MAYBE I SHOULD BE ASHAMED OF MYSELF, but I kind of enjoy watching Bible-land archaeologists argue with each other. I mean debate. But it’s sometimes arguing.
The fact is, I learn by reading their arguments.
One of the things they argue about is how helpful the Bible is in figuring out what actually happened in ancient times.
Some say they see the Bible as pretty doggone unhelpful, especially as it relates to the story of how the Jewish people got started as a nation.
They say they don’t see much support on the ground to substantiate what is reported in the stories we read in the book of Joshua, with the Israelites invading what is now the Holy Land.
In the current issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 2016, several archaeologists politely go at each other over this very topic in the “Queries & Comments” section.
I read some thought-provoking lines from archaeologist William G. Dever. He excavated the ruins of the ancient Canaanite city of Gezer. He’s also an archaeology prof at Lycoming College in Pennsylvania.
He took issue with Harvard prof Peter Machinist who argued that the Bible should, in fact, be seriously considered when historians are trying to figure out how the people of Israel landed in what is now Israel and the Palestinian Territories.
Dr. Dever wrote that the Bible doesn’t help there.
“The fact is precisely the opposite case for writing any new history of ancient Israel in any era. In view of the progress of our two disciplines (archaeology and Bible), the archaeological data more often illumine the Biblical text, rarely the other way around.”
“The Hebrew Bible may sometimes help to determine how Israel ‘remembered’ it’s origins, but often the Bible has ‘invented’ these origins.”
We are left asking ourselves this question: Should we stick to our guns and consider history in the Bible as absolutely literal and thoroughly accurate?
Or is it okay to recognize the humanity of the writers and the editors who first wrote it down and then passed it along – and accept the fact that some bits of information may be simply the best they could remember, and not necessarily accurate all the time?
Or do we figure the Holy Spirit makes up the difference?
The question is a bit like the case that some Christians are making for the letters Paul wrote in the New Testament. They say that if Paul had any idea his letters were going to end up in the add-on to the Jewish Bible, he would have chosen his words more carefully. Maybe especially in the note to Timothy, telling women to keep their mouths shut in church.
Rather than give you examples of possible inaccuracies concerning the history – and there are a lot that the scholars report – I’m asking this on the basis of the principle alone:
Are you relaxed about the possibility that some of the facts reported in the Bibles we hold in our hands today might be a little off because the humans who passed them along were a little off?
Many readers – especially tradition-minded Christians – press me on matters like this. They say they want to know what I think.
I say we should stop listening to people who tell us what they think. I say we should gather as many facts as we can and then think for ourselves.
My follow-up question would be that if you have trouble with the kind of message Dr. Dever delivers, how would you make a case that all the facts are accurate when the scholars are prepared to give you a list of well-documented exceptions to that rule?
Would you be inclined to fall back on faith, or would you take the scholars on, one argument at a time?
My worry is that many Christians wouldn’t even bother to give the scholars a second thought.
If the Bible deserves to be taken seriously as a document that helps us understand ancient history, perhaps the scholars who spend their entire career getting their hands dirty by studying ancient history on the ground need to be taken seriously as well.
Truly, I’m curious what you think about that.