Bones, Stones, and the Scriptures: Has Archaeology Helped or Hurt the Bible?
Of the areas of study related to the Bible's history, few are as exciting as archaeology. Digging for articles buried thousands of years ago, uncovering pottery, tools, lamps and other treasures, excavating ancient cities and houses; all these stir the imagination and narrow the gap between then and now. But how have archaeological studies affected our knowledge of the Bible and its credibility as authentic, ancient Scripture? Has archaeology helped or hurt the Bible?
This is an important question because the Bible's historical and spiritual messages are intertwined. For example, the Bible uses the miraculous capture of Jericho as an example of God's power and provision on behalf of those who trust Him. If this incident never occurred, the principles derived from it have no ties to reality, and our reason for believing evaporates. Because it claims to be real history and not myth, the Bible's spiritual credibility rests squarely on its historical authenticity. As a result, we who accept the Bible as historical Scripture consider the findings of archaeology relevant to our faith. If the biblical narrative is comprised of factual accounts there should be evidence to support the stories. So what kind of evidence do we have? How has archaeology impacted the credibility of the Bible?
Jericho: Did "The Walls Come Tumblin' Down"?
The Old Testament story of the fall of Jericho (Joshua 6:1-25) is a good example of a specific biblical event for which archaeology has provided striking confirmation. The Bible relates God's dramatic intervention for His people after they enter the land of Canaan. The Israelites storm the city of Jericho after its fortified walls miraculously collapse allowing them to march straight up into the city.
In the past, many critics relegated this story to the genre of faith-promoting myth. However, excavations done at the site have revealed a number of interesting details which support this biblical story. The archaeological evidence is summarized by scholar Bryant G. Wood in the March/April 1990 Biblical Archaeology Review. Dr. Wood comments:
"The correlation between the archaeological evidence and the biblical narrative is substantial: the city was strongly fortified (Joshua 2:5,7,15, 6:5,20); the attack occurred just after harvest time in the spring (Joshua 2:6, 3:15, 5:10); the inhabitants had no opportunity to flee with their foodstuffs (Joshua 6:1); the siege was short (Joshua 6:15); the walls were leveled, possibly by an earthquake (Joshua 6:20); the city was not plundered (Joshua 6:17-18); the city was burned (Joshua 6:24)." 1
Of course there are limits to what archaeology can confirm. It cannot prove a miracle caused the walls of Jericho to fall, but by verifying specific details of Joshua 6, it strengthens the credibility of the Bible as an authentic ancient record.
Solomon's Lavish Empire
For years critics considered the Bible's lavish descriptions of Solomon's empire to be greatly embellished. Today most of those critics have been silenced as a result of archaeological discoveries which substantiate a number of specific details of the Solomonic era, including:
His use of a naval fleet to gather wealth (1 Kings 10:22).
The existence of copper mining and ore refineries for smelting copper and manufacturing bronze (1 Kings 7:13, 14, 45-46).
The specific towns and cities that comprised much of his empire (1 Kings 9:15-17).2
Real People And Places
Archaeologists have sometimes discovered evidence for small details in the Bible which previously seemed inconsequential. For example, the writer of 1 Kings 9:15-17 mentions in passing Solomon's construction work on the towns of Jerusalem, Hazor and Megiddo and the rebuilding of the town of Gezer after its destruction by an Egyptian Pharaoh. Prof. William G. Dever, though disdainful of biblical Christianity, has noted that this passage was considered of little significance:
" ... until modern archaeologists uncovered similar Solomonic city gates and walls at Hazor and Megiddo, and then discovered an Egyptian destruction and nearly identical city walls and gate at Gezer."
Prof. Dever goes on to say,
"Here we have confirmation of a neglected, rather laconic footnote to biblical history, the more dramatic because it was totally unexpected: No one had set out to prove the historicity of this text."3
Though not as dramatic as the discoveries at Jericho, in their own way such details offer important support for the authenticity and accuracy of the biblical record.
This reaffirms that the Bible is not talking about unsubstantiated places and unverifiable events, but real people and places in real history. In addition to the examples described above, all of the following places, names and objects and many more besides, are historically confirmed parts of the biblical narrative:
Jehu, king of Israel - name inscribed on the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser (1 Kings 19:16-19; 2 Kings 9-10).4
Hezekiah's Tunnel - cut through solid rock and discovered in 1880 (2 Kings 20:20; 2 Chronicles 32:30)5
Heshbon - city mentioned 38 times in the Bible. The site is known today as Hisban and pottery found there dates back to 900 B.C. (Numbers 21:25 ff; Joshua 13:17).6
Darius, Persian monarch - ancient texts dating to 498 B.C. confirm both his existence and identity as described in Ezra 4-6.7
Claudius, Roman emperor - Two literary archaeological discoveries link him to the New Testament, where he is mentioned in Acts 11:28, and 18:28
daric, drachma, denarius - Persian and Roman coins mentioned in the Bible, now verified by archaeology.9
Asherah, Baal - Prominent Canaanite gods attested to by mythical literary materials discovered at Ugarit dating to biblical times, as well as a figure of Baal carved in limestone dated at least to 1650 B.C. The morally depraved practices associated with these gods are in keeping with Old Testament condemnations of anyone associating with them (e.g., Judges 3:7, 1 Kings 18).10
Because of the vast amount of one-to-one correspondence, the Bible has earned widespread respect among archaeologists. Prof. William G. Dever of the University of Arizona has stated:
"The Bible is no longer an isolated relic from antiquity, without provenance and thus without credibility. Archaeology may not have proven the specific historical existence of certain biblical personalities such as Abraham or Moses, but it has for all time demolished the notion that the Bible is pure mythology. The Bible is about real, flesh-and-blood people, in a particular time and place ... "11
Likewise, Millar Burrows of Yale University writes:
"The more we find that items in the picture of the past presented by the Bible, even though not directly attested, are compatible with what we know from archaeology, the stronger is our impression of general authenticity. Mere legend or fiction would inevitably betray itself by anachronisms and incongruities."12
Renowned Jewish archaeologist Nelson Glueck could write: "It may be stated categorically that no archaeological discovery has ever controverted a biblical reference."13
The Bible is trustworthy and true. Archaeological studies continue to verify that the events and people portrayed in the biblical record are historically accurate, and textual studies have confirmed the precision and accuracy of our copies of the Bible, divinely preserved by God through centuries of translation and transmission.14
With renewed confidence in the Bible, we too can say with the psalmist, "Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path. Thy word is true from the beginning: and every one of thy righteous judgments endureth for ever" (Psalm 119:105, 160).
1. Bryant G. Wood, "Did the Israelites Conquer Jericho; A New Look at the Archaeological Evidence," Biblical Archaeology Review, March/April 1990, pp. 44-58.
2. Edward M. Blaiklock and R. K. Harrison, editors, New International Dictionary of Biblical Archaeology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1983), pp. 419-422. While the exact dating of the smelting sites is debated, there is incontestable evidence that metallurgy was practiced during biblical times.
3. William G. Dever, "Archaeology And The Bible: Understanding Their Special Relationship," adapted from Recent Archaeological Discoveries and Biblical Research, by the editors of Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 1990, p. 56.
4. Blaiklock & Harrison, p. 409.
5. Ibid, p. 237.
6. Ibid, p. 236.
7. Ibid, p. 149 ff.
8. Ibid, p. 131.
9. Ibid, p. 134-135.
10. Ibid, p. 460-461. Note: King James Version uses "groves" for what now is translated "Asherah(s)."
11. William G. Dever, p. 55.
12. Millar Burrows, What Mean These Stones? (New York: Meridian Books, 1956), p. 42. As cited in Josh McDowell, Evidence that Demands a Verdict, 1979 rev., p. 267.
13. Nelson Glueck, Rivers in the Desert: History of the Negev (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1969), p. 31. As cited in Josh McDowell, Evidence that Demands a Verdict, 1979 rev., p. 65.
14. For a thorough treatment of the textual reliability of the Bible and the accuracy of today's translations see Heart and Mind series "Can We Trust the Bible?", parts 1-4 (Spring 1990, Summer 1990, Winter 1991, Summer 1991).