Philosophical Questions That Have a Bearing on Archaeology

In the third installment of the Indiana Jones movie series, The Last Crusade, “Indy” goes to the chalkboard and writes the word “FACT” and then underlines it. Then he says to his students: “Archaeology is the search for fact not truth. If it’s truth you’re interested in, Dr. Tyree’s philosophy class is right down the hall.”

Unbeknownst to most people, “Indy” was summarizing a philosophical outlook, and not an archaeological one! That particular outlook, reaches all the way back to the 18th Century and the European Enlightenment from a German philosopher named, Immanuel Kant.

Kant was the philosopher responsible for the radical separation of facts from truth [1]. The question is, is “Indy” right? Was Kant right? Should ‘facts’ be divorced from truth? Are the two mutually exclusive? Is truth merely someone’s personal perspective? How should truth be defined? Furthermore, why does this even matter? It matters because ideas have consequences!

Indy is not the only archaeologist to make philosophical statements. Archaeologists, like other scientists, are not immune to the ideas of philosophy. In fact, no science is done in a philosophical vacuum whether that science is physics, chemistry, biology or especially the historical sciences.

Consider the following quote from Israeli archaeologist, Amon Ben Tor, in the book, The Archaeology of Ancient Israel (Yale University Press, 1992).

[An] …intense urge to prove the Bible cannot affect the pious believer. For such a person, the scriptures contain their own truth and need not be criticized or proven. This need is prevalent, in what must be construed as an irrational manner, among large sections of the secular public, which find it important that the archaeologists prove that all the events in the Bible did indeed occur and that all the figures mentioned and the episodes described are entirely consistent with reality. There is in this demand a violation of archaeological integrity and an attempt to impose upon archaeology unattainable objectives – that is the proof of faith.[2]

Ben Tor states that the Scriptures “contain their own truth,” as if there were a separation between what the Bible states, and the facts of reality. He also glibly chides those who connect statements and/or events in the Bible with actually corresponding to reality. When Ben-Tor, and other archaeologists make statements of skepticism towards the Bible, this is not a conclusion from archaeology or the study of artifacts, rather it is an outworking of an underlying philosophy and world-view to which they adhere. They are in fact, engaging in philosophy.

Most archaeologists working in the field, or in the lab today very likely don’t give a second thought about philosophical questions and how they do archaeology. But this is also true of most people, no matter what their profession or station in life, yet philosophy affects everyone.

Archaeology Doesn’t SAY Anything – Archaeologists DO!

Several years ago a colleague of mine, and a fellow Christian apologist, coined the phrase, “Science doesn’t SAY anything, scientists, do.” Does, or can science tell us things all by itself? Or do scientists tell us things? And what about archaeology? What can archaeology tell us? Or is it case that archaeologists tell us things? What exactly do these phrases mean? Isn’t science after all, completely unbiased and objective when done properly?

What the phrase gets at, is that many people today (especially scientists), confuse and conflate “science” with the scientific method. In other words, the scientific method whose foundations were laid down by such notables as Newton, Kepler, Galileo, Spinoza, etc.. has come to be trusted as the sole and ONLY way to objective knowledge and truth. But what exactly is science anyway?

What is Science?

At a root level there are essentially two kinds [or branches] of science:Empirical Science Forensic Science

Empirical science is sometimes called, “operation science.” Some examples of the empirical sciences are chemistry, biology, geology, physics, etc… Empirical science studies phenomena of the present physical world by using methods of observation and experimentation [i.e. the “scientific method”]. Empirical science studies that which is repeatable and observable (to some extent anyway –  subatomic particles called quarks & quantum physics are a counter-examples). But even in the empirical sciences, the conclusions are not completely settled. New data, new experiments, and new information further our understanding of the physical universe and replace outdated theories and hypotheses.

Forensic science studies past events and singularities (one time events). There are many fascinating areas of study which utilize the principles of forensic science: Darwinism and the origin of the first life; the beginning of the universe, criminal justice and CSI, as well as ID (Intelligent Design), and archaeology. There is an important principle in forensic science called the principle of uniformity. Since we cannot repeat a past event in the lab, [nor can an archaeologist know exactly what took place at a site], we must look for clues and/or evidence to reconstruct the past. For detectives, evidence for the crime may be a blood stain or a fingerprint. For archaeologists, reconstructing an ancient site is drawn from an analysis of artifacts such as a fragment of pottery with writing on it, or a stone tool or something else that is discovered. Forensic science is by nature, inductive and builds a cumulative case that a particular theory is true.

So science, by itself, doesn’t really SAY anything, scientists do. Archaeology doesn’t really SAY anything, archaeologists do. This is not to say, however, that there is no such thing as objective meaning and truth in the archaeological data, but when it comes to constructing meaning, THAT is the provenance, not merely of sciences, but also of philosophy as well.

Science itself is built upon the principles of philosophy. Philosophy is done before science, (which helps determine the rules of science), it is done during science, and after science in the interpretation of data. Logic, causality, forensics, metaphysical realism and ethics [honesty in recording the data] are all crucial for doing good science [and archaeology], and they are all part of the discipline of philosophy.

Four Essential Philosophical Questions

At a basic level, there are four big philosophical questions that affect those who are engaged in the discipline of Biblical [or Near Eastern] archaeology.

  1. What is Reality? (Metaphysics)
  2. How Do we Know Reality? (Epistemology)
  3. How Should We Act? (Ethics)
  4. What is the Relationship Between Faith & Reason?

There is also a fifth question: the question, “Does God Exist?” which also has a bearing on history and archaeology (the question of supernaturalism and the Biblical text). For more on this, see our article here.

The two sub-disciplines in philosophy (listed above) which have the most far reaching implications are metaphysics and epistemology.

Of the two, metaphysics (the study of reality) is the most fundamental and foundational. George Orwell stated decades ago, that, “The first duty of intelligent men today is a restatement of the obvious.” The fact that there is even a reality and that we can know it seems obvious to most people. Although philosophy in general, and metaphysics in particular, may seem like the most impractical thing one could study – that is the farthest thing from the truth.

Philosophical reflections may also seem fairly benign and harmless – mere flights of fancy coming from those who have too much free time to think about such things, but there are far reaching implications at hand, not just for archaeologists, but for every rational person.

One of the most foundational subjects in philosophy is of course, metaphysics. Most people today who don’t study philosophy (or who are unfamiliar with philosophical vocabulary) believe that metaphysics is some sort of esoteric, nebulous study of mystical things – that it is somehow pure speculation. In fact, there seems to be a disdain today even among professional philosophers for metaphysics in the classical sense of the word.[3]

There is an old engraving that, for me, illustrates the outlook that sound philosophy can bring. It is from a 19th century French book on meteorology by Camile Flammarion. The artist is an unknown engraver. It depicts a man peering through the earth’s atmosphere as if he were peering behind a curtain and looking at the inner workings of the universe.

To some, this might seem like “pie in the sky,” but philosophy undergirds all rational inquiry into reality – whether it is molecules, chemistry, biological systems, or archaeology.


The word meta-physics comes from a Greek word which simply means “after physics.” The term was first introduced by Andronicus of Rhodes to designate the unnamed books which appeared after Aristotle’s Physics in the original collection of his works

W. Norris Clarke in his excellent book The One and the Many: A Contemporary Thomistic Metaphysics says that the philosophical subject of metaphysics…

…aims to draw into the explicit light of reflection what all other human inquiry takes for granted or leaves implicit – the foundation of actual existence upon which all else is built and without which all subject matter vanishes into the darkness of nonbeing, of what is not…. As Heidegger complained…the whole of Western metpahysics, from Plato on, lapsed into a ‘forgetfulness of being,’ not of what things are, their essences, but of the radical fact that they are at all, standing out from nothingness shining forth to us…[4]

Furthermore he stated that metaphysics,

cannot be done by any method of empirical observation or scientific method based on quantitative measuring techniques formulated in mathematical terms, but only by its proper method of reflective analysis and insight into the necessary conditions of intelligibility of being as such, and finally coming to grips with the most fundamental question of all: ‘How come there is a real universe at all?’ [5]

This article began with Indy in the classroom talking about the separation of fact from truth. As it turns out, this is a metaphysical statement which actually violates first principles of metaphysics and logic. These laws are called first principles. Here are three (below) that help us discover reality (truth).


1. Being Is (B is) = The Principle of Existence
To say “There is no being” is self-refuting. One must exist in order to make the claim.
2. Being Is Being (B is B) = The Principle of Identity
To say “Being isn’t being” is self refuting. One must be a being in order to make a claim about not being a being.
3. Being Is Not Nonbeing (B is Not Non-B) = The Principle of Noncontradiction
If being exists (see Principle #1), then it cannot be non-being. The principle is self-evident and undeniable.[6]

If the above statements are still not clear – another way we could put it is that TRUTH is that which corresponds REALITY. Truth is not separate from fact – they are co-extensive.

So, Indy was wrong, as well as Immanuel Kant.

Any worldview or science that is not built upon a correct view of reality (metaphysics) is doomed to failure, simply because it is not grounded in the real world – falsehoods and untruths will not stand the test of time.

Contrary to the archaeologist, Amon Ben-Tor, when the Bible makes statements that are true, then they correspond to reality, or that which is real. There is nothing irrational or illogical with words corresponding to reality when they are properly understood in their historical and linguistic contexts.

The particular metaphysical view to which Epic Archaeology adheres, is a view called, moderate realism as it was laid out by St. Thomas Aquinas and the Arabic philosopher Avicenna. Our view of epistemology (or how we know reality) also comes from St. Thomas (although it is not exclusive to him), and it is called moderate empiricism.


As an auxiliary branch of history, archaeology is a primary source of historical knowledge, along with other sources, such as manuscripts, and inscriptions. Historical knowledge is not a-priori (that is, before our experience), rather it is grounded in experience (both personal as well as propositional) via these primary sources.

To put it another way, historical knowledge comes from primary sources as well as our own memories, and the memories of others. When it comes to ancient history we must rely on primary sources for our knowledge of those past events.

If we were to simply state our view of metaphysics and epistemology we would say that, reality is knowable and accessible to us, and we can know reality from our five senses, as well as in our minds. We can know physical and non-physical reality (rocks, fossils, subatomic particles, as well as mathematical, historical, logical, moral and theological truths, as well as memories).

Where exactly does history and archaeology fit into the philosophical category of epistemology?

Currently there are three views to which historical scholars hold with regard to primary sources. A primary source is an eyewitness, or someone who directly experienced an event (long deceased for ancient history), historical records, manuscripts (MSS), historical inscriptions, and archaeological remains. The three views are as follows:


  1. Historical Positivism – Never go beyond what the primary sources tell us.
  2. The New History (or the New Archaeology) – Primary sources can be supplemented with comparative data drawn from other disciplines such as sociology, anthropology, linguistics, etc…[7]
  3. Post-Modernism – There is no reality beyond the text. A knowledge of the past is not possible, because history is merely poetry and metaphor.

While there is some value to the top two views (1 & 2) – each have their pros and cons – the third view is indefensible and contradictory.

Under the Post-Modern view there is a school of thought in archaeology which is called, The Copenhagen School (of Biblical Interpretation). It also goes by the name of Biblical Minimalism. The three scholars most well known in this school are, Thomas Thompson and N. Peter Lemche from University of Copenhagen, and John Van Seters of the University of North Carolina). The Copenhagen School is heavily influenced by the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, filtered through the works the three famous French Post-modern philosophers, Jacques Lacan, Derrida, and Michel Foucault.

In his book, On the Reliability of the Old Testament, Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen outlines the essential ideas of the Copenhagen School when it comes to the Biblical text.

(1) The author’s intention is an illusion created by readers
(2).The text is an interpretable entity independent of its author
(3).Language is infinitely unstable, and meaning always deferrable
(4).One must approach… [texts] with a hostile suspicion, against the grain, denying integrity where possible in favor or dissonance and a search for inner contradiction
(5) All texts are incomplete, as language is unbounded
(6).Structure is more important than context [8]

The basic problem with the Copenhagen School is that it is self-referentially absurd. This is not meant to be mean-spirited, it is a statement of fact. All three scholars of the Copenhagen School have written several books and extensively on the Copenhagen view, yet, if we were to utilize their own methodology on their own texts (which are now historical in the sense that they have been written in the past), then we shouldn’t believe anything they have written.

Just take the first three ideas listed above. If an authors intention is an illusion, then why should anyone take anything they write seriously? If the text is an interpretable entity, independent of its author, then even their own texts would be subject to this principle and objective meaning must be jettisoned. If language is infinitely unstable, then as soon as they write something, objective meaning will always be elusive and impossible to attain.

Primary sources such as the Biblical text, are and will continue to be a valuable source of historical data. This website is dedicated to showing exactly how and why this is true. There have been thousands of archaeological discoveries (many made by accident), which reveal the truth of this.


Last of all is the question of faith and reason. Here we will draw once again on the thought of the 13th Century, Medieval theologian and philosopher, Thomas Aquinas.

Before we see what Aquinas said about this we will first briefly take a brief look at the two (seemingly) exclusive ways of knowing.


Many people today have the mistaken notion that faith is simply “blind faith” – or a belief in something without any evidence whatsoever. This is simply not the proper notion of faith. The view that faith is blind and has no object which is grounded in reality is called fideism – or to put it another way, “faith in faith.”

But faith is not believing absurd things without reason or evidence. Faith is not some kind of force that we manipulate to accomplish our own purposes. Rather, faith is trust in something or someone that we have evidence for. In the Christian worldview, faith is trusting in God. Faith is trusting that God is good, etc… Many theological truths are are known through faith, but even those truths are supported by evidence (i.e. miracles, etc…).

So there are certain truths that can only be known via faith (i.e. the Trinity, Salvation, etc…), but knowing a truth through faith, is not irrational, it is truth that could not be discovered by reason alone. Some truth(s) must be revealed by God. We call this Special Revelation (2 Pet. 1:21, Col. 2:9, and John 14:9).

It is obvious then, that archaeological truth and facts are not something that we know solely by faith. Archaeological science is located in the realm of reason.


Reason is obviously located in the realm of the present. We have a knowledge of physical and non-physical reality via our reason. Reason has given us the sciences, mathematics, logic, and many other disciplines such as archaeology.

Religious philosophers and theologians designate reason under a category called, General Revelation – that is, truth about God and reality as it is revealed from the physical universe and reality (see Romans 1:19-20 and Psalm 19:1-4). The question at hand is, is reason and faith complementary or contradictory? Theologians and philosophers throughout the centuries have given sundry and various responses to the question of the relationship between faith and reason. Perhaps the most well known answer was given by the theologian Tertullian who said, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” Or, what does reason have to do with faith?

Of all the solutions given to the question of the relationship of faith and reason, Thomas Aquinas gives the most sensible answer. Although he does not actually separate faith and reason, Aquinas does distinguish them formally. We cannot know and believe the same thing at the same time… ‘whatever things we know with scientific knowledge properly so called we know by reducing them to first principles which are naturally present to the understanding. All scientific knowledge terminates in the sight of the thing which is present (whereas faith is always in something absent). Hence it is impossible to have faith and scientific knowledge about the same thing.’ [9]

In his massive Summa Theologica, and other places, Aquinas goes on to state that one can utilize reason, before, during and after faith.

So then, reason (or evidence of the Bible from archaeology) may accompany faith and be utilized in support of faith, but again, as Aquinas states, we can’t KNOW and BELIEVE something at exactly the same time. Archaeology cannot PROVE faith, but it can SUPPORT faith. Faith and reason are indeed complimentary, and there is no animosity between the two whatsoever.

The bottom line is this – that theological truths in the Bible are intimately linked to history and historical truth. If truth is that which corresponds to reality then much theology and doctrine that Christians hold true is at stake on this question. This is indeed, a scandalous thought.


To summarize, I’ll conclude with a quote from historical scholar, Will Herberg, who wrote in the 1950’s, a simple but profound truth about the main issues at stake with regards to Biblical faith and history. He writes:

The uniqueness – the “scandal” – of biblical faith is revealed in its radically historical character… the message biblical faith proclaims, the judgements it pronounces, the salvation it promises, the teaching it communicates, are all defined historically and understood as historical realities, rather than timeless structures of ideas or values [10].

Truth is that which corresponds to reality. We can know truth. It does not elude us except by our will. Truth can be known investigated with the tools of the mind and intellect: reason and logic. If the Bible is true, then it will correspond to historical reality and archaeology will support it. If the Bible can be trusted “with earthly things, then it can also be trusted with “heavenly things.”


[1] See Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, Trans. Norman Kemp Smith (London: Macmillian, 1929). The terms that Kant used were the ‘phenomena’ and the ‘noumena.’ Kant believed that the only true knowledge that we have access to, is the ‘noumena’ or what he called the ‘noumenal world’ which exists only in our minds. The phenomena (or, things as they are) are separated in our minds by a great “gulf,” hence the “fact-value dichotomy” – practically speaking, truth is a value statement which is separated by facts and/or data. It is purely subjective.

[2] Amon Ben-Tor, Editor, The Archaeology of Ancient Israel (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1992) [Introduction], 9 [emphasis mine].

[3] Norman L. Geisler and Paul D. Feinberg, Introduction to Philosophy: A Christian Perspective (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1980), 34.

[4] W. Norris Clarke, S.J., The One and the Many: A Contemporary Thomistic Metaphysics (Notre Dame, IN: The University of Notre Dame Press, 2001), 9 [emphasis mine]

[5] Ibid.

[6] for more on this see, St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics (Notre Dame, IN: Dumb Ox Books, 2007); St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics (Notre Dame, IN: Dumb Ox Books, 1997); John F. Wippel, The Metaphysical Thought of Thomas Aquinas: From Finite Being to Uncreated Being (Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2000).

[7] There is a movement in Near Eastern (or Biblical) Archaeology which accepts this this approach and applies it to the archaeology of the Levant – See Thomas Levy, et. al. (U.C. San Diego) The Archaeology of Society in the Holy Land. In the preface to the book he writes: “One of the underlying themes of this volume is the overall concern of the contributors with long term problems of humanistic interest rooted in identifying the trends and processes of socioculture change in the Holy Land. The emphasis on a long term diachronic perspective which imbues many of the papers presented here is linked conceptually with the Annales school of French historiography (Braudel 1972) which is described by Levy and Holl in the introduction of this volume. Another unifying theme in our approach to the past is the reliance on integrated interdisciplinary research.”

[8]see, Kenneth Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament, pp. 469-72.

[9] see Norman L. Geisler’s, Thomas Aquinas: An Evangelical Appraisal (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1991), pp. 57-69.

[10] Will Herberg, “Biblical Faith as Heilsgeschichte,” in the Christian Scholar’s Review (emphasis mine).