Archaeology: Friend or Foe of Biblical History?

Even before Indiana Jones wooed a generation of young people into pursuing careers in ancient history, archaeology was grabbing the world’s attention. The drama-laden story of Lord Carnarvon’s several-week journey to join Charles Carter in descending the steps of the newly discovered tomb of King Tut is nearly one hundred years old. In the 1800s, the quote attributed to Heinrich Schliemann, excavator of the ancient site of Troy, “I have gazed on the face of Agamemnon,” excited people’s imaginations: look what archaeology can do!

In reality, archaeology is—with some exceptions, of course—a bit less dramatic. For the most part, gone are the days when archaeologists excavated at a particular ruin with the primary aim of shedding light on biblical people, events, and places. Most excavations are funded by secular universities, so the objectives and goals usually reflect the diverse aims of a university curriculum. Indeed, archaeology in places like Israel and Jordan is treated as a subset of anthropology, and a dig site will employ a number of different specialists (e.g., seismologists, botanists, geologists, zoologists) and technologies (e.g., magnetometers, ground-permeating radar, satellite photography, carbon-14 dating).1 Their motivation is to understand broader patterns of human civilization in the history of that region or site.

Why Is Archaeology Important for Christians?

Though archaeologists are now interested in a wider range of information, this does not mean that it is unrelated to the Bible. Indeed, the relationship between archaeology and the Bible is one that will not (and must not) go away. Since the Christian faith is a historical one, Christians ought to be interested in archaeology. It is, after all, a key tool in the historian’s handbag. In spite of pious-sounding claims that “archaeology cannot prove or disprove faith,” archaeology is indeed relevant (albeit not always decisive) if one holds the faith to be truly objective and not just a subjective inner feeling.2

Though archaeology is of great value for understanding the historical setting of God’s Word, there are misconceptions about what archaeology can and cannot do. Skeptics, for example, often cite archaeological finds as disproving Scripture, claiming that they pose insurmountable challenges to the faith. They place a high degree of confidence on the ability of archaeology to determine “what really happened” and will not accept the historicity of the Bible unless it is corroborated by archaeological finds. (And sometimes not even then!) Ironically, some conservative Christians unwittingly agree with the skeptics and feel that unless the claims of the Bible are illustrated by archaeology, those claims are somehow less certain or deserving of our trust.

How then should Christians assess the finds of archaeology? How can study of archaeology be most beneficial to the Christian faith? It is to these questions that we now turn.

Scripture Is Self-Attesting

Before we even begin to relate archaeology to the historicity of Scripture, we must state an important presupposition up front: Christians believe the Bible to be the inspired, infallible, inerrant Word of God because it is trustworthy in and of itself. That is to say, the Bible is what theologians call a self-attesting “first principle” for Christians; it is not something that requires authentication from an outside source (whether the church, science, history, or archaeology). The Belgic Confession articulates it this way: “We believe without a doubt all things contained in [the Scriptures]—not so much because the church receives and approves them as such but above all because the Holy Spirit testifies in our hearts that they are from God, and also because they prove themselves to be from God” (art. 5; cf. Westminster Confession, art. 1.5; Westminster Larger Catechism, Q&A 4).

Of course it sounds circular to say we believe the Bible to be the authoritative Word of God because the Bible claims to be the authoritative Word of God. And yet a degree of circularity is inevitable, even for non-Christians. Herman Bavinck explained: “[I]n every scientific discipline, hence also in theology, first principles are certain of themselves. The truth of a fundamental principle (principium) cannot be proved; it can only be recognized. ‘A first principle is believed on its own account, not on account of something else. Fundamental principles cannot have a first principle, neither ought they to be sought.’”3 If Scripture needs something else to stand as an authenticator, that other thing must be a self-attesting fundamental principle. Thus there is no escaping the fact that something is presupposed by every human being—believer or non-believer alike—to be a self-authenticating first principle against which all other beliefs and ideas must conform.

So in sum, when an archaeological find is touted as proving the Bible to be historically unreliable, we must remember that the person saying this has a different first principle, one that person has, incidentally, adopted by faith. And how did they come to adopt that first principle? This is where a presuppositional apologetic method provides a strong response.4 Christians confess that the Bible cannot be disproven since it is itself the only thing we have for proving or disproving anything. And while we do accept it by faith, we also have what other purported first principles do not: the attestation of the Holy Spirit. Though it may not be immediately clear howa given archaeological find harmonizes with God’s Word, our assumption is that it does. Even when the answer escapes us, this does not mean that no answer exists.

Archaeology Is Not Self-Interpreting

It is often claimed that artifacts are more reliable than texts (especially the biblical text) since artifacts are unprejudiced and unbiased. Critical historian Lester Grabbe states it this way: “[A]rchaeological data actually existed in real life—the artifacts are realia. . . . Texts, on the other hand, are products of the imagination. The content of a text always contains human invention, and it is always possible that a text is entirely fantasy.” Thus Grabbe concludes: “Preference [in reconstructing Israel’s past] should be given to primary sources, that is, those contemporary or nearly contemporary with the events being described. . . . This means archaeology and inscriptions” (emphasis added).5 But is this really the case? True, a pot, wall, figurine, or seal impression was touched by an ancient person, but it does not follow that an artifact is thereby more reliable than a narrative. In fact, in order to explain that artifact, one must have some narrative, some story that can give an account of the item in question. But where does this story come from? Here is where critics begin to stumble.

In their magisterial volume A Biblical History of Israel, Iain Provan, V. Philips Long, and Tremper Longman III examine the claims of critical archaeologists and historians. Unlike the critics, Provan et al. refuse to dismiss the claims of the biblical texts due to their supposedly unreliable nature (i.e., the Bible’s belief in the miraculous) or their supposedly ideologically loaded content (i.e., the Bible says that God’s sovereign will governs the events of history, not evolution and chance). They note that both the Bible and archaeological finds present testimony about the past, and that responsible historians will take into account all available testimony when telling the story of Israel’s past. To disregard the Bible as an historical source is irresponsible even by critical standards.

Provan et al. go on to note that critical historians are often inconsistent in their use of archaeology. They cite the work of Keith Whitelam, who believes that archaeological finds are unbiased and reliable and the Bible is not. But when archaeological finds are clearly in harmony with the Bible, he pivots and claims that these finds have simply been misinterpreted. Thus while claiming that archaeology takes priority over the biblical texts, he regularly reinterprets archaeological data to match his belief that the Bible is wrong. Provan et al. conclude with an appropriate level of sarcasm: “Whitelam cannot have it both ways. Either archaeological data do or do not give us the kind of relatively objective picture of the Palestinian past that can be held up beside our ideologically compromised biblical texts to ‘show’ that the ancient Israel of the Bible and its scholars is an imagined entity.”6 Indeed, while critics accuse the Bible of being “ideologically loaded,” Provan et al. respond with the jarring reality: “In fact, all archaeologists tell us stories about that past that are just as ideologically loaded as any other historical narratives and are certainly not simply a neutral recounting of the facts.”7

And so in sum, whenever news flashes across one’s Twitter or Facebook feed about a new archaeological discovery that has disproved the Bible, one must remember this important fact: archaeological finds do not interpret themselves. Thus we should ask: What would make the critical historian come to this conclusion? What storyline is the historian holding to? Why did he choose to embrace that storyline instead of the Bible’s? Are there other ways of explaining the significance of this find? What we must not do is assume that the critical historian or archaeologist is working from a legitimate starting point and then try to answer him on that playing field.

The Role of Archaeology in Biblical Study

Detailing the ways in which archaeology supports the historicity of the Bible and explaining the finds that seemto contradict the Bible would take more space than this article will allow. In future issues of The Outlook, I hope to introduce readers to some different archaeological finds that are relevant to the Bible’s narrative in order to help Christians gain confidence in the historical reliability of God’s Word. For now, I will conclude this article by describing four ways, adapted from James Hoffmeier, in which archaeology can assist Bible reading.8

1. Providing a Context. Archaeology can help to illustrate the context of a given passage. The finds of archaeology help us to place the biblical stories into a concrete time and place. Hoffmeier says that ancient texts and artifacts “serve as a kind of time machine that moves us back to the world of the Bible.” Objects found in Scripture (gates, pots, houses, walls) are not always the same as what we have today. Archaeology helps us to better picture the objects used in the Bible’s stories.

2. Complementing the Text. The finds of archaeology often give insights into the past that the Bible does not cover. The Bible, after all, is selective in what it chooses to recount, not only in terms of particular historical events, but even in terms of details in a recorded event. Archaeology helps us learn about things that were assumed by the biblical writers even when they did not state them explicitly.

3. Responding to Challenges. Hoffmeier writes: “[E]rroneous theories and interpretations of biblical passages have been offered by critics of the Bible over the centuries. Archaeology offers the best way of dealing objectively with such problems.” As an example, older scholars viewed the conquest of Canaan under Joshua as a blitzkrieg, scorched-earth campaign that would have left charred remains at nearly every major city in Canaan. When critics claimed that destruction layers were lacking at these sites, scholars gave a more careful reading of Scripture and noted that in fact the older scholars had been reading into the text. A close reading of Joshua indicates that only three cities were burned: Jericho (Josh. 6:24), Ai (Josh. 8:28), and Hazor (Josh. 11:11–14). What is more, Scripture explicitly says that most of the cities were left standing so that Israel could more easily settle into them without costly and time-consuming rebuilding: “I gave you a land on which you had not labored and cities that you had not built, and you dwell in them. You eat the fruit of vineyards and olive orchards that you did not plant” (Josh. 24:13). Moses had prepared them for this very thing (Deut. 6:10–11). Thus archaeological discoveries gave an opportunity to restudy the biblical text and come to a more accurate understanding of God’s Word.

4. Confirming the Text. There are many instances when archaeology uncovers objects that cannot be easily explained apart from the history presented in Scripture. When this happens, we can see that the events of the Bible are also attested by external sources, exactly what we would expect for a Bible that claims to recount actual history. Of course critical scholars tend to disagree with this; they are often hesitant to agree that archaeology confirms the historicity of the biblical text. But as we noted above, this is not due to archaeological finds themselves; rather it is due to the non-biblical presuppositions and narratives embraced by critics as being authoritative by faith. Cornelius Van Til wrote that apart from Scripture, scientific and archaeological evidence cannot be adequately explained: “This is not . . . to disparage the usefulness of arguments for the corroboration of the Scripture that come from archaeology. It is only to say that such corroboration is not of independent power. . . . The facts of nature and history corroborate the Bible when it is made clear that they fit into no frame but that which Scripture offers.”9


And so as we conclude this introduction, let us keep in mind the true value of archaeology and not be shaken by the claims of unbelieving criticism. There are times when archaeological finds pose significant conundrums. And some of these conundrums will never be solved satisfactorily before Christ’s return. That does not mean, however, that Christians cannot offer alternative explanatory theories, provided we do so provisionally and with humility.10 Nevertheless, let us remember that even when critical historians interpret archaeological finds as the Bible’s foe, archaeology really is a friend of biblical history.

———— 1. See John D. Currid, Doing Archaeology in the Land of the Bible: A Basic Guide (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999), 17; Eric H. Cline, Biblical Archaeology: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 132. (Note: Cline’s book is useful but is written from a critical perspective.)

2. For an indispensable though more technical recent work refuting the claim that the Bible can be true without being historical, see James K. Hoffmeier and Dennis R. Magery, Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith?: A Critical Appraisal of Modern and Postmodern Approaches to Scripture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012).

3. Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 1: Prolegomena, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 458. Cf. Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, 2d ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 79–82.

4. Two highly recommend books about defending the Christian faith presuppositionally are Richard L. Pratt, Every Thought Captive: A Study Manual for Defense of Christian Truth (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1979); Greg L. Bahnsen, Always Ready: Directions for Defending the Faith, ed. Robert R. Booth (Nacogdoches, TX: Covenant Media Press, 1996).

5. Lester L. Grabbe, Ancient Israel: What Do We Know and How Do We Know It? (New York: T&T Clark), 10, 35.

6. Iain Provan, V. Philips Long, and Tremper Longman III, A Biblical History of Israel, 2d ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2015), 8.

7. Provan et al., Biblical History of Israel, 85.

8. These four items are adapted from James K. Hoffmeier, The Archaeology of the Bible (Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2008), 31.

9. Cornelius Van Til, introduction to The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, by B. B. Warfield, ed. Samuel G. Craig (Philadelphia: P&R, 1948), 37. Contrary to what is often claimed, Van Til recognized the value of evidences in apologetics. He called this “historical apologetics.”

10. For an encyclopedic resource of such believing theories, see Kenneth A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003).

Rev. R. Andrew Compton is Assistant Professor of Old Testament Studies at Mid-America Seminary in Dyer, IN.