Sunday, December 20, 2009

A Good Reason for Archaeology

Do you ever have those topics that you think about from time to time over the course of a few months or years? You don't think about it all the time, but it's an issue you want to learn more about, or a problem that you would like to solve, or a question that you really want to get an answer to, so you constantly have your ears open for more information about it.

I have a few issues like that. One of them is the question, "What good is archaeology?" I have one graduate degree in Old Testament Archaology & History and I'm about to complete another. And I have to ask myself, "Is what I've invested my life into for the last 7 years really worthwhile?"

It's not an easy question to answer. In some ways, the case could be made that archaeology matters very little in the eternal scheme of things. Biblical archaeology is a relatively young discipline and the church did just fine without it for almost 2,000 years. In the one and only Albert Mohler Program that is devoted to the issue, Dr. Moore (the dean of my school) basically downplays archaeology's importance. (To hear the show, click here.) And I have to admit that people's knowledge or lack of knowledge about archaeology usually doesn't have any bearing on whether or not they will believe the gospel. In short, the church could survive and thrive without biblical archaeology.

So what good is it? One answer to that question came to me a couple of months ago as I met with a small group of men from my church. We had been reading the Psalms together throughout the week and gathering on Friday mornings to discuss what we were learning from the readings. One of the men pointed out that morning that it is hard for modern Christians, who are reading these texts thousands of years after they were written, to fully understand what the biblical writer had in mind as he was writing. For example, when he says, "God is our fortress," what kind of fortress did he have in mind? What did an Israelite fortress look like?

This is where archaeology steps in and helps flesh things out. A freestanding fortress in ancient Israel was a relatively small building with a roughly square shape. It had thick, stone walls and was usually built on the top of a hill. There were several of these fortresses that were built in the Negev desert, and some of them date back as far as the time of Solomon. Fortresses could also refer to a building within the city walls (or often part of the city wall) that had similar characteristics: thick stone walls, often on an elevated position, built to withstand an enemy attack. Below is a picture of the excavated ruins of one such Israelite fortress. Only the foundation layer of the building has been preserved. (Photo courtesy of www.bibleplaces.com.)
It was an encouragement to me this morning to be able to share what I knew about biblical archaeology so that some Christian brothers could understand their Bibles better. It was also an encouragement to be ASKED to share what I knew. It's one thing to promote your own discipline and cram it down people's throats ... It's quite another to be asked to use what you know to help solve a problem that came up on its own.

It has long been admitted by biblical archaeologists that biblical archaeology cannot prove the Bible. But what archaeology is best at is fleshing out the world of the Bible to modern minds. What did a fortress look like? What types of houses did people live in? What did common household items look like? Or even: What did weapons look like in that day? (Which happens to be the topic of my dissertation.) These are the types of questions that archaeology can answer. And when the answers to those questions help us to understand the truths of the Bible better, then archaeology has served its highest purpose.

"What good is archaeology?" Although you can certainly be saved without a knowledge of archaeology, after you are saved a knowledge of archaeology can enrich your spiritual life because it brings new light and new understandings to the biblical text.

There are other answers to that question. What would you say?