PBS recently aired an outstanding documentary on the current state of archaeology related to the Old Testament, or Hebrew Bible. Entitled “The Bible’s Buried Secrets,” the documentary shows that archaeological findings often contradict biblical texts.
For example, there is no archaeological evidence for the Exodus from Egypt, nor for the annihilation of the Canaanite city-states under Joshua. The destruction of three cities listed in the Hebrew Bible appears instead to have been destroyed several hundred years apart. Many others listed were not destroyed at all.
For these and many other reasons, the documentary has created a controversy among some Evangelical Christians, who see it as belittling the Bible and Christian beliefs. One conservative Christian group, the American Family Organization, has even begun a petition to end congressional funding of PBS.
The petition in part reads, “PBS is knowingly choosing to insult and attack Christianity by airing a program that declares the Bible ‘isn’t true and a bunch of stories that never happened.'” Of course, Christianity didn’t even exist during the period in question.
Archaeologists are only reporting what they find in their excavations. They also cross-reference that data with what is found, not only in the Hebrew Bible, but also Egyptian, Babylonian and other ancient texts. Sometimes their findings corroborate what is in the Hebrew Bible, but sometimes they contradict it.
The reaction of the AFO group stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of science. Archaeology is unique in that it combines techniques from the biological sciences with theories from the social sciences, which are used to contextualize findings.
Like biological scientists, archaeologists approach their studies in a naturalistic manner. This means that archaeologists only look for natural explanations for events. God and other spirits are not scientifically meaningful concepts because they cannot be examined by the researcher. Scientists always look for observable processes.
Archaeologists also approach their studies in a non-ethno-sectarian manner. This means that religious movements are seen as human creations. It also means that the claims of exclusive, divine origin made by most religions are themselves objects of scientific inquiry. Like all cultural products, these claims of divine origins have an historical evolution that scientists seek to reconstruct.
Another research tenet is that the Bible is viewed as only one written text among many produced by ancient peoples. The Bible is, therefore, just one piece of evidence that scholars use to reconstruct the historical record.
My main question to the AFO is this: Are archaeologists supposed to ignore the evidence that they uncover? Instead of expecting scientists to ignore glaring pieces of evidence, Evangelical Christians should modify their beliefs to be more in harmony with common sense.
As a graduate student in the Religious Studies Department, I have given these issues quite a bit of thought. Evangelicals seem to think that knowing the historical circumstances surrounding the composition of a tribal anthology such as the Hebrew Bible will divest it of its wonder. I say that it increases the sense of wonder.
When I know about the circumstances in which the writers of religious texts lived it makes those texts much more powerful to read. This is especially so considering the often brutal living conditions that ancient people endured.
Christopher Herrin is a graduate religious studies major and a columnist for the Daily Forty-Niner.