Archaeology and the Bible

Occasionally an archaeologist’s pontification will dominate the headlines proclaiming how the latest discovery affirms or denies the Bible. Regardless of the position, experts holding an opposing view soon sound off.

This could lead the rest of us to wonder: if the experts cannot decide what is true, how in the world are we supposed to know?

We can withstand being swept away irresponsibly by the gale force blast of the loudest or most sensationalist megaphone, if we are grounded with a little sophistication in understanding the history and the nature of archaeology.

In the early to mid twentieth century, William F. Albright and his student G. Ernest Wright championed archaeology’s supportive role toward the biblical narrative.

However, Wright became somewhat disillusioned after excavating Shechem and Gezer. He came to realize that understanding the archaeological data requires an interpretative framework. While the data could be interpreted to support the Bible, other interpretations could also be possible.

During the 1970’s and 1980’s, the pendulum swung toward employing a strictly secular interpretative framework. Many times even a hostile stance toward the Biblical narrative undergirded the explanation.

The last twenty-five years have generally witnessed a synthesis of these two extremes. Many recognize the value of biblical studies dialoguing with archaeology. Yet, assumptions and biases continue to exist and influence how people understand the data.

Consider the recently discovered massive wall eight feet wide and ninety feet long that Eilat Mazar has uncovered in Jerusalem. Having found some pottery fragments and a small juglet from the 10th century B.C. near the wall, she has suggested king David could have built this wall. However, the position of these objects do not directly associate them with this wall.

Her harshest critic, Ronny Reich, who is also excavating Jerusalem within a hundred yards of Mazar calls her suggestion, nothing but wishful thinking. He counters by speculating, “I will not be surprised if it turns out that this building actually dates to the Middle Bronze Age II,” that is, to the 15th century B.C.

Further excavation may shed more light on the historical context of this controversial wall. What the current evidence does suggest, is that Israel Finkelstein’s harsh criticism against the biblical portrayal of Jerusalem during the tenth century, demeaning it as having been little more than a cowtown, should be dismissed as reflecting his antagonistic biases against the biblical record.

Neither the Bible nor archaeology imparts the complete story of the past. On the one hand, the Bible does not pretend to provide an exhaustive history. On the other hand, the witness of archaeology is often more like a book’s table of contents combined with some pages here and there as opposed to preserving an encyclopedic daily diary.

Both require responsible interpretation and can illuminate the other. While archaeology can play a role in biblical apologetics, care must be exercised to avoid overstating the case. Likewise, overly anxious naysayers would be wise to restrain going on record airing their belief that no relationship exists between the archaeological witness to history and the history recorded in the Bible.

Unfortunately, sensationalistic sound bites do sell headlines.


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