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Archaeology and Bible History

Archaeology and Bible History

by Joseph Free, Howard Vos

Joseph P. Free's Archaeology and Bible History, first published in 1950, served well an entire generation of pastors, Sunday school teachers, laypersons, and college students by summarizing the history of the Bible and shedding light on biblical events through archaeological discoveries. The author demonstrated how such data helps us understand the Bible and


Joseph P. Free's Archaeology and Bible History, first published in 1950, served well an entire generation of pastors, Sunday school teachers, laypersons, and college students by summarizing the history of the Bible and shedding light on biblical events through archaeological discoveries. The author demonstrated how such data helps us understand the Bible and confirm its historical accuracy. At times he also dealt with issues of biblical interpretation and criticism, always from a historically orthodox position. When the book was withdrawn from circulation in 1976 after the fourteenth printing, many hoped for the day when it would be revised and updated. That task has now been undertaken by one of Dr. Free's former students and a biblical archaeologist in his own right, Dr. Howard Vos. He has brought the archaeological and historical material up to date and has modified earlier archaeological interpretations where necessary. The bibliography has been almost totally replaced.

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Archaeology and Bible History

By Joseph Free Howard Vos


Copyright © 1992 Zondervan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-310-47961-4

Chapter One

Bible Archaeology, Bible History, and Buried Cities

The Functions of Bible Archaeology

A friend once asked me, "What is the value of archaeology for biblical study, anyway?" I pointed out that numerous passages of the Bible that long puzzled the commentators have readily yielded up their meaning when new light from archaeological discoveries has been focused on them. In other words, archaeology illuminates the text of the Scriptures and so makes valuable contributions to the field of biblical interpretation and exegesis. In addition to illuminating the Bible, archaeology has confirmed countless passages that have been rejected by critics as unhistorical or contradictory to known facts. This aspect of archaeology forms a valuable part of the defense of the Scriptures-a discipline commonly known as apologetics. In summary it may be said that two of the main functions of Bible archaeology are the illumination and the confirmation of the Bible.

The Bible, a Historical Book

The Bible is a historical book, and the great truths of Christianity are founded on the historic facts revealed in it. If the fact of the Virgin Birth, the fact of the Crucifixion, and the fact of the Resurrection are set aside, our faith is without foundation. Since the New Testament revelation stands upon the foundation of the Old Testament, the accuracy of the Old Testament is of great importance to us.

Although confirmation of one kind of truth (historical) does not demonstrate the validity of another kind of truth (theological), the veracity of the historical narrative of Scripture lends credence to the theological message. Those who do not accept the historical accuracy of the Bible find it easier to dismiss its theological claims. The accuracy and historicity of the Scriptures as God's Word and as his unique revelation has been denied by the destructive critic who has set aside the full validity of the Bible at point after point. For example, certain critics have said that the accounts of Abraham are legendary, that Mosaic legislation was formulated hundreds of years after the time of Moses, that such people as the Hittites were either legendary or insignificant, that the book of Judges was composed of "good stories" and not really historical accounts, and that various people ranging from Sargon to Sanballat were unhistorical. Yet archaeological discoveries have shown that these critical charges and countless others are wrong and that the Bible is trustworthy in the very statements that critics have set aside as untrustworthy?

The Purpose and Nature of Bible History; Verbal Inspiration

Bible history is not primarily a record of humanity's seeking after God. It is rather a record of God's revelation to humanity. Pagan religions deal with humanity's seeking after God or gods, but the Scriptures are God's own revelation to us, telling how from the beginning in Eden God spoke to Adam and Eve and how he later directed Noah, called Abraham from Ur, spoke through the prophets, and finally gave the supreme revelation in his Son Jesus Christ.

Bible believers hold that this record of God's revelation is not only vital for all humankind but is accurate in all respects. We also hold that the Bible writers exercised their own personality, used their own vocabulary, and drew on their own memories, intuitions, and judgments and that at the same time they were prevented from making errors and were so guided by God that they expressed exactly what God wished to make known. This guidance was not so vague that it assured merely the general idea or concept that God wished to convey, but rather it extended even to the choice of words when it would be essential to convey his message. The foregoing description sets forth my view of "verbal inspiration," namely, that God guided even to the choice of words when necessary. On the other hand, I reject the dictation theory of inspiration, which makes the process a mere mechanical operation, robs a writer of his personality, and makes him a mere machine. In summary, I agree with Gaussen's definition of inspiration, which holds that inspiration is "that inexplicable power which the divine Spirit put forth of old on the authors of Holy Scripture, in order to their guidance even in the employment of the words they used, and to preserve them alike from all error and all omission."

The Bible is not a textbook on science, yet when it speaks of matters relating to science, it is accurate. The Scriptures, for example, do not claim to be, nor are they, a treatise on astronomy, yet when Job speaks of the Bear (Job 38:32), he writes in accord with known astronomical facts. As has been said, "The Scriptures were written not primarily to tell us how the heavens go, but to tell us how to go to heaven." Yet the content of all Scripture is scientifically and historically accurate, and the scientific and historical allusions of the Bible are constantly illuminated and confirmed by modern discoveries.

Accuracy of the Text of the Bible

Bible believers do not hold that the translations of the Bible into English and other languages are inerrant. Nor do we maintain the inerrancy of existing manuscripts. But as believers in the fundamentals of the faith, we do hold that the original manuscripts were absolutely accurate and without error. The question arises, "If we do not have the original manuscripts, how can we be sure of the accuracy of the manuscripts we do have?" In reply it should be said that hundreds of manuscripts have come down to us and that the variations in these manuscripts are so slight that none of them alter any vital Christian truth. Through the science of textual study, scholars are able to reconstruct a text so close to what the original text must have been that it is satisfactory to scholars of almost every degree of liberalism and conservatism. Hort, the great New Testament scholar of the nineteenth century, pointed out that "only about one word in every thousand has upon it substantial variation supported by such evidence as to call out the efforts of the critic in deciding between the readings." The statement of Bentley, made many years ago, is still valid, that "the real text of the sacred writings is competently exact, nor is one article of faith or moral precept either perverted or lost, choose as awkwardly as you will, choose the worst by design, out of the whole lump of readings."

Hort's statement that only about one word in one thousand in the New Testament would call out the efforts of scholars, is significant when we realize that the Westcott and Hort Greek New Testament is about five hundred pages long and that one one-thousandth of it would be only half a page. This does not mean that such an amount of the New Testament is necessarily inaccurate or wrong; it means merely that one one-thousandth of the material would require scholarly study to ascertain what were likely the original words.

The surviving Hebrew Old Testament manuscripts show very little variation. A careful scholar of an earlier generation, William Henry Green said, "The Hebrew manuscripts cannot compare with those of the New Testament either in antiquity or number, but they have been written with greater care and exhibit fewer various readings." In regard to the accuracy of the text of the Old Testament, Green concluded, "It may be safely said that no other work of antiquity has been so accurately transmitted."

Light on Bible History From Buried Cities

A century and a half ago many familiar biblical cities such as Jericho, Samaria, Bethel, Shiloh, Bethshan, Gezer, Nineveh, Babylon, and Ur were shapeless mounds, the very identity of which, in some cases, had been forgotten.

Skepticism had been expressed concerning the details of the capture of Jericho; the ivory palace of Ahab at Samaria (1 Kings 22:39) was a puzzling reference in the Scriptures; the Wellhausen school of criticism doubted the actual existence of the tabernacle and minimized the importance of Shiloh, where the biblical record locates the setting up of the tabernacle in Palestine (Josh. 18:1); and the boasted glories of Nineveh and Babylon seemed more in keeping with the glowing reports of an overenthusiastic chamber of commerce than with sober historic fact.

Within the past hundred and fifty years, however, all of these cities have been uncovered, some receiving additional archaeological attention in recent years. The importance of the discoveries is apparent when we realize that the excavation of these cities, and dozens more, has produced material that confirms the Scriptures at point after point. In addition to confirming the Bible, the excavations in the Near East have brought much illumination to the pages of Scripture. This phase of modern archaeological investigation is well summarized by Ira Maurice Price, late professor in the field of Old Testament at the University of Chicago: "The Old Testament is fast acquiring a fresh significance. Old Testament history has become incandescent with the wondrous archaeological discoveries in Bible lands. Almost every period of that old Book has been flooded with new light out of the ruins of the past."

How Are Cities Buried?

Laypeople often ask, "How were these cities in the Bible lands buried?" They might suppose that the natural drifting of sands covered them over; and it did. But other processes were far more important in building up the mounds that represent the remains of Near Eastern cities. The repeated destruction and rebuilding of a city, a process that often went on during the course of many centuries, resulted in the formation of an artificial mound that may range from fifty to one hundred feet in elevation. Such a mound is known to archaeologists as a "tell," from the Arabic word for "hill."

The recurrent cycle is as follows: An invader captures a town, destroys many of the buildings, and possibly kills or carries off the inhabitants. In the course of time, some of the original inhabitants or perhaps another group level off the old ruins and build new buildings on the site of the old city. The layer of remains and debris from the first city forms a stratum that often measures from one to five feet in depth. During the course of many centuries, such a city is likely to go through many destructions and rebuildings, each one leaving what is called a "layer of occupation."


Excerpted from Archaeology and Bible History by Joseph Free Howard Vos Copyright © 1992 by Zondervan. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

The late Joseph P. Free was chairman of the department of archaeology at Wheaton College, and later, professor of archaeology and history at Bemidji State College in Minnesota. He did extensive excavations of the city of Dothan and published numerous articles on issues of archaeology.

Howard F. Vos has had a distinguished career as an expert in historical, geographical, biblical, and archeological research. A prolific author and editor, he is responsible for twenty-five books that are standards in their field, including the Wycliffe Bible Dictionary. He has traveled extensively in the Bible lands and excavated many sites in Israel. Vos is currently Emeritus Professor of History and Archaeology at The King's College in New York.

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