The Value and Limitations of Archaeology, Part 1 (The Covenant & the Cross #6)

Today’s quote about the Bible is from Charles Spurgeon. He said: “Some people like to read many [Bible] chapters every day. I would not dissuade them from the practice, but I would rather lay my soul a soak in half a dozen verses all day than rinse my hand in several chapters. Oh, to be bathed in a text of Scripture, and to let it be sucked up in your very soul, till it saturates your heart!”

Today, we are going to continue our overview of some topics that will help us as we study the Bible throughout future episodes.

Our topic for today is titled: “The Value and Limitations of Archaeology (Part 1)” from the book, “The Promise and the Blessing” by Michael A. Harbin.

As we have noted, one of Wellhausen’s weaknesses was that he did not take archaeology into account as he developed his theories. Archaeology as a science developed in the last half of the 1800s. Since then it has made many contributions to our understanding of the Bible. The key contributions have come from various ancient libraries that have been found. As a result of these discoveries, we are better able to place biblical studies within cultural contexts. We have come to realize that biblical history fits within an overall Ancient Near East historical context, although there is some debate on how the pieces fit in.

However, archaeology has both strengths and weaknesses. On the one hand, we cannot ignore it, but on the other hand, we must be careful not to expect too much from it. For example, archaeology does not prove the Bible. As part of our groundwork, we need to look at some of the limitations of this discipline.

The Problem of Historical Losses

To put the problem in perspective, we need to think through the process that produces what we now call an archaeological site. Most of the sites we see in the Middle East are the buried ruins of cities that were abandoned after being destroyed by either natural disaster or human conquest. The survivors would take whatever they could with them, and in the case of conquest, the looters would first plunder the city and then usually burn it, destroying everything that was flammable. For the most part, what was left behind was trash and debris no one wanted; anything valuable had been taken.

Over the years, this residue deteriorated. Even stone is subject to erosion. Limestone and marble, two of the most desirable building materials because they are easily worked and give very pleasing results, are quickly eaten away by acidic water. This is a very real problem in modern cities, even where the material is less than a century old. The problem is compounded in ancient cities, even in areas with dry climates.

For historical purposes, the most desirable discoveries are writing materials, but these (aside from engraved stone monuments) are also the ones most prone to destruction: papyrus, parchment, and wood. One exception is found in Mesopotamia. At an early date, the people of Mesopotamia used clay to write on because it was cheap and easy to work with. The most important tablets were baked in kilns; the others were allowed to dry slowly. A fortuitous result of the burning of cities in this area is that many of the clay tablets hardened in the fire, producing a crude type of ceramic. However, even this process was generally incomplete, and many of these tablets have broken and crumbled over the centuries.

On our next broadcast, we will continue looking at “The Value and Limitations of Archaeology.”

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