Archaeology and the Biblical Record-Part 2

By: Dr. John Ankerberg, Dr. John Weldon; ©2003
Drs. Ankerberg and Weldon explain that, while it is unfeasible for archaeology to prove everything in the Bible, nevertheless, it is an important step in shedding light on biblical content.

Archaeology and the Biblical Record—Part 2

The Problems of Archaeology

If we examine the nature and problems of archaeological investigation, it will become apparent why it is impossible for archaeology to prove everything in the Bible and equally apparent why any findings which first seem not to confirm the biblical record are insufficient reason to declare that the Bible contains an error. Because the Bible is independently established to be the divinely inspired and inerrant Word of God on other grounds, archae­ology cannot logically sit in judgment upon the biblical record whenever an apparent dis­crepancy is encountered. As archaeologist Dr. Clifford Wilson points out, because archaeology deals with insufficient data and unknown variables, and comprises a human en­deavor subject to human failings, “The Bible itself, not archaeology, is our absolute.” In The Stones and the Scriptures, Dr. Edwin Yamauchi observes, “By its very nature archaeologi­cal evidence is fragmentary, often disconnected, and always with the exception of texts— mute and materialistic. Far more than our need of these materials for an understanding of the Bible is our need of the Bible for an understanding of the materials.”[1]

Nevertheless, archaeology is a highly important endeavor for shedding light on biblical content. In essence, archaeology helps us to understand, appreciate and, at times, prop­erly interpret the Bible. Thus, the major function of biblical archaeology is both practical and apologetic, to not only illuminate the text but to confirm the biblical record. Dr. Yamauchi is correct in stating that properly understanding the historical and cultural background of the Bible “has maximal significance for the theologian.” He quotes the distinguished excavator of Mari, Andre Parot, who states, “As is well-known, certain currents of theological thought profess towards history an attitude almost of disdain…. What matters, we are told, is the Word, and the Word alone. But how are we to understand it without setting it against its proper chronological, historical, and geographical background? How are blunders to be avoided if our interpretation treats a given situation completely in vacuo [in a vacuum], and without first attempting to define its exact contours?”[2] As archaeologist Joseph P. Free (1910-1974), who did extensive excavations at the city of Dothan for ten years, observed, “In my lifetime I have heard many messages or sermons that could have some point driven home by the effective use of some archaeological item.”[3] He further points out that archae­ology “has confirmed countless passages that have been rejected by critics as unhistorical or contradictory to known facts.”[4]

Dr. Keith Schoville, author of the comprehensive textbook, Biblical Archeology in Focus, discusses the three main factors involved in the process of recovering the story of biblical history; the Bible, archaeology, and the archaeologist. Further, “each of these has its own peculiarities and limitations that affect the total phenomenon that we call archaeological research, including the final results.”[5] For example, one limitation of the biblical record involves the inability, in certain cases, to properly interpret a portion of Scripture due to lack of information.

Problems with archaeology itself include limitations resulting from the relative newnessof the discipline and problems with the sites or excavation methods themselves. A limitation of the archaeologist involves the kind of educational background and philosophical or theological presuppositions he or she brings to the interpretation of data.

The first problem with archaeological work per se is the relative newness of the disci­pline. This means that not only are there relatively few actual sites excavated among all known sites, but even when sites are excavated, the process is so painstaking that only a small fraction of a particular site can be examined:

There are over 5,000 ancient ruins in what is now Israel and Jordan, leaving aside for the moment the sites in the other areas of the ancient world. Most of the Palestinian sites are tells [mounds of city remains], and of these only a few hundred have attracted excavators. Of the excavated sites, only about 30 have been the scenes of major excavations; the remainder have consisted of small-scale soundings, emergency clearances, or salvage operations. It is important to be aware, also, that even the major excavations have left most of their sites untouched. It is apparent, then, that almost 98 percent of the major ruins of Palestine remain untouched by an expedition. In other words, in comparison to the minuscule amount that has been recovered, a massive amount of data remains untouched, despite nearly a century of excavations.[6]

As another example, “The Iraq Department of Antiquities has records of over 6,500 tells (mounds of buried cities) in the country; well over 6,000 of them have not yet been exca­vated at all.”[7]

Archeology is, of course, about digging, and many ancient sites are buried far beneath the ground making access to them very difficult. Indeed,

…only a minute area of an entire site can ever be dug, especially if explored to any great depth. Thus, ancient Ashdod comprised about 70 acres of lower city area and about 20 acres of Acropolis, some 90 acres in all—but only one and one-half acres of this surface (less than two percent) has been excavated…. While surface-potshurds from the slopes of a mound can give valuable indications of the periods during which a former ancient town was inhabited, only full-scale excavation can reveal the total occupation-history. But as even “full-scale” excavations rarely touch more than a fraction of a site… important features can still be missed by accident. If levels of a particular period occur in only one part of a site—a part not dug—then the archaeologist’s “record” will appear to show a gap in the town’s history, much as when erosion has taken its toll. If one digs 5 percent of a site, one must expect to miss 95 percent (and 100 percent, if it is the wrong site!).[8]

Kitchen proceeds to discuss other difficulties of archaeological work. Besides gaps in the record caused by erosion,

Decayed mud-brick walls can sometimes barely be distinguished at first from the mud in which they are buried. Styles of pottery sometimes changed only slowly, making precise dating difficult. Foundation-trenches, and storage or rubbish-pits cut from one level down into another can mix up the remains from two or more different levels. An undulating town-site can result in late levels in one part being physically lower down than early levels in another part. These and other pitfalls frequently beset the field archaeologist.[9]

Then there is the problem of site-shift:

The citizens of an ancient town sometimes could no longer live comfortably on the crest of their tall mound; or destruction made a new start desirable; or new prosperity led to expansion beyond the old citadel. In such cases a new town or suburb was built either adjoining the old mound or at some little distance from it. Such a development could occur more than once…. For modern investigators, the practical result is that a site appears not to have been lived in at certain periods of history—whereas, in fact, people had simply “moved down the road” and actually lived nearby during the supposedly “missing” periods. Thus, Old Testament Jericho (now Tell es-Sultan) was abandoned from Hellenistic times, and settlement moved to near the springs of Ain-Sultan, onto the site which became modern Jericho (Er-Riha). But in Hellenistic/Roman times, palaces and residential villas were built at a third site nearby (Tulul Abu el-Alaiq). So, today, there are three “Jerichos.” Consequent shifts of the ancient name can thus be deceptive.[10]

A situation like this helps one understand the problems associated with identifying the walls dating to the time of the conquest of that city by Joshua and the Israelites.[11] Ancient Jericho (modern Tell es-Sultan) has been the site of more than two dozen ancient cities, each one built and destroyed on top of the other.

(to be continued)


  1. Edwin Yamauchi, The Stones and the Scriptures (New York: J. B. Lippencott, 1972), p. 21
  2. Ibid., pp. 21-22.
  3. Joseph P. Free, revised and expanded by Howard F. Vos, Archeology and Bible History (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), p. IX.
  4. Ibid., p. 13
  5. Keith N. Schoville, Biblical Archaeology in Focus (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1978), p. 154.
  6. Ibid., p. 157.
  7. Free and Vos, pp. 293-94.
  8. K. A. Kitchen, The Bible in Its World: The Bible and Archeology Today (Downers Grove, Il: InterVarsity Press, 1977), p. 12.
  9. Ibid., p. 11.
  10. Ibid., p. 13.
  11. Schoville, P. 156.; Dr. Bryant Wood’s article in the Biblical Archeological Review is also relevant.


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