Archaeology, History, and Scripture Part 3: The Historicity Question

In previous posts in this series I have danced around the historicity question. In this post I will tackle this head on. The best advice I can give believers who are beginning to judge what is historical in scripture and what is not is the following (and yes I mean to yell this). YOU ARE TOO BIASED TO BE A GOOD JUDGE OF WHAT IS HISTORICAL AND WHAT IS NOT. You would do much better to focus on finding the best historical context in which to place the events and stories found in the scriptures. When you start to become uncomfortable about some of the answers you find, congratulations, you are now unbiased enough to start answering the historicity question. In fact, by that point, you will implicitly understand how to answer the historicity question and I won’t have to explain it to you.

I say the preceding for two reasons, one theoretical and one historical.

First, the theoretical reason. Everyone is biased in some way. As a believer your biases are embarassingly transparent to unbelievers. You can’t see them and that’s just fine. Unbelievers have their own set of biases, which are embarassingly transparent to believers. They can’t see them and that’s just fine. However, in answering the historicity question unbelievers are in a much better position to tackle the issue head on. They simply do not have as many preconceived notions as you do. They are going to approach the historicity of the Bible in much the same way as you approach the historicity of Homer’s Odyssey or Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita. You don’t have any metaphysical commitments to the truth or falsity of those two works and you will most likely be pretty clear headed about what methodology to follow to determine what is historical in those works and what is not. It’s also going to be pretty obvious to you up front that the former will be less historical than the latter, which is probably a sound judgement. This is the position of the unbeliever with respect to the Bible.

Now, just because you as a believer are biased it doesn’t mean that you should just give up. The smart thing to do is to make your biases into strengths, which is why I suggested the alternate strategy of looking for the best historical context in which to situate the stories and events of scripture. Things are better understood in their proper historical context. As a believer you want to understand scripture. Logically, you want to find the proper historical context for the scripture you believe in. Thus, turn your weakness into strength, ignore the historicity question and look for the context. However, this means you can’t be lazy. Don’t look for any old context which might work, because then you haven’t really understood your scriptures. Be absolutely sure you have found the best historical context based on reliable, objective data. In many instances these exist and will make your scriptures come alive like they never could otherwise. If you don’t find a single context that fits best, or you find no context which fits at all, congratulations, you are now successfully addressing the historicity question.

Second, the historical reason. History bears out my theoretical reason, believers are very biased when dealing with the historicity question. The history I am referring to is the history of archaeology in Israel. Put simply, archaeologists got their conclusions wrong, badly so, for about three generations before they realized their interpretations were hopelessly wrong. The reason was because ALL archaeologists working in Israel wanted to find data that fit their preconceived notions, and they found it. It is only in the past 20 years that archaeologists have begun to unravel and reinterpret the mess that earlier archaeologists made. A couple examples might help.

One of the easiest things to identify in an archaeological dig is a destruction layer. When you are digging down through the earth, if you find a layer of black, you have found a destruction layer (you are seeing the remains of widescale fire). Since these layers are easy to find, a logical story to try and “prove” through archaeology is the book of Joshua; it’s just one destruction after another. So, archaeologists of dug around a lot of places, found lots of destruction layers, and declared the book of Joshua historically sound. They saw what they wanted to see. Recent analysis and better digging techniques have shown that these destructions layers do not fit the criteria for proving the book of Joshua. They are not from the correct time periods, and in many instances the archaeological digs show that the cities were uninhabited at the time Joshua would have been marching through ancient Israel.

Here’s another less obvious case. One of the ways archaeologists date things is through pottery styles. There is a particular style of pottery that has been traditionally dated to the 10th century BC. This type of pottery is very distinctive and when it is found in archaeological layers anywhere in Israel one can assume that it is from the same time period as the others, 10th century BC. Well, how were these pottery styles dated to the 10th century BCE? The pottery style was first discovered in a layer linked to a “monumental gate” which was assumed to have been built by Solomon, not because the gate said, “Solomon was here” but because 1 Kings 9:15 suggests that Solomon built this kind of gate. And, traditional chronologies put Solomon in the 10th century BC. QED, the pottery is from the 10th century BC and can be used to date archaeological layers. This is circular reasoning at its finest. Now that the circular reasoning has been identified, it calls into question dating of archaeological layers all over Israel. The reason this happened is because too many believing archaeologists went digging with a shovel in one hand and a Bible in the other. They didn’t mean to mislead people, it was not malicious, it was simply human bias showing through.

15 Replies to “Archaeology, History, and Scripture Part 3: The Historicity Question”

  1. I am happy to join in in criticizing bone-headed archeology, but I think that the dichotomy set up here between “believer” and “unbeliever” is way too stark. I also think that it doesn’t take into consideration the history of archeology as a field over the last 200 years, which was rooted in all sorts of “biases” such as colonialism, nationalism, preference for “antiquity” over medieval, etc, all of which are thought of as pretty stupid by modern standards in archeology.

  2. TT,

    My purpose is not to criticize “bone-headed archaeology,” I merely use that as an example of what can go wrong when a believer goes about adjudicating historicity claims. This blog entry is addressed to believers, as I would guess most readers of this blog are believers. The contrast is thus stark, not because I think this is the only issue at play, but because of who I am addressing.

  3. It seems to me that sometimes you see similar circularities as in your pottery example in attempts to date inscriptions or other writings by palaeography.

  4. TT,

    Thanks for giving me the chance to clarify. The category of believer is much more nuanced than just “those who believe.” I do think that believers approach historicity questions with different assumptions and levels of belief in the literal historicity of scripture.

    I also think that their responses to the data tend to be basically the same. All believers tend to find enough historicity in scripture to maintain a level of comfort. This will vary from person to person. The fundamentalist will find “proof” for a garden of Eden. The liberal theologian will be comfortable with the barest outlines of post-exilic historicity (restricting historicity to OT issue for now). However the common element is that each finds enough historicity to be comfortable with their beliefs.

    My overarching point is that these responses, although they look quite different, share an underlying bias. And, I don’t think one can attack this bias head on and magically make oneself objective. Instead of trying to overcome this bias head on I am suggesting a more roundabout way for believers to “sneak up” on historicity issues, and that is to turn their biases into strengths.

    I also think that historicity issues cut both ways. A fundamentalist will be uncomfortable when they finally realize that the garden of Eden is a myth and will have to reconfigure their worldview. It also can make liberal theologians uncomfortable when they confront the fact that they can’t make everything metaphorical, that there is historical basis for things that make them uncomfortable, and that they can’t just wish it away. Again, the fundamentalist and the liberal look very different, but I think the same bias is at work.

  5. I’ll just address one of your examples but I would take issue with almost the entire post.

    “A fundamentalist will be uncomfortable when they finally realize that the garden of Eden is a myth and will have to reconfigure their worldview.

    With respect, you seem to be using watered-down mainstream Church doctrine instead of fundamentalist beliefs. Fundamentalist doctrine accepts the Adam-God doctrine…IOW that Adam (MIchael) came here with a celestialized body bringing one of His wives (Eve) with him….that the fossil record is the remnants of a former creation…that the Garden of Eden was exactly where Joseph Smith said it was…etc.

    Just exactly how are we supposed to “finally realize” that the Garden of Eden is a “myth”?

    Heck, I even accept the much-more-far-fetched idea that Jesus Christ rose from the dead…that’s re-animation of dead tissue. Nope, I can’t prove it in a secular laboratory…does that make it false?

  6. Bruce,

    My only suggestion is to do what I say. Find the best context for the scriptures you read. And how are you going to know you have found the best context if you have not seriously looked at a wide variety of options? If going down that path interests you, I would imagine at some point you end up seeing and perhaps even agreeing with some of my points. A good place to start would be to read a wide variety of histories of the Ancient Near East and take a look at the archaeological data supporting them. If you are not interested in contextualizing the scriptures then there is really nothing I can say to convince you of anything. I’m not here to prove anything to you.

    As for the fundamentalist issue, I was thinking not in terms of Mormon fundamentalism, but a more generic fundamentalism which would include Christian fundamentalists.

  7. Isn’t “realizing the garden of Eden is a myth” itself one of the biases you warn against? It seems to me that in terms of evidence the best we can say is that there is no positive evidence for such a myth. To claim it is only a myth itself demands evidence that is unavailable.

    Now one can say some aspects have been falsified. (Say the no death before the fall interpretation) But say the interpretation that the garden of eden was literally a terrestrial or celestial world out of which Adam was cast to earth seems pretty unfalsifiable by archaeology.

    Even the commonly believe but at best only indirect (and late) attributions of Eden as being in Missouri according to Joseph seem hard to falsify. (I think these are problematic on their own, but that’s an other issue) At best one can say that the altar Joseph talked about in Spring Hill probably was just an indian one from the mound builder era.

    I pretty much agree with your larger points. I just think that one problem one finds is the old “absent of evidence = evidence of absence” bias.

  8. Folks, I must be really out of the loop. I chose the garden of Eden as my example of something only a way out there fundamentalist would still believe in. I went for the extreme example because I thought it would be so beyond obvious that I wouldn’t have to argue about it with anyone. Apparently I was wrong.

  9. David,

    Not that it helps, but I was on the same page as you when it comes to the Garden of Eden. I thought it was meant to be a myth (though informative one) and not history.

  10. Chris H,

    Thanks for the support. I think the reason it surprises me is because there are zero biblical scholars or archaeologists who would consider anything before Genesis 12 to be anything other than mythical. I guess in that way I am biased.

  11. I would love to see the context for this post. The historian in me naturally wonders what it is in David’s background that has led to his view of the typical believer (which I happen to agree with). I also wonder why the post feels unfinished. Did David intentionally leave out of this post anything dealing with the Book of Mormon? Maybe it is just me, but David’s portrayal of early biblical archaeologists sounded very similar to what I know about early Book of Mormon archaeologists finding evidence that fit their preconceived notions. Maybe David’s next post could provide more specifics on how to be unbiased in selecting the best possible historical context for various biblical accounts and discuss the pros and cons of using the modern, western concept of history to reconstruct ancient biblical narratives.

  12. I think the problem with assuming the Garden of Eden as myth in an LDS context is due to scriptures in LDS revelation dealing with it as well as non-canonical comments by Joseph Smith. (Like the altar in Spring Hill as well as the very notion of Adam-ondi-Ahman) Now I think things are fairly open in that most of the references to Eden appear to just be referencing Genesis 2.

    I’m not saying Eden isn’t mythic or allegorical. Just that I think those who think otherwise aren’t being irrational. (Myself, as I indicated, I think it just a reference to a celestial sphere which is how I read D&C 27 as well – I think the claims of Eden in Missouri are confused with where Adam dwelt after he was cast to earth)

  13. Sterling,

    For the most part this post is self diagnosis, hopefully of my past not my present. I have done lots of reading, listening, and thinking about religious studies, philosophy of religion, and biblical studies over the past few years. In a sense this post is the present me diagnosing the past me. I hope this gets people thinking about themselves, but I am not sure the me of the past would have even understood what the me of the present is saying.

    I do plan on writing another post or two about some ideas and methods that have worked for me over these past years. I pretty much stumbled onto them by sheer dumb luck. If I had to give the short version of my stumbling into being less biased (hopefully) is would be 1) Take the Bible seriously and 2) Be curious.

  14. Clark,

    I agree that in an LDS context makes looking at the Garden of Eden as a myth a unique problem. This by the way is something that has been on my mind recently. LDS face a unique problem in assimilating these archaeological finds, it’s a very different problem than other Christians and Jews have.

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