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Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Can archaeology really support the Bible? - Denyse O'Leary

[This is one of my recent columns for ChristianWeek, for which i have written for eleven years.]

Well, the answer to the title question depends mainly on the kind of support you are looking for.

While spectacular finds like King Tut’s tomb make world headlines, archaeology depends largely on the rubbish dumps of ruined cities, accidentally lost items that once belonged to people who have been dead for thousands of years, accidentally found donation receipts, etc.

It can never take us back in time to watch the key Bible events for ourselves. So no, it can’t confirm that the events really happened in the sense of providing live television coverage.

It can, however, address certain common "skeptical" objections to the stories recounted in the Bible. One objection is, that people made up the stories in the Bible hundreds of years after the fact, as pure fiction, and another is that, even if they hadn’t, we have no way of knowing that the Bible was handed down in an accurate form.

With respect to the first objection, over the decades, archaeology has slowly but surely been filling in pieces, showing that the people and places described in the Bible could certainly have existed. An interesting recent example is an early Philistine artifact that concerns, of all people, Goliath of Gath, the Philistine giant who, we are told, menaced the Israelite army (1 Samuel 17, NIV).

In 2005, archaeologists digging at Gath, Goliath’s home and assumed burial place, found a shard of pottery that includes his name. Okay, the shard does not prove that the giant Goliath existed or that David, future king of Israel, killed him. It does, however, remove one theory from contention: That people simply made up names like Goliath, centuries later, for political or religious purposes.

Dr. Aren Maeir, a professor at Bar-Ilan University and director of the excavation, told news agencies, "What this means is that at the time there were people there named Goliath," in which case "It shows us that David and Goliath’s story reflects the cultural reality of the time." (Independent, 12 November 2005)

In general, my advice would be, in matters of this sort, do not bet against the Bible. There are still lots of unearthed shards ...

Okay, so what about accuracy in transmission? The Dead Sea Scrolls, to be exhibited in June at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, provide a useful example. Contradicting centuries of claims otherwise, the Scroll of the Prophet Isaiah (a thousand years before the Masoretic text) was 95% word for word to the original text, the only differences being obvious copying errors and spelling differences.

Today, such errors would be virtually impossible, because we use mechanical devices to make copies. But when all copying was done by hand, errors were abundant, unavoidable, and not usually due to political or religious bias.

There is a tendency (no surprise) in popular media to front questionable information, as if it were reliable, as long as it brings traditional Christian beliefs into question. The Jesus Tomb is a good illustration.

In February, 2007, James Cameron and Simcha Jacobovici announced that they had found the family tomb in which Jesus was buried, along with family members. However, when people who understand statistics have run them on the Jesus Tomb, it comes up empty - at least of Jesus and his family. Sure, some people were buried there, but not Jesus’s family. However, the whole affair has been clouded by unusual demands for secrecy on the part of the archaeologists. (See note below.)

And the James Ossuary? In 2002 the Biblical Archaeology Review announced that the burial box of Jesus’s brother, Jame,s had been found in Jerusalem. The ossuary was exhibited at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto in 2002-2003. Christians flocked to see it. After all, if true, it might support Christian beliefs.

Doubts surfaced, however, because the box came from a private collector, not a dig. And by 2005, the James Ossuary was formally treated as a fake.

My conclusion? What archaeology unearths is interesting, but the best evidence for the truths taught in the Bible is the difference they make in your own life.

Note: See http://www.ingermanson.com/jesus/art/stats3.php for a comprehensive discussion of the Jesus Tomb question.

Denyse O'Leary is a Toronto-based Canadian author, journalist, and blogger who is the author of By Design or by Chance? and co-author, with Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A neuroscientist’s case for the existence of the soul (Harper: August 2007).

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