What Should We Expect From Archaeology?

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Unfortunately, people tend to expect too much from archaeology. It would be nice if archaeologists discovered a tablet in Egypt which said something like, “I am glad I finally let those people go, Moses is such a nag….signed Rameses II.” Yet even if we did have such a remarkable artifact, many will remain unconvinced of the claims of the Bible. Unfortunately, there will be no proof-positive which convinces all the doubters. There are two reasons for this.

Jessica and her Major Find

The first reason is the nature of archaeological finds. Rarely do archaeologists find anything which specifically supports a particular story. The vast majority of things found by archaeologists are rather mundane. For every spectacular find like the Dead Sea Scrolls, there are tens of thousands of pottery shards discovered. The average person thinks an archaeologist is like Indiana Jones, having great adventures and finding golden idols or ancient writings. In 2011 a group of GBC students worked for a few hours on an archaeological site, sifting an area of a dig. We discovered pottery, a bucket’s worth for our morning’s effort. For the layman, the pottery is rather boring, but for the archaeologist it is quite exciting! The pottery can tell us a great deal about the people who lived at a site, although there is rarely anything in the pottery which can be described as a “biblical proof.”

We also might want to think about the sorts of things which potentially could be preserved which support biblical stories. For example, what sort of evidence would Abraham leave behind which could be discovered today? I doubt there are tent-spikes out there with “if found, please return to Abraham” inscribed on them. The earliest stories in the Old Testament are such that direct archaeological confirmation is unlikely.

Another factor is that the archaeological record is extremely incomplete. As a science archeology is relatively young and the methods used for digging have developed a great deal over the last 50 years. Since digging destroys the site, archaeologists must decide where to dig and how deep they should dig. If something significant is found, rarely will they attempt to go any deeper since that would destroy whatever was found. Because of this, a site is rarely excavated completely.

There are many reasons for this selectivity, but a primary reason is finances – it is very expensive to run an archaeological dig and there are not very many which have any real “pay-off” in terms of public interest. Let me offer a couple of examples from my experience in leading tours to Israel. I have spent time at a location in the Negev which is likely the location of Tamar, a small border town mentioned in 1 Kings. The small site has a great deal to see, but because of the location, it rarely attracts many visitors. As a result, no one really invests much money in the site. On the other hand, Megiddo is a rather spectacular site in the Jezreel Valley. The city is also mentioned in 1 Kings in the same context as Tamar, but because of the location of the city it is of far more importance. Megiddo has been excavated since the mid-1920’s and boasts some of the more spectacular archaeological sites in Israel. This includes a well-preserved water system which tourists may walk through. Because it is close to the main highway, the Israeli Antiquities Authority is able to put a great deal more money into the site as a “tourist attraction.”

The second issue concerns the politics of modern archaeology in Israel. For some in Israel, any archaeological find which supports a Jewish claim on the land or Temple Mount is immediately suspect. When a fragment of a stele with the phrase “house of David” was found at Tel Dan, several scholars immediately declared it was a fraud simply because it proved that there was a “house of David” in the seventh century B.C. When it became clear that the stone fragments were not planted by an Israeli, the same scholars tried to re-read the text so that it did not refer to the house of David at all. When a major find does occur, the immediate suspicion is that the artifact has been created by the Israelis in order to bolster their claim to the land. Imagine the impact of the discovery of evidence of a the first Jewish temple, prior to 586 B.C. Such a discovery would be denied by some because of the political implications and accepted by others on equally political grounds as a support for a Jewish homeland. Unfortunately, several artifacts have been proven to be fakes, or at the very least modifications of real artifacts to make the more valuable.

So what can we expect from archaeology? Aside from the occasional spectacular find, archaeologists regularly confirm the general history and culture of the biblical world. There are a number of important finds from the last 20 years which confirm Israel’s presence in the land from early Iron Age and the destruction of both Samaria in 722 B.C. and Jerusalem in 586 B.C. There is an impressive list of biblical names found in Assyrian records or other monuments. Recent excavations around the City of David, just outside the Old City of Jerusalem have found post-exilic Jewish building projects. Around the southern end of the Temple Mount on-going excavations have uncovered first-century streets, the remains of shops and other buildings which serviced visitors to the Temple, including a number of ritual baths (mikvoth). All of these sorts of “mundane” finds go a long way in illustrating how people lived in the ancient world and almost always confirm the history and culture of the Bible.

In summary, expecting too much from archaeology is almost as bad as expecting too little. By expecting to find a golden tablet inscribed with David’s name claiming the Temple Mount as his everlasting possession goes far beyond what archaeology is able to prove. On the other hand, archaeology does in fact go a long way in confirming the Bible’s presentation of the history and culture of both the Old and New Testament.