on the balancing act between faith and credible archaeology

i recently received a letter via facebook that asked an intriguing question: how does one do archaeology and still retain one’s faith?

the question alone gave me pause because it implied that doing science will ultimately lead one to renounce one’s belief in god, or at the very least shatter one’s theological understanding of the world.

this issue comes up again and again with students. essentially, archaeology students soon learn that while some of the passages and claims made within the bible are consistent with archaeological findings, many others are not. this quickly leads a person of faith to make one of two choices: either to cling to one’s faith and begin to look for alternate ‘methodologies’ that could explain the bible’s claims that are inconsistent with the archaeological evidence, or, to accept the scientific data and re-examine one’s religious preconceptions. afraid to admit that what they were taught or have believed for so long might be wrong, many students opt for clinging to their belief in the inerrancy and infallibility of the bible and seek out new ways to interpret the data so that it is congruent with their preconceived beliefs. yet, this methodology leads only to poor science, even poorer interpretations of the data, and ultimately to misleading claims about the nature of the remains.

sometimes, archaeology is nothing more than boring rocks in the ground. but the true archaeologist does not seek out the big discovery that changes all we know in one amazing find, but rather gives his or her life to seasons of excavation and discovery, letting the evidence speak for itself until the larger picture of the social, economic, and yes, at times, religious makeup of the society is slowly revealed.

so for those seeking to balance faith and archaeology, here are a few tips:

  1. follow the data wherever it leads. sometimes the data doesn’t line up with the text of the bible. this is true about many sites and many verses. in some places, the text just isn’t supported by the evidence. this does not mean that the bible does not contain truth in other places, but it does tell us a lot about the author and the message the author was attempting to convey. remember, even the early church father origen offered a straightforward explanation of the preservation of factual truth within documents edited by human hands. in his commentary on john 10:4, origen says, ‘the spiritual truth was often preserved, as one might say, in material falsehood.’ just because a factual error exists in the text of the bible doesn’t mean that truth cannot still be conveyed.
  2. follow sound scientific methodology. if your methodology is good, your claims will be better received, and you (and/or your organization) will retain credibility. don’t fudge. take good notes, log everything (especially if it is contrary to your hypothesis), and don’t cut corners. methodical monotony is boring, but will be your friend in the long run. baby steps, small turns, an inch at a time. it is by the archaeological method employed that the academy will judge an archaeologist. credibility is earned over a long period of time, not with a single find.
  3. not every ‘biblical archaeology’ object is the same. just because noah’s ark and the holy grail are most likely legendary, doesn’t mean the ancient israelites didn’t carry a gold covered wooden box (the ark of the covenant) around in front of them when they marched into battle (like every other army at the time). each object is unique and should be treated as such. walls and pots are often (read: usually) more important than gold and silver. treat every object with respect, wash every sherd, and always check for writing.
  4. partner up. the best way to earn credibility as an archaeologist is to partner with and work for an established, credible archaeologist or excavation. don’t seek to strike out on your own too quickly. this requires substantial fundraising and once you begin asking for funds more than you dig, scholars begin to question your motives, your credibility drops, and your conclusions will be questioned more often. be humble. pay your dues. earn your stripes. and then, when you have established the credibility and education you need, work with the authorities to secure your own excavation.
  5. never, ever search for the ark of the covenant, noah’s ark, or the holy grail. adventure quests will always bring immediate derision and condemnation from the academy. never claim to be the first to discover anything; someone else has already done something similar. cite them! remember that most scholars rightly reject any primordial notion of god destroying the earth with a flood; they opt instead to see this story as a parallel to the gilgamesh epic or some other early flood narrative. sensational claims are the quickest way to expose oneself as a fundamentalist. know the literature, read, and always see what your opponents have to say before you make a claim.
  6. submit to the peer-review process. the most credible archaeologists submit to the peer-review process and allow their findings to be critiqued by the academy. submit articles for publication in refereed journals and present papers at national conferences. welcome criticism and feedback. this is the only way to ensure your that interpretations will gain the traction they need to become the accepted consensus.

ultimately, it’s not about what you believe, or even what you can prove. rather, a credible archaeologist or archaeology program is judged by the methodology it uses to reach its conclusions. if the science is good, and the results are published in credible journals, the program as well as the scholar will be a success.

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