Archaeology and the Bible
by Ernest L. Martin, Ph.D., April 1975
Edited by David Sielaff, November 2009
Read the accompanying Newsletter for November 2009
The study of archaeology is important in understanding historical and prophetical events of the Scripture. This is because all the teachings of the Bible, even matters involving doctrine, are found within an historical context and require application of principles of historical investigation to understand them. People who say that one does not have to know history to comprehend Scripture cannot hope to grasp the fundamental concepts of the biblical revelation. This is where archaeology becomes important. The study of archaeology is a branch of historical investigation but it must be placed into its proper perspective or else it will not only be useless in its application, but even downright dangerous if employed in an incorrect manner. Let me explain.
It must be understood that archaeology is valuable for the understanding of the Bible within two prime categories. The first is very important and often crucial in comprehending the truth of history, while the other is subsidiary and often difficult in appraising what actually happened in the past.
The first category is represented by the discovery of “written records.” In this case, archaeology becomes a branch of history itself. Indeed, history is defined as evidence of the past which is primarily found in written records.
The second category is the discovery and evaluation of evidence such as pottery, statues, bones, etc., which have no written material associated with them. Obviously, if there is no written evidence to support information about such things, then the assessment of the discoveries must depend on the judgments of historians who have in their midst written records which tell us what happened in the past.
It can be easily seen that the second category of archaeological evidence is far inferior to the first and that assumptions from such data are often quite subjective. Even with written documents the historian must be careful because how can we who live in modern times be sure the early historians were writing the truth?
If one can be assured that the historical records of the past are truthful, then archaeological discoveries that agree with the accurate record could be legitimately used as supplemental proofs to show what happened in a more complete way. I adopt the principle that Scripture is telling the truth! This means, to me, that the Bible becomes an historical standard which can serve as a guideline for validating all archaeological evidence (whether it comes from written sources or not). It is my belief that the Bible should always be reckoned as the standard source book for all history of the Middle East from the time of Adam unto the end of the 1st century AD. This represents a major “key” in understanding the past.
It may come as a surprise to you students but even with scholars who deeply love and respect the Bible, the Scripture is not the essential criterion for evaluating archaeological discoveries in the Middle East. That honor goes to Egyptian history and chronology for the periods before the 9th century BC, and Assyrian, Babylonian and Egyptian history and chronology for periods after the 9th century BC and down to Alexander the Great (332 BC). 1
Biblical evidence for history and chronology is held in a very secondary sense, and even when utilized it is normally suspect unless it agrees with the normal interpretation of Egyptian, Assyrian, and Babylonian material. The reason for this among ordinary historians is simple. They consider the Bible to be primarily a “religious book” and usually devoid of any serious historical information. True, it is believed to contain “history,” but it is reckoned as being “prejudicial history” and only as a last resort (and if it agrees with the scholarly views regarding the “history” of Gentile nations surrounding Palestine) is it considered as real evidence of the past.
The truth is, just the opposite stance ought to be taken by historians. It is the biblical revelation that ought to be considered the exemplar for comparison of all historical records from the Middle East. When this is done, the historical records that are often confusing to interpret would become much clearer to understand and begin to make proper sense. I concentrate on the need to rely upon the biblical revelation as the standard of history. When this is done, many parts of ancient history that now make little sense would begin to fall into a recognizable historical scenario. Many of the problems (especially chronological ones) that plague our comprehension of early world history could be resolved. This is why the biblical revelation needs to be placed back into the forefront of providing historical truth.
It is not Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon that must interpret what was happening in the Middle East, but rather it is the Scripture that presents the veritable “key” to help us moderns know what was happening in early Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon. The scholars have got “the cart before the horse.” They have unwittingly, in many cases, made the Bible to look absurd by falsely ascribing records from Gentile countries to the wrong periods of time and they have made the scriptural record to appear untrue. But it is the evaluation of the scholars which in many cases has been wrong.
When the Scripture is taken at face value, it can be shown that the records from Gentile countries as well as those of the Bible can be harmonized with real understanding. This can only be done, however, when it is recognized that the Bible has the standard historical information for early Middle Eastern affairs.
Many people have the mistaken idea that there are only a few dirt mounds or ruins of ancient cities that can be explored and that is why there are so few discoveries today. In no way is this true. Since modern archaeology in the Middle East began a little over 130 years ago, less than one percent of the early sites have been properly investigated.
In Israel alone there are just over 6,000 historical sites from all periods of the past that have been catalogued for possible excavation. There is about the same number in Iraq and Iran, almost that number in Syria, about 9,000 in Turkey and even 3,000 in Greece. In all of the Middle East there are well over 25,000 sites that could be excavated for historical information.
Many ancient sites are in the form of artificial mounds (called tells). These are located in strategic geographical areas, such as near water sources or ancient trade routes. When a city was destroyed a new one was built over the exact site. Since most of the walls surrounding the sites and those which were a part of the houses were made from burnt, partially burnt, or even dry mud bricks, these proved useless in constructing later buildings so the newcomers simply flattened out the remains and built on top of the previous sites.
Sometimes as many as ten, fifteen, or even twenty different levels of settlements are found at the same spot, one on top of another. This was the custom almost everywhere except Egypt where large stones were used for construction and these could be reused again and again by later people. This is why there are not many tells in Egypt. In Palestine, however, it was customary to use small mud bricks or rocks for building purposes and the sites became higher as each phase of reconstruction occurred. In Jericho (which archaeologists call the oldest city remains on earth) there were about twenty periods of occupation and the latest city was built at least 70 feet above the plains area around the springs of Jericho. Most of the remains are relatively small. Jericho occupies about ten acres.
The largest tell in Palestine is Hazor about 15 miles north of the Sea of Galilee. It occupies about 175 acres. When Professor Yigael Yadin excavated for 5 seasons at Hazor (he had about 30 archaeologists plus 100 workers) he dug trenches at several locations through the tell, but he only scratched the surface of finding out what is actually there. In fact, he said that it would take his crew 800 years to uncover the whole site if they did it correctly.
With thousands upon thousands of sites that could be excavated in the Middle East, and with so few excavations under way at the present (in Israel it is normal to have about 70 or 80 excavations being conducted in any one year), it is easy to see that much is yet to be discovered.
Indeed, the British Museum has at least 120,000 clay tablets in their basement that were discovered over a hundred years ago and the vast majority of tablets have not been translated yet. They simply do not have enough trained personnel or the funds to accomplish the task. This is one reason why some scholars even discourage new excavations until the remains of the old ones (already in various libraries and museums throughout the world) are analyzed properly.
Even when an important discovery such as the “Dead Sea Scrolls” (where whole manuscripts and thousands of portions of others were found) it has taken almost 40 years to get only about half of them published. Some scholars are lamenting that it will take another 40 years before even professional scholars will be able to read and analyze these finds. The journal The Biblical Archaeological Review has been complaining for years (and rightly so) about the inordinate delays in getting published what has already been found. 2
It may seem strange but many countries of the Middle East do not want any archaeological excavations in their countries unless the discoveries are first surveyed by government agents. This is often because modern politics and religious beliefs are based on historical events and if for some reason the discoveries would prove modern beliefs are wrong, this could cause an immense amount of difficulty in present day affairs. For example, the nation of Turkey resisted for years any survey of the traditional Mount Ararat for the remains of Noah’s Ark because Mohammed said it was located in a different location and it would be an embarrassment if something were found in the traditional area. This is the case with many other important archaeological artifacts that have religious significance.
It is prophesied that the fullness of the truth of the Gospel will one day before the return of Christ be restored to this earth. It is my personal belief that most of the “restoration” will come about by simply reading what the Scripture actually says and understanding it correctly, but there is also the real possibility that some important archaeological discoveries will be made that will force people in the world to realize some important truths of the Bible. There are some that could have great political significance. Listed below are some which would be outstanding.
There are two periods of time in which we have a paucity of extra-biblical evidence (especially literary material) and anything discovered would be of supreme significance. It is difficult to say which period is the most important (because both are so critical in demonstrating the integrity of the Bible), but I will simply mention them in chronological order.
(1) Historical evidence that could give a consistent chronological account of biblical matters from the time of Daniel (middle 6th century BC) to the time of Alexander the Great (332 BC). What would be extremely fortuitous would be to find references to the latter parts of the Book of Daniel in the earliest part of this period. While I don’t have the slightest doubt that all 12 chapters of Daniel were written in the 6th century BC, even scholars who deeply love the Bible find this difficult to accept.
One of these days (and I think sooner than most believe), the evidence will come forth. Along with this is the need to understand clearly the chronological indications of Daniel within a true and documented historical background of the 6th, 5th, and 4th centuries BC. One of the most difficult sections of the Bible to correlate with secular history is the period of Ezra and Nehemiah. We need information for this period in particular.
If you are a long-time reader of the ASK website you should know why is it vitally important to find historical and archaeological information for this era of time. There is no period in the Old Testament in which we need information than this one, but why? The simple fact is, the veracity of the Bible depends on it.
(2) We equally need information for what was happening in Palestine and Asia Minor between the close of the Book of Acts (61 AD) and the end of the 1st century. The New Testament gives us a great deal of evidence if we will only look for it (and I have tried to supply much of it in my book Restoring the Original Bible), but this 40 year period has been the most mysterious of all to biblical scholars. It is almost as if a veil of silence has been brought down over the events of this time as they relate to the history of the Christian ekklesia. But if the prophesied “restoration” is to be’ complete, I believe some outstanding archaeological discoveries will soon be made to make this period more comprehensible. 3
It is appropriate to mention a major problem in utilizing archaeology and it is one that is well recognized by reputable archaeologists. This is especially a difficulty with certain people who have strong religious or historical convictions. It is this: If they have the money and are presented with the opportunity to excavate in the Holy Land and their only interest is to find some artifact which can prove a point in their belief, they are not approaching the use of archaeology correctly. Why is this the case? It is because their attitude is set towards one goal. They cannot help but look on all other discoveries at the excavation with lesser esteem. The fact is, the very thing they may be searching for could be of minor importance in the overall understanding of history, prophecy, or doctrine, while the other items they discover could also prove highly significant in the long run.
It is perfectly proper to look in places where one might think an important historical artifact or document is supposed to be, but one must look on every archaeological find with deep respect. This is because even professional historians and archaeologists must deal with historical periods of which little is known, and the very thing that may appear unimportant could be the “key” to make later discoveries understandable. This is one reason why most archaeologists (except in extraordinary cases) will only excavate portions of any “dig” (digging one, two or three trenches through it) so that later people, who will have accumulated more knowledge, can be able to do more advanced work on the site when the time comes.
In my own experience in dealing with historical and archaeological information, the things that others or I once thought to be unimportant have often proved to be the very factors that opened the door of understanding on several research projects. Archaeology and the discovery of new understandings into scriptural teachings are good disciplines for all of us. When any new perception is recognized it often makes people change their minds regarding their former beliefs. This is good and healthy so that all of us we can grow in grace and knowledge. 4
Ernest L. Martin, 1975
Edited by David Sielaff, November
1 Professor Thomas Levy, ed., The Archaeology of Society in the Holy Land (New York: Continuum, 1997), p. x, says that biblical archaeology of the early 1970s was aimed primarily at identifying people and places mentioned in the Bible. That does not mean that they believed what was in the Bible, but Levy feels that was the motivation at that time. DWS
2 The Dead Sea Scrolls were released for all scholars in 1991. DWS
3 See Dr. Martin’s works in this area: “The Importance of First Century History,” “The Expectation of Christ’s Second Coming in Apostolic Times,” “The Development of New Doctrine,” and “Signs of the Times in the First Century.” These articles, along with Dr. Martin’s writings about the correct site of the Jerusalem Temples from Dr. Martin’s book The Temples That Jerusalem Forgot and the “Temple articles” on the ASK website all go a long way to provide this necessary information. DWS
4 The Bible should be the standard for the evaluation of archaeological data in Palestine in all periods. This gives a biblical approach to the understanding of history. With this in mind, you should be able to determine the approximate size in population and/or areas of the ancient cities of Sodom (hint, compare Genesis 19:1–28), Shechem (Genesis chapter 34), Nineveh (Jonah 3:1–4), and the city of Jerusalem as mentioned by John in the Book of Revelation (see Revelation 11:13). You should also be able find out how large was the pottery in which Christ changed water into wine (John 2:6), or today’s money equivalent of the tribute that Christ and Peter paid (Matt 17:24–27) based on current gold prices, converting that to your own currency today. DWS
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