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The Spade and the Book

My interest in archaeology was awakened by professor David Rhys at River Plate College in 1953. His subject was mathematics, but he gave classes also in astronomy and biblical archaeology for the ministerial students. Rhys was one of the best-loved and respected professors at the College, a serious, intelligent, curious and playful fellow. As a descendant of Welsh immigrants who settled in the valley of the Rio Chubut in Patagonia, south of the famous Argentine pampas, he had grown up in an English speaking community, and this allowed him to read whatever fell in his hands about archaeology in this language. In his classes I learned about all recent discoveries, since he subscribed to several specialized journals.

When on the following year I went to study at Southern Missionary College in Tennessee, in contrast to what is the case now, there was no one in the religion faculty teaching archaeology. When I went to the Seminary in Takoma Park (1956-58), I immediately decided to study with Siegfried Horn, whose interest in the subject was producing several books popular with Adventists: Recent Discoveries Confirm the Bible (1954), Light from the Dust Heaps (1955), The Spade Confirms the Book (1957). They were, in effect, variations of the same book.

In those days, those who studied for a Bachelor of Divinity (= today’s Master of Divinity), had to choose a major, and I decided to specialize in the Old Testament under Dr. Horn. I took all the classes he taught. They all dealt with biblical archaeology and the history of the ancient Near East. Horn did not touch Old Testament theology with a ten foot pole. Neither did any of the other members of the department.

At the time Horn was sometimes put down as an “armchair archaeologist”. His command of the literature was, however, admired and recognized by well-known archaeologist, including William F. Albright. Not many years later, of course, he became renowned by his excavations at Tell Heshbon. When I studied with him, Horn was completely involved in the editing of the Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary. This meant that even though I was one of the students most interested in his subject, I never came to have a close relationship with him. It is a pity that the publishers of the Commentary did not give him the credit due to his self-sacrificing labors. He not only wrote the articles originally assigned to him. He also had to rewrite, or write from scratch, many articles submitted by others who were not up to the scholarly standard required for publication.

Dr. Horn, in whose honor the archaeological museum at Andrews University has been named, did not have blinders which prevented him from seeing the limits of his efforts to reconstruct the history of the Near East in which the people of Israel were one of the participants. His interest was to demonstrate that as a book of ancient history the Bible helped to understand the past, and that archaeology and the other sciences that provide evidence for its reconstruction contribute to the understanding of the biblical narratives. In 1975 he published an undated version of the books published in the 50’s with the title, Records of the Past Illuminate the Bible. Studying archaeology with professor Rhys I was left with the impression that archaeology confirmed the truth of the Bible. His classes gave me a foundation that placed me ahead of my fellow students at the Seminary. Studying archaeology with Dr. Horn, I already began to see that archaeology only establishes that the Bible is an authoritative source of historical information. As I already said, he never gave a theological opinion in class. Due to this, there were those in the General Conference, which in those days was at the next door building, who every now and then had something negative to say about Dr. Horn. In fact, Edward Heppenstall and Roland Loasby were the ones who had to appear frequently before some GC committee to defend themselves from accusations raised by some seminary student. To me, of course, these were the professors whose classes were worth the effort.

In those days the evangelical world defended the notion of a monolithic and verbal inspiration of the Bible. It was usual to use evidence from biblical archaeology to substantiate biblical truth. Astronomy was also frequently called upon to do the same. In other words, biblical truth is also scientific or historical truth. If any scientific truth did not accord with biblical truth it was imperative to declare it false. It was, however, more important to find that science and history actually provided apologetic arguments for the truth of the Bible. If, for example, a consensus of historians determined that at the time of Abraham camels had not yet been domesticated, biblical archaeologists were called upon to provide evidence that in fact by the time of Abraham camels were already domestic animals. In this way one established, one defended, not only an accurate reconstruction of ancient history, but also biblical truth.

Not long afterwards it was questioned whether there was such a thing as biblical archaeology. Finding material artifacts that help us to understand better ancient history tells us nothing specific about the Bible as Word of God. It only informs us about the history of the ancient Near East. Still, for those who think the Bible contains not only “the truth of the Gospel” (Gal. 2:5) but also scientific or historical truth, to show that “secular” evidence confirms the biblical narratives is of great importance.

In the State of Israel, establishing that the biblical narratives are historiographically valid is important both from a theological and a political perspective. To Zionist Jews it is imperative to use the Bible to establish their claim to be the true owners of the fields they call the Land of Israel. Thus the Israeli Government includes a Department of Antiquities and promotes archaeology in its universities. For many Jews this is the way to argue that the frontiers of the Kingdom of David ought to be the frontiers of the modern State of Israel. This way of seeing, undoubtedly, is one of the biggest obstacles to a resolution of the conflict between Jews and Palestinians. Zionist Jews (observant or not observant) and Christian fundamentalists (of any denomination) see in archaeology a tool that strengthens their ideologies.

The authors of The Bible Unearthed (2001), Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, threw sand in the eyes of those wishing to use archaeology to claim control over history. Findelstein is a distinguished archaeologist with impressive credentials, Director of the Archaeology Institute of the University of Tel Aviv. Silberman is known as one of the most influential popularizers of archaeological results and had already published a controversial book, Digging for God and Country. In The Bible Unearthed archaeology becomes the tool with which to totally re-write the history of ancient Israel. This is not the place for a review of the book. Suffice it to say that, according to the archaeological evidence presented by Finkelstein and Silberman, the Kingdom of David was no more than that of a tribal chieftain and Jerusalem at the time was no more than a defenseless village. The idea of the glory of the united kingdom of David and Solomon, with all its splendors, is the invention of the scribes of king Josiah, who, after many years in which the Kingdom of the North had achieved a high degree of economic and political well being, was able, after the fall of Samaria to the Assyrians, to bring under his rule for the first time lands which until then had not been settled by Israelites.

Finkelstein and Silverman, undoubtedly, make one re-evaluate several premises in the formulation of a Christian apologetic. As is to be expected, many archaeologists have given different interpretations to the evidence, have said that the evidence is incomplete or insufficient, have questioned the motives of the authors, or have dismissed them out right. The argument of the book, however, is one that, on literary and theological bases, had been made often before: the authors of the Torah wrote mainly for political and theological motives, without being particularly concerned with preserving the past “as it actually happened” (von Ranke). This makes me recognize that rather than being exclusively a tool for the defense of the historical truth of the Bible, archaeology can also be a tool used to demonstrate the lack of historical interest in the Bible. As a double-edged tool, that better methods and new technologies are continually sharpening, archaeology has ceased to be an apologetic tool. Much water has flowed under the bridge since the days when it was proclaimed that the spade confirms the Bible.

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