Each month this year, Decision is featuring an article on the work of Biblical archaeology, reporting on the most recent finds and the significance of this discipline in aiding the student of God’s Word. This month features a question and answer with Steven Ortiz, Ph.D., professor of archaeology and Biblical backgrounds and director of the Tandy Institute for Archaeology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. Ortiz is the co-director and lead investigator of the ongoing Tel Gezer excavation project in Israel.
When people think of archaeology, they picture Indiana Jones. How do you explain to the lay person what the task of Biblical archaeology is?
Most people associate archaeology with great discoveries and the solving of great mysteries. This is understandable. Sensational discoveries are constantly trotted out in the media. Archaeology is the reconstruction of history and the past, using the material remains of society. It involves seasons of hard work outside, moving a lot of soil and stone. For every month of sweat labor, there will be 11 months of working in the lab and library. Biblical archaeology differs from general archaeology only in that we are focused on reconstructing the history of Bible lands. For Biblical archaeologists who have a high view of Scripture, there are underlying goals to investigate the historicity of the Biblical text.
Why should the work of archaeology be important to the church?
For the person in the pew, archaeology helps to contextualize and complement the Biblical text as well as correct man’s interpretation of the text. God acted at a particular time, a particular place, and among a particular people. Thus, God’s revelation to His people needs to be understood in a space-time continuum. His revelation happened in the soils of ancient Palestine, Egypt and Mesopotamia. His covenant was revealed to nomadic herdsmen, slaves, kings and prophets.
The Biblical authors assume their audience knows the context of the revelation. Unfortunately, Westerners are far removed from the context of the revelation. Archaeology and Biblical backgrounds help to place God’s Word in its proper context of revelation.
Archaeology complements the text of God’s Word. You cannot understand the Apostle Paul’s metaphor of putting on the full armor of God without knowing Roman military armament in the first century A.D. Archaeology also corrects our interpretation. I remember growing up in the church thinking that the Biblical “wilderness” meant a forest with trees and streams. I was shocked my first time traveling in the wilderness of Judah and realizing that it was stark desert.
What are some of the most significant discoveries of Biblical archaeology, and what makes them important?
Of course, the Dead Sea Scrolls and the House of David Inscription. The Dead Sea Scrolls are the oldest Biblical manuscripts, the discovery of which has helped dispel the liberal belief that the Old Testament had been altered over the centuries. The second find that had a profound impact was the House of David inscription found in the early 1990s. Critical scholars were proposing that the accounts of kings David and Solomon were mere fairy tales written by later Jews during the exile to make up a glorious past. This proposal was gaining ground among Biblical scholars, casting doubt on whether the Old Testament reflected historical events. But this proposal was falsified when an inscription recounting a battle victory by the Aramaeans against Israel mentioned the “House of David.” It appears that the Aramaeans in the 9th century B.C. were aware of a Davidic dynasty!
So if I am understanding properly, many liberal scholars have attempted to dismiss Biblical history because of what they perceived as a lack of evidence—often until Biblical archaeology has turned up that evidence.
The issue that archaeology addresses is the antiquity of the accounts found in Scripture. Just as the recent critical scholars have proposed that the Biblical text reflects stories that are made up, archaeology is able to confirm or deny the proposal. But archaeological data also need to be interpreted. Scholars can take the archaeological record and find support for their particular positions. Hence the need for evangelical scholars to be trained in the field of archaeology. I’m talking about the need to be properly trained in the science of material studies and the use of the archaeological record to reconstruct the past. I would propose that we need evangelical academic institutions to create departments of Biblical archaeology that are research-based and rigorous.
What is the relationship that you see between your work in Biblical archaeology and the work of the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Do you know of people whose exposure to archaeological evidence led them to saving faith?
Saving faith only comes with an encounter with the risen Lord. I rarely reference my work in archaeology when I am sharing my faith. I believe people come to faith only when they realize their need for a Savior because of their sins. It is usually a distorted view of themselves (I’m a good person) that is the problem. If this were not true, then evangelistic crusades would be focused on showing slides of archaeological discoveries rather than a call to repentance.
I don’t know of anyone who has come to saving faith because of archaeological evidence, but I have known several who have lost their faith because of “so-called” archaeological evidence. This is why we need evangelical scholars who are able to articulate and handle the archaeological record. We have been excellent at training students to handle the Biblical text. We need to train a new generation to handle the archeological text.
Interviewed by Jerry Pierce, Managing editor, Decision.