Science in Christian Perspective




From: JASA 14 (September 1962):

In recent years the field of archeology has become more and more specialized. Individual scholars devote all their time to the study of Mesopotamia, or of Egypt, or of Palestine, or of some other section of the ancient world. Some in fact even specialize in early Mesopotamia, or in Mesopotamia of a slightly later period. The volume and complexity of the material available is very great, and a full knowledge of the whole field is no longer possible for any one individual.

With all the complexity of the field, it is amazing how unexpectedly contacts with the Bible come to light. One never knows just where something will appear that throws light on a certain Biblical statement, or that has direct interest in connection with some Biblical point.

A very interesting area of discussion is the consideration of the evidence on the long history of the reign of the Assyrian kings in comparison with the Biblical statements. Assyria is the northern section of Mesopotamia. Here many of the rulers were fiercer and more brutal than those of Babylonia. This was quite natural since this northern area was more exposed to danger from animals and from the wild tribes of the mountains. In order to survive, constant maintenance of a strong military force was necessary. Once the Assyrians had attained sufficient power for survival, it was natural enough that this power should be turned toward extending control over neighboring regions. In the period from 900 to 630 B. C., with some intermissions, we find constant forward progress by the Assyrian empire, conquering areas in all directions, and extending its sway further and further. Echoes of this movement are found in the Old Testament, until it reaches its climax, as far as the Bible is concerned, in the conquest of the kingdom of Syria and of the northern kingdom of Israel.

The voluminous material from Assyria contains a number of references to Israelite kings. The Bible contains a number of references to Assyrian rulers. The contexts of these two types of references are often very different, since neither one attempted to give a complete political history of their relationship.

It is interesting to examine these various specific references in order to see what light they throw on the authenticity of the Biblical statements. Without precise information from contemporary sources, it would be very difficult to write such a history as the Bible contains, with the references to the foreign kings in the right order and in the proper relationship to one another. At point after point, Mesopotamian evidence corroborates the accuracy of the Biblical record.'

Another phase of investigation consists of examination of the spelling of names. Assyrian names were foreign to the Israelites, and, in addition, were recorded in a type of writing quite different from that used by the Assyrians themselves. When foreign names are expressed in another language and with another type of writing, it is sometimes difficult to recognize exactly what they are. Any comparison of present-day English spelling of Chinese names with the actual pronunciation of these names will show how difficult this is. Yet the Assyrian names in the Old Testament have proved to correspond with the actual original far more accurately than the similar references in ancient Greek sources.

The Assyrian rulers were always seeking for means of maintaining their hold on their conquests. It was one thing to send a great army to overcome a distant region. It was quite another to keep the region under Assyrian control, once the army had departed. Two expedients were used to do this. One was the Assyrian emphasis on "frightfulness." The Assyrian kings tried to terrify their enemies by gloating over the brutality that they showed toward nations that had revolted against them. In no other ancient records do we find such an emphasis on cruelty toward conquered foes as in the Assyrian records. This was intentional on the part of Assyrian kings, in order to terrify their enemies and make them less likely to revolt once they had been conquered. Even a careless reading of the book of Nahum, that great poem against Nineveh, the Assyrian capital, with its vivid description of the downfall of the Assyrian empire, will show how prominent this feature was in the minds of the Israelites. References to no other people in the Bible are in quite the same tone.

The other Assyrian expedient was that of moving whole populations from one area to another. This is abundantly illustrated in the Assyrian record, and it finds many echoes in the Old Testament. Thus we find the Assyrian kings taking the people of Israel and carrying them off to another part of their empire (11 Kings 17:6), and bringing in people from other sections whom they settled in Samaria (11 Kings 17:24). The Samaritans originated from this mixture of population. It was a very clever idea to mix up the people so that there would no longer be unified groups that might revolt against the Assyrians, but rather many small groups of alien-cultured people in the midst of larger groups of less cultured people who would regard them as the representatives of the hated conquerors, and thus be very unlikely to make common cause with them against the Assyrians.

'Reliable translations of many of the ancient Assyrian records are contained in James B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (2nd edition, Princeton University Press, 1955). Pictures of many of the Assyrian monuments and reliefs may be found in James B. Pritchard, The Ancient Near East in Pictures Relating to the Old Testament (Princeton University Press, 1954). A useful selection of portions from both of these volumes is presented in The Ancient Near East: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures, by the same author (Princeton University Press, 1958).

The Neo-Babylonian empire, which replaced the Assyrian empire after its downfall, continued the same policy of carrying out movements of population; it was for this reason that Nebuchadnezzar, when he conquered Jerusalem, carried away the people of Judah into captivity (II Kings 24:15-16; 25-11). At one time many scholars questioned the accuracy of the Biblical account of the exile, saying that actually only a comparatively few people had been taken away. Examination of the remains of ancient cities in Palestine has shown a terrible destruction at this time, at place after place, with the burning of the city and only remains of a small settlement on top of it, built a long time after the destruction. The accuracy of the Biblical story of the exile is abundantly verified by archeological remains.

The Neo-Babylonian empire was a period of great glory but one which lasted little more than half a century. The book of Daniel describes the character of Nebuchadnezzar who looked out upon his city and cried, "Is not this great Babylon that I have built?" (Dan. 4:30). German excavators have unearthed more than a million bricks in the city of Babylon, every one of them stamped with the name and titles of Nebuchadnezzar. What other ruler ever thought it necessary to put his name on a million bricks? Surely the pride of Nebuchadnezzar in his great building work, as depicted in Daniel, is no vague picture but a true characterization of this particular ruler.

Twenty-five hundred years ago this year Babylon was conquered by the Persians under Cyrus (539 B. C.). The Persians tried to weld their empire together by reversing the policy of the Babylonians and thus seeming to be the friend of the various conquered nations. Cyrus issued edicts permitting the conquered peoples to return to their imperial treasury. One such edict, contained in the book of Ezra (Ezra 1:1-4), shows Cyrus granting the Israel ites freedom to return to their own country. This Bibli cal picture of the Persian attitude exactly fits the archeo logical evidence.

New light is constantly being thrown upon particular details in the history of the Assyrian, Babylonian, an Persian empires. As we learn more about their leaders, and about the events of the different centuries, new problems appear; upon each in turn new light is shed. It is, in a way, like a comparison of a set of pictures regarding a period of history with a book of words describing the same general time. The Biblical account and the archeological material rarely coincide exactly for any length of time. Instead there are frequent overlappings. There are many points where each of them stands alone without any correlate in the other. But new points of relationship are constantly being observed, and in these points of relationship, when carefully studied, it is always found that the two fit together. No real contradiction has ever been proven.

On the other hand, there is a danger of imagining a relationship between two features which actually have no relationship at all. In such a case, if it is later proved that the two matters are quite unrelated, people may be led to doubt the accuracy of the whole Biblical narrative. It is much wiser to go slowly and to check the materials fully before making statements which may later be proven false

Faith Theological Seminary Elkins Park, Philadelphia 17, Pa.