Does archaeology confirm the Bible’s historical record?
Archaeological and written evidence for the authenticity of the Bible
Published: 15 September 2012 (GMT+10)
It’s common for atheists to downplay or even deny the significance of the historical record which corroborates many of the details of Scripture. For instance, John Z., U.S., wrote in asking about a YouTube video he had seen:
I accidentally subscribed to a person on youtube and I found comments that he had posted to several uploaded videos of his. On one of them, he mentioned that the supposed archaeological finds of the Bible have all been debunked.
Now, I’m not going to question these archaeological finds based on one (surely disgruntled) atheist, but I’m wondering if there’s ever been ambiguity or some legitimate reason for atheists to reject these findings, other than just throwing out my usual answer that atheists reject the evidence because the existence of God is unacceptable to them.
Also, speaking for people just beginning to explore the faith: If one person reads your website, and hears about archaeological finds supporting the Bible, and then they read an atheist site, which does the opposite, how can they really choose which to believe? I mean, even if a person admits the existence of God, that doesn’t automatically assume the Christian God. A person could be honestly open-minded concerning that question.
Lita Cosner responds:
Wow, every single archaeological find has been debunked? For one thing, it’s sloppily worded—he almost surely means that the archaeological finds that are used to support the Bible don’t actually do so. But even leaving that aside, the universality of the claim is its own refutation. By that I mean that there are a host of archaeological finds—from ancient cities (corroborating the existence of people groups and places that the Bible bears witness to), to actual manuscripts of Scripture themselves (the Dead Sea Scrolls would be only one example of this), to objects from daily life, tombs, objects used for religious worship, etc. When we see an ancient Palestinian city that has a trash heap, but there are no pig bones in it, we know almost for certain that this was a Jewish city—meaning that the Bible is correct that the Jews lived in Israel (for a very elementary evidence). When we see depictions of Asherah as the bride of Yahweh, we see evidence of the widespread syncretism in Israel that eventually led to the exile as God’s judgment. When we translate a fragment from the Dead Sea Scrolls and find out that it’s nearly identical to the Masoretic text of Isaiah copied nearly 1,000 years later, that’s evidence that Scripture was reliably copied through the centuries.
Note that all these archaeological finds are only rubble and potsherds and scribbles on parchment—we have to interpret them. And as a Christian, I interpret the evidence within the historical framework God gives us in Scripture. Just like in science, someone can point to something and say, “See, evolution is true!” while a creationist would point to the same evidence and say “See, creation is true!” A lot depends on the framework you use to interpret the evidence. But to say, “Every archaeological find has been debunked” is frankly irresponsible. There are qualified Christian archaeologists, like the late Clifford Wilson, who believe that archaeology confirms the biblical record.
As far as who to believe: you could evaluate it on who has the better research, or whose claims are more plausible. If you’re a Christian, a starting assumption should be that the Bible is true—but even some non-Christians see it as a reliable historical record at the same level as other ancient histories (we would of course argue that it is far more than that). If you’re interested in reading more about this area, I’d recommend starting by reading some of Kenneth Kitchen’s work, especially On the Reliability of the Old Testament.
See also our Archaeology Q&A page.
John Z. wrote again:
Thank you for responding so well, Lita. I was talking to a different person and I mentioned to them that several ancient men wrote of Christ, apart from what is written in the Bible. He wanted to know if these individuals wrote about the Resurrection (or apparent Resurrection) of Christ. Do you have knowledge of this?
The primary source that comes to mind would be the Testamonium Flavium, found in Antiquities of the Jews 18.3.3:
Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was the Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.
Now of course the primary difficulty with this is that the Testamonium Flavium in its current form is certainly the product of a Christian interpolator who ‘helpfully’ amended Josephus’s almost certainly not-as-pious statements about Jesus. It’s accepted by most scholars that Josephus’s original wording probably mentioned Jesus as a person who taught and was claimed to do miracles, and a testimony to his death and perhaps to the resurrection, and testified to the existence of Christians in his day. Josephus also referred to the execution of James the brother of Jesus in Antiquities 20.9.1.
We have comparatively few secular references to Jesus from the first century—not that we would expect many references to an itinerate preacher in an insignificant backwater of the Roman Empire in that day. Remember that Jesus in His own day was considered relatively insignificant. It took decades for His followers to become a significant enough nuisance to warrant the notice of Rome. So it is not surprising that we find no unambiguous reference of the Resurrection in the first-century pagan sources. But the Gospels and the letters of Paul are significant historical sources in and of themselves and should not be discounted.