Friday, March 10, 2006
Friday Archaeology Blogging
New archaeological finds stir Baptist scholars’ interest
by Brent Thompson
JERUSALEM (BP)--National headlines announcing three recent archaeological discoveries not only reaffirm the historical trustworthiness of the Bible’s narratives, they also highlight the important role biblical archaeology plays in Old and New Testament studies, according to Southern Baptist scholars Eric Mitchell and Steven Ortiz.
Wince. Ok, let's see what these recent discoveries are, and then we'll discuss whether or not they actually "reaffirm the historical trustworthiness of the Bible's narratives." First up:
-- The New York Times reported Nov. 7 that prisoners digging foundations for the expansion of Megiddo Prison north of Jerusalem in the Valley of Armageddon uncovered ruins of what might be the earliest Christian church discovered in the Holy Land. Intricate mosaics dating to the third century A.D. bear inscriptions in Greek. The Israel Antiquities Authority has preliminarily rendered the translation of one inscription as reading, “The God-loving Aketous has offered this table to the God Jesus Christ, as a memorial.”
Ok, but the existence of Christians in the Middle East in the third century A.D. was not in doubt. What is interesting here is that this Aketous apparently had a pair of big brass ones, to so openly display his Christian faith at this time. This, of course, depends on the exact date of construction. If carried out under the reign of Trajan Decius (A.D. 249-251), who was a noted persecutor of Christians, then it was indeed a bold move. If, on the other hand, the mosaic was laid during the time of Aurelian (A.D. 270-275), then perhaps it would have been more acceptable. Despite almost universal bad press, some of it from the pens of Christian apologists, Aurelian had enough of a reputation for restraint that a Christian community in Syria turned to him for mediation of an internal matter, and got it. However, there are other possibilities as well:
For example, in its report about the discovery of the early church in Megiddo, The New York Times quoted anthropologist Joe Zias as doubting whether a Romanized mosaic would have been found in a church in that location in the third century A.D.
“My gut feeling is that we are looking at a Roman building that may have been converted to a church at a later date,” Zias told The Times.
Anyway, to get back on track, this discovery does squat to confirm the historicity of the Bible. Next:
-- On Nov. 9, The Times reported came from the site of Tel Zayit, just south of Jerusalem, about the discovery of some scribbling of a scribe who was practicing writing the Hebrew alphabet -- an abecedary -- on the wall of an ancient building. By analyzing stratification, the position and depth of the writing, archaeologists have dated the abecedary to the 10th century B.C.
The issue here is the start date for widespread literacy in the Middle East, and yes, this discovery seems to suggest that it was earlier than previously thought. Once again, though, does this in any way confirm the historicity of the Bible? Not so much. And lastly:
-- Also on Nov. 9, The Jerusalem Post reported that “a very small ceramic shard unearthed by Bar-Ilan University archaeologists digging at Tell es-Safi, the biblical city Gath of the Philistines ... contains the earliest known Philistine inscription ever to be discovered, [and] mentions two names that are remarkably similar to the name Goliath.”
And, um, so what? A graffito of a name "remarkably similar" to the name of somebody in the Bible does not, in fact, actually confirm that particular Bible story. And claiming that it does drives legitimate archaeologists absolutely nuts. Further comments on the issue:
The recent archaeological finds, [Eric Mitchell, assistant professor of archaeology and biblical backgrounds at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary] said, “are only small pieces of evidence. But when we start adding up all the small pieces like these that support the Bible’s narratives, it becomes more and more difficult for doubters or unbelievers to argue against the accuracy of Scripture.”
But none of those discoveries actually support the Bible's narratives! Please do not inflict your religious agendas on actual scholarship, thank you very much!
Mitchell pointed out that it is important to respect the opinions of field archaeologists, even if they cast doubt on the discovery’s connection with events described in the Bible.
For example, when reviewing reports about the apparent “Goliath” inscription from Gath, Mitchell gave credence to the field archaeologist, professor Aren Maeir, chairman of Bar-Ilan University's Martin (Szusz) Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology. Maeir told The Jerusalem Post that “we cannot know for sure that the inscription belongs to Biblical Goliath.”
Of course we cannot know for sure! And Maeir actually went further than that:
Archaeology professor Aren Meir, who found the inscription on a shard of pottery in the ruins of the ancient Philistine city of Gath, said the chance that the name is a reference to the Goliath of the biblical account is "small if not non-existent."
Finally, the voice of sanity is heard in the land. The unfortunate thing is that there is quite a lot of legitimate work to be done in biblical archaeology, and plenty of respected archaeologists doing it, but that their discoveries tend to be seized upon by the fundy set, stretched far beyond what the evidence actually shows, and then used to perpetuate the sorts of unpleasantness that the fundy set likes to get up to.