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DOES BIBLICAL ARCHAEOLOGY HELP THE CASE FOR BIBLICAL RELIABILITY?
Walter C. Kaiser, Jr.
Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary
In many academic circles today, “Biblical Archaeology” is a disappearing discipline that has often been replaced by “Syro-Palestinian Archaeology” or “Ancient Near Eastern Archaeology.” While the reasons for such a move are often somewhat overdone, more prominently placed must be the general consensus that this discipline should not be linked with the Bible, but with more scientific and non-religious interests.
This is especially amazing since the Bible is still one of the world’s best-selling books and it lies at the foundation of much of the civilized world’s culture and history. Moreover, it contains one of the longest running histories of the story of the world.
Some fear that the discipline named “Biblical Archaeology” would be held captive in those who want to “prove the Bible is true.” But surely, as most know, “proof,” in the technical sense of the word, is only available in the deductive forms of study and logic whereas Biblical Archaeology falls in the class of inductive studies, which means that it is pledged to collect as many evidences as possible to make its conclusions as “probably” as possible. Thus, the discipline is not out to “prove” the Jewish or the Christian faith, but rather to gather as many evidences as possible so as to better interpret its message. Any facts it uncovers must stand on their own. The discipline, as it developed in the last century and a half, aimed at illuminating the customs, culture, peoples, places and persons it stumbled upon in the course of its excavations.
Biblical Archaeology has given Bible students some highly dramatic moments in the past century and a half of discovery. Even though almost all of these discoveries were so-called “chance findings,” in which few have deliberately set out to find x, y, or z; nevertheless, they have been enormously useful in rounding out our understanding of Bible times, culture and history.
HOW HAS ARCHAEOLOGY HELPED US TO UNDERSTAND THE BIBLE?
The twentieth century will go down in history as the great century of archaeological discovery. One need only mention names such as Qumran’s Dead Sea Scrolls, the Ugaritic alphabetic script which shares some 60 percent of the vocabulary with the Hebrew Bible, the Ebla tablets with its lists of Palestinian cities from the 2400 to 2200 B.C. Syro-Palestine, and the Basalt Stelae from Dan referring to the “House/Dynasty of David.” Surely these must qualify as some of the most electrifying moments in this young discipline as well as in the study of the Bible.
This is not to say that this young discipline has not had its embarrassing moments as well. One case in point would be Sir Leonard Wooley’s claim in 1929, as he was excavating in Mesopotamia, as he announced, “I have found the Flood [of Noah]!” However, various other strata evidenced flood sediment throughout that same area, so naturally the claim had to be retracted. Others have claimed to have found the Ark of the Covenant or the Garden of Eden, but these must not be confused with the real aims and the legitimate discoveries of this discipline.
G. Ernest Wright, of Harvard University, posed and answered the obvious question: “What can [Biblical] Archaeology do and not do for Biblical studies.” His answer was: “What [biblical] archaeology can do for biblical study is to provide a physical context in time and place which was the environment of the people who produced the Bible, or are mentioned in it. Inscriptional evidence is of exceptional importance for biblical backgrounds and even for occasional mention of biblical people and places.”¹
The key role of Biblical Archaeology, then, is to illuminate the Bible by casting light on its historical and cultural location. By fitting the Bible into the persons, events and general history of the world, archaeology has been able to cast light on the very same persons, events and history that the Bible has also mentioned.
But even more telling, despite the inherent problems in the discipline, Biblical Archaeology has been able to further the cause of the reliability of the Bible, even though that was not in its mission, nor was it one of its stated or necessary goals. It has aided in the identification of a number of missing persons, peoples, places, customs and settings. These have all come as a by-product of the discipline rather than a stated purpose. This does not mean that every one of those persons, events, customs or the like that we have not been able to account for in our modern culture have been found and explained. For example, we still are not able to nail down “Darius the Mede,” even though a number of speculative suggestions have been made. But it is astounding how many of what used to be called real problems and historical embarrassments have been removed from the list of missing persons or things through the work of Biblical Archaeology. A short review of some things will demonstrate how far Biblical Archaeology has been able to take us in the last one hundred and fifty years or so.
I. MISSING PERSONS OF THE BIBLE IN ARCHAEOLOGY
Two of the most famous missing persons cases are “Sargon” of Isaiah 20 and “Belshazzar” of Daniel 5. As the Enlightenment Age began to doubt what was written in the Bible, it was not hard to pounce on these two prominent men in the Biblical text as examples of the creativity and fictional writing by the authors of Scripture. If they were so prominent in Ancient History, so it was argued, why was it that only the Bible had given us any record of their existence?
At one point in the nineteenth century, we had what we thought was the complete list of Assyrian kings, but there was no mention of a King Sargon II. We even had excavated Nineveh, but Sargon was not to be found among them or any of the official lists from Mesopotamia. The sole reference to this king was found in the Old Testament prophet Isaiah (20:1). Sargon had to be regarded by the children of the Enlightenment and Modern Criticism as a literary fiction. He simply was not real!
However, in 1843, Paul Emile Botta discovered a new capital of Assyria, built on virgin soil some twelve miles northeast of Nineveh. Later the University of Chicago further excavated this site. Sargon II had begun to build this site in 717 B.C. and for the next ten years he laid it as a square, one mile on each side. Sargon did not get to enjoy his capital very long, for he died in battle. However, he claimed he was the conqueror of Samaria in 722 B.C., the capital of the ten northern tribes of Israel. Thus, instead of finding an error in Scripture, the missing Sargon II has been found in external sources as well.
In a similar manner, the Old Testament book of Daniel stood alone in contending that King Belshazzar was the king in charge of Babylon as the city and empire fell in 539 B.C. (Dan 5:1). Moreover, cuneiform documents subsequently found just prior to the first quarter of the twentieth century, named Nabonidus as the king at the time of the collapse of the empire. So which was the last king of Babylon: Belshazzar or Nabonidus?
In 1929, Raymond P. Dougherty published a set of cuneiform documents that showed that Nabonidus spent the last years of his reign in Arabia for health reasons, leaving the actual conduct of the government to his eldest son, Belshazzar. Another lost person was found and the Scripture was vindicated in the position it had set forth.
This list could be extended to many great lengths. For example, three hundred cuneiform tablets found in the Ishtar Gate of Babylon confirmed the presence of the Judean King Jehoiachin and his five sons, who had been taken captive by Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon (2 Kings 25:27-30). Again in the Elephantine Papyri from Egypt we found external evidence for “Sanballat, the governor of Samaria” (Neh 2:10) and his adversaries, “Tobiah, the Ammonite official and Geshem the Arab” (Neh 2:19). These Egyptian papyri were written one generation after Nehemiah (c. 408-407 B.C.), and also refer to Nehemiah’s brother Hanani (Neh 7:2), and the High Priest Johanan (Neh 12:22).
But like the writer of Hebrews, time and space fail us to talk about the prophet Balaam, Ahab, Jehu, Hezekiah, Menahem, and many others. Perhaps we should stop to mention the fact that up until 1993, it had become fashionable in some scholarly circles to dismiss stories about King David, since we had not one shred of external evidence for so famous a king in the Bible. However, Abraham Biran, of the Hebrew Union College, was excavating at the site of Dan in northern Israel and in 1993 and in 1994, he and his staff found a 12 inch basalt fragment with an inscription as part of a reused stone in a wall. One year later two other smaller pieces were found, also written in paleo-Hebrew with the words “the house [dynasty] of David.” This led to a reexamination of the Mesha Stone from Moab where the same “bt dwd,” “house/dynasty of David,” was found written twice. David’s name also has turned up on the wall of the great temple of Amon at Karnak, Egypt, not more than fifty years from David’s lifetime. Later we will discuss the possible find of David’s palace in excavations that began in 2005. The story of discovering missing persons goes on and presents a most exciting discipline that engages the Bible often at critical points of interest.
Link to Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. website: www.walterckaiserjr.com