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Archaeology and Biblical Accuracy
by Farrell Till


1998 / March-April



Has archaeology proven the historical accuracy of the Bible? If you listened only to biblical inerrantists, you would certainly think so. Amateur apologists have spread this claim all over the internet, and in a letter published in this issue, Everett Hatcher even asserted that archaeology supports that "the Bible is the inerrant word of God." Such a claim as this is almost too absurd to deserve space for publication, because archaeology could prove the inerrancy of the Bible only if it unearthed undeniable evidence of the accuracy of every single statement in the Bible. If archaeological confirmation of, say, 95% of the information in the Bible should exist, then this would not constitute archaeological proof that the Bible is inerrant, because it would always be possible that error exists in the unconfirmed five percent.

Has archaeology confirmed the historical accuracy of some information in the Bible? Indeed it has, but I know of no person who has ever tried to deny that some biblical history is accurate. The inscription on the Moabite Stone, for example, provides disinterested, nonbiblical confirmation that king Mesha of the Moabites, mentioned in 2 Kings 3:4-27, was probably an actual historical character. The Black Obelisk provides a record of the payment of tribute to the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III by Jehu, king of the Israelites (2 Kings 9-10; 2 Chron. 22:7-9). Likewise, the Babylonian Chronicle attests to the historicity of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, and his conquest of Jerusalem as recorded in 2 Kings 25. Other examples could be cited, but these are sufficient to show that archaeology has corroborated some information in the Bible.

What biblicists who get so excited over archaeological discoveries like these apparently can't understand is that extrabiblical confirmation of some of the Bible does not constitute confirmation of all if the Bible. For example, the fact that archaeological evidence confirms that Jehu was an actual historical character confirms only that he was an actual historical character. It does not confirm the historical accuracy of everything that the Bible attributed to him. Did a "son of the prophets" go to Ramoth-gilead and anoint Jehu king of Israel while the reigning king was home in Jezreel recovering from battle wounds (2 Kings 9:1-10)? Did Jehu then ride to Jezreel in a chariot and massacre the Israelite royal family and usurp the throne (2 Kings 9:16 ff)? We simply cannot determine this from an Assyrian inscription that claimed Jehu paid tribute to Shalmaneser, so in the absence of disinterested, nonbiblical records that attest to these events, it is hardly accurate to say that archaeology has proven the historicity of what the Bible recorded about Jehu. Likewise, extrabiblical references to Nebuchadnezzar may confirm his historical existence, but they do not corroborate the accuracy of such biblical claims as his dream that Daniel interpreted (Dan. 2) or his seven-year period of insanity (Dan. 4:4-37). To so argue is to read entirely too much into the archaeological records.

The fact is that some archaeological discoveries in confirming part of the Bible simultaneously cast doubt on the accuracy of other parts. The Moabite Stone, for example, corroborates the biblical claim that there was a king of Moab named Mesha, but the inscription on the stone gives a different account of the war between Moab and the Israelites recorded in 2 Kings 3. Mesha's inscription on the stone claimed overwhelming victory, but the biblical account claims that the Israelites routed the Moabite forces and withdrew only after they saw Mesha sacrifice his eldest son as a burnt offering on the wall of the city the Moabites had retreated to (2 Kings 3:26-27). So the Moabite Stone, rather than corroborating the accuracy of the biblical record, gives reason to suspect that both accounts are biased. Mesha's inscription gave an account favorable to the Moabites, and the biblical account was slanted to favor the Israelites. The actual truth about the battle will probably never be known.

Other archaeological discoveries haven't just cast doubt on the accuracy of some biblical information but have shown some accounts to be completely erroneous. A notable example would be the account of Joshua's conquest and destruction of the Canaanite city of Ai. According to Joshua 8, Israelite forces attacked Ai, burned it, "utterly destroyed all the inhabitants," and made it a "heap forever" (vs:26-28). Extensive archaeological work at the site of Ai, however, has revealed that the city was destroyed and burned around 2400 B. C., which would have been over a thousand years before the time of Joshua. Joseph Callaway, a conservative Southern Baptist and professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, spent nine years excavating the ruins of ancient Ai and afterwards reported that what he found there contradicted the biblical record.

This same article quoted what Callaway had earlier said when announcing the results of his nine-year excavation of Ai. The work of Kathleen Kenyon produced similar results in her excavation of the city of Jericho. Her conclusion was that the walls of Jericho were destroyed around 2300 B. C., about the same time that Ai was destroyed. Apparently, then, legends developed to explain the ruins of ancient cities, and biblical writers recorded them as tales of Joshua's conquests. Information like this, however, is never mentioned by inerrantists when they talk about archaeological confirmation of biblical records.

Archaeological silence is another problem that biblical inerrantists don't like to talk about. According to the Bible, the Israelite tribes were united into one nation that had a glorious history during the reigns of king David and his son Solomon, yet the archaeological record is completely silent about these two kings except for two disputed inscriptions that some think are references to "the house of David." This is strange indeed considering that references to Hebrew kings of much less biblical importance (Omri, Ahab, Jehu, Zedekiah, etc.) have been found in extrabiblical records. This archaeological silence doesn't prove that David and Solomon did not exist, but it certainly gives all but biblical inerrantists pause to wonder.

Another case in point is the biblical record of the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and their subsequent 40-year wandering in the Sinai wilderness. According to census figures in the book of Numbers, the Israelite population would have been between 2.5 to 3 million people, all of whom died in the wilderness for their disobedience, yet extensive archaeological work by Israeli archaeologist Eliezer Oren over a period of 10 years "failed to provide a single shred of evidence that the biblical account of the Exodus from Egypt ever happened" (Barry Brown, "Israeli Archaeologist Reports No Evidence to Back Exodus Story," News Toronto Bureau, Feb. 27, 1988). Oren reported that although he found papyrus notes that reported the sighting of two runaway slaves, no records were found that mentioned a horde of millions: "They were spotted and the biblical account of 2.5 million people with 600,000 of military age weren't?" Oren asked in a speech at the Royal Ontario Museum. That is certainly a legitimate question. Up to 3 million Israelites camped in a wilderness for 40 years, but no traces of their camps, burials, and millions of animal sacrifices could be found in ten years of excavations. This may be an argument from silence, but it is a silence that screams.
 



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