Should Archaeology Make You Doubt the Bible?
WHY is archaeology of interest today? Because it is a valuable tool in the investigation of man’s past. For example, through it the geography and history of the Bible lands and their peoples are clarified. It relies heavily on the exact sciences and aims to achieve their standard of accuracy. But there is one principal factor working against such achievement—the human factor. Every archaeologist has beliefs, whether he or she be atheist, agnostic, Christian, Jew or Muslim. To what extent will those beliefs or preconceived ideas influence his or her interpretations? Could this hinder their arriving at accurate conclusions?
Archaeological research is a form of detective work. Circumstantial evidence, in the form of artifacts and remains (pottery, fragments, ruins, debris from previous civilizations, skeletons and the like), is dug up. Then the deduction phase begins: What was the original from which the fragment came? Into which time period could its shape, color and composition be fitted? What was its use? What was its place of origin—the location where it was discovered or somewhere else? Did it originate in the soil stratum in which it was found or has it sunk into a lower level with the passing of time due to local conditions? These and many other factors can influence an interpretation. The conclusions are therefore based on circumstantial evidence and a mixture of objective and subjective interpretation.
How right the Hebrew archaeologist Yohanan Aharoni was when he wrote: “When it comes to historical or historio-geographical interpretation, the archaeologist steps out of the realm of the exact sciences, and he must rely upon value judgements and hypotheses [tentative assumptions] to arrive at a comprehensive historical picture.”
What are some of the pitfalls that can exist when evaluating the finds from excavations? Professor Aharoni answers: “The excavator must distinguish carefully between the various strata of his tell [a mound covering the ancient ruins of a city] . . . This is usually not an easy task, because the actual levels in a particular tell are not uniformly laid one above the other. . . . Usually inscriptions only furnish a terminus a quo [starting point] for their own stratum because the possibility always exists that the inscribed objects saw a long period of use, or even re-use, after being discarded by the original owners. . . . Comparison with other countries is also sometimes dangerous, for one may fall into a vicious circle where the objects in the other culture may have been dated by their relationship to the Palestinian, without sufficient regard for the circumstances of discovery and the relative chronologies involved. It goes without saying that historical considerations are especially risky, since they always involve certain presuppositions and subjective attitudes. We must always remember, therefore, that not all dates are absolute and are in varying degrees suspect.”—Italics ours.
How Did the Israelites Cross the Red Sea?
The foregoing warnings are very appropriate today when so many archaeologists are coming out in print with their conflicting findings, theories and chronologies. Let us take as an example the Israelite exodus from Egypt and escape through the Red Sea. The Bible record clearly indicates that the Egyptian chariots and cavalry pursued Israel and got close to them as they reached the Red Sea. How could the Israelites escape with the sea blocking their path? The Bible account answers:
“Moses now stretched his hand out over the sea; and Jehovah began making the sea go back [how?] by a strong east wind all night long and converting the sea basin into dry ground, and the waters were being split apart. At length the sons of Israel went through the midst of the sea on dry land, while the waters were a wall to them on their right hand and on their left.”—Exodus 14:21, 22.
Please note the specific details of this account. It speaks not just of a strong wind but of a “strong east wind.” The waters were split apart, converting the sea basin into dry ground. This attention to detail bespeaks an eyewitness account, even as does the poetic version of the event in the song of Moses, related in Exodus chapter 15. As Pharaoh’s chariots and military forces rushed into the same gap in pursuit of the Israelites, “the surging waters proceeded to cover them; down they went into the depths like a stone.”—Exodus 15:5.
The method of parting the waters is confirmed in the song: “And by a breath from your nostrils waters were heaped up; they stood still like a dam of floods; the surging waters were congealed in the heart of the sea.”—Exodus 15:8.
What Do the Scholars Say?
Several experts have come up with varied theories to rationalize this miraculous event. They do not necessarily attempt to say that the Israelites did not cross the Red Sea but try to explain away the divine intervention. For example, the Hebrew words for Red Sea are yam suph, “sea of rushes or reeds.” Thus some say that the Israelites only crossed a swampy region. But a swampy region would hardly allow for a wall of water to the right and to the left as the account says. The waters of a swamp certainly would not ‘cover the war chariots and the cavalrymen’ of Egypt’s military force.—Exodus 14:28.
Another theory was recently proposed by Hans Goedicke, an Egyptologist. His explanation of the Exodus account is that in 1477 B.C.E. there was a tremendous volcanic eruption on the island of Thera, some 500 miles (800 km) to the northwest of the supposed Israelite crossing point. It created a tsunami, or huge sea wave, that could have swept over the southeast Mediterranean and rolled into the Nile delta to the edge of the desert plateau. This, theoretically, would have drowned the Egyptians on low ground, leaving safe the Israelites who supposedly were on higher ground.
It is self-evident that this theory pays scant attention to the facts as presented in the Bible. But what have other scholars thought of Dr. Goedicke’s theory? Charles Krahmalkov of the University of Michigan rejected it, partly because “in none of the Biblical descriptions of the Exodus is there anything remotely suggesting a huge wave.” He then went on to offer an alternative theory to the effect that the Israelites took to sea by boat and that the Egyptians followed them and were drowned by gale-force winds that sank their barges! He then added: “Needless to say, the reconstruction is pure conjecture. But it is far better grounded in the Biblical text than is Professor Goedicke’s version.” That surely is a matter of opinion.
A third scholar, Eliezer D. Oren of the Ben Gurion University of the Negev, argued strongly against the theory of a tsunami and suggested yet another that he considered even more realistic. However, he added the following significant statement: “We ought not to forget that [it] . . . can in no way be substantiated by archaeological evidence. Personally, I strongly believe that the Miracle of the Sea—a masterpiece of literary composition —has very little to do with history or . . . ‘factual experience.’”
Who Is Right?
Dr. Oren’s remark brings us to the crux of the matter. Are Christians to believe that major portions of the Bible are just ‘literary masterpieces’ with no relationship to “factual experience”? Or can they rely on the Bible as the inspired Word of God? Should we be swayed by the conflicting theories of archaeologists and scholars? Or should we accept as reliable the testimony of the Bible writers and Jesus Christ himself?
The apostle Paul wrote to his fellow Christian Timothy: “From infancy you have known the holy writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through the faith in connection with Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired of God and beneficial . . . for setting things straight.” Earlier, to the believers in Rome, he stated: “What, then, is the case? If some did not express faith, will their lack of faith perhaps make the faithfulness of God without effect? Never may that happen! But let God be found true, though every man be found a liar.”—2 Timothy 3:15, 16; Romans 3:3, 4.
Why, then, do Jehovah’s Witnesses believe the Bible to be inspired? Does their faith depend on archaeological findings? Briefly, the proof for inspiration is found in the Bible itself, not in archaeology. It is one thing to write accurate history; it is another to write accurate history in advance. That is prophecy. The Bible contains hundreds of fulfilled prophecies attesting to its divine authorship. For example, it has been estimated that 332 distinct prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures were fulfilled in Jesus Christ alone.
Another powerful support of the Bible’s authenticity is that its testimony is based on accounts supplied by actual eyewitnesses of the events, often the writer himself. This is the case with the Exodus account written by Moses. Do we have any reason to doubt his honesty as a witness? No, not when we also acknowledge that he was divinely inspired to write. (2 Timothy 3:16) His self-critical candor is also a fine testimony to his reliability. He does not hide the fact that he killed an Egyptian in defense of a fellow Israelite. Nor does he gloss over his lack of humility and his punishment when he called water from the rock. (Exodus 2:11, 12; Numbers 20:9-13; compare the case of David in 2 Samuel 11; Psalm 51.) For more detailed proof, please read Is the Bible Really the Word of God? published by the Watchtower Society.
Should Theories Shake Your Faith?
Christians are encouraged by the positive evidence unearthed by patient and skilled archaeologists, evidence that often confirms and elucidates the Bible’s contents. Facts and artifacts can tell us a lot about the way of life in ancient times. Inscriptions can bring to bear valuable information. Of course, since very few people ever write an unfavorable autobiography, inscriptions have to be analyzed with great care.
However, when experts begin to offer their interpretations and conjectures and theories about the meaning of an archaeological discovery or the dating of an artifact, then the Christian is wise to proceed with caution. Jehovah inspired faithful men to write his Word but not to mislead us with literary fancies. Yohanan Aharoni was correct in stating: “Various passages [of the Bible] are considered by different scholars to be purely utopian or literary creations having no political, geographical or practical basis whatsoever. We seriously question the validity of this opinion; it appears that most of the geographical texts are taken from life situations, while only our faulty understanding and insufficient information prevent us from establishing their historical content.”—Italics ours.
Present-day Biblical archaeology is apparently divided into two loosely defined camps. On the one hand we have the pious and patriotic investigators who seek support for the Bible record and their own national or ethnic claims. And on the other hand there is the camp of those who, in the words of Professor J. E. Barrett, are inclined “to debunk the piety, patriotism, or accepted wisdom of (usually older) colleagues.” This same professor of archaeology adds: “There is a strange kind of self-righteousness (not to mention sadistic glee) among those who assure us they are not pious. . . . The student of modern archaeology should be aware of these professional, in-house games of one-upmanship.”
We must remember that archaeologists are only human and, therefore, beset with all the foibles of imperfect human nature. Ambition, desire for glory, a competitive spirit, deep subjective involvement—these and other factors can influence an expert’s opinion or interpretation.
To illustrate this point, a prominent 19th-century archaeologist seriously overstated his case with regard to ancient jewelry he had discovered at Troy and golden face masks found at Mycenae. Regarding this overstatement a modern archaeology professor offered the following pointed comment: “These two instances illustrate the influence that a romantic interest in the ancient world can have on the judgment of an archaeologist—the temptation to identify what we find with what we want to find. Perhaps the problem is intensified for the Biblical archaeologist, whose piety and patriotism often nurture and renew the romantic interest which first moved him or her to become an archaeologist.” (Italics ours.) And of course the same problem can also affect the agnostic or the atheist archaeologist, no matter how sincere he or she may be.
Should Christian faith waver, then, because of the theories presented by many scholars and archaeologists? Remember, they are only theories and human opinions, subject to change and the vagaries of time and scholarship. The human element, including its pride and ambition, is also very evident. What Professor Barrett wrote in Biblical Archaeology Review (January/February 1981) is true: “Piety, patriotism, ideology, training, and the opposite expressions of these, influence the archaeologist’s judgment, just as they do the historian’s. In candid moments, every professional archaeologist knows this—the best scholars know it about themselves; others only know it about their colleagues.”—Italics ours.
Therefore, the reasonable Christian will not expect absolute proof from archaeology for everything stated in the Bible, especially in this imperfect system of things. Nevertheless, he knows the time will soon come when it will be possible to check out perfectly so many of the persons and events related in the Bible. How so? “Because the hour is coming in which all those in the memorial tombs will hear his [Jesus Christ’s] voice and come out.” (John 5:28, 29) Yes, in the resurrection it will be possible to question those who actually lived Bible history. How fascinating it will be to hear them fill out the details of so many accounts that intrigue us today! It will no longer be a matter of resorting to human theories and speculation for those details. The very eyewitnesses of the events will present the facts! Will you be there to hear them?
[Blurb on page 7]
Are Christians to believe that the Bible is just a ‘literary masterpiece’ with no relationship to factual experience?
[Blurb on page 10]
It has been estimated that 332 distinct prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures were fulfilled in Jesus Christ alone
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“Piety, patriotism, ideology, training, and the opposite expressions of these, influence the archaeologist’s judgment, just as they do the historian’s”
[Picture on page 9]
How did the Israelites really cross the Red Sea?