From  the  book  by  the  same  name

What  Can  Archeology  Prove?

Perspectives on Archaeology and the Bible

The relationship between archaeology and the Bible has often been misunderstood. The most dangerous error—albeit one often committed in innocence by religious persons—is to suppose that the task of archaeology is to "prove the Bible..." That claim is simply not open to archaeological investigation. We may be able to show the likelihood of certain events described in the Bible happening in such a way as to make the claim possible. But acceptance of the claim itself is a matter of faith, since it cannot be proved—nor for that matter disproved—by archaeology. 1

—Shalom Paul and Bill Dever

Archaeology has frequently been used in efforts to prove that the Bible is a divine document, or at least a reliable and trustworthy one. Not long ago the man on the street believed that what is known as biblical archaeology was archaeology that demonstrated the Bible's stories to be true. This impression has been fostered by the secular press, which often overstates the relationship of new discoveries to the Bible. In just the past year discoveries in the lands of the Bible have propelled biblical archaeology onto the front pages of newspapers and news magazines. For example, the April 1995 issue of U.S. News & World Report featured the cover story: "Solving the Mysteries of the Bible: Archaeology's Amazing Finds in the Holy Land." It was followed that December by Time with a cover story entitled: "Are the Bible's Stories True? Archaeology Sheds New Light on Moses, King David, the Exodus and Whether Joshua Really Fought the Battle of Jericho." Such story lines imply that archaeology can be used to prove (or disprove) the Bible. But what can archaeology prove?

The View Has Changed

Before we venture to answer what archaeology can prove, we need to understand something about the current trend in bible archaeology. News headlines like those above, which treat archaeology in a sensational manner, cause the majority of biblical archaeologists today to cringe. The reason for this, which is largely unperceived by biblically literate people, is because the aim of archaeology has changed. The current majority view is voiced by Thomas W Davis when he states: "Can archaeology prove the Bible true?" is no longer a question field archaeologists in the ancient Near East even ask."2

As University of Maryland archaeologist Kenneth Holum explains, "The point of our work is no longer to try to prove or disprove the Bible. It is to help scientists understand the ancient cultures."3 Today, biblical minimalists (those who limit the historicity of biblical accounts) often regard biblical maximalists (those who do not limit the historicity of biblical accounts) as nonobjective and unprofessional. The minimalists even prefer to discard the term biblical archaeology and replace it with a term like Syro-Palestinian archaeology. The intention in this change is to remove archaeology from an identification with the Bible and render it simply a regional branch of archaeology in general. This was not the case before 1970. Just two decades ago it was the Bible that determined the questions that archaeologists asked. The Bible was accepted as a reliable guide for archaeological excavation and archaeological excavation in turn served to confirm the historical reliability of the Bible. Representatives of this school of archaeology were regularly quoted by defenders of the faith as "the experts" who agreed with the Bible.

The Experts Agree

One of the most-often quoted of these experts was Rabbi Nelson Glueck. Famous for his archaeological excavations in the Negev, he became equally famous for one of his statements about the relationship of the Bible to archaeology:

As a matter of fact, however, it may be stated categorically that no archaeological discovery has ever controverted a biblical reference. Scores of archaeological findings have been made which confirm in clear outline or in exact detail historical statements in the Bible. And, by the same token, proper evaluation of biblical descriptions has often led to amazing discoveries. They form tesserae in the vast mosaic of the Bible's almost incredibly correct historical memory.4

Glueck put his conviction into practice when he sought to locate King Solomon's long-lost port city of Ezion-geber. Memory of its location had been, in Glueck's words, "snuffed out like the flame of a gutted candle." How then could the archaeologist begin his search? By consulting the one book of the Bible that documented this site. Glueck later said this:

Assuming, however, as we did, that the biblical statement was literally correct, it was not too difficult to rediscover it the biblical statement [was] that it was located "beside Eloth, on the shore of the Red Sea, in

78. William Foxwell Albright, the Dean of American Biblical Archaeology (on location at Tel Hazor).

the land of Edom" (1 Kings 9:26; 10:22). And that is exactly where we found it, in the form of the small, sanded-over mound of Tell el-Kheleifeh on the north shore of the Gulf of Aqabah, which is the eastern arm of the Red Sea.5

Another biblical supporter of a past generation was the American Dean of Biblical Archaeology, William Foxwell Albright. Albright used archaeology to challenge aspects of the then-popular view of Julius Wellhausen, a German higher critic whose Documentary Hypothesis taught that there was no real history in the Bible until the time known as the post-Exilic period. This meant that people such as Noah, the Patriarchs, Moses, Joshua, David, Solomon, Elijah and Elisha, and Daniel and events such as the Food, Exodus, Conquest, Monarchy, the Babylonian destruction, and exile either had no historical basis or were historically unreliable. Albright countered, especially in the case of the patriarchal narratives in the Pentateuch, that the facts of archaeology were on the side of the Bible. To this end he wrote:

Discovery after discovery has established the accuracy of innumerable details, and has brought increased recognition of the Bible as a source of history.6

A Clearer Understanding

Glueck and Albright represented the older conservative school of thought. Yet even though their statements were positive of biblical confirmation through archaeological discovery, not every member of this school believed that the Bible was without error nor that all of what it records as history literally happened. As an example, consider Albright. Although branded by reviewers as a "closet fundamentalist" for having made the above statement, it is clear that he was not in the fundamentalist [or evangelical] camp. This was evident by his statement (made on the exact same page as the aforementioned quote!) that "the theory of verbal inspiration [a basic tenet of fundamentalist and evangelical camps]-—-sometimes mis-called a doctrine—has been proved erroneous."7 While a biblical conservative (compared to his colleagues) and, as one scholarly acquaintance has reported, probably a Christian believer,8 Albright used archaeology to interpret the Bible, and not vice versa.

Many popular books written to defend the historical accuracy of the Bible-—in quoting the conclusions of men such as Glueck and Albright—have unfortunately left the impression with their audiences that these men shared their high views of biblical inspiration. Because many of these readers are not trained in archaeology, they may unintentionally misuse "archaeological evidences" to confirm "biblical facts" when in reality the finds do not support their (or their research assistants') claims. Of course, all archaeological evidence is subject to interpretation, and when offered as a "proof" of something theological, will always be rejected by some scholars. Nevertheless, those who attempt to use archaeology with an apologetic purpose need to exercise proper caution so that they will not "turn off" by inaccuracies or overstatements those they would wish to persuade.

What Happened to "Biblical Archaeologists"?

The older generation of biblical archaeologists were classically trained and generally were considered scholars in the field of biblical studies. As an example of how such training makes a difference, compare two archaeologists in the same family, F.G. Kenyon and his daughter Kathleen Kenyon. Both served the British Empire as archaeologists. But the father was educated as a classical scholar and an expert in New Testament Greek textual criticism, while the daughter was trained as a modern historian and had her expertise in field archaeology. As a result, they approached their archaeological endeavors and their writings with a different focus. In F.G. Kenyon's book The Bible and Archaeology (1940), the focus was on biblical scholarship and the reconstruction of ancient Near Eastern history in corroboration of it. In Kathleen Kenyon's book Archaeology in the Holy Land (1960), evidence was seldom taken from the biblical and literary texts; rather, all the emphasis was placed on the mute evidence of the excavations.

The Pendulum Swings

One reason for this shift has been the critical school's assessment that biblical archaeology is still perceived by the public as having a "fundamentalist agenda." By this they mean that archaeology is conducted only to validate the historicity of the biblical text. They object to attempts to demonstrate the historicity of the patriarchal or Exodus-Conquest narratives through archaeological methodology because, as they view these accounts, they are theological, not historical, in nature. Thus most modern archaeologists have abandoned the Albright and Glueck schools, which began with the biblical text and correlated archaeological data with it, and instead have adopted T.L. Thompson's dictum (1974) that "archaeological materials should not be dated or evaluated on the basis of written texts which are independent of these materials; so also written docu- ments should not be interpreted on the basis of archaeological hypotheses."

This approach has produced, as Kenyon observed, "a pessimistic assessment of the role of archaeological information in establishing the value of the earlier parts of the Old Testament as historical sources."9 In addition, the ideals of this humanistic new-world archaeology eschew the thought that archaeological projects might neglect strata from other periods (for example, the Islamic period) in preference for the "more important" Israelite strata beneath. This is because, as one author explains:

... the Bible, like all literary sources, is a secondary source for archaeologists. The primary data are the artifacts which are uncovered in the process of excavation— While the Bible can be used to clarify some of the data, it has little or no relevance for some periods which are studied by Syro-Palestmian archaeology. The goal of this discipline then is not the clarification of the Bible but the recovery of the material culture of antiquity... .10

The worldviews of the biblical maximalist and minimalist are opposite and cannot be reconciled. For the archaeologist concerned with material evidence relevant to the biblical text, it is impossible to not prioritize the Israelite strata.11 There are also differences in the interpretation of the same archaeological data. Rationalistic higher-critical and evolutionary assumptions will produce a varied interpretation of evidence even when a shared scientific approach is followed. Such interpretation in mainstream archaeology follows the pendulum swing. Take for example, the historicity of the books of 1 and 2 Chronicles. Because some of the geographical and historical details on occasion appear at variance with information in the books of 1 and 2 Kings, questions have been asked about the historicity of the chronicler's sources. Just two decades ago, however, even critical scholars felt that the historical accuracy of 1 and 2 Chronicles had already been established. In 1965 Professor Jacob Myers concluded this in his commentary on 1 Chronicles in the Anchor Bible series: "Archaeological and historical studies have now rendered [Chronicles] more respectable and have shown it to be at times more accurate than some of its parallel sources."12 Modern scholars, however, have again doubted the historical reliability of the chronicler's sources, arguing that they have not been corroborated by the archaeological evidence. Instead, they propose that the most likely source for his information must have been the chronicler's own theological inferences.13

A New Golden Age?

Just as the pendulum in recent years swung away from biblical confirmation, new discoveries with clear references to biblical places and persons have once again prompted the pendulum to begin its swing back toward a validation of scriptural integrity. This renewed optimism has been heralded in the popular press:

Now the sands of the Middle East are yielding secrets hidden for thousands of years that shed surprising new light on the historical veracity of those sacred writings— Some have even hailed the discoveries as the beginning of a new 'golden age' of biblical archaeology."14

These new discoveries, many of which have been surveyed in this book, have excited the public, startled the skeptics, and helped to begin returning archaeology to a place where it may once again be used to support the biblical text. Therefore, in the remainder of this chapter and in the next, let's consider the legitimate role of archaeology in its relationship to the Bible and faith.

Proving the Bible

Those who seek to use archaeology to "prove the Bible" have already assumed an improper premise. The Bible describes itself as the "Word of God," and therefore its word cannot be proved or disproved by archaeology any more than God Himself is subject to the limited evidence of this world. Roland de Vaux, who excavated the ruins of Qumran, the community of the Dead Sea Scrolls, firmly stated:

It must be understood that archaeology cannot "prove" the Bible. The truth of the Bible is of a religious order; it speaks of God and man and their mutual relations. This spiritual truth can neither be proven nor contradicted, nor can it be confirmed nor invalidated by the material discoveries of archaeology.15

The stage of the Bible is historical and geographical, but its drama is divine. Theological statements include historical or scientific data, but to use history or science to establish theology is wrong, since God cannot be confined to the realm of history and science. God does work within history, however, and to the degree that we can properly interpret history in light of Providence we can sometimes witness His working. Therefore, it is not circular reasoning to use the Bible to interpret the evidence of archaeology, as if the Bible were only proving itself, for no absolute interpretation of archaeological data is possible apart from an absolute standard. On the other hand, if archaeology is used to interpret the Bible, then archaeology has assumed an imposition on Scripture outside of its realm of evaluation. In this case, such a comparison should be expected to produce chronological inconsistencies and historical inaccuracies because a fallible and incomplete standard (archaeology) is being applied to an infallible and complete one (the Bible).

Therefore, while it is better not to speak of "proving" the Bible through archaeology, archaeology nevertheless has great value in relation to validating the history of the Bible.

The Bible and History

From what has just been said about the theological nature of the Bible a person might conclude that everything in the Bible must be outside the realm of objective corroboration. Many theologians and archaeologists today have concluded just this. Recently I discussed this issue with several of Israel's leading archaeologists. They could not understand why there was a problem in acknowledging much of the Bible's history as wrong while still believing the Bible itself was right! They kept insisting that the Bible could still be true even if it contained much that was false.

These men had been taught that truth in religion is independent of facts. In the post-modernist way of thinking, stories that communicate "truth" do not need to be true. From this perspective the religious ideals of the story transcend history and science, and though the biblical authors were quite wrong about such matters, their principles were still right, and that is what really matters. In other words, who cares if the Bible presents its theological truths in a context that is chronologically contradictory, historically corrupt, and culturally confused? It is the message, not the medium, that is important!

In response to this view, we must recognize that the historical and scientific statements of those who penned the Bible are in context inseparable from their theological statements. For example, the miracle of the parting of the Red Sea (Exodus 14:13-31) occurred historically at the time of a certain pharaoh (verse 10), geographically at a specified place (Pi-hahiroth in front of Baal-zephon, verse 9), and is described in scientific terms appropriate to the day: "swept the sea back by a strong east wind all night and turned the sea into dry land ... and the waters were like a wall..." (verses 21-22). If the biblical authors erred in the history and science upon which their theological truths were formed, how could they escape from error in their theology itself? Some people, not wanting to be "absolutists," argue that the Bible is "inspired" and even "infallible," but that this extends only to the "words of God" contained within the Bible. For them, although the Bible may be unreliable in matters historical and scientific, it is reliable in matters theological. But how can we know which parts of the Bible are really the "words of God"? In the biblical accounts of the Creation, Flood, Exodus, and Conquest, how do we distinguish the infallible "words of God" from the fallible words of science and history, especially when both in context are ascribed to God? Why should we trust theology from a source that cannot get its facts straight? If the biblical text can be shown to have erred in factual knowledge and is the product of cultural conditioning, should not its religious content be regarded as equally suspect?


Fiction or Facts?

When we consider the relationship of the Bible to history, we are faced with two options: 1) All the Bible's statements are to be regarded from a theological rather than factual perspective, or 2) all the Bible's statements are to be regarded as factual even though a theological perspective is adopted. The first option fails, as archaeology itself has shown, because many aspects of the history of the Bible have already been demonstrated to be factual. The discoveries of the places, the people, the wars, the cultural contacts, the forms of treaties, and more-—-down to the smallest details—have verified the accuracy of the text. These details, used in context in support of the theological statements, argue for the second option. The Bible's authors never imply that the historical or scientific events they reported are anything less than fact. If it is objected that they may have only thought that they were factual, we still must contend with museums filled with archaeological evidence that many events were indeed factual. With respect to the paucity of archaeological evidence for early biblical history, judgment should at least be tempered by the fact that archaeology has shown, in later periods, that the historical statements are reliable.

Among Israeli archaeologists, an encouraging sign of accepting the Bible as usable history at a period many have declared non-historical was recently offered by Eilat Mazar, granddaughter of the famous excavator at the Temple Mount, Benjamin Mazar. Her proposal for the location of King David's buried palace is based primarily upon a passage of Scripture:

A careful examination of the biblical text combined with sometimes unnoticed results of modern archaeological excavations in Jerusalem enable us, I believe, to locate the site of King David's palace.16

Her "careful examination of the biblical text" involved simply taking directional statements in 2 Samuel as both historical and reliable. Based on these she concluded that an area barely excavated by Kathleen Kenyon in the 1960s, which had some scant remains, strongly indicated the possible presence of the palace.

What Has the Final Word?

In conclusion, I would argue that we cannot separate the Scriptures. The God who gave His Law at Sinai (a theological statement) gave it in a law code (historical statement) that archaeology has shown was common to the ancient Near East of Moses' day. If archaeology does not seem to support biblical history in every case, the limitation is not from the Bible but from archaeology. It must be remembered in archaeology that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. As the history of archaeology has demonstrated, given time, the evidence will eventually be supportive of the biblical text. Because of the randomness of both the absence and presence of evidence, the pendulum continues to swing in archaeology between minimalists and maximahsts. As a friend of mine who works as a curator at the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem put it: "Absolute truth in archaeology lasts about 20 years!" Even so, if we are to advance our knowledge of the biblical text to any degree, the source for that understanding must come from archaeology. As University of Wisconsin professor Keith Schoville reminds us:

All of us who love the Bible... sometimes fail to realize is that despite all the work that scholars do in interpreting the Bible, the only real new light that we have coming into our study of the Bible is what archaeology provides. So, archaeology and the interface between archaeology and biblical text is an important consideration for everyone who is a biblical scholar, whether they be a professor in seminary or a lay person going to a Sunday school class.17

Therefore, even if the interpretation of the facts may change, the evidence has established that what we are dealing with in the Bible is not fiction. In the next chapter we will move beyond these shifting pendulum swings to consider the relationship between archaeology and faith to determine if there is a still point in the midst of changing interpretations that can help us better hear what the stones are saying.