The Logic of Faith

(3) Archaeology and the Bible

The events described in the Bible did not take place on another planet. They took place in the real world and have left traces behind to show what happened. Archaeologists have visited a wide range of sites in the Middle East which have connections with the Bible. Their excavations have brought a variety of different kinds of evidence to light. The more common types can be summarised as follows:

  • The Bible sometimes describes cities or buildings in some detail. By comparing the detail recorded in the Bible with the detail dug up by archaeologists one can see whether the Biblical record of the detail is accurate.
  • Some of the events described in the Bible have left physical traces. A battle may leave arrow-heads or spear-points in the ground and one can find graves left by war or epidemic.
  • Some of the events recorded in the Bible were recorded by other people on inscriptions. Where a correspondence like this occurs one has a good way of checking the accuracy of the Bible account, although it needs to be borne in mind that the other accounts are often from a different point of view and may be inaccurate themselves.
  • Various objects contain the names of their owners. Some objects found by archaeologists contain the names and titles of biblical characters.

The detailed description of places in the Bible includes several details which surprised the archaeologists when they were discovered. The detail of the description of the pool of Bethesda as being a healing sanctuary with five porches (John 52) was considered to be late as it was felt that a pagan shrine such as this could not have been built so close to the temple. Excavations have shown that it does exist. The description of the walls of the temple in 1 Kings 636 describes them as having been built with a course of timber between every three courses of stone; some of the walls of Megiddo, which was built by the same king, Solomon, were built in exactly this way. The plans of the gateways of Gezer, Megiddo and Hazor are the same, which is not surprising as they were all built by Solomon (1 Kings 915). The details of the governments of the various cities of Asia Minor and Greece, described by Luke in Acts, have been shown to have been exactly correct.

What this wealth of accurate detail shows is that the Bible contains an accurate description of the events that it portrays. The places soon changed as new buildings were built or as they were sacked by invaders. If the description had been incorrect it would have been impossible to correct it later. Similarly, if there were copying errors one would expect this description to become inaccurate.


Traces of Events

Almost all of these traces are of the destruction caused by battles. The occupation of the promised land by the Hebrews under Joshua is marked by the destruction of many Canaanite cities. Similarly the invasions of the Assyrians and the Babylonians left their marks on the landscape.


Some of the events in the history of Israel were sufficiently major to be recorded on inscriptions by people from other nations. For example, the war between Mesha king of Moab and the combined armies of Jehoram of Israel and Jehoshaphat of Judah is recorded in 2 Kings 34-27. The Moabites also recorded the same war on a stone monument (known as a stele); this monument has been discovered and is now in the Louvre in Paris; it has been called the Moabite Stone. As another example, the black obelisk of Shalmanezer, now in the British Museum, records the payment of tribute to the Assyrians by various monarchs including Jehu the king of Israel. The obelisk even contains a picture of Jehu bowing down before the Assyrian king, the only known picture of an Old Testament Hebrew monarch.


Besides descriptions of events and places the Bible contains the doings of a large number of named individuals. Among the archaeological finds there are items with the names of some of these individuals inscribed on them. For example, in the time of Hezekiah, a court official called Shebna was found to be constructing a tomb for himself when he should have been building the defences of the city. The account of this is found in Isaiah 2215-16. The tomb of Shebna has been found in Jerusalem with most of his name inscribed on the lintel that was over the entrance. The Assyrian Chronicle contains the names of king Azariah of Judah, of Menahem of Israel, and of Hezekiah king of Judah. Bullae (baked seal inscriptions) have been found with the names of various biblical characters including Gedeliah (2 Kings 2522) Baruch the son of Neriah (Jeremiah 364) and Jerahmeel the king's son (Jeremiah 3626). Not only are the events of the Bible recorded elsewhere but even the names of the people who took part in them have been found.


The Assyrian Invasion of Israel

One episode that is well chronicled from archaeological sources as well as in the Bible is the invasion of Israel by the Assyrians, and the siege of Jerusalem which followed. The invasion occurred in three phases, each led by a different Assyrian king. Fortunately the Assyrian chronicle of this period was found in excavations of the Assyrian palace at Khorsabad in Iraq in 1842. There are also other archaeological finds that have bearing on the biblical accounts. Here is a summary of the events of the invasions and the archaeological discoveries that have a bearing on them.

  Biblical Detail Archaeological Evidence
1 2 Kings 1519 Tiglath Pileser III reaches Israel and extracts tribute from Menahem Ostraca containing tax accounts from the taxation made to pay this tribute
2 2 Kings 167-8 Ahaz sends tribute to Assyria to persuade them to fight against the Syrians and Israelites An account of this is found in the chronicles of Tiglath Pileser
3 2 Kings 169 Tiglath Pileser captures Damascus An account is in the Assyrian chronicles
4 2 Kings 1529 Tiglath Pileser takes Northern Israel into captivity This is attested by various archaeological finds including the Chronicle of Tiglath Pileser, and a layer of rubble and ash at Hazor corresponding to the destruction of this city by the Assyrians. This layer contains an ostraca which mentions Pekah the king of Israel at the time
5 2 Kings 1530 Tiglath Pileser helps Hoshea to overthrow Pekah This appears in the Assyrian Chronicle
6 2 Kings 174-6 Shalmanezer V besieges Samaria, which is finally captured after three years of siege by his successor, Sargon II An account appears in the Chronicle of Sargon II
7 Isaiah 201 The Assyrians send an expeditionary force against Ashdod This is found in the Chronicle of Sargon II
8 2 Kings 2012-14, Isaiah 391 Merodach Baladan of Babylon attempts to raise a rebellion against Assyria from the states surrounding the Assyrian empire  
9 2 Chronicles  322-5, Isaiah 229-10 Hezekiah strengthens the defences of Jerusalem Strengthened defences have been found in Jerusalem at a site known as Hezekiah's broad wall
10 2 Kings 2020, 2 Chronicles 3230 Hezekiah builds a tunnel to bring water into Jerusalem This is the Siloam tunnel; an inscription found in it describes the tunnelling process
11 Isaiah 2215,29 Shebna builds his own tomb instead of strengthening the defences of Jerusalem The tomb has been found with a lintel containing part of the name and the title of Shebna
12 2 Chronicles 329 Sennacherib invades Judah. Lachish falls to the Assyrians Evidence is available in a layer of destruction in Lachish and in a set of bas-reliefs depicting the event
13 2 Kings 1817-1936 Sennacherib besieges Jerusalem but does not capture it An account of this is found on the Taylor Prism
14 2 Kings 1935 The Assyrian army suffers large casualties from a non-military source, thus forcing them to retire from the siege This is attested by mass graves of Assyrian soldiers at Lachish, probably plague victims

Summary of Bible History and Archaeology

In order to appreciate the archaeology of the Bible one has to have a general idea of Bible history. One can divide the history of the land of Israel into periods along the following lines:

These periods exhibit different types of archaeological evidence.

Patriarchal
The Patriarchs were mostly nomads who lived in tents and left little trace of their passing. As a result there is little direct evidence about the Patriarchs. However, the accounts of the patriarchs fit very well into life and customs of their time.
Judges
The period of the Judges is very confusing and marked by both violence and change. The archaeological study of the period shows that it was violent and uncertain and that the Israelites gradually subdued their enemies.
Regal
From the start of the reigns of the great kings of Israel onwards there is a wealth of detail which confirms the whole of the Biblical narrative of the time.
Exile
Details here are mainly of the city of Babylon which has been thoroughly excavated in places.
Post-Exilic
The main evidence here is from Persian sites. There is a considerable wealth of detail in terms of inscriptions and decrees of Persian kings. The amount of biblical writing about the history of Israel in this period is small compared to the writing about the regal period, so there is less scope for correspondence between histories of the Persian Empire and what was, at the time, a backwater.
Inter-Testamental
There is some information about the inter-testamental period in books of history written at the time or soon after. This is interesting to the Bible student as background material but there is no corresponding Bible history with which to compare the archaeology.
New Testament
Here there is a wealth of archaeological evidence, both in terms of the excavations of places and written documents about the period. Only a little of this bears directly on events in the New Testament, but the whole picture shows how the New Testament fits into its time and place.

What does Archaeology Show?

There is plenty of evidence to show that the Bible is a true and accurate record of the events it describes without recourse to evidence based on archaeology. Indeed, the Bible record of history has shown itself to be more reliable than the picture produced by past archaeology. In the few instances where the Bible and archaeology have disagreed in the past, further investigations have shown that the Bible was in fact correct, and that the archaeologists had made mistakes.

However, the evidence of archaeology shows beyond doubt that the sceptics about the Bible are wrong. The events the Bible describes did happen in the way that the Bible describes them. The places depicted are real places described accurately, the people characterised are real characters, the chronology of the Bible is correct and even the details are accurate. In short, the events narrated in the Bible are real events.

It would be too simple to say that archaeology proves the Bible to be true, because there is enough internal evidence to show that the Bible has been recorded and copied accurately. Rather the correspondence between the Bible and archaeology shows how good modern archaeology is becoming.


Conclusion

The evidence of archaeology shows that we can be confident that the descriptions of places found in the Bible are accurate, even though those places are long gone, and therefore we can be certain that other things are recorded accurately. We can be certain that even the details of places and people described in the Bible are correct, and therefore we have a check that even the details of the Bible accounts have not changed over the centuries since it was written. Because the Bible is so accurate in describing irrelevant detail we can be certain that its more major themes have also not been added since the Bible was written.

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