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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: The Amazing Historical Accuracy of the Bible

Don Stewart :: Does Archaeology Have Its Limitations?

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Does Archaeology Have Its Limitations?

The Amazing Historical Accuracy of the Bible – Question 5

While the science of archaeology is helpful in providing background information for the Scriptures, it has its limitations. These limitations must be understood and appreciated. They include the following:

1. Archaeology Is Not an Exact Science

Unlike physics or mathematics, archaeology is not an exact science. There are subjective elements in the analysis and interpretation of the data. Two people, using the same data, may arrive at different conclusions. In fact, this is exactly what we find with many of the sites that have been excavated. This should make us cautious about citing what a certain archaeologist concluded since their conclusions can never be placed on the same level as a mathematical certainty.

2. Everything That Has Been Left Behind Has Been Left by Accident

It must be remembered that everything that has survived from the ancient world has survived by accident. The material was not purposely left or hidden to be found thousands of years later. Consequently, what we find on a particular site is only there because it was the last remnants left by the particular peoples. With few exceptions, there was no plan to leave this material behind.

3. Only a Small Amount of Data from the Past Has Been Recovered

This point cannot be overemphasized. The discipline of biblical archaeology only deals with an extremely small amount of material which is potentially available for study. Our knowledge of the ancient world is tremendously limited. Only a small amount of the material that once existed is presently available for study. There are a number of points that should be made.

To begin with, very little of what was made or written in the ancient world still survives. Comparatively little is known of ancient written works, or the sites of ancient cities. For example, one Roman writer complained that it would take a lifetime just to go through the catalogues of books that were available to him! We compare this statement to the actual fragments of manuscripts of ancient writings that still exist and we realize how little of what was written has still survived.

The same is true of ancient sites. Most of the major biblical sites have been identified. However, most of the other sites mentioned in Scripture have not been found or identified. Furthermore, less than two percent of all the known archaeological sites pertaining to the Bible that have been discovered have been excavated in any meaningful way. Of those two percent that have been excavated to any degree, only a small amount of the findings have been published.

Since this is the case, it is not reasonable to expect the events in Scripture to always be confirmed by some secular source—either written or archaeological. In fact, it is amazing the amount of support for Scripture that has been found in the written records of the archaeological finds. Therefore, we should not wait for the Bible to be confirmed by some secular source before it can be believed. This is not reasonable.

4. There Were Poor Excavating Techniques in the Beginning

The practice of archaeology involves digging up sites. This involves destruction. Once a site has been excavated it can never be re-excavated. When the discipline of archaeology was first practiced, the techniques used for excavating sites were poor and much needless destruction took place. Unfortunately, these sites cannot be re-investigated. All the data is forever lost.

5. At Times There Is Conflicting Evidence

There is also the matter of conflicting evidence that is discovered. Sometimes a site will yield evidence which conflicts with other finds that have been made on that site or on another site. Consequently, more information is needed. This fact should make it plain that all of the evidence needs to be evaluated before authoritative statements can be made. The problem may take decades to clear up, or it may never be cleared up. Such is the nature of archaeological evidence.

6. Some Sites May Be Misidentified

There is also the possibility that a particular site has been misidentified. In fact, we know that this is the case with certain sites.

For example, one ancient mound, Tel Beit Mirsim, was once identified with the biblical site of Debir. This identification caused problems because some of the features did not match up with Scripture. Today, this is no longer the case. Debir is now identified with Khirbet Rabud and the topography matches exactly with the biblical description. There is no contradiction.

There are other biblical sites where the exact location is hotly debated. This includes the location of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah and the city of Ai. Scholars disagree as to whether or not these, as well as other ancient sites, have been properly identified.

In the case of Ai there is much that is at stake. The popular identification of Ai, a place called Et-tell, is at odds with the biblical record—there is no evidence that it existed at the time of Joshua. If this is true, then the biblical record is in error.

However, there are numerous scholars who do not believe that the traditional site of Ai is correct. They offer one or two other alternative sites for this ancient biblical city. These alternative sites fit the details of the record that is found in Scripture. Yet the exact identification of the biblical city of Ai is still uncertain. Therefore, we wait for more information.

7. Some Sites Have Been Destroyed

There is also the fact that a number of biblical sites have been destroyed before any archaeological excavation could take place. For example, in the city of Jerusalem there are a number of churches that have been built over biblical sites. The biblical site was destroyed in making way for the new structure. Consequently, much, if not all, of the original site has been forever lost. Indeed, Jerusalem itself has been destroyed and rebuilt some twenty-six times in its history. Obviously, such destruction makes it difficult to recover and reconstruct how it looked at a particular time in history.

In other cases, such things as time, the forces of nature and the looting by ancient people have removed or destroyed much of what could have been discovered. Therefore, many of the places and things that the Bible talks about have no chance of ever being investigated.

8. There Have Been Changes in Interpretation of the Evidence

There have been instances where the original interpretation of what was found was later changed. Further investigation has caused a reversal of what was originally thought.

An example of this is the excavations at Jericho. In 1907, when it was first excavated, it was alleged that there was no occupied city at the time of Joshua. This was refuted by later excavations done in the 1930’s. However, in the 1950’s, further investigation again cast doubt upon the biblical record.

Yet this has again changed. Now, as a result of further study and the publication of the work done in the 1930’s, there are excellent reasons to believe the biblical account is correct in attributing the destruction of the city to the time of Joshua and with the details matching the biblical account.

This is another reason that archaeological data should be used with great caution. This should also give us pause in too readily accepting anyone’s findings.

9. There Have Been Hoaxes in Biblical Archaeology

Unfortunately, there have also been a number of hoaxes in the history of archaeological investigation pertaining to the Bible. While hoaxes do not happen that often, they do happen. We should be aware that they have happened in the past, and they can happen again. Therefore, any announcement of an amazing new discovery that pertains to the world of the Bible should be treated with caution.

10. There Are Many Issues Unsettled

There are a number of issues in Biblical research that remain unsettled. Consequently, we await new data.

Sometimes the new data only makes the issue more confusing. This is another limitation of the science of archaeology. Archaeology has yet to give its final word on a number of important matters and because of the small amount of evidence that has been uncovered or can be uncovered, will never give a definite answer on a number of topics.

11. Many Events, by Nature, Are Not Provable

There is something else that needs to be considered. There are a number of biblical events, because of their very nature, that archaeology, or ancient written records, cannot prove. These events would not have left any physical evidence behind. Consequently, there is nothing to be recovered.

Therefore, while the science of archaeology can help with many biblical issues and place the events, places, things and people in a historical context, it does have a number of limitations and these limitations need to be appreciated.

Summary – Question 5
Does Biblical Archaeology Have Limitations?

The role of archaeology is limited. There have been poor techniques used in the past. In addition, some of the evidence that has been unearthed is conflicting. There is also a great deal of subjectivity in the interpretation of what is found. Hoaxes have also been an unfortunate part of the story. Many issues remain unsettled, while others are non-provable. Therefore, while archaeology can be a benefit to the study of Scripture, there are a number of limitations to its usefulness.

What Are Some Important Things to Understand about Archaeology and the Bible? ← Prior Section
Is the Old Testament Historically Accurate? Next Section →
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