Science in Christian Perspective



Extravagant Claims in Bible Archaeology

Richard L. Atkins
1981 Blue Ridge Road
Winter Park, Florida 32789

From: JASA 36 (September 1984): 139-141.

Authentication of the Bible record by means of pick and shovel has achieved a great degree of success in recent times. Ancient sites have been located, dates firmly established, and even individual people identified as real historical personages. Today, one may gaze on the mummified face of Rameses II, observe the charred evidence of Joshua's overthrow of Hazor, view the ancient walls of Babylon restored, and read parallel historical references to kings Ahab and Jehu from the records of neighboring monarchs.

This outstanding achievement in biblical corroboration has lent great encouragement to those who acknowledge the essential historical validity of the Scriptures. However, for some well-meaning individuals even this is not enough. For those who take the position of total inerrancy of the Bible, it is a case of all or nothing: unless there is exact correlation with Scripture, an archaeologist's conclusions are written off as invalid. As a consequence, there have been instances where extreme claims have been made without regard to proper evidence, where disproven arguments have not been retracted, and where shallow scholarship has precipitated subjective debates and emotional declarations.

Quite often, it is true, the initial fault has lain with the excavator himself, since he naturally tends to magnify the importance of his discoveries by tying them to important historical happenings or to supposed Bible references.1 And then to further cloud the issue, the biblicist has usually become involved whenever he has sensed the slightest threat to his doctrine of inerrancy. The result has often been an unscientific bias that has colored the interpretation of an artifact's real identity and significance for many years after its discovery.

Of course, the principle involved is that emotional bias (toward either supporting or contesting the Bible) has no place in a scientific investigation. The only acceptable approach requires forthright analysis of a site or an artifact and then publication of the results and conclusions whatever they might be. When this is done, the Bible will undoubtedly be shown to be extremely accurate---considering the fact that it is a composition by multiple authors having widely variant abilities, proclivities, and motivations. Nevertheless, the Bible's absolute inerrancy can hardly be expected to be exonerated in all cases. In support of this supposition, consider the following cases.

Kathleen Kenyon's excavations at Jericho between 1952 and 1958 proved that the city actually did not exist during the Exodus period when it was supposedly conquered by Joshua. By the time of the conquest, Jericho had been a ruin for a hundred years or more. As stated in the November-December 1978 issue of Biblical Aracheology Review:

Her Jericho excavations have raised problems for Biblical historians: she found no city there during the Late Bronze Age, the period when Joshua is thought to have lived. Had the Late Bronze Age city eroded away, as some scholars think, or was Joshua's conquest of Jericho, for some reason or other and in some detail or other, inaccurately related in the Bible? Dame Kathleen rejected the view that the Late Bronze Age city had eroded away .2

A similar problem occurred with regard to Joshua's supposed conquest of the city of Ai. Actually the Hebrew word Ai means "Ruin," and that is exactly what it was at the time of the Hebrew invasion. Excavations of the site have shown that it was totally destroyed in 2400 B.C. (evidently by Egyptians), and it remained a ruin until about 1220 B.C. At that latter date, according to Joseph Callaway of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, a new settlement was made on three acres of the 27-acre hilltop. There were no defenders of the site to resist this peaceful occupation.

At Beersheba, the occasional dwelling place of the nomadic Patriarchs, excavations have been under way for eight seasons (1969-1976). Fortifications dating to the time of David and later Judean kings have been accurately identified. But when investigations were made into earlier periods by digging all the way to bedrock, there was no evidence of habitation at Beersheba in historical times before about 1200 B.C. (Traditionally, the dates for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob have been set between 2000 and 1800 B.C.) Dr. Ze'ev Herzog of Tel Aviv University, has concluded that "if the Patriarchal Age is represented at all at Beersheba, it must be the very modest villages of Strata IX and VIII from the 13th to I I th centuries B.C." What this new evidence does to the dating of the Patriarchal age is still a matter of debate.

Still another Patriarchal anachronism that has come to light is the questionable association of the Philistine people (of the Iron Age) with Abraham, Isaac, and Moses (of the Bronze Age). The Bible indicates that the land of Canaan was inhabited by Philistines from the days of the Patriarchs in Gen. 21:34, 26:15, and Ex. 15:14. But historical accounts taken from the archives of neighboring kings indicate that these people were not on the scene until the 12th century B.C. Having been defeated by the Egyptians in a great sea battle about 1191 B.C., the "sea peoples," as they were called, were thrown back upon Canaan-which they readily occupied by means of their new iron weapons. It was their initial presence, in fact, that precipitated the formation of the Hebrew monarchy under the first warrior-king, Saul.

Bible literalists have frequently cited the finding of alluvial deposits at Ur by Sir Leonard Woolley as a conclusive proof of Noah's Flood. Now while it is true that in his first excitement Woolley cabled London in 1929, "We have found the Flood!" he was later to back down and publish more sober evidence of a quite localized inundation.3 And since his time, other excavations have indicated multiple flood silt layers at various uncoordinated periods of time in all of the ancient Sumerian cities-as would be expected from normal riparian fluctuations. It is significant to note that at the city of Kish evidence concerning belief in a Flood story was actually found beneath the flood layer in that location.

At Ur, Woolley found a deposit of silt eleven feet thick which he explained "would probably mean a flood not less than twenty-five feet deep." He felt that "in the flat lowlying land of Mesopotamia a flood of that depth would cover an area about 300 miles long and 100 miles across . . ." Going to the Bible record, Woolley equated his finding with the Genesis account which said "that the waters rose to a height of 26 feet." (Actually, the passage reads "15 cubits above the mountains" in Gen. 7:20, and 15 cubits is about 26 feet, to be sure, but above the mountains, and Mount Ararat, where Noah landed, is 17000 feet high!) Woolley concluded:

It is not a universal deluge; it was a vast flood of the valley of the Tigris and Euphrates which drowned the whole habitable world between the mountains and the desert; for the people who lived there, that was all the world. The great bulk of these people must have perished, and it was a scanty and dispirited remnant that from the city walls watched the flood recede at last. No wonder that they saw in this disaster the gods' punishment of a sinful generation, and if some household had managed to escape by boat from the drowned lowlands, the head of it would naturally be chosen as the hero of the saga.

Bible literalists are firmly committed to a universal Flood, however, and so the slopes of Mt. Ararat continue to entice explorers in search of the remains of Noah's Ark. As an added incentive, an aerial photograph taken in the 1940's purportedly showed evidence of a boat-like formation on the side of the mountain. But despite the fact that climbers have reached the top several times, no convincing proof of the ancient vessel's existence has been produced. During a recent expedition in 1955, Fernand Navarra found planks of hand-tooled wood at the 13000 foot level, but laboratory tests showed the fragments he brought back to be less than 2000 years old. Dr. Lawrence Stager, in referring to various wooden specimens that have been retrieved from Ararat, says, "the chunks always date medieval-probably remains of old monasteries." And Dr. James Pritchard, esteemed archaeologist of the University of Pennsylvania, states flatly, "It's as sensible to look for Noah's Ark as it is for Jack's Beanstalk!"

Several of the holy sites now visited by pilgrims to Palestine were "discovered" by Helena. the mother of the Emperor Constantine. Her location of the Sepulchre and Mount Calvary (including remnants of the Cross itself) were influenced by a local bishop's directions and backed by a vision she was said to have received- The authenticit~ of these finds, however, is now commonly called in question. Certainly, enough wood from the "true Cross' has been found over the years to construct several crosses.

Helena's "Cross" was reportedly found in a cistern and this bespeaks the regard accorded to rock-hewn caverns and wells in the Holy Land. Every ancient garbage pit or latrine is a potential candidate for hallowing and christening as a sacred site. The visitor to the Near East comes away amazed at how much holy activity was carried on in caves. At Bethlehem one is shown a cave where Jesus was born and at Nazareth the cave of the Annunciation to Mary. On the isle of Patmos one can explore the very cave in which John received his visions of the Apocalypse. Also, one may readily observe Elijah's cave on Mount Carmel and the witch of Endor's cavern in the hillside of Moreh (this despite the fact that 1 Sam. 28:24 makes reference to a "house" in which the woman lived). To credit all of the pious accounts of modern residents of these areas, all of the holy people of Bible times must have been cave dwellers! Of course, the most obvious reason for this popular aggrandizement of caves is that they are very durable objects of scenery, while man-made sites are generally reduced to rubble in a few years' time. Certainly it would be futile to search for the remains of the famous inn of Bethlehem, and so the Nativity has been shifted to what does remain from ancient times-a cave .4

The same kind of veneration given to caves has also sometimes been accorded to old trees that are supposed to date to Bible times. The gnarled olive trees of Gethsemane are assumed to be of great antiquity, despite the fact that by all of the historical accounts of the final seige of Jerusalem by the Romans, the soldiers cut down every tree in the area for use in making ramps, catapults, and crosses. They also cut trees for use as fuel and just out of plain spite. Certainly the "oaks of Abraham" esteemed by superstitious Arabs are not authentic. When the Emperor Constantine found idols and altars beneath the supposed terebinths of Abraham at Mamre, he ordered them destroyed and replaced them with a basilica. And yet, still the credulous seek to shore up their faith by imbuing every hilltop, stone, or tree with an assumed sanctity that cannot be even partially substantiated.

Even respected scholars are not completely immune to this type of dubious activity. Witness the current Ebla controversy, which has proven to be a classical case of nonscientific subjectivity's being allowed to bias the interpretation of findings. Of course, the primary blame for this situation must be laid to the political turmoil and chauvinism now rampant in the Near East. Whereas one scholar has, in this situation, made early claims to identification of biblical places and people in the Eblaite tablets, another expert has refuted these conclusions-supposedly under anti-Israeli pressure by the local Arab state. Whether or not the tablets' contents are really relevant to the Bible must be established by cooler heads than are now participating in the heated debate.

And so, since to the present time there has been an obvious tendency among biblical archaeologists to jump to conclusions, there is now afoot a movement to abandon the term "Biblical archaeology" altogether. Professor William G. Dever, of the University of Arizona, prefers to avoid the temptation to bias by simply using the less polarized and more general term "Palestinian archaeology." Scanning the record, he summarizes the situation as follows:

We ought to recall with embarrassment the attempt to prove the Biblical account of the Flood from the sedimentary layers of mounds in lower Mesopotamia; the location of Noah's Ark on the ice-capped summits of Mt. Ararat in Soviet Armenia; the discovery at Jericho of the walls of Joshua which with more competent investigation turned out to be at least a thousand years before Joshua's time.5

Now, in the light of all of this questionable spadework and speculation, one is compelled to take a stand on the need for integrity in the science of sacred antiquities. With this in mind, it may be noted that since the time of Henry VIII every English monarch has carried the honorific title "Defender of the Faith." And what has become just another appellative of nobility in this case might well be the aspiration of every sincere adherent to the Christian faith. For, every true believer should also be a "defender of the faith" in the highest sense and deepest motivation. But, as it often happens, some proponents of a worthy cause come to believe so deeply in their own particular viewpoint that they get carried away and then feel justified in employing any tactic, fair or foul, in its defense. Certainly this would be the perfectly normal and acceptable approach of any Machiavellian protagonist, since according to this philosophy as stated by Lenin, the end justifies the means to that end. Sad to say, the altercations of religious factions down through the years have not been totally immune to tactics of this baser sort.

In this vein, the esteemed evangelist Billy Graham has greatly over-stated his case by dogmatically pronouncing that: "Archaeology has never uncovered anything that disproved the Scriptures."6 Now, Dr. Graham is no illiterate, uninformed individual. Perhaps his reading and research has been somewhat limited in this particular field, but if he has any acquaintance at all with Near Eastern archaeology, he has surely come across the numerous unsolved mysteries and digressive discoveries that must preclude any such absolutist claim to 100% accuracy of the Bible's historical record in minutest detail.


1When Heinrich Schliemann excavated the city of Troy in 1873, he found golden jewelry which he proudly proclaimed to be "the treasure of Helen of Troy." Actually, these artifacts were from a period 1000 years before the time of the Trojan War. And then three years later when he was at Mycenae, he found a golden burial mask which he claimed depicted "the face of Agamemnon." This time his chronological error was only 400 years.

2Physical evidence shows that Jericho was destroyed in 1560 B.C. The site was later occupied by a small town without walls between 1400 and 1325 and then abandoned. The conquest under Joshua likely took place about 1225 B.C.

3Dr. Lawrence Stager, University of Chicago archaeologist, says, "Woolley probably hit a pothole." Woolley also erred with respect to another famous artifact, the golden figurine of a "goat with its horns caught in a thicket" (Gen. 22:13). This false identification to a Bible event has obscured the real meaning of the artifact for decades. (Its real purpose was to depict a common Near Eastern motif of a goat leaping up to browse upon the leaves of the Tree of Life.) Besides, this goat in question has wings!

4During his travels in the Holy Land, Harry Emerson Fosdick came across a Neanderthal skull called "Galilee man" in a museum and was led to exclaim, "Who ... could have dreamed that humanity would climb from the Galilee man to the Man of Galilee?" And yet, how ironic it is that we would make a cave dweller of this very Man of Galilee by supposing that He was first born in a cave and then later raised in the so-called "Grotto of the Holy Family" in Nazareth!

5Biblical Archaeology Review, May-June 1981.

6Quoted from page 59 of How To Be Born Again, by Billy Graham, Word Books, Waco, Texas, 1977