Is the Bible supported by modern archaeology?

Introduction

Several of the “New Atheist” school of writers dismiss the Bible as without scientific foundation. In part, these writers reflect the thinking of the “minimalist” or “Copenhagen” approach to biblical scholarship that was popular during the 1990s and the 2000s. This school of thought has argued, for example, that essentially all of the Old Testament prior to the Babylonian captivity in 586 BCE is fictional. A similarly “minimalist” school of thought has argued that Jesus of Nazareth was not a historical person — all of the teachings and activities ascribed to him are completely legendary. Robert Price, for instance, argues that Jesus did not exist — “he was mythic all the way down” [Price2012, pg. 17].

Questionable and fraudulent archaeological claimns

So what archaeological evidence is there for the Bible?

Just as there is no point in claiming that biological or physical evidence “proves” that evolution is false (as creationist and intelligent design writers are prone to do), when in fact the consensus of peer-reviewed scientific research holds otherwise, similarly there is no point in trumpeting “archaeological evidence” as confirming some biblical event or figure, when such evidence is either nonexistent or considered highly questionable in peer-reviewed biblical studies literature.

Indeed, the field of biblical archaeology is replete with claims and findings that were later discredited, so considerable caution is in order. As a single example, in 2002, Oded Golan, an Israeli engineer and antiquities collector, announced the discovery of a chalk box, typically used for containing bones of the dead in 1st century Palestine, that had the inscription “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” But other researchers who examined the item concluded that the inscription was a recent forgery. In December 2004, Golan was charged with forgery, fraud and deception; he was later acquitted of the forgery charges, but he was convicted of illegal trading in antiquities [James2014].

For additional examples and discussion, see Bible-archaeology.

Early Old Testament history

There is, admittedly, very little evidence in support of the early Old Testament history. But from an archaeological point of view, there is no way that scientific research can comment one way or the other on the existence of an individual such as Abraham, who, according to the biblical account, left his home in Ur (probably near modern-day Baghdad in Iraq) to head to modern-day Palestine. Genesis also tells of Jacob’s son Joseph being sold by his brothers to traders, who took him to Egypt where he lived in the royal court for at least 14 years, after which Joseph’s 11 brothers and families (70 persons in total) joined him in Egypt. Again, science in general, and archaeology in particular, can say nothing one way or the other about a small and relatively obscure group of people such as this.

Post-Exodus Old Testament history

Once we move past the Exodus period, then there is solid evidence of at least some of the persons and events in the Old Testament account. Here is a brief summary, listed in approximate chronological order:

  1. Destruction of Hazor. Joshua 11:13-25 describes the destruction of the city of Hazor. In the 1950s, Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin found, at a site previously identified as Hazor, remains of a city dating to the 13th century BCE, which had been destroyed by fire [Cline2009, pg. 44].
  2. Merneptah stele. In 1896, an archaeological team lead by William Petrie found an inscription on an Egyptian stele, dated to 1207 BCE, now known as the Israel stele or the Merneptah stele and dated to 1207 BCE, which reads “Israel is laid waste, his seed is no more.” This is the earliest mention of Israel outside of the Bible, and is considered one of the most important archaeological finds in the biblical studies field [Cline2009, pg. 23].
  3. Pharaoh Sheshonq. Inscriptions have been found in Karnak, Egypt describing the Pharaoh Sheshonq’s conquest of Israel in the 10th century BCE (925 BCE). This matches the account in 1 Kings 14:25, where Pharaoh Shishak carried away “the treasures of the house of the LORD.” Although some scholars are skeptical of a connection here, most are convinced that Sheshonq and Shishak are the same person [Cline2009, pg. 81].
  4. Mesha inscription. An artifact, now known as the Moabite stone or the Mesha inscription, found in Jordan and dated to the 9th century BCE, names the Israelite king Omri: “Omri, king of Israel, humbled Moab many days…, but I have triumphed over him and over his house and Israel has perished forever.” This conflict is described in 2 Kings 3 [Cline2009, pg. 16].
  5. Monolith of Shalmaneser III. A monolith inscription of Neo-Assyrian king Shalmaneser III, dated to 853 BCE, mentions the Israelite king Ahab: “10,000 soldiers of Ahab, the Israelite, … came against me.” [Cline2009, pg. 82].
  6. Black obelisk of Shalmaneser III. A black obelisk describing the exploits of Shalmaneser III, dated 841 BCE, mentions the Israelite king Jehu [Cline2009, pg. 83].
  7. Tel Dan stele. The Tel Dan stele, found in Northern Israel, and dated to the 9th century BCE, mentions the “House of David”: “[And I killed Jo]ram, son of A[hab], king of Ksrael, and [I] killed [Ahazi]yahu, son of [Joram, kin]g of the House of David.” This is the earliest known mention of David, who reigned in Jerusalem from roughly 1010 to 970 BCE [TelDan2014, Cline2009, pg. 61].
  8. Sennacherib’s attacks. 2 Kings 18:13 mentions Neo-Assyrian King Sennacherib’s attacks on the fortified cities of Judah in 701 BCE. These attacks are mentioned in archaeological finds at Lachish in Israel and the ancient site of Ninevah in Iraq. Sennacherib’s siege of Jerusalem is also mentioned: “Himself [Hezekiah] I shut up as a prisoner within Jerusalem, his royal residence, like a bird in a cage.” Curiously, this bravado account acknowledges that Sennacherib’s siege of Jerusalem was unsuccessful (he never got inside the city walls), thus confirming the biblical account, as described in detail in 2 Chron. 32:9-22, which says that after several days of siege, a plague struck Sennacherib’s forces and he was forced to retreat [Cline2009, pg. 85].
  9. Hezekiah’s tunnel. 2 Kings 20:20 describes an underground culvert, designed to transport water to inside the Jerusalem city walls, that was constructed during the reign of King Hezekiah (8th century BCE). This culvert, now known as Hezekiah’s tunnel, was discovered in 1838. In 1880, two boys exploring Hezekiah’s tunnel found an inscription on the ceiling describing the construction process, where workers cut through rock from both ends until they met [Cline2009, pg. 19].
  10. Pool of Siloam. The Pool of Siloam, mentioned both in the Old Testament (Isa. 8:6, 22:9) and in the New Testament (John 9:7), collected water as it emptied from the southern end of Hezekiah’s tunnel. This was discovered in 2004 as part of a sewer excavation in Jerusalem [Pool2014].
  11. Destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. Archaeologists have uncovered evidence of tremendous destruction in Jerusalem in 586 BC (described, for instance, in Eze. 5), including ash and debris piled high, blocks of stone torn and broken, and arrowheads of a type specifically used by the Neo-Babylonians at this time [Cline2009, pg. 72].
  12. Dead Sea scrolls. The Dead Sea scrolls, dated to the 3rd century BCE to the 1st century CE, have been found to contain portions of all books of the Old Testament except for the Book of Esther. These manuscripts thus constitute by far the oldest copies of Old Testament text [Cline2009, pg. 96].

For additional examples and discussion, see Bible-archaeology.

The New Testament

Although the New Testament covers a much more recent time period (roughly 100 BCE to 100 CE), archaeological analysis is, if anything, more difficult, because unlike the Old Testament, the key events in the New Testament were the spread of Christianity, not kings, wars or the construction of cities. Indeed, there is no mention of Jesus himself in any contemporary non-biblical source, except for a very brief mention in the writings of Flavius Josephus. On the other hand, as mentioned above, one should not expect that archaeology can say anything one way or the other about persons who were relatively obscure on the world stage during their lifetimes.

However, there are numerous archaeological findings that confirm at least a few key facts of New Testament history:

  1. Temple Mount platform. As is well known, the present-day “wailing wall” in Jersualem is a remnant of the second temple. Also, recent archeological evidence confirms that the Jerusalem temple mount platform was expanded by Herod the Great. The temple mount was mentioned several times in the New Testament, for example in Matt. 21:12-14, when Jesus overturned tables of money-changers [Cline2009, pg. 83].
  2. Inscription mentioning Pontius Pilate. One of the most important finds is a Latin inscription, dating to 30 CE, which explicitly mentions Pontius Pilate, the governor of Palestine who sentenced Jesus to death. This was found in the theater at Caesarea during excavations by an Italian-led expedition in 1961. It reads, “Pontius Pilate, the Prefect of Judaea, has dedicated to the people of Caesarea a temple in honor of Tiberius.” [Cline2009, pg. 100].
  3. Capernaum. Several archaeological investigations have uncovered the remains of cities near the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus was raised, including Sepphoris, Capernaum and Nazareth. These excavations have confirmed that not only were these areas inhabited during the first century CE, but they were largely Jewish rather than Greek or Roman. For example, excavations in Capernaum, where Jesus settled and preached before leaving for Jerusalem, have uncovered a Jewish synagogue and other indications of a prosperous Jewish community [Cline2009, pg. 105].
  4. Nazareth. In 2009 a house was discovered on the hills at Nazareth that contains pottery shards dated to between 100 BCE and 100 CE. The analysis concludes that “the dwelling and older discoveries of nearby tombs in burial caves suggest that Nazareth was an out-of-the-way hamlet of around 50 houses on a patch of about four acres … populated by Jews of modest means.” While no one fancies that this structure was Jesus’ actual home, it does counter the claims of those who have argued that Nazareth was uninhabited at the time of Jesus’ childhood, and that the mention of Nazareth in the New Testament was a mythic creation of later writers and editors [Ehrman2012, pg. 216].
  5. Ossuary of Caiaphas. John 11:49-53; 18:14 mentions Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest who presided over the trial of Jesus. In 1990 archaeologists discovered a stone ossuary with the inscription “Yehosef bar Qafa” (Aramaic for Joseph, son of Caiaphas). According to Josephus, Caiaphas’ full name was Joseph Caiaphas [Cline2009, pg. 112].
  6. Christians in Suetonius. The Roman historian Suetonius briefly mentions the early Christians in his book The Lives of the Twelve Caesars. In his recounting of the reign of Emperor Claudius, who reigned 41 to 54 CE, Suetonius refers to the expulsion of Christian Jews by Claudius: “Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he [Claudius] expelled them from Rome.” Since it is highly unlikely that a later Christian scribe or anyone else partial to Christianity would have called Jesus “Chrestus” or mistakenly described him as living in Rome in 49 CE, or called him a troublemaker, most historians agree that the passage is genuine [Suetonius2014].

For additional examples and discussion, see Bible-archaeology.

Summary

Many writers of the “minimalist” or “Copenhagen” school of biblical scholarship, popular during the 1990s and 2000s, have argued that much of the Old Testament, and essentially all of the history prior to the Babylonian captivity in 586 BCE, is a fictional creation of later Jewish writers. But such claims can no longer be defended in light of numerous items of evidence (e.g., the Tel Dan stele), which specifically mention ancient kings such as David and ancient battles such as the wars with Sennacherib. Indeed, numerous Old Testament events are supported by archaeological evidence.

Similarly, claims that Jesus was not a historical figure have largely been defeated and, at the present time, have no standing in peer-reviewed biblical studies literature. This field, by the way, includes Jews, Christians and secular scholars, such as Bart Ehrman, who have no personal or religious stake in the matter. Ehrman summarizes the consensus of the field in these terms [Ehrman2012, pg. 1]:

Despite this enormous range of opinion, there are several points on virtually all scholars of antiquity agree. Jesus was a Jewish man, known to be a preacher and teacher, who was crucified (a Roman form of execution) in Jerusalem during the reign of the Roman emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was the governor of Judea.

Many devout believers will nonetheless be disappointed to learn that there is no clear, contemporary archaeological evidence for many other key figures and events in the Bible. But archaeology can say nothing one way or the other about persons who, like almost all figures in biblical history, were relatively obscure on the world stage during their lifetimes. And scientific research in general, and archaeology in particular, can say nothing about miraculous events that are presumed to be beyond the realm of natural, physical processes that can be studied by laboratory experimentation.

In any event, as was emphasized above, there is no point in claiming that archaeological evidence “proves” some biblical event or figure, when such evidence does not exist or is considered highly questionable in peer-reviewed biblical studies literature. As we read in the New Testament, “For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?” (1 Cor. 14:8).

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