in 2 Kings 18. In addition to the biblical account, Sennacherib’s pictorial account has been recovered from his palace, as well as his own written account of the battle. In addition to this, the site of Lachish has been excavated, bringing to light even more details of the battle. These discoveries have provided all sorts of details about this biblical event.
Refuting Criticisms Against the Bible’s Historicity
The final area in which archaeology can make a contribution is in refuting the challenges that critics have laid against the Bible’s historical veracity. For example, during the latter part of the 19th century, when the historical-critical method was becoming widely accepted, a favorite example presented as illustrating the Bible’s historical inaccuracy was the references in Daniel to Belshazzar as the final king of Babylon. Some scholars, such as Hitzig in his commentary on Daniel,11 went so far as to suggest that Belshazzar was a pure invention on the part of the writer of Daniel 5.
As is now well known, however, in 1854 clay cylinders were found at the ancient city of Ur, upon one of which was inscribed a prayer on behalf of King Nabonidus and his son, Belshazzar. Other documents were subsequently discovered indicating that King Nabonidus preferred to live in Teima in northern Arabia rather than in the capital city of Babylon. He apparently left his son Belshazzar in charge—in effect a coregent—as second in the kingdom. This position assigned to Belshazzar explains why he offered Daniel the third-highest position in the land instead of the second, which Belshazzar already occupied.
The point here, however, is not to show how archaeology has proved the Bible. Indeed, none of these Belshazzar tablets actually refers to those final, fateful events in the Great Hall of the palace that Daniel describes where the king was weighed in the balances and found wanting. In this case, archaeology is more effective in disproving the critic’s claims that there was no Belshazzar than in proving the Bible account of events as true. The archaeological evidence that there was indeed such an individual is gratifying to the believer, but is not and should not be necessary in proving the historicity of the Bible.
Another objection of critics is the apparent presence in the Bible of anachronisms, events, or phenomena from a later period of history being read into an earlier period. Examples of this include references in the patriarchal narratives to camels and tents (Gen. 12:16). It was argued that camels were not domesticated until well into the first millennium B.C., well after the supposed patriarchal period in the second millennium. Similarly, it was argued that tent dwelling (as in the story of Abraham and his family) was more common in the first millennium than the second. The references to tents and to camels were, therefore, anachronistic, and cast doubt upon the historical reliability of the Genesis narratives that contained them.
My own research into domesticated camels has shown the critics to be wrong. For example, during an excursion into the Wadi Nasib in the Sinai in July 1998, I noticed a petroglyph of a camel being led by a man not far from a stele of Ammenemes III and some proto-Sinaitic (early alphabetic) inscriptions. Based on the patina of the petroglyphs and the dates of the accompanying inscriptions and nearby archaeological remains, this camel petroglyph dates to the Late Bronze Age, probably not later than 1500 B.C.12 Clearly, scholars who have denied the presence of domesticated camels in the second millennium B.C. have been committing the fallacy of arguing from silence. This approach should not be allowed to cast doubt upon the veracity of any historical document, let alone Scripture.
Archaeology is related to the study of Scripture within a context that accepts the Bible as the fully inspired, authoritative Word of God. This view affirms that the Bible provides a truthful and accurate history of God’s dealings with humanity from the time of Creation to the present age. Because the God of the Bible is the Source of truth and justice, He invites us to test Him and to investigate His claims. This can be done though a number of disciplines, including archaeology. Scripture asserts that the God of the Bible has crossed into our space-time continuum, into our history. He has done this through His Word, through His Son, and through the events of history. Thus, through history we can meet God, and because He is in charge of history, it can best be understood when the investigator is in a relationship with God.
There can, therefore, be no genuine objective historical investigation apart from contact with God. Moreover, because the Bible is a revelation from God, who informs us that what He has revealed is true, Bible-believing archaeologists do not use their discipline to test the authenticity of Scripture’s claims—archaeology does not stand in judgment of Scripture. However, it can be profitably used to clarify and corroborate the statements of Scripture; it can be used to edify believers; and it can be used to show the shortcomings of historical reconstructions that are in conflict with the claims of Scripture. Ultimately, its goal should be to bring humanity into a closer understanding of God and a saving relationship with its Creator.
Randall Younker, Th.D., Ph.D., is Professor of Old Testament and Biblical Archaeology and Director of the Institute of Archaeology at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.
NOTES AND REFERENCES