Often, people ask me whether archaeology can prove that the Bible is true.
The answer to this question is not as easy as people think. To understand the role archaeology plays in proving the reliability of the biblical text, it is important to understand what archaeology is and what it can and cannot do. Archaeology helps us gain a better understanding of the life, culture, religion, and history of the people who lived in ancient Israel.
The Role of Archaeology
Archaeology is the study of the material remains that people of antiquity left behind. Archaeologists discover these remains, identify what was found, and reconstruct their historical context. Material remains help archaeologists reconstruct the life and trace the development of the people who left these remains behind.
The work of archaeologists helps to fill the void where the biblical text does not provide sufficient information for the proper understanding of the historical context of the text. Archaeology does not prove the Bible, only faith can do that, but archaeology helps uncover, reveal, support, and reconstruct the evidence that clarifies or supports what the biblical text says.
Alan Millard, in his article “Archaeology and the Reliability of the Bible,” wrote,
The Bible is an old book which makes extraordinary claims. As with any other book, we may ignore it, but once we begin to read it we have to react to it. There are two simple responses to the Bible: to reject it outright, or to accept it completely. There is a third way, the way which many follow whether they are predisposed in favour of the Bible or against it, that is to examine and test its claims. It is here that archaeology can help, as it can help in the evaluation of any book bequeathed to us by antiquity. On the other hand, there should be no doubt that archaeology offers no help in those areas where the Bible moves into a different dimension. It can neither confirm nor deny the Bible’s claims that God parted the sea in front of the tribes of Israel at the Exodus, or that God spoke to Moses and the prophets, or that he raised Jesus alive from the tomb. Such things are beyond the scope of archaeology (Millard 1991:22)
Archaeology provides information about the social and religious life of the people of ancient Israel and about the historical facts the Bible relates. Discovery of ancient documents provides information about people and events mentioned in the text.
However, the material remains found by archaeologists are mute witnesses of what happened in the distant past. Thus, archaeologists must interpret what was found, however, archeologists provide different interpretations to these discoveries. These different interpretations at times are based on the biases archaeologists bring to the accuracy and reliability of the biblical text.
One case in point is the different interpretations given to the Tel Dan Stele inscription. The Tel Dan Stele contains a Canaanite inscription which has been dated by archaeologists to the 9th century BCE. The Tel Dan Stele is a remarkable archaeological discovery because of its reference to the house of David. The Stele mentions the byt dwd, “The House of David.” However, minimalist scholars, who do not accept the historicity of the Davidic monarchy, translated the Hebrew expression byt dwd as “The Temple [of the god] Dod,” even though the god Dod is not mentioned anywhere in ancient texts.
What Archaeology Cannot Do
Archaeology cannot prove that when the Israelites crossed the sea, the waters formed a wall for them on their right and on their left.
The Biblical text says that after the people of Israel left Egypt and came before the sea, “Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left” (Exodus 14:21–22).
Such a statement is hard to prove because the walls formed by the divided sea are not there for an archaeologist to see. This divine intervention was caused “by a strong east wind” and the work of the east wind was temporary, since the biblical text says that the next day, “the sea returned to its normal depth” (Exodus 14:27).
Archaeology cannot prove that the armies of the five Amorites kings were destroyed by huge stones from heaven.
When Joshua fought against the Amorite kings, his army defeated their enemies because of divine intervention: “the LORD threw down huge stones from heaven on them as far as Azekah, and they died; there were more who died because of the hailstones than the Israelites killed with the sword” (Joshua 10:11).
The Amorite kings were defeated because a great storm hindered their movement, thus making their armies unable to defeat the army of Israel. Since the rain and the hailstorm were local and temporary events, archeologists will never be able to find traces of the storm and of the hail that fell on that day.
What Archaeology Can Do
Archaeology can prove the exact date when Nebuchadnezzar captured Jerusalem the first time. According to “The Babylonian Chronicles,” Nebuchadnezzar captured Jerusalem on March 16, 597 BC.
The Babylonian Chronicles says,
In the seventh year [of Nebuchadnezzar, 598 BC] in the month Chislev [November/December] the king of Babylon assembled his army, and after he had invaded the land of Hatti (Syria/Palestine) he laid siege to the city of Judah. On the second day of the month of Adar [16 March] he conquered the city and took the king [Jeconiah] prisoner. He installed in his place a king [Zedekiah] of his own choice, and after he had received rich tribute, he sent forth to Babylon.
Archaeology can prove that Jehu, the king of the Northern Kingdom (Israel), paid tribute to the king of Assyria. According to the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III, Jehu bowed before Shalmaneser III as his ambassadors present his tribute to the Assyrian king.
The reference to Jehu in the Black Obelisk is as follows,
The tribute of Jehu, son of Omri; I received from him silver, gold, a golden bowl, a golden vase with pointed bottom, golden tumblers, golden buckets, tin, [and] a staff for a king (ANET 281).
Archaeology can prove that many of the kings of the Northern Kingdom were real people. The following kings of Israel are named in Assyrian Inscriptions: Ahab, Jehu, Joash, Menahem, Pekah, and Hoshea.
There are several things that archaeology can and cannot do. First, one must understand that many things found in the Old Testament cannot be verified as historical facts by archaeology. However, archaeology helps us place people and events in a historic context. When people and events are seen in a historical context, then one also understands that the Bible is a book dealing with actual history.
Second, although archaeology does not prove the Bible, it can provide information which helps interpret difficult texts. The archaeological evidence can be difficult to interpret but findings and excavations can often bring clarity to difficult texts
Third, there are limitations with the work of archeologists and the role of archaeology in proving the reliability of the Bible, but archaeology is an invaluable tool in understanding and interpreting the biblical text. Archaeology does not solve every problem in the text, it does not answer all questions about the historicity of the events, and it does not unravel every difficult issue of interpretation, but the proper reading of the biblical text together with the results of archaeological discoveries contribute to the clarification and understanding of the biblical text.
Fourth, the truth of the Bible as a religious book cannot be proved or disproved by archaeology. The Bible’s message is to be accepted by faith. Although the material remains are mute witnesses, God does not leave us without a witness. These archaeological witnesses provide light and insights into the proper understanding of the biblical text.
Millard concludes, “To set out to seek to ‘prove’ the Bible from archaeology is a foolish and misconceived task. Archaeology and the Bible are seen to complement each other the more the ancient near east is studied with a positive attitude. The claims it makes in the spiritual realm can only be proved trustworthy by the exercise of faith, a situation as true in biblical times as it is today” (Millard 1991:25).
In the past seventeen years, I have written many posts dealing with archaeological discoveries that have bearing on the biblical text. These posts deal with places and people mentioned in the Old Testament. Other posts deal with issues that have a bearing on the life, culture, and the religion of Israel. Since most of these posts have not been read by recent readers, I will republish them and list them below in an attempt to make these posts available to a wider audience.
Claude F. Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
Hoppe, Leslie. What Are They Saying About Biblical Archaeology? New York, Paulist Press, 1984.
Millard, Alan. “Archaeology and the Reliability of the Bible.” Evangel 9 no 2 (Summer 1991): 22–25.
Pritchard, James B. ed. Ancient Near East Texts Relating to the Old Testament [ANET]. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1955.
Wright, George Ernest. “What Archaeology Can and Cannot Do,” The Biblical Archaeologist 34 no 3 (1971): 70–76.
Wiseman, D. J. Chronicles of Chaldean Kings in the British Museum. London: Trustees of the British Museum, 1956.