Does the record of history help verify or disprove the Bible? What does the field of biblical archaeology show about the accuracy of the Bible?
The Bible describes people, places and events spanning thousands of years. It claims to be the inerrant Word of God, true in every detail.
Does archaeological evidence confirm biblical accounts, or does the Bible fail to hold up to historical scrutiny?
The Bible and archaeology
Archaeology is the scientific study of peoples and cultures from the past. It is based on the analysis of artifacts, inscriptions and other remains from previous societies. Biblical archaeology is more narrowly focused on the civilizations and events described in the Bible.
As one might expect, the field of biblical archaeology can often be controversial. After all, many biblical passages describe things so incredible that some people view them as better suited for a work of science fiction than as a target of scientific inquiry.
Consider just a few of the amazing events in the Bible:
- A great flood destroyed all human life on the earth with the exception of eight people—Noah and his family, who were entrusted with the care of a variety of animals. These survivors waited for the flood to subside while living in a giant ark.
- A group of slaves—the Israelites—were in harsh bondage to Egypt, a powerful nation. The God of the Israelites freed them from slavery by inflicting a series of devastating plagues on the Egyptians. The Israelites were then trapped by the Red Sea, only to have the waters miraculously parted so that they could walk through, after which the waters closed back on the Egyptians, drowning them.
- Jesus Christ, a divine member of the God family, willingly gave up His glory and came to this earth as a human being, where He was born of a virgin. As God in the flesh, Christ sacrificed Himself to pay the penalty for the sins of all humanity, before being resurrected three days and three nights later.
Examples such as the above lead some people to assume that the Bible is merely a collection of fanciful tales, with no historical accuracy. However, contrary to that misconception, archaeology has repeatedly verified many of the biblical accounts.
“Are the Bible’s Stories True?”
In the Dec. 18, 1995, issue of Time magazine, the cover story article was titled “Are the Bible’s Stories True? Archaeology’s Evidence.” The article examined a variety of scholarly perspectives and argued that the truth lay somewhere in the middle: that many of the biblical accounts—particularly Israelite history after King Solomon’s time—were corroborated by independent evidence; but that many scholars viewed biblical people and events from before that time as mere fabrications.
An interesting aspect of this conclusion was that the criticism of the Bible’s historical accuracy was not based on definitive findings contradicting biblical accounts, but rather on assumptions, estimates of dates and a lack of archaeological evidence.
For example, the story of the Exodus describes so many miraculous events that scholars often dismiss it as myth without giving it serious consideration. The story of the Israelites’ conquest of Canaan under Joshua is doubted because many historians believe it would have occurred in the 13th century B.C. (more than a century later than the dating indicated by biblical chronology), and no evidence of destruction in that area had been uncovered for that time period.
However, the Time article admits that “a single discovery could erase all doubts about the Exodus or the sacking of Jericho or just about anything else in the Bible,” and that even without such discoveries, “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”
Some interesting archaeological discoveries
Although there has been no definitive secular verification of some of the miraculous events mentioned earlier, such as the Exodus, numerous accounts in the Bible have been corroborated by archaeological finds. These discoveries often overturn widespread beliefs that certain biblical people or events were fictional.
Here are just a few of the discoveries:
- Assyria was described as a powerful empire in the Old Testament, and yet by the time of Jesus Christ, all physical evidence of its existence had seemingly vanished. As the centuries progressed, the Bible contained the only record of the Assyrian Empire and of Nineveh, one of its capitals. This changed in the 19th century when Paul-Emile Botta and Sir Austen Henry Layard uncovered the remains of Assyrian cities, including Nineveh.
- In the 1970s, archaeologist Nahman Avigad discovered the Israelite Tower in Jerusalem, which would have been part of the city’s fortifications. Avigad also found four arrowheads at the site; for one of the arrowheads he was able to narrow down the date ranges during which it would have been used, leading to the conclusion that it came from the Babylonian siege in the 6th century B.C. This supports the biblical account of the destruction of Jerusalem.
- The pool of Siloam was the location to which Jesus Christ sent a blind man to wash himself (John 9:1-7). Steps leading to the pool were uncovered during an excavation in 2004, and the discovery of the pool was formally announced in 2005. This find added historical credibility to John’s Gospel account.
Time and time again, archaeological finds have confirmed many biblical accounts. There have been a number of cases where the Bible has provided seemingly insignificant details of people, places or societies that were later found to accurately reflect the time and environment in which the particular verses were written.
Contrary to the mistaken idea that the Bible is merely a collection of myths and deserves no archaeological credibility, biblical history has proven to be so reliable that some archaeologists devote themselves to the task of studying and excavating locations in the Middle East—with the purpose of comparing their findings to the Bible.
Why is biblical archaeology important?
So what should all of this mean to you? Although many biblical accounts have been confirmed, there are also many miraculous events described in the Bible that have little or no archaeological verification. Does a failure to definitively corroborate events such as the Exodus negate any value provided by biblical archaeology?
First, we should ensure that we understand the limits of biblical archaeology. For example, the Bible shows that Jesus Christ existed eternally as a divine member of the God family before coming down to this earth as a human being.
Currently, the archaeological evidence that Christ was God in the flesh can be found in eyewitness accounts from those with whom He interacted and to whom He demonstrated His power. The Bible contains several such accounts; however, those who are skeptical of the Bible’s claims will likely remain unconvinced by the unearthing of additional firsthand accounts from the time of Christ.
Similarly, there are many different stories of the Flood that have been uncovered—not only the biblical description, but also versions from other cultures and religions. Although the widespread abundance of these stories indicates that the event actually did happen, people often dismiss them all as mere myths. When it comes to miraculous occurrences, archaeology has its limits in terms of convincing the skeptics.
Archaeology and fulfilled prophecy
However, that does not mean the value of biblical archaeology is limited to only verifying the “ordinary” occurrences in the Bible. One of the key proofs of the Bible is fulfilled prophecy: God uses His human servants to announce events in advance; and then those events actually take place at some point in the future.
As mentioned earlier, many biblical passages contain seemingly insignificant details that would typically only be known by people who were living at that particular time—details that only come to light centuries or millennia later due to the work of archaeologists. When it comes to the writings of biblical prophets, archaeological verification of these details can help to confirm that the prophets actually wrote before the corresponding events occurred.
Archaeology and the scientific knowledge in the Bible
Similarly, archaeology can draw a sharp contrast between the advanced scientific knowledge demonstrated in the Bible, and the knowledge of the other nations that existed during the time of various biblical events.
For example, ancient Egypt was a powerful nation that held the Israelites in slavery, and yet the Ebers Papyrus—an Egyptian medical text from around 1500 B.C.—demonstrates an incredible lack of medical knowledge from the Egyptians. Remedies prescribed by the Egyptians included beetle shells, pig eyes and dog toes.
There is a huge difference between these practices and the laws of quarantine and sanitation that God gave to the Israelites—laws that are still valid in principle today. Archaeology can demonstrate that the Bible contains scientific knowledge that was far ahead of its time—which would be expected from the Word of God, who created this physical universe and all things in it.
Our personal responsibility
Although archaeological evidence can potentially be used to verify various aspects of the Bible to those who are skeptical, the truth of the matter is that biblical archaeology is often held to a much higher standard than other more widely accepted areas of scientific inquiry.
Biblical critics contend that there is a lack of archaeological evidence for many of the prominent people, places and events in the Bible. However, a similar criticism can be leveled against the gaps in the fossil record—which demonstrate a lack of evidence in support of the theory of evolution—and yet evolution is still viewed by many as a scientific fact.
Similarly, biblical critics argue that many of the miraculous events described in the Bible seem impossible. However, many scientists accept as fact that life on this earth originated from something that was not living, and that the nonliving matter simply appeared from somewhere—a combination of events that seem impossible.
Ultimately, some people will remain skeptical of the truth of the Bible regardless of what archaeologists discover. The question that we each should answer is this: How much physical proof do I need before I become willing to believe that the Bible is not simply a collection of stories, but rather the inspired Word of God?
There has been ample archaeological evidence that has already corroborated many of the biblical accounts, and work in this area continues to progress. But although biblical archaeology is a valuable tool in verifying the truth of the Scriptures, the real key to creating a meaningful and lasting history of our own is to accept that truth—and to develop a living faith in God, the Author of the Bible.
For further study on this topic, read the articles in this section: “Is the Bible True? Can You Prove It?”