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.
In regard to resources documenting the historical accuracy of the Bible, you could also look at two other excellent books by Josh McDowell: Evidence That Demands a Verdict, and More Evidence That Demands a Verdict (they may be difficult to find, as they were originally published perhaps 40 years ago).
Dear Lita and CMI,
Thanks for this concise and thoughtful feedback article. In relation to the second feedback question on the Resurrection, we have a phenomenal archaeological discovery known as the Nazareth Inscription. Briefly, it is an imperial edict from Emporer Claudius, instituting the death penalty in Israel proper for robbing bodies (not artifacts or objects, but bodies!) from "sepulcher sealing tombs", which were somewhat unique to Israel and described in the NT. This edict is clearly in response to the preaching of the resurrection, which Roman officials could only explain by asserting that the someone stole Jesus' body from the tomb and invented the resurrection story. We see this deception first perpetrated by the Sanhedrin when they told the guards to lie and say the disciples stole the body of our Lord. The inscription is dated to around 41 AD, less than 10 years from Jesus' lifetime. This is one of the most powerful archaeological discoveries ever discovered in relation to the NT, and is largely unknown. A detailed, two part article on this artifact, with a video clip, can be found at the Associates for Biblical Research website.
Archaeology, properly interpreted, vindicates the historicity of the Bible over and over again. The argument posed by the atheist in the first section does not comport with reality, and is utterly incoherent and false.
Yours for the King, Henry B. Smith Jr. Associates for Biblical Research
I agree with Judie above. I really think there is a danger here in our thinking. While it might disconcert atheists to be told of artifacts and documents which support the Bible, however interesting that is to us, it is not really a valid argument.
The Bible is its own proof. First it answers the big questions like: Where do we come from? Where are we going? What are we? Who and what is God? Secondly it works in practice. We make mistakes but as a guide for life the Bible has no mistakes. Thirdly the Bible is internally consisten. My own Father read through the Bible while my wife and I were in Australia for some years. When we came home he told us how it had changed his life by showing him the reality of God and of the Lord Jesus. There have been many similar cases. If it were full of contradictions then it could not have this effect. Moreover there are no contradictions and it hangs together wonderfully. We have the Passover in Exodus, then we read in 1Corinthians that "Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us." The John the Baptist pointed the Lord out as the Lamb of God who bears away the sin of the world showing that the Lord Jesus was both passover Lamb and Scapegoat bearing away sin. The fulfilment of prophecy is another matter which shows the uniquenes of the Bible. As a sailor I showed a younger seaman Psalm 22. He was shocked. "But that was written hundreds of years before" he said, his face registering shock and surprise.
I became a history teacher and I now write and though the relations between the Bible accounts show it to be a valuable and reliable historical document it is the internal evidence which is so important and, as I said, unique.
No other books has prophecy as the Bible does No other book has morality like the Bible does.
This is part of my second point of the Bible being a guide for living. When we consider the men who have vilified the Bible and when we see what has become of them I fear and weep for men like Dawkins and Attenborough and a host of like minded folk. Nietzsche was the German Philosopher who said that "God is dead." All his life and it is seen in his writings he teetered on the edge of the abyss of Nihilism. Because of this he had to invent the idea of the 'Overman' who made his own morals and values and willed them into being. The other day on radio four there was a debate on marriage and a commentator said that the law had to 'catch up' with society. This is a case of society or the government making its own values and then trying to make them true. Inevitably there are many unforeseen consquences of this folly. Nietzsche went mad and died a broken man. His anti God philosophy was no help to him, instead it broke him. The same is happening to our society in the west where we have rejected the Judeo-Christian ethic and world view. We are topping down into the abyss of nihilism and are more and more rapidly going mad.
Hi - this is a great and interesting response. I particularly liked the section "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."
For this reason however I can't see how archaeology "confirms" the Bible's historical record. Wouldn't a more correct title for this article be "Does archaeology support the Bible's historical record?"
A few years ago, I read an article concerning an athestic historian (trying to "debunk" Biblical history) who believed that the account of David was nothing more than just a myth. The article went on to state that not long after this claim was made, evidence was unearthed that showed an actual, historical David did indeed live in the same time period as the Biblical record. Not to admit defeat, however, the historian next stated that while it may have been shown David existed, there wasn't any proof that he was actually king of Israel, so therefore the Biblical account of him couldn't be true. When I read things like this, it demonstrates that those who would deny Biblical truths are almost desperate to do so, and will clutch at any straws they can to "prove" that Scripture can't possibly be an accurate account of the past and our origins.
On the topic of the veracity of Jesus' resurrection, I would point out the excellent manuscript support that the gospels have. The book The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel or the book More Than a Carpenter by Josh McDowell cover the subject.
Thanks for a very informative article with the letter included and your response to the content at hand.
Very good article.
To the atheist, I would have replied with the story concerning the discovery of the Hittite people. For years, skeptics considered the many Biblical accounts of the Hittite tribe to be unreliable and just plain hogwash. But now, to make a long story short, there has been so much uncovered about the Hittite people that one can earn a myriad of degrees in Hittite culture. Even a doctorate is available, I believe.
This one subject shoots down the atheists belief that every Biblical based arcaheological find has been disproven, and is just the tip of the iceberg.
The Hittite Kingdom is an example of atheistic denial: they said for a century that there never were any Hittites, and that the bible was wrong. Then a few years ago someone discovered the Hittite capital and loads of artifacts. Now atheistic archaeologists actually cite the bible as the authority for their existence... without realizing the hypocrisy of it. Hittites are only mentioned in the bible, apart from the archaeological remains.
"...the Gospels and the letters of Paul are significant historical sources..."
Absolutely, especially since Paul made a point of saying that some of the witnesses to the resurrection were still alive when he first wrote to the Corinthians, less than 30 years after it all happened.