Digging for Answers

The Story in Stone

The real business of archaeology is to establish factual benchmarks in the world of the Bible to guide interpreters.1

—Joseph Callaway

We live in an age eager for answers. Unlike the ages that have gone before, our age uniquely has access to an immeasurable storehouse of information previously unavailable. For instance, even while archaeologists dig for more answers, the general public can dig into a multitude of archaeological archives via the worldwide web. Through the Israeli Antiquities Authority database alone, armchair archaeologists now have access to more than 100,000 archaeological relics discovered in the State of Israel since 1948.

Among the more significant relics are those with inscriptions, for these give us immediate access to the knowledge of the past. Inscriptions are not found very often, but some of those which have been unearthed have offered us an important means of understanding the biblical record.

The Power of the Written Word

So Shall It Be Written...

Written words were important to the ancients; they were thought to symbolically carry a force that could accomplish the will of the speaker.2 An example of this was dramatized in Cecil B. DeMille's production of the Ten Commandments. At pivotal points throughout the film was the pronouncement: "So shall it be written..." The script writer poignantly used this phrase to underscore the contest between the word of earth and that of heaven. The pharaoh of Egypt used these words to seal the decree spoken against Moses (and God). However, the pharaoh's use of these words had no power, for Moses returned to thwart both Egypt's king and her gods. By contrast, God's use of these words was powerful. Moses spoke them against pharaoh, and the king found he could do nothing but accept his fate. In case the point was missed, the film's final scene reinforced the power of God's Word by showing a picture of the Tablets of the Law over which this phrase "So shall it be written" was majestically superimposed.

... So Shall It Be Found

Nothing is more exciting to an archaeologist than to discover a written word from the past. Like voices from the ancient world, though rarely "heard," they speak volumes to those trained to "hear" then: words. Those so trained are called epigraphy's (from the Greek word meaning "written upon"). These written remains themselves are called inscriptions because they come from the Latin word meaning "to write upon").

Just as modern writing is preserved on everything from CDs to postcards, so inscriptions from the world of the Bible have come to us on various types of materials. And like today, the range of writing might be anything from a child's schoolwork to religious revelation. Then, as now, important announcements and documents were preserved on the most permanent of materials. Sometimes writing was done on various kinds of metals;

3. Egyptian scribe in writing posture (2750 B.C.), Egyptian Museum, Cairo.

however, except for coins, the use of metals was reserved for special texts and purposes. For example, the oldest portion of the Bible so far discovered was found inscribed on silver scrolls taken from a tomb in the Hinnom Valley, and a priceless record of buried treasure is preserved on one of the Dead Sea Scrolls known as the Copper Scroll.

In the biblical world, the best-preserved inscriptions are found on stone or clay materials. Inscriptions on stone are usually monumental inscriptions, such as those found in association with public buildings, to commemorate some special event (for example, a victory or dedication), or in connection with burials (to preserve a name or memorial). They may range in size from the huge obelisks, statues, and wall panels in Egyptian temples to smaller documents such as the oblong cylinders used for Mesopotamian records. The Ten Commandments fit into this latter category. And, contrary to the Hollywood conception, they were probably inscribed on a stone plaque or tablet about the size of a man's hand.

Inscriptions on clay are usually associated with diplomatic communications and royal archives. However, because clay was an inexpensive and durable writing material, it was also used for general purposes (such as inventories or economic record-keeping). Such clay inscriptions most often appear as small rectangular tablets. The earliest form of writing engraved on them looks like a series of interconnected wedges. The official name for this kind of writing is cuneiform. Another kind of clay product used for common writing was broken pieces of pottery known as potsherds (or sherds). The technical term used for these fragments when they contain writing is ostraca. As the most abundant form of writing material they were, in effect, the poor man's postcard. Inscriptions of this type are usually found scratched onto the sherds or written with ink (created from combining charcoal, gum arabic, and water).

"Writings of sacred or other literature, as well as private and commercial letters, were written with ink on sheets of material roughly equivalent to our paper. One kind of material used was the prepared skins of animals (usually sheep or goats), known as parchment. There was also vellum, which was made from calf skin. The other kind of material, and the one most commonly used, was made from a reed plant that grew in marshes and along rivers. This delicate material was known as papyrus, which was also the name of the plant. Papyrus documents survive only if they are stored under exceptional conditions. They have been found only in dry areas, such as in sealed tombs, buried under hot desert, sands, or stored in jars within caves like those in the Dead Sea region.

Such literary evidence, along with the vast array of other material remains, has built through more than a century of discovery into an impressive arsenal of evidence for the historicity and increased illumination of the biblical text. Let's now consider the valuable contribution these archaeological artifacts have made to biblical studies.

The Value of Archaeology to the Bible

The proper use of archaeology in relation to the Bible is to confirm, correct, clarify, and complement the Bible's theological message. Since the "Word" was announced to people in this world, at particular places and times, the historical, cultural, and religious context of those addressed must be understood. The better we are able to understand the original meaning of the message, as communicated in the ancient world, the better we will be able to apply its timeless truths to our lives in the modern world.

Archaeology can assist us in our understanding of this original context of the Bible so that the theological truth will not be misinterpreted or misapplied. Professor Amihai Mazar, director of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem's Institute of Archaeology, states this purpose for us when he says:

I think the most important thing that we have to understand is that archaeology is our only source of information that comes directly from the Biblical period itself.... Archaeology can give us information right away from the period when things happened. whole picture of daily life from this period as well as inscriptions... which are the only written evidence that we have from the Biblical period, except the Bible itself.3

Because the biblical text describes people, places, and events that are foreign to the modern reader and as many as two or more millennia removed from the present, the information available from the archaeological record is vital to an improved knowledge of the context of the Bible text. Let us now look at the four ways in which archaeology contributes to a greater understanding of the Bible.

Confirming the Word of the Bible

According to Webster's English Dictionary, one of the meanings of the word confirm is "to give new assurance of the validity" of something. Archaeology provides a new assurance of the Bible from the stones to accompany the assurance we already have from the Spirit. This value is an apologetic one, and from the beginning of the science of archaeology it was a contributing factor in both instigating and sponsoring excavations. Despite the recent shift in archaeological circles away from the confirmatory value of excavated evidence, almost all scholars still attest to the significant agreement between the stones and the Scriptures. For example, Amahai Mazar, though having an aversion to using archaeology as a biblical apologetic, nevertheless admits that a corroborating relationship between the Bible and the archaeological discoveries can be made:

In certain cases, we can even throw light on certain events or even on certain buildings which are mentioned in the Bible. We can enumerate many subjects like this where the relationship between the archaeological finds and the biblical narrative can be established. The earlier we go, the more problems [we encounter] and the questions are more difficult to answer. With the later periods of time [the time of the Monarchy] things become more secure and better established.4

Although it is true that more evidence is available for confirming the latter periods of Israelite history, what has been uncovered from these periods may reflect positively on the earlier times. For instance, in 1979 Gabriel Barkay discovered tiny silver scrolls in a tomb in Jerusalem's Hinnom Valley. Containing a text of scripture from the Pentateuch (the Aaronic benediction of Numbers 6:24-26), it predated the Judean exile. This find posed a problem to critical scholars, who argued that priests had authored most of the Pentateuch after the Judean exile. As a result, critical scholars must now adjust or reformulate their theory concerning the authorship of the Pentateuch.

Excavation of tomb 25 at Ketef-Hinnom in Hinnom Valley, Jerusalem.

Archaeology has also given us a new assurance of the trustworthiness of the biblical account not only in matters of history, but tangently, in its uniqueness when compared with other ancient Near Eastern documents. The discoveries of the religious literatures of the Sumerians, Egyptians, Hittites, Assyrians, Babylonians, and Canaanites have all highlighted the originality and elevated morality of the Bible (see next chapter). Therefore, archaeology is able to offer confirmation of biblical revelation by discrediting historical skepticism and, at the same time, demonstrating Scripture's theological distinctiveness.

Correcting Our Wording of the Bible

One of the first steps to understanding the Scriptures is to discern the meaning of the text as it was originally written by its authors. While it is unlikely that archaeologists will ever unearth one of the autographs (original texts of the Bible), the copies that have come to us have been preserved and passed down to us in such a manner as to give us confidence that we have the very "Word of God" in our hands. Even so, our many manuscript copies of the biblical text sometimes contain variations in wording. These ancient versions present the challenge of recovering the precise form, grammar, and syntax of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek words, as well as their exact meanings and nuances. Therefore, as Bryant Wood points out, "a very important contribution that archaeology makes is in the study of the language of the Bible."5

We have had many discoveries of ancient texts, libraries and collections of documents that help us understand the Hebrew and Greek languages, which help us get a better translation of these languages into English.6

In most cases the discoveries of inscriptions in the biblical languages, as well as in cognate languages (languages having affinities with the biblical languages) have affirmed the integrity of the received (authoritative) texts. In addition, they have helped scholars understand the peculiarities of poetic sections and better interpret words that appeared only once (hapax legomenon) without any certain meaning for translation. As a result, we now have greater assurance of the validity of our texts in the original languages and an improved ability to translate the texts into our modern tongues.

Clarifying the World of the Bible

Before archaeology, the Bible stood supremely alone as a witness to what was then called "sacred history." But the Bible also seemed to be a foreign book, telling a history of an alien world unrelated to real people and events. With no access to the material past, the only way people could make sense of the biblical world was to make it like their own. Because much of the world's population was illiterate until modern times, art and architecture played the role of educating people concerning life in Bible times. The spiritual world was elevated through, for example, cathedral architecture, removing the common man even further from the real world known by the people of Bible times. From mosaics to paintings to sculptures, the lives of sinners and saints on the sacred pages were illustrated, but only in the limited light of the times and knowledge of the artist.

My first understanding of this pre-archaeological dilemma was when I viewed a special exhibit at the Israel Museum entitled "Rembrandt and the Bible." I had degrees in both art and theology, so I was very interested in this unique showing of the Dutch master's collected works on biblical themes. One of the first scenes I viewed was a sketch dated 1637 of a man of obvious wealth standing on some stairs at the stately entrance of his mansion. Dressed in turban, robes with a sash, high-laced boots, and a fur-lined overcoat, the man had an obedient dog at his heels. The scene also included a boy outfitted in heavy travel clothing and boots, with a similarly dressed woman bearing a silk handkerchief. In the background were high stone buildings and tall green trees along with a woman who was watching as the man apparently said good-bye to the weeping woman and boy. The theme of the work was Abraham's sending out of Hagar and Ishmael. But, being acquainted with the world of the Bible, it would never have occurred to me that this was the scene before me! These characters were dressed for a cold climate, not the hot Negev desert. Where Abraham lived, there were no such trees, and probably not dogs-—-at least not as pets. The Patriarchs lived in tents, not elegant mansions. The contrast and irony really struck me when I left the exhibit room where these seventeenth-century misconceptions were being displayed. Only a few hundred feet ahead was the permanent exhibit of the archaeological section of the museum. In that room were archaeological remains from Abraham's day— remains that painted a very different picture than Rembrandt had! These artifacts rang true to the nomadic lifestyle and geographical surroundings of the Patriarchs.

Now Rembrandt couldn't have known how to paint a Mes-opotamian Abraham and Sarah or an Egyptian Hagar living in a Canaanite setting. He had no reference for his art outside of his era. Archaeology changed this forever by providing both artist and spectator alike an accurate view of the original setting. Relief sculptures from Mesopotamian palaces, Canaanite pottery and artifacts, and painted murals from Egyptian tombs dating from the Patriarchal period have now made these biblical figures come alive. Had Rembrandt had our archaeological record to illustrate these for him, what paintings he would have made!

The world of the Bible as illuminated by archaeology has brought clarification to interpreting the Bible in a historical context as well. As Gonzalo Baez-Camargo has noted, "No longer do we see two different worlds, one the world of 'sacred history' and the other the world of 'profane history.' All of history is one history, and it is God's history, for God is the God of all history."7

The material finds from this God-governed history have produced for us an archaeologically enhanced world of the Bible in a new and more realistic detail than was formerly conceived possible. Professor Amihai Mazar explains:

We can calculate even the population size in places like Jerusalem or the entire area of Judah, or the kingdom of Israel. We can imagine how many people lived there, in what type of settlements they lived, what type of town plan there was, what kind of vessels they used in everyday life, what kind of enemies they had and what kind of weapons they used against these enemies—everything related to the material aspect of life in the Old Testament period can be described by archaeological finds from this particular period.8

As an example of how the world of the Bible has brought clarification to the Word of the Bible through archaeological discovery, let us consider the so-called "hard saying" of Jesus recorded in Matthew 8:22 and Luke 9:60: "Let the dead bury their own dead." These Gospels set this saying in the context of certain disciples making excuses about why they could not immediately leave their respective situations and follow Jesus. In this specific instance, one disciple asked permission to first go and bury his dead father. As understood by modern readers, Jesus' apparent denial appears as both unreasonable and unnecessarily harsh. Some commentators attempt to soften the statement by interpreting it to mean "let the spiritual dead bury the physical dead," but this would still contradict the fifth commandment in the Mosaic Law to "honor your father and your mother" and the Jewish responsibility of providing a proper burial as mandated in Deuteronomy 21:22-23.

However, when interpreted in light of the archaeological information concerning first-century Jewish burial practices, the disciple's request and Jesus' response are seen in a different light.9 Jewish burial in the time of Jesus actually consisted of two burials that took place at least one year apart. The first was within the family burial cave (known as being "gathered to the fathers") and was followed by a period of mourning. The second was within a bone box (ossuary), usually with the remains of other family members, after the flesh had decomposed. What seems to be in view in the Gospel saying is this act of secondary burial (known as ossilegium). Jesus' retort to the disciple wanting an 11-month leave from service was not only with regard to this prolonged absence, but especially with respect to the unbiblical aspect of secondary burial.

The act of immediate burial ("gathered to the fathers") is reflected in the Bible (see Genesis 49:29; Judges 2:10; 16:31; 1 Kings 11:21,43), but by New Testament times this concept had acquired new theological meaning.10

According to rabbinic sources, the act of decomposition had a purifying effect, atoning spiritually for the deceased's sins. The consummation of this spiritual process was the ritual of secondary burial. Since Jesus followed the biblical teaching that God alone makes atonement (on the basis of faith in His provided sacrificial redemption), His statement served as a correction of this improper practice. We could then render the saying in Luke 9:60 (in an amplified manner) as: "Look, you have already honored your father by giving him a proper burial in the family tomb. Now, instead of waiting for the flesh to decompose, which cannot atone for sin, go preach the Kingdom of God and tell of the only true means of atonement. Let the bones of your dead father's ancestors gather his bones and place them in an ossuary! You follow Me!"11

Complementing the Witness of the Bible

The 66 books of the Bible were written on at least three continents over 4,000 years of history by prophets, poets, peasants, shepherds, and statesmen. While a vast and diverse witness, the Scriptures mention only certain people and specific events that were necessary to their larger theological purpose. The Bible focuses on some details of ancient history and doesn't mention others. One of the great values of archaeology, then, is that it acts as a complementary witness that completes the outline drawn by the biblical authors. For example, although historically the Israelite King Omri (885-874 B.C.—-he built up Samaria and made it the capital of the Northern Kingdom) was one of the most important rulers of his period, the biblical text grants him only a passing reference in a mere eight verses (1 Kings 16:21-28). The reason was because he was one of the most wicked Israelite Kings up to his time. Archaeology, however, has provided us with background information about Omri. This includes extrabiblical accounts of his exploits as recorded by some of his foreign foes.

This complementary witness has been especially helpful for understanding the Second Temple era, which includes the period during which Gospels were written. For instance, the Pharisees and Sadducees, who opposed Jesus, are well known from the Gospel writings, but no contemporary witness to them was known to exist before 1948. It was then that the Dead Sea Scrolls came to light with numerous descriptions and accounts of Jewish sects, including the Pharisees and Sadducees.

The Limitations of Archaeology

While archaeology is of great help to the understanding of the Bible, those who use archaeology with this purpose in mind must avoid using material evidences to critique the authenticity or accuracy of the biblical text. A. Momigliano has correctly expressed this caution:

Whether biblical or classical historians, we have also learned that archaeology and epigraphy cannot take the place of the living tradition of a nation as transmitted by its literary texts. At the same time we have been cured of early delusions that the reliability of historical traditions can be easily demonstrated by the spade of the archaeologist.12

One of the reasons that the evidence in the biblical text must be given priority over archaeological evidence is the limitations of archaeology. One limitation of archaeology is that, by nature, it is confined to the realm of the material. Professor Amihai Mazar, director of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's Institute of Archaeology, affirms this when he notes:

Archaeology is of course limited. Archaeology deals mainly with the material culture, not so much with ideas, philosophy, poetry, wisdom, etc. as we have in the Bible. The Bible is a rich, full world of intellectual thought. Archaeology is limited. It gives us pottery, buildings, fortifications, plans of cities, patterns of settlement, how many sites there were in each period, what was the population size.13

The primary limitation of archaeology, however, is the extremely fragmentary nature of the archaeological evidence that has been unearthed. Edwin Yamauchi, professor of history at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio, has underscored this limitation by pointing out the fractional degree of evidence available from archaeology.14 I have updated his points as follows:

Only a fraction of what is made or what is written survives. In the case of written materials, which add directly to our knowledge of the past, even though several great Near Eastern archives have been discovered, they are an infinitesimal number next to those that have been destroyed in the past. For example, the great library of antiquity located in Alexandria held almost one million volumes, many of these the only copies. All of these works were lost when it was burned to the ground in the seventh century A.D. The Land of Israel has yet to produce an archive from any period, even though correspondence between it and its neighbors is attested to by discoveries made in other lands. As we have already noted, this might be expected if the Israelites used perishable writing materials. If an archive were to be found, it would most likely date from the earlier Canaanite period. Already clay tablets discovered at Tel Hazor indicate this possibility; however, what might be found would still constitute only the smallest fraction of what had been produced by this people.

Only a fraction of the available archaeological sites have been surveyed. In Israel and the Near East there are still thousands of unexcavated tels. (A tel is an unnatural mound created by the repeated destruction and rebuilding of ancient cities and villages on the same site.) The few that have been properly surveyed barely keep pace with the new sites discovered each year. Many of these known sites, however, can never be properly surveyed because of lack of resources or political disputes over territories. Many more will never be surveyed because they have been destroyed by population growth and construction projects.

Only a fraction of the surveyed sites have been excavated. This may be surprising to some people, but archaeology, even in Israel-—-where it is tied to the national tourist economy—does not receive high priority. Israeli government budgets go mostly towards military applications, securing the country against terrorism, or developing a still-young nation. Archaeologists, most of whom are not salaried as archaeologists but as professors, must raise their expedition money from private sources. And most of their workers are volunteers who must pay then-own expenses to excavate. For these reasons, less than 2 percent of the surveyed sites in Israel have been excavated.

Only a fraction of an excavation site is actually examined. Again, funds are limited, so archaeologists seek to determine priority areas at any given tel in hopes of being able to unearth the most significant finds. Such prioritization is oftentimes necessary because in some cases, the provision of permits and future funds is dependent on the progress demonstrated in previous years. In addition, because there are so many unexcavated sites waiting to be explored, only a limited number of seasons can be allotted to any one dig. Therefore, many potentially important discoveries will be missed as a result of incomplete excavation. Even though the most strategic sites, such as Tel Hazor, may be repeatedly excavated by different groups, there is still much ground left untouched. In terms of proportion, given its immense size, Hazor still represents the largest unexcavated tel in Israel!

Only a fraction of what is excavated is eventually reported and published. Even the most significant finds, such as inscriptions, are not always published. The reasons for this have been the source of controversy, such as the 40-year delay in releasing just fixe photographs of the Dead Sea Scroll material from Cave 4. It also took about 30 years for Kathleen Kenyon's final reports from Jericho to be published. In addition, of the known 500,000 cuneiform texts lying in museum storage rooms, only about 10 percent have ever been published. The problem here has simply been lack of interest, expertise, time, and money.

Compounding the publication problem is the continual development of archaeology as a science. With more specialists in the field, more sophisticated methods, and more technological instrumentation, the amount of detail work done at an excavation site has exploded. At one time it used to take years to complete a field report for publication; now it may take decades. Therefore, professionals—and much less the public—rarely get to see the evidence excavated from sites during their careers. It might also be noted that another problem is the protection of excavated sites from archaeological theft. Each season, many sites are pillaged by the nomadic Bedouins and others who make their living off black-market antiquities. Thus even before some discoveries can be documented, they are lost forever.

These limitations in archaeology should caution historians, social scientists, and theologians from making premature judgments based on archaeological remains alone. It should also make unwarranted criticisms of the historicity or accuracy of the biblical text in comparison to the archaeological record. This, of course, goes against contemporary practice, which is voiced by those who feel that archaeology has grown beyond the biblical priority. But in cases where questions or doubts have arisen, time has usually proven the text correct against problems presented from the field.

The Bible—An Archaeological Document

In the final analysis, it must be remembered that the Bible itself is our finest example of an archaeological document. While we have only a limited number of archaeological artifacts from the biblical period, the Bible represents the most complete literary record we possess of ancient times. Surviving in one form or another since its first books were penned by Moses some 3,400 years ago, it remains the most accurate and trustworthy account of antiquity in the archaeological record. For this reason it is improper to elevate other archaeological inscriptions above the biblical text in order to challenge the latter's integrity. There are indeed instances where the information needed to resolve a historical or chronological question is lacking from both archaeology and the Bible, but it is unwarranted to assume that material evidence taken from the more limited content of archaeological excavations should be elevated above or used to critique the more complete content of the canonical Scriptures.

At the same time, while the Bible is a completed revelation, it is not an exhaustive one. Though its message can be readily understood in any age, it is still selective in its statements and set in ancient contexts. Therefore, despite its limitations, archaeology, as a handmaiden to the Bible, can enlarge the scope of its statements and make more understandable its settings. In the upcoming chapters, we will explore some specific examples of how archaeology has served the Scriptures in bringing to the present new knowledge of the past.