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Is the Bible supported by modern archaeology?
David H. Bailey
Updated 2 January 2021 (c) 2021
Several of the "New Atheist" school of writers dismiss the Bible as without scientific foundation. Richard Dawkins, in his book The God Delusion dismisses much of the Bible as fiction [Dawkins2006]. Similarly, Christopher Hitchens, in his book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, asserts that modern archaeology has disproved most of older biblical history, saying "none of the religious myths has any truth to it, or in it" [Hitchens2006, pg. 102]. Hitchens subsequently qualifies this statement to refer mainly to the Exodus and pre-Exodus stories, but he also remains highly skeptical about the historicity of much of the rest of the Old Testament. Chris Sosa extends this to the New Testament: "The Jesus of Christianity is clearly a mythological figure" [Sosa2014].
In part, these writers reflect the thinking of the "minimalist" or "Copenhagen" approach to biblical scholarship that was popular during the 1990s and the 2000s. This school of thought has argued, for example, that essentially all of the Old Testament prior to the Babylonian captivity in 586 BCE is fictional. A similarly "minimalist" school of thought has argued that Jesus of Nazareth was not a historical person -- all of the teachings and activities ascribed to him are completely legendary. Theologian Robert Price, for instance, argues that Jesus did not exist -- "he was mythic all the way down" [Price2012, pg. 17]. Similarly, George Wells argues that the accounts of Jesus are better explained as Jewish "wisdom literature" [Wells1996, pg. xxvii].
Part of the disagreement here stems from differing approaches to the Bible and biblical history. It is true that many leading creationist and intelligent design writers, among others, espouse the "literal-inerrant" approach to biblical scholarship. However, the majority of mainstream Judeo-Christian denominations and biblical scholars (including many denominations that hold the Bible to be the word of God), agree that the literal-inerrant approach is not a productive way to view the Bible. There are simply too many difficulties with this approach, such as translation errors, missing books and passages, internal discrepancies and others (see Bible-inerrant). Only a rather small minority of faith traditions holds to such a rigid, idealistic view of the Bible. Other denominations espouse a more flexible approach to the Bible that acknowledges the human element in the Bible along with the divine.
Questionable and fraudulent archaeological claims
So what archaeological evidence is there for the Bible?
Just as there is no point in claiming that biological or physical evidence "proves" that evolution is false (as creationist and intelligent design writers are prone to do), when in fact the consensus of peer-reviewed scientific research holds otherwise, similarly there is no point in trumpeting "archaeological evidence" as confirming some biblical event or figure, when such evidence is either nonexistent or considered highly questionable in peer-reviewed biblical studies literature. Indeed, the field of biblical archaeology is replete with claims and findings that were later discredited, so considerable caution is in order. Some of the more prominent examples are the following:
- Noah's ark. Claims that remnants of Noah's ark have been found have been repeatedly refuted. See, for example: [Cline2009, pg. 75].
- Inscribed pomegranate. In 1979, an archaeologist announced the discovery of the inscription "Belonging to the Tem[ple of the Lor]d [Yahweh], holy to the priests," but this was later found to be a recent forgery [Cline2009, pg. 117].
- Jehoash tablet. Also in 2002, a Jerusalem researcher announced the discovery of a black stone mentioning of Jehoash, a king who ruled in Judah from 836 to 798 BCE, but subsequent analysis found that the lettering and patina were artificially created [Cline2009, pg. 123-125].
- James ossuary. In 2002, an Israeli antiquities collector announced the discovery of a chalk box with the inscription "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus," but this was shown to be a recent forgery [James2014].
- Tomb with bones of Jesus' family. In 2007, the announcement of the finding of a tomb with the bones of Jesus' family was subsequently rejected by knowledgeable archaeologists [Rollston2007].
- Gospel of Jesus' Wife. In 2012, a scholar announced the discovery of the "Gospel of Jesus' Wife," but this has been criticized by scholars; at the least, additional analysis will be required [Goodstein2014].
- The Nazareth tablet. In 2020, a scientific analysis of the "Nazareth tablet," which contains an inscription suggestive that it represented official first century reaction to news that Jesus' body had gone missing from its tomb, and which had been thought by many to be the oldest physical artifact connected to Christianity, was shown to have been fashioned from marble mined a quarry on the Greek Island of Kos, and most likely was inscribed a decade or two before Jesus' death.
Early Old Testament history
There is, admittedly, very little evidence in support of the early Old Testament history. But from an archaeological point of view, there is no way that scientific research can comment one way or the other on the existence of an individual such as Abraham, who, according to the biblical account, left his home in Ur (probably near modern-day Baghdad in Iraq) to head to modern-day Palestine. Genesis also tells of Jacob's son Joseph being sold by his brothers to traders, who took him to Egypt where he lived in the royal court for at least 14 years, after which Joseph's brothers and families (70 persons in total) joined him in Egypt. Again, science in general, and archaeology in particular, can say nothing one way or the other about a small and relatively obscure group of people such as this. With regards to Noah's flood, see Noah's flood.
The biblical chronology of the Exodus period is problematic. Exodus 12:40 states that the Israelites left Egypt 430 years after Joseph's family migrated to Egypt, and 1 Kings 6:1 says that the work on Solomon's temple began 480 years after the Exodus. Most scholars today date the Solomon's temple to roughly 970 BCE, so this traditional reckoning places Joseph's family's migration to Egypt at 1880 BCE, and the Exodus at 1450 BCE. But there is no mention in Egyptian records of any exodus of slaves in this time frame, and, more importantly, the cities Pithom and Ramses, which the Israelites settled (Gen. 47:11) and helped build (Exod. 1:11, 12:37), were not built until roughly 1300 BCE, according to well-established Egyptian records [Cline2007]. Also, the 430-year sojourn in Egypt is inconsistent with the genealogy of Moses, as given in several places (Exod. 6:16-20, Num. 26:59, 1 Chron. 6:1-3 and 1 Chron 23:6; see also Gen. 15:16), since Moses is the great-grandson of Levi (Levi-Kohath-Amram-Moses) via his paternal line, and the grandson of Levi via his maternal line (Levi-Jochebed-Moses). Needless to say, two or three generations do not span 430 years, even if one accepts at face value the exceedingly old ages stated for these persons, and presumes, most implausibly, that each generation was sired only in the last year of life of the previous generation. Similarly, the 480-year period given in 1 Kings 6:1 for the Exodus to the foundation of Solomon's temple appears inconsistent with the genealogical record in 1 Chron. 2:1-15, which gives only ten generations from Judah (the brother of Joseph and Levi) to David (Solomon's father, born roughly 1040 BCE), since a generation in Old Testament times was only about 24 years on average. See Bible chronology for additional details.
Many biblical scholars today favor a 13th century BCE setting for the Exodus (see, for instance, [Cline2007]; [Coogan2001]), since indeed it was Seti I (reigned 1291-1278) who directed the construction of the cities Pithom and Rameses, as described in Exod. 1:11. Seti's son was Ramses II (reigned 1279-1212 BCE), which fits with the Exodus in 1250 BCE, although Merneptah (reigned 1213-1203 BCE) is also a possibility. This general reckoning also fits nicely with the Merneptah stele, an artifact found in Egypt, dated to 1207 BCE, which indicates that the nation of Israel was established in the Palestine area by this date (see below). There is still no clear archaeological evidence for Moses or the Exodus in Egyptian records, but on the other hand the Egyptians seldom mentioned setbacks or defeats in their records, so perhaps this is not surprising [Cline2007].
With regards to the Exodus, Exod. 12:37 says that "about 600,000" Hebrew men (i.e., 2-3 million persons, including women and children) left Egypt in the Exodus. Exodus 38:26 and Num. 1:46 are more specific: 603,550 men. Such a huge proceeding should have left a significant body of evidence, yet none has been found. However, there are indications from other passages within the Old Testament itself that the actual number was much smaller. For example, counting Levi's male descendants through Moses, based on Exod. 6:16-20, gives just 21 men. Multiplying by 12 to estimate for the 12 sons of Jacob gives just 252 men through Moses' generation at the Exodus (even assuming they were all still alive at the Exodus), which is a far cry indeed from 600,000. Also, Exod. 1:15-17 says there were only two midwives for the Israelites; this places an upper limit of about 5,000 on the size of the Hebrew nation at the time of the birth of Moses -- see Bible-inerrant. If there were only a few hundred or a few thousand Hebrews at the time, then the lack of solid archaeological evidence for their existence in Egypt and their journey through Sinai is not a major issue. See Bible chronology for further details.
With regards to the story of the crossing of the Red Sea, as recounted in Exodus 14, it is worth mentioning a 2010 scientific study that suggested that "wind setdown," namely the drop in water level caused by wind stress acting on the surface of a body of water for an extended period of time, may have been the cause of the drying up of the sea where the ancient Hebrews crossed [McAlpine2010; Drews2010].
In short, the Exodus period is highly problematic -- the biblical record is itself inconsistent, and there is little archaeological evidence one way or the other to corroborate this history.
Post-Exodus Old Testament history
Once we move past the Exodus period, then there is some evidence of at least a few of the persons and events in the Old Testament account. Along this line, some critics of biblical history, as noted above, have argued that from archaeological evidence the rise of the Jewish nation in Holy Land was gradual, rather than a rapid and total heroic conquest as described in the Bible. But while some biblical passages suggest rapid and total conquest, others do not. Exodus 23:30, for instance, says "By little and little I will drive them out from before thee, until thou be increased, and inherit the land." Similarly, Josh. 15:63 says that the Israelites did not succeed in forcing the Jebusites out of Jerusalem, but instead co-existed with them. Joshua 16:10 and 17:11-13 say essentially the same thing about Canaanites living in the Palestine area.
Here is a brief summary some archaeological evidence for this period of Old Testament history, listed in approximate chronological order:
- Destruction of Hazor. Joshua 11:13-25 describes the destruction of the city of Hazor. In the 1950s, Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin found, at a site previously identified as Hazor, remains of a city dating to the 13th century BCE, which had been destroyed by fire [Cline2009, pg. 44].
- Merneptah stele. In 1896, an archaeological team lead by William Petrie found an inscription on an Egyptian stele, dated to 1207 BCE, now known as the Israel stele or the Merneptah stele and dated to 1207 BCE, which reads "Israel is laid waste, his seed is no more." This is the earliest mention of Israel outside of the Bible, and is considered one of the most important archaeological finds in the biblical studies field [Cline2009, pg. 23].
- Structures at Megiddo, Hazor, Gezer. We read in 1 Kings 9:15 that King Solomon levied a tax to build defensive structures at Hazor, Megiddo and Gezer. Structures matching this description, in the tenth century BCE, have been found in archaeological digs in these three cities [Cline2009, pg. 45].
- Pharaoh Sheshonq. Inscriptions have been found in Karnak, Egypt describing the Pharaoh Sheshonq's conquest of Israel in the 10th century BCE (925 BCE). This matches the account in 1 Kings 14:25, where Pharaoh Shishak carried away "the treasures of the house of the LORD." Although some scholars are skeptical of a connection here, most are convinced that Sheshonq and Shishak are the same person [Cline2009, pg. 81].
- Kuntillet Ajrud inscription. In 1976, an Israeli archaeologist searching in the northeastern part of the Sinai Peninsula discovered a fortress-like building with two rooms, dated to the late 9th century BCE. Inscriptions were found on the walls, written in early Hebrew and Phoenician script, invoking the Hebrew God Yahweh, along with the pagan deities El and Baal [Kuntillet2014].
- Mesha inscription. An artifact, now known as the Moabite stone or the Mesha inscription, found in Jordan and dated to the 9th century BCE, names the Israelite king Omri: "Omri, king of Israel, humbled Moab many days..., but I have triumphed over him and over his house and Israel has perished forever." This conflict is described in 2 Kings 3 [Cline2009, pg. 16].
- Monoliths of Shalmaneser III. A monolith inscription of Neo-Assyrian king Shalmaneser III, dated to 853 BCE, mentions the Israelite king Ahab: "10,000 soldiers of Ahab, the Israelite, ... came against me." A similar obelisk, black in color, mentions the Israelite king Jehu [Cline2009, pg. 82-83].
- Tel Dan stele. The Tel Dan stele, found in Northern Israel, and dated to the 9th century BCE, mentions the "House of David": "[And I killed Jo]ram, son of A[hab], king of Ksrael, and [I] killed [Ahazi]yahu, son of [Joram, kin]g of the House of David." This is the earliest known mention of David, who reigned in Jerusalem from roughly 1010 to 970 BCE [TelDan2014, Cline2009, pg. 61].
- Bethlehem. In May 2012, a research team led by Eli Shukron of the Israel Antiquities Authority, excavating a site near the ancient wall of Jerusalem, found a small seal, 1.5cm in size, with the words "Beit Lechem", namely Bethlehem, thus confirming the existence of this city in the eighth century BCE [Bob2012].
- Sennacherib's attacks. 2 Kings 18:13 mentions Neo-Assyrian King Sennacherib's attacks on the fortified cities of Judah in 701 BCE. These attacks are mentioned in archaeological finds at Lachish in Israel and the ancient site of Ninevah in Iraq. Sennacherib's siege of Jerusalem is also mentioned: "Himself [Hezekiah] I shut up as a prisoner within Jerusalem, his royal residence, like a bird in a cage." Curiously, this bravado account acknowledges that Sennacherib's siege of Jerusalem was unsuccessful (he never got inside the city walls), thus confirming the biblical account, as described in detail in 2 Chron. 32:9-22, which says that after several days of siege, a plague struck Sennacherib's forces and he was forced to retreat [Cline2009, pg. 85].
- Hezekiah's tunnel. 2 Kings 20:20 describes an underground culvert, designed to transport water to inside the Jerusalem city walls, that was constructed during the reign of King Hezekiah (8th century BCE). This culvert, now known as Hezekiah's tunnel, was discovered in 1838. In 1880, two boys exploring Hezekiah's tunnel found an inscription on the ceiling describing the construction process, where workers cut through rock from both ends until they met [Cline2009, pg. 19].
- Pool of Siloam. The Pool of Siloam, mentioned both in the Old Testament (Isa. 8:6, 22:9) and in the New Testament (John 9:7), collected water as it emptied from the southern end of Hezekiah's tunnel. This was discovered in 2004 as part of a sewer excavation in Jerusalem [Pool2014].
- First Temple period seal. In 2008, Israeli archaeologists discovered a seal with an image of a warrior shooting an arrow, belonging to a warrior named Habag. The seal was discovered in a building being excavated that dates to the First Temple period, in particular to the seventh century BCE, when the kings Manasseh and Josiah reigned [Israel2008]. Related excavations in Jerusalem have also uncovered what appears to be the foundation of the First Temple's retaining wall.
- Destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. Archaeologists have uncovered evidence of tremendous destruction in Jerusalem in 586 BC (described, for instance, in Eze. 5), including ash and debris piled high, blocks of stone torn and broken, and arrowheads of a type specifically used by the Neo-Babylonians at this time [Cline2009, pg. 72].
- Dead Sea scrolls. The Dead Sea scrolls, dated to the 3rd century BCE to the 1st century CE, have been found to contain portions of all books of the Old Testament except for the Book of Esther. These manuscripts thus constitute by far the oldest copies of Old Testament text [Cline2009, pg. 96].
The New Testament
Although the New Testament covers a much more recent time period (roughly 100 BCE to 100 CE), archaeological analysis is, if anything, more difficult, because unlike the Old Testament, the key events in the New Testament were the spread of Christianity, not kings, wars or the construction of cities. Indeed, there is no mention of Jesus himself in any contemporary non-biblical source, except for a very brief mention in the writings of Flavius Josephus that some have disputed. On the other hand, as emphasized above, one should not expect that archaeology can say anything one way or the other about persons who were relatively obscure on the world stage during their lifetimes.
However, there are numerous archaeological findings that confirm at least a few key facts of New Testament history:
- Temple Mount platform. As is well known, the present-day "wailing wall" in Jersualem is a remnant of the second temple. Also, recent archeological evidence confirms that the Jerusalem temple mount platform was expanded by Herod the Great. The temple mount was mentioned several times in the New Testament, for example in Matt. 21:12-14, when Jesus overturned tables of money-changers [Cline2009, pg. 83].
- Inscription mentioning Pontius Pilate. One of the most important finds is a Latin inscription, dating to 30 CE, which explicitly mentions Pontius Pilate, the governor of Palestine who sentenced Jesus to death. This was found in the theater at Caesarea during excavations by an Italian-led expedition in 1961. It reads, "Pontius Pilate, the Prefect of Judaea, has dedicated to the people of Caesarea a temple in honor of Tiberius." [Cline2009, pg. 100].
- Jesus' trial site. In January 2015, archaeologists exploring ruins under the floor of an abandoned building adjacent to the Tower of David Museum found what appears to be the remains of Herod's palace in the city, which is described in the New Testament as the site of Jesus' trial [Eglash2015].
- Sea of Galilee boat. In 1986, during a severe drought in Palestine, the remains of an ancient fishing boat was discovered near the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee in Israel. Radiocarbon measurements dated the artifact to 40 BCE, plus or minus 80 years, while analyses of pottery dated the item to between 50 BCE and 50 CE. While no one fancies that this was the actual boat used by Jesus and his disciples, it is entirely similar to those mentioned in the New Testament and known to be used in the region [Sea2014].
- Nazareth. In 2009 a house was discovered on the hills at Nazareth that contains pottery shards dated to between 100 BCE and 100 CE. The analysis concludes that "the dwelling and older discoveries of nearby tombs in burial caves suggest that Nazareth was an out-of-the-way hamlet of around 50 houses on a patch of about four acres ... populated by Jews of modest means." These discoveries effectively refute the claims of those who have argued that Nazareth was uninhabited at the time of Jesus' childhood, and that the mention of Nazareth in the New Testament was a mythic creation of later writers and editors [Ehrman2012, pg. 216].
- Capernaum. Several archaeological investigations have uncovered the remains of cities near the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus lived and preached, including Sepphoris, Capernaum and Magdala. These excavations have confirmed that not only were these areas inhabited during the first century CE, but they were largely Jewish rather than Greek or Roman. For example, excavations have uncovered a Jewish synagogue in Magdala (near Capernaum), dating to the first century, and a simple home in Capernaum, also dating to the first century, that appeared to have been modified to serve as a place for gatherings. [Cline2009, pg. 105].
- Ossuary of Caiaphas. John 11:49-53; 18:14 mentions Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest who presided over the trial of Jesus. In 1990 archaeologists discovered a stone ossuary with the inscription "Yehosef bar Qafa" (Aramaic for Joseph, son of Caiaphas). According to Josephus, Caiaphas' full name was Joseph Caiaphas [Cline2009, pg. 112].
- Christians in Suetonius. The Roman historian Suetonius briefly mentions the early Christians in his book The Lives of the Twelve Caesars. In his recounting of the reign of Emperor Claudius, who reigned 41 to 54 CE, Suetonius refers to the expulsion of Christian Jews by Claudius: "Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he [Claudius] expelled them from Rome." Since it is highly unlikely that a later Christian scribe or anyone else partial to Christianity would have called Jesus "Chrestus" or mistakenly described him as living in Rome in 49 CE, or called him a troublemaker, most historians agree that the passage is genuine [Suetonius2014].
- Megiddo prison mosaic. In 2005, an inscription mentioning Jesus Christ was found on a mosaic at the Megiddo prison site in northern Israel, dated to the third century CE. This is the earliest known archaeological artifact that explicitly mentions Jesus [Cline2009, pg. 100].
Many writers of the "minimalist" or "Copenhagen" school of biblical scholarship, popular during the 1990s and 2000s, have argued that much of the Old Testament, and essentially all of the history prior to the Babylonian captivity in 586 BCE, is a fictional creation of later Jewish writers. But such claims can no longer be defended in light of numerous items of evidence (e.g., the Tel Dan stele), which specifically mention ancient kings such as David and ancient battles such as the wars with Sennacherib. Indeed, numerous Old Testament events are supported by archaeological evidence.
Similarly, claims that Jesus was not a historical figure have largely been defeated and, at the present time, have no standing in peer-reviewed biblical studies literature. This field, by the way, includes Jews, Christians and secular scholars, such as Bart Ehrman, who have no personal or religious stake in the matter. Ehrman summarizes the consensus of the field in these terms [Ehrman2012, pg. 1]:
Despite this enormous range of opinion, there are several points on virtually all scholars of antiquity agree. Jesus was a Jewish man, known to be a preacher and teacher, who was crucified (a Roman form of execution) in Jerusalem during the reign of the Roman emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was the governor of Judea.
Many devout believers will nonetheless be disappointed to learn that there is no clear-cut contemporary archaeological evidence for many of the key figures and events in the Bible, especially prior to roughly the reign of David (1010 BCE). But archaeology can say nothing one way or the other about persons who, like almost all figures in biblical history, were relatively obscure on the world stage during their lifetimes. And scientific research in general, and archaeology in particular, can say nothing about miraculous events that are presumed to be beyond the realm of natural, physical processes that can be studied by laboratory experimentation.
In any event, as was emphasized above, there is no point in claiming that archaeological evidence "proves" some biblical event or figure, when such evidence does not exist or is considered highly questionable in peer-reviewed biblical studies literature. As we read in the New Testament, "For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?" (1 Cor. 14:8).