ReligionScience

Biblical Archaeology

Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

Mt. Nebo in Jordan at Sunset.

I consider archaeology a very interesting and important field of research in general, but I am often skeptical of Biblical Archaeology. Particularly when archaeologists working in the Holy Land are devout Christians, I wonder about the objectiveness of their research. Of course, no research is without its biases, but I think that it is dangerous to cross religion with archaeology. For instance, if an archaeologist working in the Holy Land believes in the supernatural Biblical stories and believes that all of the characters in The Bible actually existed as individual people, I think that those beliefs introduce a dangerous bias into their research.

The Bible is a literary work, in essence. In many ways, The Bible is much like epic works such as Beowulf or The Odyssey. The big difference between The Bible and these great epic works is that millions of people believe The Bible is a literal, divine religious text. Also, I’d argue that Beowulf and The Odyssey are far better written. At least the stories in these works are coherent. The Bible is a real hodge podge of material: part historical record (long lists of who begat whom), part general history (the tales of people moving about), part allegory (moral stories), and part fantastic legend (Jesus and the fishes and loaves, for instance). The characters in The Bible may or may not have existed. Take Jesus, for example. Was there a single Jesus figure? Perhaps. Or perhaps Jesus was an amalgamation of several people. Perhaps the sections of The Bible about Jesus and his life are part reality, part fiction. Perhaps they’re entirely fiction.

In a way, Biblical Archaeology is sort of like Odysseyian Archaeology. The Odyssey, too, may be based on actual events. However, the archaeologists pursuing Odysseyian Archaeology at least recognize that they are studying the archaeology and history of a fictional, literary work that may be based on real places and events.

Personally, I believe that Biblical Archaeology can be a worthwhile pursuit. I used to live in Jordan, and I enjoyed visiting Christian sites such as Mt. Nebo when I was there. I think that many of the places, people, and events in The Bible may be real or at least inspired by reality. Aren’t all literary works inspired by reality, though? Even the most far-fetched science fiction series has some grounding in reality. So, yes, even if The Bible is entirely fictional (which I think unlikely), there’s something to be said for Biblical Archaeology. At a minimum, Biblical Archaeologists can study Biblical settings and times.

Archaeological studies have (and may continue to) produce evidence supporting that some of the events in The Bible actually occured. I’m all for research in Biblical Archaeology, but I am more skeptical of this research than I am of general archaeological research. I want to make sure that the research is being done objectively and that there are not alterior motives biasing the results. When one wants to believe badly, one is often blind to the truth. Consciously or subconsciously, Biblical Archaeologists may allow their beliefs to bias their good science. For these days, archaeology really is becoming quite scientific.

Generally, I am on the side of those who criticize Biblical Archaeology. In the case of the recent documentary about the so-called “Lost Tomb of Christ”, I am on the side of the traditional Biblical Archaeologists. This documentary claims that a small cave tomb in Israel contains the remains of Jesus and his family, including Jesus’s son Judah. Who knew Jesus had a son? I thought Jesus had a daughter in the Da Vinci Code. In any case, I think that the chances of the tomb being genuine are small. I think that a few filmmakers are out to make a quick buck. And guess what? It’s working. I read the news article, and I’ll probably view the documentary if I have the chance. Despite my skepticism, I am sort of fascinated with the idea. I read the Dan Brown books Angels and Demons and The Da Vinci Code for a similar reason. I don’t agree with the far-fetched ideas in these books, but they do make for some good fast-paced action stories.

Evelyn

Evelyn is a geologist, writer, traveler, and skeptic residing in Cape Town, South Africa with frequent trips back to the US for work. She has two adorable cats; enjoys hiking, rock climbing, and kayaking; and has a very large rock collection. You can follow her on twitter @GeoEvelyn. She also writes a geology blog called Georneys.

Related Articles

22 Comments

  1. There are some good biblical archeologists out there. I do find it fascinating to learn about the cultures that were around when the bible was being written.

    I read "The Bible Unearthed" by Neil Asher Silberman and Israel Finkelstein over christmas, and it was a really entertaining read, and it felt like there was real archaeology going on. Perhaps this was simply because they didn't have an idea they were trying to prove, but were just showing where the evidence led.

  2. Considering that Cameron and Jacobivici put out that horrible "Exodus Decoded", which has some major distortions, cherry picking, and in some cases it seems like outright lies, expect more of the same with this one. From a news brief on the Discovery Channel site, they analyzed the remains in comparison to the James Ossuary (a known forgery), and did a statistical analysis of "remains" they found in the coffins. They also have some connection to some other crackpot, and other posts on this subject have links to it (I don't have it on hand). I already sent a note to the DC for promoting pseudoscience such as this – I guess Uri Geller and Sylvia Browne will be the next to get shows on the Discovery Channel.

  3. Biblical Archaeology is a very real and very valid field of study in Achaeology that is based on the non-fictional portions of the bible. My wife is an Archaeologist and when she took a class in Biblical Archaeology (NOT at a freaky religious school) about half the class dropped because the class was not what they thought it was going to be. In fact the Professor went to great lengths to lay out exactly what the class was (and wasn't) for this very reason.

    I think the term "Biblical Archaeology" has been co-opted by people who are not really doing objective science. (or any kind of science for that matter)

    P

  4. "fast-paced action stories" and Dan Brown? HA! Dan Brown makes for good quest style stories, but when you pause every few pages for huge slabs of exposition, this "fast-paced action stories" doth not make.

    Matthew Reilly on the other hand… (no, not religious-based stories, but very fast and very action.)

  5. Yeah. If you’re not careful, you might get (religion) (archaeology) sine theta.

    Even worse, a lot of the time when you're crossing with religion with other subjects, folks end up applying the underhand rule instead of the right-hand rule, and that's when you get completely fucked.

  6. PaleoProf: I agree. There is some very legitimate Biblical Archaeology. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls is an example of some important, legitimate Biblical Archaeology. I just think it's a subject in archaeology that needs to be treated with a little extra caution.

  7. As much as I'd like this to be real, I doubt that it is. There were other people named Jesus at the time, and Mary was very common name. Plus you would think that the Christian church of the time would have done a better job of hiding the body.

  8. Personally, I think it's probably in everyone's best interest if biblical archaeology is a field that has enough atheists among its ranks to keep it objective. But it's also better if those atheists are actually qualified archaeologists, not movie-directors.

  9. As much as I’d like this to be real, I doubt that it is.

    You should have major doubts. All you need to see is that they claim to have "masses" of DNA evidence. In order to have relevant DNA evidence for indentification, you need a known sample to compare it to; in this case that means a lot of DNA from known descendants of Mary or Jesus (and where did they get this?) or DNA known to be from either Mary or God.

    Anyone want to bet that they have that?

    This is yet another example of a couple of very bad things you see in reporting, esp. reporting with a science connection:

    1) The people mostly will not know enough science (which is not much at all) to realise that the above DNA problem shows the claims are nonsense,

    2) The press either doesn't know enough science or doesn't care to educate its readers on the matter.

    While this particular story is not something we're required to know enough about to vote on, many science matters are. No matter where you stand on them, things like global warming, cigarette smoking, GMOs, stem cell research, and many others are science matters we vote on, either directly or by voting for or against certain candidates. If our citizens are too uneducated to understand simple science matters, and our press too uneducated or perhaps caring more for a good story than for an accurate story, how can we expect to vote intelligently?

  10. All you need to see is that they claim to have “masses” of DNA evidence. In order to have relevant DNA evidence for indentification, you need a known sample to compare it to; in this case that means a lot of DNA from known descendants of Mary or Jesus (and where did they get this?) or DNA known to be from either Mary or God.

    Wait a sec. Don't they just need to show that Jesus has DNA from Joseph to falsify the old Son O'God story?

    Personally, I never bought it anyway. I mean, why did they go to all that trouble to trace Joseph's lineage all the way back to King David if they believed he wasn't the real father? And didn't the Old Testament prophecies say the messiah had to be a descendant of David?

  11. Now I've read that apparently the "proof" the DNA provided was that two of the tombs contained people who did not share the same MtDNA. Hence they claim the two were likely married, which if it was a family burial site seems possible (although they could be not married male and female but unrelated — related only by marriage, that is, in laws). Hence they also claim this means they are Mary Magdalen and Jesus, which is just so obvious, cause who else could it be?

    Frankly, I think James Cameron is just scared to do a real movie and have its box office compared to Titanic, so he's doing these projects. Get back to it, James, face the fact that it won't be Titanic. People will understand.

  12. Now I’ve read that apparently the “proof” the DNA provided was that two of the tombs contained people who did not share the same MtDNA. Hence they claim the two were likely married, which if it was a family burial site seems possible (although they could be not married male and female but unrelated — related only by marriage, that is, in laws). Hence they also claim this means they are Mary Magdalen and Jesus, which is just so obvious, cause who else could it be?

    Well that sounds like a leap based on a leap. Are they trying to make pro-religious pseudo-science look respectable by comparison or what?

  13. It is good to be skeptical of a position with bias, but as you noted we all have biases. However, your caricature, that's what it is, of the discipline of Biblical Archaeology is sorely uninformed. There are of course those who read things into the archaeological data, but many "believing biblcal archaeologist" are disciplined scholars. I can think of few off of the top of my head: V. Phillips Long, Tremper Longmann, Ian Provan, Bryant Wood whose excavations of Jericho have brought into question the archaeology of Jericho), John Bimson, Kenneth Kitchen and many others. The trio of Long, Longman, and Provan have recently written a book "A Biblical History of Israel" that is acclaimed on the back cover by the likes of William Dever, Walter Bruegemann, William Halo.

    What you said about Biblical Archaeologist I could say about Israel Finkelstein, Niles Peter Lemche, and P.R. Davies, but I do not I disagree with their radical revisions of biblical history and archaeology, but I do not do so by calling into question their integrity.

    Be a good skeptic and read some biblical archaeology and deal with the individual arguments before you call into question biases.

    Blake

  14. "What you said about Biblical Archaeologist I could say about Israel Finkelstein, Niles Peter Lemche, and P.R. Davies, but I do not I disagree with their radical revisions of biblical history and archaeology, but I do not do so by calling into question their integrity."

    [Revision of this butchered paragraph]

    What you said about Biblical Archaeologists, I could say about Israel Finkelstein, Niles Peter Lemche, and P.R. Davies, but I do not. I disagree with their radical revisions of biblical history and the archaeological data, but I do not do so on the basis of the biases that they hold. I do not call into question their integrity I read their books.

  15. Blake: I think you miss the point of my article. I am not calling into question the study of Biblical Archaeology in general. There are, I am sure, many devout Christians who are good Biblical archaeologists.

    I am posing a larger question: can one be an objective scholar if one holds supernatural beliefs? To what extent does belief influence one's work?

    Personally, I think that an atheist/agnostic has the potential to be a more objective Biblical Scholar than a Christian. Similarly, I think an atheist/agnostic can be a more objective scientist than a religious person, in many ways.

    You make a good point that I am not an expert on Biblical Archaeology– I do not claim to be. I have taken archaeology courses, though, as well as courses on the Bible at my undergraduate institution, Dartmouth College. Keep in mind, though, that sometimes too much knowledge can be dangerous. Do not let your esoteric studies blind you to more fundamental questions.

  16. "I am posing a larger question: can one be an objective scholar if one holds supernatural beliefs? To what extent does belief influence one’s work? "

    Your question assumes a certain crudeness to Christian Theism. First, you must define what you mean by "supernatural", one must be careful not to smuggle certain philosophical nuances that are not representative of an academic Christian Biblical Scholar.

    To answer your question about whether one can be "objective", I would say, "yes".

    First, Objectivity is admitting that one has a bias whether it be metaphysical naturalism, theism, or whatever metanarrative you adhere to, however there is no objectivity in the sense of a disinterested view of the subject matter you are studying.

    Second, the idea that if some one believes in the supernatural they cannot be "objective" is based on the assumption that the Christian sees an extraordinary occurence of providence everywhere they look. This, however, is not the case. I can for instance agree that human societies have a normal way of working, that archaeological data accumulate according to the rise and fall of empires etc. That is simply the out working of God's ordinary providence, what you would call "the natural course of history" or something like that.

    Third, just because one believes that the bible is reliable history does not commit that person to trying to make the archaeological evidence "prove" the biblical narrative. An example would be the case of Jericho, Jericho has been a matter of dispute among biblical archaeologist and the debate was broken open again by Bryant Wood. Wood called into question Cathleen Kenyon's conclusions about the site being way to early for a conquest by the Israelites, however, Wood has found evidence of erosion of the layers and also has pointed out that Kenyon's dating is wrong. Wood has not been accepted by many archaeologist, but the debate is still circling around this site. I am not sure what to date the city should be dated to that this time, I will await more evidence.

    That is in effect how I think I would approach topics "objectively" remember all of our thought is bound to our historicity (situation in history).

  17. anthrosciguy, I've always felt that when serious and complicated issues come up (scientific or other) then a pamphlet should be put out explaining the subject, and small tests put on the ballot paper. Anyone who doesn't show at least a basic understanding of the subject gets their vote discounted. Possibly a horrendous abuse of democracy, but I've always been a "possibly horrendously abusive" kinda guy. I may have to get that on a t-shirt, and perhaps a volcano lair in the shape of my own head.

Leave a Reply

You May Also Enjoy

Close
Close