This article focuses on the relationship between archaeology and Scripture under three headings: the necessity of Scripture to interpret archaeological evidence, the dating schemes of archaeology, and the incompleteness of archaeological evidence.

Source: The Banner of Truth, 1987. 3 pages.

An Excavation Season in Israel

'What did you find?' asks some excited questioner about an archaeological dig in Israel. Normally he is seeking the spectacular, something headline-catching, or something which will decisively 'prove' this or that statement in Scripture. My reply usually is, 'It depends on what questions you were asking at the outset as to what finds are significant', for the days are long gone when the discipline was any sort of treasure hunt, or a device to 'prove' Scripture.

Though much of the direction and association is from and with non-Christians, some with few Biblical convictions or none at all, the privilege and value of being on archaeological field-work in the land of the Bible, seeing first-hand that land, experiencing the climate, even observing the soil types, and hearing lectures from some of the top scholars in the field of archaeology and Biblical geography were all a source of deep satisfaction, even to one who has lectured in Old Testament subjects for some years. I could not help feeling a sadness for many of the others on the site who have no knowledge of Christ, and for whom the Bible is just another ancient text, the value and the wonder of it all having passed by them due to the veil over their eyes.

In addition to recommending the experience to those with a flair for it should the opportunity ever come their way, I would offer here some obser­vations on some procedures and conclusions as I witnessed them during the four-week season during July and August 1986:

The site was Tel Gerisa ('Mound of the grinding-stone' — of which there were quite a few!) on the southern side of the Yarqon River, now in the N.E. suburbs of Tel Aviv. Bible Dictionaries will tell you that this is Gath Rimmon of the Danite inheritance, and a Levitical city (see Joshua 19:45; 21:24). However, no remains of Israelite settlement, certainly nothing indicating Levitical habitation, have ever been found there, and certainly nothing during the 1986 season. The only evidence is Philistine, and prior to that, Canaanite: in my own square we dug through the earliest Philistine strata to the latest Canaanite level. One may observe here from Judges 1:34 and 18:1 that the Danites never actually occupied this area, though planned in theory after the initial conquest; yet it does seem strange that there is no evidence of Israelite settlement at any stage, especially as one destruction level is attri­buted to David, in the wake of the victories recorded in 2 Samuel 5:17-25 (NB v25). It all goes to emphasize that historical geography is a very important discipline in Biblical studies, one that evangelicals have largely neglected, content to rest on the identifications of non-Christian scholars with no commitment to Scriptural truth. 1Then, when a proposed identi­fication fails and is abandoned, evangelicals are left standing. How much of the argument over the date of the Exodus, for example, based so much on excavations at Beitin and Et Tell, (allegedly Bethel and Ai respectively) may be quite beside the point because of a wrong identification of Bethel? 2So we could continue.

Theologically, we need to observe that God's revelation came not only in a context of real time history (as opposed to Neo-orthodoxy), but in a real geographical context too (witness the countless places mentioned in Scripture). Thus the more we can understand about the places and contexts of Scripture, as well as the history, the better informed we shall be as to a proper exegesis of the text.

Some observations about the use of archaeology in relation to Scripture are in order here:

1. The Absolute Necessity of Scripture to Interpret the Evidence🔗

When excavating in Palestine, whether one is a believer or unbeliever, the Scripture text is essential in interpreting remains. Thus when an excavator comes to a layer of ash (there were several at Tel Gerisa), he will see this as a 'destruction layer'. Whose destruction? Since we are dealing with the Biblical period one has to relate this to some war or conquest recorded in Scripture. While some informed guesswork will come in here, we should still note that the excavator, in the absence of written material from the site, must have his Bible in his hand to make sense of his data. Hence a destruc­tion layer in the third stratum at the site was tentatively attributed to David's defeat of the Philistines as per 2 Samuel 5, just prior to 1000 BC. Thus even though the Bible may be to the excavator no more than an ancient text, like Homer or Thucydides to Greek sites, it bears its testimony that its message cannot be avoided, while the Christian will look expectantly at all this through Biblical eyes. It is noteworthy here that in many cases even the non- Christian scholars working on location, have much more respect for the reli­ability of Scripture than do the many liberal professors in their ivory towers, far removed from Israel, who often have never been there.

2. Dating Schemes can be Circular🔗

Anyone at all familiar with archaeology will know something of the great store placed on pottery. This is understandable as ceramics are by far the most survivable items. Earlier this century a dating scheme based on pottery 'types' was proposed and now has become very elaborate with multitudes of detailed charts slotting these types into periods. Many comments could be made on this scheme, but one standard objection is the danger of circularity whereby the strata originally dated the pottery, now the pottery dates the strata. While this is not necessarily circular (space forbids explanation), when the scheme becomes rigid and undeviating, such a fallacy is certainly present. This came out rather strikingly at Tel Gerisa during the final week of the season when excavation revealed a pottery kiln containing twenty or more complete pots, an unusual phenomenon as kilns are normally found empty. However, because the pottery was declared to be of a certain late 'type', the kiln which contained them had correspondingly to be dated late. There was one problem: this conclusion meant that the kiln did not really belong to the earlier stratum in which it appeared but to a much later period, entailing the further conclusion that the kiln was constructed almost wholly underground, contrary to all we know about such structures, and certainly the one found at the closely related Tel Qasile across the river! However, such is the rigidity of the pottery scheme that the field director was prepared to accept it, even though this provoked some very spirited argument on the field between himself and his second-in-command, fascinating and amusing to witness.

This type of observation is highly relevant to Biblical studies, as for many years Old Testament chronology has been built on a late-date Exodus, in turn built on this pottery scheme whereby cruder 'types' were assigned to early Israelite occupation, given a date based on strata, then later, when the scheme had assumed orthodoxy, the process was used in reverse. This is not to say that the procedure is wholly worthless, as the circularity is recognized by scholars in their more reflective moments, while there is some linearity as well. But the warning to be critical is quite in order: we cannot date some­thing by merely looking at it. Thus we must not sacrifice the hard data of Biblical chronology on the altar of pottery schemes. Chronology is more important to Biblical integrity and interpretation than many have been pre­pared to allow. Thus, for example, a late-date Exodus (almost universally assumed among Israeli scholars, and many evangelical Christians) has opened the door to a loose approach to the text of Scripture, and to allowing archaeology to have the decisive say in interpretation. All Scripture is profit­able, including its chronological statements.

3. Archaeological Evidence is always Incomplete🔗

One must always remember that archaeology is a study of man's past based on the remains which survive to the present. Those remains are normally the items most suited to survive the ravages of time e.g. pottery, metal objects, stone, brick and the like. These are the stock-in-trade of the discipline as conducted in Israel. We would find pottery sherds every day: they would be labelled, taken down to the office for classification and analysis, and subsequently consigned to the scrap heap save for a few pieces desig­nated for restoration. Some quite spectacular Canaanite storage jars were found in another area on the tell which will eventually be restored.

We would also be looking for lines of walls (stone or brick) to form a picture of the dwellings; in my own area we found a floor of stones, shells and sherds attributed to the Canaanite period. Any metal object (usually lead or bronze; no iron at this site so far) is of particular interest and put in special storage. Olive stones, bones and grain remnants indicate the diet of the ancient settlers. All very interesting, but how does all this bear on the Old Testament Scriptures? In reply, all this is part of a slow, painstaking process of building up a picture of ancient Palestine over several occupation periods, but with only a portion of the evidence, and that unlabelled (we do not find a sherd inscribed with the words 'David was here'!). Hence while we may have some idea of daily life, the houses lived in, the food consumed and so on, there was nothing at all on the language spoken, the relationships with Israelites, still less of the work of God and the level of faith and faithfulness toward God on Israel's part at the period in question. For that we turn to the pages of Scripture itself. On things religious, while several temples have been found and many idolatrous cult objects at many sites, little or nothing of that nature has turned up at Tel Gerisa. A standing joke in archaeology is to label something as yet unidentifiable as 'religious', so great caution is the watchword on that score in present work, hence the conservative conclu­sions.

Does all of this indicate that the discipline is valueless in Biblical studies? Indeed not! When used as a handmaid rather than revered as a master, it has a definite place as extra illumination on the text, particularly on historical, geographical and cultural matters in the Old Testament text. Tel Gerisa gives useful information on the extent of Philistine occupation during the late Judges and early monarchy period, well to the north of the Philistine pentapolis. Several destruction layers are evident, indicating a disturbed occupation, but merely by looking at such evidence one cannot tell who was responsible: Israelites? (Danites?), marauding seafarers? inter-tribal squabbles? There is no question that such studies sharpen the under­standing, give realism to the text, and anchor one in the real world where God's Word came. But all of this is preliminary to Biblical study.

Evidence which substantiates some Biblical statement sometimes turns up; often this is inscriptional in nature. The most spectacular find of the early 1980's was the discovery in a tomb in the valley of Hinnom, west of the Old City of Jerusalem, of two silver scrolls inscribed in the old Phoenician script (that of pre-Exile times) of the Aaronic blessing of Numbers 6:24-26. It stands as by far the earliest portion of Scripture yet found, the only portion in this ancient Hebrew script, and is on prominent display in the Israel Museum in West Jerusalem. 3This does much to undermine the still popular documentary theory that the Priestly Code (containing the Aaronic blessing) is an Exilic and post-Exilic production, and thus has a def­inite place in our apologetic, albeit a negative point in this instance. How­ever, such finds are more the exception and a highlight to the ongoing, pain­staking (and somewhat dull at times) task of archaeology, and the Christian's task of correlating, if necessary correcting, its conclusions in conformity to God's infallible Word.


  1. ^ The standard work on this subject is still Y. Aharoni, The Land of the Bible: A Historical Geography, London, 1979.
  2. ^ See D. Livingston, The Location of Biblical Bethel and Ai Reconsidered, W. Th. J., 33 (1970), pp 20-44, and Traditional Site of Bethel Questioned, W. Th. J., 34 (1971), pp 39-50.
  3. ^ For details see Gabriel Barkay, Ketef Hinnom: A Treasure Facing Jerusalem's Walls, The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, 1986, pp 29-31, 34-36.

Add new comment

(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.
(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.