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New archaeological finds stir Baptist scholars’ interest

JERUSALEM (BP)–National headlines announcing three recent archaeological discoveries not only reaffirm the historical trustworthiness of the Bible’s narratives, they also highlight the important role biblical archaeology plays in Old and New Testament studies, according to Southern Baptist scholars Eric Mitchell and Steven Ortiz.

— The New York Times reported Nov. 7 that prisoners digging foundations for the expansion of Megiddo Prison north of Jerusalem in the Valley of Armageddon uncovered ruins of what might be the earliest Christian church discovered in the Holy Land. Intricate mosaics dating to the third century A.D. bear inscriptions in Greek. The Israel Antiquities Authority has preliminarily rendered the translation of one inscription as reading, “The God-loving Aketous has offered this table to the God Jesus Christ, as a memorial.”

— On Nov. 9, The Times reported came from the site of Tel Zayit, just south of Jerusalem, about the discovery of some scribbling of a scribe who was practicing writing the Hebrew alphabet — an abecedary — on the wall of an ancient building. By analyzing stratification, the position and depth of the writing, archaeologists have dated the abecedary to the 10th century B.C.

— Also on Nov. 9, The Jerusalem Post reported that “a very small ceramic shard unearthed by Bar-Ilan University archaeologists digging at Tell es-Safi, the biblical city Gath of the Philistines … contains the earliest known Philistine inscription ever to be discovered, [and] mentions two names that are remarkably similar to the name Goliath.”

Steven Ortiz, associate professor of archeology and director of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s Center for Archeological Research, cautioned that such new discoveries will need to undergo further examination, and Christians must be careful not to jump to conclusions before a certain amount of consensus among authorities emerges.

Ortiz said he does not doubt the authenticity of these recent finds. However, he tempers his excitement with the reminder that, in archaeology, first impressions do not always turn out to be correct after further investigation.

“There are many finds that substantiate the biblical text,” Ortiz noted. “But there are several sensational finds recently that are forgeries.”

Eric Mitchell, assistant professor of archaeology and biblical backgrounds at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, agreed that Bible students must be careful not to draw quick conclusions.

For example, in its report about the discovery of the early church in Megiddo, The New York Times quoted anthropologist Joe Zias as doubting whether a Romanized mosaic would have been found in a church in that location in the third century A.D.

“My gut feeling is that we are looking at a Roman building that may have been converted to a church at a later date,” Zias told The Times.

Mitchell acknowledged Zias’ concerns, but he also noted it is possible that the original builder of the mosaic at Megiddo was a Roman who was willing to take a strong stand for his faith.

“These finds help us flesh out the climate, geography, society, educational system and other factors and influences that the Bible emerged from,” Mitchell said. “Even if it turns out that this find in Megiddo wasn’t used as a church until a later time, we can learn something from that, too.”

Ortiz was a staff member under Pittsburgh Theological Seminary professor Ron E. Tappy at Tel Zayit during its initial excavation season in 1999.

If the 10th century B.C. dating of the Tel Zayit Hebrew abecedary holds up to further examination, Ortiz said it it would add further proof of broad scale literacy in the United Kingdom of Israel under King David and King Solomon, as described in the books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles.

“The location and stratification is significant in the abecedary discovery,” Ortiz said.

Ortiz continued: “The reliability of its dating brings us back to the debate of how literate were the people of Israel during this time. Here is a small, regional site where people were apparently practicing writing. Many biblical scholars claim that the Bible was an elitist document that only a small handful of trained priests could read. They question whether commoners had access to the text. This moves the debate along, suggesting there was a higher level of literacy among the Israelites than is normally assumed by scholars.”

The recent archaeological finds, Mitchell said, “are only small pieces of evidence. But when we start adding up all the small pieces like these that support the Bible’s narratives, it becomes more and more difficult for doubters or unbelievers to argue against the accuracy of Scripture.”

Mitchell pointed out that it is important to respect the opinions of field archaeologists, even if they cast doubt on the discovery’s connection with events described in the Bible.

For example, when reviewing reports about the apparent “Goliath” inscription from Gath, Mitchell gave credence to the field archaeologist, professor Aren Maeir, chairman of Bar-Ilan University’s Martin (Szusz) Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology. Maeir told The Jerusalem Post that “we cannot know for sure that the inscription belongs to Biblical Goliath.”

“At this time only Dr. Maeir and those working with him know the stratigraphy of the find and the data surrounding his interpretation,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell noted that it was only a little over 100 years ago that scholars like German theologian Julius Wellhausen were casting doubts on whether biblical figures like Moses or David — if they even existed — were literate.

“Archaeology over the past century has affirmed the historicity of the Bible accounts time and time again,” Mitchell said.

Ortiz and Mitchell both said that these recent finds re-emphasize the importance of training pastors and Bible teachers in biblical backgrounds and archaeology.

“In training men and women to handle the Word of God, it is important to present the Bible in the way it was written in its historical context so they can better apply it to life today,” Ortiz said. “We prepare better Bible expositors by doing so.”

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  • Brent Thompson