Saturday, October 1, 2011

Can you trust the archaeological evidence?

In a follow-up query from a FaceBook friend, I was asked, “Can you trust the archaeological evidence?”

Here is my reply; In short, it would be wise not to ignore it.  

Welcoming the evidence

The Christian world-view ought to fortify us for honest enquiries, and I think Christians should not be as terrified of archaeology and the sciences as some would like us to be. As I noted previously, Jeremiah says the word of the Lord came to him and asked him what he saw (Jeremiah 1:11, 1:13). Note that it is not what God saw, but what Jeremiah saw that's under consideration here, and he wrote the book, so we should notice what he says about his own oracle.

This point is worth pondering. The Bible is consistent and persistent in valuing truth and truthfulness. Jesus declared that “…the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32). The Wisdom literature in the Biblbe urges us to look and ponder what we see. Proverbs 3:5-7 states;
Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding
In all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.
Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD and shun evil.
I have a particular concern about this verse at present, because it is often quoted in Christian culture as a reason not to think about what we see. How silly! The entire Book of Proverbs enjoins us to think, learn and to gain understanding above all else. Are we to believe that the author committed his life’s wisdom to the book, then some evil apostate sneaked in a verse that up-ends the entire work? I don’t think so. What the verse refers to is the exact opposite of what it has often been used for. It says “you will not find wisdom or knowledge by looking in your own heart; what you need to do is to learn from God, who speaks to you by His word; And, you will need to allow what’s in your heart to be shaped by what is outside it.” It’s an instruction to allow our thoughts and our understanding to be shaped by what see outside ourselves, not by the predispositions, prejudices and motives that we find in our own hearts. It’s a command to submit to the discipline of thinking, not to avoid it because what we see might make us feel uncomfortable.

What are those things that are outside ourselves? Two obvious answers are the world in which we live, and the Word of God. Our Christian faith ought to predispose us to welcome the evidence, not to ignore it. Indeed, despite the propaganda of prevailing culture, the Christian faith has more to drive us to understand the world in which we live than any other world-view, particularly atheism and magisterial religions such as Islam and Mormonism (which stultify the search for knowledge for different reasons).  

Data and inferences

The Bible, in my reading of it, presents a holistic view of understanding and wisdom by saying that if we understand the world in which we live; we are likely to make right decisions. I don’t wish to contend with it, but it’s a different question than the one you might be asking, which is; can we trust the data?

My personal response is that the data are neutral. What is important is what we infer from them in our decision-making, which is, to me, the essence of wisdom. In other words, I believe the data are important, and it is important to get good data, but they will not direct us in our thinking – we do that, and we do it for the entire smorgasbord of reasons, good and bad, that make us human. Acknowledging this (and, again, it’s a Christian perspective) ought to fortify us as we look at the data, and the inferences that people draw from them.

An important feature of this is to acknowledge why the data have been collected in the first place. I’m an anti-conspiracy-theorist, which means I don’t buy some of the more sinister motives that anti-scientists ascribe to the scientific community. But, even if the scientists' motives for collecting and publishing data are nefarious, the good news is that the data they collect are neutral. In other words, we can look at the data, but we can be discerning in what meaning we draw from them, and the meaning that I draw from them might not coincide with the archaeologists' or scientists' original inferences.  


You asked about archaeological evidence, so that’s what I’ll address next. Please forgive the lengthy preamble, but I would like to illustrate how my hermeneutic relates to some of the archaeology.

Before going to University, I took a gap year and spent about six months on a Kibbutz in Israel. At one point, I took a few days off to join in with an archaeological dig at Gamla in the Golan Heights. Gamla was sacked by the Romans in AD68, when they crushed the Jewish revolt. Next to fall were Jerusalem in AD70 and, finally, Masada in AD72.

After I had left the dig, I found that the location I was digging in was near the Synagogue that the dig-leaders were anxious to find. They had thought it might be near the centre of the settlement, but as it turned out, it was at the wall that the residents had erected as a defence against the Romans, where I had been active with my shovel.

To understand why the dig-leaders thought that finding a Synagogue was important, we need to understand what it meant in the current geo-political context. The Golan heights were (and are) disputed territory. The discovery of a Jewish Synagogue would do two things 1) reinforce the reasons for the dig, and hence allow the dig-leaders to appeal for more money and 2) legitimize modern Israel’s occupation of the Golan heights by staking a claim on the territory based on antiquity.
Even though you might disagree with these motives, the fact remains that the dig now gives us a better picture of Jewish life around that time, and we are richer for it. For instance, we can see a real-life example of the kind of Synagogue that Jesus would have taught in. We can also see what happens when a people put their faith in their ethnic/cultural/religious identity before faith in Christ (I’m referring to the Jewish revolt and the consequent annihilation of the Temple-system by the Romans).

Again, what I’m saying here is that you should look at the archaeological evidence, but you’re not compelled to agree with other people’s inferences of it.

Archaeological evidence around the New Testament

I’m going to refrain from using the phrase “archaeological evidence of the Bible”, because I believe that such a statement misunderstands the issue.

The good news for Christians is that much of the evidence supports the narratives of the New Testament; it attests to the New Testament accounts. The environment, culture, place-names, people of the Bible fit well into the environment that the extra- Biblical archaeological evidence and historic sources describe. However, there are some contentious areas and it would be unwise to ignore them.

It has been my interest, and my joy, to release the Biblical stories back into their “native environment”, which is described by the archaeology. I have found that this brings the stories to life in ways that are quite unexpected and sometimes challenging. I refer you to some of the earlier notes I made on Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan Woman at Jacob’s well to see what I mean. For example, being able to project this story onto its archaeological background, like one of the son-et-lumiere presentations you sometimes see projected on mediaeval castle walls, has got me reading the Gospel of John in a new and refreshing light.

The biggest problems that I am aware of in the New Testament are;
• The details of the death of Judas (compare Matt 27:5 with Acts 1:18-19)
• Whether there was a census under Qurinius around the birth of Jesus, as described in Luke 2:2

It’s a very short list, and I don’t think these problems are insurmountable, though I concede that we might need to stretch the text a little. For instance, Judas might have strung himself up (per Matthew), then his corpse might have fallen off the gibbet causing his guts to explode (per Acts). In any case, the point of both accounts seems to be that he died a shameful death. The census might be resolved if we accept that Quirinius was the de-facto governor of Syria, and that this particular census didn’t find it’s way into the annals (which would be unusual, but not impossible). Still, there was a Quirinius, there was a Syria, and they did censuses, according to all the available extra-Biblical evidence.

Archaeological evidence around the Old Testament

This is a huge subject, which is hotly contested by a number of learned societies. I’m not going to do it justice, so I trust that you will forgive my rather cursory treatment of it. Much of the controversy relates to time-lining the development of the Biblical texts. I’ll try to give you an overview and to do this, I’ll work backwards.

The later Biblical texts are usually accepted as extant (the events they describe to occurred at the time of writing, or soon before). These texts are usually identified by the language (late Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek translations), and the consensus is that they comprise much of the Wisdom Literature (I understand). The Psalms, for example, seem to be a very mixed bag, including many of the earlier works, but many phrases, language and ideas appear to have been re-cycled in the later Psalms. (Incidentally, this “recycling” causes me no problem whatsoever, because that’s exactly what we do in our modern hymns and songs of praise.)

The earlier texts are more contentious, and there is much speculation. Humanistic scholarship insists on dismissing anything that might have the slightest hint of the miraculous, so it ascribes the origins of the stories not in some miracle, but in folk-religion. The critical period, according to this perspective, is around the centralist reforms of King Josiah. The redaction camp use this to argue that the Priests of Josiah commandeered and formalized the folk-religion of Israel and Judah to legitimize Josiah’s reign in Jerusalem. There is actual support for this from the Biblical narrative itself - 2 Kings 22 describes the rediscovery of the Book of the Law, and we could legitimately ask what they did with it when they found it. We honestly can't be certain, but the more negative inferences would tell us that characters such as Abraham and Moses were not real people, but rather mythological constructs on which the folk-stories were projected, rather like the legends of King Arthur or Robin Hood (which vary according to who is telling the story).

Importantly, the humanist camp dismisses any idea that the Exodus was a real event, or that David and Solomon actually reigned over a united kingdom, and these are the areas in which the archaeology can be called as a witness.

As far as the Exodus is concerned, the humanists have a point. There is no archaeological evidence for the kind of mighty upheaval that you might expect following the conquest of Joshua in the 12th Century BC. Why the 12th Century? Because that’s the date you get from the calculations of lifetimes and years in the Biblical record. However, if we adjust our math, and allow for Abraham to live “in Egypt” whilst in Canaan (which is possible because Egypt did project its power over the region), then we’re not stuck with the 12th Century, and we can look earlier for an Exodus-like scenario.

There is plenty of evidence that such a scenario might be found in the 15th Century BC. This was a time of massive upheaval and cities being sacked and rebuilt. Basically, the land of Canaan was caught between the competing super-powers of Egypt to the south and the Hittites to the north. Such regional instability would fit well with some of the statements in the Bible, such as the metaphorical “hornet” that God sends ahead of his conquering people (Exodus 23:28, Deuteronomy 7:20, Joshua 24:12) and the sense that the conquering Hebrews are God’s judgment on a violent and lawless people (see Genesis 15:14-16).

Then, there is the etymology of the word “Hebrew”. It is possibly derived from the Egyptian “Apiru”, which means “wanderer” or “vagabond”. Could it be that the chosen nation was not an established earthly kingdom, like Egypt, but a bunch of displaced refugees, who wandered in from the desert and found a home under YHWH’s protection and reign? I find that tidbits like these actually help my theology come to life.

In these cases, the archaeology challenges our perceptions of the Exodus story, but I believe that if we allow the archaeology to speak to the text, and for the text to speak to the archaeology, we have a better chance of building up a true picture of what the archaeology and the text are about.

But what do we make of the opening chapters of Genesis – the stories before Abraham? My personal view is that these are mythological, in the sense that they could have been co-opted from neighboring cultures, though they might have arisen from real, historic events.

The flood account in Genesis 6:9-9:17, is an instructive example, because the story-line shares so much with the Gilgamesh Epic. Returning to my earlier comments about inferences, I find it fascinating to see how the theology of Genesis varies so profoundly with Gilgamesh. The God of Genesis could not be more different that the “gods” of Gilgamesh, and that, I believe, is it’s true message, whether it was written before Gilgamesh, or not.  


There is much, much more that I could possibly relate here. In short, I believe that the Biblical narrative was derived mostly from actual historic events, which are attested to by the extra-Biblical archaeological evidence. The New Testament, being comparatively modern, has good attestation; the Old Testament is mixed; some parts have good attestation, some don't. The Old Testament might well have been redacted under Josiah, but one has to ask if they were doing what we are doing now – taking what they can see and inferring what they can from it.

The irony is that though the origins of the Biblical stories are sometimes obscure, we can see the agenda that the authors (or redactors) had when they committed their knowledge to writing. I believe that if we truly intend to treat the Bible as the Word of God, we need to listen to that agenda because that is the light that will make our paths straight, as the Book of Proverbs promises. The archaeological evidence, I believe, informs our understanding of this agenda and helps bring it to life. As I said at the start, we would be wise to listen to the archaeology, but discerning in what we get from it.

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