Mr. Climer is a member of the Hope Protestant Reformed Church of Redlands, California.

The December 18, 1995 issue of Time magazine had as its cover story, “IS THE BIBLE FACT OR FICTION? Archaeologists in the Holy Land are shedding new light on what did- and didn’t occur in the greatest stories ever told.” The article describes recent archaeological finds in Israel and surrounding areas, and then categorizes public and scholarly reaction to these finds in three main groupings: “Jewish and Christian Ultraconservatives,” who do not believe any part of the Bible is fiction; “Atheists,” who want to debunk the whole Bible; and “the moderate majority,” who want to be sure that the Bible is scientifically “grounded in truth.”

As Reformed believers we fall into what Time calls the “Ultraconservative” group. We believe that the Bible is infallible not only in spiritual matters, but also in accounts with historical and geographical content. So when archaeologists excavate biblical lands and, based on their findings, reach conclusions that differ with the historical account of Scripture, how should a Reformed believer respond?

It is correct to say that we accept the Word of God by faith, whatever the claims of archaeology or any other branch of science. However, making that statement without any further explanation sounds as if I we are pitting blind faith against scientific reason. I intend to demonstrate in this article that while the science of archaeology may be reasonable, it is not truthful; and a faith that provides truth is much to be preferred over a reason that does not.

Of the other two groups mentioned in the magazine article, we can easily understand the “Atheists.” We accept the Bible as true, they reject it. As Time points out, even when archaeology supports a biblical narrative, the atheists are likely to reject both Scripture and science. Their position is one of faith, as much as is ours. It is just that the object of their faith is their own vanity.

But what is one to make of the third category, the “moderate majority.” Many Evangelicals fall into this category, for they are delighted whenever an archaeological find supports a part of Scripture, or, as Time says, “strengthens the Bible’s claim to historical accuracy.” But if a supportive archaeologist enhances Scripture’s claim to accuracy, does a scientific detractor weaken the Bible’s claim to truth? And if Christians only accept those archaeological findings that they agree with, can they not be justly accused of being positively childish in their refusal to face up to disagreeable facts?

The whole unfortunate enterprise of trying to verify the claims of Scripture with the findings of archaeology rests on a real misunderstanding of how the science of archaeology and the Christian faith view the concept of truth. To focus on this misunderstanding let us confront the claims of archaeology with the simple question, “How do you know?” The answer to this one little question reveals the principles upon which are based all claims to knowledge and truth by any science, philosophy, or religion.

To begin with, we must know what the science of archaeology is, and the type of claims it makes. Secondly, we must compare and contrast archaeological truth and biblical truth. Finally, against this background, let us review again the conflict that Time calls “fact vs. faith.”

Archaelogical Truth

Archaeology is “the scientific study of extinct peoples through skeletal remains, fossils, and objects of human workmanship (as implements, artifacts, monuments, or inscriptions) found in the earth” (Webster’s 3rd International Dictionary of the English Language, 1981). Archaeologists excavate and sift through the remains of ancient civilizations and then try to piece together their findings into a coherent picture of how the people of that society lived, and how its institutions functioned.

Perhaps the most important artifact that any civilization leaves behind is its body of literature. Many societies in the ancient Middle East left their writings in stone (the hieroglyphs of Egypt), or on soft clay tablets that hardened into stone over time (the Babylonians and Assyrians). The ancient Hebrews apparently used paper, or possibly animal skins. Since these materials decompose, documents written on them had to be recopied time and again. Archaeologists generally accept hieroglyphs and clay tablets as being more accurate than paper manuscripts, since the former are more likely to be the original writings. There is obviously much less room for error or editing in a document carved on stone than on a manuscript copy several times removed from the original. The Time article gives several examples of archaeologists rejecting biblical manuscripts in favor of their own theories based on other artifacts.

The book of Joshua, chapter 6, records the destruction of the walls of Jericho, allowing the Israelites under the leadership of Joshua to conquer the city. Time tells us that after extensive excavations at the site of ancient Jericho, archaeologists have determined that the location was abandoned between about 1500-1100 BC. According to them no walled cities existed during this time in this area of Canaan. Conservative biblical scholars and archaeologists disagree on the date of the Israelite entrance into Canaan, but they both agree that it falls well within the time-range mentioned above. Given this chronology, modern archaeology concludes that the Hebrews moved onto vacant or sparsely populated land. This thinking allows no walls to come tumbling down, and no city to be conquered. The skeptics also doubt that Joshua even existed. Without a battle, who needs a general?

Now let us ask the test question: How do they know that Jericho and its walls did not exist during this time period?

Just as our society paves over old streets and erects new buildings over the remains of old foundations, so ancient civilizations built towns and cities over the debris of earlier structures. When archaeologists excavate a site, they divide it into different levels, each level or layer corresponding to a defined era of human habitation or abandonment. The methods by which a date, for a particular level is determined are quite involved, and a detailed explanation of them is beyond the scope of this article.

To gain some idea of what is involved, consider a future archaeologist excavating our civilization. He digs down through layer after layer of debris, and among this debris he finds fragments of both ceramic and plastic plates and other kitchenware. But at a certain level the plastic disappears, and below that he finds only shards of ceramic plates and pots. Suppose that at this transition level he also finds some sort of preserved calendar dated “1950.” He now has his dating “key”: the calendar and the plastic dishes. This key tells him that at this initial site plastic dishes were not in use before 1950. If he encounters plastic dishes at any other site, in the absence of any conflicting finds, he can assume that the level he finds them in was inhabited in 1950 or later.

At Jericho, the scientists found some sort of artifacts (probably pottery) at a certain level that allowed them to date that level at 1500-1100 BC, based upon their “key” with similar artifacts at other excavations. This particular level did not contain the foundations or remains of any city walls, buildings, or other structures that would indicate a city. How to explain this discrepancy with the biblical account? The earliest extant manuscript of the book of Joshua dates from a period hundreds of years after the events described in : the book. Skeptics theorize that such a manuscript, in being recopied from a decaying original, could have been altered by a careless or zealous scribe, seeking to glorify his God and the history of his nation by inventing a battle that never occurred and a leader who never existed.

The archaeologists who excavated Jericho published their theory. These findings were debated and ultimately accepted by most of the archaeological community. Unless and until some new evidence comes along, the modern science of archaeology has determined that the. Israelite conquest of Canaan as described in the book of Joshua is not factual. Specifically, Joshua did not fight the battle of Jericho. This is an archaeological truth, or more accurately, a testing by archaeological research methods of a biblical story, and the biblical passage in question fails the test.

Conservative biblical scholars disagree, but their objections are tainted because they are trying to prove the Bible, instead of looking at it objectively, or so the scientists say. Now if religion is the problem, it seems to me that we could easily demonstrate the objectivity of archaeology in the reconstruction of ancient civilizations by examining a site that has no religious significance for today, but one that has been widely excavated, by numerous scientists. In such a case, there would be no believers to muddy the waters for the clear thinking scientists. There are many such sites; the most famous is Troy.

A number of works of ancient Greek literature are based on an oral tradition, passed down by generations of bards, of a great war between the city-states of Greece and the rich and powerful city of Troy, located in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey). The most famous of these works is The Illiad, a poem composed in approximately 800 BC, some 400 years after the events, by a blind Greek named Homer. This epic work does not give an account of the entire war, but it does give a great deal of information about the Greek expedition, the layout of Troy, and the leaders and warriors on both sides of the conflict. In other words, The Illiad lists many specifics that archaeologists should be able to check.

Perhaps the reader recalls the general outline of the Trojan War: Helen, queen of Sparta, was carried off to Troy by Paris, a prince of the Trojan royal family. Outraged, a number of Greek cities combined forces, sailed to Troy, and besieged the city for ten long years. They were not able to breach the massive walls of Troy, so finally they resorted to subterfuge. By means of a giant hollow wooden idol, the famed Trojan horse, the Greeks infiltrated Troy. The gates were thrown open, and the city was lost. Those Trojans not killed were enslaved, and Troy itself was burned and demolished. The victorious Greeks sailed home with the beautiful Helen, the cause of it all, “the face that launched a thousand ships.”

Since Roman times, scholars have debated the veracity of The Illiad and other works on the Trojan War. Do they describe a real war, or a myth? If there was such a war, how accurate is Homer’s telling of it? In the 185Os, modern archeology took up the debate. For the last 140 years, team after team of scientists has excavated a now deserted site on the coast of Turkey. Their very impressive and voluminous findings were reviewed in a recent documentary series on public television, In Search of the Trojan War. It is now believed that the site suspected to contain the ruins of Troy was continuously occupied by humans for over 5000 years. It contains 50 separate levels. Nine of these levels show the characteristics of true cities, i.e., walls, palaces, etc. Nine of the levels also show signs of violent destruction, either by warfare or natural disaster, such as earthquakes.

What of Homer’s Troy? Which level, if any, matches the magnificent city of The Iliad? Did the Trojan War really happen? Almost a century and a half of modern scientific investigation, without any religious interference or bias, has yielded a new answer for each new investigato. The archaeological truth about Troy changes with each generation of archaeologists. The original excavator “proved” that The Iliad was as accurate as Christians believe the Bible to be. A later archaeological team threw out most of his conclusions and “proved” that Homer exaggerated greatly, if he told the truth at all. A subsequent generation of diggers “proved” that an earthquake largely destroyed Troy, and that pirates finished the job. And so on…. The only points that all the experts agree on are that the site was inhabited for thousands of years, and it is now abandoned.

But what of the sophisticated techniques for dating artifacts and levels of occupation? Each individual artifact was precisely catalogued by the team that found it. Each highly trained archaeologist looked at those catalogued findings, maybe did some excavations of his own, and then came up with a different interpretation to explain how all those relics got there.

The narrator of the documentary series takes us through these diverse theories in six hours of analysis. At the end, he makes this startling observation on the archaeological search for the truth about the Trojan war: “There can never be a final word, only a new interpretation by each generation in terms of its own dreams and needs” (emphasis added). This is the proof, the knowledge, and the truth that modern archaeology gives us: “… never a final word, only a new interpretation….”

… to be continued.