An Introduction to Biblical Archaeology

The word archaeology is derived from the Greek archaio (ancient, old) and logos (word, study): thus signifying the orderly arrangement of ancient things. It can be defined broadly to include all study of antiquity, and but this would then merge into physical anthropology or human palaeontology.

In the narrower sense, archaeology deals with the material remains of human life in antiquity. It seeks to gain more information from what remains of past civilisations, whether it be pottery, tools, household utensils, furnishings, ornaments, buildings, fortifications, coins, sculpture, paintings, mosaics, weapons, inscriptions, stonework and artwork, and other buried material that was once made or fashioned by man.

Biblical archaeology is a specialised branch of archaeology that is devoted to the gathering and classification of archaeological data that come from or relate to the areas included in the biblical world and the times pertinent to the biblical story.

There is no special technique in biblical archaeology; indeed, some scholars would deny that there is such a discipline as “biblical archaeology,’ any more than there are such disciplines as “biblical geology” or “biblical mathematics.” The difference, however, lies not in methods or results but in the definition of purpose.

The task of the archaeologist may be divided into three main areas: recovery of the data, reporting the discovery, and interpreting the significance of the finds.

By what criteria should all archaeological finds by interpreted, and why?

Interpretation is a necessary part of the archaeologist’s work, and here the work may be done by ‘armchair’ archaeologists. The best interpretation of the finds at one site will be made against the background of discoveries at other sites. The archaeological term used here is typology, which is the classification of the various types of objects that have been found in an excavation, and the study of their relationship to earlier and later finds of the same types at that location as well as to the same or similar types that have been discovered at other locations.

Integration of information from one site to information to another site is necessary, if sound interpretation is to be formulated. The armchair archaeologist, therefore, is not working from ignorance; rather, he should be fully cognisant of all the significant discoveries in all of the periods and locations that comprise his area of study.

The obvious method of procedure, and in some ways the simplest, is surface exploration. Usually, however, we think of excavation when we speak of archaeology. The Arabic word tell, commonly meaning “hill,” has been taken over by archaeologists to designate a hill that has been formed by successive occupation of the location. There are thousands of tells of this nature in the Near East.

Archaeology has added a tremendous amount to our knowledge and understanding of the Bible. The value of various discoveries for biblical study is often a matter of personal axiology. For the person who wants “archaeological proof” of the Bible, the inscription mentioning the proconsulship of Gallio in Corinth is far more significant than the Wisdom of Amenemope, and reports of the discovery of “Noah’s Ark” on Mount Ararat are of greater import than the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Some want proof to bolster faith, others want knowledge to make faith more certain, and still others want knowledge to replace faith. Archaeology serves each in his own way.

The expression “archaeology proves the Bible,” so often used, is quite imprecise and employed even by Christians to their own hurt. It is the opinion of scholars today, including many who are not personally committed to faith in the Bible as the Word of God, that the evidential value of archaeology is not properly understood if it is taken to man that archaeology proves the Bible. It can prove that Canaanite cities were destroyed in the thirteenth century before Christ (corresponding to the occupation under Joshua) but it can never prove that it was God who fought Israel’s battles. Archaeology has nothing to say on this point. This was a matter of Israelite faith, and it remains a point of faith for all who accept the Bible by faith.

Nevertheless, there is evidential value in the study of biblical archaeology. It is a unique doctrine of the Christian faith, that God revealed Himself to His people in historical situations in time and space. He call Abram out of Ur to go to the land of Canaan; and so many other events may be mentioned. From beginning to end, the Bible is filled with the names of peoples and places, of kings and commoners. No other religion has its faith so thoroughly intermingled with historical and geographical details. It therefore becomes necessary to include the study of peoples and places with our study of the Bible. Archaeology brings to life these peoples and places.

Faith that requires proof is no faith, but faith that says, “Help my unbelief!” is quite common among human beings. Archaeology supplies means for understanding many of the biblical situations, it adds the dimensions of reality to pictures that otherwise would be strange and somewhat unreal, and therefore it provides an element of credibility.

While the person of faith does not ask for proof, he does want to feel that his faith is reasonable and not mere fantasy. Archaeology, by supplying him with material remains from biblical times and places, and by interpreting these data, provides a context of reality for the biblical story and the reasonability for biblical faith.

But at the end of the day, archaeology (and any other discipline, for that matter) must be the handmaid of faith. The Christian’s primary presupposition is, “The Bible is the Word of God, and therefore true.” Everything else falls under that criterion.

If we use archaeology, or reason, or geology, to prove the Bible wrong, we would effectively be placing our frail and incomplete human knowledge in judgement over God’s mind. It is no wonder that no archaeological find has so far contradicted the Bible’s record; and we may rest assured that no find ever will. The Bible, by itself, remains supreme and sufficient for our faith. Everything else is judge by it; the Bible itself, being God’s voice, can never be criticised or accused of error.

Archaeology, therefore, enhances our confidence in the broad outlines of the biblical report. Archaeological finds have supported many, many specific statements in the text. Archaeology has often been useful in refuting the attacks of sceptics. But much of the Bible has to do with relatively private, personal matters which archaeology cannot verify. And the farther back we go into history, the less evidence we have.

The truth of the Bible is not a matter of facts, but of their interpretation. Even if we could demonstrate the factuality of the entire Bible, that would not prove its redemptive significance. Because the Christian faith is based on historical events, Christians welcome any evidence that archaeology can provide, but they do not anchor their faith to it. No lack of evidence nor critical scepticism can disprove God’s Word.

It is therefore better to emphasise how archaeology helps us understand the Bible than to insist that it proves the Bible true. In fact, it cannot do so much, nor is there any need that it should.

How do archaeological finds confirm the great ages that ancient people lived?

The ancestors of the human race who lived prior to the flood consisted of ten men, from Adam to Noah, plus Noah’s three sons. Most of their data is concentrated in the genealogies of Genesis 4:17-5:32.

Confirmatory parallels to the Sethite patriarchs arise from the history of Berosus, a Babylonian priest of 300 B.C., who tells of ten kings who reigned thousands of years over Chaldea before the flood.

The third kings is Amelu, “man,” compare with Enosh; the fourth is Ummanu, “artificer,” matching the fourth patriarch Kenan, meaning “fabricator.” The seventh is Enmeduranki, reputed to be acquainted with the secrets of heaven and earth, while Enoch the seventh patriarch walked with God; and the tenth king, like the tenth patriarch, was the hero of the flood.

According to the biblical account, most of the antediluvian patriarchs lived over nine hundred years, a phenomenon which infidelity mocks to no end.

Yet even pagan Sumerian legend preserved the memory of extended life spans prior to the flood - although eight kings are reputed to have reigned a total of 241,200 years!

Such discrepancies are to be expected, for though ancient man knew the truth as passed on to him by previous generations, because of his innate depravity he is always prone to exaggerate and distort the truth. But the evidence is there, twisted as it might be!

What documented evidence supports the biblical record of the universal flood?

Flood stories have been discovered among nearly all nations and tribes. Though most common on the Asian mainland and the islands immediately south of it and on the North American continent, they have been found on all the continents. Totals of the number of stories known run as high as about 270.

Although these traditions have been modified through the ages and some have taken on fantastic elements, most of them have certain basic elements in common.

1. 88% of them single out a favoured individual or family.

2. 70% point to survival due to a boat.

3. 66% see the Flood coming as a result of human wickedness.

4. 67% speak of animals saved along with human beings.

5. 57 % record that the survivors end up on a mountain.

6. 66% indicate that the hero receives warning of the coming catastrophe.

The assertion that many of these flood stories came from contacts with missionaries will not stand up because most of them were gathered by anthropologists not interested in vindicating the Bible. Moreover, they are filled with fanciful and pagan elements, evidently the result of transmission for extended periods of time in a pagan society. A third factor is that the ancient accounts were written by people very much in opposition to the Hebrew-Christian tradition.

Most important of all the flood stories is the Babylonian account. Interest in it rises because it comes from the same Semitic context and the same geographical area as the Genesis narrative and because it is similar to the Genesis account in so many ways.

The Babylonian flood story was part of the library of King Ashurbanipal of Assyria (668 - 627 B.C.) found during the British excavations at Nineveh in 1853 and 1873. The story was the eleventh tablet of a twelve-tablet piece entitled the Gilgamesh Epic, an account of Gilgamesh’s search for immortality. Gilgamesh (king of Uruk, biblical Erech) interviewed Utnapishtim, the “Babylonian Noah,” and learned from him the story of the flood and his securing of immortality.

Subsequently an early Akkadian story of the flood, written in Mesopotamia about 1600 B.C. and known as the Atra-hasis Epic, and a Sumerian version of the Babylonian flood story (dating circa 1700 B.C.) have come to light. The story in all these texts is similar and the flood hero is known variously as Ziusudra in Sumeria and Atra-hasis or Utnapishtim in Akkadian.

Child sacrifice is forbidden in Scripture. Is there any evidence to support the idea that such sacrifices were made?

Many passages in Scripture prohibit child or human sacrifice, whether it be to the Ammonite deity Molech, to demons, or even to Jehovah (cf. Judges 11:29-40). The Law of Moses proscribed this pagan practice and the prophets denounced it as a heinous sin.

Evidently child sacrifice was practised in various ancient cultures and even in more recent cultures. Archaeologists, among them Stager and Wolff, have convincingly demonstrated that child sacrifice was practised in Phoenician Carthage. At the sanctuary called Tophet, children were sacrificed to the goddess Tanit and her consort Baal Hammon. A pillar, half a metre high, with upraised hands and a disk and crescent has been discovered at Hazor in northern Israel. These symbols seem to indicate the same deities found in Carthage. Their presence in Hazor suggests the possibility that children were sacrificed there also, although the Hazor site predates the Tophet in Carthage by a thousand years.

Furthermore several ancient writers reported incidences of child or adult sacrifice, among them Diodorus and Porphyry.

A. Green summarised his exhaustive study of human sacrifice in the ancient Near East with the general statement that “human sacrifice can be traced throughout this region,” that is, throughout Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, Egypt, and Syro-Palestine.

Have any archaeological artefacts been found that contradict the Bible?

There have been cases where at first sight the artefacts discovered were thought to negate the biblical record. But upon further investigation and research all discoveries haven been found to harmonise with Scripture.

This does not mean that difficulties and enigmas may be solved easily. The biblical world is far removed from our own, and the remains are relatively few and scattered. The “jig-saw puzzle,” so to speak, can never be complete, and archaeologists have to make do with bits and pieces, some of them indeed brilliant, but never forming one whole. So what is fragmentary and incomplete can never justly be compared with what is complete (the biblical canon), and far less to attempt to use it in order to water down the Bible’s authority and infallibility.

Archaeology is an ongoing discipline. What is obscure needs to be subjected to further study, always keeping in mind that we are just touching the iceberg’s tip.

To conclude: never has an artefact been successfully pitted against the Bible, so as to prove that the Bible is erroneous in any way.

Why is the “Taylor Prism” so important?

Taylor’s Prism, also known as the Sennacherib Prism, discovered about 1850, records Sennacherib’s invasion of Judah, and mentions king Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:13-16; Isaiah 36:1).

Sennacherib was king of Assyria and Babylonia from 705 to 681 B.C., the son of Sargon II and father of Esarhaddon. He besieged Jerusalem in the days of Hezekiah. Sennacherib left copious records of his reign, the final edition of his annals being known as the Taylor Prism, and a better copy known as the Oriental Institute Prism.

These remains tell us a lot about his military campaigns, his buildings projects, his literary ability, his invasion of Judah and his death.

The account of the siege of Jerusalem has so often been quoted that only a brief portion will bear quoting: “As for Hezekiah the Judean who did not submit to my yoke, 46 of his strong, walled cities, as well as the small cities in their neighbourhood, which were without number, by escalade and by bringing up siege engines, by attacking and storming on foot, by mines, tunnels, and breaches, I besieged and took...Himself like a caged bird I shut up in Jerusalem, his royal city.”

Evidently the Taylor Prism is important because it parallels so closely the biblical record of this king’s conquests and life. If corroboration is needed to the biblical record, we do have three-dimensional evidence from the pagan king himself.