1. Biblical Archaeology is over 100 Years Old

Biblical archaeology got its start over a hundred years ago in 1890 with British archaeologist, Sir William Matthews Flinders Petrie. Petrie learned groundbreaking excavation techniques from the German archaeologist, Heinrich Schliemann at the famous site of ancient Troy in Asia Minor. Petrie learned stratigraphy (the use of strata – the occupational layers of an archaeological site), as well as pottery analysis (ceramic typology) for dating each layer of the mound (or Tell). Petrie utilized these new methods at a site in Israel-Palestine, called Tell el-Hesi. That is where scientific, biblical archaeology got its start [1].

William Matthews Flinders Petrie (1853-1942)

2. Every New Testament City has Been Discovered

Archaeology is first and foremost, a study of the past via artifacts – things that former civilizations have left behind. Artifacts can be pottery, jewelry, statues, or even entire cities! Since scientific archaeology began, every major New Testament village and town has been discovered or identified by archaeologists [2]. Capernaum, the base of Jesus’ Galilean ministry, was a first-century village that was first identified in the 19th Century by the early biblical geographer and explorer, Charles Warren (1840-1927)

Capernaum Synagogue

3. The Book of Acts Records Accurate Geographical References of Roman Trade Routes

In addition to being a reliable source on historical and archaeological remains, the Bible is also reliable when it comes to geography. In the book of Acts [written by Luke], there are over 84 confirmed accurate geographical references, including the direction of prevailing winds off the coast Malta (Acts 27:7), the depth of the water, as well as intimate local knowledge of geography, political officials, and details only an eyewitness could know [3]. Luke’s intimate familiarity with Roman politics, geography and nomenclature in Asia Minor [Turkey], Greece, and Ancient Rome [Italy], argues strongly for the authenticity of the book of Acts as an accurate historical account of Paul and Peter’s missionary travels.

Aerial view of Caesarea Marítima, where Paul departed on his several missionary journeys, as well as his journey to Rome 

4. Many Artifacts Affirming Biblical History Have Been Discovered by “non-Biblical” Archaeologists

Skeptics of the Bible often make the claim that “Biblical Archaeologists” set out to “prove the Bible,” and thus find what they are looking for, but contrary to this claim, dozens of archaeological discoveries which affirm biblical history were discovered by non-biblical archaeologists. The Caiaphas Ossuary, Pontius Pilate Inscription, Pilate’s signet ring, and the Tel-Dan Stele, were all discovered by non-biblical archaeologists. This fact attests to the reliability of the Bible as a source of reliable historical information.

5. Mundane Pottery is a Vital Tool for Biblical Archaeologists

 Because of the influence of popular movies about archaeology, much of the public views biblical archaeology as a search for sensational artifacts, like the Pharaoh’s chariot wheels in the Red Sea, or the fabled Ark of the Covenant. In reality, however, mundane objects such as pottery and potsherds are the most important diagnostic tools to the biblical archaeologist. Debates in biblical archaeology sometimes center around the interpretation of ceramics, as in the case of Jericho. Pottery can even have historical inscriptions (ostracon = a “pot-sherd with writing on it”) such as the Lachish Letters which gives us insights into Judah’s final days before the Neo-Babylonian invasion in 587/6 B.C.. 

Lachish Letters (ca. 590 B.C.)

6. Tells are Ancient Buried Cities

Biblical archaeologists usually, but not always excavate in Tells. A Tell (also spelled Tel or Tal) is an Arabic word which means “ruin,” or an artificial mound of successive cities, one built on top of the other [4]. One question that is often asked is, why would people of the past rebuild on the same site for centuries? There are essentially three main factors as to why ancient peoples would rebuild on the same site: (A). The proximity to water, as well as availability to rich agricultural lands and other natural resources; (B) Proximity to trade routes and/or roads; and (C) Defensive locations such as natural hills, rocky outcroppings, etc…

Ancient Jericho (Tell es-Sultan)

7. Archaeological Excavation is a Slow, Methodical Process

 Archaeology is not fast process at all! Archaeologists working in the Near East (Israel, Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon/Syria) often spend many years in analyzing and understanding an archaeological site. Sites rarely, if ever, reveal their secrets quickly. Understanding an archaeological site is like a very slowly developing photograph. In the past several decades, new technologies have made the archaeological process much more streamlined and efficient [5].

At Khirbet el-Maqatir (Biblical Ai) along the Late Bronze Age Canaanite wall.

8. Biblical Archaeology is a Team Effort

Rarely, if ever, is there a solitary archaeologist working at a site in Israel or Jordan all by himself or herself [like Indiana Jones]. It is multidisciplinary. An archaeological excavation is a team effort, and includes scientists from a wide variety of disciplines, including but not limited to: osteologists (or physical anthropologists), geologists, ceramicists, philologists, numismatists, data entry, surveyors, metal-detectorists, biologists, botanists, and a host of other disciplines. Most archaeological projects also heavily rely on the work of volunteers (or non-specialists), usually from universities, colleges, and/or churches. 

“Pottery reading” with Associates for Biblical Research (ABR) and volunteers at Khirbet el-Maqatir (2014)

9. Historical Synchronisms are when the Bible & Archaeological Discoveries match perfectly

One of the KEY distinctions between those who identify themselves as “biblical archaeologists,” and Near Eastern archaeologists, is that for biblical archaeologists historical synchronisms are important. A historical synchronism is when the archaeological evidence and the Biblical text align together. In referring to the historical synchronism, archaeologist, Scott Stripling states that, “Fixed dates in the Bible can be used to determine the dates of archaeological remains. For example, the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem in 586 B.C., therefore, it would not be hard to date an Iron Age IIC destruction level at Jerusalem or Tel Lachish to 586 B.C. [6].

Another example of a historical synchronism is the sacking of Lachish and siege of Jerusalem by the Neo-Assyrian ruler, Sennacherib in 701 B.C., an event affirmed both in the Assyrian historical and archaeological record, and in the Old Testament text (Isaiah 36-37; 2 Kings 18:17; 2 Chronicles 32:9). In ancient Near Eastern archaeology there are many historical synchronisms with the Bible, which is why biblical archaeologists maintain and defend the historical reliability of the Biblical text. 

Relief of the Assyrian siege of Lachish by Sennacherib, ca. 700-692 BC. From Nineveh, South-West Palace. British Museum

Oriental Institute Prism, University of Chicago

10. The Bible is a solid primary source for understanding archaeological discoveries of the Ancient Near East

In the past century the discipline of “biblical archaeology” has risen, and then sharply declined with the rise of new archaeological approaches and methods that were heavily influenced by the social sciences. Additionally, a more cautious and outright skeptical view of the Bible has also arisen with the Copenhagen School of Biblical Interpretation and biblical minimalism. But, as Old Testament scholar, Dr. Eugene Merril states: 

Contrary to the overblown claims of those who embrace the new archaeology, biblical archaeology survives beyond evangelical circles. Israeli scholars, by and large, continue to employ it to define the thrust of their labors to elucidate the biblical texts and reconstruct the history of their forebears. This is true also of scholars who embrace no particular faith tradition, or who at least do not make faith a publicly proclaimed motivation for their scholarly efforts. …it is clear that rumors of the demise of biblical archaeology are, to paraphrase Mark Twain, greatly exaggerated [7].

The Bible continues to be a very reliable source of ancient history, as well as what archaeologists discover in the ground in the lands of the Bible. 

Street of Ancient Ephesus from Roman times. Image: Britannica

END NOTES

[1] see, P.R.S. Moorey, A Century of Biblical Archaeology (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991), pp. 26-28; William H. Stiebing, Jr., Uncovering the Past: A History of Archaeology (New York: Prometheus Books, 1993); and Neil Asher Silberman, Digging for God and Country: Exploration, Archaeology and the Secret Struggle for the Holy Land, 1799-1917 (New York: Anchor-Doubleday, 1990). 

[2] Jack Finegan, The Archaeology of the New Testament: The Life of Jesus and the Beginning of the Early Church (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992). See also, Edward Robinson, Biblical Researches in Palestine and in the Adjacent Regions: A Journal of Travels in the Year 1838 (Boston: Crocker and Brewster, 1856).

[3] see, Colin Hemer, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1989), see esp. chapt. 4 “Types of Knowledge Displayed in Acts,” pp.101-158.

[4] “The Syro-Palestinian tell is a human artifact of enormous complexity. It is the result of centuries, often millennia, of human activity – building, razing, leveling, pitting, plowing, tunneling, and terracing, — and of natural forces – blowing, eroding, quaking, collapsing, undermining, gullying, and silting. The end result – what the excavator confronts – is often an unholy mess. Theoretically, the task of the excavator is to take this mound apart in exact reverse order from that which it was built, staring with the latest features, proceeding to the next oldest, and so on. This theoretical ideal might be achieved if the excavator has something like x-ray vision plus the ability to make the layers of different ages glow in contrasting colors so that every phase and sub-phase could be infallibly disentangled. But, until and unless science presents us with such improbable capabilities, we must accept the unhappy truth that the stratigraphic history of any site as reconstructed by the archaeologist will only approximate the actual history of the mound.” In, William G. Dever and H. Darrell Lance, Eds., A Manual of Field Excavation: A Handbook for Field Archaeologists (New York and Jerusalem: Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, 1978), p.75.

[5] Satellite and remote imaging is also helping archaeologists understand sites including: spacial relationships, interactions with other sites, as well as discovering new and previously unknown sites. For instance, see our article: Space Archaeology and the Bible

[6] Scott Stripling, The Trowel and the Truth: A Guide to Field Archaeology in the Holy Land, Second Edition (Ramona, CA: Vision Publishing, 2017), pp. 45-6.

[7] Eugene H. Merrill, “Archaeology and Biblical History: Its Uses and Abuses,” in David M. Howard, Jr., and Michael A. Grisanti, Eds., Giving the Sense: Understanding and Using the Old Testament Historical Texts (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2003), pp.83-84.