Archaeology and the Bible

Biblical archaeology brings us into touch with the world of Bible peoples and provides us with a background of knowledge against which we can begin to understand the biblical narratives better. Archaeology reveals to us the conditions of life in past centuries, and in some cases recovers for us material objects that people used–from pieces of pottery to elegant gold vessels and jewelry,

from clay tablets dealing with the business accounts of a long-dead Babylonian family to papyrus scrolls recording the diseases of ancient Egyptians and the medicines that they took.

Archaeology is not meant to “prove” the truth of the Scriptures, because this revelation from God, being basically spiritual, has to be evaluated spiritually (I Cor. 2:14). Yet our understanding of that revelation as something from God that was experienced by real people helps us see that our faith is not the result of myth, magic, or folklore, but instead is rooted deeply in history.

Sometimes the discoveries seem to have a direct bearing on the Bible itself. For example, in 1983 after three seasons of work on Mt. Ebal in central Palestine, Israeli archaeologists announced the discovery of a rectangular structure made of stone blocks, that was most probably the stone altar Joshua built on Mt. Ebal (Josh. 8:30-31) following Moses’ command. All around the structure were ashes and the remains of sheep bones, signs that the area was important religiously. As part of their research, the archaeologists dated the bones to the twelfth century B.C.

When we learn through archaeology about some of the great cities mentioned in Scripture, and the splendid place they occupied in past centuries, we begin to see how time passed as people lived and died, governments rose and fell until the time came when Christ was revealed as the Savior of mankind. We learn also that what the Bible has to say about some of these famous places was in fact the sober truth. While Jerusalem came to be known in history as the “holy city” because God’s temple was there, other places were notorious for their wickedness. The Jews regarded proud Babylon as the home of all wickedness, and it was left in ruins by divine judgment, as prophesied by Isaiah. Archaeology has also shown how Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, struck terror in the minds of people because of the brutality of the Assyrian armies, but even that fell to a stronger power, as prophesied by Nahum. Proud Athens, the intellectual center of ancient Greece, was dedicated to the service of the pagan goddess Athena, and ruins of her temples may still be seen there today. Corinth, a Greek city that had an evil reputation in Paul’s day, contains the earliest known Christian cemetery showing that the gospel light was able to shine through the pagan darkness of that corrupt place. Archaeologists have even uncovered the site where Paul stood in judgment before Gallio (Acts 18:12-17).

While archaeology helps us to understand ancient life and times, many of the ruins carry a stern reminder of God’s direct judgment upon human wickedness and disobedience. In this sense, therefore, the stones still cry out as witnesses to God’s revelation through the Law, the Prophets, and Jesus.

We have chosen nine sites for a brief study here. All of them have been excavated to varying degrees, and all were important places at one time or other. Some of them are already well known to us through records of ancient history as well as what Scripture has to say but others are not so familiar, since they are not mentioned in the Bible and they occur only occasionally in ancient historical records. Also included are some sites discovered only through archaeological excavations, showing that archaeology does in fact fill out the picture of ancient life by recovering places of great importance that had disappeared from history. The sites discussed here are Athens, Babylon, Jericho, Jerusalem, Susa, Ur, Byblos, Qumran, and Ras Shamra (Ugarit).