Jan 2, 2009

Archaeology and the Bible: How Archaeological Discoveries Support the Bible as a Historically Accurate Document

For those who are going through doubt, or just need some encouragement. I wrote this essay in November for my honors college writing class, the evidence that I found supporting the Bible through archaeological means was very encouraging. Enjoy!
Many individuals believe that the Bible is filled with myths. Even many Christians wonder if much of the Bible--particularly the Old Testament--is based on fact. Some archaeological discoveries, such as the more recent discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, have been found to give historical support for Christianity and the historical accuracy, and reliability of the Bible. Indeed, there is a growing body of archaeological evidence that lends support to the biblical account and confirms the historicity of the Bible. Christians should find encouragement when studying these archaeological discoveries.

Many secular historians have assumed that the Bible is inaccurate, and that it cannot be trusted as a historical document. In fact, whole biblical civilizations were dismissed from the historical record because the Bible was the only evidence of their ancient existence. The Assyrians are an example of a civilization that were excluded from the history books for many years. The Assyrians are mentioned many times throughout the Old Testament; they were fierce people who were frequently battling the Israelites. 2 Kings 19:11 reads: “Surely you have heard what the kings of Assyria have done to all the countries, destroying them completely . . .” and later in verse 17, “the Assyrian kings have laid waste these nations and their lands”. The Assyrians are mentioned in five different books in the Bible. Nevertheless, until 1840 when Paul Emile Botta began an archaeological dig at Khorsabad, Iraq, most historians believed the Assyrians to be a mythical people. During Botta’s search, he discovered ancient Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian civilization, as well as the palace of King Sargon, an Assyrian king who is mentioned in Isaiah 20:1. “The sculptures, household articles, and richly carved walls” that Botta found in “Sargon’s palace finally brought the Assyrian Empire out of the pages of the Bible and into the light of history”(Scheller 20). There is no longer any doubt that the Assyrian civilization is part of human history, and the Assyrian Empire is now included in historical books.

After Botta’s discoveries became known, a man named Austen Henry Layard gathered a team of archaeologists and began to search very near the site where Botta discovered the ancient Assyrian civilization. While Layard was digging, he discovered a chamber that was made from large tablets of marble covered with cuneiform. This room was soon found to be “part of the palace of King Ashurnasirpal II, who had reigned from 883 to 859 BC”(Scheller 21). These tablets, often referred to as the Nineveh Tablets, could not be completely translated until George Smith began to work on them in the early 1870’s. Smith soon discovered that some of the tablets had the Assyrian and Babylonian version of the creation story. The creation tale that Smith found had many detailed similarities to the biblical account of Creation; in fact there were very few differences. Smith was surprised to find that two civilizations, the Assyrians and the Israelites, would have such similar tales, including a few key phrases that were exactly the same.
Smith’s surprise and bewilderment increased when he discovered the Assyrian’s great flood tale--now called the “Epic of Gilgamesh”(Scheller 28). The first portion of this story that Smith translated, contained a command to build and fill a ship with “food…treasures, seeds” and “animals . . .”(Ryan and Pitman et al. 48). Before the biblical account of the flood, the Lord told Noah to “bring into the ark two of all living creatures, male and female, to keep them alive . . .”(Genesis 6:19), then God said “I will send rain on the earth for forty days and forty nights, and I will wipe from the face of the earth every living creature . . .”(Genesis 7:4). This portrays the flood coming as a punishment, which is consistent with the Epic of Gilgamesh. Other parallels found in the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Biblical Flood include “the survival of one man and his family who took animals with them on an ark, and the final grounding of the ark on a mountaintop”(Scheller 28). One reason the tales might be so similar is that stories, when re-told orally through generations, tend to change based on the changes in the culture. As the Assyrian’s culture evolved, they adapted the creation and flood tale to fit their newer ideas of God, while the general themes and many of the original facts remained.

The Hittites are another example of a people long believed to be mythical by secular historians, even though the Hittites are mentioned in the Bible “47 times”(Price 82). Like the Assyrians, the Hittites were a strong nation that often fought against the Israelites. In 1876, in Boghaz-Koy, Turkey, clay tablets were discovered by the people of the neighborhood who sold them to a German named Hugo Winckler, an expert in cuneiform. When Winckler went to investigate the site where the tablets were found, he discovered “five temples, a fortified citadel, and many monumental sculptures. Also, in one burnt storeroom he found more than 10,000 clay tablets”(Price 83). This was indeed an important discovery, and after Winckler translated the tablets, he revealed that Boghaz-Koy was the site of the ancient Hittite capital, Hattusha. As a result, historians and scholars now recognize that the Bible was correct about the ancient Hittite Empire. Once again, a major civilization that was only documented in the Old Testament was considered mythology until undeniable archaeological evidence was unearthed.

The biblical fall of Sodom and Gomorrah is a story in the Bible that most historians and archaeologists still consider to be mythological. The biblical story of these ancient cities ends when “the Lord rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah . . .”(Genesis 19:24). When Abraham awoke the next morning, “he looked down on Sodom and Gomorrah . . . and he saw dense smoke rising from the land, like smoke from a furnace”(Genesis 19:28). All archaeological searching for the ancient cities of Sodom and Gomorrah has typically been done around the Dead Sea because Genesis 14:3 says that Sodom and Gomorrah were “in the Valley of Siddim (that is the Salt Sea)”. The Salt Sea in this text refers to the Dead Sea. This area is also very mountainous, and the Bible says that angels warned Lot and his family to “flee to the mountains or . . . be swept away”(Genesis 19:17). In 1965 and 1967, Paul Lapp began an archaeological dig for Sodom and Gomorrah at Bab dh-Dhra, on the southeastern side of the Dead Sea. Walter Rast and Thomas Schaub continued Lapp’s search in 1973. The wall found on the site was discovered to be about 23 feet thick with two towers at either end of one section, a large cemetery, and houses made of mud-brick on the northwest side of the wall. However, the most significant fact about the site was that the entire city--including the cemetery outside the walls--was covered with several feet of ash. This ash provides evidence of an immense fire that consumed the entire city. The mud-bricks of the buildings were also red, possibly from extreme heat. While there are many ways for a city to be consumed by fire, there is strong evidence, such as the location of the site, being both surrounded by mountains and near the Dead Sea, as well as the amount of ash found, and the way the buildings burned from the roof downward, that this may be the biblical Sodom and Gomorrah. Indeed, Bryant Wood, logical specialist in the search for Sodom, says: “We have evidence that supports exactly the biblical account”(qtd. in Stones 118) of Sodom and Gomorrah.

While the discovery of Sodom and Gomorrah has yet to be fully proved, the evidence that supports the existence of the biblical King David is growing considerably. In 1993, archaeologist Avraham Biran began to search an archaeological site in Tel Dan. While he was searching, Biran discovered “a nearly 3,000-year-old monumental inscription (stele) written on black basalt by one of Israel’s foreign enemies”(Price 167). The ninth line of the inscription has been translated and refers to the “House of David”(Biblical Archaeology [par. 1]). It seems that one of the Israelites’ enemies, the King of Damascus at that time, wrote the inscription not long after King David’s reign, and refers to the “House of David”. Professor Biran believes that the King of Damascus had the stele created to celebrate a victory over the Israelites. Naturally, in order for there to be a House of David, there must have been a David. Biran’s discovery and reasoning does not provide enough evidence to eliminate all doubt of the biblical King David; in fact, scholar Philip Davies wrote "I am not the only scholar who suspects that the figure of King David is about as historical as King Arthur" (qtd. in King [par 25]) in 1997. However, since then, further evidence of King David has been found.

Just a few weeks ago, on October 31, 2008, the Daily Telegraph’s Carolynne Wheeler reported the discovery of a pottery shard that was found where the Bible says the shepherd boy David killed Goliath, the biblical giant. The engraving on the pottery has not yet been fully translated, however a few words such as “king”, “judge” and “slave” have been. These words have led scholars to believe that the inscription was written by one of the King’s scribes. Indeed, the lead archaeologist says the shard and the fortress-city in which it was uncovered are rare evidence of the biblical kingdom of David. While only part of the inscription has been uncovered, this evidence that further confirms the Bible and the existence of King David should be an encouragement to all Christians (Pottery). This very recent discovery is further evidence that the Bible is historically reliable and reminds Christians that God’s word has been carefully and accurately preserved through the ages.

Another marvelous set of discoveries involves King Hezekiah of the Old Testament. In 2 Chronicles, the king of Assyria began to move his armies towards the city of Jerusalem where King Hezekiah was ruling. When King Hezekiah became aware of this, he prepared for the anticipated siege. The people of Jerusalem “worked hard repairing all of the broken sections of the wall and building towers on it” and the people also built “another wall outside . . .”(2 Chronicles 32:5) the original. The second wall that King Hezekiah had built was much broader--about twenty-three feet wide--to protect the people from the Assyrian army, and is known today as the Broad Wall. The Broad Wall, as well as part of the original wall and the towers around it, were discovered in 1869 by archaeologist Nahman Avigad. Both walls were found in surprisingly good condition.

Connected with the history of the Broad Wall is King Hezekiah’s water tunnel that he had built, in secrecy, to move “the water down to the west side of the City of David”(2 Chronicles 32:30) in case of attack or siege. In 1880, when a few boys were swimming through the ancient tunnel, they discovered an inscription along the inside. The inscription describes Hezekiah’s workmen on either side of the tunnel, using picks to carve through solid limestone towards each other. Even though the workmen on either side made many twists and turns, the two ends met without fail. An honest historian cannot deny the confirmation these archaeological discoveries give to the biblical account.

The most impressive archaeological discovery that supports the Bible has yet to be told--the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Indeed, archaeologist Dr. Bryan Wood believes that “the Dead Sea Scrolls have had the greatest biblical impact”(qtd. in Discovery of Scrolls) of any other archaeological discovery. The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in January 1974, by three young goat herders who began to search the caves found among the cliffs “overlooking the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea”(Varner [par 1]). The first cave contained many thin jars along the walls and broken pottery was spread across the floor. The ancient rolls of cloth discovered in the many jars are the famous manuscripts now known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. The manuscripts found in the first cave include:

A well-preserved copy of the entire prophecy of Isaiah--the oldest copy of an Old Testament book ever to be discovered. Another fragmentary scroll of Isaiah. A commentary on the first two chapters of Habakkuk . . . the ‘Manual of Discipline’ or ‘Community Rule’ . . . the ‘Thanksgiving Hymns,’ a collection of devotional ‘psalms’ of thanksgiving and praise to God. . . . an Aramaic paraphrase of the Book of Genesis . . . the ‘Rule of War’. (Varner [par 13])
This discovery is indeed a historical event, and the items named above are only what was found in the first of more than ten caves later discovered along the same cliff. Except for Esther, the manuscripts found in the caves have represented every book of the Old Testament. The uncovering of the biblical manuscripts alone is an event that deserves celebrating, and items such as the Community Rule and the commentary give insight into the cultures and ways of life of biblical peoples that will aid historians and theologians for years to come.

The importance of this discovery became even more apparent when scholars began to translate the Dead Sea Scrolls. Up until this discovery, many individuals were convinced that the Bible had been translated so many times, and from so many different languages, that the original meaning of the text had been lost. This is a very serious matter for many individuals, and especially important for people of Christian or Jewish faith. However, when the Dead Sea Scrolls were translated and compared to The Bible of the present day, scholars found that “the Old Testament was accurately transmitted”(qtd. in Discovery of Scrolls) and that the meaning of the Old Testament had not changed over the course of many centuries. Such a discovery cannot be taken lightly and it is easy to see why William Foxwell Albright, the American Dean of Biblical Archaeology, described the Dead Sea Scrolls as “the greatest manuscript discovery of modern times”(qtd. in Stones 277).

Many archaeologists, and non-Christians in general, still assume that many of the people and stories of the Bible are mythical. Nevertheless, the Bible is gaining new respect among historians and archaeologists as evidence is found supporting the biblical text. As William Scheller notes: “for whatever one may believe about the Bible’s religious messages, its text is also key to the history of the peoples and places of the Middle East”(Scheller 132).

Christians can find encouragement through archaeology and the support that it often gives to the Bible, the very book that Christians base most of their faith upon. On one hand, if parts of the Bible were found historically inaccurate, then the rest of the Bible and its teachings could no longer be trusted. On the other hand, each time archaeological evidence is uncovered that supports the Bible, the teachings of the Bible can be considered more trustworthy.

With the evidence and reasoning above, it is easy to conclude that archaeology does indeed confirm that the Bible is historically accurate. The discoveries made through archaeological digs that are consistent with the biblical text should, if nothing else, encourage Christians and give them confidence that their faith is in fact supported by extra-biblical evidence. The reliability of the history found in the scriptures should bolster their enthusiasm and help them to confidently answer questions of skeptics. For the Bible is, in truth, a great historical document.

Works Cited
Bible, The. NIV
Biblical Archaeology: The House of David. 2005. All About Archaeology. 6 November 2008.
Price, Randall. The Stones Cry Out: What Archaeology Reveals About the Truth of the Bible.
Eugene: Harvest House Publishers, 1997.
Scheller, William. Amazing Archaeologists and Their Finds. Minneapolis: The Oliver Press,
Seiglie, Mario. “King David’s Reign: A Nation United”. 1997. United Church of God. 22
November 2008. .
Varner, Will. “Discovery of the Scrolls”. 1997. Christian Answers. 6 November 2008.
Wheeler, Carolynne. “Pottery Shard Lends Evidence to Stories of Biblical King David”. 31
October 2008. Daily Telegraph. 6 November 2008. /news/worldnews/middleeast/israel/333122/Pottery-shard-lends-evidence-to-stories-
William, Ryan and Walter Pitman. Noah’s Flood. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998.


Mary Fagan said...

Excellent! Very thorough, well-written, and enlightening! I trust your professor rewarded your efforts with a big, fat A! Even though I've never felt the need to prove the basic truths that support our faith, such discoveries are always exciting. Kinda brings it all to life.

Chocolate Lover said...

Thank you very much!
I did get a 100% on this essay and I was so happy! I always found archaeological findings and the connection with the Bible interesting. I don't really understand how people can see amazing evidence like this and not believe in the power and might of God!

Ms.Lo said...

Wow. I love it.

Kulio said...

That was so well written! So interesting, too, nice job!

michael said...

Quite impressive! I write fantasy set in Bronze Age Mesopotamia, (my second book, The Tears of Ishtar is out December 1st) so I do a great deal of research of that period. I am constantly amazed at the sheer volume of discovery in that area in the last few years. It seems like something in the Bible is confirmed nearly every day.
I've been a long time fan of Biblical Archeological Review as well. Always good stuff, and endlessly fascinating.
Again, a very nice job on one of my favorite topics!

Chocolate Lover said...

Thank you so much - I'm glad you like it!
I really do enjoy the topic, and I was lucky enough to get an opportunity to write about it for school.
I will certainly have to look up your book this December--thanks again!