Is the Bible Fact or Fiction?

Does Archaeology Tell Us if the Events in the Bible Really Occurred?

Kathleen Kenyon at Roman Viroconium
English archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon (1906 - 1978) during an archaeological excavation, which she is leading, of the ancient Roman settlement of Viroconium Cornoviorum, near the village of Wroxeter in Shropshire, 23rd September 1936. A.J. O'Brien / Fox Photos / Getty Images

An important step forward in scientific archaeological research, and a 19th-century outgrowth of the previous century's Enlightenment was the search for the "truth" of the events written about in the ancient historical accounts of the past.

The main truth of the Bible and the Koran and the Buddhist sacred texts, among many others, is, of course, is not a scientific one, but a truth of faith, of religion, of the soul.

The roots of the scientific study of archaeology are deeply planted in the establishment of the boundaries of that truth.

Is the Bible fact or fiction?

This is one of the most common questions I get asked as an archaeologist and it is one for which I have yet to find a good answer. And yet the question is at the absolute heart of archaeology, central to the growth and development of archaeology, and it is the one that gets more archaeologists into trouble than any other. And, more to the point, it brings us back to the history of archaeology.

Many if not most citizens of the world are naturally curious about ancient texts. After all, they form the basis of all human culture, philosophy, and religion. As discussed in the earlier parts of this series, at the end of the Enlightenment, many archaeologists began actively searching for the cities and cultures described in the available ancient texts and histories, such as Homer and the bible, Gilgamesh and Confucian texts and the Vedic manuscripts.

Schliemann sought Homer's Troy; Botta sought Nineveh. Kathleen Kenyon sought Jericho, Li Chi sought An-Yang. Arthur Evans at Mycenae. Koldewey at Babylon. Woolley at Ur of the Chaldees. All of these scholars and more sought archaeological events in the ancient texts

Ancient Texts and Archaeological Studies

But using ancient texts as the basis for historical investigation was--and still is--fraught with peril in any culture: and not just because the 'truth' is hard to parse out.

Governments and religious leaders have vested interests in seeing that religious texts and nationalistic myths remain unchanged and unchallenged: other parties might learn to see the ancient ruins as blasphemous.

Nationalistic mythologies demand that there is a special state of grace for a particular culture, that the ancient texts are received wisdom, that their specific country and people are the center of the creative world. An explicit expression of this is Archaeology Quote #35, by the Nazi Heinrich Himmler.

No Planet-Wide Floods

When early geological investigations proved without a doubt that there was no planet-wide flood as described in the Old Testament of the bible, there was a great cry of outrage. Early archaeologists fought against and lost battles of this sort time and again. The results of David Randal-McIver's excavations at Great Zimbabwe, an important trading site in southeastern Africa, were suppressed by the local colonial governments who wanted to believe that the site was Phoenician in derivation, not African.

The beautiful effigy mounds found throughout North America by Euroamerican settlers were wrongly attributed to either the "mound builders" or a lost tribe of Israel.

The fact of the matter is, that ancient texts are renditions of ancient culture, which may be partly reflected in the archaeological record, and partly will not be. Not fiction nor fact, but culture.

Better Questions

So, let's not ask if the Bible is true or false. Instead, let's ask a series of questions.

  1. Did the places and cultures that are mentioned in the Bible and the other ancient texts exist? Yes, in many cases, they did. Archaeologists have found evidence for many of the locations and cultures mentioned in the ancient texts.
  2. Did the events that are described in these texts happen? Some of them did; archaeological evidence in the form of physical evidence or supporting documents from other sources can be found for some of the battles, the political struggles, and the building and collapse of cities.
  1. Did the mystical things that are described in the texts occur? It's not my area of expertise, but if I were to hazard a guess, if there were miracles that occurred, they wouldn't leave archaeological evidence.
  2. Since the places and the cultures and some of the events that are described in these texts happened, shouldn't we just assume that the mysterious parts also happened? No. Not any more than since Atlanta burned, Scarlett O'Hara really was dumped by Rhett Butler.

There are many many ancient texts and stories about how the world began and many are at variance with one another. From a global human standpoint, why should one ancient text be more accepted than any other? The mysteries of the bible and other ancient texts are just that--mysteries. It is not, and never has been, within the archaeological purview to prove or disprove their reality. That is a question of faith, not science.

Sources

A bibliography of the history of archaeology has been assembled for this project.