One of the strange paradoxes of our time is the extent to which more and more people are questioning the reliability of the Scripture, in spite of the fact that there is greater evidence than ever for its trustworthiness. More than a century ago critics questioned many historical statements in the Old Testament. They thought them fictional and highly imaginative. But our century is one of unprecedented discovery, and these discoveries have for the most part substantiated the biblical record. Dr. W. F. Albright, professor emeritus of Johns Hopkins University says, “There can be no doubt that archaeology has confirmed the substantial historicity of Old Testament tradition.”1
Millar Burrows, of Yale, states, “On the whole, however, archaeological work has unquestionably strengthened confidence in the reliability of the Scriptural record. More than one archaeologist has found his respect for the Bible increased by the experience of excavation in Palestine.”2 He also says, “Archaeology has in many cases refuted the views of modern critics. It has shown, in a number of instances, that these views rest on false assumptions and unreal, artificial schemes of historical development. This is a real contribution and not to be minimized.”3
Sir Frederic Kenyon, a former director of the British Museum, writes, “It is therefore legitimate to say that, in respect of that part of the Old Testament against which the disintegrating criticism of the last half of the nineteenth century was chiefly directed, the evidence of archaeology has been to reestablish its authority and likewise to augment its value by rendering it more intelligible through a fuller knowledge of its background and setting. Archaeology has not yet said its last word, but the results already achieved confirm what faith would suggest – that the Bible can do nothing but gain from an increase in knowledge.”4
More recently, Nelson Glueck, renowned Jewish archaeologist, made the remarkable statement, “…It may be stated categorically that no archaeological discovery has ever controverted a biblical reference.”5
Archaeology is of great value in giving us a clearer understanding of the biblical record and message by enabling us to understand the background into which it is set. And certain points of apparent conflict between the biblical record and the information previously available have been cleared up as more information has been obtained. It would seem, then, that the logical attitude toward a still existing area of apparent conflict would be to hold the matter in abeyance. Rather than conclude that the Bible must be wrong, it would seem more reasonable to admit the problem exists and to wait pending further discoveries. Since new discoveries, time after time in the past, have tended to confirm the Scripture, this would certainly be a more reasonable attitude than declaring the Bible wrong out of hand.
Having said all this, however, it is important to point out that the Bible cannot be proven by archaeology, nor is the Bible believed on the basis of archaeological “proof.” It is the Spirit of God who ultimately confirms the truth of the Scripture. Spiritual truth can never be confirmed by archaeology. But we can recognize the historical details which have been confirmed by archaeology even though apparent conflicts still exist.
What are some of the specific ways in which archaeology has been of help?
More than 25,000 sites showing some connection with the Old Testament period have been located in Bible lands. Relatively few have been explored, so a wealth of material awaits discovery.
The largest body of evidence for comparison with Scripture is found in the ancient Eastern inscriptions. Very few contemporary documents from Old Testament times have been found in Palestine itself. Illustrations must be drawn from the writings of neighboring countries.
Another major source of information for comparison with biblical narratives has been the archaeological excavation of biblical sites.
The field of information and correlation with biblical data is vast, so we can spotlight only a few of the major facets.
The life and times of Abraham are a good example of the help archaeology can be. Critics of the latter part of the last century and the early years of this one were very dubious about the historicity of the biblical account of Abraham. They thought he was an ignorant nomad and quite primitive. They felt he would be unable to read and would have no more knowledge of law, history, commerce, and geography than a Bedouin sheikh in the Arabian desert today. They believed that for him to move from Ur to Haran was merely a minor nomadic shift. But the discoveries of Sir C. Leonard Woolley in his excavations at Ur of the Chaldees have shown these ideas to have been serious mistakes.
It has been discovered that the Ur of Abraham’s time was a highly developed city. Archaeologists have unearthed advanced housing and many clay tablets which were the equivalent of books. Some of these were receipts for business transactions; others were temple hymns; others were mathematical tables with formulae for calculating square and cube roots as well as simpler sums. In the temple storerooms, receipts were found for numberless objects – sheep, cheese, wool, copper ore, oil for lubrication of hinges – and payrolls for female employees. It is all very practical and curiously modern.6
It “became clear that Abraham was a product of a brilliant and highly developed culture, and that it must have meant a good deal for him to leave ‘by faith’ for unknown lands.”7
How can these finds be dated? “These ancient cities were built and rebuilt on the same site, so that a whole succession of levels is usually found, the lowest naturally being the oldest. Fashions in pottery changed, and if at one excavated site a particular fashion can be dated, similar pottery found elsewhere will be of the same period. Kings usually inscribed their names on the hinge-sockets of temple doors, and the name of the god would be given. Inscribed stones were often laid under palace or temple walls in memory of the founder. Royal sepulchres can usually be identified in the same way. There exist copies, dating back before 2000 B.C., of lists drawn up by Sumerian scribes of the kings according to the successive dynasties with notes as to the lengths of their reigns. A few miles from Ur an inscribed foundation-stone was found, laid by a king of known name, of the First Dynasty of Ur, which the scribes speak of as the third dynasty after the Flood. This king seems to have reigned 3,100 years before Christ, more than a thousand years before Abraham.8
Archaeology provides considerable background information for the study of the biblical kings. Critics have questioned the historicity of these accounts. The accounts of Solomon’s grandeur have met special skepticism. The Bible speaks of him as having a navy (1 Kings 9:26), though there is no suitable harbor on the coastline of Palestine. It describes his wealth as being staggering, the number of his horses and chariots as astounding (10:26). His building projects were numerous and extensive. He fortified the cities of Jerusalem, Hazor, Gezer, and Megiddo (9:15). Extensive excavation has been undertaken at Megiddo. Interesting details of this military installation have come to light. Of particular interest are Solomon’s stables.
“A wide paved street led from the city gate of Megiddo to the stables of Solomon. The southern stable compound measured about 70 by 92 yards. A row of five stable units faced north and opened onto a courtyard or parade ground approximately 60 yards on aside. A wall, more than a yard thick in some places, was then built around the grounds to prevent the sand from washing away. Near the center of the courtyard was a sunken cistern of mud-dried bricks which was probably used as a water tank for the horses; this was capable of holding some 2,775 gallons of water. Two rectangular rooms along one side of the enclosure probably served as chariot garages.
“Each stable unit consisted of a central passage about ten feet wide, floored with lime plaster. On either side of this was an aisle of similar width, separated from the central passageway by a row of stone pillars alternating with stone mangers which had troughs measuring about five feet in width and paved with rubble. Each aisle was 26 yards in length and cared for 15 horses, making a total of 150 for the southern compound.”9
Solomon’s casting of metals is mentioned in 2 Kings. In the excavation of Ezion-Geber one of the most spectacular finds was the blast furnace. Nelson Glueck says, “The finest and largest smelting and refining plant ever discovered in the ancient Near East has been unearthed at the northwest corner of the site. It was provided with a complicated system of flues and air channels almost modern in aspect and function.”10 The fierce winds which blew through the Arabah to the north were harnessed to eliminate the necessity of artificial bellows. To this refinery in Solomon’s seaport was brought ore which had been partially processed in ovens along the length of the Southern Arabah (the valley extending from the south end of the Dead Sea to the Red Sea). Most of the present knowledge of these Arabah mining sites depends also upon the work of Nelson Glueck. For instance, he excavated Khirget Hahas (Arabic for “copper ruin”) about 21 miles south of the Dead Sea. Ores were surface-mined near here and put through the initial roasting process.
“The site is oblong, pointed north and south. A semi-circular range of high sandstone hills surrounds it. On the east is a small wadi (a stream that does not flow during the dry season). Between the hills on the south and west, with the wadi on the east and north sides, lies a large flat area packed with ruins of walls, large buildings, miners’ huts, smelting furnaces, and huge heaps of black copper slag. Two furnaces, a square and a circular one, are almost intact. The square one is of roughly hewn blocks three yards square and contains two compartments, one above the other.”11
A remarkable memorial, commemorating one of the few incidents in the history of Moab of which we have any record, has survived. After Ahab died, Mesha, the king of Moab, threw off the yoke of Jehoram, Ahab’s son, and refused to pay tribute. He was put under siege by the kings of Israel, Judah, and Edom. So great was the pressure that Mesha finally offered his eldest son on the wall as a burnt offering to Chemosh, the god of the Moabites. What happened then is not clear, but the implication is that the three kings had to abandon their siege.
In 1868 a German named Klein found an inscribed stone at Dibon, in the land of Moab. While he was back in Europe to raise money for its purchase, the Arabs roasted the stone and threw cold water over it to break it into pieces and so get a larger price. Fortunately, an impression had been taken of the intact stone, so it was possible to restore the fragments and read the inscription. The stone is now at the Louvre in Paris. The inscription is an early form of the Phoenician alphabet and describes how the stone was set up by Mesha, King of Moab, to tell how he, with the help of Chemosh his god, had thrown off the yoke of the King of Israel. A number of biblical place-names are mentioned and the God of Israel is called Yahweh.12
Archaeological research and discovery for the New Testament has been of a different nature than for the Old. It is not so much a matter of digging for buried buildings or inscribed tablets; rather, New Testament archaeology is primarily a matter of written documents.
“These documents may be public or private inscriptions on stone or some equally durable material; they may be papyri recovered from the sand of Egypt recording literary texts or housewives’ shopping lists; they may be private notes scratched on fragments of unglazed pottery; they may be legends on coins preserving information about some otherwise forgotten ruler or getting some point of official propaganda across to the people who used them. They may represent a Christian church’s collection of sacred Scriptures, like the Chester Beatty Biblical Papyri; they may be all that is left of the library of an ancient religious community, like the scrolls from Qumran or the Gnostic texts from Nag Hammadi. But whatever their character, they can be as important and relevant for the study of the New Testament as any cuneiform tablets are for the study of the Old.”13
Papyrus documents have yielded a wealth of information. The common people wrote letters on papyrus and kept the ordinary commercial accounts of life on it. An even cheaper writing material was broken pieces of pottery, called ostraca. These were used for odd notes. One of the great significances of these materials, discovered in ancient rubbish heaps, has been to show the connection between the everyday language of the common people and the Greek in which most of the New Testament is written. It has long been recognized that there are great differences between Greek of classic literature and that of the New Testament. Some scholars went so far as to suggest that New Testament Greek was a heavenly language which came into being for the purpose of recording Christian revelation. But through the discoveries of the papyri it became evident that the New Testament Greek was very similar to the language of the common people.
In 1931 the discovery of a collection of papyrus texts of the Greek Scriptures was made public. They have come to be known as the “Chester Beatty Biblical Papyri.” F. F. Bruce says that this collection evidently formed the Bible of some outlying church in Egypt; it comprises eleven fragmentary codices. Three of these, in their complete state, contained most of the New Testament. One contained the Gospels and Acts, another Paul’s nine letters to churches and the Epistle to the Hebrews, and a third the Revelation. All three were written in the third century. The Pauline codex, oldest of the three, was written at the beginning of that century. Even in their present mutilated state, these papyri bear most important testimony to the early textural history of the New Testament. They have provided most valuable evidence for the identification of the “Caesarean” text-type.14
These examples show the importance of papyrus discoveries.
Inscriptions on stone have been another source of valuable information. An example of this is an edict of Claudius inscribed on limestone at Delphi in Central Greece. “This edict is to be dated [as originating] during the first seven months of A.D. 52, and mentions Gallio as being proconsul of Achaia. We know from other sources that Gallio’s proconsulship lasted only for a year, and since proconsuls entered on their term of office on July 1, the inference is that Gallio entered on his proconsulship on that date in A.D. 51. But Gallio’s proconsulship of Achaia overlapped Paul’s year and a half of ministry in Corinth (Acts 18:11, 12), so that Claudius’ inscription provides us with a fixed point for reconstructing the chronology of Paul’s career.”15
Luke makes so many specific references to people and places that his writings are more easily illustrated by this kind of material than other parts of the New Testament. His accuracy of detail has been thoroughly established. Where he has been questioned, new evidence has vindicated him a number of times. Bruce points out, “For example, his reference in Luke 3:1 to ‘Lysanias, the tetrarch of Abilene,’ at the time when John the Baptist began his ministry (A.D. 27), has been regarded as a mistake because the only ruler of that name in those parts known from ancient historians was King Lysanias, whom Antony executed at Cleopatra’s instigation in 36 B.C. But a Greek inscription from Abila (18 miles west-northwest of Damascus), from which the territory of Abilene is named, records a dedication by one Nymphaeus, ‘freed-man of Lysanias, the tetrarch’ between A.D. 29-14, around the very time indicated by Luke.”16
Coins have provided some background information for parts of New Testament history. One of the crucial questions in establishing the chronology of Paul’s career is the date of Felix’s replacement by Festus as procurator of Judea (Acts 24:27). A new Judean coinage begins in Nero’s fifth year, before October of A.D. 59. This may point to the beginning of the new procurator-ship.
Some sacred sites have been definitely identified, and general locations have also been identified. General locations have been more easily established than exact spots where some of the great New Testament events transpired. Jerusalem was destroyed in A.D. 70 and anew pagan city was founded on the site in A.D. 135. This has complicated the identification of places in Jerusalem mentioned in the Gospels and Acts. Some, however, like the Temple area and the pool of Siloam, to which Jesus sent the blind man to wash (John 9:11) , have been clearly identified.
Archaeology is a real help in understanding the Bible. It yields fascinating information which illuminates what might otherwise be obscured, and in some instances confirms what some might otherwise regard as doubtful.
Sir Frederic Kenyon said, “To my mind, the true and valuable thing to say about archaeology is, not that it proves the Bible, but that it illustrates the Bible….The contribution of archaeology to Bible study has been to widen and deepen our knowledge of the background of the Bible narrative, and especially of the Old Testament….The trend of all this increased knowledge has been to confirm the authority of the books of the Old Testament while it illuminates their interpretation. Destructive criticism is thrown on the defensive; and the plain man may read his Bible confident that, for anything that modern research has to say, the Word of our God shall stand forever.”17