Restoration Quarterly Vol. 1 No. 1 (1957): 41-45


The Old Testament and Archaeology

John A. Scott


It is surprising that many of our brethren in taking the position that the New Covenant is alone valuable for us today, relegate the Old Testament study, sermons, lessons, etc., to the background. As a book of antiquity with laws binding only on the ancient Israelites, it is "no longer of great concern to us." With but a moment’s thought we are reminded that these things "were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages are come" (1 Cor. 10:11). Furthermore, nearly every book and recorded sermon in the New refers back to the Old. Indeed, it is impossible to understand adequately the Christian system without some knowledge from the Old Testament.

It must be recognized that the roots of doubt and skepticism frequently originate in the field of Old Testament. Genesis is considered unscientific in its record of origins. The authenticity of the historical records is challenged in some circles. Questions arise concerning dating, ages, authorship, consistency, etc. For example, if someone has found that the record of Genesis 1 does not agree with his high school science textbook, or if he cannot figure out who helped Noah get all those animals in the Ark, he is ready to discard the Bible. If he discards the Bible, he discards Christianity. Accepting his sincerity, we acknowledge that his problem originated in the Old Testament study — or lack of it.

It shall be my purpose, the Lord willing, in following articles to discuss many phases of Old Testament study, particularly with regard to Archaeology, and Textual and Historical Criticism.


Archaeology is a loaded word. To some it calls to mind the professor with a bone in one hand, a pick in the other and a goatee on his chin. The romance of digging for relics is magnified by newspaper accounts as glowing as gold strikes. In 1927 U. S. newspapers carried vivid reports of the discovery of the "Golden Ark" on Mount Nebo. Later, it was ascertained by a reliable archaeologist that the purported discoverer had visited Nebo once and was so afraid of the Arabs that he did not return.

Books have been written leaving the exaggerated impression that every turn of the spade brings additional "proof" of the inspiration of the Bible, and that anywhere you dig in Palestine or Mesopotamia evidence arises with ease of the Biblical scene. But the drudgery of "breaking" or translating an ancient language or dialect, the tedious hours of sorting and evaluating bits of pottery or scraps of clay tablets are not known. Neither is the fact that at times the "records of the rocks" produce material which appears to "conflict" with the Bible. Difficulties and problems arise upon interpreting the material found in the process of excavation. Synchronizing dates and rulers with the chronological system of the Bible disseminating from Usher, is another difficult problem.

What Is Archaeology?

"Archaeology" literally means a discourse on old things. It has to do with antiquity. The study and methods having been systematized, it has come into its own rite as one of the newer sciences. Actually it is both a science and an art. It involves the science of measuring and classifying bones. A basic knowledge of kinds of soil and rocks and minerals is implied. But more properly it belongs in the realm of history in that it is a systematic study of the remains of ancient civilizations. In historic times we have the written records of the ancients which involves a study of their language, customs, and laws, but in the pre-historic period our knowledge is based solely on the other remains, such as bones, bits of pottery, utensils, weapons, and remains of dwellings.

Sometimes by pure chance some very valuable find comes to light, like the "Isaiah Scrolls," but this is rare. At other times something is found because of searching for objects of monetary value, like jewelry in a tomb. But most of the time the remains are taken from the dust of the ages by expensive and painstaking methods.

The Method

First, funds must be secured for the enterprise. The amount depends on, how much work will be done. Two men may go to a site and sink a test trench in a few months with a minimum of time and laborers. Or a complete staff may go, including a photographer, engineer, archaeologist, paleontologist, epigrapher and stenographer and employ many native workmen for a six-month season each year for several years.

The site is selected with care, considering general accessibility, available labor, distance from supply sources, etc. The land must be purchased or rented and a permit secured from the state department of antiquities. This could involve months and much red tape.

Ancient cities were usually located on a high spot, or tell as the Arabs call them, for purposes of clear view over the surrounding countryside whether for grazing sheep, or travelers, or the approach of enemies. Usually the city was walled with mud bricks, or stone if it was accessible. The dwellings and buildings within were of sun baked brick, consequently they deteriorated quickly when the inhabitants were killed off, taken away captive or moved to a more fertile spot. The next settlers would level off the mound and build on top of the previous settlement so that with the passing of several generations or several thousand years, layers from different settlements, like a layer cake, accumulated and the mound became higher. (Beth-shan is over 70 feet high.)

Today in excavating one of these mounds where once an ancient city lay, great care must be taken as one digs by hand to take each load of dirt and sift it through a screen to one side from the mound to be sure nothing is missed. Thus layer by layer it is lowered to its original virgin soil. Obviously, the farther down one digs the older the civilization would be which occupied the site. Different nationalities at different ages had their own distinctive designs for pottery or methods of making tools. Once the archaeologist learns the types of pottery for the different ages he can find a small piece of clay pot and tell something about the people who made it. Bones are an excellent means of telling the kind of people who lived at the site at a given time. Animal bones indicate what they ate and what domestic animals they had. The time of the arrival of the camel or horse has played a major role in chronology. The presence of diseases such as arthritis and abscesses in the teeth further reveals life on the passing scene. Figurines of stone or clay and loom-weights and spindle-whorls will indicate how the people looked and what they wore. Hair-pins, rings, eye shadow brushes (wooden), salve-vases, cockle-shells with paint of various colors reveal their beauty aids. For the men fish-hooks, net-sinkers, hoes, plough-shares, sickles and grindstones tell the story of the work-a-day world. Methods of burial reveal something about their religious beliefs. Thus, even in pre-historic times before men wrote, they left their records for the modern student of history.

Naturally, in the process of excavation, detailed records must be kept which reveal in what layer and where on that layer each bit of evidence is found. Some layers are quite deep and have many artifacts and bones, others are very thin and leave only scanty evidence. Charred timbers may reveal a fire or bits of armor and weapons may indicate that it was destroyed in war. The evidence of erosion may indicate that it was abandoned to the weather for many years. A sudden change in population can be ascertained indicating a conquest and resettlement. Drawings of wall positions must be made before they are removed.

In the period since 3000 B.C., there are more and more written records which are much more revealing. First to consider, the language and dialect are important whether Sumerian (non-semitic) or Akkadian (semitic, including Assyrian and Babylonian) or Hittite or one of many other possibilities. Second, the time of its writing and the author, together with the circumstances surrounding it, are instructive. Finally, of course, is the content of the inscription. It may be an exaggerated report from a bragging king, or simply a memento on a bit of clay, a personal letter, a legal document, or. a court record.

All of these, and many others, are factors which must be taken into account when studying archaeology or comparing its finds with the Bible. Many finds yield astonishing support of the Biblical record. Others, or at least the interpretations of others, produce apparent conflicts with the supposed meaning of the Bible. Sometimes the traditional interpretation of a passage may prove to be in error as archaeology corrects the commentator. In other instances the archaeological record is corrected by the Bible.

For example: Isaiah 20:1 states that the Tartan of Sargon captured the city of Ashdod. Some of the early higher critics regarded this as a corrupt text because Sargon wasn’t known . . . to them’. So the critics "corrected" the Bible. Later, Sargon’s records came to light and he became quite well known for that time. So archaeology "corrected" the critics. Then this actual record of the battle with Ashdod came to light but stated that Sargon went to Ashdod (not the Tartan). But enough is known of the habit of the kings to take credit for what their commanders did that all the scholars are agreed that the Bible is undoubtedly correct in saying that it was the Tartan who did the dirty work while Sargon took the credit. Thus, in the last analysis, the Bible corrected archaeology.

But in all fairness we must recognize that not every difficulty is answered yet. Some aren’t that easy. For example, the inscription of King Mesha on the Moabite Stone does not agree perfectly with 2 Kings 3. Sennacherib’s account of the siege of Jerusalem is not precisely in accord with 2 Kings 18, 19. But this does not indicate that the Bible is in error. Although archaeology is relatively precise in that it views things as they are (or remain) — yet it has its weaknesses.

First, with regard to finding the material at the mound. It is possible to overlook something that makes a great difference in the total picture. This was done at Meroe, in the Sudan, Egypt, some years ago. Dr. Reisner found in an old excavation a number of pyramid tombs which had been overlooked by previous excavators. This proved to be quite revealing with regard to the coming of the Ethiopian Pharaohs in the seventh century B.C. and how they brought in Greek art and culture which influenced the royal house even as late as Candace in the days of Philip, a deacon of Jerusalem. Again, in burying a person, suppose the grave diggers are particularly energetic on this day and bury a person two layers beneath their civilization and the skull of a mongoloid is found with a "mediterranean" setting. If no other indications were found this would produce conflict with regard to the type of people who were living on a’ given layer.

A piece of pot or a cylinder seal may wash down to a much older level and be deceiving if enough other material is not found to counteract it.

A second source of error is observed in analyzing the written ma-War bulletins even in present days are often biased. A stone cutter may make a mistake in his copying. A historian’s account may be terials. A king will magnify his deeds in order to glorify himself more objective than an eye witness report.

A third source of error is in the archaeologist’s translation. His copy may be bad or his knowledge necessarily limited. Once a translation is ascertained to be accurate then the interpretation of it may be inaccurate. Too many conclusions may be based on too little information. One must always be ready to distinguish between fact and interpretation when comparing archaeological material with the Bible. Excavators are human and sometimes have their own biases. But so are Biblical translators, though the margin of error is far greater with the former than the latter, in modern times.

Speaking of modern times and preconceived ideas being so dominant that they bias one, this story comes to light. Some years ago an Illinois farmer, who was a Baptist, got into an argument with his neighbor who was a Methodist Sunday school superintendent on the subject of immersion or sprinkling (bless them)! The Methodist, realizing that the evidence was growing thin for his own case, in a moment of exasperation said that there would be no place in Jerusalem where the multitude at Pentecost could be baptized "by immersion." Not to be outdone for want of evidence to the contrary, the Baptist asked him to look after his farm while he traveled to Jerusalem to see. He was stabbed, robbed, and nearly died of dysentery but he found the Mamilla Pool at Jerusalem which could have held the entire multitude at once. His mission successfully accomplished, lie returned with a glowing report. The fact is, that the Mamilla Pool dates from Mediaeval times, but archaeologists agree that there were undoubtedly water reservoirs large enough to do the job even farther back than the time of Christ.

"To seek for the truth, for the sake of knowing the truth, is one of the noblest objects a man can live for."

— Dean Inge

(To be continued)

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