Monday, December 11, 2006

The Science of Archaeology & the Old Testament

How does science help us understand the Bible. The full ACT seminar in New York will be delivered in 2007. This lecture was delivered at the December 2006 session of Project Timothy at City University of New York’s Hunter College in Manhattan.

Archaeology is the study of antiquity by examining material remains of past human life and activities. It uses modern scientific methods to recover these material remains and infer the meaning of the past, of ancient humans, and his environment. But archaeology is not an exact science – in fact, no science is an exact science. The only exact field of inquiry is mathematics, and that is not strictly speaking, a science.

Biblical archaeology operates at the intersection of theology and history with the tools of science expressed in technology. It shows vividly the importance of science for religion. This interaction is an important element of ‘iron sharpening iron.’ The art and science of biblical archaeology exposes both the science of religion and the religion of science. No religion exists without an appeal to the scientific explanation of reality. By the same token, no science can thrive without faith in even though scientific progress demands the demise of previous achievements.

Old Testament archaeology is the selection of evidence for these regions and periods in which the peoples of the times lived. Why is archaeology important to Old Testament studies? They provide extra-biblical confirmation of many details of biblical history and acts as correctives to many erroneous interpretations. This means that the art and science of biblical exegesis and hermeneutics relies a great deal on inferences we draw from archaeology. Hence, our understanding of the sciences as well as the artistic imagination of the human mind shapes the way we interpret archaeological evidence. This in turn shapes our interpretation of the Bible itself.

Archaeology has rediscovered whole nations, resurrected important peoples, and in a most astonishing manner filled in historical gaps, adding immeasurably to the knowledge of biblical backgrounds.

In Palestine, of the 6000+ archaeological sites that have been surveyed only about 200 have been excavated to some extent, with around 30 sites excavated to any major extent. Of the estimated 1 million documents recovered from OT times, less than 10% have been published. The typical time between recovery and publication is 10 years since almost all archaeologists work only during the summer months, when they are not teaching. The precise locations of many OT places remain in dispute because of uncertainty and changing local names.

3 Points to remember:

1. Archaeology is essential to properly understand the historical context of the Bible. The Bible relates a literary, elitist version of the religion of Israel, whereas archaeology reveals the social context of Israelite religion, including folk religion and counterculture.

2. The Bible, while not a book of history, should be considered a book with elements of history. Despite the ideological slant of the biblical authors, the Bible contains verifiable historical data.

3. Archaeology cannot either prove or disprove the Bible.