Genesis Challenged

Christianity faced troubled times at the close of the nineteenth century. Darwin’s Theory of Evolution fed scientific scepticism about the Genesis account of creation by providing what seemed to be a viable alternative. At the same time, clay tablets from the ruins of the ancient city of Nineveh provided alternative accounts of the Flood and Creation, in clearly mythical form, suggesting that the Genesis record was similarly a mere myth.

Foundations Shaken

Creationist Ken Ham points out that Christianity has been distracted with taking pot shots at issues while its detractors have been aiming their weapons at Christianity’s foundations. If the Book of Genesis can be discredited then all that follows in the Bible can be brought into question.

During the nineteenth century (the 1800’s) assault on the Book of Genesis was vigorously pursued by some, based on emerging scientific hypotheses and on archaeological discoveries.

Charles Lyell, who lived from 1797 to 1875, proposed a non-catastrophic view of geography, despite the abundant evidence for upheaval in the geological record. His propositions of uniformity allowed for extended periods of time in the earth’s history. That extension of historical time was required by the proponents of gradual change over time (evolution).

The emerging notion of evolution was given seeming scientific status by Charles Darwin with his 1959 “Origin of Species” with its account of exotic creatures in the mysterious and remote Galapagos Islands. The notions of “survival of the fittest”, “natural selection” and “missing links” created a new scientific myth which had everything but substance and common sense.

Within days of the release of Darwin’s book, Thomas Henry Huxley, eventually dubbing himself “Darwin’s Bulldog“, began vigorously promoting the scientific worth of evolution over the religious notions carried in the Book of Genesis.

Enter Archaeology

As the battle for Genesis gained intensity, a new dimension emerged to give impetus to detractors. A pile of rubble in ancient mounds in the Near East yielded documents which dated back almost 1,000 years before Christ. Included in that rubble were ancient mythologies of events similar to those described in Genesis.

The city of Nineveh was a sprawling metropolis at its height. Successive rulers moved their principal residence to different parts of the city and so several palace buildings were established over time. Add to that the fact that Nineveh housed the world’s greatest library collection of its time, and you have the creation of a treasure trove of antiquity.

The ancient palaces and libraries of Assyria began to be excavated in the 1840’s, leading to the discovery of a vast collection of ancient documents on clay tablets. In 1850 English archaeologist Henry Layard uncovered the palace of the Assyrian King Sennacherib at tell Kouyunjik (one of the three principal palace locations in Nineveh – Kouyunjik, Khorsabad, and Nimrud).

In 1853 Layard’s former assistant, Hormuzd Rassam, found the famous library of the Assyrian King Ashur-bani-pal, in a different part of the Nineveh ruins. 26,000 of the original 100,000 clay tablets survived with decipherable text. Many were taken to the British Museum for translation.

Among those tablets were found Assyrian myths about creation and a fiction story which featured a great flood. When they were finally translated by George Smith he published them under the title “Chaldean Account of Genesis” in 1876 under the auspices of the British Museum of Oriental Antiquities. The very title suggests a direct link between the tablets and Genesis and those discoveries fuelled the accusation that Moses’ Genesis document was a mere evolution of earlier mythological writings. Note that George Smith died that same year, on his way back from his third visit to the ruins of Nineveh.

Assyrian Flood Story

In December 1872 George Smith published his translation of the oldest known literary work in human history. Smith was the first person to read the story in 2,000 years. But the Epic of Gilgamesh was not made famous for its literary worth, but for its reference to a great flood.

George Smith is an interesting character in that he was not a great scholar and came from a working class background. But he was fascinated with antiquities and taught himself to decipher ancient cuneiform inscriptions. He soon became more knowledgeable and skilled in the task than the staff at the British Museum where he pored over antiquities. Consequently Henry Rawlinson, the great Assyriologist of the day, arranged for Smith to be employed in the Assyriology Department to work on translating the thousands of clay tablets from Nineveh.

Smith translated several tablets in the fictional story of a man named Gilgamesh, who travelled the world facing various adventures. He came to a blank in the story, where a missing tablet was needed to continue the adventure. Smith then ventured to Mesopotamia to attack the pile of rubble left by Layard and Rassam, and, against all odds, found the missing tablet.

It told of a great flood, and of a boat and animals. It even mentioned birds being released at the end of the flood. This bore striking resemblance to the Genesis record of Noah’s Flood.

Assyrian Creation Story

Following Smith’s translation of the Epic of Gilgamesh he then came across another set of clay tablets telling a story which led to the creation of man. The series of seven tablets is known as the Enuma Elish.

While some tablets were broken and accurate translation is impossible, the general text of the story has been translated several times by different scholars. It was first titled “The Chaldean Genesis” by Smith. LW King’s 1902 translation was titled “The Seven Tablets of Creation“. EA Speiser’s translation was published in a 1969 book titled “Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament“. It is obvious that scholars readily link the Enuma Elish with the book of Genesis.

Mounting Evidence

When Smith followed his Assyrian Flood translation with the Assyrian Creation story in 1876 there seemed to be growing proof that the Bible was merely another expression of ancient mythological writings.

Combine that with the pseudo-scientific crusading of Huxley and other evolutionists and you can see that Genesis was under solid attack by the end of the 1800’s. That assault has played a large part in the increased secularisation of western society during the twentieth century.

Clay Tablets are No Threat

Despite the perception that the clay tablets from antiquity have demolished the Bible, the truth is quite the opposite. The abiding impact of archaeology at Nineveh is to confirm the first-hand authenticity of the Bible accounts. The clay tablets confirmed details, customs, language and similar details provided in the Bible, which had previously not been corroborated.

Further to that, the seeming case against the Bible crumbled on closer investigation. The Assyrian stories are vastly different to the Bible account and the differences set the Bible apart, rather than put it down.

Ignorance and Assumption

People who are ignorant are prone to making assumptions. This tendency can be exploited by those who wish to deceive or who make suggestions which are misleading.

When the public is told that the Assyrian stories of the flood and creation match the Bible, many people will gullibly assume that the parallels are striking and that the Bible’s authority has been damaged. Few are likely to read the source documents and remove their ignorance.

In a follow up post I will explain some of the glaring contrasts between the Assyrian and Biblical accounts which people have been led to believe are closely related.

Archaeology and Bible History

While archaeology has often verified the historical records provided in the Bible there are also a number of anomalies. So it is important to consider these in preparation for investigation into what archaeology offers.

Specific Focus

The Biblical record does not aim to be a book of world history. It has a very specific focus. It follows a specific history of God’s dealings with mankind, through the descendents of a particular family lineage.

The joke goes that a young man announced to his pastor that he felt called to Israel. When asked why, he explained that, “Every time I open my Bible I find a passage about Israel. So God must be directing me there!”

The greater part of the Bible deals with Israel and the history of the Jewish nation, so what would you expect to find in the Bible?

Because of this specific focus on Israel many other historically significant events are minimised or even ignored altogether. As Dr Clifford Wilson puts it, “Right through the Scriptures individuals and nations are put to one side if their history is not relevant to the Covenant People, Israel.”

Those who are looking for clear historical breadth and detailed time-lines will be frustrated at times. The Bible does not set out to meet man’s agendas, but to serve the purposes of Almighty God, who wrote it.

Compressed Time

Not only is the Bible narrow in its focus, principally watching selected people from the Jewish nation, but it is also selective in its details. At times the Bible skims over centuries of time, yet at other points it bogs down in minute detail. The Bible is not time sensitive nor does it give equal weight to events. God, in His wisdom, has selected certain events for close inspection, while sweeping past decades of time and huge historical landmarks.

The Bible’s tendency to summarise history leads to statements which are true, but which could be seen as naive or uninformed. If the Bible were an historical textbook then omissions would be a serious matter. But the Bible makes not pretensions to be a human historical record. It is God’s Word. God’s chosen messages to us as His creations are packed into an amazing book from antiquity. That book contains rich historical information, but defies those who wish to tie it down to that task.

And He Begat

I am fascinated by an amazing Biblical summary of four thousand years of human history, given to us in the New Testament. The family tree from Abraham to the birth of Christ is given, summarising the entire life achievements of each key individual with the phrase “and he begat” – See Matthew 1:1-16.

It is as if God is denigrating all the personal grandeur of each person in their own time and place, by respecting only that they gave birth to one child in the continuum of God’s family lineage. Then, in Luke 3:23-38 a similar summary lists the family tree from Jesus Christ back to Adam, with the repeated words “which was the son of”, linking each generation. This is an amazing compression of time and detail.

Human History in Verse

In the same spirit of the Bible’s compression of time, consider this verse which I penned back in 2001, as part of a poem for my parents.

What years of vanity and pain,
What lives of joy and peace and gain
Have passed since Adam first saw light
And Eve was his for his delight.
Each generation came and went.
Energies aroused and spent.
Great things were won and then undone.
While others quietly passed on.
God simply summarises that
By writing down “and he begat”.

Divine Perspective

The Bible is an intriguing book too because it is written from God’s perspective, not man’s. Historians, archaeologists and researchers all come to the Bible with certain expectations or hopes. They may then denigrate it because it confuses them at points or fails to meet those hopes.

The Bible, however, was written from God’s point of view, about things of importance in God’s economy. The void in terms of historical information is simply because the omitted events, significant in human reckoning, are of little or no consequence from God’s point of view. Some details are left out altogether, yet man might see those details as of utmost importance. In God’s assessment, for the purposes of the divine revelation He gave to man, they are not as important or may be completely irrelevant.

In the book of the prophet Isaiah the term “my servant” is reserved for references to Israel as God’s chosen nation. But in the book of the prophet Jeremiah the term “my servant” is used to refer to King Nebuchadnezzar in invading Israel and taking it captive.

“Behold, I will send and take all the families of the north, saith the LORD, and Nebuchadrezzar the king of Babylon, my servant, and will bring them against this land, and against the inhabitants thereof, and against all these nations round about, and will utterly destroy them, and make them an astonishment, and an hissing, and perpetual desolations.” Jeremiah 25:9

From God’s perspective the King of Babylon was His servant.

Archaeological Interface

With these considerations in mind, along with other qualities of the Bible, we can see that archaeology will not always interface seamlessly with the Biblical record. What may seem to be an uneventful time or a short time span in the Biblical account may be a turbulent historical period spanning many years.

Alternatively, events which loom large in the Bible, such as the Ten Plagues on Egypt, may have little historical record. The Egyptians are unlikely to record their humiliation, and the events took place in a relatively short span of time.

From the abundance of archaeological discovery there may only be isolated items which relate directly to the Biblical account. This is not because the Bible is deficient, but because it has a much grander purpose than to record events from antiquity.

Wonderfully, the resounding voice from the stones of time is that of resonance and confirmation that the Bible is a real historical account, rich in detail that affirms first-hand observation by people in the very places being described. So archaeology is the Bible’s friend, even if it only maintains a casual relationship.

I am thankful to Dr Clifford Wilson and his wife Dr Barbara Wilson for their inspiration and guidance in my own exploration of Biblical archaeology. As friend, academic supervisor and mentor, Dr Clifford has keenly encouraged my interest in archaeology, as he has for many others in decades past.
In honour of his on-going work and his world-wide impact I am compiling various posts on archaeology, based on the excellent work of Drs Clifford and Barbara, while adding my own personal style and insights. Drs Clifford and Barbara Wilson are building a website to present their work. You can visit the website at http://www.drcliffordwilson.com

Archaeology and the Bible

I am thankful to Dr Clifford Wilson and his wife Dr Barbara Wilson for their inspiration and guidance in my own exploration of Biblical archaeology. As friend, academic supervisor and mentor, Dr Clifford has keenly encouraged my interest in archaeology, as he has for many others in decades past.

In honour of his on-going work and his world-wide impact I have started compiling various posts on archaeology, based on the excellent work of Drs Clifford and Barbara, while adding my own personal style and insights, and dipping into my own interests as well.

This process is somewhat self-serving, as it will focus my on-going investigations. It’s also true that the surest way to seal what you know is to teach it to others, so I expect to gain much by the process of preparing posts on archaeological topics.

The Place of Archaeology

Some presenters give the impression that archaeology is a servant to the Bible scholar. While archaeology provides many affirmations to the authority of the Bible record and added insight into the events described in scripture, it exists quite independently of Bible scholarship.

Most archaeologists have little interest in Biblical research or confirmation of Biblical records. Their motivations are academic. Some are fascinated by particular cultures. Some are led by opportunity to look into some aspect of the past. Many become specialists in some particular aspect of antiquity.

Reference to the Biblical record is likely to be incidental and may even be overlooked by the researchers.

William Ramsay

William Mitchell Ramsay is just one of many archaeologists who did not start out with any interest in Biblical studies. In 1880, at the age of 29, he was funded by the British Museum to go to Turkey and research Roman history there. Dr Luke’s record of the early church, which we know as the Book of Acts in the New Testament, was not in his sights.

When Ramsay discovered that Luke’s details in Acts 14:5,6 were incredibly accurate he made his “first change in judgment” about the value of the Bible record. Thus ensued many years of further archaeological investigation, confirming again and again that the Book of Acts spoke accurately. In 1915 Sir William Ramsay wrote, a book titled The Bearing of Recent Discoveries on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament, in which he declared that “Luke’s history is unsurpassed in respect to its trustworthiness”.

Weaknesses of Archaeology

While archaeology has given much joy to Christians, in its abundant confirmation of the Bible record, we must keep in mind that archaeology is not an exact science. Many hypothesis, theories and assumptions end up being applied. As Dr Clifford Wilson states it, “Archaeology itself is not a final court of appeal”.

It is not uncommon for archaeologists to come up with divergent interpretations of the historical record. One researcher may declare a building to be residence, while another researcher may assume the building was put to some other use. Dates can often be mere guesses.

For example, the buildings located at Qumran (near the caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered) have been variously identified as a Roman holiday villa, a military fortification, and the base for a religious community, among other things. It is possible that the buildings were put to various uses over time, thus prompting the confusion.

For these reasons and others it has been the case that established archaeological findings have had to be reviewed and displaced by more accurate conclusions.

Researcher Bias

Apart from the challenges in interpreting the physical materials left to us from antiquity, there is the further problem of the researcher’s inherent bias. Interpretation of the evidence is always impacted by the eyes of the beholder.

Bias can be based on people’s world-view. This is seen widely today with the study of science. The academic rule is that science must not consider the supernatural. Thus any evidence which points to intelligent design, a creator or the falsity of evolution is reinterpreted or discounted. The dinosaur and human footprints found together at the Paluxy River in Texas attracted strident efforts from evolutionists to discredit and reject the scientific findings, because those footprints destroyed evolution.

A researcher who denies the Biblical record of Israel’s history may make assumptions which seem to prove the Bible wrong, but the interpretation is actually based on bias, not on the facts.

Limited Experience

Another form of bias springs from the scope of experience of the researcher. What an Eskimo calls a hot day would be a cold day to someone living on the equator. What a Mediterranean fisherman calls ‘spicy food’ is quite different to what a Mexican fisherman calls ‘spicy food’.

The grid of reference, which is unique for each person, filters the information which they receive.

The idea that God is our Father means different things to people who have had a loving home life, no home life, or an abusive dad. Yet the actual wonderful truth of God’s father love for us as His children is not changed. Some people have an inability to absorb that truth, but the truth remains intact.

Researchers will interpret archaeological findings from their own grid of reference, but the real facts of history are not damaged by the expert’s failed perception.

The Contribution of Archaeology

Diggings in the sands of time have brought to light many findings which strengthen the Christian’s confidence in the Bible, as noted above with Ramsay’s confirmation of the historical accuracy of Dr Luke’s Acts of the Apostles.

Many incidents and historical accounts have been confirmed by uncovering ancient documentation from independent sources. In some cases dates of Biblical events have been confirmed.

The date for Nebuchadnezzar’s capture of Jerusalem has been fixed as March 16, 597BC. This was achieved by discovery of Babylonian cuneiform tablets. One of them – popularly called the Babylonian Chronicle – tells of Nebuchadnezzar’s attack, the capture of Jehoiachin, King of Judah, and how Nebuchadnezzar “appointed a king of his own choice” to rule in Judah – just as the Scripture says he did in 2Kings 24:16,17.

Customs, incidents, peoples and lands and better understood through archaeology. Better understanding has been gained of the people who were peripheral to the Biblical record, but who impacted God’s people at times.

Archaeology also enables us to see the uniqueness of God’s people, including their beliefs, rituals and lifestyles. The very specific monotheism of the Israelites stood in stark contrast to surrounding nations, especially in terms of the relationship which the Jews had with God, compared with the fearful idolatry of other people.

Digging Through the Findings

Archaeological findings are just that. Their significance has to be perceived and could easily be overlooked. Researchers look at their findings in light of the questions they are concerned with and may overlook other implications of their work. Christian researchers must then review the findings and dig through them for the points at which relevance to Biblical research is noted.

Secular researchers tend to react when their findings prove helpful to Biblical research. They may fear that their work will be seen as religious and not scientific. Not all conclusions are celebrated by those who uncover them, because they may not even be sympathetic to the implications.

Despite these difficulties archaeology is a living science with much to offer on many fronts. While caution is required, there is no need to be afraid of the findings. The Bible is the most remarkable historical record of antiquity. It will stand the tests of time. Apparent contradictions from archaeology have been proclaimed and discredited many times.

If you are given to these areas of investigation and thought then you too can make a contribution. Become familiar with the subject, read the findings of those who do the digging. Make your own observations and put them out for discussion with others who share your interest. You may have the joy of adding something significant to our understanding, out of those ancient rocks which still speak today.

Drs Clifford and Barbara Wilson are building a website to present their work. You can visit the website at http://www.drcliffordwilson.com

Layard Uncovers Nineveh

This is the day that … archaeologist Austin Henry Layard died in 1894.

He was born in Paris 77 years before, of Huguenot ancestry.

We are told that whilst poring over his law books, which he was supposed to be studying, the images of “Arabian Nights” that he had read in his teens kept filling his mind. Eventually he met an uncle, returned from Ceylon, with a thousand stores of the exotic East.

That did it.

At the age of 22 he set out with a friend to travel overland to distant India.

By 1840 Layard was crossing the Euphrates River … and then into ancient Assyria. Great mounds of buried cities lay before him. Before long he had hired some Arabs and digging commenced.

And thus it was Austin Henry Layard unearthed ancient Nineveh … the palace of Sargon (once thought to be fictitious by critics of the Bible, despite the Biblical reference in Isaiah 20:1).

He also unearthed the palace of Sennacherib. Great winged bulls, some weighing 50 tons, came into view. The tourist to the British Museum may see some of the results of Layard’s exciting discoveries – discoveries that again confirmed the Scripture in its historical accuracy.

This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at www.donaldprout.com.