Freedom had been hunted round the globe; reason was considered as rebellion; and the slavery of fear had made men afraid to think. But such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing.
~ Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, 1791 ~

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Does Archaeology prove that the Old Testament is historically accurate?

During my time as a Christadelphian, Archaeology was often portrayed as one of the pillars of evidence supporting the reliability of the Bible. It was (and still is) taken for granted by many Christadelphians that the Old Testament in particular was on solid grounds as a historically accurate text, backed by a wealth of evidence from Archaeology.

But what does Archaeology actually tell us about the Bible today?

In an interview conducted by NOVA, William Dever outlines his views on the history of Israel and how it relates to what the Bible claims. William Dever is a leading American archaeologist, specialising in the history of Israel and the Near East in Biblical times.

So what does William Dever have to say about the state of Archaeology today with respect to the Bible?
"The truth of the matter today is that archeology raises more questions about the historicity of the Hebrew Bible and even the New Testament than it provides answers, and that's very disturbing to some people."

Was Israel ever in Egypt? Did they escape exactly as the Bible records?
"The Bible chronology puts Moses much later in time, around 1450 B.C.E. Is there archeological evidence for Moses and the mass exodus of hundreds of thousands of Israelites described in the Bible?
We have no direct archeological evidence. "Moses" is an Egyptian name. Some of the other names in the narratives are Egyptian, and there are genuine Egyptian elements. But no one has found a text or an artifact in Egypt itself or even in the Sinai that has any direct connection. That doesn't mean it didn't happen. But I think it does mean what happened was rather more modest. And the biblical writers have enlarged the story. 
Is there mention of the Israelites anywhere in ancient Egyptian records?
No Egyptian text mentions the Israelites except the famous inscription of Merneptah dated to about 1206 B.C.E. But those Israelites were in Canaan; they are not in Egypt, and nothing is said about them escaping from Egypt."

Dever also provides clues about when the Bible (as we know it) was thought to have been written. Referring to the time of the Babylonian exile, he says:
"One would have thought at that time that it was the end of the people of Israel—with elites carried away into captivity and ordinary people impoverished. It would have seemed to have been the end, but it was rather the beginning. Because it was in exile, precisely, that those who wrote the Bible looked back, collected the archives they had, rethought it all, reformulated it, and out of that intellectual reconstruction comes early Judaism."
(Emphasis mine)
This interview was conducted by NOVA as part of a documentary on the origins of the Bible, titled "The Bible's Buried Secrets". You can watch the full documentary here. I highly recommend it.
(If that video is not available in your region you may be able to find it elsewhere on the internet though I recommend sticking to legal channels)

The exodus
"William Dever, an archaeologist normally associated with the more conservative end of Syro-Palestinian archaeology, has labeled the question of the historicity of Exodus “dead.” Israeli archaeologist Ze'ev Herzog provides the current consensus view on the historicity of the Exodus: “The Israelites never were in Egypt. They never came from abroad. This whole chain is broken. It is not a historical one. It is a later legendary reconstruction—made in the seventh century [BCE]—of a history that never happened.”"
The destruction of Jericho
"John Garstang, who excavated in the 1930s, announced that he had found fallen walls dating to the time of the biblical Battle of Jericho. However, Garstang later revised the destruction to a much earlier period. Kathleen Kenyon dated the destruction of the walled city to the middle of the 16th century (c. 1550 BC), too early to match the Biblical story (assuming the traditional date), on the basis of her excavations in the early 1950s. The same conclusion, based on an analysis of all the excavation findings, was reached by Piotr Bienkowski. Kenyon's dating was challenged by Bryant Wood in 1990, largely on the argument that Kenyon had misinterpreted the ceramic evidence. William Dever accused Wood of deceiving the public, while Bienkowski accused Wood of multiple errors, which Wood strenuously denied. In 1995, Bruins and var der Plicht announced radiocarbon dating of the city destruction to between 1617 and 1530 BC, agreeing with Kenyon."
Source (includes several references to other sources)

I also found several other articles on clearly Christian websites that seem to agree with Bryant Wood with no hint that Wood might have been the one who was incorrect. I'm not sure if they just never bothered to look or if they were being intentionally dishonest.

However, as indicated in the above Wikipedia article, Bruins and van der Plicht confirmed the date of the destruction of Jericho to be in the 16th or 17th century, via radiocarbon dating of 18 samples taken from the site.

Here's a direct quote from the abstract of their published findings:
"The final destruction of MBA Jericho occurred during the late 17th or the 16th century BC"

Modern Archaeology and the Old Testament

I found a fascinating article published in the Smithsonian magazine that gives an interesting summary of Archaeology in Israel and how it relates to the Old Testament.

I've picked out some relevant paragraphs from the article, but I encourage you to read the whole article here.

"Finkelstein and co-author Neil Asher Silberman rocked the world of biblical archaeology with the publication, five years ago, of The Bible Unearthed. The book argues that the biblical accounts of early Israelite history reveal more about the time they were written—the seventh century b.c.—than the events they describe, which would have taken place centuries earlier. The book also maintains that Israeli archaeologists have indulged in a kind of circular reasoning, drawing on biblical references to date a potsherd, for example, and then using it to identify places described in the Bible. The Bible, Finkelstein believes, should be used far more cautiously in interpreting archaeological sites.
He cites the fact—now accepted by most archaeologists—that many of the cities Joshua is supposed to have sacked in the late 13th century b.c. had ceased to exist by that time. Hazor was destroyed in the middle of that century, and Ai was abandoned before 2000 b.c. Even Jericho, where Joshua is said to have brought the walls tumbling down by circling the city seven times with blaring trumpets, was destroyed in 1500 b.c. Now controlled by the Palestinian Authority, the Jericho site consists of crumbling pits and trenches that testify to a century of fruitless digging.
More and more archaeologists have accepted the idea that “the Joshua invasion as it is described in the Bible was never really a historical event,” as Amihai Mazar puts it. But they disagree about the exact nature and origins of those who built the ancient hilltop settlements on the West Bank.
Even more vexing is the question of a united kingdom under David and then Solomon. Trying to answer it has taken Finkelstein to the ruin of Megiddo, which most archaeologists once believed was the site of a palace King Solomon built sometime between 970 and 930 b.c.
Finkelstein also says that masonry marks and potsherds from the palace layer suggest that it must have been built around 850 b.c., in the time of Ahab—who “did evil in the sight of the Lord more than all who were before him,” according to I Kings. The so-called golden age of Solomon, Finkelstein goes on, is not supported by archaeological evidence. Rather, he says, it’s a myth concocted in the seventh century b.c. by the authors of Kings and Samuel to validate Judah’s expansion into the northern territory of Israel. Finally, Finkelstein says David never united the country; rather, Judah and Israel remained neighboring states. (The only non-biblical reference to David is found in a ninth-century b.c. inscription from Tel Dan, a biblical site in northern Israel that mentions “the House of David.” Finkelstein says the inscription proves only that David existed, not that he united the kingdom.)"
(emphasis mine)

Israel Finkelstein is not without his critics, and this is far from an open and shut case, but I think the evidence clearly shows that Archaeology does not prove that the Old Testament is historically accurate. Far from it.

Further reading

This is by no means an exhaustive look at archaeological evidence for the Old Testament. If you're interested in the topic, you'll be able to find much more information both online and in print than what I've listed above.

However, I did occasionally find it difficult to locate clear, unbiased sources with references to the various views on each topic. There are many Christian apologist websites out there claiming absolute certainty in a field where almost nothing is certain or beyond dispute. These websites clearly have an agenda, and thus the only people who will find them helpful are those looking for a comforting answer to their doubts, rather than those objectively searching for truth regardless of the outcome. Even a little bit of personal research will show you that there is a lot these websites are not telling you, and I leave you to question their motives for hiding critical information from their readers. For example, many such websites give detailed quotes from Bryant Wood regarding the chronology of the destruction of Jericho, but fail to mention the radiocarbon dating results that ultimately disconfirmed Wood's hypothesis, as well as the views of his peers in the field.

Summary and conclusion

Does Archaeology confirm the reliability of the Old Testament?
Only if you cherry-pick your sources and pretend no other sources exist. This would, of course, be dishonest.

It seems that where a consensus exists among archaeologists, it is not in support of the Bible but rather contradicts it. When assessing other cases, pay special attention to the methodology used, and whether the archaeology took a back seat compared to the Bible. It seems obvious to me that if you're using the Bible as a primary source to interpret the physical data then you cannot turn around and use that data as evidence supporting the Bible. That would be circular reasoning. You cannot trust the document that you are attempting to test or prove. And what we seem to find is that when less circular methods are used, the data does not in fact support the Bible.

This is not to say that the Bible is an elaborate fiction invented from thin air. I do not believe the biblical authors necessarily wrote their works intentionally to deceive people. Rather I think what we have in the Bible is a reflection of how the scribes viewed their people and how they interpreted their history. The stories gave them meaning and purpose, and embodied their cultural identity. History in the ancient world was not considered to be unalterable documentation of what really happened. These were not works of impersonal, unbiased history reporting. Rather they were embellished accounts often incorporating legendary features and rich, imaginative story-telling, and sometimes revised over centuries. They captured the hearts and desires of anyone who had undergone oppression and trials, and described a very human passion for survival and success as a nation. Perhaps some elements were adapted from legends or stories passed down through generations. Perhaps a small group of slaves really did escape from Egypt and some of their stories were remembered and embellished. We will probably never know.

In my view, the Bible tells a human story, not a divine one. It is not a book written to the ancient Israelites from an external source (i.e. by divine inspiration), but about them, by them, and for them. I think the Bible is a much more fascinating book when viewed as a collection of documents of purely human origin.

Discrepancies and contradictions between the Bible and history, or between the Bible and scientific reality, do not need to diminish the value of these ancient sources of storytelling, wisdom (for its time), and poetry. Ironically, those who insist on the inerrancy and literal accuracy of the Bible from a historical or scientific perspective may well be the ones who bring it most into disrepute and thus invite people to disregard it entirely.