The Power of Dirt, Part 1: Why Biblical Archaelogy Matters

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The Power of Dirt, Part 1: Why Biblical Archaelogy Matters


Archaeology—What it is and What it is Not


When I tell people that I’m an archaeologist, I usually get one of two responses. The first is usually something along the lines of, “Oh, like in Indiana Jones?” or “That’s cool! I like dinosaurs too!” Both of these are of course dreadfully wrong.


Real archaeology is nothing like Indiana Jones. I don’t spend my time going on treasure hunts around the world in search of rare and precious artifacts and there are, thankfully, significantly fewer Nazis involved. Neither do I have anything to do with dinosaurs—that would be paleontology.


Another misconception I often get is that Biblical Archaeology is the quest to find proof that the Bible to be true. Christians get excited over discoveries that seem to validate the Bible such as the Isaiah seal uncovered this last year. Even for archaeologists, the apologetics debate is an easy one to get drawn into.


Indeed, much of the early mission of archaeology in this particular region of the world was driven by the quest for “proof” of the Bible. However, this use of archaeology and the Bible is often a misuse of the discipline, or perhaps more accurately, a misapplication of archaeology.


The quest to find proof of the Bible seems to be the logical use of archaeology. After all, if the Bible is true, then proving it should be a simple matter of grabbing our pick axes, heading over to Israel, and start digging. Indeed, this is what many early archaeologists did. It turned out that finding that proof was a bit more complicated than just digging a hole.


For starters, they didn’t find the evidence for which they were looking. In fact, the evidence they found was sometimes contradictory to the picture they understood the Bible to paint. Jericho, for example, appears to have been destroyed a century before the Israelites came traipsing through. There is no tangible evidence of Joseph, Moses, or the Israelites as a whole being in Egypt, despite mountains of data from Egypt. The list could go on.


Now there have been remarkable finds that do corroborate the Bible, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls or the Tel Dan Inscription. As a whole, I have found archaeology remarkably validating to the Biblical record and there are several excellent books doing so. But those “proof” finds are few and far between which has led many to question whether or not the Bible is accurate. Ironically, the discipline that set out to prove the Bible true at times did the opposite! So what happened?


RELATED LINK: Archaeology, Women and the Early Church


The Immense Scale of Archaeological Sights


For starters, archaeologists didn’t properly appreciate or anticipate the scale of the task. There are thousands of sites in Israel alone, not counting Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, and Iraq and only a handful of archaeologists to go around. Only a tiny fraction of the sites that exist have been excavated.


When it comes to the sites that have been dug, they’re huge. At minimum, these are settlements with dozens of inhabitants when they were occupied. Most are towns of hundreds of people, if not thousands.


The smallest site I have dug was six acres in size. Think of how much can be buried in six acres! Now compare that to the largest site I’ve dug, which is about 150 acres. But even that “metropolis” is dwarfed by the 2200 acre or 1900 acre cities of Babylon and Nineveh! When it comes to finding these special “proof” artifacts, some of which are no bigger than a thumbnail, it makes looking for a needle in a haystack look easy.


Archaeologists soon encountered another problem: archaeology is destructive. Most archaeological sites are formed like an enormous cake with lots of layers and far less tasty. The most recent occupation is on top while older settlements are towards the bottom. When we dig, we start at the top and then work our way down. The problem is that to get to the older layers, we have to remove the recent ones but once we do that, they’re gone forever.


Context—An Extremely Valuable Aspect of Archaeology


Early archaeologists, who were little more than treasure hunters, didn’t mind so much and cheerfully blasted through mountains of data in search of museum pieces. The result was much of what they found, while cool to look at, lost its historical value because no one knew the context. Context, it turns out, is rather important.


There’s a photograph you can Google of an older Asian man bent over a table, signing a document. On the other side of the table, an older white man in a military uniform looks on, while a gaggle of other men in uniform observe in the background. This is, of course, a tremendously significant photo. But how many of you can guess why just by that description? It means nothing without the context.[1]


Archaeologists discovered that in their search for museum pieces, they were destroying the contexts these artifacts were situated in and thus destroying the knowledge they might convey. It was like they were reading a book by only ripping out the pages with pictures and tossing aside the rest. As a result, they realized they had to slow way down and meticulously record every single detail so later archaeologists could check their work.


As they did this, they soon discovered that the mundane objects, like broken pottery sherds, spoke volumes about a site. Then they added bones, soil samples, remnants of the flora, and just about anything else they could to the list of things that really mattered. This, of course, slowed things down even more.


It’s important to go slow since you don’t get second chances in archaeology. If you mess up, there is no do-over; whatever data was there, is gone and not recoverable. But it also means that these cities we’re trying to uncover only get partially dug.


It’s estimated that Megiddo, a site that has been dug off and on for over a century, has only had roughly 5% of it uncovered. So, when it comes to finding these very specific artifacts that prove the accuracy of the Bible, it’s like trying to find a needle in a haystack by pulling out each piece of hay with tweezers. It’s a miracle we have what we have!


Furthermore, there’s the issue of archaeology not being great at uncovering specific events, which is what the Bible, like any historical record, records. Each of those cake layers, called strata, can represent decades worth of time, if not centuries. People will live in the same house for generations until something significant changes, like an invasion, introduction of new technology and so on.


Thus, when I dig up that house, I get all of those generations mixed together. Sometimes we can peel back the layers with enough precision to separate out the generations; sometimes we can’t. But even within a generation, an occupational stratum we uncover is likely the accumulation of decades worth of stuff preserved in a few inches of dirt.


Finding evidence of a particular event, such as Elisha’s floating ax head, is nigh impossible, with a handful of exceptions. But with much of what the Bible records, hunting for evidence of those events in a discipline that doesn’t record events is like looking for a steak in the produce aisle.


The Value of Archaeology


Again, this isn’t to say that archaeology has no apologetic value. But apologetics is a secondary use of archaeology, one for which it isn’t particularly well-suited. What archaeology excels at is providing a window into the past.


We can trace trade routes to see how ideas spread. We can tell what they ate and what they didn’t eat. We can learn about what they wore. We can feel how they celebrated life and mourned death. We can know what they feared and how they made themselves feel safe.


Through archaeology, we can get a sense of how people lived, what their days were like, and what mattered to them. In essence, who they were. I like to tell people that archaeology is the closest thing we have to time travel.


This has great importance for the Bible. For many of us, we view the Bible as if it was written in a vacuum even if we intellectually acknowledge that it wasn’t. Since God is the author, the words on the page we assume to be essentially timeless and therefore mean the same thing they’ve always meant.


RELATED LINK: Scriptural Authority: Sola Scriptura vs Solo Scriptura


But the words themselves aren’t timeless. The Bible was written by real people, to real people, at real points in time and space, and in real situations. Like any form of communication, the language of the Bible, i.e. the vehicle of communication, is embedded in the culture and situation in which it was written. Therefore, to understand the Bible, we must understand the culture and context in which it was written.


The Bible—A Book of the Near East


For some, this may appear to challenge the authority and specialness of the Word of God. After all, it sounds like I am saying that we should read the Bible like any other ancient Near Eastern text. In truth, that is what I am saying because, well, that’s what the Bible is.[2] The Bible was written in a Near Eastern context, by Near Eastern people, to Near Eastern people. It is a Near Eastern text.


But this does not take away from the authority or specialness of Scripture; quite the opposite, in fact. It highlights that the Bible is a real book. It was meant to be understood and it was meant to be impactful to the people who read it. That is why when Moses or Isaiah or Paul or John penned those words, they used the language and culture of the people they were writing to at that moment to communicate the messages God had for them to write, messages which are timeless and for all people everywhere.


When you stop and think about it, it could not be otherwise. Think of how we use language today.


  • Something I love is the Super Bowl
  • Something I hate is Daylight Savings Time.


Both are core parts of American culture and we all know what those are. Yet, if you tried to get at the definition by simply looking up the words in a dictionary, you would come to a very different, and very wrong, idea of what the Super Bowl or Daylight Savings Time are. That is because the words we use are defined by their cultural context. Anyone who has ever tried learning another language knows how true this is. As John Walton has suggested,


Language itself is a cultural convention.[3]


If you don’t believe me, try to communicate without any sort of cultural influence. You can’t.


If the Bible is meant to be the communication of God to man and if God is going to be efficacious in that endeavor, it is absolute silliness on our part to think the Bible wouldn’t be culturally embedded. Such communication wouldn’t be real, i.e. impactful on the real world, mainly because it would be unintelligible. That the Bible is a cultural product of the Near East, where it was written, highlights the fundamental realness and power of the book.


The Bible Decides What is Means—Not Us


Of course, this requires work on our part to understand the culture in which it was written, but this only enhances the authority of Scripture. We don’t get to decide what the Bible does and doesn’t say. If we dismiss the importance of understanding the cultural setting of the Bible (a fancy term to impress your friends is Sitz im Leben), inevitably we read our thoughts and our culture into the Bible, instead of understanding God’s thoughts as he communicated through the culture he chose.


Reading the Bible as an ancient Near Eastern text approaches it on its own terms instead of ours which is the only way we can grant it the true Sola Scriptura authority it demands.


This is where archaeology plays such a crucial role. Instead of reading “Created in the image of God” to mean we are like his photograph, we understand that the image of God idea has far more profound connotations than mere appearance.


We understand that the true significance of Ruth’s decision to go with Naomi. We know that the magicians of Daniel weren’t charlatans who just made stuff up, but treated dreams with scientific precision. And believe me, Revelation makes a whale of a lot more sense when understood in its own context.


This is what I do and what archaeology does. It seeks to understand the ancient world in order that we may approach the Bible on its own terms—in its own setting—in order to understand what God is really trying to say. It is a task that must be done with tremendous humility and prayer. It is a task that is, I believe, absolutely essential.

Oh, the photo was of the Japanese unconditionally surrendering to the Allies to end World War II.

Click here to read the rest of Jonathan’s series on Biblical Archaeology



[1] Answer will come at the end. If you get it right, give yourself a cookie.

[2] The Old Testament was; the New Testament is more of a Greco-Roman document.

[3] John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible, Kindle (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), chap. 1.

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About the author

Jonathan Gardner

Jonathan Gardner is a PhD student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School studying archaeology and ancient Near Eastern backgrounds to the Old Testament. Writing is one of his big two passions, along with travel, so he happily contributes to Compass while maintaining his own blog on theology, Have a question about the historical backgrounds of the Bible or Biblical archaeology? Email Jonathan at [email protected] and he would be happy to answer your questions.