Biblical Archaeology

Hey folks, sorry it’s been a while; I’ve been avoiding writing more Apologies, mostly because I’ve been doing homework – which means that I have something more on-topic to write about!  More Apology posts later though, if you’re into them, about Sex, Homosexuality, and maybe even some Anti-Intellectualism.  But for now, I’ve just finished a poorly-written paper about Biblical Archaeology, so let’s talk about that for a bit.

Archaeology didn’t really start until Napoleon got stuck in Egypt and his surveyors found the Rosetta Stone, around 1800.  From 1800-1900 there were some good finds (like Troy), but most archaeology was just digging up cool old stuff to fill museums.  In the late 1800’s, though, Bible scholars started searching the deserts of Palestine for Biblical sites to study, and they eventually developed the discipline of Biblical Archaeology.

The issue surrounding Biblical Archaeology is: how do you find a balance between what the Bible says and what the archaeological record seems to show?  At the time, the Fundamentalist movement was pretty big; in reaction to the source-critical work of people like Wellhausen, who broke up the OT into four main sources and basically said that none of it (or very little) was historical at all, Fundamentalists stuck firm to the (bad) doctrine of verbal inspiration – that is, that God verbally spoke to the writers of the Bible, telling them what to write.  The idea is that if the Bible is true in every respect, then there should be archaeological evidence to support its claims.  So suddenly every American dig in the middle east is funded by conservative seminaries or groups of (or even individual) fundamentalists.

The Fundamentalists had some very major presuppositions, and most Biblical Archaeologists denied any association with them, wisely keeping their distance.  Yet in the eyes of their critics, anyone who believes that the Bible is true, and that there may be some evidence of Biblical events to be found by archaeologists, is suffering from the same fundamentalist presuppositions.  Namely, the presupposition that the Bible gives historical information that can be verified by archaeology, and further that in the case of a conflict the Bible is to be trusted over the archaeological data. 

Fundamentalists would have agreed wholeheartedly with that description, but most Biblical Archaeologists would have moderated it a little bit, looking for a synthesis between the two sources of data.  The problem is that when you have such presuppositions, it’s really easy to see Biblical events in the archaeological data whether you should or not.  For example, they’ve found the city of Jericho and there is evidence of it being conquered and destroyed before being rebuilt later (as there is with every archaeological site, many times over); but what does that say about who conquered and destroyed it?  It could have been done by any number of forces, and cannot verify that it was Israelites who did it.  But for a Biblical Archaeologist in their heyday, it was as easy as putting 2 and 2 together: Jericho was obviously destroyed by Israelites, because the Bible tells me so.

This became a bigger issue when archaeological data arose that seemed to directly contradict biblical accounts.  For example, the central figure of Biblical Archaeology, WIlliam Foxwell Albright, had theories that would put the Patriarchal Narratives in a specific time period and give a lot of background as to the economy and customs Abraham would have lived with; but to make his theory work, Albright had to re-evaluate the archaeological data and change his own dating system.  Do you change the archaeology, or the Bible?  Another example is that there is little to no evidence that the Conquest of Canaan actually happened; most scholars today hold some view of a peaceful infiltration by the Israelites, while others think that they were locals all along.

So what if there wasn’t actually a Conquest of Canaan?  What if it wasn’t a real event?  What does that do to our theology?  If key Old Testament narratives are non-historical, does that mean that nothing in the Old Testament actually happened?  If nothing in the OT actually happened, is God real?

Some scholars are ready to throw out the historicity of the Bible in favour of the seemingly “hard evidence” of archaeology, but even archaeology is a text that must be interpreted: there are archaeologists with anti-biblical biases just as much as there are those with pro-biblical biases.  And there is much archaeological evidence of key biblical characters and events as well, with Bible students seeing it as confirmation of the Bible’s historicity.

The discipline of Biblical Archaeology has failed; it died in the ’70’s, and in its place Syro-Palestinian archaeology now uses all of the best techniques and approaches as the rest of the archaeological field.  But the question still remains of whether (and how) the two texts (the Bible and Archaeology) can be integrated.  Personally, I find it important to remember that both of them are texts that must be interpreted, and a failure to recognize our own presuppositions when we interpret a text will make sure that all we see in it is a reflection of our own biases.  Further, when we interpret the text of the Bible we are interpreting an interpretation of events that happened thousands of years ago, because even the writers of the Bible were interpreting events in theological terms – and it is their theology that they wrote for, not some modern notion of history.

So is the Bible actually historical?  I believe that it is based on real events, but I don’t believe that it ever was historical: it is theological.  And whether or not there ever was a Conquest of Canaan, the point the writer made was God’s faithfulness – and that has been proved by more than sacking a city.

5 thoughts on “Biblical Archaeology

  1. If the Bible (and in the context of this post, I assume you mean specifically the OT) isn’t historical, but theological, then aren’t we dealing purely with a people’s (the Israelites’) belief and nothing more? While I don’t subscribe to the notion that the entire OT must be historical to be valuable or trustworthy, without a historical connection, doesn’t it turn from “this is what God has done and is doing in the world” to “this is who we, the Israelites, *think* God is”? If so, doesn’t that change the entire way we read scripture and cause problems for how we interpret the NT as well and, specifically, who Jesus was and what it was he came to do?

    • In short, Yes.

      I had an interesting conversation with Tremper Longman about this on the way to the airport, particularly about the historicity of Genesis. He’s of the opinion that the primeval prologue (i.e. the flood and everything before) is non-historical (though it may have historical aspects); basically that its message is theological and does not depend on historicity (though that does not mean that it does not make claims about God’s action in reality, but merely not in a historical documentation sense). Basically, to him it doesn’t matter whether Adam and Eve were real people or not. So I asked him, when does it start to matter? His answer was, basically, from the Patriarchs onward – he holds most of the rest of the OT as historical.

      But what about Daniel, whose story is one of legendary proportions? The message of his story stands firm even if he were not a historical person, because it gives theological interpretation to historical events that we know actually happened (i.e. the fall of Babylon, etc.). There are places where it matters, and places where it doesn’t; I think it matters for the Conquest to be real, for the reasons you mentioned, but others do not. It is important to remember that all scripture, even if it is historical, is a theological interpretation rather than an “objective” history. The Bible makes no claims to objectivity, and its theological intent and bias is clear from the outset. So even if the conquest happened for real, can we expect it to have happened exactly as it’s recorded in Joshua? As I understand it, the purpose of Joshua was to record God’s faithfulness, not a play-by-play of a military campaign, so there are going to be certain things emphasized, or even inflated: ancient writers were not afraid to report selectively or use hyperbole for the sake of their point.

      Here’s a fly in the ointment: there are numerous allusions to apocryphal and pseudepigraphal works throughout the NT (not just in Jude). Does this use of what we consider to be non-inspired texts cast doubt upon the theology of Jesus and Paul? Can we say the same thing about works that we see as inspired but non-historical? True, it would change our notion of God working in Israel’s history – but was that a notion that was central to Jesus’ theology and work, or even a notion he cared about?

      • Interesting stuff. I’m (very slowly) reading N.T. Wright’s “The New Testament and the People of God”. The book begins with a long section on the nature of knowledge, story and history. He argues that history is by definition interpretation, such that no such thing as “objective” history–that is, history that is recorded neutrally by some kind of detached observer. This is something interesting to keep in mind as we read scripture. People tend to disregard scriptural accounts of history because the writers were “biased” or had an agenda. Wright argues that all history is biased or has an agenda of some sort, so that the books of the Bible, while presenting some unique problems viz-a-viz history, are no different than any other history.

  2. Who knew NT Wright was so post-modern? Heh. Gus went off about that in OT Theology a few times too. I’ve always found it interesting that there’s a double-standard in judging historians – like when people disregard Josephus because he’s Jewish, or because he talks about Jesus a little bit.

    I also find it interesting that the typical sign that a history is non-historical, in the eyes of critics, is any type of miracle. We scoff at Homer’s stories because they’re full of the gods, yet we found Troy, so we figure that Homer took a historical event and made it a myth by adding in the gods – thereby giving a theological interpretation to historical events. Do we do the same to scripture? Is it at all wrong to do so? And what would it mean if all OT theophanies and miracles were of this sort, a theological interpretation of historical events? Would that make God’s involvement less believable, or less probable?

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