Kids and teens may be totally unfamiliar with the cultures in the Bible. When they read scriptures about shepherds, for example, they have little knowledge about what the relationship between an ancient shepherd and his sheep was and what that means about the young person’s relationship with Jesus. Or in the Parable of the Bridesmaids, oil lamps and waiting for a bridegroom are so unusual now, the young person may get stuck trying to puzzle through those things and miss the point of the story entirely.
Archaeology can help students process some of the things in the Bible. It has limitations though and it’s important to understand some basics and what archaeology can and can’t do to help your students grow spiritually.
- Most archaeologists – including “biblical” archaeologists do not believe the Bible contains actual historical accounts. Seems strange, but just like theology attracts agnostics and atheists, so does archaeology. Even those who claim to be Christian may think Bible stories are fables. The problem with this attitude is that Jesus and others treat these stories as history. If it isn’t history, the entire message of Jesus and writers like Luke become suspect. Any article you read must be read assuming the author may have an anti-Bible as history bias.
- Archaeology can allow young people to see actual items mentioned in the Bible. Archaeologists have found lots of clay lamps, pots, idols and other items mentioned in the Bible. Seeing the actual objects can increase their understanding of scriptures. It can help them picture the Bible stories in their minds, which can improve memory. It can also reinforce the idea that the Bible is about real people, places, things and events.
- Archaeology can confirm the existence of certain people in the Bible, but can’t prove someone did not exist. Archeologists regularly find objects that belong to or mention some of the people in the Bible. Most of these people were government officials, because they were more likely to have seals and other objects with their names engraved on them. On the other hand, archaeology can’t prove someone did not exist. Many of the people in the Bible either weren’t named or weren’t famous enough that their names are likely to appear on artifacts. On the other hand, sometimes the artifacts just haven’t been discovered yet. For years some scholars believed Pilate was a fictional character. Then they found several things with his name on them. Much of the Bible lands are desert with shifting sands. It is also highly disputed territory in many places, making standard archeology nearly impossible. The grounds of the Temple in Jerusalem are off limits to Christians and Jews for excavation, for example, but the dirt the Palestinians threw on the Israeli side when they built the mosque has yielded multiple important artifacts over the last few years. Even entire civilizations have gone missing, putting the Bible into question, only to be discovered later.
- Biases of the archaeologists color how they interpret findings. The best example is perhaps that of the Exodus. Archaeologists have taken one verse – probably written after the Exodus occurred – to explain the location of the Hebrew settlement in terms people born later would recognize and ignore the verse that tells exactly when the Exodus was in relation to the building of Solomon’s Temple (1 Kings 6:1). As a result, archeologists have been looking for evidence of the Exodus in the period of Ramses and not the earlier period of time when it most likely happened. When you look in the earlier period, there is quite a bit of evidence that lines up really well with the biblical account. When presented that evidence, many archeologists refuse to even consider it because they are so convinced it had to happen under Ramses and not when the verse about the Temple tells us the Exodus occurred. (Note: A Semite city was found “under” the city of Ramses mentioned in Exodus. The earlier city would have “disappeared” and been replaced by the city of Ramses, making sense that authors would refer to the more recent city that existed.)
- Archaeologists can disagree with each other and be wrong. Scripture is not wrong. From time to time an archaeologist will debate the historicity of a fact in the Bible. On many occasions, information is found later proving that the Bible was more accurate than what historians and archaeologists had originally believed. One example is the way the rulers are discussed in the book of Daniel. For years, scholars claimed the Bible was wrong. Then a primary source document from the time period was discovered. It revealed that the Bible was correct in the way it had described the rulers. If archaeologists disagree with the Bible, give it time. It is quite likely new information found later will confirm the Bible’s account is correct.
- Dating in archaeology is not as an exact science as they would have you believe. Carbon dating is not exact and has more limitations than scientists wish to admit. In archaeology, they will often use a process of elimination method. Each layer of dirt is considered a different time period. No matter what other objects may be found, the layer is dated from the most recently made object found in that layer. Seems fair, except there are some problems. Many ruins were built over by later civilizations which can make dating easier as you know they were before higher layers. In other locations, people in later times may have already disrupted sites and dropped newer artifacts by accident. This can throw off the dating of an entire layer..
- There is still a lot of guesswork in archaeology. Even when there are primary source written texts available from the time of the archaeological dig – like the Bible – these ancient writings are often discounted by archeologists. Often entire digs are completed with no writings found within them or associated with the place. Often you will see major disagreements between archaeologists over the information discovered in a dig. They will sometimes even accuse others of forgery, sloppy methodology or a host of other things that would make their opponent’s conclusions questionable. In spite of this, there is quite a bit of information that is accepted as legitimate and would prove helpful when shown to young people.
- A lot of young people love seeing archaeological finds from the cultures of the Bible that they have only read about previously. Over the years, I have exposed children and teens of varying ages to artifacts from Bible cultures and times. We have had people bring artifacts to the church building to show them and we have taken them to museum exhibits. The kids are universally fascinated. They love seeing an Egyptian mummy and finding out the bodies of Jacob and Joseph were mummified. They are always fascinated to see Baal and other idols. Clothing, jewelry, weapons, money…even pottery are of interest. The key is being enthusiastic yourself and explaining to them how the objects they are viewing connect to familiar Bible stories. We had a gentleman who owned quite a few artifacts and would let the children handle them. The kids were even interested in Roman coins so they could see what some of the people in the Bible probably looked like!
Ultimately, archaeology cannot prove or disprove the existence of God. What it can do for your students is reinforce the historical nature of the stories in the Bible (with the probable exception of parables) and increase their comprehension of passages that require a knowledge of the culture and items to be best understood. It is worth taking some time to share key archaeological discoveries with your Bible students.