Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Nazareth - Archeology and the Bible

It has been common for skeptics to point to the lack of a first-century Nazareth in order to chip away at the authenticity of Scripture. Recently, however, it has been found.

Israeli archaeologists said Monday that they have uncovered remains of the first dwelling in the northern city of Nazareth that can be dated back to the time of Jesus.

The find sheds a new light on what Nazareth might have been like in Jesus' time, said the archaeologists, indicating that it was probably a small hamlet with about 50 houses populated by poor Jews.

The act of pointing to a lack of archaeological evidence as a kind of proof that the Bible is historically inaccurate is a little dangerous. By the very nature of the science, the lack of archaeological evidence is not yet hard proof for anything.

And as has been seen in the last century, time and time again the sites and people skeptics said did not exist came crawling out of the desert floor.


Ritchie said...

Hmmm, rather hugely over-stating the supporting evidence the Bible finds in archaeology here, I think. For one thing, Oliver Twist was set in a real place (London), but that doesn't mean the story is anything but fiction.

While the odd location in the Bible may turn out to be real, there are still huge and pivotal accounts which are so thoroughly unsupported by the evidence that any reasonable person would say they have been proved false:


Phil Steiger said...

One should be careful throwing around the phrase, "any reasonable person would say."

This find does not hugely overstate anything. The simple fact is skeptics point to a lack of archeological evidence to argue the Bible is fiction, and Nazareth has been one of those pieces of missing evidence. The fact that is has shown up does not verify the doctrinal claims of Scripture, but it does continue to verify the historical and geographic claims.

Again, the very nature of archeological evidence means we should be careful building a case on "no evidence." Time has a way of providing that evidence, the way it did with Jerico and King David.

Ritchie said...

In principle you are right. Archaeology is like looking through a messy room trying to find your keys - just because you can't find them doesn't mean they are not there.

However, let's take the Bible and assume it is true. Many (most) of the places mentioned in it really do/did exist. So finding evidence for one more location for which we previously had none is not very conclusive a find theologically (however interesting historically).

If we look through the Bible, the further back we go, the bigger the miracles, the grander the events, the more epic the scope. So it's actually easier to look for archeological evidence for events that happened in the Old Testament - the ten plagues of Egypt, the Exodus, the conquest of Isreal. Not only do we fail to find any evidence of these events, we also find much evidence against them. Gradually, the idea that we keep missing the evidence for these epic events becomes like a hundred peolpe standing in a small field and somehow failing to spot the elephant that walks through - they all happen to be glancing in the wrong direction.

It's funny that you should mention Jericho because that is one of the great events of the Old Testament conspicuously unsupported by archaeology:


Phil Steiger said...

Jericho is, in actuality, a well known site that has walls which date back to the era of the biblical story. It looks like some of the info on the site you reference is a little out of date.

For example: http://www.mnsu.edu/emuseum/archaeology/sites/middle_east/jericho.html

The large-scale events you mention in the OT are interesting cases. It was argued to me by an OT expert in a comparative religion class (at a state university) that ancient civilizations do not keep record of embarrassing events. We know the Babylonians conquered Egypt, not because the Egyptians recorded it, but because the Babylonians did. Though there is at least one ancient relief of Israelite slaves in ancient Egypt, the Egyptians had no reason to document their embarrassing release.

All in all, the more ancient the story (like the story of Troy) the less archeological evidence we have. So, in comparison to the rest of (really) ancient literature, the Bible’s stories are quite well supported.

Ritchie said...

If you'll indulge me, the link I gave did not state we don't have a site for Jericho, or omit anything contained within your link. Bryant Wood is a conservative Christian archaeologist, and his conclusions are rather tenuous at best.

I can readily understand and accept your point about civilizations not recording embarrassing events. I know of at least one instance where both sides of the same great battle claim to have won. Then again, the Israelite enslavement within Egypt lasted four hundred years. That's longer than the USA has been in existence. Even imagining the Egpytians wanted to obliterate all mention of Isrealites in Egypt over the last four centuries, that seems like a thoroughly unmanagable task no matter how much they may have wanted to do so - imagine the USA wanting to obliterate all evidence they had ever kept slaves when it was abolished.

You mentioned there is at least one mention of Israelite slaves in Egypt. Can you provide a link for this? I know of none.

And then there is the exodus. Ten utterly devastating plagues - livestock dead, the orchards smashed, the Nile poluted, food reserves likely eaten or inedible thanks to infestations of frogs and locusts, every house grieving the death of the eldest child, the entire slave population upon whom the country's economy depended disappeared overnight taking most of the money and treasure, and then the death of the Pharoh and the army. The only thing that could conceivably follow would be anarchy, total societal collapse and in all likelihood immediate invasion by a powerful neighbour. How could any country survive a string of such devastations?

Yet we have a very rich archaeological record of Egypt's history and no record of the kingdom collapsing. Egypt has always been a major and powerful player in the Mediterranean. The idea that it could collapse and build itself back up without leaving a blip on the historical record is absurd. Worse, many date the exodus to the very height of Egypt's power.

In general it is true that the further back in time we go the less evidence archaeology can generally provide. But people have believed the Bible for the last two thousand years and a great many have set out specifically to validate it's historical claims. The fact that so many have failed is telling.

I'm afraid I think you are sorely mistaken if you think the Bible is well supported by archaeology.

Rusty said...

"I'm afraid I think you are sorely mistaken if you think the Bible is well supported by archaeology."

Whoa, Nellie! Are you serious? The very nature of your comparisons ignore the disparate sizes of Egypt vs. Israel. That various events, pertaining to the smallish state of Israel, continue to be supported by archaeological evidence cannot be summarily discounted.

Ritchie said...

Rusty - could you elaborate please? I'm not sure what you mean.

Brian B said...

Hi Ritchie! Just wanted to reply to some of your comments. I took Phil's point to be dialectically defensive - he seemed to be replying to an objection to the authenticity of Scripture, not giving an argument *for* the authenticity of Scripture. As such, even if there were *other* reasons for worrying about the historical accuracy of this or that part of Scripture, that wouldn't undermine Phil's point.

Phil's argument seems to indict authenticity-skeptics with invoking a "God of the gaps" strategy - pointing to a lack of evidence for X as evidence for the non-existence of X. To the extent that skeptics tend to regard "God of the gaps" arguments as weak (e.g. when employed by theists against the sufficiency of naturalistic or evolutionary explanations, etc.), they should regard analogous arguments as weak (e.g. when employed against the authenticity of Scripture).

A stronger interpretation of Phil's point: there are plenty of cases where a lack of relevant evidence for x *does* seem to be good reason to doubt the existence of x (as your examples rightly suggest). Call these "absence inferences." But we can perform a sort of induction over previous related absence inferences: a given absence inference is only as strong as the relative success of previous related inferences.

In the case of theistic "God of the gaps" arguments (e.g. "science cannot explain X; therefore God must have directly created X"), one might think that, at least for many such kinds of arguments, their "track record" is pretty poor. And this explains why such arguments of this sort are fairly weak.

In the case of "absence inferences" concerning the persons featured in fairly tales, the track record is pretty successful. So we can generally regard such inferences as good evidence.

Phil's point might then be expressed as the claim that the track record for absence inferences involving (the lack of) archaeological evidence relevant to Biblical authenticity is poor - and the Nazareth case is one more to add to the inductive base in support of this conclusion.

It would be a wholly different matter if one then tried to turn the Nazareth case into a *positive* argument for Scriptural authenticity. The fact that an objection to X fails doesn't do very much (though I suppose it does do *something*) to provide a positive case for X.

Ritchie said...

Brian B -

A very well reasoned reply.

On many points you are correct. I take the point in your first paragraph particularly.

I suppose my responses are more specifically targeted at the implication that the Bible is well supported by archaeology then the literal point in the OP.

Then again, I think the case against scriptural authenticity here is more than an inverse God of the Gaps argument.

Take the Exodus for example. Let's say it takes 500 years for a civilisation to collapse and build itself back up (I'm just making up the numbers here for the sake of argument). Then someone suggests the Exodus took place within a 500 year gap in Egypt's history for which we have NO evidence at all. Then suddenly we found some evidence from this period which showed Egypt was a thriving nation. So we shift the date of the Exodus to a different 500 year period for which we had NO evidence...

THIS would be more like an inverse God of the Gaps. But it is not the case. In actual fact, we have a rich archaeological history of Egypt stretching back thousands of years, with papyrus scrolls, tablets, pottery, artifacs and of course, architecture. This is pretty much continuous. There is simply no gap into which we can squeeze an Exodus.

It is not merely the failure to find positive evidence in support of Biblical events which casts doubt on it, but the evidence which suggests at least certain key events could not possibly have happened.

Sarah Wilson said...

Hi, Phil! Saw your blog and thought you might be interested in a brand new pre-publication from Logos Bible Software on Israelite Religion and archaeology: http://www.logos.com/products/prepub/details/5992

Thom said...

ANd now we know that the claim of finding first century evidence was ALSO a fake -