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Blog / Why Biblical Archaeology Is Important for Your Bible Reading: An Interview with Randall Price

Why Biblical Archaeology Is Important for Your Bible Reading: An Interview with Randall Price

Randall PriceArchaeology uncovers buried civilizations. What does this contribute to our understanding of the Bible written so long ago by so many different people in so many different cultures?

Bible Gateway interviewed J. Randall Price, who, along with H. Wayne House, is the author of Zondervan Handbook of Biblical Archaeology (Zondervan, 2017).

[See the Bible Gateway Blog post, Latest Biblical Archaeology Research]

Explain what biblical archaeology is.

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Randall Price: Archaeology in general is the recovery and study of the material culture of past civilizations. Biblical archaeology is as an application of the science of archaeology to the field of biblical studies. Through the comparison and integration of Scripture with the evidence of history and culture derived from archaeology, new insights into the biblical context of people and events, and sometimes the interpretation of the text itself, are possible. In this way archaeology serves as a necessary tool for biblical exegesis and for apologetic concerns.

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What is your personal and professional archaeological experience?

Randall Price: I studied biblical archaeology in seminary as well as the archaeology of Israel at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. During my doctoral work at the University of Texas under archaeologist Harold Liebowitz, I participated in excavation at the Iron Age site of Tel Yinam (in the Galilee), served as a research assistant for Dr. Liebowitz in preparing the archaeological material for his book on Daily Life in Ancient Israel, and taught a course with him in biblical archaeology.

After I received my PhD, I was asked to follow Dr. James Strange in the excavation of the Qumran Plateau (Dead Sea, Israel). I had been a part of the initial work at Qumran in 1996, but served as Director of Excavations from 2002-2102. During that time I also worked at the Kotel Excavations (Old City, Jerusalem) and at the Temple Mount Sifting Project (Emeq Tzurim, Jerusalem), as well as four years in eastern Turkey. I taught courses on the Dead Sea Scrolls in my faculty position in Archaeology and Biblical History at Trinity Southwest University and at Veritas Evangelical Seminary.

Since 2007 I have taught biblical archaeology and conducted field classes in Israel as a professor at Liberty University. In 2017, I began work as co-director (with Oren Gutfeld) of the new Operation Scroll Project seeking to locate and excavate potential Dead Sea Scroll caves in the Judean Desert. I’ve also published four popular and two academic books on biblical archaeology as well as contributed archaeological articles to the New Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible and archaeological articles in two apologetic handbooks as well as academic journals.

Adding to my experience is that of Dr. H. Wayne House, a New Testament scholar with wide experience in the lands of the Bible, who also served as author of the Zondervan Handbook of Biblical Archaeology.

How can biblical archaeology add deeper meaning and more reality to a person’s experience with the Bible?

Randall Price: The Bible is an ancient text from an ancient context. We live thousands of miles and thousands of years away from that context, which also represents different cultures. Archaeology is a modern means of revealing both the lost record of the ancient world (inscriptions and manuscript evidence), and the historical and social world of the Bible. While the purpose of archaeology is not to prove (or disprove) the historicity of the people and events recorded in Scripture, it can help immeasurably to confirm the historical reality and accuracy of the Bible and to demonstrate that faith has a factual foundation. Moreover, it serves to illustrate and illuminate the background and context of Scripture so that one may have a realistic faith in the biblical accounts.

What caution should be exercised with archaeological claims?

Randall Price: Archaeology is a science, and like all sciences, has its limitations. For one, archaeological discoveries made in the past centuries have been reappraised and reinterpreted by more recent findings. Some of the older positive claims, as well as most of the negative criticisms of the Bible, have changed, usually for the better. For another, the actual amount of archaeological evidence is quite small. It has been estimated that less than 1% of archaeological sites in the Holy Land have been excavated, and those that have been excavated have only been partially excavated. Therefore, it would be unwise to reject some biblical persons and events simply because we lack archaeological evidence to confirm them. On the other hand, the relatively small amount of data we have gleaned from archaeology has proved to be confirmatory of the biblical account.

What are some limitations of archaeology?

Randall Price: Archaeological excavation is still in its infancy and it’s having a hard time keeping pace with the destruction to archaeological sites as a result of construction expansion, wars, terrorism, and black-market looting. As a result, more of the past may be disappearing than is being exposed by archaeology. Even when a site is excavated (rarely completely), it may take years to decades before the results are fully published (the final report on Jericho took 35 years and the Dead Sea Scroll fragments from Cave 4 took over 40 years). And even when published, they may be in a language or in a technical journal that the average person cannot read. Also, in a site such as New Testament Bethsaida, there are rival claims being made by archaeologists and it may take additional years before the dust of scholarly debate settles and one site is confirmed. Therefore, it’s never safe to make archaeology a priority over the Bible or to expect that in one’s lifetime—or in many lifetimes—all of the historical and chronological problems in the Bible will be solved by archaeology.

How does archaeology offer credence to the Bible’s veracity?

Randall Price: The claim of the Bible’s divine inspiration and infallibility must be accepted by faith, but, archaeology can offer assistance in verifying the historicity of the Bible and that its message was transmitted accurately. If its messengers were competent in reporting matters of history, often as eyewitnesses, should not we respect that they would be equally reliable in matters concerning the faith? In Luke 1:2-4, the apostle affirms to his readers that even when he was not an eyewitness, that he received the facts from eyewitnesses and investigated everything carefully so his readers would know the exact truth. In the same way, the careful use of archaeological evidence can be used today to confirm the accurate context of the biblical writers, giving us new assurance of the trustworthiness of their message.

How is your book organized?

Randall Price: We organized the Zondervan Handbook of Biblical Archaeology to follow both the Bible and history.

After an introduction aimed to address issues of concern to biblical students, such as the problem of pseudo-archaeology on the internet, the use of the term “Palestine” and “Palestinian” with reference to ancient Israel and the Jewish People, the different dating systems used in archaeology, a method for using archaeology in biblical studies, and explaining the historical significance of each archaeological period, the contents take a book-by-book approach starting with the Old Testament, transitioning to the Intertestamental period (with a focus on the Temple and the Dead Sea Scrolls), to the New Testament.

The purpose of this format is so the reader can access the archaeological data with respect to biblical texts and understand how this data makes a difference in interpretation. This approach is also enhanced by the use of information sidebars, numerous charts, maps, and a glossary of archaeological terms. In addition, a full-color format with over 240 photos further organizes the contents visually.

How can a person use your book alongside the reading of the Bible?

Randall Price: The book is intended as a resource to be consulted over and over again as needed. The book-by-book approach along with the Scripture index was designed to allow the user to easily find passages of interest. Because of the publisher’s page limitation, only certain passages in each book of the Bible could be addressed; however, if as one reads their Bible they’re aware of the passages that received treatment, they can find useful commentary to explain or illustrate what they’re reading.

Some articles in the media have questioned the appearance of camels in the Bible? Why and how do you answer them?

Randall Price: The issue relates to the appearance of camels in the Bible during the Patriarchal period, around 2000 BC (compare Gen. 24:64; 37:25). Critics often state that the camel was not domesticated for another 500-1000 years, and therefore this is an anachronism (a statement misplaced in time) indicating that the account was written much later in time when camels were domesticated.

While the evidence may support a lack of domestication for the dromedary (single-hump camel), this does not hold for the Bactrian (two-hump) camel, which archaeological evidence demonstrates had a much earlier domestication. Old Babylonian animal lexical lists, finds of clay camels attached to miniature clay carts in Southern Turkmenistan reveal that the Bactrian camel was already employed in the area by 3000 BC. Closer to the Patriarchal period (18th century BC), a cylinder seal from Syria depicts two figures riding astride a Bactrian camel. Given this evidence from archaeology, there is no reason to suggest that the biblical account is in error.

What are three examples of key archeological discoveries you include in your book?

Randall Price: The Zondervan Handbook of Biblical Archaeology attempts to prioritize the latest archaeological findings, and in that light, let me mention a new discovery in each of three periods.

In the Old Testament, the site of Gobekli Tepe in eastern Turkey, is one of the earliest sites known to archaeology. It represents a megalithic worship center replete with standing stones decorated with animals and priests with upraised hands. We argue that this site, coming from the time immediately after the Flood and only a couple of hundred miles from the traditional landing spot of Noah’s Ark, may tie that event with the renewal of corporate worship, indicating that such worship did not evolve as a social construct, but was evident from the beginning of civilization.

In the Intertestamental period, the Dead Sea Scrolls stand out as a leading contribution of the Jewish People to our knowledge of the Old Testament text and the beliefs of Judaism before the time of Jesus. These scrolls, which represent our oldest copies of the Bible as well as Jewish religious and sectarian writings from that time, were hidden in jars inside of caves in the region. Recently, new caves have been discovered that contained jars and the search is again on to find more scrolls that will give us greater insight into the beliefs and culture of the Second Temple period into which Jesus was born.

In the New Testament, newly discovered graffiti on walls in the ancient agora of Smyrna (mentioned in the book of Revelation) shows examples of people referring to other people by numbers instead of names. This provides an interesting parallel to the statement in Revelation 13:18 where the number 666 is said to be the number of a man (Antichrist).

How has archaeology deepened your own faith?

Randall Price: As I’ve studied archaeological discovery, what impacts me most is that, despite the ravages of time and the destructiveness of mankind, so much remains in the archaeological record that bears witness to the Bible. God could have simply insisted that we take his Word on faith, and for most of history people have done just that. But he’s allowed these remnants of the past to be preserved, especially for our critical age, in which extra-biblical physical evidence has become crucial in the defense of the faith. While my faith has not depended on such evidences, they have continued to confirm and strengthen my faith and in particular to bring me closer to the world of the Bible to have a realistic faith that’s informed by facts rather than imagination.

What is a favorite Bible passage of yours and why?

Randall Price: My life verse is James 1:12: “Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life, which the Lord has promised to those who love Him.” My life has had many trials and I’ve learned to look at them as part of God’s schooling that will end with my graduation. The motivation is to live well and continue to love the Lord, in spite of the difficulties that I cannot understand, so that on graduation day I will find God’s full approval.

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

Randall Price: As students of the Bible we should embrace the results of archaeology and encourage new archaeological discovery. This field needs an army of archaeologists to be raised up in this generation to both teach and do excavation in the lands of the Bible. The result will be a greater knowledge of the context of Scripture that will help future students and scholars produce even better handbooks of biblical archaeology.

Bio: Randall Price, (ThM, Dallas Seminary, PhD, University of Texas, and graduate work at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem) is the distinguished research professor in the School of Divinity at Liberty University—where he has taught biblical archaeology since 2007—and is curator of Liberty Biblical Museum. He directed excavations on the Qumran Plateau from 2002-2012 and co-directed the excavation of Cave 12 at Qumran (2017) as a part of the new Operation Scroll. He is author of several popular books on archaeology including The Stones Cry Out: What Archaeology Reveals About the Truth of the Bible, Rose Guide to the Temple, and The Dead Sea Scrolls, and contributed archaeological entries to the New Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible.

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Filed under Books, History, Interviews