Friday, April 24, 2009

Archaeology, History, and the Bible

I apologize that I will not be citing sources here, but I am at work.

Fundamentalists have made some pretty fantastical claims about the historicity of the bible. They love to say things like, "Archaeology has never contradicted the bible," and "historically the bible is the most accurate book ever written," and plenty of other nonsense. But does it really hold up? Of course not.

Firstly, lets look at what the bible gets right, because there is a significant amount that it does do well. It is an excellent reference on the cultures of Israel and Judah, including their religious practices, their social customs, as well as their laws. Also, after the unification of Israel and Judah (reunification is as best I can tell ahistorical)it is a reasonably good history.

Archaeology has confirmed some of the history, including the existence of Jericho, the existance of Nebuchadrezar of Babylon, and other bits of information that we can confirm. There's even a possibility (if dubious) that two cities potentially analgous with Sodom and Gomorrah were discovered.

But what has never been proven? Well, lets start with anything supernatural. There is no real evidence other than legendary of even the existence of Moses or his supposed miracles, let alone any evidence of divine intercession at places like Jericho. Search as they might, archaeologists have found no proof of Solomon or David beyond the biblical legends, and have also shown that if Solomon was real his empire was greatly exaggerated in the biblical texts. Archaeology has also shown no evidence of inhabitation at oasis in the Sinai desert where the Israelites supposedly stayed for 40 years. If they were there, surely there would have been something left behind, but there are not even pot sherds. The history of egypt has never recorded the mass use of slaves, let alone any record of an entire nation of Jews enslaved. In the real world, egyptian monuments and great buildings were mostly public works projects as evinced by discovered workers' camps.

The problems in Genesis alone are innumerable for archaeology and historians alike. It is obvious to the historians who know that many of the legends of Genesis were cribbed off of earlier successful civilizations' mythologies, like the sumerians. This is particularly obvious in things like the ages of the patriarchs and the Sumerian kings, as well as the tower of Babel.

But what should we take from this?

Actually, its very telling. not so much saying that the bible is inaccurate, but it tells us that archaeology is confirming exactly what we should expect it would. The supernatural claims remain unsubstantiated, but the cultural cues and traditions, which the authors would have been very familiar with are relatively accurate. And this is of no surprise, yet fundamentalists treat this as if it were some amazing proof of the bible's accuracy. Its inevitable, when a book is written within a culture that those cultures specifics will be available. This is not proof. It is not even evidence. It is simply the way archaeology works.

I'll use an analogy.

If I were an explorer in India, and discovered an island off the coast (sri lanka) and went there, discovered that the cultural details and such conformed to what was written in the Ramayana. Should I then conclude that Ravana the demon lived on the island and that Rama went there to save his wife Sita from him? No, of course not. It means a text written within the context of a culture follows the norms of the culture, and the mores of the culture. It speaks nothing to supernatural claims whatsoever. This is not exceptional, this is expected.


  1. If you haven't watched it yet, you should watch The Bible's Buried Secrets from PBS.

    They go over the archeological accuracies and inaccuracies of the Bible. Including pointing out the things you mentioned. Although I thought they had some evidence for David and Solomon. Nothing that supports the claims of the Bible, but that they could have existed. They even discuss the merging of YHWH and El and the change from polytheistic to monotheistic. It is a very good documentary.

  2. I'll have to check it out. Most of my information is from my Judaism and Christianity through the Helenistic and Roman ages class. As for David and Solomon, i may have been hasty there. My knowledge on that area is a bit limited.

    have you looked at the Documentary Hypothesis at all?

  3. I own Dr. Richard Elliott Freidman's book "The Bible With Sources Revealed," which outlines his version of the Documentary Hypothesis. Basically it is his translation of the Pentateuch with each source in different colors, italics, highlighted, etc. I also own his book "Who Wrote the Bible?" He goes more in depth into it about who's, why's, and how's of the Documentary Hypothesis.

  4. Those are some books I really should get :) Thanks for the link to Pbs Beamstalk

    I always found this stuff fascination EC, nice to read some facts about it. I don't have the best memory for facts and I know some of what I remember has been disproven. I always thought the slaves of Egypt being the Jews was fact until I started to realize I had never read it in any history books, or been taught about it in school only in religious events :P Funny how the church never mentions that...

    Keep up the good work EC :)

  5. The egyptian captivity is one of the more odd stories. There's no real evidence for it, but people still perpetuate it like its fact.

    There is evidence of Jewish settlements in northern egypt from ancient times, but there is no evidence at all they were slaves or captive in any way.