Part 2: Archaeological Evidence – A Reality Check
Why do controversies rage among archaeologists whose expertise is of the highest order? Perhaps a reality check on the nature of archaeological evidence is in order. Edwin Yamauchi points out in his book The Stones and the Scriptures that archaeological evidence is inherently fragmentary because of the following contingencies of history:
1) The fraction that has survived (this is self-evident).
2) The fraction that has been surveyed. All told, close to 2,000 sites were examined by the Israeli teams, of which about 800 were previously unknown.
3) The fraction that has been excavated. Way back in 1963, only 150 of 5000 sites were excavated and only 26 were major excavations. More than 1000 new sites have been identified since then.
4) The fraction that has been examined. With limited sampling from excavation, negative conclusions can be premature and dangerous.
One report (Paul Lapp) shows that even after major excavation of some ancient cities in the Bronze Age, there was no discovery of literary sources. Caution is in order. [Comment by NKW: Exodus 17:14 implies writing among the Israelites from the time of Moses. Israel was situated at the crossroads of intersecting cultures already with centuries of writing like Egypt, Mesopotamia and (later) Assyria. Recent evidence points to greater widespread literacy among Jews than earlier acknowledged]
5) The fraction that has been published. Yamauchi writes, “Of the 25,000 cuneiform documents found at Mari, about 2,800 have now been published. Of the Assyrian letters found at Nineveh about 2,000 are still unpublished in the British Museum. The main bulk of the tablets excavated by the University of Chicago from 1930 to 1936 at Tell Asmar (Eshnunna) remains unpublished. Many of the texts found at Adab from 1903 to 1904 are unpublished, as are many texts from Babylon. Of the total of 5000,000 cuneiform documents thus far recovered, Samuel Kramer estimates that only ten per cent have been published.”
Yamauchi gives a sketch of these “overlapping circles of evidence” in archaeology and history.
Overlapping Circles of Evidence
As a working example, Yamauchi suggests an optimistic estimate that ignores redundancy: 1/10 of materials and inscriptions that survive, 6/10 of available sites surveyed, 1/50 of sites excavated, 1/10 of excavated sites examined, and 1//2 of excavated materials and inscriptions published. This would give a fraction of (1/10 x 6/10 x 1/50 x 1/10 x1/2) or 6/100000 of all possible evidence.
All of these examples suggest that in view of the fragmentary nature of the non-traditional material and inscriptional evidence – evidence which is partial and fortuitous in survival and exiguous in recovery – and in view of the nature of the overlapping circles of evidence, one cannot demand the complete corroboration of elements in the traditions by archaeological data. [Yamauchi, The Stones and The Scriptures pp.161-164]
In view of the fragmentary nature of the archaeological evidence, Roland de Vaux has issued the following warning about ex silentio arguments:
Finally, one must remember that the witness which archaeology and the texts afford is and always will remain incomplete. The earth’s crust has preserved only a small portion of the monuments and objects of antiquity, and archaeology has recovered only a small proportion of these; also, those texts which we have represent only a very small part of that which was written, and even so would not represent everything necessary for the work of the historian. Thus archaeology can mitigate the silence of ancient texts to a certain degree, but one must also admit that lack of archaeological evidence would not be sufficient in itself to cast doubt on the affirmations of the written witnesses. (Italics added). [R. de Vaux in J. A. Sanders, Near Eastern Archaeology, p. 70, quoted in Yamauchi, p. 166]
Given the fragmentary archaeological evidence, caution is in order for protagonists from both sides of the debate. As they say, the absence of evidence is no evidence of absence. This does not stop critics from asserting that there is no Exodus or Joshua’s conquest, simply because the guild is unable to come to consensus about the dates of the archaeological remains. The minimalists display an admirable sense of certainty, if not arrogance, when they pronounce the biblical texts to be pious fiction rather than reliable history.
The so-called moderates endorse a more positive assessment of the biblical historical tradition. Dever cites many examples of convergence between archaeological findings and the biblical tradition, especially from the times of the Davidic Kingdom. He concludes that “some of the “convergences” suggesting that the biblical notion of a United Monarchy – or at least an early ‘state’ – ca. 1020-925 B.C. is not a figment of the biblical writers’ imaginations, but is based on a fundamental reality.” [William Dever, What Did the Biblical Writer Know and When did They Do It (Eerdsman, 2001), p. 159] However, he shares the skepticism of the minimalists regarding the historicity of the Patriarchal and the Exodus narratives, and voices agreement with John Hayes and Maxwell Miller who authored the critical History of Ancient Israel and Judah that for the Patriarchal narratives,
All respectable archaeologists have given up hope of recovering any context that would make Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob credible “historical figures…archaeological investigation of Moses and the Exodus has similarly been discarded as a fruitless pursuit. Indeed, the overwhelming archaeological evidence today of largely indigenous origins for early Israel leaves no room for an exodus from Egypt or a 40-year pilgrimage through the Sinai wilderness. A Moses-like figure may have existed somewhere in southern Transjordan in the mid-late 13th century B.C., where many scholars think the biblical traditions concerning the god Yahweh arose. But archaeology can do nothing to confirm such a figure as a historical personage, much less prove that he was the founder of later Israelite religion.
Dever continues, “The whole “Exodus-Conquest” cycle of stories must now be set aside as largely mythical, but in the proper sense of the term “myth”: perhaps “historical fiction,” but tales told primarily to validate religious beliefs. In my view, these stories are still “true” in that they convey forcefully later Israel’s self-awareness as a “liberated people.” [William Dever, What Did the Biblical Writer Know, p. 70, 98-99, 121]
The skepticism shared by the “minimalists” and the “moderates” is one the consequences of insisting that “a text or an archaeological artifact requires an external referent, an independent witness, to corroborate it before it can become valid testimony.”
However, it cannot be denied that the skeptical archaeologists have not been consistent in their own judgment. For example, no one disputes the fact that the Babylonian empire was conquered by the Persians, even though there is no identifiable ruins and rubbles in Babylon attributed to the Persian conquest. Similarly, there is ready acceptance of the suggestion that Jerusalem in the mid-1330s BC was ruled by a certain chieftain by the name of Abdi-Heba, simply because the reference is found in the Amarna Letters from Egypt. Apparently, critics quietly ignore their demand for corroboration when no material evidence of such a ruler is forthcoming. Perhaps, arguments and conclusions in archaeology are not so objective after all.
The subjectivism is evident when critical scholars are willing to give the benefit of doubt to non-Biblical testimony while presuming that the Biblical documents are pious fiction until proven otherwise. Critical historians rely on Assyrian narrative reliefs, inscriptions and chronicles as ‘primary’ sources to provide the context to ‘reconstruct’ Israelite history while they reject the biblical sources which they judge to be ideological and therefore unreliable ‘secondary’ sources. But studies have shown that the Assyrian sources are no less ideological since there were inscribed to glorify the reputation of the king. In effect, critics are selectively critical because they prefer non-biblical sources that are amenable to an interpretation that is attractive to a skeptical guild. Such inconsistencies suggest that the personal biases of archaeologists play a more significant role in their judgments than they are willing to admit.
To his credit, Dever shares a hint about his personal worldview when he voices agreement with the minimalist Philip Davies and opts for a critical approach to archaeology which is “humanist about scripture; agnostic about deities”. [p. 287] Dever’s requirement for material corroboration is reasonable for an archaeologist seeking to investigate the evolution of material culture and social formation of ancient Israel, but it is reductionist to restrict religious manifestation only to accessible archaeological materials. It betrays a positivism that truncates religion of its transcendental dimensions. Dever has executed a demolition job against the minimalist-revisionists, but his secular approach to archaeology remains reductionist towards biblical faith.
In actuality, no historian is free from bias. Historians by necessity have to be focused in problematizing their inquiry and prioritizing their research. To give equal attention to every possible inquiry would be to end up studying desert sand, all and sundry. Neither is it the case that history is written according to the dictum set by the 19th century German historian Leopold von Ranke, “wie es eigentlich gewesen” – “how it really was.” The dictum received a well-earned rebuttal from E.H. Carr who retorted in his classic work What is History (Macmillan 1961, 2nd edition by Penguin 1987) that the goal set by von Ranke is an impossibility, “The historian is necessarily selective. The belief in a hard core of historical facts existing objectively and independently of the historian is a preposterous fallacy, but one which it is very hard to eradicate.” Carr adds,
It used to be said that the facts speak for themselves. This is, of course, untrue. The facts speak only when the historian calls on them: it is he who decides to which facts to give the floor, and in what order of context.” Finally, “The relation between the historian and his facts is one of equality, of give-and-take. As any working historian knows, if he stops to reflect what he is doing as he thinks and writes, the historian is engaged on a continuous process of moulding his facts to his interpretation and his interpretation to his facts. It is impossible to assign primacy to one over the other…The historian and the facts of history are necessary to one another. The historian without his facts is rootless and futile; the facts without their historian are dead and meaningless. [pp. 11, 12, 30-31]
By the same token, we may say that archaeological artifacts are mute and need to be supplemented by other ancient texts whenever possible, and interpreted by the historian working from a clearly defined research framework. For the believing historian, this requires taking the biblical text seriously (in contrast to the critical historian) because for him the memory of the events were transmitted with utmost seriousness and accuracy, and eventually recorded as text at a time close to the events they describe (in contrast to secular-critical historians who assume that the Jews freely distorted tradition when the texts were allegedly inscribed centuries after the alleged events).
Since research presuppositions or bias is unavoidable, it is incumbent that every historian fully discloses his personal interests so that the reader can properly evaluate his proposals. It is unfair and intellectually dishonest for critical historians to claim complete objectivity and the right to define history while presuming that the judgments of their religious counterparts are to be rejected as bias and unreliable. What is required for all historians is that they be transparent about their criteria for selection so that their research bias or presuppositions come into view.
Carl Henry wrote in his massive 6-volume God, Revelation and Authority, “What places the historian under obligation toward events is that his own judgments of importance do not in fact constitute the external situation; actually, if he is to be worthy of professional respect, he must be concerned with a response to historical evidence” (volume 1, p. 162). The question is not bias as such, but whether the bias is congruent with the text and supporting evidence.
Davies and Dever are entitled to work within a secular or critical framework in archaeology, but by the same token believing historians should not be prohibited from working within their religious framework. Believing historians are entitled to base their research on religious epistemological presuppositions and specialize in a program of biblical archaeology and history, just as critical historians are also entitled to work with secular or critical presuppositions and explore the wider program of Syrio-Palestinian archaeology and history. In the end, the validity these competing schools rests on their ability to integrate the textual and material evidence into a plausible history that gives an adequate account of the origin and experience of the community of faith.
The fundamental issue arising from the ongoing dispute in archaeology and critical history is whether Christians should rest their faith on a reconstructed background of the text that is inherently contestable. That God originally revealed himself in ancient Israel in mighty acts and prophetic speech should be affirmed, but the only access to God’s revelation Christians have today is Scripture. A Christian interpretation will assign primacy to Scriptural text while keeping an open mind towards incorporating insights gained from archaeological and historical criticism. However, since these insights are tentative and inherently contestable, the reconstructed biblical history is assigned a ‘ministerial’ role rather than a ‘magisterial’ role in understanding the text.
Our next crucial task would be to elucidate the dynamics between biblical history, the inspired text and the believing reader seeking to understand the living and active Word of God.
Part 3/3: Biblical History & Textual Interpretation
Related Post: Part 1/3 – Contested Foundations of Archaeology