A recent magazine editorial1 began by giving well deserved criticism of a woeful article2 in the Telegraph. It then turned to focus on “disturbing trends within the brotherhood which indicate a material shift in attitudes towards the Bible,” specifically, claiming that some think the “biblical record is not historically accurate.”
The editorial concluded that “this approach seriously compromises the Christadelphian position on the inspiration and infallibility of Scripture, and we need to be alert to the implications, individually and ecclesially.” Sounds serious…
At first this position seems to be based on a high view of scripture – we believe that the Bible is 100% historically accurate, and anyone that doesn’t ought to be dealt with by the ecclesia. The problem is, that like many similar claims about the Bible, there’s more going on than meets the eye.
When we read the Bible, we interpret it. We interpret ancient genres, ancient idioms, and ancient literary structures – most of the time without even knowing that’s what we’re dealing with. The ways God communicated were necessarily ancient – he was speaking to people from the ancient Near East. If we don’t bear this in mind when we’re reading, we’ll be in danger of importing our own worldview and assumptions into the text rather than attempting to enter the world of the text to better understand it as the original audience would have. The socio-historical context of the Bible is critical to understanding it in the way it was intended to be understood.
Therefore, because these ancient ways of communicating are quite foreign to us, what you think the Bible says and what it actually says are not necessarily the same thing.
A simplistic claim3 that “The Bible is 100% historically accurate” probably demonstrates that the individual making it doesn’t know much about ancient Near Eastern literature, archaeology, or culture. Laughlin in his commentary on Joshua makes the scathing but all-too-accurate observation,
It has been my experience as a teacher of the Hebrew Bible for over forty years that many, if not most, people who claim to “believe the Bible” have little or no appreciation for the broader cultural/historical context in which Israel and Judah existed and out of which the Bible came. The stories told in the Bible, for all intents and purposes, might as well have taken place in Kansas.4
The editorial unwittingly goes on to make Laughlin’s point in its choice of event to defend: criticising believers who apparently claim “that the record in Joshua and Judges of Israel’s entry into the Promised Land cannot be historically true, on the grounds that it is not supported by the evidence of archaeology.”
To put the issue into bold relief, let’s lay out a simple model of the layers of interpretation:
- The Bible had an original meaning in a place, time, and culture
- It has been interpreted (i.e. translated) into our language, if not our culture
- We form an understanding of what we think the text means
The criticism – emotive and powerfully charged as it is – of not taking the Bible to be 100% historically accurate mistakenly conflates an individual’s or community’s understanding of the text (point 3) with the original meaning (point 1). Any individual making this criticism does so only because they assume that the Bible was meant to be 100% historically accurate; an assumption they never demonstrate, only ever demand.
If you want to defend the historical accuracy of your understanding of the Bible, the very last event you’d use as your example would be the Israelite conquest of Canaan, as anyone with even a passing knowledge of the relevant archaeological evidence would be aware. In his textbook on the archaeology of Israel5, Mazar opens the section on Israel’s early history in Canaan with:
The origins of the Israelites and the crystallization of their national entity are among the most controversial topics of biblical history.6
The problem is not one of an absence of evidence – there’s a mountain of evidence that demonstrates that a Sunday School reading of the conquest narratives in Joshua is quite plainly not possible.7 Using significant new information to better inform our understanding (point 3 above) does not alter the original meaning (point 1). To quote Laughlin again,
…new archaeological methods and discoveries have completely undermined the so-called “military” model reflected in Joshua… there is simply no excuse among intelligent, serious students of the Bible to continue to advocate totally outdated views concerning the “conquest” of Canaan…8
By claiming that “Joshua did what the Old Testament says that he did”, the editorial proves only one thing: it has not engaged with the mountains of scholarship we have at our disposal today. To echo Isaac Asimov’s comment on American anti-intellectualism, our ignorance is not as good as expert knowledge.
A misguided approach to archaeological evidence suggested
So, how does the editorial suggest we deal with archaeological evidence in the interpretation of scripture? Citing an article from earlier in the magazine’s history, it says that the following approach deals with archaeological evidence “supremely well”:
“The Bible does not require the findings of archaeologists to prove it to be true, for, being the inspired and infallible Word of God, it is the ultimate standard of truth, and it has been observed with some justification that ‘The Bible Proves Archaeology True’ would more accurately represent the position.”9
It’s difficult to know quite where to start with this seemingly pious sentence; there’s just so much that’s wrong about it.10 We’ll stay on topic and deal only with this phrase: “The Bible proves archaeology true”.
There are two a big problems with this statement, as anyone sufficiently knowledgeable on the conquest narratives will be aware.
- The claim that “the bible proves archaeology true” –read in the most generous light– assumes and depends on the bible speaking with one voice on every historical matter it comments on. As we shall see, that’s plainly not the case.
- It completely ignores the fact that the Bible does not speak in our voice. It elevates our understanding or interpretation to the same level as inspiration.
The problem isn’t archaeology, it’s simplistic biblical interpretation
Very often, what looks like a problem of archaeological evidence not fitting a face-value reading of the text is actually a problem of tension between biblical passages – nothing to do with archaeology.
For that reason, it’s always worth establishing what the text actually says first before trying to fit the archaeological evidence to the text. Had the editorial done so it would not have persisted with trying to defend its 21st century western expectation and interpretation of a historical accurate the bible using the Israelite conquest as its example. Instead it would have chosen a different passage, or given up on the notion entirely.
Let’s be clear: if you want to claim that the Bible should be understood as an objective, historical account which satisfies your 21st century western expectations and choose to use the Israelite conquest as your example, you haven’t read the Israelite conquest passages carefully. The biblical text often serves up thorny problems for those that spend more energy making pious sounding claims about its nature rather than actually reading it. The conquest narratives are a case in point. Let’s look at a few examples.
When did Joshua conquer the land?
The biblical text presents a few options:
Joshua completed the conquest soon after arriving in Canaan:
So Joshua took the whole land, according to all that the LORD had spoken to Moses; and Joshua gave it for an inheritance to Israel according to their tribal allotments. And the land had rest from war.11 – Jos 11:23
Alternatively, Joshua had done plenty of conquering but by old his old age he hadn’t yet completed it:
Now Joshua was old and advanced in years; and the LORD said to him, “You are old and advanced in years, and very much of the land still remains to be possessed. This is the land that still remains… – Jos 13:1–2
Another option is that the conquest began only after Joshua died:
After the death of Joshua, the Israelites inquired of the LORD, “Who shall go up first for us against the Canaanites, to fight against them?” – Jdg 1:1
It’s not possible that the conquest was completed quickly and was only partially completed by the end of Joshua’s life and had not started before Joshua’s death, yet the Bible appears to make all three claims. Logically, only one (or none!) of these passages can be “historically accurate”; the two we don’t choose can’t be “historically accurate”.
So, which of these biblical claims will “prove archaeology true”? Just asking that question in light of these three mutually exclusive biblical claims demonstrates just how divorced from reality the seemingly pious claim that “the bible proves archaeology true” is.
What then is the person who claims that the bible is “historically accurate” to do with these passages? While you ponder that let’s move on to the next set of biblical statements about the Israelite conquest.
What happened to the Canaanites?
What had God commanded the Israelites to do to the Canaanites? In Deuteronomy we read,
But as for the towns of these peoples that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them—the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites—just as the LORD your God has commanded, so that they may not teach you to do all the abhorrent things that they do for their gods, and you thus sin against the LORD your God. – Dt 20:16–18
In Joshua we find that the Canaanites were completely exterminated, just as God had intended:
…all the people they struck down with the edge of the sword, until they had destroyed them, and they did not leave any who breathed. As the LORD had commanded his servant Moses, so Moses commanded Joshua, and so Joshua did; he left nothing undone of all that the LORD had commanded Moses. – Jos 11:14–15
We also read that plenty of Canaanites survived, just as God had intended:
Now these are the nations that the LORD left to test all those in Israel who had no experience of any war in Canaan (it was only that successive generations of Israelites might know war, to teach those who had no experience of it before): the five lords of the Philistines, and all the Canaanites, and the Sidonians, and the Hivites who lived on Mount Lebanon, from Mount Baal-hermon as far as Lebo-hamath. They were for the testing of Israel, to know whether Israel would obey the commandments of the LORD, which he commanded their ancestors by Moses. – Jdg 3:1–4
Well, which is it? Were the Canaanites annihilated with no one left to breathe? Or were there loads and loads of them left? Which of these two passages are we going to use to “prove archaeology true”? Again, the silliness of the phrase is demonstrated. We first need to work through these mutually exclusive claims before we go about trying to “prove archaeology true”.
Let’s take one final example.
Did the conquest result in the people having rest?
A long time afterward, when the LORD had given rest to Israel from all their enemies all around, and Joshua was old and well advanced in years… – Jos 23:1
So Joshua took the whole land, according to all that the LORD had spoken to Moses; and Joshua gave it for an inheritance to Israel according to their tribal allotments. And the land had rest from war. – Jos 11:23
For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not speak later about another day. – Heb 4:8–9
Again, scripture leaves us non-the-wiser as to whether the Israelites actually enjoyed rest as a result of the conquest. The Hebrew Bible seems to indicate that they did enjoy rest; the New Testament makes a point that depends on the Israelites having not enjoyed rest.
Dealing with discrepancies
These three examples of biblical claims which cannot be reconciled with other biblical claims –at least at face-value– make it clear that it’s not archaeology which is causing problems with the “historical accuracy” of the bible, it’s face-value reading of the bible itself; i.e. it’s the expectations we bring to the text. Even if not a single archaeological site had been dug, the problem of historical accuracy would still exist. Archaeology only serves to exacerbate a pre-existing problem.
Having looked through three examples where we find the bible making claims which are in tension with each other about events that ought to be readily visible in the archaeological record, we come to the next part of the editorial:
It may be helpful to state plainly what seem to be the only two possible responses to the claim that the biblical record is not historically accurate. Either God did not say the things that the writers of the Bible claim that He said, or He did ‘say’ them (in some sense) but they are not to be read in the sense of their plain meaning. Each of these responses immediately encounters an insurmountable obstacle for those who regard the Bible as truly the Word of God. In the first case the Bible is no longer true, and its writings are not inspired in the biblical sense of that word; and in the second case God is bearing false witness of Himself.
This is incredible. Plain meaning? Is that how we are to decide whether “the Bible is true”? If so, should we change our position on the reality of demons?
When Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You spirit that keeps this boy from speaking and hearing, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again!” After crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out… – Mk 9:25–26
The plain meaning here is that there really was an unclean spirit that actually caused the boy to be blind and deaf, and that Christ actually exorcised it. Is “the Bible no longer true” because we don’t accept the “plain meaning” of this passage? Or is God bearing false witness of himself?
What about this passage? What is its “plain meaning”?
Long ago you laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. – Ps 102:25
The plain meaning here is that the earth has an actual foundation, one that God laid – a view one person told me they hold, based solely on this passage. Should we believe that if we dig deep enough into the earth we’d find the foundation that God laid? Or, is thinking that the “plain meaning” of this passage is not the intended meaning evidence of a “disturbing trend”?
The biblical evidence is such that the editorial has painted itself into a corner. It puts itself in the position where it’s forced to choose between concluding that the Bible isn’t true, or that God is bearing false witness of himself. We leave that choice in the editorial’s hands.
There is, of course, a more sensible, blindingly obvious, and biblical choice, and it is this: we must recognise that the Bible is old – some parts more than 3,000 years old. It was written in languages long dead, to people long dead, which lived in cultures and civilizations long dead, in a land thousands of miles away. The writer of Hebrews was quite aware of this and stated that God… at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets. Or, as a modern version would have it,
In the past, God spoke through the prophets to our ancestors in many times and many ways. – Heb 1:1 (CEB)
God did not speak to us. He did not communicate in our language. He spoke to the ancestors of whoever wrote the book of Hebrews 2,000 years ago. God communicated in order to be understood by those ancestors. He used their language. He used their idioms. He used their genres. He used their literary devices. He communicated with them, not us. We are fortunate to have the scriptures today, but just because we have them doesn’t mean they were written to us. We shouldn’t expect the Bible to work in ways that are familiar to us. It was written in ways that were familiar, clear, and understandable to people living thousands of years ago.
Ever wonder why the Bible doesn’t contain sonnets? Because it wasn’t written in 16th century England. Ever wonder why letters in the New Testament don’t begin “Dear Galatians” and end with “Yours sincerely, Paul”? Because it wasn’t written in a 20th century English-speaking primary school. And, ever wonder why biblical war reports doesn’t read like a war report in Time magazine? Because it wasn’t written in the 21st century.
Contrary to maybe what we’d like, we can’t just pick up an English translation of the bible and read it expecting it to follow the rules of modern literature. If we are to take scripture seriously then we need to respect its socio-historical context, and interpret it with that in mind. We have to go further than verse-by-verse interpretation, and into considerably more depth than identifying what we think are related passages just because they happen to have a few words in common.
We need to find out when portions of scripture were written, we need to steep ourselves in the genres God chose to communicate through, and we need to hear the scriptures through the ears of those to who it was first spoken. When we do that we’ll find that the many problems thrown up by face-value reading will fade away into irrelevancy, and a rich, beautiful, and terrifying ancient world will come alive through the pages of God’s word.
We’ll also find that scripture has little interest in the expectations that our 21st century western worldview brings to the text. And we’ll see editorials about “disturbing trends” for the witch-hunt-instigating, simplistic, and fear-driven foot-stomping that they are.
The Bible does not “prove archaeology.” Neither does archaeology “prove the Bible.” Archaeology serves only to inform our interpretation of the Bible.
In conclusion, honouring the scriptures by reading them as an ancient text is not the disturbing trend to be wary of; rather, it is the growing hostility in some corners toward those that do.
- Editorial, Testimony Vol. 87, No. 1033, (December 2017), 433-435.
- And ‘claim’ is all it is. Never does anyone actually try to prove the claim, it’s just asserted.
- John C. H. Laughlin, Reading Joshua: A Historical-Critical/Archaeological Commentary (ed. Mark E. Biddle; Reading the Old Testament Series; Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 2015), 30.
- If the relevant section of the textbook on the topic opens with this statement, there is no excuse for anyone writing about the topic to be ignorant of it or the difficulties it presents a Sunday School-level interpretation
- Amihai Mazar, Archaeology of the Land of the Bible 10,000-586 B.C.E. (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 1990), 328.
- Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, The Bible Unearthed (Free Press, 2001), 81–83. See also William G. Dever, Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From? (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006), 71, and Amihai Mazar, Archaeology of the Land of the Bible 10,000-586 B.C.E. (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 1990), 334.
- John C. H. Laughlin, Reading Joshua: A Historical-Critical/Archaeological Commentary (ed. Mark E. Biddle; Reading the Old Testament Series; Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 2015), 29.
- Tony Benson, “The importance of biblical archaeology,” Testimony Vol. 60, No. 718, (Oct 1990), 325.
- The implication that inspiration is the mere dictation of banal, colourless, historical facts is particularly worrying
- All scripture quotations unless otherwise noted are from The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989)