Rant – Archaeology and the Bible

Historically, archaeology has been used both to defend and to attack the accuracy of the Bible. As an archaeologist, even though my specialty is technology in the American West, I see this a lot. In my view, both are misuses. The proper archaeological study of past cultures requires understanding the evidence on its own terms. It is not valid to use it as a means of “proof texting” either for or against any particular preexisting opinion. Using it that way almost necessarily involves cherry picking of evidence, and making decisions about how to weight archaeological findings based primarily on whether or not the support the desired outcome, which is not the way good science is done. It also commits one to a particular understanding of the archaeological evidence which may be undermined by future findings.

As a method of coming to understand past cultures, archaeology helps us determine how the biblical texts would have been understood by their original audience. It can also constrain modern interpretations, by ruling in or out certain readings, and can help us understand practices that are foreign or obscure to modern readers. But it is not the handmaid of apologetics, whether theistic or atheistic.

In the words of Old Testament scholar John H. Walton:

Archaeology is a discipline independent of biblical studies. Although archaeology in the Middle East has often served those in biblical studies, and at times in its history has been motivated and undertaken  by those whose interests were in biblical studies, it is not an arm of biblical studies. It is a scientific discipline that is driven by its own ends and means. This is why some today are uncomfortable with the label “biblical archaeology” – archaeology cannot be carried out with integrity if it is just targeting the Bible. As a science, it has a much larger task to fulfill as it focuses on recovering the material culture and successive lifestyles of the people of antiquity.

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