"Almost no educated person these days doubts that Jesus lived. Some accept it on faith, others on the testimony of a brace of ancient chroniclers, both Christian and Roman."

- Time Online Edition
October 30, 2002

"Christus...suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate, and a most mischievous superstition thus checked for the moment, again broke out..."

- Cornelius Tacitus
Annals, A.D. 116



Does archaeology confirm or deny the claims of the Bible?


"Little by little, one city after another, one civilization after another, one culture after another, whose memories were enshrined only in the Bible, were restored to their proper places in ancient history by the studies of archaeologists... Nowhere has archaeological discovery refuted the Bible as history." 1

- John Elder

"You can't convince a believer of anything; for their belief is not based on evidence, its based on a deep seated need to believe."

- Carl Sagan

4.1 The advent of modern archaeology.

According to U.S. News & World Report, "A wave of archaeological discoveries is altering old ideas about the roots of Christianity and Judaism - and affirming that the Bible is more historically accurate than many scholars thought." 2 Coming from a non-religious source, this is a significant endorsement for the integrity of scripture. While archaeology is not or not entirely the Christian's basis for faith, archaeology does provide objective and tangible evidence in support of many of the Bible's people, places, and events.

The availability of such evidence has not always been the case as Oswald Allis writes,

In view of the great interest which now centers in archaeology, an interest which in steadily growing, it will be well to call to mind the situation about a sesquicentennial ago, when archaeological research in the modern sense began. Napoleon's expedition to Egypt in 1798 has been referred to as marking its beginning;... But excavation did not begin until about a half century later: with Botta (1842) and Layard (1845) in Mesopotamia,... The situation prior to this time has been well described by Ira M. Price. In The Monuments and the Old Testament (1899), ...he called attention to the fact that the 'Old Testament one hundred years ago stood alone in an otherwise unknown age. It was the only known representative of the ten centuries preceding the rise of Greece and Rome. ...If contradicted or challenged, [the Scriptures] could make no reply.' 3

Describing how modern archaeology has changed this picture, R. K. Harrison records,

Archaeological activity has now furnished a vast amount of material which enables a reasonably precise picture of life in the lands of the Bible to be drawn as far back as the Neolithic period, and perhaps even beyond. Comparative studies have resulted in a substantial correlation of Palestinian culture with its counterparts in Egypt, Asia Minor, the Aegean, and Mesopotamia. In consequence the background against which the events narrated in the Old Testament took place has been widened immeasurably since the days of Wellhausen, so that it is now possible to reconstruct entire periods of Old Testament history in a manner unknown to earlier generations of scholars.' 4

4.2 What has archaeology revealed?


In today's era in which archaeology is proving to be one of the Bible's best supporting witnesses, the most dramatic archaeological discoveries are those that completely upset ideas or theories previously thought to be true. Among the discoveries are the Dead Sea Scrolls which have proven that the Old Testament writings are indeed ancient and have maintained nearly perfect accuracy in transmission. The tablets at Ebla are another discovery which have proven that writing existed far prior to Moses' era, contrary to earlier criticisms.


The Hitite civilization was once considered fictitious because it was only mentioned in the Bible. That is until 1906 when the German archaeologist Winckler discovered the Hitite's capital city along with their entire history recorded on cuneiform. Not only had the Bible been validated concerning the Hitites, but the cuneiform tablets gave an early history conforming to that described by the Bible. 5 Hititology eventually became a major in several universities.

The book of Daniel was once thought to be wrong in mentioning two concurrent kings of Babylon, neither of whom had been found anywhere else in history. Then in 1854, J.G. Taylor unearthed writings of the king, Nabonidus, and his son, Belshazzar, the crown prince. 6 Upon this discovery, Daniel's labeling of Belshazzar as king was still thought to be in error. But this too was clarified by a 1979 discovery of a statue in northern Syria which, in two languages, described Belshazzar's position.

The Assyrian text described him as governor, which was his official title, while the Aramaic described him as king, the role which he had been given over them. 7 This fine distinction in titles had been lost since Daniel's writings over 2,500 years ago as had also been lost detailed descriptions of the Babylonian Court and empire. 8 If not truly authored by Daniel, or someone of his time, who else would have included the so-called obvious mistake of two concurrent kings? Who else would have known accurate details of the ancient city - both of which had long remained lost until the twentieth century? J.D. Wilson reiterates,

The more I read and reread [Daniel], the more I am struck with the truth of the tableaux of the Babylonian Court traced in the first six chapters. Whoever is not the slave of preconceived opinions must confess when comparing these with the cuneiform monuments that they are really ancient and written but a short distance from the Courts themselves. 9


Tablets of writing from Mari on the Middle Euphrates (c.1700-1600 BC) and Nuzi on the Tigris in northeastern Iraq, discovered in 1925, give corroborating accounts as to the life and customs recorded in the Bible. Henry T. Frank elaborates,

We have already seen that Abraham's haggling with Ephron concerning the purchase of the Cave of Machpelah was in accordance with common ancient practice. Apparently Abraham wished to purchase only the cave itself in which to bury his wife Sarah. Yet governed by Hitite practice he had to buy not only the cave but the land and the arbors associated with it. This assumption of feudal obligation described in Genesis 23:1-20 is exactly in accord with the recovered Hitite documents from Boghazkoy in which such details are stressed. 10

Gleason Archer lists more events for which the Nuzi Tablets serve as proof and context of the activity of early biblical patriarchs:

(a) Abraham's reference to his servant Eliezer as 'son of his house' in Genesis 15:2 (prior to the birth of Ishmael and Isaac) indicated that he had adopted him as his legal heir. God's rejection of this arrangement (Gen. 15:4) might have occasioned Abraham embarrassment had it not been customary (as Nuzi texts show) to set aside the claims of an adopted son if a natural heir was subsequently born into the family. (b) The legitimacy of selling one's birthright (as Esau sold his to Jacob in Gen. 25:33) was established at Nuzi, for in one case the older brother was validly recompensed by a payment of three sheep... (c) The binding character of a deathbed will, such as was elicited from Isaac by Jacob, is attested by a case where a man named Tarmiya established his right to a woman he had married by proving that his father on his deathbed orally bestowed her on him. 11

Another testimony for the Bible is provided upon the walls of the great temple of Karnak in Upper Egypt. An Egyptian attack upon Palestine is recounted corresponding to that of 1 Kings 14:25 and 26. It lists the specific cities attacked and even references the Field of Abram: "the first time that a source outside the Bible confirms that patriarch's connection with a locality in Palestine." 12


The Book of Luke was also scoffed at by critics unable to find outside support for persons and events mentioned within it. Though critics presumed it guilty until proven innocent, the book of Luke is continually being affirmed by on-going archaeology. Research shows that not many years prior to Jesus' birth a regular enrollment of taxpayers by Rome was actually initiated. Such a census took place in Syria and Judea as documented in an ancient inscription called the Titulus Venetus. 13

An Egyptian papyrus from AD 104 confirms the necessity of returning to one's homeland for this census: "Because of the approaching census it is necessary that all those residing for any cause away from their homes should at once prepare to return to their own governments in order that they may complete the family registration of the enrollment and that the tilled lands may retain those belonging to them." 14

Another critical claim was the non-existence of Pontius Pilate, governor of Judea. This claim was silenced in 1961 when an excavation of Caesarea, the Roman capital of Palestine, uncovered an inscription bearing both Pilate's name and title.15 Similarly did Gallio, proconsul of Achaea, and Lysanias, tetrarch of Abilene, go from Bible myth to archaeological fact. 16 Luke's title of Publius as "first man" and his use of "politarchs" as civil authorities were neither believed by critics until discovered in non-biblical texts.

Craig L. Blomberg records a number of archaeological finds that coincide with events recorded in the gospel according to John:

Archaeologists have unearthed the five porticoes of the pool of Bethesda by the Sheep Gate (John 5:2), the pool of Siloam (9:1-7), Jacob's well at Sychar (4:5), the 'Pavement' (Gabbatha) where Pilate tried Jesus (19:13), and Solomon's porch in the temple precincts (10:22-23)... Since then, discovery of an ossuary (bone-box) of a crucified man named Johanan from first-century Palestine confirms that nails were driven in his ankles, as in Christ's; previously some skeptics thought that the Romans used only ropes to affix the legs of condemned men to their crosses. And less than five years ago, in 1990, the burial grounds of Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest, and his family were uncovered in Jerusalem. These and numerous other details create a favorable impression of the Gospel's trustworthiness in the areas in which they can be tested.17

Sir William Ramsay, famed archaeologist, began a study of Asia Minor with little regard for the book of Acts. He later wrote

I may fairly claim to have entered on this investigation without prejudice in favor of the conclusion which I shall now seek to justify to the reader. On the contrary, I began with a mind unfavorable to it,... It did not then lie in my line of life to investigate the subject minutely; but more recently I found myself brought into contact with the Book of Acts as an authority for the topography, antiquities and society of Asia Minor. It was gradually borne upon me that in various details the narrative showed marvelous truth. 18

4.3 What archaeology cannot accomplish.

Clearly archaeology's incremental confirmation of the Bible is shoring up the faith of those who already believe it to be the word of God. Yet, no archaeological confirmation is likely to ever deliver any kind of death blow to the side of disbelief. For one thing, not every statement in the Bible is of the nature that it has left behind material evidence to survive thousands of years of time.

Allis writes on this subject,

[Archaeology] may confirm the setting and background of the life of Abraham. It has done so to a remarkable degree. But it is not likely that any personal records of his life beside those contained in the Bible will ever be discovered. This is unlikely for several reasons. One is the fact that the Bible tells us so little about the life of Abraham and this little is told largely in terms of Abraham's intimate, personal experience. The other is that Abraham's contacts with the great world, even his victory over Chedorlaomer and his fellow kings (Gen. 14), were hardly likely to find a place in the historical records of his contemporaries.

It is also to be remembered that there is a vast difference between the religion of Israel and the cults of the neighboring peoples. The religion of Israel was spiritual; her neighbors were all idol worshippers. Consequently, while images of the heathen gods - especially Astarte plaques - abound, there are no images of Israel's God to be discovered and no temples except the one at Jerusalem. Material evidences of Israel's worship (wood, stone, or metal) will therefore indicate not the true worship of her people but its perversion. 19

Archaeology is a major pillar for belief in the Bible for those who will accept it. However, any kind of archaeological evidence that seems to support the Bible will always be dismissed by those who believe exists a superior avenue of discovering the truth. For many critics, formerly including myself, that superior avenue is science.

In many ways, science is the religion of the irreligious; revering both the practitioners of science, as well as its methods and philosophies. This view of science as a possible alternative to religion is begun in the next section.



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NEXT: How do science and the Bible compare?

See also:

How do we determine the age of the documents?

Was Christianity cut-and-pasted from other religions?

The war of philosophies

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The science of archaeology carries no presuppositions that would inherently favor or discriminate against specific biblical beliefs or ideas.

This objectivity towards the Bible makes this science a good first choice to start examining the scriptures' believability.

1. Modern archaeology.
2. What is has revealed.
3. What it cannot accomplish.