“Archaeology’s repeated affirmation of the New Testament’s accuracy provides important corroboration for its reliability.”
–from Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ, Chapter 5: “The Scientific Evidence”, p. 143
Christian apologists often extol the archaeological veracity of the New Testament of the Bible. As they are fond of pointing out, modern-day researchers have excavated many places mentioned in the gospel accounts and found that they were as the NT authors described them. Even these apologists, for the most part, recognize that this cannot by itself establish the truth of the events described in the gospels, as opposed to the mere places – otherwise, we would have to accept as truth the work of every fiction writer who took pains to place his story in an accurate and detailed real-world setting. However, as the above quote shows, many are not reluctant to hint that the geographical and architectural facts which the New Testament’s authors got right should persuade us to trust them in matters that cannot be as easily verified.
However, the archaeology of the Old Testament is not a topic I have seen discussed much in either Christian or atheist circles. This is a regrettable omission, because the events of the Old Testament are such that archaeology can speak to them far more directly. Unlike the events of the New Testament, which occurred on a small, human scale and would not have left distinct archaeological evidence even if they really had happened, the narrative of the Old Testament describes events on a grand scale – vast migrations of people, enormous battles, invasions, and wars that resulted in the burning of great cities – and it is precisely these kinds of events which archaeology can confirm or disprove. Excavating the Pool of Bethesda and finding it as the author of the Gospel of John described it does nothing to show whether Jesus existed or was divine, much less whether he healed an invalid there. But if we excavate the biblical city of Jericho and find out that it was a small, unfortified hamlet at the time of the Israelite conquest, when the Old Testament depicts it as a mighty walled city, we can safely conclude that the biblical account cannot be taken as reliable history.
In this respect, archaeology is a double-edged sword. If it can prove the Bible, it can also disprove it, and once Christians have brought it up in support of their doctrines, they cannot then discard it as soon as its conclusions become inconvenient to them. And in recent decades, as more evidence emerges, it has turned increasingly against them. A more complete picture of the history of ancient Israel has surfaced, one that brings out in sharp relief which parts of the Old Testament are historical and which parts are not.
Long gone are the days when the field of Near Eastern archaeology was dominated by literalist believers who would dig “with a spade in one hand and the Bible in the other,” allowing the biblical text to interpret all their findings for them and then circularly concluding that their findings supported the veracity of that text. Today’s archaeologists take a more objective view, recognizing that the Bible, like all ancient texts, was written from a certain viewpoint and cannot just be taken at face value, but must be read critically to correct for that inherent bias. Likewise, the evidence cannot be deployed only in support of a particular text and ignored or rationalized away where it contradicts that text, but must be allowed to speak for itself. The authors of the Bible had as their primary purpose, not recording historical truth, but conveying theological messages. “They are concerned not with the question, ‘What really happened?’ but with the larger question, ‘What does it mean?'” (Dever 1990, p. 53). The Bible represents ancient Israel’s romanticized beliefs about its origins, not necessarily the origins themselves – a look backwards through the distorting lens of faith. In fact, it does not even represent the beliefs of that entire community of people, but only the beliefs of an elite subset of that people, one viewpoint among many, that eventually won out over the rest and then released its own version of history that conformed to its own theology and, by design, delivered a specific message regarding the results of obedience or disobedience to that theology. The Bible, as renowned archaeologist William Dever has said, is a minority report.
Such propositions, of course, should not be accepted without supporting evidence, but fortunately just such evidence is waiting to be uncovered. The Bible tells one story, but buried in the dusty earth of the ancient Near East, there is another – the story told by the accumulated remains left behind by countless people over thousands of years, forgotten until modern archaeologists once more expose them to the light of day. Unlike the story told by the Bible, this one is unselective and democratic, recording the lives of the poor as well as the powerful, telling the simple story of everyday existence in long-ago times as well as the dramatic tales of war, conquest, and the struggle for a nation’s heart and soul. And it has an advantage over the Bible in that it comes down to us unaffected by the shifting currents of past politics. Texts can be tampered with and records rewritten to suit the prejudice of the victors, but the widespread remains of material culture are impossible to alter or falsify. This is the evidence we must draw upon if we are to write the true history of ancient Israel, and therefore, it is this evidence to which this essay shall now turn. The stones will speak.