Why Should We Care About Archaeology?

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[I was asked to give a short presentation on the Bible and Archaeology for a Pastoral Leadership Conference on 4/19/12.  This and the next several posts are the substance of that talk.]

Not a Real Archaeologist

Introduction. While I am not an archaeologist, I have developed a local reputation for knowing a bit about archaeology, likely as not as result of leading five tours to Israel which focus on the history and archaeology of Ancient Israel. I am highly interested in the topic of “biblical archaeology,” or better, the archaeological record of Israel. Most people have no idea what an archaeologist does, probably because the only archaeologist most people know is Indiana Jones. Since he is a creation of Hollywood, he may not be the best model for what an archaeologist does.

When I was asked to give this presentation, I was assigned the topic rather broadly. I want to focus on three main points, First, what value is the study of archaeology to the busy pastor? Frankly, there are a great many things demanding your attention, why should the work of archaeologist be of interest to you? Second, I want to clarify our expectations. Unfortunately, archaeology cannot live up to our hope of finding “absolute proof” which we can fling into the face of the atheist. There is much that archaeology can teach us about the context of the Bible, but only if we are asking the right questions. Finally, I want to outline a few recent discoveries which do in fact provide a great deal of context for understanding the Old and New Testament.

First, popular media tends to promote “sensational finds” which challenge the Bible. Most recently, James Tabor and Simcha Jacobovici made headlines by claiming to have found an ossuary decorated with a fish, implying that it was Jonah’s fish and that the image was a reference to the resurrection. The tomb at Talipot was also promoted as the “Jesus Tomb” since a number of ossuaries were found with names similar to Jesus and his disciples. The findings of Tabor and Jacobovici have been discredited (the fish is a wine jar, their photograph was sideways and edited so the handles were not visible), but the media reports scholarly response to these sensational claims less prominently, if at all.  For example, my local newspaper, The Grand Rapids Press, ran the Washington Post story with the headline “Another Lost Burial Site? Filmmaker Claims Tomb Linked to Jesus; Followers.”  They did report that some scholars doubted the claim in the article, but the headline is all  most people read.

Second, we all want to be able to claim that “archaeology proves the Bible.” When archaeologists first started exploring what was then called Palestine, they did so with a Bible in hand, often with the stated goal of finding proof of biblical stories. We want to be able to say to our congregation that “archaeology has proven that this story is true.”  But this motivation can lead to making claims which are not accurate.

Third, people in your congregations are smart and can check facts quickly. In the age of smart phones and iPads, anything you say from the pulpit can be checked on the internet instantly. For example, there is a persistent story that the wheels of the Egyptian chariots were found in the Red Sea near Nuweiba, in the Sinai. These stories come from one pseudo-scholar who has no proof of the claim other than his own underwater photographs, which are not even that clear. If you claim that this is a fact of history and members of your congregation double check on your claim, they will find that the evidence for the discovery is simply missing. I think most pastors would not cite the Shroud of Turin or some fanciful report of the discovery of a piece of the True Cross as “proofs of the Bible

As pastors, we have an awesome responsibility to correctly interpret the Bible and communicate it powerfully to a fallen world in desperate need of the message of Grace found in the Bible. When we pass along false stories as if they are true, even if our motivation is good, we dishonor God by being lazy. If we knowingly pass on a story we know is false, then we are liars and the truth is not in us!

We have a responsibility to speak the truth. This means, no apocryphal stories!