Archaeology and the Bible, Part 2
by j. k. eakins

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As most of the readers of The House Church Central Magazine know, the Old Testament was written in Hebrew (with just a few short sections in Aramaic) and the New Testament was written in Greek. None of the original manuscripts have survived and the determination of the best reading for existing copies of scripture is an on-going challenge for students of the Bible. Archeology has provided one tool to aid in this search. Two examples follow (many others could be cited).

In 1929, long term excavation began at a site known as Ras Shamra. Soon the French archeologists working there realized that they had discovered the long lost city of Ugarit. A large number of clay tablets were found containing texts written in several languages, the majority being a previously unknown ancient northwest Semitic language that would soon be called Ugaritic.

Biblical Hebrew is also a northwest Semitic language and a large number of texts written in a closely related language has proven to be very helpful. Many words in the Old Testament where the translation was in doubt, or even impossible, were now clarified by the texts in this "cognate" language. Also, since many of the Ugaritic texts were poetic, our understanding of the poetry of the Old Testament was enhanced. Even our knowledge of Hebrew as a language has been significantly increased.

For one wanting to see an example of the great impact of Ugaritic on Old Testament studies, I recommend examining the three volume commentary by Mitchell Dahood on the book of Psalms (Anchor Bible). Some feel that Dahood has gone to an extreme in his dependence on Ugaritic (and perhaps he has), but his commentary has certainly proved to be very helpful.

And then there are the famous Dead Sea Scrolls found at Qumran on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. These documents, written mainly on leather and in Hebrew, were almost certainly the property of a religious sectarian group of Jews known as the Essenes (a few scholars disagree).

These texts help us understand the religious context of the New testament period and have provided illumination for the text of the Old Testament. For example, among the many Biblical texts found at Qumran (at least a portion of every book of the Old Testament with the exception of Esther; no New Testament texts) is a complete copy of the book of Isaiah dating to about 100 BC. This is more than 1000 years older than any previously known manuscript of Isaiah. It is reassuring to find very little difference between the old and more recent copy. Obviously the text has been copied by hand with great care through the centuries, and therefore the text upon which our present Bible is based has not been distorted by this copying process. Only a few changes have been made in recent translations of Isaiah on the basis of the Qumran manuscript and these have all been quite minor.

In addition to providing useful data about the Biblical text, archeology has also been helpful in the areas of history and geography. Recovery of numerous ancient Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian documents has led to a greatly expanded knowledge of the Old Testament period. It is fascinating to read about the fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 BC and the Southern Kingdom of Judah in 597/587 BC from the perspective of the enemy (Assyria, Babylonia). And it is exciting to find many of the Biblical kings mentioned in non-Biblical resources - Omri, Ahab, Juhu, and Hezekiah to name just a few.

Much that has been confusing or obscure about many facets of Old Testament history because of the brevity and agenda of the Biblical texts has now been made clear. For a classic example, scholars had long wondered why the book of Daniel speaks of Belshazzar as the last king of the Neo-Babylon Empire when it was quite certain that the final king was named Nabonidus. Eventually, however, additional Babylonian records were found which indicate that during the final years of the Empire, king Nabonidus absented himself from the city of Babylon and turned over the administration of the day-to-day affairs to a son - named Belshazzar! The Bible is correct. Belshazzar was the de facto king when the Empire collapsed.

Incidentally, many of the non-Biblical historical texts are readily available in English translation. The Ancient Near East, an Anthology of Texts and Pictures (two volumes) edited by James B. Pritchard is quite good and relatively inexpensive paperback editions can be obtained. Highly recommended!

In the realm of geography, Biblical maps and atlases have required frequent revision throughout the twentieth century. This need will continue in years to come as more data emerge as a result of archeological investigation of the Biblical world. Whole new groups of peoples and cities have been recovered in this century--the long lost Empire of the Hittites, the city of Ugarit, and, more recently, the urban complex of Ebla. Numerous Biblical cities have now been definitely identified, including some of the smaller towns visited by the Apostle Paul on his missionary journeys. These discoveries have had an enormous impact, not only on geography, but also on our understanding of the religious-social-economic-political context of the Biblical world. Some of the significance of this will be explored in Part Three of this series.

Part 1 | HCC Magazine | Part 3