Archaeology is a fascinating but somewhat mysterious discipline to many. For those accustomed to seeing Indiana Jones on the big screen, many viewers assume that archaeology is little more than sophisticated treasure-hunting – if by “sophisticated” we mean that all an archaeologist should really need in the field is a bullwhip, a pistol, and a stylish but durable fedora.
The “archaeology as adventure” belief is no doubt fed by the way documentaries are often structured. They begin by identifying a problem, then proceed to follow a team of researchers as they look for clues. The search ends with either a celebration of discovery or a cliffhanger ending because the team didn’t find anything. But don’t lose heart, dear viewer – perhaps one day the problem will be solved! (Perhaps in a future broadcast?)
As we look at the defense, “archaeology proves the Bible,” we must understand the crucial word “proves.” Proves it how, exactly? That it is inspired? Now that is difficult, if not impossible. Archaeologists examine the cultural remains of human activity. We might say that archaeology confirms the biblical portrait of such things as existence of the Jews in Babylon during the exilic period (because of Jewish names in Babylonian records from the time), or the existence of biblical kings in the right places at the right times (again, based on Assyrian and Babylonian records). Archaeology does both, thanks to the discovery of extra-biblical texts. We could confirm the idolatrous nature of Israelite society before the exile thanks to the discovery of pagan shrines and religious sites within ancient Israel’s most important cities. But can archaeology prove that God spoke to the prophets, that Moses received the law while on top of Mt. Sinai, or that David killed Goliath? Unfortunately, no. It may be able to recover a great deal of data relating to those events, but cannot speak to them directly.
While some believers mistakenly believe that archaeology proves the Bible (it is better to say it “confirms” the existence of people, places, and events it mentions), the critics go too far to the other side in saying that archaeology debunks the Bible. It isn’t difficult to find examples of unbelievers saying such things. At the same time, we must also realize that in almost every single case, those making that argument have almost no experience with archaeology.
Like any other discipline, archaeology has its limits. But sometimes critics simply have unreasonable expectations. It is absolutely vital to remember that they ask questions that archaeology was never intended to answer. But militant critics rarely have any interest in being corrected, or informed. They are eager to condemn, even if it means asking the wrong questions on purpose. Unfortunately, the lack of a quick answer is usually seen as a failure of Christianity.
On the other hand, believers can and do have equally unreasonable expectations. They think that archaeology should “prove” the Bible, when we should really think of it as doing four things:
1. Illuminating – Shedding new light on biblical customs, practices, and places.
2. Confirming – Providing extra-biblical evidence of something mentioned in Scripture.
3. Correcting – Refuting bad theories by providing new information.
4. Supplementing – Adding to our knowledge of the past by supplying details not mentioned by the biblical writers about people, places, and events.
Archaeology is indispensible for understanding the ancient world. It often reveals a wealth of information that would normally go unmentioned in historical texts. But it also helps us to understand the Bible, and that is perhaps its greatest value.