Last week in “The Test of Value”, we began to take a look at the influence that accuracy (especially scientific accuracy) has played in determining whether Christians accept or reject a book as Scripture. This week, we’ll continue the theme by examining the issue of historical accuracy and the role that archaeology has played in determining what does or doesn’t merit a place in the Bible.
Before we begin, however, we must take a moment to understand what the field of archaeology can and can’t offer us in regard to determining historical truth. It is important to recognize that archaeology does not deal directly with history, but with what remains of history. The story which artifacts tell must be deduced from their surroundings and, sometimes, due to the differences between modern cultures and ancient ones, these deductions are inaccurate. (If you want a great example of an argument which has arisen as the result of such deductions, take a moment to do an internet search for “Qumran” (the ancient community located near the spot where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found). You may be surprised at what you find!)
As our knowledge of the ancient world expands, so do the possibilities for interpreting its remains. What at one time was a “proven fact” can quickly be discarded as a misinterpretation of the evidence. This isn’t always the case, but it does happen frequently enough to leave room for doubt. The result is that while archaeology can do much to confirm details of an account, it is not always a source of absolute truth. Its evidence must be weighed, often in the light of the evidence from other fields of study, before we arrive at a conclusion. In a sense, archaeology is the handmaiden of history – illuminating our understanding of recorded history by bringing its remnants to light.
One of the most common errors made in regard to these remnants is the “argument from silence”, i.e., to argue that something (or someone) did not exist simply because no evidence of its existence has ever been found. While this might sound reasonable at first, the argument falls to pieces upon further investigation. For years, it was argued that the Hittites mentioned in the Old Testament were a fictional group of people. No remnant of their society had been found anywhere near the expected Biblical location and no mention of them was made in any other ancient literature. If God really had promised their land to the Israelites, the promise had been an empty one.
That is, until the early 1900’s when Hugo Winckler of the German Orient Society uncovered an impossibly large cache of clay tablets confirming that the Hittites had existed! Since then, archaeologists have unearthed many remnants of their society. The lack of evidence once thought to disconfirm the claims of Scripture was turned into a treasure trove which confirmed Scripture.
So what role does archaeology play in validating a book as part of the Christian Bible? To begin with, it does provide us with known facts. Archaeology has uncovered much evidence to support the Biblical record (evidence of places and people named within the pages of Scripture) and archaeologists have done a wonderful job when it comes to illuminating our understanding of ancient cultures. As the picture becomes more complete and more gaps are filled, we find ample evidence that the writers of the Bible did live at the time and in the places they claimed.
So what happens when a book that claims to be Scripture is disproven through archaeology or other historical documentation? The same thing that happens when a volume is proven scientifically inaccurate: it is discarded. It has been discredited as the Word of God and does not merit a place within our Holy writ.