Archaeology’s Fraction

September 5, 2011

Archaeology provides significant insights to our understanding of the Bible. Insights into culture can help bring a passage to life. Yet, archaeology has limits. Many people, places, and events of the Bible will be unnoticed by archaeology. That should not be surprising, because our knowledge of the ancient world is very limited. Archaeologist Edwin Yamauchi explains that fragmentary nature of the evidence with a number of facts.

  • Archaeology deals with material remains, which include writings, daily items, buildings, utensils, etc. Only a small fraction of these materials remains exist due to erosion and the destructive nature of human beings. Further, theft has stripped many archaeological sites.
  • Palestine had 300 known archaeological sites in 1944. That number grew to 7000 by 1970. Yet archeologists have surveyed only a fraction of the sites available.
  • Of the sites that have been surveyed only a fraction have been excavated. Palestine had 5000 sites in 1963. Of those, 150 had been excavated in part and 26 had become major sites.
  • Of the sites that become archaeological digs, only a fraction of the site is actually excavated. This is due to the enormous costs, the amount of time, and also to preserve the possibility of future archaeological research. Hazor is a site of 175 acres. Yigael Yadin estimated that it would have taken 800 years to clear the site.
  • Only a fraction of the discovered material has been published. For example, 25,000 cuneiform texts were discovered at Mari, but only 3,500 to 4000 have been published.

Grant Osborne summarizes the above survey, “Yamauchi estimates that being supremely optimistic we could have one-tenth of the material in existence, six-tenths of that surveyed, one-fiftieth of that excavated, one-tenth of that examined, and one-half of that published. This means that we have only .006 percent of the evidence.”1 The above exercise is not to minimize archaeology, but to interject some humility into discussions about what moderns know.

The Bible itself is a major source of information about the ancient world. We can appreciate the insights that archaeology provides, but we can’t expect it to confirm all the details of the Bible. The absence of archaeological information about a particular person, place or event doesn’t mean that the person or place did not exist or the event did not happen. Our knowledge of the ancient world is valuable but partial and but a fraction of the past.

1Grant R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral, p. 159.