The Christian Defenders’ 5 Reasons: Archaeology and the Bible

In my experience, Christian apologetics is geared towards reinforcing the faithful, not convincing the skeptic. As I wrote last October, “It seems that pop-apologetics is nothing more than preaching to the choir.”1 This in spite of the oft-repeated claim that apologetics is biblically mandated: “Always be ready to make your defense [apologian] to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15, NRSV).Presumably “anyone [panti; literally, “all”]” would include unbelievers yet the quality of the material produced by pop-apologists betrays any such notion. It is often written in either very simplistic ways that ignore the complexities of the relevant historical, scientific, textual, and philosophical issues or it grossly misrepresents both the evidence and scholarship which examines it. As such it is ill-suited as an apologetic for anything beside serving as an example of how not to defend one’s beliefs.

This should not be taken to mean that pop-apologists are insincere. On the contrary, the vast majority of those I’ve interacted with genuinely think they are contributing to the world of Christian apologetics in positive ways. And often they run Twitter accounts, record podcasts, write blog posts, and produce YouTube videos that are intended to stem the tide of skepticism that is rampant online. Few are professionals; most are amateurs like myself. This I can appreciate.

Last year a group of sincere amateurs posted to their website a piece entitled “5 Reasons How We Know the Bible is True.”3 In response to the claim that Christians accept the Bible as true on “blind faith,” the Christian Defenders offer “the 5 best reasons why we know that the Bible is true.” The post itself is not very long – it is only around thirteen hundred words – but it does raise some interesting issues surrounding such topics like archaeology and the Bible, the nature of the Gospels, and the resurrection of Jesus. However, as we will, see their case isn’t as sure as they think it is.

Readers are encouraged to read the piece by the Christian Defenders to get both sides of the issue. It would be a shame to do as so many Christians apologists do and just read from authors who confirm our beliefs. Furthermore, reading those to whom I am responding creates accountability since the reader is able to see if I am accurately representing what the other side is trying to say. With that said, let’s dive into the first of the five.

ARCHAEOLOGY AND THE BIBLE

The first of the five reasons the Christian Defenders present that show the Bible is true comes from the field of archaeology. Under the subheading “Archaeology Has Confirmed the Bible” they write, “One of the most powerful tools we use to check to see if the biblical account is true is through archaeology.” As evidence for this claim they mention 1) archaeological work at Shiloh, 2) the Dead Sea Scrolls, and 3) confirmation of details in the book of Acts. Let’s consider each in turn.

Archaeological Work at Shiloh

According to the Deuteronomistic Historian (DH), Shiloh was the site where Israel permanently erected the tent of meeting (Joshua 18:1). It was still where the tent stood during the days of Eli when conflict broke out with the Philistines resulting in the capture of the ark of the covenant and the death of Eli (1 Samuel 4:12-22). Though the DH does not tell us that Shiloh was destroyed, the prophet Jeremiah records a tradition that it was destroyed on account of Israel’s wickedness (Jeremiah 7:12-14). Excavations of Shiloh have revealed that during the mid-eleventh century BCE (i.e. Iron Age I) that the site was met with a violent end that included a fierce fire, a sign to some that this was the destruction described by Jeremiah and hinted at by the DH.4 However, others have urged caution in speaking where the evidence is in fact silent.5 Whatever happened, the site was largely abandoned for a short time in the first part of Iron Age II (i.e. 1000 BCE to 586 BCE).6 

While we know that during the Late Bronze Age (i.e. 1550 to 1200 BCE) Shiloh featured a cult site,7 we have no evidence for the tent of meeting that could be found in Iron Age I. This of course is neither evidence against the existence of a tent of meeting or that it was erected at Shiloh. But the absence of evidence does detract from the claim made by the Christian Defenders that archaeologists at Shiloh “have found several important artifacts” that “verify biblical events and places.” Given how important Shiloh was to the Israelite cult according to the biblical texts, one might expect to find more evidence of it. However, the findings there only substantiate the most basic of claims the biblical texts make: there were people there.

The Dead Sea Scrolls

The Christian Defenders move on to the Dead Sea Scrolls, writing,

Among the most popular discoveries are The Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in 1947 in the caves of Qumran, Israel. They provide conclusive evidence that the biblical record is accurate. The scrolls were written by the Essenes and are referred to by the Roman historian, Josephus.

The DSS were written by the Essenes, a tiny8 apocalyptic group that lived in Qumran.9  The documents discovered fall into four general categories.

  • manuscripts of every book of the Hebrew Bible (excluding the book of Esther);
  • books included in the Apocrypha (i.e. Book of Tobit);
  • pseudepigraphic works (i.e. Book of Enoch)
  • sectarian literature (i.e. calendars and liturgical texts).10

This fact alone complicates any claim that the DSS “provide conclusive evidence that the biblical record is accurate.” For example, most Christians reject 1 Enoch (i.e. Book of Enoch) as canonical despite the fact that it is quoted directly by the author of the epistle of Jude (Jude 1:14-15).11 Does this mean that the author of Jude considered 1 Enoch to be sacred scripture? And if so, what are the implications for the Christian canon?

The variety of literature is not the only problem for the Christian Defenders’ claim. The manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible that have been discovered demonstrate that particular books of the Bible have complex textual histories. For example, in cave 4 at Qumran a number of fragments of the book of Jeremiah were discovered.12 Most of these reflect the Masoretic Text but one, 4QJerb, is in line with readings found in the LXX, a sign that it more closely reflects the Hebrew Vorlage underlying the LXX than it does the MT.13 Emmanuel Tov has suggested that the version of Jeremiah found in the LXX and 4QJeris probably closer to the original than what is found in the MT14 which would mean that the longer version of Jeremiah is an expansion. And it is not just the book of Jeremiah that has a complicated textual history!15 

Given what I’ve presented above, in what sense do the DSS “provide conclusive evidence that the biblical record is accurate“? Surely qualification is needed.

Historicity of the Book of Acts

The Acts of the Apostles is the second book of a two-volume work by an anonymous author identified traditionally as Luke, a companion of Paul (Philemon 1:24; cf. Colossians 4:14, 2 Timothy 4:11). It traces the development of the early Christians beginning with Jesus’ ascension and ending with Paul in Rome just prior to his execution. Consequently, it has been considered by many to be straightforward history, rendering with precision the activities of the most important figures in early Christianity. To bolster that view, some have noticed that the author throws in details that seem to lend credibility to the narrative. The Christian Defenders write,

Scholar and historian Colin Hemer who wrote The Books of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History describes 84 facts in Acts that have been confirmed by archaeological and historical research. The Bible is clear and full of specific details so that we can discover it’s validity.

I do not have access to Hemer’s work and so I have not had a chance to read and review it. However, Hemer’s work is mentioned by other apologists including Lee Strobel,16  William Lane Craig,17 and, in parallel to the words of the Christian Defenders, Norman Geisler and Frank Turek.

Classical scholar and historian Colin Hemer chronicles Luke’s accuracy in the book of Acts verse by verse. With painstaking detail, Hemer identifies 84 facts in the last 16 chapters of Acts that have been confirmed by historical and archaeological research.18

Geisler and Turek then list all eighty-four facts from Hemer’s book which include things like

  • the proper location of Lycaonia (Acts 14:6),
  • the depiction of the Athenian life of philosophical debate in the Agora (17:17),
  • employment of the ethnic term Asianos (20:4),
  • the proper term of the time for the Adriatic (27:27),

and more. It is an impressive list from which Geisler and Turek conclude,

Is there any doubt that Luke was an eyewitness to these events or at least had access to reliable eyewitness testimony? What more could he have done to prove his authenticity as a historian?19

Luke’s bona fides are seemingly confirmed.

But can we conclude that because the author of Acts gets these details correctly that then everything he records actually happened? Of course not. The fact that Luke knows Zeus and Hermes were often associated (14:12) cannot mean that Jesus was taken up by a cloud into heaven (1:10). Simply because he knew that Roman citizens had the right of appeal (25:11) doesn’t mean that the Holy Spirit came down and caused the gathered Christians to speak in other languages (2:1-4). To conclude that the supernatural elements described in the book of Acts must have happened because the author gets a number of details correct is a non sequitur.

The nature of the book of Acts is fiercely debated in the world of New Testament scholarship. Scholars have long recognized that in many ways it is a complicated piece of literature that fails to fit into any one category. Is it history? Is it biography? Is it a novel? Is it an apologetic? Is it a combination of all these things? This is a topic for another time but it should go without saying that the issues are complex and will likely never be decided and so the reader is encouraged to read scholarship on the issue.20

When History Contradicts the Bible 

To close out their section on archaeology and the Bible the Christian Defenders quote Clifford Wilson:

I know of no finding in archaeology that’s properly confirmed which is in opposition to the Scriptures. The Bible is the most accurate history textbook the world has ever seen.

I could not find a primary source for this claim but it hardly matters. The point of the quote is to say that the Bible has never been proven wrong. But is this true? Not at all.

For example, the book of Joshua makes a rather big deal out of the conquest of Canaan. But the evidence for such a conquest is virtually non-existent as my friend @bibhistctxt has made clear on his blog in a series covering chapters ten and eleven of Joshua.21 The same can be said for the attack on Jericho, a city in which there was “little or no occupation…in the thirteenth century.”22 The use of archaeology to prove the “truth” of the Bible is a task fraught with problems:

By the end of the twentieth century, archaeology had shown that there were simply too many material correspondences between the finds in Israel and in the entire Near East and the world described in the Bible to suggest that the Bible was late and fanciful priestly literature, written with no historical basis at all. But at the same time, there were too many contradictions between archaeological finds and the biblical narratives to suggest that the Bible provided a precise description of what actually occurred.23

Sometimes details in the archaeological record fit the biblical narrative but quite often they simply contradict it.

The same is true for the general historical record. Consider the book of Daniel, a text that is about persons and events in the sixth century BCE but which was clearly composed long after that period. Consequently, the author of Daniel gets a number of things wrong including the timing of the siege of Jerusalem, the relationship of Belshazzar to Nebudchadrezzar, and the existence of a “Darius the Mede.”24 And not only does it contradict the non-biblical historical record, it even contradicts the biblical one.

Conclusion

Far more could be said about the relationship of archaeology and the Bible but one thing should be abundantly clear: it is complicated. On the one hand, many of the minor details found in the biblical texts are rooted in real history and can be confirmed by the archaeological record. But the larger narrative points, especially those of a supernatural kind, are not and simply cannot be confirmed. And there are other areas in which the archaelogical record does not confirm the biblical record but rather disconfirms it.

NOTES

1 Amateur Exegete, “Preaching to the Choir: On Pop-Apologists and Their Craft” (10.28.18), amateurexegete.com. Accessed 16 March 2019.

2 For example, Josh and Sean McDowell write in the most recent edition of the massive Evidence That Demands a Verdict,

Our motivation in using this research is to glorify and magnify Jesus Christ, not to win an argument. Evidence is not for proving the Word of God, but rather for providing a reasoned base for faith. One should have a gentle and reverent spirit when using apologetics or evidences: “But sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence (1 Peter 3:15, NASB, emphasis mine).

See Josh McDowell and Sean McDowell, Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Life Changing Truth for a Skeptical World (Thomas Nelson, 2017), xviii.

3 5 Reasons How We Know the Bible is True” (12.7.18), christiandefenders.org. Accessed 16 March 2019.

4 Israel Finkelstein, “Shiloh,” in Ephraim Stern (editor), The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land (The Israel Exploration Society & Carta, 1993), 4:1368. See also Lawrence E. Stager, “Forging an Identity: The Emergence of Ancient Israel,” in Michael D. Coogan (editor), The Oxford History of the Biblical World (Oxford University Press, 1998), 127.

5 For example, Richard Nelson cautions that we should not accept the tradition from Jeremiah unreservedly, writing that

[i]t is commonly asserted by biblical historians that the sanctuary at Shiloh was destroyed by the Philistines. This unconfirmed notion is based on traditions of Philistine victories over Israel near Aphek and the witness of Jeremiah (Jer 7:12, 14; 26:6; cf. Ps 78:60). The site…was indeed destroyed in the mid-eleventh century, but by whom cannot be known.

See Richard D. Nelson, Historical Roots of the Old Testament (1200-63 BCE) (SBL Press, 2014), 37.

6 Finkelstein, 4:1369.

7 Jonathan M. Golden, Ancient Canaan & Israel: An Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2004), 188; Finkelstein, 4:1367.

8 Geza Vermes writes that

[i]t is not irrelevant…to note that the archaeologists have deduced from the fact that the cemetery contained 1,100 graves, dug over the course of roughly 200 years, that the population of Qumran, an establishment of undoubted importance, can never have numbered more than 150 to 200 souls at a time. Also, it should be borne in mind that the total membership of the Essene sect in the first century CE only slightly exceeded ‘four thousand’ (Josephus, Antiquities XVIII, 21).

See Geza Vermes (translator), The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English (Penguin Books, 2004), 27.

9 See John J. Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature, second edition (Eerdmans, 1998), 145-176.

10 Ibid., 10-12.

11 For an overview, see Biblical Historical Context, “Does Jude Quote Enoch?” (1.5.19), biblicalhistoricalcontext.com. Accessed 17 March 2019.

12 For an overview, see Florentino García Martínez and Eibert J.C. Tigchelaar (editors), The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition (Brill, 1999),  270-272.

13 Karen H. Jobes and Moíses Silva, Invitation to the Septuagint (Baker Academic, 2000), 175; Peter C. Craigies, Page H. Kelley, and Joel F. Drinkard, Jr., Jeremiah 1-25, WBC vol. 26 (Thomas Nelson, 1991), xlii-xliii.

14 Emmanuel Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, second revised edition (Fortress Press, 2001), 319-321.

15 For example, see the essays by John Elwolde, Russell Fuller, and Alexander Rofé in Armin Lange, Emmanuel Tov, and Matthias Weigold (editors), The Dead Sea Scrolls in Context: Integrating the Dead Sea Scrolls in the Study of Ancient Texts, Languages, and Cultures (Brill, 2011), 1:79-123.

16 Lee Strobel, The Case for Faith: A Journalist Investigates the Toughest Objections to Christianity (HarperCollins, 2000), 129-130.

17 William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, third edition (Crossway, 2008), 294 note 14.

18 Norman L. Geisler and Frank Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist (Crossway Books, 2004), 256.

19 Ibid., 259.

20 For example, see Loveday Alexander, “Fact, Fiction and the Genre of Acts,” New Testament Studies, vol. 44 issue 3 (July 1998), 380-399 ;Richard I. Pervo, The Mystery of Acts: Unraveling Its Story (Polebridge, Press); Luke Timothy Johnson, “Luke-Acts, Book Of” in David N. Freeman (editor), Anchor Bible Dictionary (Double Day, 1992) 4:403-420; James M. Robinson, “Acts,” in Robert Alter and Frank Kermode (editors), The Literary Guide to the Bible (The Belknap Press, 1987), 467-478; Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, sixth edition (Oxford University Press, 2016), 312-333.

21 In his first post, @bibhistctxt writes,

As more and more digging took place it became abundantly clear that, archaeologically speaking, the conquest described in Joshua 10 and 11 never happened.

See Biblical Historical Context, “Joshua 10 and 11: The Problem” (11.6.17), biblicalhistoricalcontext.com. Accessed 18 March 2019.

22 Stager, “Forging an Identity,” 95.

23 Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts (Touchstone, 2002), 20, 21.

24 See Amateur Exegete, “Evangelical Eisegesis: A Dalliance with Daniel, part 1” (12.2.18), amateurexegete.com. Accessed 18 March 2019.

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.

3 thoughts on “The Christian Defenders’ 5 Reasons: Archaeology and the Bible

Add yours

  1. “Yes,” perhaps a bit sadly, to the observation that most Christian apologists are “preaching to the choir.” The real question is why, eh? A question I cannot honestly answer. I feel, however, it must have something to do with not taking fully seriously, or not having in a sense *experienced* the kind of thinking that they think themselves to be addressing. In a sense, rather than “preaching to the choir,” it is like “preaching to the choir dressed up as our ‘artist’s interpretation of atheists.'” Or something like that.

    Apropos of Acts, if you haven’t already heard this, you will be interested in this claim: the undisputed primary sources we have available to us (that is, the Pauline letters) do not corroborate the timeline presented in Acts.

    The problem from my perspective is that this kind of apologetics just misses the point completely. It’s not just pointless, it’s thoroughly self-defeating to defend Biblical inerrancy. [Here’s Alexander J. McKelway saying the same thing, really: “Some believe that endowing biblical language with the divine perfection of inerrancy enhances its freedom and power. Such a view, however, is docetic and denies the freedom of the word by denying its capacity to take on human form. As God discloses his freedom and power by becoming human in Christ, so too the freedom of the word finds expression in its concrete and limited humanity.” Alexander J. McKelway, *The Freedom of God and Human Liberation.* Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990. 56.]

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I understand the surface appeal of inerrancy: it provides a sense of certainty. But as you point out, it is self-defeating. I find it more perplexing that those who subscribe to sola scriptura would believe in inerrancy as it is not a doctrine derived from the Bible itself.

      Unfortunately, the types of evangelicals who adore apologetics are the kind that hold sway currently in the highest political offices of our land. The fight is real.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Good point. I think it is generally a good idea for policy to be made by people who embrace the idea that assumptions ought to be checked against the available evidence. Like Keynes said when accused of changing his mind: “When my evidence changes, I change my conclusions. What do you do?”

        Liked by 1 person

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