Science, Faith, and Biblical Archeology

By Alex Joffe

Biblical ArchaeologyBiblical archeology was born out of twinned desires: to "illuminate" the world of the Bible and, ultimately, to prove the truth of the Word. Armed with a trowel in one hand and a Bible in the other, 19th-century archeologists in the Holy Land, most of them Protestant clergymen, had little difficulty finding what they were looking for. Their certainty came from within.

As the premises of the field changed in the 20th century, so did its practitioners. The enterprise is no longer undertaken by religious men driven by their faith but by professional, secular scholars following both their intellectual curiosity and local regulations mandating standards of historical investigation and preservation. But what has really changed? To some it might seem that the old certainty, born of religious faith, has been not so much lost as replaced by certainty of another kind, based on a faith in "science."

It can hardly be denied that, thanks to science, enormous strides have been made in facilitating the task not only of observation but of analysis. Computers have done for archeology what they have done for movie-making.  Gone are the days of surveyors standing beneath umbrellas and peering through theodolites, laboriously penciling their architectural and other finds on paper and animating them one by one, by hand. With the aid of digital equipment and sensors suspended from balloons, it is now possible to record precisely every rock, every potsherd, nearly every grain of sand. Entered into a computer, billions of data points can then be projected and manipulated on wall-sized monitors or with virtual-reality goggles. Ancient sites can be brought back to life like scenes out of Toy Story. Archeologists can walk through them, shifting the view, zooming in on items of interest.

There is more.  Only a few years ago, archeologists had to bag and tag metal objects or pollen samples, ship them off to labs around the world, and wait months or even years for results. Now, portable equipment can sit next to an excavation trench or in the dig house and produce results almost in real time. Questions about technological processes, the composition of materials and their places of origin, climates, diets, and many other things can be answered swiftly and used to guide excavations tomorrow rather than next year. The cost of such technologies is still steep but is dropping fast. Someday soon, it may not be necessary to excavate at all, but merely to scan deeply into sites or whole regions using sensors out of Star Trek, creating precise three-dimensional pictures down—who knows?—to the level of individual atoms.

When that day arrives, archeology may become something closer to a real science. But will it be more certain? Many archeologists seem to be betting on it—a forthcoming conference at Tel Aviv University, "Biblical Archeology and the Pursuit of Certainty," is devoted to the issue—but one may be permitted to doubt.  Much depends on the assumptions brought to the task of analysis. Much also depends on the questions being asked, and not only by archeologists…


Science, Faith, and Biblical Archeology » Jewish Ideas Daily

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Recommended Resources: The Stones Cry Out: What Archaeology Reveals About the Truth of the Bible |The Archaeological Study Bible