Biblical Archaeology: Believe the Biblical Writer or the Physical Evidence?

If, in a biblical story, the biblical writer appears to contradict the physical evidence as revealed by archaeology, then, in my humble opinion, one should tend to believe the physical evidence—the discoveries of the archaeologists—not the biblical writer.

Why?

Because physical evidence tends to be more reliable than personal testimony and hearsay.

Just as you wouldn’t convict a man of murder who was tagged by an eyewitness as having done it if the DNA evidence did not also finger him, so you shouldn’t believe, for example, that the children of Israel, in their puported millions, wandered for 40 years in the desert wilderness of Sinai 3,200 years ago, if the archaeology says this never happened.

And the archaeology says it never happened. So there’s really no good reason to believe it.

That was easy, wasn’t it?

Can the sort of straightforward critical thinking that I just engaged in above resolve, for all reasonable people, what is essentially a religious matter?

Should it?

Or am I missing something in my argument—an unstated premise or axiom that changes the way that such a matter should be framed and reasoned about?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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6 Responses to Biblical Archaeology: Believe the Biblical Writer or the Physical Evidence?

  1. dcyates says:

    I wonder, where is the physical archaeological evidence for the assassination of Julius Caesar?

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      That’s easy. There is, for example, coinage that switches images of Caesar that matches the history. Rome is a city we can locate the substrata of, etc.

      Your resolution is too narrow. If we couldn’t find the ancient city of Rome in our archaeological digging, or evidence of its empire, the Caesar story would take on the quality of a story told about a king of Atlantis.

      The wilderness story entails literally millions of human beings wandering in Sinai for forty years without a trace of archaeological evidence. That’s the problem with the biblical story. What ought to have generated a wealth of archaeology produces none.

      • David Yates says:

        Santi, the change of images on ancient coins does not begin to constitute compelling evidence for Caesar’s assassination. It simply indicates a change in rulership. In fact, even that is not necessarily accurate. If we were to use ancient Roman coins as evidence of historical events in the manner in which you seem to suggest, there are several coins that date to ca. 36 BC that have Julius Caesar’s image on one side, and the image of Octavian Augustus on the reverse. Should we then, from this, argue that Caesar wasn’t assassinated on 15 March, 44 BC, after all, but rather survived to co-rule with his adopted son (but really, great-nephew) at least as late as 36 BC? (What’s more, there are even coins bearing these images that date to between AD 81 – 96!)

        Additionally, Santi, I know you know that it’s a well established rule of logic that, ‘absence of evidence does not equal evidence of absence’. Nonetheless, as I’ve already noted several months ago on this very blog: while perhaps not ample, there is at least sufficient epigraphic, geomorphological, and archaeological evidence for the biblical account of an Israelite exodus and subsequent sojourn in the Sinai wilderness. These have been ably presented in James Hoffmeier’s “Israel in Egypt: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition” (OUP, 1996). (Note, by the way, that that’s “OUP” as in Oxford University Press; hardly what one would call a publishing organ of knuckle-dragging evangelical fundamentalism.)

        Furthermore, excavations of the Nile Delta throughout the last half of the 20th-century reveals the presence there of a considerably large Semitic population during the period between roughly 1650 – 1525 BC (these though should not be construed as hard beginning and end dates, but instead simply reflect the general time period for which we have fairly definite physical evidence). And then, sometime after 1525 BC, they weren’t there. So, at the very least, their disappearance requires some sort of explanation. Given that at one moment in history Semites were there, and then at another they weren’t, this alleged mass migration might plausibly be otherwise dubbed something of an… I dunno… an “exodus”?

        (And finally, no, Santi, very few Bible scholars today would argue that the Israelite exodus consisted of “literally millions of human beings.” We live in an age of science where we reflexively both demand and expect a very precise use of numbers. This simply was not the case in the ANE, where, besides their respective quantitative values, numbers also bore symbolic meanings. Hence the distinct repetition of certain numbers found throughout the Bible; such as 5, 7, 12, and 40 — along with their multiples.)

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        I would direct you to Dever’s book concerning the Israelites (published by Eerdmans). Dever is certainly among the top tier of respected biblical archaeologists in the world:

        http://www.amazon.com/Were-Early-Israelites-Where-They/dp/0802844162/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1367929304&sr=8-1&keywords=where+did+the+israelites+come+from

        As to the Oxford Press book, I’m quite certain it’s not defending the biblical account to the degree of detail that would in any way satisfy the assumptions of the evangelical or fundamentalist. And I’m quite certain that the author’s colleagues are rolling their eyes if he has suggested that, say, there is evidence of a destroyed army of Egyptians at the bottom of the Red Sea or that hundreds of thousands, or even tens of thousands, let alone millions, spent forty years in the Sinai.

        If the story of the Exodus is true, millions would have left Egypt. See the first couple of chapters of Exodus to absorb the magnitude of the claim and events associated with it. Yet there is no indication of such a migration of forty years in the Sinai whatsoever, nor is there indication of an invasion of Canaan. Israelite story telling may have some historical memory behind it, but it is inflated and distorted.

        You’re not claiming otherwise, are you?

        As to Caesar, you are comparing apples to oranges. No miraculous or significant religious claims are being attached to the accounts of his assassination. The general event can be assumed to be true, and the details may well be false, but if it is completely made up, we at least know there was a Roman Empire, You cannot say that about the Exodus. Not only the fine details, but even the broadest claims associated with them (such as that there were millions of Israelites in Egypt for hundreds of years living in slavery, then they migrated to Canaan) have no evidence supporting them.

        As to the “absence of evidence does not indicate evidence of absence” canard, I’m not sure what to say except that it’s not reasonable to believe claims with much confidence absent evidence. And this is especially the case where evidence is lacking where it ought to be abundantly present.

        Just because something is logically possible, one shouldn’t hang hopes on it if the evidence persistently rebuts you (either by its absence in places where it should be or by suggesting that things are otherwise than you want to believe).

        –Santi

  2. Alan says:

    This question is not new. St Augustine of Hippo, in ‘the Literal Meaning of Genesis’ (roughly sixteen hundred years ago) says we should believe the evidence. Paraphrasing: ‘Christians make themselves look like fools claiming a literal interpretation of the bible which contradicts the evidence. Understanding the bible requires serious contemplation, not dogmatic acceptance.’

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