Is the Bible true?

Extraordinary insights from
archaeology and history
by Jeffery L. Sheler
U.S. News and World Report

October 25, 1999

The workday was nearly over for the team of archaeologists excavating the ruins of the ancient Israelite city of Dan in upper Galilee. Led by Avraham Biran of Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, the group had been toiling since early morning, sifting debris in a stone-paved plaza outside what had been the city's main gate.

Now the fierce afternoon sun was turning the stoneworks into a reflective oven. Gila Cook, the team's surveyor, was about to take a break when something caught her eye -- an unusual shadow in a portion of recently exposed wall along the east side of the plaza. Moving closer, she discovered a flattened basalt stone protruding from the ground with what appeared to be Aramaic letters etched into its smooth surface. She called Biran over for a look. As the veteran archaeologist knelt to examine the stone, his eyes widened. "Oh, my God!" he exclaimed. "We have an inscription!"

In an instant, Biran knew that they had stumbled upon a rare treasure. The basalt stone was quickly identified as part of a shattered monument, or stele, from the ninth century B.C., apparently commemorating a military victory of the king of Damascus over two ancient enemies. One foe the fragment identified as the "king of Israel." The other was "the House of David."

The reference to David was a historical bombshell. Never before had the familiar name of Judah's ancient warrior king, a central figure of the Hebrew Bible and, according to Christian Scripture, an ancestor of Jesus, been found in the records of antiquity outside the pages of the Bible. Skeptics had long seized upon that fact to argue that David was a mere legend, invented by Hebrew scribes during or shortly after Israel's Babylonian exile, roughly 500 years before the birth of Christ. Now, at last, there was material evidence: an inscription written not by Hebrew scribes but by an enemy of the Israelites a little more than a century after David's presumptive lifetime. It seemed to be a clear corroboration of the existence of King David's dynasty and, by implication, of David himself.

Beyond its impact on the question of David's existence, however, the discovery provided a dramatic illustration of the promise and peril that come into play whenever the Bible is weighed on the scales of modern archaeology. In one moment, the unearthing of an inscription or artifact can shed new light or cast a shadow on a passage of Scripture and in the process shatter the presuppositions of biblical scholarship. One kind of truth is confirmed -- or replaced -- by another.

In extraordinary ways, modern archaeology has affirmed the historical core of the Old and New Testaments -- corroborating key portions of the stories of Israel's patriarchs, the Exodus, the Davidic monarchy, and the life and times of Jesus. Where it has faced its toughest task has been in primordial history, where many scholars find the traces of human origins obscured in theological myth.

IN THE BEGINNING

Ever since Copernicus overturned the church-sanctioned view of Earth as the center of the universe and Charles Darwin posited random mutation and natural selection as the real creators of human life, the biblical view that "in the beginning God created the heavens and the Earth" has found itself on the defensive in modern Western thought. Despite the dominance of Darwin's theory -- that human beings evolved from lower life forms over millions of years -- theologians have yielded relatively little ground on what for them is a fundamental doctrine of faith: that the universe is the handiwork of a divine creator who has given humanity a special place in his creation.

These apparently conflicting explanations have played a divisive role for centuries. In modern times, the supposed incompatibility of the scientific and religious views of creation have sparked bitter clashes in the nation's courtrooms and classrooms. Often the modern debate has amounted to little more than a shouting match between extremists on both sides -- fundamentalists, who dismiss evolution as a satanic deception, and atheistic naturalists, who assert that science offers the only window on reality and who seek to discredit religious belief as ignorant superstition.

Listening to some of the rhetoric today, one might easily assume that the views espoused by creationists -- that God created the universe in six 24-hour days, as a literal reading of Genesis 1 would suggest -- represent the historic position of Christianity and of the Bible, and that it is only in modern times, with the rise of evolutionary theory, that creationism has come under siege. Yet this is hardly the case.

As early as the fifth century, the great Christian theologian Augustine warned against taking the six days of Genesis literally. Writing on The Literal Meaning of Genesis, Augustine argued that the days of creation were not successive, ordinary days -- the sun, after all, according to Genesis, was not created until the fourth "day" -- and had nothing to do with time. Rather, Augustine argued, God "made all things together, disposing them in an order based not on intervals of time but on causal connections." Sounding like an evolutionist, Augustine reasoned that some things were made in fully developed form and others were made in "potential form" that developed over time to the condition in which they are seen today.

Now, a growing number of conservative scholars embrace theistic evolution -- a view that considers evolution, like all other physical processes known to science, to be divinely designed and governed. They understand Genesis as speaking more of the relationship between God and creation than as presenting a scientific or historical explanation of how and when creation occurred. "Creation and evolution are not contradictory," explains Howard Van Till, a professor of physics and astronomy at evangelical Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. "They provide different answers to a different set of questions."

Much the same may be said of disputes over the meaning and intent of the biblical story of the Flood. Those who take it as literal history believe that God unleashed a worldwide deluge that destroyed all air-breathing life on Earth except for those creatures taken aboard the ark in divine judgment against a creation gone bad. When God finally allowed the waters to recede, the ark was emptied and the world was repopulated by the creatures that disembarked. Based on biblical genealogies, all of this would have happened less than 10,000 years ago.

While most biblical scholars consider the story of the Flood a myth, many conservatives have little difficulty imagining that God could pull off precisely what the Genesis story describes. As with the Creation narrative, however, the evidence and arguments from science stack up overwhelmingly against a literal interpretation of the Flood story. Where, for example, would such a volume of water have come from, and where would it have gone afterward? How would mammalian life have re-emerged on isolated islands and landmasses that emerged from the receding flood waters? While some scholars allow the possibility that a catastrophic regional deluge may underlie the flood legends of the ancient Near East, conservatives argue that there is, indeed, geological evidence consistent with a universal deluge. But such arguments have found little support within the scientific mainstream.

AGE OF THE PATRIARCHS

The book of Genesis traces Israel's ancestry to Abraham, a monotheistic nomad who God promises will be "ancestor of a multitude of nations" and whose children will inherit the land of Canaan as "a perpetual holding." God's promise and Israel's ethnic identity are passed from generation to generation -- from Abraham to Isaac to Jacob. Then Jacob and his sons -- the progenitors of Israel's 12 ancient tribes -- are forced by famine to leave Canaan and migrate to Egypt, where the Israelite people emerge over a period of some 400 years.

Modern archaeology has found no direct evidence from the Middle Bronze Age (2000-1500 B.C.) -- roughly the period many scholars believe to be the patriarchal era -- to corroborate the biblical account. No inscriptions or artifacts relating to Israel's first biblical ancestors have been recovered. Nor are there references in other ancient records to the early battles and conflicts reported in Genesis.

Moreover, some scholars contend that the patriarch stories contain anachronisms that suggest they were written many centuries after the events they portray. Abraham, for example, is described in the 11th and 15th chapters of Genesis as coming from "Ur of the Chaldeans" -- a city in southern Mesopotamia, or modern-day Iraq. But the Chaldeans settled in that area "not earlier than the ninth or eighth centuries" B.C., according to Niels Peter Lemche, a professor at the University of Copenhagen and a leading biblical skeptic. That, he says, is more than 1,000 years after Abraham's time and at least 400 years after the time of Moses, who tradition says wrote the book of Genesis.

Yet other scholars, like Barry Beitzel, professor of Old Testament and Semitic languages at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Ill., are neither surprised nor troubled by the apparent lack of direct archaeological evidence for Abraham's existence. Why, they argue, should one expect to find the names of an obscure nomad and his descendants in the official archives of the rulers of Mesopotamia? These are "family stories," says Beitzel, not geopolitical history of the type one might expect to find preserved in the annals of kings.

While there may, indeed, be no direct material evidence relating to the biblical patriarchs, archaeology has not been altogether silent on the subject. Kenneth A. Kitchen, an Egyptologist now retired from the University of Liverpool in England, argues that archaeology and the Bible "match remarkably well" in depicting the historical context of the patriarch narratives. In Genesis 37:28, for example, Joseph, a son of Jacob, is sold by his brothers into slavery for 20 silver shekels. That, notes Kitchen, matches precisely the going price of slaves in the region during the 19th and 18th centuries B.C., as affirmed by documents recovered from the region that is now modern Syria. By the eighth century B.C., the price of slaves, as attested in ancient Assyrian records, had risen steadily to 50 or 60 shekels, and to 90 to 120 shekels during the Persian Empire in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. If the story of Joseph had been dreamed up by a Jewish scribe in the sixth century, as some skeptics have suggested, argues Kitchen, "why isn't the price in Exodus also 90 to 100 shekels? It's more reasonable to assume that the biblical data reflect reality."

FLIGHT FROM EGYPT

The dramatic story of the Exodus -- of God delivering Moses and the Israelite people from Egyptian bondage and leading them to the Promised Land of Canaan -- has been called the "central proclamation of the Hebrew Bible." Yet archaeologists have found no direct evidence to corroborate the biblical story. Inscriptions from ancient Egypt contain no mention of Hebrew slaves, of the plagues that the Bible says preceded their release, or of the destruction of the pharaoh's army during the Israelites' miraculous crossing of the Red Sea. No physical trace has been found of the Israelites' 40-year nomadic sojourn in the Sinai wilderness. There is not even any indication, outside of the Bible, that Moses existed.

Still, as with the patriarch narratives, many scholars argue that a lack of direct evidence is insufficient reason to deny that the Exodus actually happened. Nahum Sarna, professor emeritus of biblical studies at Brandeis University, argues that the Exodus story -- tracing, as it does, a nation's origins to slavery and oppression -- "cannot possibly be fictional. No nation would be likely to invent for itself . . . an inglorious and inconvenient tradition of this nature," unless it had an authentic core. "If you're making up history," adds Richard Elliott Friedman, professor at the University of California-San Diego, "it's that you were descended from gods or kings, not from slaves."

Indeed, the absence of direct material evidence of an Israelite sojourn in Egypt is not as surprising, or as damaging to the Bible's credibility, as it first might seem. What type of material evidence, after all, would one expect to find that could corroborate the biblical story? "Slaves, serfs, and nomads leave few traces in the archaeological record," notes University of Arizona archaeologist William Dever.

The dating of the Exodus also has long been a source of controversy. The book of 1 Kings 6:1 gives what appears to be a clear historical marker for the end of the Israelite sojourn in Egypt: "In the 480th year after the Israelites came out of the land of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon's reign over Israel, in the month of Ziv, which is the second month, he began to build the house of the Lord." Biblical historians generally agree that Solomon, the son and successor of David (and the builder of Israel's first great temple) came to the throne in about 962 B.C. If so, then the Exodus would have occurred in about 1438 B.C., based on the chronology of the 1 Kings passage.

That date does not fit with other biblical texts or with what is known of ancient Egyptian history. But the flaw is far from fatal. Sarna and others argue that the time span cited in 1 Kings -- 480 years -- should not be taken literally. "It is 12 generations of 40 years each," notes Sarna; 40 being "a rather conventional figure in the Bible," frequently used to connote a long period of time. Viewing the 1 Kings chronology in that light -- as primarily a theological statement rather than as "pure" history in the modern sense -- the Exodus can be placed in the 13th century, in the days of Ramses II, where it finds strong circumstantial support in the archaeological record.

THE RULE OF DAVID

The reigns of King David and his son Solomon over a united monarchy mark the glory years of ancient Israel. That period (roughly 1000 B.C. to 920 B.C.) -- described in detail in the books of 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, and 1 and 2 Chronicles -- marks the beginning of an era of stronger links between biblical history and modern archaeological evidence.

Before the discovery of the "House of David" inscription at Dan in 1993, it had become fashionable in some academic circles to dismiss the David stories as an invention of priestly propagandists who were trying to dignify Israel's past after the Babylonian exile. But as Tel Aviv University archaeologist Israel Finkelstein observes, "Biblical nihilism collapsed overnight with the discovery of the David inscription."

In the aftermath, another famous ancient inscription found more than a century ago has attracted renewed scholarly interest. The so-called Mesha Stele, like the stele on which the Dan inscription is etched, is a basalt monument from the ninth century B.C. that commemorates a military victory over Israel -- this one by the Moabite king Mesha. The lengthy Tyrian text describes how the kingdom of Moab, a land east of the Jordan River, had been oppressed by "Omri, king of Israel" (whose reign is summarized in 1 Kings 16:21-27) and by Omri's successors, and how Mesha threw off the Israelites in a glorious military campaign.

But the name of another of Mesha's conquered foes may lie hidden in a partially obliterated line of text that, transliterated, reads b[ -- ]wd; the remainder of the inscription is missing. The French scholar André LeMaire, after carefully re-examining the inscription, has suggested that the line should be filled in to read bt dwd -- "beit David," or "house of David" -- a reference to the kingdom of Judah. "No doubt," says LeMaire, "the missing part of the inscription described how Mesha also threw off the yoke of Judah and conquered the territory southeast of the Dead Sea controlled by the House of David."

As significant as they are, these two inscriptions -- both still contested -- remain for now the only extrabiblical references to David's dynasty. And both were written more than a century after the reigns of David and Solomon. Given the grandeur of the Israelite monarchy under the two kings as described in the Bible, how could such an influential and popular regime have attracted so little notice in ancient Near Eastern documents from the time?

The answer, suggests Carol Meyers, professor of biblical studies and archaeology at Duke University, may lie in the political climate in the region at the time, when, she says, "a power vacuum existed in the eastern Mediterranean." The collapse of Egypt's 20th dynasty around 1069 B.C. led to a lengthy period of economic and political decline for a nation that had exerted powerful influence over the city-states of Palestine during the Late Bronze Age. This period of Egyptian weakness, which lasted for over a century (until around 945 B.C.), saw a "relative paucity of monumental inscriptions," says Meyers. "The kings had nothing to boast about."

Similarly, the Assyrian empire to the east was unusually silent from the late 11th to the early ninth century B.C. regarding the western lands it once had dominated. Assyria was preoccupied, says Meyers, with internal turmoil following the death of one of the greatest of its early kings. Another major power in the region, Babylonia, also was uncharacteristically quiet. For centuries following a raid on Assyria in 1081 B.C., it seldom ventured beyond its own borders, says Meyers, "and thus its records would hardly have mentioned a new dynastic state to the west."

The reign of David was a time of territorial expansion for the united Israelite kingdom and was marked, according to the Bible, by a series of military victories. Twice the Israelite armies repulsed invasions by the Philistines, a belligerent horde of pagan marauders who occupied Canaan's Mediterranean coastal plains. While the Bible depicts the Philistines as a frequent nemesis of the Israelites, their name does not appear in ancient nonbiblical sources before 1200 B.C. Some minimalist scholars have suggested that the biblical stories of run-ins with the dreaded Philistines were invented by priestly scribes in the middle of the first millennium B.C. to dramatize the military prowess of the mythical Davidic dynasty.

But modern archaeology has uncovered a wealth of information regarding the Philistine "sea people" thoroughly consistent with their portrayal in the Bible. For example, sources including numerous Egyptian inscriptions indicate that the Philistines most likely originated in the Aegean area, probably on the island of Crete. That fits with biblical passages (Jeremiah 47:4 and Deuteronomy 2:23, for example) linking them with Caphtor, a location most scholars identify with Crete.

Additionally, the Bible depicts the Philistines as expert metallurgists, and archaeologists have found material evidence that the Philistines were, indeed, expert metalworkers. Trude Dothan, a Hebrew University archaeologist who has excavated many of the Philistine sites, says this superior knowledge no doubt gave them a military advantage in their early battles with the Israelites. She notes that in the famous story of the duel between David and Goliath in 1 Samuel 17, the giant Philistine warrior is described as wearing a bronze helmet and bronze body armor and carrying a spear with a shaft "like a weaver's beam" and with a head of iron. "The Bible compares Goliath's spear to a weaver's beam," Dothan says, "because this type of weapon was new to Canaan and had no Hebrew name." Once again, the Bible and archaeology are in agreement.

THE DAYS OF JESUS

Compared with the earlier eras of Old Testament history, the days of Jesus are a fleeting moment. A life span of just three decades and a public career of only a few years leave a dauntingly narrow target for archaeological exploration. Yet during the past four decades, spectacular discoveries have produced a wealth of data illuminating the story of Jesus and the birth of Christianity. The picture that has emerged overall closely matches the historical backdrop of the Gospels.

In 1968, for example, explorers found the skeletal remains of a crucified man in a burial cave at Giva'at ha-Mitvar, near the Nablus road outside of Jerusalem. It was a momentous discovery: While the Romans were known to have crucified thousands of alleged traitors, rebels, robbers, and deserters in the two centuries straddling the turn of the era, never before had the remains of a crucifixion victim been recovered. An initial analysis of the remains found that their condition dramatically corroborated the Bible's description of the Roman method of execution.

The bones were preserved in a stone burial box called an ossuary and appeared to be those of a man about 5 feet, 5 inches tall and 24 to 28 years old. His open arms had been nailed to the crossbar, in the manner similar to that shown in crucifixion paintings. The knees had been doubled up and turned sideways, and a single large iron nail had been driven through both heels. The nail -- still lodged in the heel bone of one foot, though the executioners had removed the body from the cross after death -- was found bent, apparently having hit a knot in the wood. The shin bones seem to have been broken, corroborating what the Gospel of John suggests was normal practice in Roman crucifixions: "Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who had been crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs" (19:32-33). While one later analysis drew some different conclusions about how the man died, similarities to the biblical account were affirmed.

The discovery also posed a powerful counterargument to objections some scholars have raised against the Gospels' description of Jesus's burial. It has been argued that the common practice of Roman executioners was to toss corpses of crucified criminals into a common grave or to leave them on the cross to be devoured by scavenging animals. So it hardly seems feasible, the argument goes, that Roman authorities would have allowed Jesus to undergo the burial described in the Gospels. But with the remains of a crucified contemporary of Jesus found in a family grave, it is clear that at least on some occasions the Romans permitted proper interment consistent with the biblical account.

A find at another Jerusalem site added to the list of Gospel figures whose existence has been verified by archaeology. Workers building a water park 2 miles south of the Temple Mount in 1990 inadvertently broke through the ceiling of a hidden burial chamber dating to the first century A.D. Inside, archaeologists found 12 limestone ossuaries. One contained the bones of a 60-year-old man and bore the inscription Yehosef bar Qayafa -- "Joseph, son of Caiaphas." Experts believe these remains are probably those of Caiaphas the high priest of Jerusalem, who according to the Gospels ordered the arrest of Jesus, interrogated him, and handed him over to Pontius Pilate for execution.

A few decades earlier, the name of another key figure in the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus turned up in the archaeological record: During excavations in 1961 at the seaside ruins of Caesarea Maritima, the ancient seat of Roman government in Judea, a first-century inscription was uncovered confirming that Pilate had been the Roman ruler of the region at the time of Jesus's crucifixion. Italian archaeologists working at the city's magnificent Herodian theater found the inscribed stone slab in use in the theater's steps. Experts say it originally was a first-century plaque at a nearby temple honoring the emperor Tiberius. The badly damaged Latin inscription reads in part, Tiberieum . . . [Pon]tius Pilatus . . . [Praef]ectus Juda[ea]e. According to experts, the complete inscription would have read, "Pontius Pilate, the Prefect of Judea, has dedicated to the people of Caesarea a temple in honor of Tiberius." The discovery of the so-called Pilate Stone has been widely acclaimed as a significant affirmation of biblical history because, in short, it confirms that the man depicted in the Gospels as Judea's Roman governor had precisely the responsibilities and authority that the Gospel writers ascribed to him.

THE ROAD AHEAD

Modern archaeology may not have removed all doubt about the historical accuracy of the Bible. But thanks to archaeology, the Bible "no longer appears as an absolutely isolated monument of the past, as a phenomenon without relation to its environment," as the great American archaeologist William Albright wrote at midcentury. Instead, it has been firmly fixed in a context of knowable history, linked to the present by footprints across the archaeological record.

Just as archaeology has shed new light on the Bible, the Bible in turn has often proved a useful tool for archaeologists. Yigael Yadin, the Israeli archaeologist who excavated at Hazor in the 1950s, relied heavily on its guidance in finding the great gate of Solomon at the famous upper Galilee site: "We went about discovering [the gate] with Bible in one hand and spade in the other." And Trude Dothan notes that "without the Bible, we wouldn't even have known there were Philistines."

Much work remains for the archaeological explorers of the next century, and many more mysteries of the Bible wait to be solved. Where, for example, are the lost "Annals of the Kings" of Israel and Judah cited as literary sources in the Old Testament book of 1 Kings, and the five books of Papias mentioned in early church writings as a collection of the sayings of Jesus? Will further discoveries of hidden scrolls from the Dead Sea reveal new insights into the birth of Christianity? Scholars are convinced there is much more out there waiting to be found. It's just a matter of time.

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