The Mispaired Dancers:
The Archaeological Challenge to Biblical Literalism
Archaeology and Biblical Literalism are an unlikely pairing. This came to mind recently when I read about the founding of the Armstrong Institute of Biblical Archaeology. This opinion piece centers on the discord there must be, in some respects, between these two disciplines, one scientific and the other hermeneutical, when they are joined in a single scientific endeavor. Archaeology discovers and interprets and Biblical Literalism has an interpretative agenda of its own. The idea that, armed with the hermeneutic of Biblical literalism, you can sort through some habitation layers and find nice affirmations of the Old Testament is ingenuous. The ill-conceived notion that artifacts are just lying there waiting to be unearthed and to be placed in evidence, like pre-formed puzzle pieces, supporting the OT's literal veracity is boundlessly optimistic. This is because there is a high interpretative hurdle that must also be jumped in order to obtain the prize of credibility. The meaning of an excavated discovery does not fall solely within the domain of Biblical Literalism but must also be subject to peer review by other archaeologists and other schools of Biblical interpretation.
There is another overarching problem. The idea that archaeological discoveries in habitation layers around Palestine will resolve the overall issues of Biblical archaeology is untenable. There are some really profound issues in Biblical archaeology for Biblical literalists. This designation “literalist” includes almost all fundamentalists and atheists. Atheists always choose to be literalists because it is an easy but sophomoric advantage in debates about Biblical accuracy. A few outstanding issues at the uneasy boundary of conflict between archaeology and Biblical Literalism:
1. There is no evidence of a global flood.
An enormously catastrophic flood that would have resulted in the globe being covered by waters that rose to heights that exceed the elevation of Mt. Everest (greater than 29,032 feet) would have had enormous geological consequences. Scientists have found no such consequences. And according to literalists it happened only a few thousand years ago. There is good reason to believe that the flood was a local event (Carol A. Hill, “The Noachian Flood: Universal or Local?” in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, September 2002). A minister in the WCG once stated to me that the Grand Canyon was carved out by the receding waters of the Noachian Flood. I suggest looking at this article:
Flood Geology and the Grand Canyon: What Does the Evidence Really Say?
2. Nobody knows where Mt. Sinai is.
I always thought that Mt. Sinai was a known peak somewhere in the Sinai Peninsula. After all I had seen the Cecil B. DeMille movie when I was a kid. But, alas, which peak might be the actual Mt. Sinai is still unknown. There are a number of candidates. Each peak has proponents. Each peak has issues. A good summary statement:
“It is the most important mountain in Jewish history. It is central to our religion and it is the birthplace of one of the founding documents of world civilization. It is our rock and our salvation - but where is it? … We Jews received the Ten Commandments at the top of Mount Sinai, but where was that mountain? The location of Har Sinai is still unknown.” -- Stephen Gabriel Rosenberg, The Jerusalem Post
3. Nobody knows how the logistics of the Red Sea crossing would have worked.
“They had to get across the Red Sea at night. Now, if they went on a narrow path, double file, the line would be 800 miles long and would require 35 days and nights to get through. So, there had to be a space in the Red Sea, 3 miles wide so that they could walk 5,000 abreast to get over in one night.” -- Dr. Danny Kellum, Headmaster of Donelson Christian Academy
“Modern historians are puzzled that no ancient source, including the Egyptians ones, even hint at an event of this scope… Maybe the Egyptians left no record because they were too embarrassed… And even if Egypt did keep this public embarrassment under wraps, we would have expected nearby nations to have jumped all over it… But nothing.” -- Peter Enns in his book “The Bible Tells Me So … Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It,” pp. 116-117.
For further development of this topic, see the video series beginning with: Pete Ruins Exodus (Part 1)
4. There is no archaeological evidence of the destruction of the Canaanite cities that matches the account in Joshua.
“The story of the conquest in Joshua does not accord, either in its general outlook or its specific details, with the archaeological data. These data suggest that instead of a violent entry into a populated land, the first Israelites settled in a mostly empty part of the region, the central hill country … The story of the conquest and settlement as it now appears in the book of Joshua is a literary, ideological construct, the result of many editions, revisions, and additions, reflecting changing concepts of the fulfillment of the divine promise of the land over a long period of time.” – Jewish Study Bible, 2nd Edition, p. 439.
I would imagine that the typical Armstrongist sitting in Sabbath services does not know that the above issues are without plausible resolution at this time. I would bet that most of them presume they can find Mt. Sinai on a map in Jamieson-Fausset-Brown. I used to be that way. And finding a reference on a pottery shard to "Hezekiah" in a habitation layer in or near Jerusalem contributes only very, very little to the resolution of this larger picture of lacking evidence supporting major Biblical events. I have used only summary statements to support each of the numbered topics above for this brief article. There is an extensive and accessible literature on each topic.
What I am not saying is that these are reasons to believe that the Bible cannot be trusted and needs to be discarded. That is the impoverished viewpoint of atheism. These findings from archaeology are not an attack on faith but an attack on Biblical Literalism. Faith should never be assaulted by science but this requires a hermeneutic other than Biblical Literalism.
I believe in a version of each of the numbered topics above. I believe there was a large local flood that affected many Middle Eastern nations. I am not concerned about where Sinai is – the theological content of the Old Testament is not contingent on geology. The exodus of Israelites from Egypt may have been smaller and less complex than scripture suggests. Once again the moral values asserted by the exodus text are undiminished by its literary nature. And as for Joshua’s conquest of Canaan, maybe it wasn’t as violent as the scripture suggests. Maybe the Israelites segued in and the Canaanites segued out. After all, the Canaanites are still a nation near present day Israel. There is a firmly established genetic connection between the Canaanites, the Phoenicians and the modern Lebanese. This was recently reaffirmed by scientists at the Welcome Trust Sanger Institute when they sequenced the entire genomes of four 4,000-year-old Canaanites that were present during the Bronze Age and compared the results to modern populations. And the modern Lebanese are genetically closely related to the Jews. The conquest of Canaan was more like your unwanted cousins showing up on your doorstep to stay. Archaeology reveals the actual events to be less dramatic than the literary versions. But miraculousness is not scalable but binary. A thousand people fleeing Egypt may just as much involve the miraculous suspension of the laws of the Cosmos as two million fleeing. Overall, it is as Dr. Peter Enns stated, “God let his children tell the story.”
What I am saying is that archaeology does not support the literalist interpretation of the numbered Biblical events listed above. But this does not diminish the theological content of the Biblical accounts of these events. And it is likely that these accounts were based on some actual historical happenings. But the actual historical events based on archaeology do not agree with the literalist interpretations. The Biblical accounts are then more literary than literal. The accounts emphasize relevancy rather than accuracy or historicity. And that is a workable hermeneutic. The imperative concern is not in finding artifacts that support the literal interpretation of the OT. It is in recognizing that a different approach to Biblical interpretation is required and that the OT has been under human curation for millennia and bears the evidence of it. I believe that in the Old Testament spiritual principle and theology have been conserved but material detail and univocality have suffered. And this is the demanding scientific and historiographic context in which any archaeological organization embracing Biblical literalism must be prepared to function.