Monday, July 11, 2016

"Proving" the Bible

Recent dig at a Philistine site
Every now and then, archaeologists stumble over some relic or site that illuminates some aspect of our past.  Such discoveries are not only exciting for the archaeologists, but fascinating for anyone interested in unveiling human history.

One group in particular really pays attention: fundamentalists, who are committed to a belief in the accuracy of the Bible.  Each finding which touches on the biblical time period is greeted with loud enthusiasm and applause as if the new information “proves” biblical accounts.

Their wide-eyed interest started back in the 1800s when the first critical studies of the New Testament revealed that much of the text was laced with mythology.  The German School went so far as to claim that Jesus was basically a myth.  The real Jesus was “sacrificed for Christ,” was the way one researcher described it..

Ancient Jericho
Such claims naturally outraged believers, who promptly began to fund investigations by scholars and archaeologists to scour the Holy Land for proof.  They were inspired by the discovery of Troy in the mid-1800s, a city long thought to be part of a myth.  If it was real, biblical sites must be buried under Israeli dirt.

They were right.  Ancient cities like Jericho were unearthed throughout the country along with graves, buildings and the like. 

Unfortunately for the faithful, however, such discoveries do not prove anything.

Canaanite ruins
Take for example the discovery of ancient Jericho, buried layers below the current city.  It is there.  It is in the Bible.  However, its presence only proves that it existed, not that any of the biblical stories associated with Jericho are true.  We have no way of knowing if Joshua marched his army around the city for seven days, somehow causing the walls to fall down.  In fact, no evidence of walls has been found. 

That’s the limitation of archaeology.  It can demonstrate that something existed, such as a structure, a city, homes, even a culture, since everyone in a community shared cultural traits.  Such findings can be dated through Carbon 14.  But that’s a two-edged sword.  For example, archaeologists found proof of ancient Canaanite settlements, but no evidence of an invasion by escaped slaves from Egypt, as the Bible depicts.

That’s because Canaanite cultural artifacts, such as cloth, ceramics and housing design, were unchanged for millennia. 

Ancient stone with Pilate's name on it
The same limitation touches on New Testament research.  For example, Pontius Pilate, who in the sacred text presides over the trial of Jesus, really lived.  His name is attested in several places.  But that’s not proof of that Jesus was tried before Pilate or, indeed, had the slightest contact with the Roman official. No evidence of a connection, beyond biblical claims, has ever been found.

In fact, the supposed official information about Pilate’s 10 years in office were released by a later Roman emperor, but promptly vanished.  Historians suspect the papers contradicted Christian teachings, but also wonder if the texts were forged by an anti-Christian emperor.

Regardless, the connection between Jesus and Pilate is tenuous at best.  For starters, no one knows when Jesus lived.  While the New Testament places Jesus in the reign of Pilate, 26 to 36 C.E., it also claims in Luke that Jesus was born during the census of 6 C.E., another real event that took place when the Romans ousted Herod’s successor, but, in Matthew, the nativity took place at the end of the reign of King Herod, who died in 4 B.C.E.  Because of the obvious contradiction, some historians have suggested that the anonymous biblical authors actually plucked the names of prominent Romans and inserted them in the text.

Archaeology will never provide an answer.  That won’t stop archaeologists from digging up all sorts of new information.  However, nothing they find will ever prove a single line of the Bible.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His most recent book is Passover in Prison, which details abuse of Jewish inmates in American prisons.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at

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