How Does Archaeology Contribute to Biblical Studies?
Whether for personal or professional study, inevitably you will come across something in the Bible that relates to its ancient persons, places, or events. How can you better understand this past context in order to understand the message in its historical context and apply it in our own time?
The historical and archaeological record, that’s how. And the new Zondervan Handbook of Biblical Archaeology is your guide to that record.
Written by archaeologist Randal Price with historian H. Wayne House, this handbook provides a window into the biblical past through the information available from the field of archaeology to aid your study of the Bible.
Consider these four specific ways that archaeology contributes to biblical studies—and your own study of God’s Word.
Confirms God’s Word
Although many assume the purpose of archaeology is to prove the Bible, instead its purpose is to “bring historical confirmation to the historical statements in the text of Scripture” (26).
From Job (Job 8:8) to Luke (Luke 1:3–4), Scripture affirms “it is appropriate for students of Scripture to pursue the archaeological evidence of the past that touches upon the peoples, places, and events of the Bible” (26) in order to confirm what the Bible says. Time and again it brings such confirmation.
One example is the route of the exodus. Based on Exodus 13:17, it has been understood that military opposition threatened Israel if they escaped north along the coastal plain. Although an Egyptian tale verified the biblical account, some scholars thought it to be fictional. Yet an archaeological excavation at the Philistine site of Deir el-Balah revealed an extensive Egyptian fortification along this northern route.
“This archaeological evidence brought new confirmation of the historicity of the Exodus account, at least with respect to this important detail concerning its route” (27).
Corrects our Wording of God’s Word
When it comes to accurately rendering the original text into English, archaeology provides “the basis for restoring the original form, grammar, and syntax of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek words of the Bible as well as clarifying their precise meaning and usage in the time they were written” (28).
And sometimes correcting and clarifying our wording of God’s Word.
One of the most significant discoveries was a cache of a thousand ancient manuscripts in the caves of Qumran, known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. It contained the oldest known copies of the Old Testament, including fragments of every book except Esther and entire books like Isaiah. Its impact on our understanding of the wording of God’s Word was significant:
This discovery demonstrated how well the scribes had preserved the biblical text over time. It also provided variants that helped textual critics resolve textual problems, and it has enhanced our understanding of the biblical text reflected in versions such as the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament) and the Samaritan Pentateuch. (28)
Clarifies the World of God’s Word
Not only does archaeology clarify the words of the Bible, it also sheds new light on the world of God’s Word. A cardinal rule of biblical interpretation is: “every text must have a context.” The problem is there is a considerable gulf between us and this context. As the authors note:
We do not live in the world of the Bible (even if some may geographically live in that region). We cannot anymore correctly reconstruct the customs of the patriarchs from local Bedouin tribes than we can the practices of first-century Judaism from the later traditions of the Jewish rabbis. We must have data directly from the times and places of the biblical world. (29)
Archaeology gives us this data, clarifying the Bible’s world.
“The details of daily life, society, culture, and religion these archaeological discoveries have given us enable biblical students to understand the ancient context with greater clarity than at any previous time in history (since biblical times)…” (29).
Such clarity ensures we avoid misinterpreting and misapplying God’s Word.
Complements God’s Word
Finally, archaeology complements the Bible’s historical, cultural, and religious information; “excavations in the biblical lands have added a complementary witness to the biblical authors that both enhance the biblical accounts and validate their accuracy” (31).
For example, archaeology has provided several similar creation and flood accounts from the ancient Near East that complement the Bible’s own account. Furthermore, archaeology has helped us reconstruct and better understand Jesus’ interactions with the Jewish religious sects of his day.
Returning to the Dead Sea Scrolls, this discovery “generally supported the accuracy of the New Testament accounts (as well as the extrabiblical accounts) and has provided extensive commentary on the messianic perspective that controlled the Dead Sea sect at the time of Jesus and the formation of the early church” (31).
Here, the authors quote Gonzalo Báez-Camargo
No longer do we see two different worlds, one the world of ‘sacred history’ and the other the world of ‘profane history.’ All of history is one history, and it is God’s history, for God is the God of all history.
“If the past is a key to the present, we hope that this resource will open to readers the real world of the Bible, reassuring our generation of the historicity of the people, places, and events it describes while enhancing their understanding and enjoyment of the Word of God” (16).