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How Archaeology Helps the Student of the Bible

26 Jun

by Millar Burrows

Every serious student of the Bible in these days knows that he cannot afford to ignore archaeology. As regards the kind of help which archaeology gives, however, narrow and quite inadequate ideas are all too prevalent. From many recent books and articles one might infer that all archaeology could do for biblical studies was to “confirm” this or that statement in Scriptures. Readers of The Biblical Archaeologist hardly need to be told that the results of excavation are far richer and more varied than that. The purpose of the present article is to recall briefly the principle ways in which archaeology helps us to understand and appreciate the Bible. Every point which will be stated might be developed at great length.*

To understand the Bible we must first of all know, as nearly as possible, exactly what its authors wrote; that is, we must try to establish the correct text. The oldest manuscripts we have were written generations or even in many cases centuries after the death of the sacred historians, prophets, and apostles. The scribes who copied them made many mistakes, so that again and again the manuscripts differ—not to such an extent, to be sure, as to affect any vital religious teaching, but often to a degree which makes it impossible to tell what was originally written in particular passages. It is doubtless too much to hope that the excavator’s spade or, rather, hoe—will ever turn up the original ‘autograph’ of one of Paul’s letters, or the roll written by Baruch at the dictation of Jeremiah. The discovery of older manuscripts than those preserved in monasteries or libraries, however, not only is possible but has occurred repeatedly. In Egypt, where the dry climate preserves materials that are elsewhere perishable, rolls of papyrus have been discovered in great quantities, and some of them contain portions of the Old and New Testaments. Being much older than the most ancient manuscripts hitherto known, these are obviously very important for the establishment of the text. No sensational new readings or corrections have been demonstrated, but the choice between variant readings in the later manuscripts is facilitated and placed on a firmer basis.

Assuming that the wording of the text has been established as accurately as possible, our next task is to interpret it. This requires a thorough understanding of the languages in which it is written. Here archaeology renders its second important service. The Hebrew language of the Old Testament is much better understood than it was before the related language of the Babylonians and Assyrians became known through the discovery of countless clay tablets and stone monuments. More recently the extensive literary texts found at Ras Shamra* which are written in a language even more closely related to Hebrew, have begun to enrich our knowledge of the language in which most of the Old Testament is written. Inscriptions in the Hebrew language itself, such as the Lachish letters,* have been unearthed also, enabling scholars to trace the development of the language and thus determine its characteristics in any particular period. The Aramaic language also appears in many inscriptions. Not only were parts of the books of Daniel and Ezra written in this tongue, it was also the language spoken by Jesus and his disciples and the earliest Christian records were probably written in Aramaic. One important inscription in the Jewish Aramaic of Jesus’ time has been found.* Especially important is the new understanding of New Testament Greek provided by the countless letters, business records, and other documents of everyday life, written on papyrus, which have been found in Egypt, showing the kind of Greek used by the common people of the Roman empire at the time when the New Testament was written.

But it is not enough to understand the words and the grammar of ancient writings like those of the Old and New Testaments. The Bible was written not only in other languages than ours; it was written by and for people who lived in a world quite different from ours, and it speaks in terms of their life. To understand it rightly, therefore, we must understand the life of its authors and their first readers, the life of the people to whom Jesus spoke and the people to whom Paul wrote. This is by all odds the most important of the contributions of archaeology, giving us the orientation we need to read the Bible as it was meant to be read.

The sacred story unfolds in a particular geographical setting, and archaeology makes this much clearer by identifying important sites named in the record, such as Lachish* or Ezion-geber,* or even particular buildings, like the Praetorium where Jesus appeared before Pilate.* The setting in time as well as in space is brought into sharper focus through the fixing of dates by the records of the Assyrians and other nations. That archaeology cannot always solve at once the problems of biblical chronology is shown by the battle royal still being waged by historians regarding the date of the Israelite conquest of Canaan, but even here successive discoveries gradually reduce the limits within which the solution must be found.

No less important is the cultural setting, including the social customs of Bible times. One of the most conspicuous examples of what archaeology can do for us in this respect is afforded by the Nuzu tablets.* Since the Bible refers often to the houses in which people lived, the fortifications of their cities, the weapons and tools they used, and other material objects of daily life, an accurate acquaintance with these is helpful. Instead of thinking of Abraham or David as dressed in a costume of the Renaissance period and living in a marble palace in a European landscape, as painters used to picture them, we are now able by excavation to uncover the actual buildings and objects themselves, or what is left of them. Gates like that of Ezion-geber,* houses,* dishes and bowls,* lamps,* seals,* slingstones,* and many other things give us a vivid picture of ancient life as it actually was lived. Industry and trade,* education and literature,* art and religion* can all be seen now in a clear and true light.

As a result of all this, not only does the background of the Bible appear in a truer perspective and with greater accuracy of detail. Particular points in the Bible itself are illuminated. In the first place, much is explained which was previously obscure. We know what the cherubim were like,* what the so-called “sun images” really were,* who the Horites were,* and why Laban was anxious to recover his idols from Jacob.* Other items, which do not require such explanation, are vividly illustrated. Many of the items mentioned in the foregoing paragraphs provide illustrations of various passages in the Bible.

It must be frankly admitted that the results of excavation sometimes raise as many problems as they solve. The relation between the Hebrews and the Habiru of whom we read in the Tell el-Amarna tablets and other ancient documents has not yet been exhausted as a topic for discussion. The last word has not been said regarding the capture of Jericho and Ai, or the subsequent progress of the conquest of Canaan. Indeed, much as those who are primarily interested in the confirmation of the Bible may kite to admit it, we must in all honesty recognize the inescapable fact that at some points archaeology has discovered closed errors in the Scriptural record. This should not be a shock to us, for it is well known that the Bible often gives parallel accounts of the same events which differ in details and therefore cannot both be true in every particular. This does not disturb those whose major concern is with the spiritual teachings of the Bible rather than the details of ancient history, and who think of the inscription of the Scriptures as something far more profound and vital than a meticulous and invariable accuracy regarding past events. Consequently we need not be dismayed at what we cannot in any case deny. Our conviction of the religious value of the Bible is not shaken by the discovery that the king of Gerar in the time of Abraham and Isaac could not have been a Philistine, or that Darius came not before but after Cyrus.

As a matter of fact, aside from such occasional items as these, even as a record of ancient history the Bible is supported KJV and archeological evidence again and again. On the whole there can be no question that the results of excavation have increased the respect of scholars for the Bible as a collection of historical documents. The confirmation is both general and specific. The fact that the record can be so often explained or illustrated by archaeological data shows that it fits into the framework of history as only a genuine product of ancient life could do. In addition to this general authentication, however, we find the record verified repeated at specific points names of places and persons turn up at the right places and in the right periods. One of the most striking examples is the recently published mention of Jehoiachim, king of Judah in a list of persons supported at the Babylonian court in the time of the Exile.

This brief sketch may suffice to indicate that the help afforded by archaeology in the study of the Bible is rich and varied. By providing evidence for the establishment of the text and materials for the fuller understanding of the language, by lighting up the whole background so that the figures of biblical history no longer move in solitude across a dark stage, by explaining many details and illustrating others, and by confirming the essential authenticity of the record, though at the same time raising new problems and correcting a detail here and there, archaeology leads the student of the Bible into an incomparably fuller understanding and deeper appreciation than was ever before possible.

Perhaps it is not superfluous to add, however, that such appreciation and understanding are possible only if the students spirit is attuned to the deeper notes which are independent of time and place, because they are universal and eternal. Otherwise he will he like one who would come to the study of a great symphony with a detailed knowledge of musical history and theory, but without any ear for music. Given the primary spiritual climate for the understanding of the Bible, one will find the new knowledge provided by archeology an invaluable aid.

(2001). Biblical Archaeologist 1-4, 3(electronic ed.).
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Posted by on June 26, 2017 in academics, archaeology, education, history, leadership

 

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