Treasures in the Sand

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken January 14, 1996

“GOLIATH'S SKULL FOUND NEAR JERSUALEM”, the headline said, so I couldn't resist reading the rest of the article. On March 23, 1993, Dr. Richard Martin discovered a skull in the valley of Elah, in the foothills of Judea, where David's battle with Goliath took place. The skull was enormous. “But,” Dr. Martin explained, “the most telling piece of evidence is the small round rock we found embedded in the forehead… . There was also evidence to suggest that the head had been severed from the body by a sharp object, most likely a sword.” [in Michael A. Clark, Focus, Autumn, 1994]. Subsequent tests revealed that the skull was roughly 3,000 years old. If you get A's in math, then you know by now that the skull dated to about 1,000 B.C. If you get A's in history, then you know that 1,000 B.C. matches exactly to the time period of King David.

I haven't heard anything more about this discovery in the past year, so I don't know what other scholars have concluded about Dr. Martin's find. Some of them, I am sure, think the whole thing is a bunch of nonsense. Several months ago a tomb discovered in Israel was said to contain the graves of the Maccabees, but the whole thing has since proven to be a big misunderstanding. Biblical scholars need some time to argue about these kinds of things. And in any case, there would be no way to prove, for certain, that the skull did belong to Goliath.

But the discovery of this skull—Goliath or no Goliath—is by no means the only recent discovery of interest to the church. In 1979, for example, an Israeli archaeologist found two tiny scrolls in a tomb in Jerusalem, dating from 600 B.C. When they were unrolled, they proved to be the earliest extant biblical text: The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace. This was the priestly blessing that the Lord gave to Moses [Numbers 6:24-26].

In 1986, archaeologists deciphered some clay document markers they had purchased from Arab dealers back in 1975. What they discovered is that one of the markers bears the seal of Baruch, son of Neriah. Have you ever heard of Baruch? He was the scribe who copied down the words of the prophet Jeremiah [e.g. Jeremiah 36]. Another marker bears the seal of Jerahmeel. Have you ever heard of him? Jerahmeel was the son of the son of Jehoiakim who was sent on an unsuccessful mission to arrest Jeremiah and Baruch [Jeremiah 36:26]. Baruch and Jerahmeel were thus proven to be historical figures. Since those earlier discoveries a second seal has been discovered from the hand of Baruch, this one with a thumbprint on the edge. For the first time, we have not only material evidence for the existence of biblical characters, but their very fingerprints.

In 1990, an Egyptologist at the Field Museum in Chicago used hieroglyphic clues to identify figures on a wall at Luxor as the ancient Israelites. The hieroglyphics themselves, which come from 1200 B.C., celebrate an Egyptian victory over Israel, providing extra-biblical proof of the existence of Israel as a nation more than 3,000 years ago.

In 1993, scholars digging at Tel Dan found an inscription from 900 B.C. that included the words “House of David” and “King of Israel”. Up until that discovery, some scholars actually doubted that King David existed at all. And then just last year the French scholar André Lemaire identified the phrase “House of David” on the Moabite Stone in the Louvre [information in the preceding paragraphs comes from Michael D. Lemonick, “Are the Bible's Stories True?”, Time, 12/18/95, pp. 62-70].

More discoveries are on the way. There are more than 300 active digs in Israel at present. Just a few months ago a bowl dating from 100 A.D. was discovered in a fishing village on the shores of Galilee. It was decorated with a cross, which came as a surprise to scholars who maintained that the cross did not become a Christian symbol until the 3rd or 4th century.

New excavations also began last month in four new caves at Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in the 1950's. The possibility of the recovery of more biblical manuscripts is tantalizing. A report is also expected shortly in the Biblical Archaeology Review on new evidence for the proper location of the Ark of the Covenant on the Temple Mount.

Christians should welcome these digs and pay attention to the treasures pulled from the sand. Archaeology reminds us, again and again, that the Bible is a book of history, and reliable history at that. This is why evangelical Christians have never been afraid of biblical archaeology. If the Bible were historically suspect, archaeology would be a threat and an embarrassment to the evangelical church. But most of the best archaeologists, especially in the early days of the discipline, carried a toothbrush in one hand—so they could brush away the dust of antiquity—and a Bible in the other hand—so they would know where to use the brush.

It's true, of course, that archaeological evidence is sometimes used to discredit the Bible. Back in November the Society of Biblical Literature met here in Philadelphia. Among other things, members of the Society denied the existence of Moses, the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai, and the parting of the Red Sea. What they said is that we don't have any material evidence for Moses so we don't know for sure that he really existed. Their position is that unless something can be proven to be historical, it's not historical.

Now there are a number of problems with this kind of argument. To begin with, these scholars usually won't allow the Bible to be used as historical evidence. And that's poor scholarship, because the documents which make up the Bible are historical documents. For most matters, the Bible is all the historical evidence we need.

But there's another problem at work in this kind of archaeology. It depends upon an argument from silence. An argument from silence is an argument from what you don't hear, not from what you do hear; it's an argument from what you don't find, not from what you do find; it's an argument from what isn't there, not from what is there. And so what some archaeologists will say about a man like Moses is that we don't have any positive evidence that proves his existence, so he probably didn't exist. We don't hear him or see him, so he must not be an historical figure. It's not that they have any evidence to disprove the existence of Moses, you see, it's just that we don't have any evidence to prove his existence.

Now some arguments from silence are sound arguments. If I go home at the end of the afternoon and my apartment is quiet, that's a strong argument that no one is home. If I shout “Anybody home?” and I don't get an answer, then I am certain that no one is home.

But I wouldn't be quite so certain if I lived in a much bigger place, like Buckingham Palace, just to name one. If I walked through the royal entrance to Buckingham Palace and heard nothing but silence, I couldn't make a strong argument that no one was home. Even if I shouted “Anybody home?” I still wouldn't be sure that there weren't any royals in one of the apartments, or any servants down in the basement. The only thing I would be able to say is that I didn't know for sure whether or not anyone was home.

Now in point of fact, in the field of biblical archaeology, arguments from silence are usually weak arguments. It's true that, apart from the Bible, we don't have any positive evidence for the existence of Moses. But that's not very surprising. Given the size of the area he traveled, and given the way things deterioriate (even in the Middle East), and given the way that sand tends to cover everything up, it is no surprise that we haven't found any extra-biblical evidence for Moses, or for other biblical figures. At least we haven't found any yet. Arguments from silence only work until you hear something. It used to be that we didn't have any evidence for Baruch or Jerahmeel, either.

In the meantime, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. The absence of extra-biblical evidence for Moses isn't evidence that he was absent from history. And so the testimony of the Bible should be allowed to stand on its own merits. The noteworthy thing is that no archaeological discovery has yet disproven the facts of the Bible. Everything we have found in the sand has been treasure, from the standpoint of biblical history.

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