“Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” –Hebrews 11:1 (NIV)
How about a few random bits of trivia to help paint a picture of Biblical times?
1. Only about five million of the more than 50 million people (10 percent) in the Roman Empire were full Roman citizens.
2. Like many of the Roman innovators, King Herod also built roads to be able to transport multitudes of people. Along the south area of the temple, he had a 21-foot-wide, stone-paved road built in front of the gates. Along the west area of the temple, he had a 41-foot-wide main street built along the western wall of the Temple Mount. It was also a prime spot for multitudes of people to congregate.
3. Also found 25 feet below the street in the area west of the temple was a massive aqueduct that carried rainwater collected in various channels and streets in the Temple Mount.
4. The transportation routes that connected the seven churches in western Asia Minor are basically still used today.
5. The barbaric practices of Roman Circuses in amphitheaters, often involving Christian persecution and as many as 2,500 Judean prisoners in Nero’s reign, were partly what lead to the demise of the Roman Empire because of the decay they caused in the moral and social fabric of the Empire.
6. The theatre at Ephesus seated 24,000 on three levels of twenty-two rows each.
7. Pergamum’s library contained 200,000 volumes and only the library in Alexandria, Egypt rivaled it. It had an amphitheater that seated fifty thousand people and a theatre that could seat thirty thousand.
So, how do we effectively paint the picture of all the Roman roads, Roman cities and the Jewish Diaspora? Most of the trivia above is not specifically pulled from the Bible but you probably recognize the terms and landmarks. Undoubtedly, early Christians encountered them.
Obviously there are a lot of historical accounts aside from the Bible that provide a wealth of insight. It’s important to study secular history as well as the Bible to understand the origins of our faith. Some of the most fascinating historical accounts, though, are the archeological remains that scientists have discovered over the years. There are obviously some great ancient tributes still standing (like the Roman Colosseum and the Greek Acropolis) but, unfortunately, there are very few archaeological findings that prove events of the Bible. That also means that Biblical accounts don’t get disproven by archaeology. So, how does that help us understand the Bible?
It helps us understand the culture of the age in which Christianity grew up.
Archaeology is a key component in putting history into context and proving that certain civilizations and cultures existed. However, much of it is still objective and open to human interpretation. It does not always coincide with the Christian faith and, in fact, most times it doesn’t prove outright an event from the Bible. Because it shouldn’t try to explain the Bible, archeology can sometimes challenge the Christian faith. Since it is the science of studying remains and activity, it does not account for any supernatural acts of God. Of course, if a person or discipline of study does not account for miracles, it will be at odds with Biblical history.
Biblical archaeology is perhaps the next best thing to an eye-witness account but keep in mind that even eye witnesses are not always considered absolute in law enforcement. Even though remains might be thousands of years old, they are still physical examples of the life of a particular age. Like written history, archaeological artifacts cannot usually be verified completely and many are still debated. Like in the case of the Shroud of Turin, forgeries will likely always remain and exact dating will probably never be absolute. Regardless, the remains of theatres, temples, roads and aqueducts provide a greater appreciation and fascinating glimpses into human life of the times. Here’s the crux, when it comes to God. While archaeology can prove the existence of written history and confirm and authenticate the Bible, it cannot prove that the Bible is inspired by God or account for the supernatural acts of God depicted in the Bible.
What are some discrepancies between archaeology and the Bible? Many archaeologists, and even some clergy, believe Jesus was not actually born in Bethlehem. Instead, archaeological findings suggest he might have been born in his hometown of Nazareth. Many believe Bethlehem was too far for an extremely pregnant Mary to travel by donkey from Nazareth. Micah prophesied that “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” (Micah 5:2). When in doubt, we error on the side of the Word of God.
Archaeology doesn’t yet contribute much to the literal life and ministry of Jesus. That is mostly to be expected, though. He likely grew up poor and much of his adult life included miracles that likely can’t be proved by archaeology (back to the supernatural aspect again). The lack of archeology may be the way God intended. Christianity is a faith and too much physical proof may lead to false belief. Outside of the writers of the Gospels, few others probably took much interest in this man from backwoods Galilee. The educated Jews of the time didn’t write about him because he defied them. The educated Romans probably didn’t care much about a Jew preaching a different way than that of the Roman Empire. Jesus traveled light and often. His group of disciples and he really had no possessions therefore they really wouldn’t have left many artifacts. They also didn’t really have a physical home base where artifacts could be excavated.
Perhaps most telling, though, is the setting in which most of the Bible takes place. The land of Palestine is a harsh environment. Its southern end is arid and the northern end is rugged. Even more severe, though, is the political unrest it’s experienced. The modern-day violence in the Middle East is not a recent phenomenon. Wars and fighting have been going on there from the book of Joshua on. Jerusalem has been completely sacked twice, once by the Babylonians and once by the Romans. Those were civilizations that cared nothing about the history or religious heritage of the Hebrews. Much of the written history and artifacts were likely completely destroyed. If artifacts were valuable, they were taken as plunder. Strangely, it might be just as likely to find Old Testament Jewish artifacts in Babylon as it would be in Jerusalem. With all the destruction and rebuilding, many artifacts may be buried under many layers of earth.
The Tel Aviv University archaeologist Ze’ev Herzog’s wrote a 1999 cover page article in the weekly magazine Haaretz. It was headlined “Deconstructing the walls of Jericho” it disputed most of the premise behind the Book of Exodus. According to Herzog, there is evidence which supports that “the Israelites were never in Egypt, did not wander in the desert, did not conquer the land in a military campaign and did not pass it on to the 12 tribes of Israel. Perhaps even harder to swallow is the fact that the united monarchy of David and Solomon, which is described by the Bible as a regional power, was at most a small tribal kingdom.” Additionally, he also believes there is no evidence of the Biblical patriarchs, such as Abraham and Jacob, as they are described in the book of Genesis. Instead, they may have lived later during the time of the judges. Many of Herzog’s views have not been absolutely confirmed in order to negate the Bible.
It would be reasonable to believe that David and Solomon reigned over a small kingdom, depending on the definition of “small.” The land of Judah and Israel is a relatively small area when compared to empires such as Alexander the Great or the Roman Empire. Most Biblical accounts don’t indicate David and Solomon as venturing far outside of the land God gave them in order to increase their borders. It could have been small, but it was feared by foreign powers.
Despite inadequacies and debates about artifacts, archaeology provides a secondary starting point for insight into Biblical history (the Bible itself is the primary starting point). Yamauchi’s Fragmentary Nature of Evidence sheds insight on why archaeology has not connected events in exactly the way they were written in the Bible. In short, Yamauchi stated that artifacts have been buried for thousands of years but only a fraction has survived. Only a fraction of potential archaeological sites have been surveyed and only a fraction of sites surveyed have been excavated. Only a fraction of artifacts found at excavations have been thoroughly analyzed. Even if all the probable sites could be excavated, archaeology is long and tedious.
So, what does archaeology do for our view of the New Testament and Old Testament worlds? I’ve found that written history needs archaeology and archaeology needs written history. While written history provides good road maps for archaeologists to locate dig sites, I wouldn’t consider either one distinctly more important than the other. Both of them can be used to verify one another. Our most effective use of archaeology is to paint a picture of history and put the Bible into a clearer context. In one of the few things I agree with what archaeologist William Dever (a self-professed non-Christian) believes, I believe archaeology illuminates the Bible.
This is the way any Christian can appreciate archaeology and Biblical interpretation. Let it illuminate the way we read the scripture, the sermons we hear, and the Christian conversations in which we engage. Discover how so many things we study in church groups can be related to archaeology. While not all finds have proven the Bible to the letter, they provide a clearer context for them. Begin to see the many parallels between ancient Roman times and our modern times. When we begin to fully understand the archaeological history of the Bible, we begin to see how the Bible was written for an ancient society but has profound teaching points for us today.
How do you picture archeology?
Do you need proof of Jesus?
What do ancient relics mean to you?