10 Things You Should Know about Biblical Archaeology

This article is part of the 10 Things You Should Know series.

1. Real archaeology is not like Indiana Jones.

Rarely do we actually run across a Nazi or space-alien nemesis, and I have not needed my whip in years. More to the point, a couple hundred years ago people calling themselves archaeologists did indeed break into archaeological sites (like tombs) with the primary goal of looting artifacts to bring back home. Today, archaeologists instead seek to reconstruct—through discovery—the whole cultural history of a particular locale. The best cultural data is often found in the minutiae of potsherds, animal bones, wall lines, and the many incidental items left by cultures past.

2. Biblical archaeology provides a better understanding of the cultures of the Bible.

Archaeology itself is a historical discipline that examines the material remains of past cultures. Alongside the preserved literature from those cultures, archaeology provides a vital avenue for understanding ancient everyday life.

For example, what was it like to live in an Old Testament house? Many such Israelite houses have been excavated. Often moderns are surprised to learn those homes were frequently two-story structures. Animals (like cattle and donkeys) were regularly housed overnight indoors on the ground floor. The family typically slept upstairs, perhaps benefitting from the heat emitted from the animals below. Roofs were flat, often being used by the inhabitants for such things as the drying of crops. In rural settings, such homes appeared in family compounds of two or more houses. In cities, homes could be built against the wall of a city. In times of siege warfare, the rooms adjacent to a city wall would be filled with rubble to thicken the defenses.

3. Knowledge of biblical cultures helps us to better interpret the Bible.

Every author assumes cultural knowledge on the part of readers. We interpret well when we fill in those cultural bits with the right assumptions. Thus I might tell you: “I am driving to my favorite coffee shop to work on email.” That sentence assumes more information than it directly conveys. Because we share cultural assumptions, you and I know what coffee and email are, and we can anticipate what such a shop looks like (and that it has Wi-Fi). You correctly guess that I am going to drive a car (and you rightly do not imagine a Ford Model T). Of course, if that same sentence were suddenly to appear in another time (like Medieval Europe), it would certainly be misunderstood, since the cultural assumptions have not been properly explained.

Ancient authors similarly assumed cultural conventions from their day as they communicated with their audiences. When Old Testament authors mentioned houses, they did not bother to describe them, since their audience knew what a house looked like. Archaeology can help fill in the lacking information.

To give another example, Paul writes churches about meat sacrificed to idols, circumcision, and master/slave relations. None of these represent serious concerns in most churches today, so why were they important back then? Even when Paul mentions cultural concepts to which we can relate (like marriage, athletics, widows, hospitality, governmental authorities, rhetoric, etc.), we have to wonder whether our cultural assumptions align with his (hint: often not, or at least not fully). Archaeology and historical study enable us to apprehend what such cultural concepts meant in Paul’s day. Then we can better understand what Paul was seeking to say.

The best cultural data is often found in the minutiae of potsherds, animal bones, wall lines, and the many incidental items left by cultures past.

4. Archaeology conveys a third dimension to the text.

Anyone today who has walked the excavated streets of ancient Ephesus, Corinth, or Philippi can better envision how Paul would have experienced such cities. When you step into the synagogue in Magdala, you picture the Galilean synagogues of Jesus’s day. When you observe firsthand the fortifications of an Old Testament city, you develop a better sense of how warfare affected the populace. Of course, few of us have the time or financial resources to visit all those places, but good archaeological description (combined with photographs, drawings, and maps) can help us imagine such ancient locales.

5. Archaeology helps corroborate historical events and people.

The ESV Archaeology Study Bible notes are brimming with examples of biblical people and events that appear in the archaeological record. Thus we find evidence of OT kings like David, Hezekiah, Jehu, Omri, Ahab, and many others. Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian rulers mentioned in the Old Testament are almost invariably evidenced by inscriptions on their home turf. Major events receive similar verification, like the capture of Lachish, the despoiling of Jerusalem, Edomite aggression, and Jeroboam’s building of a temple in Dan.

We similarly encounter key NT persons through archaeological discovery (like Herod the Great, Herod Antipas, Herod Philip, Pilate, Caiaphas, Gallio, etc.). Many biblical locales receive archaeological identification and corroboration (such as the Pools of Siloam and Bethesda; the towns of Nazareth, Capernaum, Magdala, Chorazin, and Bethsaida; and the many cities mentioned in Acts).

All this (and much, much more) can solidify our confidence in the historical accuracy of the biblical record. This also helps amid the many challenges in contemporary culture, when people allege inaccuracies in the Bible.

However, it must also be remembered that the vast majority of what archaeologists excavate does not touch on such points. Yet everything that is dug up by an archaeologist’s trowel helps us better investigate ancient culture. So, archaeology is primarily suited to cultural analysis, and only secondarily is it useful for corroborating historical statements.

6. There are limits to what can be corroborated.

Sometimes people have unrealistic expectations on what should be discoverable through excavation. They think every person and event in history requires archaeological confirmation before being substantiated. It is important to help people adjust their expectations to the realities of historical inquiry. Of course, this is not just true for biblical history, but for all ancient history.

For example, nomadic populations are hard to trace in the archaeological record. Many such finds are more often chance than intentional. Note that the Old Testament patriarchs were nomads, and the Exodus community spent years wandering in the vast Sinai desert. We should not be surprised when archaeological discovery has yet to provide great detail about the lives of such individuals.

Relatively few Israelite texts have been found outside the Old Testament itself. Thus in order to corroborate OT names and events, we are usually dependent on records discovered in excavations from the surrounding regions of Mesopotamia or Egypt. However, the Assyrians and Babylonians primarily mention foreign lands and kings (like Israel and Judah) only after they have been conquered, which Assyria (and later Babylon) failed to do until midway through the OT monarchy. Egyptian records rarely dignified foreign enemies by mentioning their names, and Egyptian annals document Egyptian victories (never defeats!). Given such limitations, we should be quite pleased that we have as many extra-biblical mentions of OT kings and events in the archaeological record as we do.

Even in the NT, Jesus and his disciples were from peripheral regions of the Roman Empire. And the church was a relatively unimportant player in Roman society for the first many decades of its existence. Therefore, references to Jesus and the church in Roman literature and archaeology are both astonishing and immensely useful.

ESV Archaeology Study Bible

The ESV Archaeology Study Bible roots the biblical text in its historical and cultural context, giving Bible readers a framework for better understanding the people, places, and events recorded in Scripture.

7. Field archaeology combines excitement with the mundane.

Most archaeological work involves excavating four-meter squares down centimeter-by-centimeter. You record every substantive item while bagging every potsherd and bone fragment. You take pictures and draw finds as you go. You measure slight changes in soil coloration or consistency. Properly done, archaeology is painstaking work. Everything must be recorded for posterity. By digging that square, you are effectively destroying it. No one can dig it again after you. Therefore, meticulous notes are required so that you (and generations after you) can reconstruct exactly what was found there. And we have not even begun to talk about the lab work and postexcavation analysis!

In the midst of such mundane labor, there are surprising discoveries. You might uncover a brilliant mosaic in the floor of a Roman-era house or a Byzantine church. Rarely, you may even find an inscription or stash of papyri. Such finds are immensely exhilarating. You celebrate, but then you get back to the meticulous measurements and recordkeeping. This is real archaeology. It is about discovery, but it is also about recording for posterity everything you find.

8. Biblical archaeologists need to study all periods of Near Eastern and Mediterranean archaeology.

The first time I was digging a New Testament city I was eager to get to the Roman-era remains. However, each square took weeks of excavation as we began with the modern topsoil and slowly and methodically removed and recorded the layers of Islamic-era habitation. Then we carefully excavated the Byzantine-era strata, and finally, we made it to the NT period. Then the job required us to keep digging, working down through even earlier levels. As historians and good archaeologists, we must maintain an interest in every historical epoch. Otherwise, we may destroy the “less interesting” historical evidence in the process of getting to “our era.” Admittedly, that has been a problem in both classical and biblical archaeology in previous generations, when people plowed through the upper layers of archaeological material in order to dig down to the earlier stuff (e.g., both at Troy and Jerusalem). Modern archaeology rightly insists that we work responsibly with every period.

9. Don’t trust everything you read online (or even in the newspaper).

Properly, archaeology requires a good amount of time, both in the digging and in the analysis of the finds. Archaeology, like other academic disciplines, should first produce results for peer-review (i.e., evaluation by other archaeologists) before those results are conveyed to the public as accurate and assured.

However, people are eager to hear what has “just been found,” and news reporters are always after an exciting scoop. It is even tempting for archaeologists to want their names in the media. Sometimes, archaeologists have been known to release their findings publicly, before they have been corroborated and vetted by others. Only later do the questions surface and the scholarly discussions call for different interpretations. Yet, those updates rarely make the evening news. Basically, my rule of thumb is this: if I read about an amazing new discovery in the newspaper, I wait another six months or a year for others to evaluate it before I begin to pass it on with certainty to others.

Always seek out the best information from qualified archaeologists. This is true whether the news seems to corroborate the Bible or deride it. Ask about the credentials of the discoverer and whether others in the archaeological community have been given the opportunity to verify the data and evaluate the conclusions.

10. Be patient, there is much more digging to do.

Good archaeology requires a slow, expensive, and painstaking process. Consequently, most archaeological sites have yet to be excavated, and those locales that have received excavation typically have only been partially uncovered.

For example, archaeologists have been diligently laboring at the sites of ancient Ephesus and Corinth for over a hundred years apiece. Yet, I would estimate that well over fifty percent of those two ancient cities have yet to be unearthed.

I once asked the Director General of the Department of Antiquities in Jordan how many archaeological sites are currently known in Jordan. He estimated about 5,000. Then he acknowledged that during that year only 75 were undergoing excavation.

We possess significant knowledge about antiquity, but we know much less than we think we do. Sometimes people say: “We have not found X in an archaeological dig, thus X must not exist.” You can remind such folks that we still have a huge amount of digging left to do. Indeed, that is part of what makes archaeology exciting—there is more to be found!

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