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

William Mitchell Ramsay Archaeology Expert

William Mitchell Ramsay was born in Glasgow, Scotland, the youngest son of Thomas Ramsay and Jane Mitchell, on March 15, 1851 and became a Classical scholar and archaeologist.

His father died when he was but six years old. He excelled in his studies, attended Aberdeen University and won a scholarship to St. John’s College, Oxford. In 1874 he travelled to Goettingen University, studying Sanskrit under a great scholar, Theodor Benfey. This opened his interest in the Near East and antiquity.

At the age of 25, “with only enough money to pay his debts”, his physician advised him to travel abroad for health reasons (New Archaeological Discoveries, by C. Cobern, page 413).

For several years he rambled around Europe, paying expenses by teaching and writing for the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

By 1880 – with a grant from the British Museum – we find him in Turkey (Asia Minor in apostolic times), seeking to trace the history of Roman institutions in that country.

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He tells us that at this time he had no interest in confirming the historicity of the “Acts of the Apostles” – on the contrary, “he considered the time lost which he had to spend in copying Christian inscriptions” (ibid, page 413).

A discovery confirming Luke’s accuracy in Acts 14:5-6 led to his “first change in judgement”.  Contrary to what he had expected, the writer of Acts had been accurate in his description of these ancient towns.  More discoveries followed.  Again, Luke was proved to be an accurate historian.  The accusations of the Bible critics were demolished one by one.

By the time he wrote his book, The Bearing of Recent Discoveries on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament, (1915), Sir William Ramsay was able to say:  “Luke’s history is unsurpassed in respect to its trustworthiness.”

Once again the sledge-hammer attacks of the critics had been smashed by the spade of the archaeologist.

Thus it was that, apart from his academic credits and privileged membership of leading associations, Ramsay had become the recognized authority on all matters relating to the districts associated with St Paul’s missionary journeys and on Christianity in the early Roman Empire.

Ramsay was knighted in 1906, and his wife, Lady Ramsay, granddaughter of Dr Andrew Marshall of Kirkintilloch, accompanied him in many of his journeys.

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This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at: www.donaldprout.com