Does Biblical Archaeology Exist?

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Excerpt It will come as news to Bible and Spade readers that, in fact, there is no Biblical Archaeology. From Ronald Hendel’s perspective, Biblical Archaeology and Santa Claus exist only in the imaginary world of the infantile or the untutored... Continue reading

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This article was first published in the October 2006 ABR Electronic Newsletter.


It will come as news to Bible and Spade readers that, in fact, there is no Biblical Archaeology. This is according to Egyptologist Ronald Hendel as reported in Biblical Archaeology Review (July/August 2006, 20). He rather insultingly likens those who practice such mythology with eight-year-old Virginia O’Hanlon, who famously asked the question, “Is there a Santa Claus?” and was given the answer “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus…” From Hendel’s perspective, Biblical Archaeology and Santa Claus exist only in the imaginary world of the infantile or the untutored. He continues:

The more we know about the Bronze and early Iron Ages, the more the Biblical portrayal of events in this era appear to be a blend of folklore and cultural memory, in which the details of historical events have either disappeared or been radically reshaped. The stories are deeply meaningful, but only occasionally historical.

To the credit of BAR, they gave equal time to an experienced archaeologist of a different persuasion, Vassilios Tzaferis (BAR July/August 2006, 22). Dr. Tzaferis, member of the Supreme Archaeological Council in Israel, in less strident and more humble fashion, enumerated three important principles he has learned in his professional career.

1. Archaeology is not an exact science.
2. The interpretation of finds is usually subjective.
3. The final conclusions need to be substantiated through multidisciplinary collaboration.

There is much to dispute in Hendel’s statements. But here I am not as interested in his factual (or nonfactual) pronouncements as much as his methodology and approach in contrast to that of Tzaferis. One impression given by Hendel is the hubristic confidence with which he asserts the results of archaeological research, almost as if they are in the same vein as a chemistry experiment. But more cautious archaeologists like Tzaferis know that the practice of excavation, as scientifically rigorous as it has become, still squarely rests within the larger field of humanities.

As anyone knows who follows the numerous raging debates in the field of archaeology, there are always disputes over the interpretation of finds and their correlation to historical events. But to listen to the musings of Hendel is to hear a true believer, if I might use that term, in the “assured results” of scientific endeavor. He seems unwilling to concede the subjectivity of interpretations that Tzaferis takes as an article of faith. Hence, those who do not submit themselves to his methodology are to be swept aside and dismissed as believers in fairy tales.

To be sure, Hendel is correct when he states that practitioners of Biblical Archaeology often eschew critical methods of biblical scholarship and historiography, that this results in a “curious blend of scholarship and theology, while not resting comfortably in either domain.” What he neglects to point out is the sometimes questionable assumptions upon which those methods of scholarship are constructed, methods that almost a priori rule out a high view of the biblical text. Scholars of Hendel’s ilk take those very assumptions as non-negotiable in the same spirit as Christians take their doctrine.

Must Biblical Archaeologists accept the presuppositions of the secular minded in order to engage in archaeological fieldwork? I believe the answer is unequivocally “no”, but with the caveat that it must be done with great care. In order to accomplish that, our work must be of high intellectual integrity. To some degree, that means playing by the rules of evidence dictated by modern science. It does not necessitate compromising our fundamental beliefs. Those of us who aspire to professional levels of research must pursue it to the highest possible standards, as for the Lord rather than for men (Col 3:23).

Tzeferis’ axiom that collaboration is necessary to avoid errors comes into play when we, in a sense, dialogue with our colleagues. This process is not undertaken for the goal of winning souls but rather to persuade others to assent to a common set of factual interpretations. In the words of a popular news network, “we report, you decide.” It is not incumbent for us to compel others to accept our beliefs. Rather, we persuade them as to the reasonableness for holding them.

Here I state something that may cause some discomfort among some Christians. Archaeology cannot prove the truth of the Bible. Believing otherwise makes faith the slave of reason. For we walk by faith, not by sight (2 Cor 5:7) As our own Dr. Bryant Wood once stated on television, “the Bible does not need to be proven.”

So where, may we ask, does that leave the mission of ABR? Should we simply abandon the work of the organization? Absolutely not. These facts on no way invalidate the mission statement of the organization, to demonstrate the historical reliability of the Bible through archaeological fieldwork. The choice of verbs in the formulation of the mission statement is both careful and intentional. It is not our task to convince others by the cleverness of our arguments (1 Cor 2:1-5). That is the job of the Holy Spirit, and we must properly leave it to Him. But we are called to witness to the truth, to always be ready to make a defense (1 Pet 3:15).

The mission of ABR may very well not rest comfortably in either the domain of scholarship or that of theology, to borrow Hendel’s phrase. That should come as no surprise to those of us who live in the world, but are not of it. We must not allow our work to be sidelined or marginalized due to a secular and limited conception of truth.

The work of ABR is integral in providing a witness to the truth of Scripture and to offer hope to the believer. It must be done with intellectual integrity and allow for the work of the Spirit to reveal truth in the heart of the believer. Centuries ago, the French philosopher Blaise Pascal so eloquently stated:

God has given evidence which is sufficiently clear for those with an open mind and open heart, but sufficiently vague so as not to compel those whose hearts are closed. (Pensées, #430)

In answer to Hendel, “Yes, Virginia, there is Biblical Archaeology. It exists as certainly as the pursuit of truth exists in the hearts and the minds of those who honestly seek it.”

Recommended Resources for Further Study


     

 
Insight's Archaeology
Handbook
NIV Archaeological
Study Bible

 

 

Comments Comment RSS

6/26/2008 10:54 PM #

i find that people who want to remove 'Bible' from Biblical Archaeology are those who want to create their own version of the past to escape the message of The Bible itself.

i see many archaeologists much like Dr. Dever, who has taken his eyes off God and put them on the physical evidence, or lack of it, which explains his loss of faith.  he did what Peter did when he followed Jesus in walking on the water.

in my opinion, there is room for Biblical archaeology because we are dealing with events and people of the Bible and we cannot get the truth if we limit our data solely to what is dug up.  too many mistakes happen when we do that and too much information is missing as well.

we 'eschew critical methods' basically because they are not God's instructions but secular man's and any true believer must know the difference and apply what God wants over what man would like to see happen.

dr. david thiessen - 6/26/2008 10:54:28 PM

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