A recent post over at Neil’s fine blog Eternity Matters reminded me of a post I started as the result of chancing upon a recent edition of National Geographic (Dec. ’10) in a local bookstore. The cover story was The Search for King David. The article chronicles the growing body of evidence that King David and King Solomon are historical figures, but it also reveals something else – that the evidence is subject to much controversy in large part because of the differing views of groups involved in finding and interpreting it. Essentially there are three groups involved in the exploration of Biblical antiquities – Jews and Christians who consider the Bible as describing history, Muslims who deny that Jews have a historical presence in Israel, and secularists who deny any historical veracity of the Bible.
The views of investigators are critical to understanding what is being said about the historical nature of the Bible because unlike ongoing natural phenomena which can be objectively observed and tested, history is largely the subject of interpretation by individuals and groups. When looking at a particular artifact or archeological site, a researcher brings with him his convictions and beliefs about history. From the article:
The once common practice of using the Bible as an archaeological guide has been widely contested as an unscientific case of circular reasoning—and with particular relish by Tel Aviv University’s contrarian-in-residence Israel Finkelstein, who has made a career out of merrily demolishing such assumptions. He and other proponents of “low chronology” say that the weight of archaeological evidence in and around Israel suggests that the dates posited by biblical scholars are a century off. The “Solomonic” buildings excavated by biblical archaeologists over the past several decades at Hazor, Gezer, and Megiddo were not constructed in David and Solomon’s time, he says, and so must have been built by kings of the ninth-century B.C.’s Omride dynasty, well after David and Solomon’s reign.
During David’s time, as Finkelstein casts it, Jerusalem was little more than a “hill-country village,” David himself a raggedy upstart akin to Pancho Villa, and his legion of followers more like “500 people with sticks in their hands shouting and cursing and spitting—not the stuff of great armies of chariots described in the text.
“Of course we’re not looking at the palace of David!” Finkelstein roars at the very mention of Mazar’s discovery. “I mean, come on. I respect her efforts. I like her—very nice lady. But this interpretation is—how to say it?—a bit naive.”
Now it is Finkelstein’s theory that is under siege.
The article goes on to delineate evidence that David was much more than a ragtag rebel; however I think the fact that there is a controversy at all is telling. Unlike most other religions, Christianity (and Judaism from which it springs) is solidly mired in historical realities. There were no archeological controversies over ancient Greek or Roman religious beliefs because they were never understood to be historical in nature – they didn’t pretend to be. We don’t talk about Hindu archeology or Buddhist archeology because those religions are not reliant upon historical facts. None of these religions even pretends to be the product of a set of events that occurred in a particular time and place in history; only vague references to certain individuals whose actual existence is unimportant to the belief system.
Biblical belief however is definitively set in a particular places and times and concerns certain individuals. Take the opening to the 3rd chapter of the Gospel of Luke:
Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip was tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, in the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John, the son of Zacharias, in the wilderness.
There is a very specific list there of historic individuals
and places. There is no doubt about when and where the events were understood to have taken place. Interestingly, the historical existence some of the individuals in the list (Pilate and Caiaphas) were questioned by secular historians until late in the 20th century; that is until archeological evidence of their existence came to light. It is apparent that the author of the book was himself familiar with these individuals and places. Now these facts don’t in and of themselves prove that the events chronicled in the gospel occurred, but it does differentiate it from other religious beliefs at the time and since.
Indeed there is countless archeological evidences from the Bible to support its historical claims. The lack of evidence for certain individuals, often trumpeted by secular skeptics, grows smaller over time. Some evidences I would be surprised to find – for example of Abraham, an isolated nomad wandering across an ancient wilderness. Others however been have been demonstrated to exist – in addition to the evidences for David and Solomon mentioned above, we have good archeological evidence for the existence of the Israelites in the age of Joshua and Judges, King Ahab, Queen Jezebel, the prophet Jeremiah, King Jehu, King Hezekiah, the Babylonian Prince Belshazzar, the existence of Pontius Pilate, as well as the High Priest Caiaphas who condemned Jesus to death. There are numerous other examples both of the existence of people mentioned in the Bible, as well as artifacts which denote the general familiarity of the writers with the times in which they were writing.
Now obviously these evidences don’t in and of themselves prove the existence of God, or that Jesus was who the gospels claim he was – but what they do is distinguish the Bible from other religious beliefs and texts. Skeptics constantly seek to find flaws with the Bible, and claim many exist (a tendency that obviously skews their interpretations of the evidence that supports the Bible) but they can’t deny the distinction of the Bible when compared to other religious beliefs,
The text of Jews and Christians is by no means a mere superstition.