Saturday, February 27, 2010

Thoughts on Archeological Data

The debate over the archeology and the Bible will always rage. There are of course a range of options including:
  1. The reliability of the Biblical text should interpret archeology.
  2. The reliability of the Biblical text which can be further supplemented by archeological data. Harmonization does not threaten but further illuminates the Biblical text.
  3. The archeological data can call into the question the Biblical text. Harmonization may cause serious reevaluation of key points in the text.
  4. The archeological data general creates a picture of radical skepticism over the Biblical text.
This is of course a layman's summary of the differing positions. My own stance from my admittedly limited reading in the subject would be along the lines of #2. Cultural study and archeological data can illuminate the text. It can seriously temper our exegesis--but the Biblical text as a whole is reliable.

Part of the problem is the the relationship between textual data and archeological data. This is a dilemma that plagues all study of the Ancient Near East (ANE). Generally in ANE studies textual data is assumed reliable unless archeological data over turns it. Often the archeological data will temper the reading of the text. Nevertheless, it is understood that archeological data never preserves a complete picture. There are times where texts are clearly ideological. Assyrian texts often whitewash history--and as a rule ancient historians never record big losses. A critical reading of the text will often carefully weed through the details. In some causes, ideological biases do not mean the text is totally unreliable as a witness to history.

When it comes to the Biblical text there are number of things we can say. First, often times there is an inherent biased against the Biblical text. Some Biblical scholars whose first field is in ancient history, men like K.A. Kitchen, James K. Hoffmeier (and here) and John Currid, have shown how we can read the Biblical text in concert with the archeological data in a manner that does not necessarily take a skeptical approach. Their approach is to interpret the text in light of its ANE context. Kitchen in particular has shown that the skeptism and radical questioning of the text by some Biblical scholars goes beyond critical theory that we find in other historical disciplines in ANE studies. The Biblical scholars often go out of there way to prove the unreliability of the Biblical text.

Second, the nature of archeological data is such that 100% of the data is never preserved. We never have all the information that we would like. This means that just because something in the Biblical text cannot be verified by archeological data does not mean the it is an unreliable text.

Third, archeology is not like TV with CSI where they just follow the evidence. In fact, the problem with this show is it rules out the necessary interpretative process of all facts and evidence. This is hardly postmodern radical skepticism. Some interpretation are more valid than others. Indeed we cannot merely impose our reading on evidence. However, just because we have evidence in archeology does not mean we have a neutral starting point over and against a "biased" text.

Fourth, while I believe the Biblical text is factual and reliable I need to admit two things. (1) As an interpreter I am biased and can make errors in interpretation. (2) The Biblical text is itself biased--and that is a good thing. What I mean that it gives us God's revelation. It gives us God's perspective and often "God's interpretation" of events. It shows us His hand, His involvement, His redemptive history. The Biblical text is biased but it is reliable and trustworthy. God wants us to have his perspective of the events that took place. The Bible is not just bare history. The history is intertwined with theology. Of course, we cannot go to far the other way and say that because it is theological it is historically unreliable--this too is naive.

With those things said, and acknowledging the debate over archeology and Biblical history of Israel will never be fully resolved, we should point out that archeologist are often recovering information that challenges the radical skepticism. Here is one example:
An Israeli archaeologist said Monday that ancient fortifications recently excavated in Jerusalem date back 3,000 years to the time of King Solomon and support the biblical narrative about the era.

If the age of the wall is correct, the finding would be an indication that Jerusalem was home to a strong central government that had the resources and manpower needed to build massive fortifications in the 10th century B.C.

That's a key point of dispute among scholars, because it would match the Bible's account that the Hebrew kings David and Solomon ruled from Jerusalem around that time.
There has been some other data that has given us indication that there was a "house of David," as recorded in the Bible--though not without its own debate. One of the problems is the archeological lack of evidence on a strong kingdom during the dates David and Solomon purportedly reigned. It is important to note the axiom "absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence." Even more, we should be cautious of making demands about what the evidence should be (1) because evidence does not always survive as history marches on--and in some cases, over it; (2) sometimes we falsely paint a pre-conceived picture over what a massive kingdom must have been like--we make it quite alien from the time and place. (For example: K.A. Kitchen, in On The Reliability of the Old Testament, discusses this as it relates to Joshua's incursion on the promise land. Archeologist often note a lack of destructive campaigns at the time--but Kitchen notes they are often looking for something massive beyond what the Biblical text describes.)

Returning to our AP story, note:
Speaking to reporters at the site Monday, Mazar, from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, called her find "the most significant construction we have from First Temple days in Israel."

"It means that at that time, the 10th century, in Jerusalem there was a regime capable of carrying out such construction," she said.

Based on what she believes to be the age of the fortifications and their location, she suggested it was built by Solomon, David's son, and mentioned in the Book of Kings.

The fortifications, including a monumental gatehouse and a 77-yard (70-meter) long section of an ancient wall, are located just outside the present-day walls of Jerusalem's Old City, next to the holy compound known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary. According to the Old Testament, it was Solomon who built the first Jewish Temple on the site.
Of course, note how the article ends:
"Aren Maeir, an archaeology professor at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv, said he has yet to see evidence that the fortifications are as old as Mazar claims. There are remains from the 10th century in Jerusalem, he said, but proof of a strong, centralized kingdom at that time remains "tenuous."

While some see the biblical account of the kingdom of David and Solomon as accurate and others reject it entirely, Maeir said the truth was likely somewhere in the middle.

"There's a kernel of historicity in the story of the kingdom of David," he said. "
Read the whole thing.

As Christians we need to be careful. Archeological data has to be weighed and analyzed. We should not for apologetic purpose jump to closely to conclusions so long as they support our theory and beliefs. The reliability of the Biblical text does not hang on the archeological data although we acknowledge that it can be helpful supporting evidence.

A careful student will find clues and helps in data outside of Scripture that supplements and further illuminates the Biblical text and our understanding of it. It is of course encouraging when we read about archeological discoveries that help us better understand the picture we have in the text--even confirming the Biblical view over the enemies of radical skepticism that reject notions of Biblical authority and truthfulness.


Addendum:
If you'd like to start reading K.A. Kitchen, you can find on of his early works "Ancient Orient and the Old Testament" here, download it for free. Kitchen is one of the preeminent Egyptologists of our day.

You can find 6 Kitchen Lectures here:

Kenneth A. Kitchen, "The Old Testament in Its Context: Part 1," Theological Students' Fellowship Bulletin 59 (Spring 1971).View in PDF format
On-line Resource Kenneth A. Kitchen, "The Old Testament in Its Context: Part 2," Theological Students' Fellowship Bulletin 60 (Spring 1971).View in PDF format
On-line Resource Kenneth A. Kitchen, "The Old Testament in Its Context: Part 3," Theological Students' Fellowship Bulletin 61 (Summer 1971).View in PDF format
On-line Resource Kenneth A. Kitchen, "The Old Testament in Its Context: Part 4," Theological Students' Fellowship Bulletin 62 (Autumn 1971).View in PDF format
On-line Resource Kenneth A. Kitchen, "The Old Testament in Its Context: Part 5," Theological Students' Fellowship Bulletin 63 (Summer 1972).View in PDF format
On-line Resource Kenneth A. Kitchen, "The Old Testament in Its Context: Part 6," Theological Students' Fellowship Bulletin 64 (Autumn 1972).View in PDF format

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