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Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Part 2: Can we still believe the Bible? An archaeological perspective

In this series I am considering the question: Can we still believe the Bible? The previous discussion focused on the scholarly study of the Biblical text. In this essay I consider the archaeological study of the historicity of the Bible. To what extent is the Biblical narrative archaeologically confirmed? I develop a Kantian approach to archaeology that allows some fine-tuning not found in other approaches - and uses that to explore the question. As such I consider the conditions for the possibility of determining the trustworthiness of historical narratives in general before application to stories about historical events found in the Bible. 

The Bible is an ancient book or rather, a collection of books that originated in the ancient world. The stories told in the Bible stretch from the earliest period of remembered history to the end of the first century AD. The author of the Book of Genesis recounts stories that go back in time long before the people of Israel even existed in their land. He also tells how an early forefather named Abraham migrated sometime early in the second millennium BC from the land of Sumeria to the land of Canaan where his descendents later became the people of Israel. The Biblical narrative includes the stories of the ancient patriarchs, their sojourn in and exodus from the land of Egypt, the early stages of Israel's history in their land, the monarchical period, the Babylonian exile and return. The Christian Bible also tells the story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the church that He founded. 

The mere fact that the Bible is an ancient book containing ancient stories, does not immediately mean that the stories about the earliest epochs are indeed ancient and as such handed down through the centuries until they were eventually written down or that the stories of later periods that recount the lives of Abraham, the patriarchs, the exodus etc. are indeed real history written by people who experienced those events. The question is: How do we determine whether the Biblical narratives are indeed trustworthy? It is surely possible that the authors could have made up the ancient stories themselves and that the later events in the land of Israel could have been written long afterwards in a context where the authors had various hidden agendas of their own. To consider this question there are two aspects of central importance. First, there is the study of the texts themselves. Secondly there is the study of the available evidence which may confirm or deny the historicity of the events mentioned in the texts.

Both the study of the texts and the evidence concern specialized disciplines, namely textual studies and archaeology (other disciplines are also involved in any integrated approach). Central to both these disciplines are the issue of interpretation. The texts as well as the data should be interpreted with careful consideration of both the methods and their limits, otherwise the conclusions could be way off the mark. Often practitioners in these disciples give up too high for their own fields of study - using the methods without due consideration of the limits within which they are valid. Since these fields have branched into various approaches during the past half-century, it is important that we carefully consider what constitutes a balanced approach before trying to engage with the above-mentioned question.

I have written two essays in which both the methods and the limits of these disciplines are carefully considered [1,2,3]. In this regard I tried to do something similar to the philosopher Immanuel Kant, who in his famous book Critique of Pure Reason, showed that pure reason has certain limits in its ability to make determinate judgments [1]. I merely extend that approach to the academic disciplines concerned. Instead of uncritically accepting the pronunciations of the academics involved (or those who merely assert the trustworthiness of the Bible!), such a study allows us to evaluate the validity of their claims. Often these practitioners have no philosophical training and have no idea about the limits of their discipline - some still operate in the modernist mind-set that asserts the unlimited and objective reach of their methods. Others are in reaction and think that humans are so restricted (to arrive at valid conclusions) that all viewpoints should be accommodated (they enforce limits beyond the real limits of the field of study).

In a previous essay in this series, I considered the field of textual studies and how the practice of that discipline impacts on the question regarding the trustworthiness of the Bible [4]. I showed that the modernist roots of Biblical Criticism seriously undermines the so-called scientific study of the Bible. Textual studies can never be a science - it is a mere hermeneutic discipline. I showed how deeply flawed are some of the hermeneutic tools used in that discipline and how that historically impacted on the arguments against the trustworthiness of the Bible. I also made some proposals for a balanced approach to hermeneutical analysis which in some respects show exactly the opposite of that asserted in Biblical Criticism. In this essay I proceed to consider the archaeological evidence. What does it say about the trustworthiness of the Bible?