Focus On Archaeology

Focus On Archaeology

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Current Feature: Archaeology and the Bible

Archaeology and the Bible

Dan Schowalter

Anyone who has seen the popular series of movies featuring Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones is likely to have a distorted sense of archaeology. While Indy flies around from one exotic location to another, fighting evil as he locates priceless objects, all without ever lifting a shovel or pick, real archaeology is a much more mundane and often unexciting activity. Long months of work go into the planning, fundraising, and preparation for every season of excavation. The process of digging is often painstakingly slow, with any number of obstacles standing in the way of progress. Rather than providing convincing evidence for solid conclusions, the results of excavation frequently raise more questions than they answer. In fact, most excavations would not provide very good scripts for movies, but they do provide insights into history that can fundamentally influence thinking about both ancient cultures and ancient texts.

Since the earliest days of archaeology, there has been an uneasy relationship between the study of material remains from ancient societies, and the analysis of the literary works left behind by those cultures. The founding fathers of archaeology tended to be either treasure hunters or adventurers who chose their dig sites based on literary connections. In the last half of the nineteenth century, Heinrich Schliemann, a wealthy German businessman, became famous for his explorations of the putative site of Troy in Turkey, and Mycenae in Greece. His work was conducted largely on the basis of the Iliad and, and was intended to provide verification of the stories found in Homer's writings. Likewise, in 1865, the Palestine Exploration Fund was created in London "to promote research into the archaeology and history, manners and customs and culture, topography, geology and natural sciences of biblical Palestine and the Levant" (The Palestine Exploration Fund). Also, starting in the 1880s, William Mitchell Ramsay, a Scottish classicist, conducted archaeological surveys of lands in Asia Minor which could be related to the New Testament, especially the books of Acts and Revelation.

This connection between text and spade continues for some scholars today who either attempt to use the results of archaeology to prove the accuracy of the biblical record, or who focus on discrepancies between the Bible and archaeological findings. In fact, however, modern archaeology is a multidisciplinary, scientific exploration of the past. While archaeological information can enhance our understanding of scripture, it is a mistake to think of archaeological research as a kind of external test of reliability for either the Bible or other ancient literature. There are two main reasons for this assertion.

If one assumes that the text can either be proved or disproved based on modern standards of evidence, one is immediately dislocating the text from its original context and trying to view it in light of modern expectations for accuracy. Leaving aside the question of how well those standards work to judge "truth" in the modern context, it is a mistake to apply such tests to ancient authors who often had good reasons for using creativity when reporting on "historical" events.

Second, it is problematic to use the results of archaeological research as a proof text for ancient literature (including the Bible), since the conclusions drawn by archaeologists often take the form of hypotheses based on the best evidence available. This means that, quite often, conclusions need to be adjusted as more evidence comes to light, or as different means of interpretation come into practice. To say that a particular archaeological finding provides corroboration of a biblical passage ignores the tentative nature of archaeological research.

One particular archaeological question that has attracted attention of biblical scholars is the search for evidence of domestic space in the excavated remains of Roman Corinth. This topic is of interest to New Testament scholars who wonder where Pauline communities might have met. For some time, speculation about possible meeting places has centered on Jerome Murphy-O'Connor's suggestion that Pauline communities might have met in a villa. To illustrate his point, Murphy-O'Connor cites a supposed first-century C.E. villa, excavated in the 1960s at Anaploga near Corinth.

A number of other scholars have adopted Murphy-O'Connor's suggestion, but in a 2005 publication, David Horrell argues that there is very little evidence for a first-century date for this so-called villa. In fact, the current excavation team is not even convinced that the building was a villa. So what seemed like promising evidence for a connection between the Bible and archaeology no longer stands up under scrutiny.

Horrell goes on to suggest an alternative meeting place on a street east of the theater in Corinth. Preliminary excavation reports on East Theater Street posit a series of buildings with shops on the first floor and living space on the second. Based on this report, Horrell argues that the second floor of this urban building is a better candidate for a meeting place than a suburban villa. To support this proposition, Horrell mentions the reference from Acts in which Paul is preaching in a second-floor room, and a young man falls out of a window (20:7–12). As attractive as this connection may be, the final excavation report on East Theater Street (in preparation for publication) will negate the supposed archaeological evidence behind it. Further analysis has revealed that the second story, mentioned in the preliminary report and highlighted in Horrell's article, did not exist. In fact, the excavator argues that the danger of earthquakes in the region would have made multi-story buildings impractical.

The lesson behind this example is that archaeology can give us clues as to the kinds of dwellings people lived in during the biblical periods. We might even be able to make some suggestions about how believing communities functioned in light of this information. Archaeology is unable, however, to prove or disprove the accuracy of specific details found in the biblical narrative.

Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, especially when archaeology results in the discovery of inscriptions or literary material that provide new textual data for consideration. Certainly, the contents of the Dead Sea Scrolls tell us a great deal about the varieties of Judaism in the first centuries B.C.E. and C.E. Some would even argue for a connection between the scrolls and the early followers of Jesus. But even in this well-known example, scholars disagree on how to interpret the texts, and even more on how the texts are connected to the material remains discovered nearby at Qumran.

In conclusion, rather than coming to archaeology with Bible in hand, looking to illustrate a story or prove a point, one should be open to what the results of archaeology can tell us about the material world in which the biblical communities lived. One example is the theater in Ephesus. Most tourists who visit this structure see it as significant only because the book of Acts reports that Paul was taken there when the silversmiths in the city rioted. But apart from the Acts story, we can learn a great deal from the theater. Its capacity enables us to estimate the population of the city. Decorative elements from the theater provide an understanding of Ephesian artistic, dramatic, and even religious tendencies. And we can consider a massive inscription set up on the south retaining wall of the theater. This text details a gift made to the city by Salutaris in the year 104 C.E. , long after Paul would have been there. The inscription states that Salutaris endowed a lavish procession that celebrated the Greek and Roman identity of the city. This parade included images of the gods and members of the imperial family, reminding us that for the Romans there was no separation of church and state. The procession was to take place on a number of important civic and imperial occasions, so these statues would have been seen frequently in the streets of Ephesus. If individuals wanted to avoid the images of the Greek and Roman gods, it was not sufficient to simply stay away from the temples where those deities were worshipped: in actuality, the gods would come to you.

This illustrates the kind of insight that the study of material culture and inscriptions can provide. Although not specifically related to the biblical text, it does offer a window into people's lives and the breadth and depth of their experience.


  • Friesen, S. "Revelation, Realia, and Religion: Archaeology in the Interpretation of the Apocalypse," HTR (1995) 88: 291-314.
  • Horrell, D. "Domestic Space and Christian Meetings at Corinth: Imagining New Contexts and the Buildings East of the Theatre." NTS (2004) 50: 349–369.
  • Murphy-O'Connor, J. St. Paul's Corinth: Text and Archaeology. Third edition. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 2002.
  • Rogers, G. The Sacred Identity of Ephesos: Foundation Myths of a Roman City. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Related Content

Biblical Passages and Apocrypha

Acts 20:7–12
1 Corinthians 11, 14, 16

Subject Entries and Commentary

Christian Interpretation in the Premodern Era
Dead Sea Scrolls
Jewish Interpretation of the Bible
History of Interpretation

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