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ARCHAEOLOGY AND THE BIBLE: A review of several articles

December 27, 2009

By Dr. Gary S. Day

Hittite Chariot

I.  Archaeology and the Old and New Testaments

  By Pat Zukeran

 The Old Testament

Since Christianity is a historical faith based on recorded events in the Bible, archaeology plays a key role in Biblical studies.  First, archaeology confirms the historical accuracy of the Bible.  Second, archaeology helps improve understanding by enhancing the accuracy of the nuances of Biblical words as they were then used.  Third, archaeology illustrates and explains many Biblical passages.

But like any thing else, there are limits to archaeology.  First, Archaeology does not prove the Divine inspiration of the Bible.  Second, the archaeological process cannot be repeated, so its findings must allow for further revision and interpretation when new discoveries are found.  Third, archaeological interpretation of evidence is shaded by the presuppositions and world view of the interpreter. 

Fourth, although thousands of written archives have been discovered, many thousands more have been lost.  Zukeran says that ‘a million volumes’ were destroyed by ‘a seventh century’ fire at the library in Alexandria, Egypt, but both of the numbers are doubtful.  The Royal Library is said by many ancient writers to contain 400,000 scrolls, and the earliest story about the fire reports that the Royal Library was accidentally burned by Julius Caesar in 47-48 B.C., when he set fire to the Egyptian fleet in the harbor of Alexandria.  The Royal Library was probably founded by Ptolemy I Soter (305-282 B.C.), and opened by his son Ptolemy II Philadelphus (284-246 B.C.).  In 391 A.D., Theophilus the Patriarch of Alexandria, during the reign of Theodosius, is said to have burned the library for religious reasons, but it was not the Royal Library.  In addition to the Royal Library, there were three smaller libraries in Alexandria, with the total number of scrolls being about 550,000 volumes.  The other records that exist of library fires also were not the Royal Library fire.

Fifth, very few of the archaeological sites available have been excavated, and only about 2 per cent of the surveyed sites have been worked on.  The percentages may vary from writer to writer, but the fact still remains that the preponderance of archaeological Tells has not been unearthed and recorded.

Although all the above points apply to archaeology, the Bible is still the primary source of authority of Biblical times.

What follows is a summary of evidences that supports the Bible’s accuracy against its critics.  All mentioned information has come under critical attack at one point or another.

1.  Because the kingdom of the Hittites weren’t discovered outside of the Biblical records until 1876 when some Hittite rock writings were found in Turkey, it was believed by critics of the Bible that the Hittites were an imaginary people group thought up by the writers of Scripture.  Later on, in 1906, German cuneiform expert Hugo Winkler excavated a site in Boghaz-koy, Turkey.  Five temples were found and several large sculptures, plus a huge citadel.   The 300 acre capital city of the Hittites was discovered.  It was called by the Hittites Hattushu.  And at about 1913 Czech scholar Bedrich Hronzny proved that the Hittite language was an early relative of the Indo-European languages.

2.  Sodom and Gomorrah has been viewed as a legend without a historical base, but was used to teach moral principles, therefore the cities were not destroyed like the Bible indicated in many passages.  Five cities of the plain, in the Salt Sea/Dead Sea area, are mentioned in Genesis 14, Sodom, Gomorrah, Zoar, Admah and Zeboiium.  From the diggings made from 1965-1973, Dr. Bryant Wood and other archaeologist believe the site of Babe dh-Drha is Sodom.  Remnants of the other cities were found also, and the city of Numeria is believed to be Gomorrah, and Es-Safi is Zoar.  Studies in the cities of Feifa and Khanazir show these cities were abandoned at the same time of Sodom and Gomorrah (2450-2350 B.C.), and are probably Admah and Zeboiium.  All these five cities line up column like beginning at Sodom and running south.  This would be consistent if there was a road between them.

3.  The walls of Jericho falling down (at approx 1440 B.C.) in the miraculous nature before Joshua and the Hebrews, as the Bible records it, is dismissed as folklore by some radical scholars.  However, archaeology supports the Biblical account as the excavations by Carl Walzinger 1907-1909; John Garstang 1930’s; Kathleen Kenyon from 1952-’58; and more recently, Bryant Wood.  Scholars now believe an earthquake collapsed the walls and dammed the Jordon River so Joshua and the people could cross, but it might take two earthquakes, otherwise there would be no need to march around a city with fallen walls.  But perhaps the walls were only weakened and the vibrations of the marchers cased its final collapse.

What was found at the Jericho site was an earthen rampart from behind a fifteen foot high outer wall that was topped with an eight foot brick wall, which surrounded the city.  In between the outer retaining wall and the city walls were found housing consistent with the description of Rahab’s quarters.  Large piles of bricks at the base of both walls, that indicated a sudden collapse of the fortification, were found in one part of he city.  Entrance into the city would have been easy.  A thick layer of soot was found also, indicating the city was destroyed by fire as Joshua 6:24 records.  The date of the conquest is debated, but the carbon-14 dating of a piece of charcoal from the rubble at the Sodom site places it to be 1410 B.C.

4.  Since there has been no extra-biblical evidence of the existence of King David, his existence has been questioned.  But in 1993 archaeologist Abraham Biran, at a site called Tell Dan at the foot of Mt. Hermon, found a royal plaza with a portion of a black basalt stele containing Aramaic writing.  Two lines of the inscription read in part, “the King of Israel” and “the House of David.”  Biran believes the stele to date at about 925 B.C.  In 1994 two more pieces of the stele were found with inscriptions mentioning King Ahab of Israel, and Ahaziah who was the ruler over “the House of David,” of Judea.  The find confirms the historicity of King David and the prominent political place of both Israel and Judah at the time, in accordance with the Biblical accounts. 

The New Testament

 Although archaeology cannot be expected to back-up every place or event mentioned in the New Testament, there are nevertheless mounds of archaeological evidence supporting its historical accuracy. 

Previously scholars skeptically viewed Luke’s historical accounts in Luke-Acts.  But today his accuracy concerning key historical figures, correct time sequences and titles of government officials in various places is confirmed.  For instance, Luke gave Plubius the title as “the first man of the Island” of Malta, which had been questioned, but a more recent discovery found this title to be the correct one.

Concerning the geographical accuracy of Luke, John Mc Ray wrote, in Archaeology and the New Testament (1991, p. 227), “In all, Luke names thirty-two countries, fifty-four cities, and nine islands without error.”

Besides the accuracy of the Gospels, there are over thirty-nine extra-biblical sources attesting to over one hundred facts concerning the life and teaching of Jesus.  More will be said about this when the next article is examined.

A linen cloth called the Shroud of Turin, on display at the Vatican, is claimed to be the burial cloth of Jesus as is recorded in Mt 27:59 and John 20:6-7.  But is it?

First of all, let’s review a little of the Shroud’s history.  The Shroud first appeared in public in 1357 A.D. in Lirey, France, after it was brought to France by Knight Geoffrey de Charny.  His granddaughter gave it to the Duke of Savoy in 1453; in 1578 the Duke brought it to Turin, Italy.  It was willed to the Vatican in 1983 where it is now on display. 

Here is some evidence against the authenticity of the Shroud.  First, in 1987 the cloth was carbon-14 tested by the University of Arizona and in laboratories in Oxford and Zurich.  It was dated to the fourteenth century, which would be consistent with the first public appearance of the Shroud in 1357. 

Secondly, coins minted by Pontius Pilate were placed over the eyes of the figure which was not a Jewish custom, so it seems unlikely that Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimathea would place such coins on the eyes of Jesus imagery of the one who ordered Him crucified.

There is also evidence presented in favor of its authenticity.  A team of Swiss, American and Italian scientist extensively studied the Shroud in 1977 for five days. The authenticity of the fabric could not be determined.  Also, experiments proved that the image contained blood and aragonite, a calcium carbonate that is found in Jerusalem’s first century tombs.  Next, seven out of forty-eight pollen samples found could have come from plants in Palestine.  Finally, the weave of the cloth was in the style that existed in ancient times, a herringbone twill weave.

My take on the positive positions is that a Crusader coming back with a piece of cloth from Jerusalem could have had Palestine pollen attached to it, for it came from there presumably.  Second, if the cloth was found in a tomb, it could naturally have the blood and aragonite particles on it also; besides, first century tombs were used over and over again.  Was the Knight a tomb raider?  We don’t know.  But just because it has these particles on the cloth doesn’t mean that it is Jesus’ image on the cloth.  In giving the benefit of the doubt I have to ask, Was Jesus the only one ever crucified in Jerusalem?  Lastly, and I personally do not know the answer to this question, “Was the herringbone twill weave used in the fourteenth or even thirteenth century?”   Zukeran only says the herringbone twill weave was used in ‘ancient times’, but no date spread is given when the weave was used in the Middle-East.   All in all the strength on the positive side is weak in my opinion. 

Despite the fourteenth century dating, scientists are unable presently to explain how the negative image was created on the Shroud; the negative image concept first so named by photographer Secondo Pia in 1898. 

II. Is the Bible Close to the Original?  By Jimmy Williams

The investigation by Williams points out three errors to avoid in inquiring of this type: 1) Do not assume inspiration or infallibility of the Biblical documents while attempting to prove the same, for this is circular reasoning; 2) Don’t forget that the original documents, not the present form of your Bible, are the collection of ancient source documentation; and 3) Don’t start with modern authorities, then move to the documents to see if they were correct.  Start with the documents themselves.

Author C. Sanders gave three tests to qualify his sources on military history, which can be applied to the investigation of the Bible: 1) Bibliographical or textual test traces the textual tradition from the original documents to the present form of the documents;  2) The Internal evidence test searches what the document claims for itself; and 3) The External evidence identifies how the documents align themselves with the cultural facts about people, places, and things in its contemporary world. 

Williams writes about the bibliographical or textual evidence.  The Old Testament has the conscientiousness of the scribes, and the Massoretic text, the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Septuagint to confirm the accuracy of the copyist.  The assertion of R. Laird Harris (in, Can I Trust My Bible, 1963, p. 124) is that, “It would be rash skepticism that would now deny that we have our Old Testament in a form very close to that used by Ezra when he taught the work of the Lord to those who had returned from the Babylonian captivity.”

The New Testament has 4,000 Greek manuscripts containing all or part of the New Testament texts, such as the 4th century codices Alexandria and Sinaiaticus, older papyri dating from 180-225 A.D. (especially the Chester Beatty papyrus and the Bodmor papyrus), and the Rylands papyrus dated 130 A.D.—which confirms that John was written prior to that time.

Also, there are more than 1,000 copies and fragments of the New Testaments in the ancient Ethiopic, Coptic, Syrian, Armenian and Gothic languages, plus 8,000 copies of the Latin Vulgate (with four that date nearly to the time of Jerome’s original translation of the Greek into Latin in 384-400 A.D.  In addition to this the Church Fathers (c100-450 A.D.), beginning with Clement of Rome (96 A.D.), preserve in their writings quotations of all but about 15-20 verses of the New Testament. 

All of the above witness to the New Testament verifies its accuracy.  But how does it compare to other ancient writings?  Williams lists ten ancient historical writings against the New Testament writings and found that the time between the events in the written accounts and the oldest copies of the New Testament to be between 100-200 years.  With all of the non-biblical writings, the lapse in time is far greater; from 725-1500 years!  The New Testament writings are far surer than any of these writings that were compared: Josephus-Annals of War and Antiquities of the Jews; Tacitus-Annals of Imperial Rome; Seutonius- Lives; Herodotus-History; Thucydides- History; Xenophon-Anabasis; and Polybius-History.  Williams has a very good comparison chart that visually shows the gap.

III. The New Testament: Can I Trust It?   By Rusty and Linda Wright

The Wrights develop the Internal tests on the New Testament that Sanders proposes in the previous article, and that historians and literary critics use.  They investigate the trustworthiness of the writers as is revealed by the text itself.  Since the New Testament is written by eyewitnesses of the actual events or by those who were told the events by eyewitnesses this chief issue is pretty well settled.  Another issue is the consistency of the reports.  Contradictory testimony would cast doubt on the integrity of the writing, and many have charged that the New Testament has contradictions.  Several alleged contradictions are investigated, such as the number of angels at the tomb of Jesus and the accounts of the birth of Jesus, but when all of the comparison was finished the so called contradictory accounts were actually complementary accounts.  Or, the differences were understood by a better understanding of the culture of the time.  For instance, the differences between the Synoptic Gospels’ account and the Gospel of John’s account of the dating of the death of Jesus is cleared up when you know that the Pharisees celebrated Passover one day before the Sadducees did.  John presents the Sadducees’, and the Synoptic Gospels present the Pharisees’ celebration of Passover.

The External test asks whether other historical and archaeological materials confirm or deny the internal testimony provided by the documents themselves.  Archaeologist Nelson Glueck, former president of Jewish Theological Seminary in Cincinnati wrote, :It may be stated categorically that no archaeological discovery has ever controverted a biblical reference” (Rivers in the Desert History of Negev, 1962).  Archaeology has cleared several so called contradictions, such as the accounts in Mark and Luke’s about the healing of the blind man by Jericho.   At the time of Jesus, Ernest Sellin found in 1907-’09 there were two Jerichos.  Jesus healed the man between the two Jerichos, and thus both accounts are correct.

The Bibliographical test is dealt with by the Wrights, but more distinctly in the former article, so I will only quote what A.T. Robertson wrote, whom they quoted, “…we have 13,000 manuscript copies of portions of the New Testament.”  That is quite a few compared to what is available for other ancient writings.

 IV.  Ancient Evidences for Jesus from Non-Christian Sources  By Michael Gleghorn

Gleghorn covers materials already discussed concerning the extra-biblical accounts about Jesus.  What he does in the few selections he has is to give longer quotes by the authors of these texts and discusses them.  Gleghorn examines quotes from Tacitus, Josephus, Pliny the Younger, the Babylonian Talmud and Lucian and concludes that they all attest to the veracity of the Gospel story of Jesus, both indirectly and directly.

What can be readily gleaned from the above information presented in this review is that the Bible is historically and textually accurate, meeting the tests given to other historical writings with good results.  What then should our response be to the contents found with the Bible?  Seeing that the historical is true, isn’t it reasonable that the message it contains is also true…Jesus is the Messiah, God in the flesh who wants us to repent of our sins and to recognize that Jesus died on the cross for our sins?

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