on the balancing act between faith and credible archaeology

i recently received a letter via facebook that asked an intriguing question: how does one do archaeology and still retain one’s faith?

the question alone gave me pause because it implied that doing science will ultimately lead one to renounce one’s belief in god, or at the very least shatter one’s theological understanding of the world.

this issue comes up again and again with students. essentially, archaeology students soon learn that while some of the passages and claims made within the bible are consistent with archaeological findings, many others are not. this quickly leads a person of faith to make one of two choices: either to cling to one’s faith and begin to look for alternate ‘methodologies’ that could explain the bible’s claims that are inconsistent with the archaeological evidence, or, to accept the scientific data and re-examine one’s religious preconceptions. afraid to admit that what they were taught or have believed for so long might be wrong, many students opt for clinging to their belief in the inerrancy and infallibility of the bible and seek out new ways to interpret the data so that it is congruent with their preconceived beliefs. yet, this methodology leads only to poor science, even poorer interpretations of the data, and ultimately to misleading claims about the nature of the remains.

sometimes, archaeology is nothing more than boring rocks in the ground. but the true archaeologist does not seek out the big discovery that changes all we know in one amazing find, but rather gives his or her life to seasons of excavation and discovery, letting the evidence speak for itself until the larger picture of the social, economic, and yes, at times, religious makeup of the society is slowly revealed.

so for those seeking to balance faith and archaeology, here are a few tips:

  1. follow the data wherever it leads. sometimes the data doesn’t line up with the text of the bible. this is true about many sites and many verses. in some places, the text just isn’t supported by the evidence. this does not mean that the bible does not contain truth in other places, but it does tell us a lot about the author and the message the author was attempting to convey. remember, even the early church father origen offered a straightforward explanation of the preservation of factual truth within documents edited by human hands. in his commentary on john 10:4, origen says, ‘the spiritual truth was often preserved, as one might say, in material falsehood.’ just because a factual error exists in the text of the bible doesn’t mean that truth cannot still be conveyed.
  2. follow sound scientific methodology. if your methodology is good, your claims will be better received, and you (and/or your organization) will retain credibility. don’t fudge. take good notes, log everything (especially if it is contrary to your hypothesis), and don’t cut corners. methodical monotony is boring, but will be your friend in the long run. baby steps, small turns, an inch at a time. it is by the archaeological method employed that the academy will judge an archaeologist. credibility is earned over a long period of time, not with a single find.
  3. not every ‘biblical archaeology’ object is the same. just because noah’s ark and the holy grail are most likely legendary, doesn’t mean the ancient israelites didn’t carry a gold covered wooden box (the ark of the covenant) around in front of them when they marched into battle (like every other army at the time). each object is unique and should be treated as such. walls and pots are often (read: usually) more important than gold and silver. treat every object with respect, wash every sherd, and always check for writing.
  4. partner up. the best way to earn credibility as an archaeologist is to partner with and work for an established, credible archaeologist or excavation. don’t seek to strike out on your own too quickly. this requires substantial fundraising and once you begin asking for funds more than you dig, scholars begin to question your motives, your credibility drops, and your conclusions will be questioned more often. be humble. pay your dues. earn your stripes. and then, when you have established the credibility and education you need, work with the authorities to secure your own excavation.
  5. never, ever search for the ark of the covenant, noah’s ark, or the holy grail. adventure quests will always bring immediate derision and condemnation from the academy. never claim to be the first to discover anything; someone else has already done something similar. cite them! remember that most scholars rightly reject any primordial notion of god destroying the earth with a flood; they opt instead to see this story as a parallel to the gilgamesh epic or some other early flood narrative. sensational claims are the quickest way to expose oneself as a fundamentalist. know the literature, read, and always see what your opponents have to say before you make a claim.
  6. submit to the peer-review process. the most credible archaeologists submit to the peer-review process and allow their findings to be critiqued by the academy. submit articles for publication in refereed journals and present papers at national conferences. welcome criticism and feedback. this is the only way to ensure your that interpretations will gain the traction they need to become the accepted consensus.

ultimately, it’s not about what you believe, or even what you can prove. rather, a credible archaeologist or archaeology program is judged by the methodology it uses to reach its conclusions. if the science is good, and the results are published in credible journals, the program as well as the scholar will be a success.

14 Responses

  1. Bob — please republish this as an article on the Bible and Interpretation website. It is one of the most useful and relevant pieces, out of all the useful and relevant pieces, that you have written. I will assign it in my Archaeology of Israel class next semester…

  2. thanx eric. i just wrote it quickly last night. maybe i’ll expand it a bit an send it over. thanx again.

  3. I enjoyed your post and wanted to paste an excerpt from something.

    Though the Theology of Retribution is known among most divinity students, the Christian perception of inerrancy and the “complete word of God” dates back to Jewish theology during and immediately following the exile.

    So here is a piece from a talk I gave at Westbury last week which I think will help provide some insight for evangelical readers. Forgive me for it’s length as a comment, but some people might be interested. Thanks Bob for writing….

    “In 597BC, Jerusalem was destroyed by Babylon and all the Jewish survivors were taken as slaves. During their exile, the Jewish leaders taught that the Jerusalem had been destroyed and themselves taken captive was because God was angry with them for not keeping a strict following of His commandments.

    This belief stemmed from Deuteronomy 28 where God tells His people that if you teach your people and your children My ways, your lives will be blessed. But the Jews took this Scripture to mean that, ‘If God will bless us when we follow Him, then logically, this must also mean that He will curse us if we disobey.’

    This is what scholars refer to as ‘The Theology of Retribution:’ The belief that God is a Retributive God, angry, that He’s out to get you, that His punishments and blessings are in direct correlation to how His people behave.

    So the belief that naturally follows is that when something good happens to me, I must be in God’s favor. And if something bad happens, it is because God is taking His vengeance.

    It is an unfortunate belief system. It is not the original teaching of the Hebrew Bible nor is it the teaching of early Christianity, but you can see how the belief began and, unfortunately, continues today.

    Now, when the Jews were freed from Babylon by the Persians in 586BC, the Jews made it their life ambition to live strict adherence to the Hebrew law (The Old Testament). When this law ruled supreme, it was thus seen as infallible and valid for all time, inspired by God, thus it left no room for prophecy of any kind, because the belief was, ‘How can you add to the complete revelation of God?’

    The result was that no prophets after Ezra and Nehemiah were given a hearing. They were treated with utter skepticism. And so when the prophets did have a message or wrote a book to share, they began assigning pen names of past Jewish prophets and heroes to give their message credence. –Summers, Ray. Worthy Is the Lamb. Broadman and Holman. Nashville, TN. 1951. Pg. 17-18.

    We have Jewish books written after 200BC with titles such as, ‘The Assumption of Moses,’ ‘The Book of Enoch,’ ‘The Wisdom of Solomon’ all of these famous leaders being dead for hundreds of years.

    So, when Christians say that God stopped speaking at the completion of the New Testament, my question is, ‘What exactly do you mean by that?’

    Because the writing of the letters within the New Testament took at least sixty years and then it took another 300 years before all the New Testament letters were compiled into book form.

    It was translated into Latin in the 5th Century, then English in 1525, then German in 1534, and only recently, in 1864 was the Bible finally translated into an Arabic version that could be easily sent abroad. 1864. On the infinite time scale, that is very recent.

    Now, here’s the question: If God stopped speaking at the completion of the New Testament, exactly when did this take place?

    People have the tendency to treat the Bible as if God went ‘poof,’ and there it was. And now that we have it, we have no need for anymore words from God.

    No. It’s much more complicated than that.

    The holistic message of both the Old and New Testaments is the exact opposite. The message is that the Messiah will and has come because God is still interested and He is still speaking….”

  4. The arrogance of Christians never ceases to amaze me. Do you think that the Infinite and Eternal God is confined to set of beliefs that were put into the Bible 2-3,000 years ago? How can the belief in him be shattered when it is shown that the stories in the Bible are not literally true but metaphors and allegories for a much deeper spiritual truth?

    What about the other Gods of other religions, much older than Judeao-Christianity? In fact, most of the myths recorded in the Bible come from Mystery teachings outside of Israel, including ancient India, Egypt and Greece. They are just local versions of the same stories, the same teachings, which have been misunderstood as literal since the Emperor Constantine decreed it so, for political purposes.

    Archaeologists are doing a great job in uncovering the first stage of this realisation ~ that the myths in the Bible are not literally true. The second stage of their realisation will be when they discover what myths are actually for, which is not to record the history of God or those that follow Him. The third stage of realisation will be that wonderful “Aha!” moment … but I’ll leave that to you to discover.

    Please broaden your mind out of this tunnel-visioned silo you’ve trapped yourself in about the Infinite. You are made in the image of God, who is far greater than you can ever imagine.

  5. Thanks so much for this posting. I especially appreciate point 1…follow the data where it leads and 2…follow sound scientific methodology. So often “science” has its own point of view and is not willing to walk to the end of the road. My thought is that God doesn’t have anything to prove to anyone.

    You are great!

  6. Bob – You state that the believer has two choices, “either to cling to one’s faith and begin to look for alternate ‘methodologies’ that could explain the bible’s claims that are inconsistent with the archaeological evidence, or, to accept the scientific data and re-examine one’s religious preconceptions.”

    Isn’t there a third? Question the archeologist’s conclusions? I’ve always found the interpretation of findings a little subjective, and not a hard science. You can find two different readings on every artifact found in Jerusalem. Why would a believer throw away their faith, If the archeologist themselves can’t even agree upon what the data is saying?

  7. Dr. Cargill,

    You don’t like amateurs looking for Noah’s ark or the Ark of the Covenant, but you don’t want professionals to do it either. I don’t think it makes sense to tell people no one should look for certain things.

    Kennet Greifer

  8. one can look for whatever one wants to look. if one wants to look for noah’s ark (knowing, of course, that there is no way to ever prove that some piece of wood was an ark), the holy grail (attempting to prove that a cup was the cup), or some other non-historical object like the tree of life (which, despite having cherubim with flaming swords to guard it was apparently destroyed), one is free to do so.

    my issue, of course, deals with the sensationalistic claims used to raise money for fake ‘archaeological’ expeditions that have never (and will never) produce that for which they claim to be searching. every time someone claims to be making a ‘legitimate’ search for a mythical object (and yes, that includes noah’s ark), they raise a bunch of money and never return with anything except for appeals for more cash because they are thiiiiiiiis close. it’s an abuse of trust by those willing to take advantage of the public in order to raise money. they prey on the hopes of the faithful who want evidence that the primordial histories of the bible are factual and historical.

    any archaeologist, amateur or, dare i say, professional, claiming to make a search for noah’s ark is instantly marginalized and immediately sacrifices all credibility, and for good reason! so yes, one can search for anything, but one should not take advantage of the public. a pseudoarchaeologist that asks for money to search for noah’s ark is no better than a faith healer asking for cash for a prayer towel or a laying on of hands or any other false, sensational claim that preys on the public.

  9. […] and faith both lose. both can co-exist, but episodes like this one don’t […]

  10. Bob,
    I also take offense at your a priori dismissal of the possibility that a 500-foot wooden structure, thousands of feet above the tree line and buried in many centuries accumulation of ice, could not possibly be a boat that rode out a flood capable of inundating a peak of that magnitude–call it local if you want, but you’ll have to rewrite the laws of physics to do it.

    I’m glad you weren’t on the zoning board when the Pilgrims landed; had someone with this sort of thinking been in charge, they would have frozen to death in wigwams that first winter.

  11. thanx for your comments. have you any evidence other than the presence of wood above the tree line?

    btw – we’d also have to rewrite the laws of physics to get enough water on the earth to fill the earth to that elevation. there’s only so much water on the earth, and it’s already on the earth. some of it is in the atmosphere, but there are measurements for that. there is not enough water in our atmosphere to fill the earth to that level.

    but nice try…

    and i have no clue whatsoever what you meant about zoning boards and pilgrims. seriously. none.


  12. here’s some data from the usgs on the amount of water in the earth’s atmosphere: http://ga.water.usgs.gov/edu/watercycleatmosphere.html

    ‘If all of the water in the atmosphere rained down at once, it would only cover the ground to a depth of 2.5 centimeters, about 1 inch.’

    and people want to cover mt. ararat with water from 40 days of rain? again, there’s not that much water in the system.

  13. Bob,
    First of all, I want to express appreciation for your skepticism. If it weren’t for people like you, people like me would be a lot quicker to fall for claims like this.
    What impressed me about this claim was not wood above the treeline–that’s been reported by at least 3 previous Ararat expeditions–but 20-meter beams above the snow line. A fantastic claim, but so far lacking in proof of any kind.

    I’ll let the zoning board comment pass. Right now I’m in the midst of dealing with one that insists on using 19th century technology to establish the 100-year flood plain around my property. I have eyewitness testimony that it hasn’t flooded in over 61 years, but that isn’t going any farther with them then the eyewitness testimony of an ark on Ararat is going with me. I can’t defend their reasoning, but my reasoning is this: Many people claim to have visited/viewed the Ark in company with others, but never yet have two from any one company come forward with the same story. That’s not what I consider the testimony of 2 or 3 witnesses.

    No one is wanting to cover Mt. Ararat (or any other place outside the 100 year flood plain) with more than an inch of water. It can’t be done, anyway: God said He’d never flood the Earth again, and every rainbow is there to prove it.

  14. appreciated this post in particular since i do find beliefs shaken, but in a much deeper way since i have studied “mysteries of the bible” over many years.

    also wanted you to know how impressed i am with your site, your posts, and your studies–how amazing that you’re an LA local, and doing such fascinating work. i’m just a little envious, and hope to find a way to continue to be a part of the process of revealing and understanding our origins.

    all the best in your studies and teachings,

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