Archaeology is approaching a systematic science and discipline of recovering the past by finding and examining ancient sites. These sites are then carefully sifted through in order to uncover buildings, written documents, artifacts, and natural features that may shed light upon any particular period in the past. But archaeology is also an art, often depending upon the gifts and abilities of specific individuals who must make judgments, often based on little evidence.
Archaeology has been used as one way into the world of the Bible, into the ancient cultural, historical, political, economic, sociological, and linguistic settings when the events, peoples, places, and writings (at least the early sources, both oral and written) first appeared.
“Biblical archaeology” is not a special kind of archaeology, but merely refers to the exploration and examination of artifacts that touch upon the biblical world (today, especially, Israel, Iran, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the Sinai Peninsula). Peter Craigie defines biblical archaeology as “an approach by the student of the Old Testament to the findings of Middle Eastern archaeology in order to discover what light may be shed on the biblical text” (p. 81).
Many scholars and archaeologists no longer use the term, and since c. 1970 archaeology has taken on a much more cosmopolitan character and approach to making use of its data. Specialists from many fields are employed to obtain the broadest picture of the archaeological data possible. This is sometimes called “new archaeology,” and involves many specialists from various disciplines. A new “secularization” of archaeology has occurred during the past thirty years, as it has been necessary for archaeologists to appeal to government and other public agencies in order to obtain funds to continue the increasingly expensive process of modern archaeological procedures.
The scientific axioms, postulates, and practices of modern archaeology are relatively recent. Only at the end of the nineteenth century were these procedures created and adapted. And these tedious procedures were applied rigorously only well into the twentieth century. Two major processes were established: stratigraphy and topographical analysis. The first, stratigraphy, entails the careful identification and classification of the different levels encountered in a dig. The second, sometimes ceramic typology, entails the careful recording and description in an orderly scientific fashion of objects found in the various strata. Improved methods of dating the various layers and artifacts have been developed during the past two decades. Additional help is gained in dating items and layers by comparing objects found in one location with those from another.
Archaeology gives us another “window” besides the various written texts of the OT and of the ancient world through which to observe the various facets of the world of the Bible. The discovery of ancient Ras esh Shamra on the coast of modern Syria and the Ugaritic clay tablets discovered there in 1928-29, the discovery of ancient Ebla at modern Tell Mardik (begun in 1964) and finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls (1947-) are perhaps the best known “finds” that have benefited from the latest archaeological methods. These finds, each in its own way, have enhanced our understanding and illumination of many different areas of OT study: culture, history, linguistics, philology, epigraphy, religion studies, sociological issues, political systems, military issues, ancient warfare, temples, cities, and more.
It is important to remember that archaeology does not “prove” the theological message of the Bible, though it certainly can in some sense support certain aspects and features and claims of the biblical text. Archaeology does help establish that the OT scriptures are from a time when and a place where real people, real cultures, real languages were involved. God is a God who speaks and acts in history as well as in his own unique sphere of existence. Further, archaeology serves to control theories that are formed without a proper reference to facts that can be known about a particular era or location. On the other hand, archaeological “truth” is itself often incomplete and, to a large extent, always subjective. Written documents take pride of place among the artifacts discovered. But probably no more than three percent of over five thousand sites located and surveyed in Palestine alone have been systematically and scientifically examined. Much remains to be done.For a succinct summary of great archaeological discoveries relating to the Bible, see The Wesley Bible (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1990), 1980-2000. See The NIV Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1985) for a list of ancient texts relating to the OT.