Is the Truth Under There?

Each semester I introduce my Hebrew Bible students to the dangers of “biblical archaeology.” Not that there is any wrong-headedness in excavating sites of importance to ancient Israel, but I warn them of requiring proof for religious beliefs. Early archaeologists digging in the lands of the Bible were open about their agendas — “proving” the Bible to be “true.” The problem is proof is certain only in mathematics, not in matters of faith. Truth cannot be known, but must be believed. When archaeologists excavate the unknown, they cannot know in advance what they might find.

As a young academic wannabe, I volunteered at Tel Dor in the summer of 1987. Before the introductory orientation sessions Dor was only a shadow of a reference to one of King Solomon’s administrative cities mentioned in 1 Kings; I knew nothing of its location or importance. I’d had enough of seminary to be skeptical of many truth claims even then, and the irreverent outlook of many of my fellow diggers underscored the secular nature of the venture. We were digging for the truth, but we might not recognize it when we found it. Apart from the scorpions and tarantulas, we unearthed many mute trinkets from Israelites silenced by time. My square team was assigned to the city gate; we were seeking the coveted fourth chamber to place the city in a Solomonic context.

To the best of my knowledge, our humble efforts did not prove the Bible was true. After manually hauling out tons of dirt, we found what appeared to be a gate chamber and perhaps even a rubbish heap. Of these two features the rubbish heap was the more interesting to me. Here it was that the cast-offs of ancient life had been consigned to oblivion only to be rescued by bewildered strangers far in the future. Truth is often in what we hide. It may not be glamorous or worthy of biblical paeans, but it is that part of our lives that we discard. Finding “Solomon’s” gate proved nothing, but what “his” people threw away contained nuggets of the truth.

Is the Truth Under There? Tel Dor 1987

4 thoughts on “Is the Truth Under There?

  1. This is a great line:
    Apart from the scorpions and tarantulas, we unearthed many mute trinkets from Israelites silenced by time.

    That’s the haunting part of archaeology, that people have been silenced by time and we can try to imagine who they were a bit by viewing artifacts which they created and handled. I liked your closing paragraph a lot too for the same reasons.

    Here it was that the cast-offs of ancient life had been consigned to oblivion only to be rescued by bewildered strangers far in the future. Truth is often in what we hide. It may not be glamorous or worthy of biblical paeans, but it is that part of our lives that we discard.

    Biblical archaeology is a funny thing. Reading the recent news about the finds in Nazareth made me sort through my own biases. Mostly I am happy to learn more regardless of what the findings point to, validating or disproving historical context of biblical stories.

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    • Steve Wiggins

      Thanks for your kind words! I found archaeology to be a good corrective for overly textual people like myself. It has a great way of adding texture to the sometimes stilted stories from antiquity. (We really did find scorpions and tarantulas as well!)

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  2. I agree regarding the futility of trying to prove that the Bible scientifically. I think that one of the biggest challenges with biblical study in general (both for the layman and the professional) is that the text is so difficult to understand (unless, of course, you follow someone’s “official” translation which is often loaded with political and ecclesiastical agenda). Considering the fact that even basic concepts such as sin (חַטָּאת רבֵץ), death (story of Enoch) and its aftermath (שְׁאוֹל) are riddled with uncertainty-and that uncertainty breads doubt, it is easy to understand the psychology behind the embrace of archeology in order to find the truth.

    One good example to illustrate this is Roland de Vaux’s excavations at Qumran. de Vaux was frustrated with the fact that there were no archeological evidence for the links between the second temple sects (like the Essene ) and early Christians, so he went looking for the truth and found it (the teacher of righteousness, scriptorium and all). Since his excavation, generations of archeologists and historians have been raised to believe that Qumran (which was in fact a commercial production facility) was indeed the seat of the Essene community.

    I grew up in Israel and during my teen years, I spent a lot of time hiking in the Judean desert. Armed with a copy of Josephus’ Jewish Wars, I would spend days roaming through the Roman camps and wadis and was sometimes rewarded with coins or shards (never in situ, of course!) dating back to the Hasmonean period or the First and Second revolts . I remember reading the inscription on some of these finds and realizing how lively they made the history books seem. So at least from this prospective, I think that excavating can help illuminate the social and economical aspects of a society at the time. But again, all of this must be taken with a sizable grain of salt when it comes to drawing theologically inferences.

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    • Steve Wiggins

      Well put! Archaeology has its limitations, as does the Bible. I appreciate your point about translation; few people today consider that translations are made to make money — to sell Bibles! In order to sell, you need to translate the way the intended audience wants to read. Reading the “original” is frequently an eye-opening experience.

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