Podcast: Understanding the World of the Bible through Archaeology (David Chapman)

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

Faith-Building History

In this episode, David Chapman, overseeing editor of the ESV Archaeology Study Bible, discusses what it's like to be an archaeologist. He shares from his experiences overseeing an excavation site in the Middle East, explains how archaeology can bolster our faith and enhance our understanding of the Bible, and reflects on the most exciting archaeological discovery of his career.

ESV Archaeology Study Bible

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.

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Is Real Archaeology Like the Movies?

01:39

Matt Tully
You teach archaeology at Covenant Theological Seminary and on your bio page at the school's website there's this picture of you at the top of the page standing outside and pointing to what looks to be an old map, and you're wearing a hat that is somewhat reminiscent of something a certain famous archaeologist would wear. And so my first question is, In what other ways are you like a real world Indiana Jones?

David Chapman
Well, I think very few. It's obviously a common thing that people ask when they talk to archaeologists—if Indiana Jones is at all true and accurate—and the truth is, life is much more mundane on a dig. You're just out in the hot sun with a brush or a trowel slowly moving dirt from side to side. And it's not quite as exciting.

Personal Experiences of Archaeological Discovery

02:38

Matt Tully
So what is, just to jump into maybe some of the things that you've been a part of, what's the most exciting—maybe just personally—archeological discovery that you've been a part of?

David Chapman
For about four years I was directing an excavation in Jordan at Abila, which is a city fairly close to Galilee in an area that's known as the Decapolis, which Jesus went to the Decapolis. And I think one of the most exciting things—it's always a team effort, archaeology—and what we had the privilege of seeing over the course of a year was Byzantine churches—early churches about fourteen hundred to fifteen hundred years old—being excavated with beautiful mosaic floors. And you could just tell that it was a glorious structure. And it was such a joy to see that and also to see, in a sense, our ancestors and their faith and how much effort they had put into beautifying the space that they used for worship. So that's one of the things that really stuck out in my mind.

Matt Tully
How deep or how far under the normal current surface of the ground would you be finding these structures or these churches or these mosaics?

David Chapman
That's a great question. It varies really. So we were on the side of two hills that in archaeology we would call “tells”, because they were actually multiple habitations over the years. Often these structures have been built on top of one another, or there's been collapse due to earthquake, and so it kind of depends on the contour of the land and the hill. In some areas we would be going down—archaeologists think in terms of meters—a couple of meters, so about two yards—about six feet—down to get to the top of a wall and then another couple of meters to get to the floor. So it can be anywhere from six to twelve feet and then much deeper if we're going down to earlier material. We have one square that's down to about a thousand years before the time of Abraham—early Bronze Age is the archaeology designation—and that's a good forty or fifty feet down to get down to that layer.

Archaeological Dating

05:03

Matt Tully
How do you know what time period you're at as you dig down?

David Chapman
As you dig down you think of it in terms of a layer cake, and each layer is a different strata of history. The most recent ones are going to be at the top, the oldest ones are going to be at the bottom. As you're going down you're trying to capture various materials that give you a sense of date. The principal one that archaeologists use is pottery because pottery styles changed fairly regularly in antiquity. So every few hundred years or so you would see a very different style of pottery, or a different kind of material used in pottery. So that's one of the things that you use to kind of capture it. Sometimes people make the comparison that if you compare modern Coke bottles—I guess we use cans even—and so you look at Coke bottles one hundred years ago and if you know what you're looking for, you can say, Oh, this is one from the 1920s, or This is from the 1960s. And similarly, archaeologists can do that with pottery. So that's one of your main methods of dating. There are other things as well like radiocarbon dating and dating of architectural materials, the design and such like that. So you're just watching for those kind of elements as you get down. If you're really lucky, you find a coin because a coin has the face of a ruler on it and a year stamp, and so you have a sense of when you are more precisely.

Finding the Right Location to Dig

06:35

Matt Tully
You mentioned that you were part of this Abila archeological project in Jordan, how do you know where to dig?

David Chapman
You start by looking at the surface, and you're usually—especially with something like Abila—we knew there was a city named Abila. This happened actually long before I was with the excavation, but the first excavator went out looking for that city. We had some descriptions—Eusebius had said that it was about nine miles from another city, and we had a general sense of where it was. So you go looking for where city sites are likely to be. In antiquity, usually these are on top of hills. And so you look on top of hills and you see what remains on the surface. From that you kind of estimate, There seems to be a lot on this surface here, it's worth digging here. And so you start with that. But it may actually be decades until you actually know for sure that you're at the right site. So in our case we were excavating for almost 20 years before we came down on an inscription that clearly indicated that this was the site of Abila.

Matt Tully
So you really can't confirm until you find that sign at the front of the city gate saying "Welcome to Abila"?

David Chapman
Well, we wish it was even that clear. In this case we were really very fortunate. There was a water tunnel that needed some clearing and reconstructing, and there was a panel that was installed on the side of the water tunnel that mentioned that the bishop of Abila helped sponsor the clearing of the water tunnel.

Matt Tully
Wow.

David Chapman
Yeah. Rarely in antiquity did they bother even putting a "Welcome to Abila" thing at the front of the city, although that would just be great if they thought to do that for later archaeologists thousands of years later.

A Day in the Life

08:30

Matt Tully
So walk us through a day in the life of an archaeologist. When you're actually on a dig, what would the day look like from the moment you woke up to the moment you go to bed?

David Chapman
One way to start with that is to recognize—especially because we're there excavating when we have a break in this school year, so in other words in the summer—it can be a hundred and ten, one hundred and twenty degrees in the shade in the afternoon. So you want to start early and get out of the field early, so usually we set the alarm at 4 o'clock and wake everybody up. And you can imagine they're delighted about that. And we wake them at four and we try to be in the field just after five o'clock, as soon as the sun's coming up. You need enough sunlight so you can see what you're doing. Also, early in the day is a great time because the colors aren't washed out by the sun, so you can examine the soil more carefully, see changes in soil layers. It's a good time to take photographs. So we try and get there kind of at the break of day. And then we stay as long as we can, so about noon, or 1 o'clock on a cooler day. During that time we're doing a variety of things, mostly of course you've weighed out small squares. You lay them out in meters—so four metres by four meters—so roughly four yards by four yards. And then you excavate, two or three people at a square, slowly going down layer by layer, watching for every change in this soil. And as soon as you see a change you fill out more paperwork and you make sure that everything is cleared down to that layer, and then you move down to the next layer. So it's pretty meticulous. Then you come home, you have lunch around noon or one, and then take a nap because you're pretty wasted. And then in the afternoon you do analysis of the pottery and you're drawing things back at the camp and things like that.

Matt Tully
I think I've seen pictures of the squares that you mentioned—they're often made with rope, crisscrossing a site. What's the purpose of breaking up the dig into these little squares?

David Chapman
That's something that archaeologists have been doing for about a hundred years or so now and the purpose of that really has been that it gives us a very nice grid. One of the things about archaeology is as soon as you dig something up, you've removed it and nobody else can find it there in that context again. So you're having to take very careful records of where you find things so that you can reconstruct, better than your memory can, exactly where you found stuff. And then especially so that later generations of people could come along and look at your same data and reconstruct what you found. So primarily, you lay out a grid so that you can define exactly where things are found. If you're looking at the surface of it as an x-y axis, and then you're also taking levels as you go down at the z axis. So you have a three dimensional sense of space where you found it. So that's principally why you do that. And then you leave about a meter of soil between each square. And the goal of that is first, if you look at the wall of soil as you go down you can see the changes in the soil colors. Every time the soil changes your may be at a different layer of habitation. So you're paying attention to that. And then one other practical thing is that meter of soil, on top of that you can run your wheelbarrows. Because otherwise, you can't run them in and out of the square, so you're lifting things up to the wheelbarrow on top of that and getting that soil out of the way. So there's a lot of practical kinds of things for why you lay it out in those grids.

How Archaeology Adds to Biblical Understanding

12:24

Matt Tully
So I want to turn to Scripture and the Christian faith. Why is it helpful to understand some of the archaeological background to the Bible when we actually go to our Bibles? I think sometimes it can feel like it's such a—literally—a distant thing, and we have the words of Scripture right right in front of us. What can archeological research add to that beyond what we already have?

David Chapman
Often when I talk to fellow Christians and I say I do archaeology, their most immediately interested in ways that archaeology can help defend the historicity of Scripture. And certainly, anytime you excavate any historical site, be it a Christian site or if you're excavating a Troy or something like that, you're helping understand something about history and showing that the writings that we have from history can be verified. And that's especially true, of course, for the Bible. But I actually think that's not the most important thing. For one, very little of what we excavate can demonstrate that kind of historical corroboration; but everything we excavate tells us something about ancient culture. There's several things about that; I think for one, it just really helps us to imagine rightly what life was like in the time of Jesus or in the time of King David. So it brings us back into that moment, which I think is rewarding for people. But beyond that, I would argue it's actually necessary at some level because any time that we communicate—even as you and I are communicating right now, I could tell you a sentence because I know you live in the United States and we both live in the 21st century. So I can make a joke about baseball or something and I'll know you can resonate with it. But you can easily imagine that if we move two thousand years in the future, those very same words would not have the meaning that they do to us because the culture shifted and there's things that I talk about that people won't know about two thousand years from now. And so one of the things that any study of ancient culture can do is help us understand some of the details in Scripture. I'm a firm believer in the clarity of Scripture—what theologians will talk about the perspicuity of Scripture—that the general truth of Scripture is that God, from the very beginning of our rebellion against him, has sought to redeem humanity and has done so, especially in his son Jesus and his death and resurrection. That is clear. I think anybody looking at Scripture can see that. But when we start looking at the details of passages and wanting to know more, the more we know about culture can help us with that. And I think especially with something like the Old Testament where we're even more distant from it than we are from the Roman culture of Jesus's day, archaeology is a key to helping us really imagine what's going on and understand better the Scriptures.

Matt Tully
As you think about some key archaeological discoveries that relate to the Bible and the people and events and places that we read about there, are there two or three that stand out to you as particularly good examples of the value we can get from archaeology when it comes to better understanding the ancient world?

David Chapman
Let me take a couple of favorite examples. I often take groups from our seminary over to Israel and we try and catch up with some of the more recent excavations and such. And one interesting excavation, that's still ongoing, but one of the great finds made just in the last several years was a synagogue in a place called Magdala. This is on the west shore of the Sea of Galilee. It's on a major road, a major trade route. It's the road that you would take if you're going from Nazareth to say Capernaum. And Magdala is famous because there's a lady in the New Testament, Mary Magdalene. And that "Magdalene" indicates that she's from Magdala. There's a synagogue that's been found there that is a first century synagogue. We know it's first century because it was destroyed when the Romans swept through in 70 AD. And so it was the synagogue that was there when Jesus was walking through the land. And of course Jesus goes from synagogue to synagogue. Magdala is not mentioned by name in the New Testament, but Jesus goes throughout Galilee and goes through the synagogues, and this has got to be one of the places he was. It's not super big—it's maybe twice the size of my bedroom at home—and so it's not large, but is this neat rectangle. It's got seating in the center, kind of all around the square, so you can see where the person would have stood or sat as they read Scripture and then spoke about it. And so it's just very vivid and brings back a sense of This is the kind of structure that Jesus would have been in in his day. And so that's one example right there.

Matt Tully
That right there though is just so amazing. Am I hearing you right that you think it's possible that Jesus would have actually been in that specific synagogue?

David Chapman
Yes, I do think that. I'm reluctant to say that too often. I think if you take a tour of Israel, or of other Biblical lands, the tour guides are quick to try and point out connections that may or may not be accurate. But this is a pretty good one. I'm pretty confident about this. It's just very vivid to think that our Lord, at one point, was standing there teaching the people that were gathered to hear the word of God.

Visiting the Holy Land

18:33

Matt Tully
To me it seems like that could be one of the benefits of archaeology generally; but even visiting places like the Holy Land where you can see some of these sites it reminds us, in pretty powerful ways, that these things that we read in Scripture, these things that we believe about Jesus and about his disciples and others, they really happened. We believe in a historical faith rooted in real places and real events and real people. It's cool to be reminded of that in such a direct way.

David Chapman
Yes, you're entirely correct. In fact, when I take people over to Israel that's something that they often say. I don't try to generate a kind of special spiritual experience for people there. Some people want to go to the Holy Land and have it radically change their spiritual experience. I'm looking, when people go there, to just get a greater sense of the reality of the faith and then a sense of the cultures so that they can understand the Old and New Testament better. And that is something that they frequently mention is that when they go to a synagogue, like that one in Magdala, or when they go up on the Temple Mount, or just under it where there's been a street that's been excavated from the time of Jesus, or they're excavating now even more streets in that area, or there's the pool of Siloam—and each of those places we know that Jesus walked along. We can't show you exactly the footprint of Jesus or anything, but it gives this greater sense that these things really happened. And like you say, we have a historical faith. God is active in history. He's redeemed us through those actions in history. So it's vitally important that we have a sense of the reality of that.

Matt Tully
Maybe share one other specific example of an archeological discovery that sort of sheds new light on Scripture.

David Chapman
I'm just teaching a Sunday school class right now and we're going through the books of 1 and 2 Samuel. One of the amazing things to do is to just see the geography exam of the land there and to see what Jerusalem would have been like in the time of Jesus. If you see pictures of modern Jerusalem—I'm sorry, I said Jesus and I meant King David. If you see modern Jerusalem, there's the walls around the old city and you assume that must be how the city has always looked. It's been within those walls. That's the old city, after all. But actually, David's area—the place that he inhabited and his palace structure—is outside those walls. It's south of that near where there is an ancient spring. And so as you go there—and there's been more and more excavation done there—they've even found a structure that the excavator thinks may be a palace from the time of David or Solomon. And so it could be the very place that he ruled from. But you get a sense of, okay, this is not a large space. Just a few thousand people would have lived there. It helps you scale down what you think an ancient city was, but it also gives you a sense of . . . David's palace would have been on top here looking down across the valley. He would have been able to survey his capital, his kingdom there. You can also imagine, sadly, him kind of looking from his rooftop down below and seeing Bathsheba, for example. You can also see the kinds of structures that were used for protecting the city, and you get a vivid sense of this is what life would have been like in the time of King David. Similarly, you can go out and look at the geography. A bit west of Jerusalem, several miles west, and as you go out you begin to see coming down from the hills into these kind of foothills and valleys. And it's down there that David would have met Goliath, for example. We don't have a specific archaeological site of where David met Goliath, we have these fortress-like structures that show where the Israelites would have been arrayed against the Philistines. And we can see that the valley that's described in the Bible and know, okay, we're in the right region. This gives us a sense of what this looked like in antiquity.

Ancient Crucifixion

23:05

Matt Tully
Wow. That's fascinating. In looking at some of the things that you've published over the years, I was struck by how much you've written on the topic of ancient crucifixion. And so I'm kind of just curious, why such an interest in such an unpleasant subject?

David Chapman
It is a very unpleasant subject, especially what I've done with it is I've tried to isolate all ancient writings that talk about any crucifixion of any person. My initial work was done looking at crucifixions that Jewish people would have seen or experienced and then expanding to all Greco-Roman crucifixions, and even their precursors in the ancient Near East. And so you're just looking at death after death and humanity being cruel to fellow human beings. And so it's a daunting topic and something that I've at times just had to step away from because you read some horrible texts. At the same time, it gives us a sense of vividness of how crucifixion was performed, certainly the kinds of people that went to the cross. In Judea the main people that were crucified would have been either brigands—so the New Testament talks about, often it's translated as "thieves" or "robbers", but the Greek term is lēstēs and it refers to people who rob by violence. So they beat people over the head and they'd steal their wallets. It's kind of what's described when the person who is robbed in the good Samaritan narrative—he's beaten and left for dead. So those kinds of criminals—brigands—you would send to the cross, or rebels against the Roman Empire. Those are two major categories. And so as you study that it becomes even more apparent that you go back and read the Gospels and Jesus is crucified between two brigands. So these really horrible people who had robbed and beat other people, he's crucified between them. He's associated with them. He's effectively being called one of them. He's being charged with rebellion because he's king of the Jews and so he's rebelling against the Roman government. This is the kind of people he's associating with in his death. You get a sense of the horror of what he endured physically but also just the shame, the way that the Romans and the Jewish people around him would have viewed him. Jewish people associated this kind of death with the curse of God described in Deuteronomy 21. And so it would seem to them that this man is being cursed at the same time he's being crucified. And so we get a greater sense of what Jesus endured on our behalf, that we would have the redemption of his sacrificial death and then ultimately the hope of his resurrection.

Matt Tully
So in Jesus's day how often were crucifixions happening? I think most of our listeners would be familiar enough with the story to know that the Romans were technically the ones who would carry out that sentence against criminals, as you've mentioned. How frequent was that kind of an act? Were people passing that like every day or was it like once a week kind of thing or what do we know about that?

David Chapman
I can't fully answer your question in a sense because no ancient text directly says, Okay, we experienced crucifixions weekly or everyday. What we see is that anytime you have to put a brigand to death, this is your major method of doing it. To suppress a rebellion, this is what you do. And so what we see more are not so much texts that report on the daily occurrence, but often when a rebellion is put down you would have dozens, maybe hundreds of people—in some cases many hundreds of people—would be crucified in the course of a day or a few days. And so it would certainly be a familiar experience for the audience, but that's kind of too weak of a term. It's something that they would know, certainly maybe more even by the quantity and the stories of the hundreds of people that have been passed down from, My mom saw hundreds of people crucified because the Romans put down this rebellion. And it could be something that they see fairly regularly, suppressing brigandage; but we can't speak to that as much as we can that that hundreds, even thousands, Josephus would speak of thousands—he's a first century Jewish historian—and he'll speak on those kind of numbers of people being crucified in these major events as the Romans come in to suppress rebellion.

Matt Tully
And what was the purpose behind it? Because clearly they didn't have a conception of criminal justice where they were trying to rehabilitate people or change them—it's so brutal and so public. What were they going for by doing that?

David Chapman
I think, in terms of what they are doing, to a large degree it's a deterrent. You see this certainly in the suppression of rebellion: to crucify hundreds of people; to do such a long, drawn out, painful shameful death; I think the Romans are hoping to dissuade others from engaging in rebellion. You also see another major use of crucifixion is in war. And often, if there's a city that's opposing your rule, once you captured the city you would take the rulers outside the city and crucify them outside the city. And events like this—maybe not using a form quite like crucifixion, but the public health hanging up of a body for days at a time outside the gates of a city—is something that had been done for at least two thousand years before the time of Jesus. And that's, again, a method of deterrence to kind of say, If you're going to not submit to us, this is what we're gonna do to you and to your leaders. And so it's a form of deterrence both militarily and in terms of a formal legal punishment. I think also it's, as with many forms of horrendous punishment, we do that to indicate also how horribly we view the crime. So we're saying that rebellion and brigandage are some of the worst crimes you could do in the Roman world, and we're going to punish them more harshly than we do any other kind of crime.

Matt Tully
My guess is that for many of us maybe our most visceral understanding of crucifixion has come from the movie that came out a number of years ago, The Passion of the Christ which just kind of to an unprecedented level—Christ's crucifixion and death has been visually displayed in different movies through the years—but that movie, in particular, took it to a new level. I'm curious if you've seen the movie and if you can tell us how accurate you think that portrayal of Jesus's crucifixion actually was?

David Chapman
I remember when the movie came out—I did see it—and in fact, I was asked at several points to review it or to talk with a group of people about it as well. And so I think people who left that movie were struck by the level of violence that Mel Gibson worked into that movie. I think the brutality that's represented there is actually pretty accurate in terms of just the blood and gore of the event and such. He certainly really wanted to dwell on that in ways I would say that the Scriptures don't. The Scriptures don't principally want us to leave with a sense of how violent and bloody the death was. They want to leave us with the sense that Jesus went to the cross voluntarily, that he was doing this on our behalf, and that he was doing it to provide a ransom for our sins. So I think there may be a little shift there in terms of people who just leave with an overwhelming sense of violence, that's maybe not quite what the Gospels want to do. And he did throw in some non-historical stuff. He went through what are called the Stations of the Cross. If you go to Jerusalem today you can go and stop at each of the stations of the cross and review these events from the last moments of Jesus. But at least some of the stations the cross are really represented more in terms of medieval tradition. So the handing of the veil over for Jesus to wipe his brow and some of those details are more from medieval tradition than they are from the Scriptures. So I think I don't fully endorse the movie in terms of, Hey, all of this is historical. But I do think he's right that it was an incredibly brutal experience and so there's something that we can really take away from the movie there. At the same time, I want to say let's be careful to recognize that the Gospels have a different reason for talking about Jesus's death, rather than just talking about the violence. And the last thing I'd say about the movie is there's not a full recognition of the resurrection of Jesus. The Gospels are very careful never to end the story just with Jesus on a cross, or even Jesus in a tomb; but the empty tomb and the physical experience of the disciples and apostles touching Jesus and the women at the tomb knowing that Jesus is alive. So we have to always say that the crucifixion ends in the resurrection, and recognize that that's valuable in theology.

The Future of Archaeology

33:37

Matt Tully
So maybe as a last question and just kind of a hypothetical, if you will: Have you ever thought about what archeological work will look like five hundred years from now in the future if the Lord would tarry that long in returning?

David Chapman
I will say to connect with your question, one of the things that archaeologists are doing now is when they come to a large site they intentionally only excavate a portion of the site, because everybody recognizes that what we can do now archaeologically—even compared to just say fifty years ago—is so much better. Modern technology can help us study pottery and understand exactly where clay is coming from in a geographic region. We can examine bones, we can look at DNA, there's all sorts of things that have happened in the last fifty years, some in the last twenty, some in the last ten years. And so that gives us a great deal of hope that we'll have even better things that we can do twenty years from now or fifty years from now. Excavators now are deliberately leaving part of the site saying, I'm going to take this as far as I can now with the current technologies we have. But I expect in the future people would be able to do even more. One of the things I would love to see happen is there's kinds of ground penetrating radar and different methods that we have now that even without excavating allow you to see under the surface. They're very imperfect in ways that aren't always made obvious in popular media. If you go to a National Geographic site or something and all this new technology sounds so exciting, but they're quite limited still. Some of the best technologies will give you a good sense of what's underground but not the depth of it, or if they give you the depth it's less accurate than recording it. And so those kinds of technologies would be great to see a few hundred years in the future and see what you could do without even digging stuff. One of the dangers of digging is you destroy everything you dig up, and so it would be wonderful to look at the surface of something and to know what's there before you even start digging. That would be great.


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