On November 1, 1999, The Straits Times published an article entitled “Historical Accuracy of Bible called into question.” In the article the author claims that “An overwhelming number of archaeologists in Israel have concluded, on the basis of excavations in recent decades, that much of the biblical story they had once hoped to verify never happened.” How would you respond to this claim?
I have the article in front of me as I write this response. I note, to the credit of the author, he does not question the authenticity of the biblical records from the 9th century B.C. onwards, for the amount of extra-biblical corroboration of the biblical records is astounding. Take a tour of the British Museum with the guide compiled by Dr. Peter Masters in the Sword & Trowel, 1996, no.4 and 1997, no.1, and you will know what I mean. The article questions the authenticity of the biblical records which refer to the evets earlier than the 9th century. Though I must confess that I am no expert on archaeology, I have read sufficient to know that the claims in the article are not new. No discerning Christian should be alarmed by these reports or be shaken as to the authenticity and inerrancy of the biblical records.
First of all, despite all the ‘authoritative’ claims, archaeology is frequently more of educated guesswork than science. Such guesses are influenced, to a large extent, by the personal biases of the archaeologists. After all, no archaeologists of ancient sites have ever unearthed videotape accounts or even exhaustive chronological records of any city that they are studying. The evidences are usually fragmentary, and interpretations are often no more than inferences. In other words, we must not take everything that archaeologists say to be empirical truths.
Secondly, while archaeology can be useful to prove the existence of certain cities, persons or even events, it is practically useless when it comes to proving their non-existence—simply because (1) it is likely that no evidence was left behind that survived the ravage of time; and (2) it is impossible to excavate exhaustively. Thus the article in question, though clearly biased against the biblical records, is, at least, careful to use tentative language: “The Biblical story of the Israelite fording of the Jordan under Joshua and conquering Canaan by the sword has not been borne out by excavations.… and it appears Jericho then had no wall around it to be destroyed by trumpet blasts” (italics mine). Now the question we must ask is: “What were the archaeologists looking for to bear-out the crossing of the river? Were they looking for footprints, they would not find them. Were they looking for a historical record? It is found in the Bible, but they would not take it as authentic. What about the walls of Jericho? Archaeologists excavating the ancient tell have found evidence that the city was indeed suddenly and violently destroyed and there was indeed a defensive wall which collapsed during the attack. The problem is that many archaeologist would date the particular strata on the tell to about 1550 B.C., whereas the conservative or traditional date for the conquest of Jericho by Joshua would be about 1406 B.C. Does this prove that the biblical record is wrong? I believe few would be so bold as to assert so. In the first place, the traditional date of 1406 B.C. may not be accurate. In the second place, there have been disputes on dating of the materials found. In the third place, the levels on the tells are not usually quite as uniform as pictured in graphic representation of the mounts. Not only would earthquakes and storms cause interpenetration of the strata, but there is the great likelihood that new inhabitants of a city would use materials from the city which had been destroyed—though leaving parts of the old city buried. In the fourth place, no one can be 100% sure that the site that is excavated is the very site referred to in the biblical records. The point is the archaeological discoveries at Jericho cannot prove that the biblical record is accurate, but neither can it disprove the accuracy of the accounts.
Now, thirdly, we must be aware that the author of the article and the archaeologists quoted are, I am quite sure, unbelievers with a low view of Scripture, and so they would have no qualms about suggesting interpretations that would contradict the Scripture. In some cases, it may even be in their vested interest to do so. But take an archaeologist who has a high view of Scripture, but who is nevertheless still meticulous and accurate, and we will see a different picture from the archaeological evidences. In particular, we will see archaeology, rather than being used as proof or disproof of the Word of God, being used rather to affirm the truth of the Scripture. Professor William Foxwell Albright (1891–1971) of John Hopkins University was one such persons. He has been described as “one of the greatest living archaeological authorities” and “America’s most distinguished scholar.” And it is said that “His insistence on the highest possible standard of accuracy helped to transform the field of Near Eastern studies.” Albright wrote in the New Schaff-Herzog Religious Encyclopaedia:
the Patriarchal customs [recorded in Genesis] are strikingly like the customs of the northern Mesopotamia, as reflected in the Nuzi Tablets of the fifteen century B.C., which transmit practices inherited from earlier centuries.… the names of Moses and other members of his family can be identified with Egyptian names popular at that time. There are also many indications of indirect Egyptian influence on Mosaic thought and life… [the Code of Hammurabi, the Sumarian Code of Lipit-Ishtar, and the Code of Eshnunna among others] furnish us extraordinary insights into the background of the Book of the Covenant (Ex 21–23) and other Mosaic jurisprudence.
Albright also noted that archaeology provides corroborative materials and affords “objective arguments” for the traditional and conservative dating of biblical materials, e.g., “until the discovery at Ugarit and decipherment of the long-lost Canaanite religious literature in the thirties of this century, it was impossible to present an objective argument for dating much Hebrew poetry before the ninth century B.C., in accord with biblical tradition. Now the situation has changed drastically.”
Finally, I must conclude by saying that not a shred of subjective archaeological evidence ought to trouble us as to the authenticity of the biblical records. The Apostle Paul has said: “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16; italics mine). The Lord Himself affirms that every word of Scripture is inerrant and inspired when He says: “Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled” (Mt 5:18). Moreover, the child of God, reading the Bible under the illumination of the Holy Spirit, will not fail to see the harmony in the Scripture. For example, he will see that the details in the first five books of the Old Testament so marvellously typify and foreshadow the details in the Gospel, that it is almost like they were written at the same time, if not after the New Testament was written. This is possible because the entire Bible, whether it is relating events before the 9th century or events yet to come, is inspired by the God who alone is sovereign and omniscient, who alone knows all things because He decreed all things that come to pass, and brings them to pass by His infinite power.