September 21, 2015 Charles Gaulden

The Bible and Archeology: A Young Discipline

People are amazed to discover how relatively young the field of biblical archaeology is. William F. Albright (1892-1979), considered the father of biblical archaeology, went to Israel in 1928 to begin his work. When he arrived, very little had been discovered. While it is true that earlier surveyors like Robinson and Smith had been very effective in mapping out the land, much remained as far as the actual digs go.

Albright built upon the early ceramic work of Egyptologist Flinders Petrie (1853-1942) and perfected the dating methods which are still used to this day. He also learned Arabic, and was pleased to discover that the Arabs had kept the location of most of the biblical sites in place, keeping the Arabic names given to them. Before his life ended, Albright was familiar with about 25 languages and had over 800 published articles on various archaeological, biblical, historical, and linguistic topics. He was certainly one of the most brilliant minds Christianity has ever produced.

He also trained at John Hopkins University, where many of the future scholars who would also leave their mark included Raymond Brown, Frank Cross, David Freedman, and George Wright. One of his students, William F. Kuykendall, became an Egyptologist and taught for many years at Erskine Seminary in South Carolina. Dr. Kuykendall greatly influenced two future Southeastern University professors – Dr. Kevin Johnson and I. While Albright and Kuykendall are deceased, in many respects Kevin and I feel like scholarly descendants of them.

It is difficult to overemphasize the role Albright played in this young discipline. Prior to his work and later others as well, the biblical minimalists were making overconfident, negative attacks against the Bible’s historical reliability. Today, so much has now confirmed the basic historical framework of much of the Bible’s narratives; the minimalist position has greatly waned. Assyrian, Babylonian, Canaanite, Egyptian, Greek, Persian, Roman, Syrian and other records often dovetail quite well with the biblical archaeological findings.

Over 100 biblical individuals are already referenced in tangible archaeological findings, with perhaps another 200+ lesser known individuals possibly discovered through their seal imprints.

Some estimate that only 3% to 5% of archaeological sites have been touched. Particularly interesting is the high number of the northern and southern kings (930-586 B.C.) which have been documented.

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As an example of the newness of this field, I have attached a photo from the British Museum of a small cuneiform tablet referencing the governor Tattenai in Ezra 5:3, 6; 6:6, 13. Tattenai lived during the time period of King Darius and the prophets Haggai and Zechariah. When the prophets encouraged the people to begin building the temple, the Persian leader Cambyses had previously stopped them from starting their construction. Upon Cambyses’ death and the prophetic encouragement of Haggai, the building began for a second time, though the Jews had no new official approval. Tattenai investigated the upstart building efforts and sent a letter to the new Persian king, Darius, and requested him to search the records to see if Cambyses’ father, Cyrus, had originally given the Jews permission to build the temple as the Jews claimed. Tattenai’s letter proved effective, and Darius found Cyrus’ records allowing the Jews to return to their homeland to rebuild their temple.

When I paid the British Museum a fee to acquire the rights to use this photo, the curator told me that this photo has never been published in a journal or book to date. This SEU blog is the first to do so.

With over 95% to 97% of the biblical archaeological sites waiting to be uncovered, I wonder what exciting things await this young field of study.

Archaeology can be extremely helpful in helping Christians and non-Christians alike in understanding the historical reality of the Bible, but the Bible is not dependent on archaeology. If no shred of evidence for the existence of King Manasseh (2 Kings 21; 2 Chron. 33), for instance, is found through the science of archeology, the lack of historical findings does not negate the spiritual importance or truth in the narrative of King Manasseh. In the narrative of Manasseh (especially through 2 Chronicles), we get a beautiful picture of redemption and forgiveness even though Manasseh “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord” early on in his life. If archaeology helps us confirm the story of Manasseh and the siege that took place on Judah that helped bring him to repentance, then as Christians we have a wonderful example of the historicity of the Bible. However, if no evidence is ever found, our belief is not based on archaeology, but on the God who reveals Himself to us through the Bible. (For the record, there is archaeological evidence for Manasseh which can be read about here.)

However, the biblical text has been found to be a most remarkable text and certainly worthy of respect within archaeology. The Bible can give wonderful context to archeology, while not being dependent on archeology itself.

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About the Author

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Charles Gaulden Charles H. Gaulden is a professor at Southeastern University in Lakeland, Florida. Prior to coming to Southeastern, he was a pastor for thirty years in South Carolina. He completed his doctorate from Erskine Seminary. He has also completed two post-doctoral degrees in advanced biblical languages and another with a focus in the Psalms’ literature. Part of his doctorate was completed in archaeology in Israel. His wife Vanessa is a public school teacher in Lakeland.
  • Daniel LeBlanc

    I think it only fair that you mention the archeological evidence that shows what is opposite of the biblical account. For instance, the absence of evidence of a destroyed Jericho where it should be seems to show that this destruction never took place. I have discussed this lightly with Dr. Johnson who pointed me in a good direction about the characteristics of the genre of the ancient war narrative. What do you think Christians should do with this type of archeological absence of evidence other than ignore it?

    • Aaron Gabriel Ross

      Hey Daniel,

      I will get your question over to Dr. Gaulden and hopefully we can get a bit of a discussion going on this!

      Thanks,
      Aaron