Archaeology and the Biblical Record-Part 3

By: Dr. John Ankerberg, Dr. John Weldon; ©2003
The authors explain that carelessness and bias on the part of the archaeologist can negatively impact the conclusions drawn from a site. Regardless, they say, even with all the problems that can occur, archaeology has repeatedly confirmed the accuracy of the biblical record!

Archaeology and the Biblical Record—Part 3

The Problems of Archaeology (con’t)

There are also problems with the methodologies involved in excavation. When you crack an egg for breakfast you have to live with it—so if you want it “over easy” and not scrambled you have to be careful. Every archaeological site is unique, and once part of a site is disturbed, that experiment can never be redone. This underscores why the method­ological approach of the archaeologist is so important. To illustrate, problems have arisen not only from lack of proper techniques but from the archaeologist’s own methodological idiosyncrasies. For example, a good number of major excavations were conducted before 1936, prior to the development of the more sophisticated techniques currently employed. As a result,

The results of earlier excavations may be suspect…. Megiddo, Jericho, Shechem, Gezer, and the famed Tell el-Hesi are among these sites which have been re-excavated recently in order to clarify the work of the earlier excavations. [Tell el-Hesi, originally incorrectly identified with Lachish, was the 120-foot mound near Gaza where, in 1890, Sir Flinders Petrie introduced the first steps toward stratigraphical excavation. This greatly increased interest in Palestinian excavation in that prior to this time, mounds were usually considered natural formations rather than archaeological deposits.] Undoubtedly the final results of other earlier excavations will be reevaluated in the future through similar operations.[1]

Archaeologists themselves can sometimes be the source of the problem, either by nature or nurture:

In archaeology as in other fields, different individuals do things differently, and if any statement can be made about archaeologists generally it is that each one is strongly individualistic. Therefore no self-respecting individual will feel constrained to excavate his site according to an absolute standard that has been imposed upon him by an exterior source.[2]

Further, the archaeologist is

…inevitably a product of his times. The world in which he grew up and in which he functions has left its indelible mark upon him, and it affects not only what he is particularly interested in, in terms of his archaeological activities, but also how he understands and interprets what he finds. The general validity of this idea can be recognized by noting that Palestinian archaeology has gone through several phases in which the predominant interests of the investigators have undergone gradual modification.[3]

Besides those issues there are also problems associated with recording of the data:

The exact and meticulous recording that is required in modern archaeological research is also subject to manifold variations. No two excavations are going to employ, among other things, exactly the same recording forms, and the emphasis upon meticulousness will vary from dig to dig, again because archaeology is a distinctly human enterprise and because directors of digs are notoriously individualistic.[4]

To cite an example, the importance of pottery analysis as a key to chronology is still evolving as a method. Thus, “only occasionally are shurds profiled by cutting them with a ceramic saw so that a clean, sharp surface is observed and recorded.”[5] And there are

additional problems associated with photography, recording of ecological data, and many other important details.[6]

Finally, there is the issue of properly interpreting the data one uncovers. Although some archaeologists avoid interpretation and merely present the evidence from their excavations, leaving the interpretative task to other specialists, most archaeologists seek to interpret the meaning of their finds in their publications and lectures. Despite the necessity of interpreta­tion, this is one of the most problematic aspects of archaeological research, because of the

…incomplete and fragmentary nature of the surviving remains and, especially, because of the complexity of the human element, the interpreter. Interpretation has been called an art, with the interpreter as the artist, and as with an artist, the interpreter brings all that he or she is to the task, including his educational background, his experiences in life, his philosophical presuppositions, and in biblical archaeology his views about the Bible.[7]

Finally, it is crucial to remember that

…there are no pieces of evidence that carry their own interpretation. Meaning can only be derived from context. Archaeological evidence is dependent on the context of date, place, materials, and style. Most important, how it is understood depends on the interpreter’s presuppositions and world view. Therefore, not all interpretations of the evidence will be friendly to Christianity.[8]

The above discussion gives one an idea of the problems inherent to archaeological work. However, this should never cause us to conclude that archaeology is an unimportant or impossible endeavor. To the contrary, a large number of important discoveries and legiti­mate conclusions continue to be made from modern archaeological work. One only need think of the law code of Hammurabi, king of Babylon, the Egyptian Rosetta Stone and the Behistun inscription, the Mesha Stone, the Amarna Letters from Egypt, the Elephantine papyri, the Hittite clay tablets from Boghazkoy, the religious texts from Ras Shamra in Syria, the Nuzi tablets and the Mari texts, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Nag Hammadi, the fasci­nating search for Noah’s Ark, 600,000 Babylonian clay tablets, 25,000 Ebla fragments (Tell Mardikh), and other magnificent finds. All this and more helps us to understand how truly important archaeology is and how great a debt we owe to archaeologists for the many sacrifices involved in their painstaking work.

The problems inherent to archaeological work mean only that findings must be viewed cautiously and critically until all the data are in. One often hears of the “assured results” of archaeological research and yet such assured results often turn out to be fragile. “These limitations indicate the importance of the idea of ‘the present level of information.’ There must always be an open-ended quality to archaeological research which permits and en­courages whatever changes in the understanding of old data the new data may require.”[9]

Regardless, what is most satisfying about biblical archaeology is that, even with all the problems, archaeology has repeatedly confirmed the accuracy of the biblical record. Ar­chaeological work has confirmed a great deal of both the Old Testament and the New Testament, and even theological liberals and Bible skeptics are forced to admit this. Ar­chaeology has consistently refuted higher critical views of the Bible and corrected claims of alleged errors in Scripture.


  1. Keith Schoville, Biblical Archeology in Focus (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1978), p. 157.
  2. Ibid., p. 158.
  3. Ibid., p. 161.
  4. Ibid., p. 158.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid., p. 159.
  7. Ibid., p. 165.
  8. Norman Geisler and Ron Brooks, When Skeptics Ask: A Handbook on Christian Evidences (Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1990), p. 179.
  9. Schoville, p. 159.4


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