What Brings You Here?

Hershel Shanks’s First Person in the July/August 2013 issue of BAR

Why are you interested in Biblical archaeology—or at least interested enough to be reading a Biblical archaeology magazine?

Some people are interested in it because they think it will validate the historical truth of the Bible. I guess that’s OK, although it’s not my shtick. I’ve always felt you’ve got a weak faith in the Bible if you need archaeology to validate it. On the other hand, archaeology does sometimes provide exciting evidence, for example, that indeed David existed and was the father of a dynasty, as shown by the Tel Dan stela.a

But archaeology also sometimes provides evidence that seems to refute the Biblical account. That is the case, for example, with the Israelite conquest of the land as described in the Book of Joshua. The various cities that the Israelites supposedly conquered simply cannot be lined up with the archaeological evidence. As I conclude after analyzing the evidence in the new third edition of our book Ancient Israel, “The conquest tradition in the Book of Joshua is therefore better seen as a literary, theological account, rather than an historical one.”b (But see the article on the conquest of Hazor.)

In his autobiography Freeing the Dead Sea Scrolls, BAR editor Hershel Shanks outlines his experiences as an archaeology outsider and his scrapes with governments, nomads and scoundrels.

Many people are interested in Biblical archaeology because it fleshes out the Biblical world for them. It makes the Bible come alive as a real world and not only as a text grounded in faith. This is certainly legitimate—and exciting. Thanks to archaeology we now have examples of the architecturally distinct houses the Israelites lived in (although some others also lived in these four-room houses), the pots they cooked with, the ovens (tabuns) they baked bread in, the olive oil presses from which they got their olive oil, the lamps they used to find their way in the dark—and on and on. Archaeology can also fill in, for example, the broader characteristics of an egalitarian Israelite society (see article in this issue).

All this is certainly a legitimate reason for your interest in Biblical archaeology. One of the greatest thrills of volunteers on an archaeological excavation is finding and holding a simple pot that was held thousands of years ago by a human being just like you. Suddenly, in a little pot, you feel the sweep of humanity of which you are a part.

For me—and no doubt for many of you as well—archaeology also enriches my striving to understand. I confess I don’t have that kind of secure faith that leaves me without questions. For me, the Bible does not have answers so much as questions. It is a magnificent record of human beings struggling for answers to the same kinds of existential questions that consume me. No, I don’t believe the day was extended by the sun’s standing still (see Joshua 10:13). This represents not an answer but magnificent effort to find an answer, a “why” on many levels. Much of the Bible is like this. Sometimes the Biblical text provides an answer; sometimes it doesn’t, only questions. The Biblical author is struggling to find an answer, just like me. Archaeology fleshes in the picture. Just as the text provides a spiritual time-bridge, so archaeology provides an artifactual space-bridge. It brings us together. We are all heirs to this timeless, spaceless culture, striving to understand.

In its way archaeology humanizes the Bible. It reveals the world in which these people—like me—struggled. They didn’t find all the answers. And certainly I haven’t. But we are brothers in the struggle. And I am heir to the inspiring record of their struggle. They have left an enormously enriching reflection of their effort. Archaeology for me, in addition to its other fascinations, connects me to them in a kind of hands-on, tangible way.

Our free eBook Ten Top Biblical Archaeology Discoveries brings together the exciting worlds of archaeology and the Bible! Learn the fascinating insights gained from artifacts and ruins, like the Pool of Siloam in Jerusalem, where the Gospel of John says Jesus miraculously restored the sight of the blind man, and the Tel Dan inscription—the first historical evidence of King David outside the Bible.

In short, archaeology helps me to understand and relate to my ancestors in a different way, in a different dimension that enriches my connection to them—both through the text of the Bible and by holding a pot that they held.

I respect those people of faith who find answers where I do not, where I find only questions. They, too, have a legitimate way of incorporating archaeology into their world view. And I welcome them to the pages of BAR.

Bottom line: There are many ways of grounding an interest in Biblical archaeology—by people of faith, by strugglers like me and for people who find these ruminations irrelevant.

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a. See “‘David’ Found at Dan,” BAR 20:02.

b. Hershel Shanks, ed., Ancient Israel—From Abraham to the Roman Destruction of the Temple, 3rd ed. (Washington, DC: Biblical Archaeology Society, 2011), p. 66.

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11 Responses

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  1. da says

    Thanks for the ruminations!

  2. Janice says

    My answer to your question, Mr. Shanks, would be the same as yours, only much less beautifully expressed! The scriptures are, to me, like the pot you mentioned: a deep connection with an evolving faith that struggles with the big questions, and helps us answer them provisionally in our own time, in our own way, in our own hearts. Every discovery that illuminates how our spiritual ancestors lived helps us better understand their expressions of faith through the scriptures. They were expressing their faith, not writing a literal history and science of their physical world, and the archaeology shows us that. Our faith should not need “confirmation” through archaeology, by taking as fact what they never offered as fact, but as their best expressions of faith, even conflicting visions of God and Jesus. I appreciate the work of archaeologists who make these people of faith real to me.

  3. J.A. says

    . . . “Just as the text provides a spiritual time-bridge, so archaeology provides an artifactual space-bridge. It brings us together. We are all heirs to this timeless, spaceless culture, striving to understand.”

    What a great quote!

  4. Mark says

    Perhaps there has been a misreading of the book of Joshua or perhaps the archeological evidence is either incomplete or has been wrongly interpreted.

    Could Dr Shanks give evidence to back up his statement and link an event in the book of Joshua with supposed archeological evidence that contradicts it?


  5. Mark says

    Janice, archeology can be wrongly interpreted and new discoveries change archeological theories all the time. So we have to be very careful when we say that a historical work is inaccurate because archeological evidence contradicts it.

  6. Janice says

    I feel a little patronized. Of course archaeological evidence is subject to different interpretations, as is scripture itself, with room for error; over time, with continued peer review, new discoveries and new science and technology as tools to revisit the evidence, a richer understanding emerges. But there’s been enough of this work going on, and a body of evidence where consensus has evolved over time, from archaeologists as well as textual criticism from Biblical scholars, that many “events” in scripture were never intended as literal history or as science. The Bible is simply not a “historical work.” It is a spiritual one.

  7. David says

    I’m going to lean more with Mark on this one. I deeply respect Hershel Shanks, but these two quotes just don’t sit well together:

    “I’ve always felt you’ve got a weak faith in the Bible if you need archaeology to validate it.”

    “The conquest tradition in the Book of Joshua is therefore better seen as a literary, theological account, rather than an historical one.”

    It’s tantamount to saying, “Your faith is weak if you don’t believe in something unhistorical.” Personally, I think your faith is weak if you’re willing to believe that the Bible is unhistorical so readily. Why do archaeology at all if you can just spiritualize everything and make your faith completely unfalsifiable? Moreover, if you use the same logic, why not just believe in the most historically unreliable religion (maybe Mormonism) to really test your faith?

    It’s legitimate to say, “I believe the Bible because of it’s incomparable explanation of the human condition and God’s role in a broken world (etc.), and history is secondary (though helpful),” but not to abrogate archeology altogether. Having faith in faith hardly leads a person to a rational position. “God is not man, that he should lie…” like many of the founders of false cults and religions.

    I plan to investigate the apparent inconsistency of Joshua 11:10-11 further, but right now my first lead is from “Bible Query”:

    Hazor actually was burned three times according to archaeologists: 1400 B.C., 1300 B.C. by Pharaoh Seti I, and 1230 B.C. Who might have burned Hazor the last time (Judges 14:2,15,16)? Today we actually still have a letter from I-eha-enu (Jabin?) of Hazor to the Pharaoh asking for aid at this time. (called King Ibni by David M. Rohl p.317) The Egyptians did not come: apparently fifty years earlier they had enough of trying to swim against the tide of God’s will. See David M. Rohl Pharaohs and Kings : A Biblical Quest (Crown Publishers 1995) p.314-317 for more info.

    If it’s a false lead, let me know. Thanks!


  8. Rob says

    Skeptical of gurus and old texts, I have to have solid proof. Early churches jealously rewrote history to satisfy their marketing goals!

  9. Janice says

    Rob is right. People wrote the Bible, divinely inspired but not free from the errors to which we are prone. They wrote it to express their faith, and their view of reality based on that faith, not to record facts. The “history” that the Bible reveals to us is the history of their evolving faith and their understanding of how to live in faith– not a history of what physically transpired on the earth over thousands of years. The modern concept of fact-based, objective history that David and Mark want to lay upon the Biblical narratives just didn’t exist in anyone’s mind back when the first Hebrew scribes wrote down their oral traditions, then shaped and edited the books of the Old Testament, over centuries; nor when, as Rob notes, early Christians wrote down their conflicting versions of the gospels, each church attempting to “sell” their own faith to different audiences (some of which never made it into the codified New Testament, that didn’t even exist until three centuries after the life of Jesus). We know that some of them even wrote under false names to lend credibility to their own writings, a common practice in ancient times. All of this in no way changes the fact that every one of them, known or unknown, was a person of faith, struggling to act upon that faith and communicate it to others.

    It is not “faith in faith” and a lack of “reason” to make a distinction between the medium and the message here. Faith is a matter of the spirit, the soul, an individual’s relationship to the divine, whatever one’s religious tradition. For many of us who are Christian or Jewish, our relationship to God does not depend upon the literal accuracy of Biblical narratives, but is enriched by the living connection the Bible gives us with all of our spiritual forebears who have shaped our understanding of God. They communicated deep truths about human nature, and life, and their experience of God, in story form; yes, stories can be true, but not necessarily literally true. Some of the stories they told had a basis in actual events; some did not. Archaeology is helpful in showing us this, but it is (or should be) irrelevant when it comes to the question of how any one person experiences God.

    Insisting that the science behind archaeology must be distrusted wherever its findings conflict with a literal reading of the Bible is not “faith”, it is bibliolatry: worship of the literal text as an idol, instead of the God that inspired it. Faith itself is harder, requiring us to open our minds and our hearts to . Bibliolatry shows ignorance of how to read a rich spiritual text for deeper meaning, which is what the mishnah of the Jewish tradition, the parables of Jesus in the New Testament , and even the early Christian practice of lectio divina, are all about. It is bibliolatry that lacks reason, paradoxically insisting that only physically verifiable facts/events can be true, while disregarding the scientific process that has established that some “facts” in the Bible are not physically verified or verifiable.

    No contradiction exists between faith and archaeology, or any other science, if a person is capable of reading the Bible as an expression of faith– indeed, many faiths– and not a modern history and science text.

    The answer to “why do archaeology at all” is simple: so we can better understand people’s lives and experiences in Biblical times. They were our spiritual ancestors, and they wrote the scriptures to express their deepest sense of God and humanity as they experienced it. Why wouldn’t we want to know more about them?

  10. Jami says

    Dear Mr. Shanks,
    Your article has moved my soul. I have always held a fascination for archaeology since childhood; likewise, I have always loved GOD and his Christ. As I grew older, my spiritual journey was sought through historical events and prophetic teachings in the Bible. It is a literal account (my belief) of GOD’s direction to mankind, which in turn, brings us back to him. It is the bottom line. There is no need to strain at a gnat; only to swallow a camel.

  11. Ajay says

    Jaice is missing the point.
    I think some people would like not to see the truth as it is, and give credence to their own interpretation, so that they can live the way they please and not the way that God intends.

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