Orthodox America


  Archaeology and the Bible


by Fr. Alexey Young

Because the Bible was seen as a primary source for the history of the ancient Near East, the earliest archaeological research stood firmly within the context of the Biblical tradition. It was concerned not so much with proving the truth of the Bible as with illustrating the Biblical record. [1] 

The discipline of archaeology helps to ground our faith in the concrete context of the times and places where God has acted. "Why We dig in the Holy Land," Christianity Today, Oct. 23, 1995.

In 1975 archaeologists announced that they had uncovered what they are reasonably certain was the home of Saint Peter the Apostle in Capernaum, where the Lord Jesus Christ had Himself stayed (Matt. 8:14). They found a cluster of rooms built around two courtyards, the largest of which had become a house-church in very early Christian times and was later incorporated into a fourth century Byzantine church built over and containing the entire site. This matched a description by the pilgrim, Egeria, writing in the 380s: "In Capernaum the house of the Chief of the Apostles has been made into a church, with its original walls still standing.' ['2] Underneath the ancient mosaic floor of this church the archaeologist found hard evidence of Saint Peter's residence, with graffiti such as “Lord Jesus Christ, help thy servant”    and "Christ have mercy," together with numerous inscriptions of Saint Peter's name in both Latin and Greek. "Some scholars believed that the ... church was built to memorialize Jesus temporary residence in Capernaum.” [3]

      The pilgrim Egeria recorded that this was the same house "where the Lord healed the paralytic," who was lowered through the roof (Mark 2:15). And in fact, archaeologists found that the original house -- under the church -- with its simple walls of stone, could not have supported a masonry roof. "Instead," they say, "a crisscross of tree branches was used . [4] This kind of roof could have been easily removed in order to lower the invalid down into the room below, where the Saviour waited.

     This is but one small glimpse of what archaeology is discovering, year by year. Yet, when I was in college more than thirty years ago, a history professor told his class that there “was almost no evidence to support anything in the Bible, that it was all myth, pious fable. In fact, he said there was never even a figure called Pontius Pilate. "And," he added smoothly, "the title of 'procurator,' Pilate's supposed title in the New Testament, is the wrong title for a Roman official in his position." I remembered this pompous professor years later when archaeologists announced the discovery of a marble inscription bearing the name of Pontius Pilate, with the very title given to him in Holy Scripture.

      Even the pavement of the courtyard of Pilate's residence in Jerusalem survived the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD and all of the centuries since then. This pavement's rediscovery "was the result of years of work on the part of the archaeologist, Fr. L. H. Vincent. His success was due to the exact description given in Saint John's Gospel.... This was where Jesus stood before Pilate while the mob howled outside. It was on this pavement, too, that the scourging took place.” [5] The pilgrim or visitor to Jerusalem today can see this for himself. Also interesting is that the long lost tomb of Annas, the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest at the time of the Lord's trial before the Sanhedrin (John 18:12-14), has been recently identified.

      Like many modern sciences, archaeology is in a constant state of change and development. Evidence supporting many statements in Scripture are continually being uncovered; to date, nothing has been discovered that contradicts these sacred texts. Although there are modernist biblical scholars who attribute much of the Scripture to myth and legend, and teach others to believe this, it remains a fact although seldom mentioned -- that archaeologists, far from disproving Scripture, are in a continuing process of confirming it. It seems that while modern man has descended ever more deeply into the darkness of unbelief, it has pleased God's mercy to reveal more and more factual evidence that supports Christian belief.

      And yet the attempts to 'dymythologize" the Bible are continuing today, and some of it tries to mask itself as the "science" of archaeology. In fact, it is its own belief system and has nothing to do with true science Popularly called the "new archaeology,'' this field is filled particularly with British and American archaeologists who use "the jargon of anthropology …. looking upon archaeology as part of the social sciences." [6] Fearful of being tied or associated with any kind of theology or religion, these "new archaeologists" are trying to secularize the field of biblical archaeology. Thus, Michael Wood, the popular writer and television anthropologist, blithely asserts that "what the Bible calls paradise -- Eden -- was simply the Sumerian [or ancient Babylonian] word for 'Edem,' the wild grassland of southern Iraq.” [7] He does not mention that many other reputable scholars disagree, or that many theologians themselves do not believe Eden was even an actual physical, geographical location in this fallen world, but was a mystical, spiritual reality that still exists.

      Another example: although the Ark of the Covenant has not been conclusively found, [8] it is brightly supposed, by the new archaeologists, that the carved cherubim over the Ark were ' probably sphinx-like, with the body of a lion or bull, the wings of an eagle, and the head of a man – a well-known motif in Canaanite, Phoenician, and Syrian art of the Bronze and Iron Ages'' [9] Yet there is absolutely no evidence for this kind of speculation. Such an approach comes out of anthropology and the unsupported conviction (amounting almost to a secular faith) that Judaism simply borrowed from already existing religious systems in the Middle East. However, if one accepts the Old Testament on its own terms (which is the only honest and integral way to look at it), it becomes highly unlikely, if not impossible, that the ancient Jews would have adopted or adapted any imagery whatever from pagan idolatry. But these "new archaeologists" are filled with such academic hubris that they can say, without batting an eye, "When I meet the Maker of the universe, I would like to be able to tel1 Him a little of how it works"! [10]

      An objective observer really canot escape the conclusion that the work of archaeology in Israel and the surrounding Middle East is, by its very nature, quite unique. One can, of course, be involved in "digs" without being guided by theological concepts; but at the same time, one must not be guided by any kind of anti-biblical prejudices, either -- i.e., the common view that the Old Testament must be historically inaccurate (something which has by no means been proven) and is only "great literature." The fact is, recent "wide-scale archaeological activity in Israel and Jordan has revealed a tremendous quantity of data, its opulence and variety out of all proportion to the small size of the country. Hundreds of archaeological projects of different character and scope are carried out each year. The digestion of the data uncovered is overwhelming even for professional archaeologists, not to mention scholars of related subjects.'' [11]

      These discoveries either demonstrate the reliability and accuracy of the historical narratives in the Old Testament, or provide useful parallel information about people, places, and events in the Scriptures. [12] For example, the ruins of Sodom and Gomorrah have been found; similarly, "there was a city [called Jericho in the Old Testament] for Joshua to conquer when the Bible says Joshua conquered it. Moreover, it would have been a prime target, for ... the site is strategically located.'' [13]

      Another discovery concerns the accuracy and age of the Old Testament accounts. A particular mound in the Jordan Valley had already been generally accepted as the Old Testament Succoth, where Jacob built for himself a home. A few have supposed that it might actually be Penuel, where Jacob had wrestled with the angel. But in 1967 "traces of letters on tiny pieces of plaster among the debris the workers were cleaning up" on this site proved extremely important. The cursive Aramaic inscription contained a reference to "the seer Balam, son of Beor" who is mentioned in the Book of Numbers. Dated to the eight century BC --- nearly 3000 years ago -scholars say that this is now "the earliest extant example of a prophetic text.'' [14]

      This is particularly interesting because fragments of the Book of Isaiah found among the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran have been subjected to extensive tests, comparisons with still earlier Isaiah texts, and scholars conclude that although "more than twenty-five hundred years [separate the earlier and the later manuscripts] yet we witness no mutation of the text. The DNA of moths living on the Hawaiian Islands has undergone vastly greater change in that same time frame. This is testimony to the amazing fidelity of transmission, through dozens of generations of pious scribes, once the old song stories and oral histories were committed to writing.'' [15]

      What about archaeology and the New Testament? In 1981 "the first-ccntury Capernaum synagogue in which Jesus preached" was actually found [16] The original structure, 60 x 79 feet, was under a later white limestone synagogue, now itself in ruins. Also on Mount Gerizim, researchers have located the ruins of the Samaritan temple to which the Woman at the Well pointed when she was talking to the Lord at Jacob's Well in Sychar (John 4). And the ancient Pools of Bethesda in Jerusalem (John 5:1-9) have also been uncovered and may be viewed by today's pilgrim to Jerusalem. [17]

      The discovery of the Bethesda Pools is a good example of how biblical archaeology corroborates the Gospel narratives in defiance of the secular bias of so many scholars. Experts long doubted the existence of the pool with its "five porticoes" as described in Saint John's Gospel, "because a pentagon was not found in ancient architecture. Perhaps the five porticoes were just a symbol for the five books of the Pentateuch. Then archaeologists began to dig--one of the Dead Sea Scrolls describes exactly where Bethsaida would have been. And sure enough, there are five places for porticoes: north, south, east, west, and one portico in the center between the two huge pools." [18]

      In addition, proof of execution by crucifixion was found in 1968. This was an important discovery because some modernist scholars had cast doubt on whether this Roman method of execution had actually ever been used in the Holy Land. And if it had not been used there, then the Gospel narrative of the Lord's crucifixion was simply another myth, grafted on to the New Testament texts at a later time. But when graves contemporary with the Lord and His Apostles were discovered, "the name of one of the dead was Johanan ben Ha-galgol [and] it was noticed with feelings of horror that his feet were separated from the smashed skeleton and were lying one on top of the other and joined together by a rusty nail which had been driven through both feet. Fragments of wood, the remains of a wooden slab, were attached to it. Behind Johanan's feet, the nail was bent obviously by having been driven into harder material. Johanan's forearms also showed signs of having had nails driven through them....In fact, the nails had not been driven through the palms of the hands in the way usually depicted, but through the forearms near the wrist.” [19]

      A recent book, Eyewitness to Jesus by Carsten Peter Thiede and Matthew D'Ancona, gives us a particularly close and gratifying look at some new hard evidence that confirms a very early date for the Gospel of Saint Matthew. These authors -- one is a leading German papyrologist -- first explain how the forensic and philologic experience of more traditional scholars has been ignored or cast aside in favor of the so-called "new" scholarship. For example:

      "One of the most persistent myths about the origins and transmission of the Gospels concerns the length of time it took for them to be received and digested and used. For over a century, it has been assumed that it took the recipients of the first Gospel at least ten years to produce a sequel. Thus, it has been taken for granted that St. Matthew's Gospel must have been written in the eighties of the first century . [20]

      The authors give a fascinating and detailed account of the discovery and authentication of three papyrus fragments from the Gospel of St. Matthew, fragments which can be dated much earlier than modernist scholars had been telling us any of the Gospel were written. In fact, "there is now good reason to suppose that the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, with its detailed accounts of the Sermon on the Mount and the Great Commission, was written not long after the Crucifixion and certainly before the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD .... These are the first stirrings of a major process of scholarly reappraisal, it concerns all of the Gospels. It affects everyone who has read them or will read them... For if the Gospels are more authentic than we thought, then perhaps the gap between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith is not as great as academics have claimed and [some] Christians feared...[21]

      Although these particular writers are by no means Protestant Fundamentalists or Orthodox Christians, they carefully lay out the evidence and then decisively conclude that modernist scholars are wrong and that "the authors of the Gospel could hear far more than the faintest whisper of Jesus' voice. Indeed, the first readers of St. Matthew may have heard the very words which the "Nazarene preacher spoke during his ministry; may have listened to the parables and waited respectfully for answers. The voice they heard was not a whisper..." Of course, traditional Orthodox Christians have never doubted that the Scriptures contain the words of authentic Revelation, but many others have not been so sure. Some of this dangerous, non-believing "scholarship" is just now beginning to infect some of the New Calendar Orthodox seminaries -- at the very time when it is slowly but surely being challenged and even completely revised in our secular institutions of higher learning

      Other interesting work being done today concerns the Dead Sea Scrolls. One of the recently deciphered papyrus fragments speaks astonishingly and explicitly of a prophet in the tine of King David who would be put to death. "This meant that during or even prior to the time of Jesus [the writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls] believed in a Messiah who would suffer and be put to death... 'We've known for a long time that there are connections between ideas contained in the Scrolls and Christianity,' said University of Chicago archaeologist Michael Wise ... 'However, this particular idea -- the idea of a dying Messiah -- is new and explosive.'' ['22] Explosive because, of course, it lends still more credence to the New Testament accounts, and this would be anathema to both believing Jews and non-believing scholars who think that the New Testament was just made up out of whole cloth several decade~ after the actual events themselves.

      Concerning the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, extensive archaeological work has now established "the history of the building and of the site on which it rests... The results of all this excavation and research have now been published in a three-volume final report ... proving that the site was a turn-of-the-era cemetery .... The fact that the Christian community in Jerusalem was never dispersed during this period, and that its succession of bishops was never interrupted, supports the accuracy of the preserved memory that Jesus had been crucified and buried here.'' [23]

      Christians must be concerned about the truth, for our Faith is founded upon a particular truth, a particular event in human history     the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, all truth is of interest to us, not least the truth or accuracy of Holy Scripture; for if the events described in those divine pages are not true, then why should we believe in any of the doctrine and theology recorded in the Bible, either? The fact that archaeologists are, in spite of themselves, constantly discovering the accuracy of many things in Scripture does not, of course, prove Revelation (which is completely outside the realm of archaeology), and it does not prove our Faith, but it certainly lends powerful credence to the sacred narratives as well as the Divine Revelations contained in both the Old and the New Testaments. Christians -- and particularly Orthodox Christians, who possess and preserve the oldest, fullest and most accurate traditions of all -- have nothing whatsoever to fear from continued Biblical archaeology, scholarship and research.

In fact, we are constantly gaining.


NOTES

1) Fritz, Volkmar, An Introduction to Biblilcal Archaeology, 1994

2) Shanks, Hersel and Colo, Dan P, Archaeology and the Bible, Volume II: "Archaeology in the World of Herod, Jesus and Paul," 1990

3) Ibid

4) Ibid

5) Keller, The Bible as History, 1980.

6) Mazar, Amihay, Archaeology of the Land of the Bible, 1990.

7) Quoted in Ibid.

8) There is, however, more recent work suggesting that the Ark may have been taken to Ethiopia in pre-Christian times and has been in the possession of the Ethiopian Church for many centuries 

9) Mazar, op cit

10) John Isaacs, quoted in Ibid

I1) Ibid

12) For example, archaeologists now have concrete evidence that, although this is not mentioned in the Old Testament, in its very earliest stages some of the semitic peoples (later known as tee Hebrews or Israelites) practiced child sacrifice in conformity with neighboring pagan cultures This practice was, of course, later forbidden by God and the Jews did indeed cease to perforrn any kind of human sacrifice another example of how the Jews, far from borrowing from neighboring pagan religions, decisively rejected these things once God began to reveal Himself to them

13) Charles Pellegrino, Return to Sodom and Gomorrah, 1994

14) Shanks, op.dt,

15) Pellegrino, op cit.

16) Shanks, op clt.

17) See extensive descriptions of these in (Gaalyah Cornfeld's Archaeology of the Bible, 1976

18) James Charlesworth, "Biblical Archaeology: good grounds for faith, in U S. Catholic, July 1994

19) Magnus Magnusson, Archaeology of the Bible, 1977

20) Pellegrtho, op.cit.

21) Thiede, Carsten and D'Ancona, Eyewitnesses to Jesus, 1996 

22) lbid

23) Shanks, op cit


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