Each fall I look forward to reading the press releases from major excavations in and around Israel summing up their summer seasons. Last fall did not disappoint. Reports included discoveries of a cultic, idol-desecrating toilet linked to the reign of King Hezekiah, a Philistine cemetery from the ancient city of Gath, and a palace structure linked to the time of King Solomon.
With finds like these, it’s tempting for those in the media (and those reading the mainstream press releases) to start using terminology like “this may prove the Bible is true.” While serving as highly effective conservative Christian clickbait, this isn’t a helpful way for Christians to talk about the relationship between biblical archaeology and the biblical witness.
Here are four factors highlighting why we shouldn’t say the finds of biblical archaeology can—or even may—prove the Bible.
1. The goal of biblical archaeology is not to prove the Bible.
What makes biblical archeology “biblical”? Whether or not archaeology is biblical isn’t based on the conclusions of the excavation but on the questions prompting the research in the first place. Biblical archaeology uses the same methods as all archaeologists; the difference is the subject matter. Kenneth Kitchen long ago argued that biblical archaeology illuminates, illustrates, and confirms the cultural backgrounds of the Bible. It thus serves more of a hermeneutical than apologetic goal.
I define biblical archaeology as “the use of modern archaeological methods to study the material remains of sites and civilizations related to the biblical text, with an intent to understand how those findings interact with the biblical record.” This definition does not mean every season will reveal data that line up exactly with the biblical record. There are several reasons for this, such as limited understanding of the data or misinterpretation. But biblical archaeology seeks to evaluate what comes out of the ground on its own terms before assuming a fixed historical portrait.
The danger of saying some archaeological discoveries prove the Bible is that the language is polarizing. Some discoveries seem to prove it; others seem to disprove it. Consequently, archaeologists fall into two camps: those desiring to prove the Bible and those desiring to disprove it.
Presuppositions and methodological commitments undoubtedly affect the data’s interpretation, but it’s dangerous to evaluate finds with only these two categories—especially given the limited scope of biblical archaeology. Often the data is complex, has differing interpretations, and needs time to be sorted out.
2. The Bible presents an enormous historical and geographical portrait of the ancient world.
The period of history reflected in Scripture is around 2,000 years, and includes locations spanning from the banks of the Euphrates in present-day Iraq to the Nile River delta in Egypt. Yet even though the world of the Bible is expansive, archaeology’s tools have become increasingly narrow.
A student once asked me, “What would be the one archaeological discovery that would quiet all the skeptics?” My answer: there’s not one. First, because of most skeptics’ presuppositional commitments (see the Pharisees seeking a sign from Jesus); and second, because of archaeology’s limited scope.
Say archaeologists find something remarkable, like a series of proto-Hebrew inscriptions addressed to King David. This would not “prove the Bible is true.” It would simply prove that one aspect of Scripture seems to correspond to the extrabiblical witness about the existence of a ruler in Israel named David. That’s it. The small-scale finds revealed through archaeology cannot bear the inductive weight of proof when it comes to the Bible’s enormous historical record.
Four decades ago, Edwin Yamauchi introduced what he called “archaeological fractions” in The Stones and the Scriptures:
- A fraction of remains survive to be discovered.
- A fraction of ancient sites have been surveyed.
- A fraction of known sites have been meaningfully excavated.
- A fraction of what has been found has been academically published.
- A fraction of what has been discovered and published pertains to the Bible.
Given this limited scope, we must be cautious in our assessments that any single find proves or disproves the Bible.
3. Archaeology is unable to address the Bible’s theological claims.
Biblical archaeology is capable of providing data that helps recreate the ancient Israelites’ world. But it is unable to address the Bible’s theological claims. For example, recent publications of cuneiform texts from “Judah town” in Babylon point toward the presence of a Judean community residing around Babylon during the sixth century B.C. This does seem to correspond to the witness prophetic books like Jeremiah and Ezekiel.
Yet these texts make no mention of why the people were in Babylon, or how their residence there ties to rampant idolatry and covenant disobedience, as the biblical writers depict. The documents corroborate the biblical narrative, but they do not speak to the theological realities of Israel’s exile.
4. Archaeological discoveries can confirm but cannot prove the Bible.
So how should we discuss biblical archaeological discoveries? They can confirm and support the Bible’s historical portrait, but they cannot inductively “prove” the Bible’s truthfulness. Sometimes, due to limited understanding or misinterpretation, certain finds don’t appear to confirm the Bible; and sometimes, discoveries believed to support the Bible are later found wanting.
The archaeological picture is constantly changing, as each new dig season and published analysis reveals a few answers and as many questions. Discoveries from this past season seem to support various aspects of the Bible. This is great and perhaps even to be expected, but it provides various levels of evidence, not wholesale proof. Archaeology, like all other historical disciplines, is mostly engaged in “abductive” reasoning—moving from inference to the best explanation. Archaeologists evaluate the available information and provide the most feasible explanation, but each season reveals new information that may alter the previously held best explanation.
Limited But Useful
I would encourage all students of the biblical text to explore biblical archaeology and learn about recent discoveries that seem to intersect with Scripture. But view your exploration as a hermeneutical exercise to illumine the world of the Bible instead of an apologetic treasure hunt for one-liners and headlines to use on skeptics.
While biblical archaeology is severely limited in its ability to prove the truthfulness of the whole Bible, it’s a valuable resource that has allowed us to see with greater clarity the world as it was when God spoke to man.