The Relevance of Archaeology
to the Study of Scripture

by Andrew S. Kulikovsky B.App.Sc(Hons)

February 10, 1994

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1. Introduction

The purpose of this paper is to show how the science of archaeology is relevant to the study of the Old and New Testaments.

Archaeology is defined as "the science of the treatment of the material remains of the human past" (Kenyon, 1940). Archaeology originally began as a search for treasure, since many ancients (especially the Egyptian Pharaohs) had their wealth buried with them. However, it has gradually evolved into a science (Thompson, 1987). The science came into being when a group of enthusiasts formed the Society of Antiquaries in London in 1707 (Kenyon, 1940). The first excavations of the 'Bible Lands' (ie. Egypt, Palestine, Mesopotamia, Babylon etc.) were carried out at the end of that century.

Thompson (1982) suggests two reasons why it is important to incorporate and accommodate the findings of archaeology when studying the Bible:

1. It can aid in the understanding and interpretation of the Biblical text.
2. It can provide evidence for the validation of events, civilisations and places described in the Bible.

Archaeology is closely linked with history. History is illuminated by it. As well as being the written word of God, the Bible is an historical book and archaeology gives light to its historical content (Thompson, 1987). However, archaeology does not prove the Bible. The Bible contains many things that are beyond the realms of history and can only be accepted by faith.

One writer proposes that "with archaeology, life as a whole is the subject of study. Life is not spasmodic, but a constant balancing point of intersection where past and present meet" (Ceram, 1954). This means that archaeology can show the context of life for the area and period in question. It can show a civilisation's progression, environment, culture, religion and much more. This is all valuable information and can provide a whole new perspective when studying the Bible.

The following sections show specifically the value of archaeology to studying the Bible. Specific examples of how archaeological discoveries have shed light on both the Old and New Testaments are also presented.

2. The Value of Archaeology to Bible Study

Archaeology is an important source of information for Bible study and can not be overlooked. Archaeological evidence aids Bible study in four major ways (Thompson, 1982):

2.1 Provision of Background information

All people live in an environment. The Bible does not describe in any exact detail, the environments of its characters. Archaeology, however, can provide us with this kind of information. By simply examining the material evidence left behind at an archaeological site, it is possible to extract a great deal of significant information about the people who once lived there. The kind of things that are commonly excavated include structures like city walls, gates, pools and baths, wells, homes, tombs, altars, temples and palaces. Smaller objects such as statues, amulets, coins, plaques, scrolls, letters, pottery, weapons, cooking and eating utensils and religious artefacts can also be found. All these items can help us gain an understanding of the people in question. The excavated evidence can give clues about a society's culture, government, laws, morals, ethics, religion, daily life-style, language, trade relations and even conflicts with neighbouring societies. When studying the Bible, this information can be of great value. It creates a setting for the events described, allowing the student to fully appreciate the significance of what a Bible character said and did. The student can gain a better understanding of what the event meant to the people of that time and the impact it had on them. Archaeology can also add reality to the event. For example, Christ went to the pool of Bethesda where a man had been waiting there to be healed for 38 years. Christ told him to get up, pick up his mat and walk. The man did so and he walked (John 5:1-9). The location of the Pool of Bethesda has been identified and the Pool has been excavated. Being able to see this place, allows the Bible student to build up a better, more complete picture of the event. The following sections give some examples.

2.1.1 Gibeah: Saul's Home

Gibeah was a Benjamite city founded early in Israel's settlement of Canaan (Joshua 15:57). It was burned and destroyed by the other Israelites before Saul's time, because the men of Gibeah raped and murdered a Levite concubine (Judges 19-21). The ruins of Gibeah are located 4 miles north of Jerusalem. The first and oldest level of excavations uncovered the ashes and charred remains of an early Israelite town thus confirming the Judges account. The second level of excavations uncovered a two story fortress-like house. This was probably the home of King Saul (1 Samuel 10:26, 1 Samuel 14:16) (Owen, 1964).

2.1.2 Solomon's Building Projects

Solomon implemented many building projects during his reign. Excavations at the towns of Megiddo, Hazor and Gezer reveal that Solomon or someone from his era, put considerable effort into rebuilding and fortification (Cornfeld & Freedman, 1976).

Excavations at Megiddo have uncovered what appears to be some very large stables. These stables seem to be capable of holding up to 450 chariot horses. It appears that Megiddo was one of Solomon's chariot cities (1 Kings 10:26) (Owen, 1964).

Excavations at the town of Gezer confirm the Biblical account of it being destroyed by a Pharaoh and awarded to Solomon as part of a dowry for his daughter (1 Kings 9:16) (Thompson, 1987). Solomon then set about rebuilding and fortifying it (1 Kings 9:17).

Jerusalem was also extended quite considerably and fortified. The temple and Solomon's palace were part of this extension (1 Kings 9:15). Solomon included the western hill in the city and united two other hills by a northern wall running across the higher ground at the head of the valleys. This enclosure contained the sites of the temple and the palace (Kenyon, 1940).

Solomon was also responsible for building several underground hydraulic works. Vertical shafts and horizontal tunnels were found under Megiddo, Hazor and Gezer. These shafts led to springs outside the city walls or to underground springs (Cornfeld & Freedman, 1976).

2.2 Completion of the Biblical Record

The Bible is not a complete record. Not everything that ever happened to God's people is recorded, only important and significant events. Archaeology provides supplementary information to Biblical record. In Matthew 24:2, Jesus told His disciples that not one stone from the Temple would be left on top of another, every one would be thrown down. This prophecy was fulfilled in AD 70, when the Romans destroyed the Temple buildings. Excavations in 1968 uncovered large numbers of the Temple stones. These stones had been pried apart to collect gold leaf which had melted from the Temple roof when it was set on fire .

2.2.1 David's Conquest of Jerusalem

David reigned in Hebron as King of Judah for 7 years and 6 months (2 Samuel 5:5) before he reigned in Jerusalem. Jerusalem was controlled by the Jebusites and was considered an impregnable fortress (2 Samuel 5:6-7). It appears that Jerusalem had one weakness. The Jebusites used the Gihon spring in the Kidron valley as a water source. In 1867, Charles Warren the water shaft discovered a tunnel (or water shaft) leading from the Gihon spring to the southeastern hill, which was used to channel water from this spring to the city so water could be drawn without leaving the city (Kenyon, 1940). This series of tunnels and shafts appears to be the water shaft David was referring to in 2 Samuel 5:8 (Owen, 1964). In order to gain entry and capture the city someone had to scale up the walls of the shaft. The parallel passage in 1 Chronicles 11:6 says that it was Joab who succeeded.

2.2.2 The Census and the Time of Jesus Birth

According to the New Testament Jesus was born during the time of a census issued by Caesar Augustus. This census was the first that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria (Luke 2:1-2). Discoveries of  ancient papyrus census forms have shown that an official census was taken every 14 years. Josephus records a census in AD 6, papyrus forms record censuses in AD 34, AD 48, AD 62, AD 76 and AD 90. Assuming the census referred to in Luke 2:1-2 was a normal 14 year census, Jesus would have been born in a year that falls in line with the above census dates. Jesus was born during the life of Herod the Great (Matthew 2:3). Herod died in 4 BC so Jesus must have been born before this time. Following the 14 year pattern, Jesus was probably born around 6-7 BC (McRay, 1991).

2.2.3 Jesus in Gergesa

In Matthew 8:28-32 Jesus cast out demons from two men and sent them into some near by pigs. The pigs subsequently ran down a steep bank into the lake and died. The location of this event has previously been unresolved. However recent discoveries and new interpretations have shed light on the problem. The most probable location is Gergesa (the region of Gerasenes or Gadarenes (Luke 8:26 or Matthew 8:28)). This is because Gergesa is on the "other side" of the lake from Capernaum (Matthew 8:28). There is also a "steep bank" here (Matthew 8:32). In fact it is the only place on the eastern side where there is a steep bank coming out of the sea. There are also some tombs nearby (McRay, 1991).

2.3 Contribution to Biblical Interpretation

Archaeology can help with the translation and interpretation of Bible words and passages that are hard to decipher and understand. Sometimes it is possible to find a word in a kindred language that gives an alternative meaning that suits the Biblical context better. The foreword to McRay (1991) gives an example. In 2 Corinthians 2:17 there is a Greek word kapeleuo, which most modern versions translate as peddle. This is the only place in the New Testament the word is used. In other Greek literature, it is translated as peddler, shop keeper or retailer. Several years ago, an archaeologist discovered a perfectly preserved Hellenistic house on the West Bank in Palestine. On the floor were some broken pottery with writing on them. The dialog on one of the pieces contained details of a transaction between two men. One man owed 32 drachma to the other who was called kapelos. However, there were no details of any commodity or service being supplied; therefore the meaning of this word was extended to include money lender.

Archaeology can also highlight important geographical information in the Bible. This information could be easily missed through a lack of understanding of its significance. It can also force the student to look at a passage in a completely different way, after gaining a fuller understanding of the people, the environment and the events.

2.3.1 Jesus Feeding the 5000 at Bethsaida

There has been some disagreement about the site at which Jesus fed the 5000. In the light of recent archaeological evidence it seems to have occurred on the eastern side of the lake at Bethsaida-Julias. This is because after the feeding they crossed over the sea and landed at Gennesaret (Mark 6:53). Archaeological findings show that there were probably two Bethsaidas - Bethsaida-Julias (Luke 9:10) and Bethsaida in Galilee (John 12:21). Bethsaida-Julias was originally just called Bethsaida, but was raised to the status of a city and renamed by Herod Philip. It lay on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. There is evidence that the modern es-Saki lagoon may have once stretched up to the site of Bethsaida-Julias making it virtually on the shore of the Sea. The es-Saki lagoon appears to have been part of a delta and there is also evidence that in Christ's time the Jordan River entered the Sea east of its present entry point. Bethsaida in Galilee was probably located at el-Araj. In Christ's time it would have been on the western side of the Jordan, and therefore politically separated from Bethsaida-Julias. After Jesus fed the people He tells His disciples to go on ahead in the boat to Bethsaida (Mark 6:45). This Bethsaida cannot be Bathsaida-Julias because they were already there (Luke 9:10-17). Therefore, Christ must have been referring to Bethsaida in Galilee (McRay, 1991).

2.3.2 The Pool of Bethesda

The New Testament records Jesus performing a miracle (healing an invalid) at the pool of Bethesda (John 5:1-9). Translators have found the Greek text of John 5:2 to be unclear. The New American Standard Bible (NASB) and the New International Version (NIV) translate it as "by the sheep-gate a pool." The New English Bible (NEB) translates it as "at the sheep-pool...there is a place." Translators are also unsure about whether the place was called Bethesda, Bethzatha or Bethsaida. The question is whether the miracle was performed at a pool or in a nearby building.

Archaeological findings show that it was likely a pool. A copper scroll from Qumran contains a description of a place called Beth Eshdathayin. The name Beth Eshdathayin may mean "House of twin pools" (McRay, 1991). Excavations near the ancient sheep gate have uncovered two large pools cut into rock and plastered. Many fragments of column bases, pillars and drums were found. These probably formed the colonnades mentioned in John 5:2 (Owen, 1964).

2.4 Authentication of Biblical History

Archaeological discoveries have done a great deal to validate the Bible's historical records. They have shown that the Bible is an accurate historical document. The evidence shows that the characters and events described in the Bible are fact. Archaeology shows the authenticity and integrity of the Bible's historical component. If the historical component was not sound, it would detract from the spiritual component. The following sections present some examples:

2.4.1 Saul's Death

Saul died on Mt. Gilboa (1 Samuel 31:8). The Philistines cut his head off, put his armour in the Temple of Ashtoreths and hung his body along with his sons' on the wall of Beth Shan. The Ashtoreths at Beth Shan has been excavated and dated to Saul's life time (Thompson, 1982).

2.4.2 David Living With the Philistines

During the reign of Saul, David became his enemy and was therefore forced to flee (1 Samuel 21:10). He went to Achish, king of Gath. Achish gave David the town of Ziklag (1 Samuel 27:6) and it remained in the hands of the kings of Judah from then on. This town has been identified and is located north west of Beersheba. Excavations uncovered Philistine pottery proving that it was once a Philistine town (Thompson, 1987).

2.4.3 Battle Against Abner at Gibeon

Excavations at Gibeon have uncovered a large pool that had been cut into the rock inside the city. Archaeologists have determined that the pool was in use in David's time and was most probably the Pool of Gibeon (Thompson, 1982). This is where Joab and David's men fought against Abner and Ishbosheth's men (2 Samuel 2:12-17).

2.4.4 Jesus in Capernaum

Jesus went to live in Capernaum (Matthew 4:13). The New Testament mentions Jesus teaching in the synagogue (Mark 1:21). Excavations at the ancient site of Capernaum have uncovered the first century synagogue where Jesus taught. This synagogue was 60 feet wide and 79 feet long with basalt walls and a basalt cobblestone floor. This synagogue was apparently built by a Roman centurion who "loved" the nation of Israel (Luke 7:1-5) (McRay, 1991). Jesus predicted the downfall of Capernaum (Luke 10:15) and today the basalt building stones line the shore of the Sea of Galilee (Owen, 1964).

2.4.5 The Pool of Siloam

Jesus plastered mud on a blind man's eyes and told him to wash in the Pool of Siloam (John 9:7), a place considered sacred to the Jews. Excavations in the late 19th century uncovered this pool. It lies in the Tyropoeon Valley just across the Kidron Valley from the village of Siloam (Owen, 1964).

2.4.6 Pontius Pilate

Pontius Pilot was the Roman governor of Judea (Luke 3:1). He is mentioned in all four Gospels. An inscription found on a stone in a theatre in Maritima also refers to Pilate. The inscription mentions a building called Tiberium that was built or sponsored by Pilate. The Tiberium could have been a temple dedicated to the current Roman emperor Tiberius Caesar (Luke 3:1) (McRay, 1991).

5. Conclusion

Clearly, archaeology is a valuable tool for Bible study. It allows us to fully appreciate the context, culture and climate of many Bible passages and events. Thus, we gain a much fuller appreciation of the Biblical records. However, like all elements of history, archaeological interpretation may change in the light of new findings. The interpretation of archaeological finds needs to be kept flexible (Thompson, 1982). There should be constant re-evaluation of past findings to ensure they coincide with new findings and the Biblical text. Because of the volatile nature of archaeology, care must be taken when using it to study the Bible. Archaeology is a tool and nothing more. It can not be used as the basis for doctrines and theologies.


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