The Evidential Value of the Spade
It is not uncommon to hear claims that archaeology is the Bible’s Achilles heel. In 2001, Rabbi David Wolpe of Los Angeles’ Sinai Temple preached a Passover sermon in which he stated that archaeologists had found no evidence in the Sinai to corroborate the story of the exodus. A year later, in his article, “False Testament: Archaeology Refutes the Bible’s Claim to History,” journalist Daniel Lazare wrote that biblical archaeology had failed not only to provide evidence of the exodus, but to provide evidence of the vast majority of the events and persons recorded in Scripture. New atheists such as Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens have also made appeals to archaeology in their criticism of Scripture.
In the late 19th century, criticism of the Bible had reached its zenith. Gone were the days of simple Christian belief, with faith in the inspired Word replaced by an “enlightened” understanding of the Bible as a flawed human production. But marvelous discoveries began to corroborate the biblical text. For instance, the supposedly fictional Hittites came to life when German archaeologist Hugo Winckler began excavating their capital city of Hattusa (modern Boghazkale) in 1906. Sargon of Assyria, thought to have been an invention by the author of the book of Isaiah, waltzed into the historical record when French archaeologist Paul-Emile Botta excavated his palace at Dur-Sharrukin (modern Khorsabad) in the 1840s. Rocked back on their heels, critics at the beginning of the 20th century were forced to concede defeat. One criticism after the next crumbled under the weight of new discoveries. The spade proved to be a potent weapon.
Toward the end of the 20th century, criticism of the Bible once again reached new heights. Given the fragmentary nature of the archaeological record, this was perhaps to be expected. Critics once again turned to the archaeological record to provide proof against the Bible’s claims. They banished the patriarchs and the United Monarchy to the realm of legend. The stories of creation, the exodus and the conquest of Canaan became pious fiction. Everything else, unless directly corroborated by external evidence, remained under the cloud of suspicion.
Because archaeology is a field in which new discoveries are made every year, it was only a matter of time before it once again began to overturn the criticism of the Bible’s detractors. Like archaeologists from a century ago, scholars once again are making spectacular discoveries that support the factual accuracy of the Bible. Some of the discoveries in the past few decades include:
- Ancient treaties and scribal culture. When comparing ancient Near Eastern covenants with the book of Deuteronomy it becomes clear that the last book of Moses belongs to the late second millennium, the time of the exodus. Later Hebrew scribes would have been unable to forge the book or give it the appearance of age in any convincing way.
- Early writing. Critics continue to dismiss the United Monarchy as legendary, but discoveries of writing in remote locations demonstrate the existence of a significant bureaucracy in the time of David and Solomon. The vast majority could not read or write, and only trained scribes in the employ of the government could have made such inscriptions as those found at Tel Zayit and Khirbet Qeiyafa.
- Personal seals. Within the last decade alone, archaeologists in Jerusalem have discovered a number of personal seals belonging to individuals mentioned in Scripture. These include the seals belonging to Ahab’s evil queen Jezebel, as well as those of the prophet Jeremiah’s opponents Gedaliah son of Pashur and Jucal son of Shelemiah.
While the critics have become increasingly vociferous in their attacks, they are also increasingly careless. Their appeals to archaeology merely demonstrate their unfamiliarity with the field. Many of these authors are familiar only with the most radical skeptics, and promote their work as if it is the majority opinion. But the spade remains a powerful, but perhaps underused, weapon in the arsenal of the Christian apologist. Christians everywhere may have every confidence that archaeology will only continue to support the accuracy of God’s Word.