What can we say about the relationship between the Bible and archaeology? An illustration can help. Let us imagine two jigsaw puzzles. The first is the Bible, put together under the inspiration of God Himself. The pieces fit together perfectly. As God's Word says, " All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16-17, emphasis added).
This first puzzle's primary purpose is to reveal not science and history per se but the record of God's dealings with humankind. Much of this revelation is knowledge that cannot be examined under a microscope or perceived through our senses. It is knowledge revealed by God.
Throughout the Bible, a common theme is God's participation in human history. Whether it be the creation account, His dealings with Israel or the early New Testament Church, God is central.
Much of this information is not the kind that archaeology can discover through the study of ancient remains. Yet God's inspired account of His interaction with living, breathing people is inserted into writings about the physical surroundings of those people. Such information is genuine and true, since God "cannot lie" (Titus 1:2).
Limits of archaeology
The physical evidence can be likened to a second jigsaw puzzle, one based on scientific evidence and that is valuable to our faith by its ability to confirm the veracity of the biblical accounts.
The second jigsaw puzzle concerns how archaeology and related disciplines can reveal physical evidence concerning biblical history. The picture presented is partial; not all archaeological evidence has survived. Conclusions derived from archaeological discoveries are necessarily uncertain. Like a puzzle, pieces can be initially misplaced. As new discoveries are made or better interpretations are offered, the position of some pieces can shift. Many pieces are faded and worn, making placement difficult.
Dating of biblical sites is based primarily on surviving pottery, with its distinctive styles associated with specific historical periods. What remains is an incomplete picture of the past. As archaeologist Paul W. Lapp commented, "Palestinian archaeology may be past infancy but has hardly gotten beyond childhood." Archaeology is a developing and imperfect science.
Some archaeologists estimate that only one thousandth of the original artifacts have survived. Some 5,000 sites are known to scientists in Palestine, and only about 350 have been excavated. Of these, fewer than 2 percent have been extensively excavated. All conclusions, then, are based on small amounts of evidence.
Significant portions of the Bible now corroborated
How should the relative scarcity of evidence affect our Christian beliefs? Our faith should not be based on possession of all the material and historical evidence. Definitive analysis is not a prerequisite for determining whether or not the Bible is historically accurate and true.
In spite of the relatively small amount of material that has been excavated and analyzed, considerable evidence confirming the biblical account is available. More is being uncovered all the time. Significant portions of the Old Testament historical record have now been corroborated by archaeology.
Bryant Wood notes the consensus of archaeologists on the following point: "The purpose of Biblical archaeology is to enhance our comprehension of the Bible, and so its greatest achievement, in my view, has been the extraordinary illumination of the . . . time of the Israelite monarchy" ( Biblical Archaeology Review , May-June, 1995, p. 33).
From c. 1000 B.C. through the New Testament period, the archaeological evidence is strong. Before that time, it is sparse. This is quite natural, considering the circumstances. As Wood explains: "Exploring that pre-history [before 1000 B.C.] is challenging: It requires tracing the archaeological record of a pastoral community, rather than an agrarian-based political entity that built cities and made contacts with surrounding nations" (ibid., p. 35).
We will never possess all the physical evidence. Most has been destroyed by time and wear. We cannot reproduce miracles, nor can God's presence be examined and confirmed in a laboratory. Faith will always be based primarily on spiritual discernment and trust in God's Word.