ARCHAEOLOGY Throughout human history, each generation has left behind all sorts of objects that enable people of later generations to learn about life in former times. The science of archaeology, which is concerned with the study of ancient findings, is particularly useful in helping us understand the history, cultures, religions and languages of the biblical era. Although the truth of the Bible is not dependent upon such findings, archaeology has confirmed the reliability of the biblical record.


Many features of the ancient world can be readily investigated, because they are still standing and exposed to public view (e.g. the pyramids of Egypt). Others can hardly be investigated at all, because they lie beneath present-day settlements (e.g. the city of Damascus). The ruins that lie buried and can be excavated are some of the best sources of information on ancient civilizations .

As archaeologists dig into ruins, they are aware that human occupation of a site may have stretched over hundreds or thousands of years. When a town was destroyed, whether by conquest, earthquake, storm or flood, the usual practice for the new generation of builders was simply to level off the ruins and build on top of the flattened rubble and dirt. This rebuilding pattern may have been repeated a number of times over a long period. The result is that in many places today, the site of an ancient town is covered by a mound (Arabic: tell), which looks like a small tableland. These mounds are a rich source of archaeological information. Since archaeological investigation takes much time and money, archaeologists are usually able to investigate only a small area of a buried town. They try to choose those parts of the town that are likely to produce the most worthwhile results, such as palaces, government buildings, temples and selected houses. Beginning at the top level of the mound, they may dig down progressively through the layers, gradually forming a trench that cuts through the mound. The layers reveal successively more ancient eras of the town’s history. By carefully recording and investigating everything they find, archaeologists will in time be able to suggest the era and setting for different findings. Many features help to indicate which period is being investigated. These include the nature of the soil, the kind of pottery, building characteristics, metal articles, coins, jewellery and any inscriptions or other writings (see also WRITING). Scientists are often able to calculate the approximate date of animal and plant substances by using a technique known as Carbon-14. With knowledge continually increasing in all areas of science, archaeologists can call upon more and more expert help from research facilities all over the world. They are also aware that they must constantly review their earlier conclusions as more information becomes available.

Stone Age and Bronze

Age In biblical archaeology, the successive periods from prehistory to the fourth century BC are usually classified according to the successive technologies (Stone, Bronze, Iron).

From the fourth century BC into the Christian era, the archaeological periods are usually classified according to successive empires (Greek, Roman). The Stone Age, which covers an indefinite period extending back beyond 4000 BC, is divided into Palaeolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic Ages, meaning respectively Old Stone, Middle Stone and New Stone Ages. The next eight hundred years, referred to as the Chalcolithic or Copper/Stone Age, leads to the Bronze Age, which lasted two thousand years from 3200 to 1200 BC. Much of the early part of the biblical record fits into the Bronze Age. It is not the concern of the Bible to provide a detailed history of the world. The Bible’s chief concern is to show how God, in a gracious response to human rebellion, provided a way of salvation. God’s plan of salvation began its major development with Abraham. God promised that from Abraham he would make a people, who would receive Canaan as their homeland and who would be God’s channel of salvation to the world. Abraham enters the Bible story about the 20th century BC. The countless centuries before Abraham are passed over in only a few chapters (Genesis 1-11), whereas the seven centuries from Abraham to the end of the Bronze Age are spread across more than two hundred chapters (Genesis 12 to the opening chapters of Judges).

Out of the huge amount of archaeological evidence from the Bronze Age, certain discoveries have been particularly helpful in understanding some of the customs, laws, languages and other social features relevant to the Pentateuch. Important discoveries from the ancient Mesopotamian towns of Ebla (23rd century BC), Mari (18th century BC) and Nuzi (15th century BC) produce a picture of life in the region that is entirely consistent with the picture given in the biblical narratives of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and their descendants. Material from Egypt fits in harmoniously with the biblical accounts of Joseph’s governorship and the Israelites’ building of store-cities (see EGYPT).

Ancient treaty documents between overlords and their subjects are in a similar form to the covenant between the God of Israel and his people (see COVENANT). Findings along the route of Israel’s journey to, and conquest of, Canaan confirm and enlighten the biblical record.

Iron Age

The early days of Israel’s settlement in Canaan correspond with the beginning of the Iron Age. In the biblical history, the Iron Age saw the establishment of Israel’s monarchy, the division of the kingdom, the subsequent captivities, the destruction of Jerusalem and the subjection of the Jews, first to Babylon and then to Persia. The Iron Age, which began about 1200 BC, lasted almost nine hundred years to the stirring conquests of Alexander the Great about 330 BC. Archaeological information from the Iron Age is enormous. The sites of many Israelite towns have been excavated, some with spectacular results. Outside Israel, discoveries at the ancient site of Ugarit (modern Ras Shamra) on Syria’s Mediterranean coast have given us many enlightening details concerning the religions of Canaan that were such a stumbling block to Israel. Discoveries from the period of Ahab and Jezebel, for example, provide information about Baal worship that helps us to understand better the ministry of Elijah and Elisha (see BAAL).

For much of the period of the divided kingdom, Assyria was the dominant foreign influence in the affairs of Israel and Judah. Archaeological findings reveal the extensive records that Assyrian kings kept of their reigns. Their many stone sculptures and inscriptions provide a good parallel to the biblical history of Israel and Judah, a number of whose kings are mentioned by name in the Assyrian records. These records also show the politically important achievements of some Israelite kings (e.g. Omri and Jeroboam II). Yet the prophet-writers of the Old Testament record give few details of these kings, considering them to be of only minor significance because of their religious unfaithfulness. With the destruction of Jerusalem, the exile of the Jews in Babylon and their subsequent return to Palestine, Jewish national life entered a new phase. Babylonian findings confirm the biblical picture of the exile, and findings of the Persian Period confirm the biblical picture in the books of Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther. The era of Old Testament history was now over, and archaeology shows how the Persian Empire was increasingly feeling the effects of the spreading influence of Greece.

Greek and Roman Periods

Remains of buildings from the Greek Period are fewer than one might expect. The main reason for this is that builders of the Roman Period re-used large quantities of the Greeks’ building materials in their own construction programmes. However, lengthy written records and thousands of documents from the period help compensate for this loss. The widespread conquests of Alexander the Great introduced an era that brought dramatic change throughout the region of the Bible story. Greek culture and language became dominant everywhere. This had a great effect on Jewish history, bringing conflict between those Jews who gladly accepted the new ways and those who tried to resist them. Out of this conflict arose religious parties such as the Sadducees and the Pharisees, along with other Jewish sects.

One of these sects left behind a large library of Old Testament scrolls and other writings, which were discovered only in recent times. They were found in caves at Qumran near the Dead Sea, and are known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. They are among the most spectacular finds from the period and have been of great help in the study of Old Testament manuscripts (see MANUSCRIPTS). Rome took control of Palestine in 63 BC. This date provides a convenient starting point for a period that archaeologists see as one of transition between the Greek and Roman Periods. Most of the New Testament falls into this transition period. By AD 70, the date of the destruction of Jerusalem, the transition was over and the Roman Period well established. It lasted about three centuries.

Throughout Palestine there is much archaeological material that increases our knowledge of the region in New Testament times. This material is of great variety, from the impressive structures built by Herod the Great to everyday objects such as coins, pottery and glassware. Beyond Palestine, in Syria, Asia Minor, Greece and other areas of the New Testament story, archaeological discoveries confirm the accuracy of the New Testament in its references to matters of history, geography, culture, language and politics .

The scope of archaeology

No matter how much archaeology may help us to understand the world of the biblical period, we must bear in mind that it can neither prove nor disprove the truth of the Bible. The Bible’s essential message concerns a relationship between God and the human race that he created in his image, and that is something that archaeology is not capable of investigating. It is beyond the scope of archaeology. Archaeology may, for example, shed light on the era in which Abraham lived, but it cannot evaluate the statement that Abraham believed God and God accepted him as righteous (Gen 15:6). The main benefit of biblical archaeology is not in providing some sort of external assurance for Christian faith. Rather it is in providing a picture of life in Bible times that helps those who are separated by thousands of years from the people and events of which the Bible speaks.

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