Unearthing the Old Testament

Chris Sinkinson explains how archaeology can serve to confirm the stories, people and places in the Old Testament.

The discovery of what could be the biblical city of Sodom at Tall el-Hammam in Jordan was shared widely by Christians on social media in 2015. But not everyone is convinced that the Bible’s account and the archaeological record are easily matched. The claims of sceptics such as Sheffield University professor Philip R Davies, who dismisses the biblical King David as ‘about as historical as King Arthur’, have attracted plenty of attention and publicity through popular media.

In reality, however, the development of archaeology as a discipline has produced a wealth of material evidence for the essential reliability of the Old Testament. Wherever the truth of the Bible can be tested, there are good grounds to trust it. While there are many Christians involved in archaeological research, even those of no faith are often supportive of the historical value of the Old Testament. Christians can be confident that there is plenty of archaeological evidence for many of the events, people and places described in its pages.

Missing manuscripts

Since the Enlightenment, European scholars have often been intensely sceptical about the reliability of the Old Testament text. The earliest complete Hebrew Old Testament known at the time was the Masoretic text, which dated to as late as AD 1000. Was it not fair to assume that it had changed over time?

The discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls in 1947 changed all that. The dry Dead Sea region of Qumran is perfect for the preservation of manuscripts that would otherwise turn to dust. First found by Bedouin herdsmen, later archaeologists have gathered 17,000 fragments of Jewish texts dating to the time of Jesus. Hidden from the Romans by a Jewish sect, nothing is more recent than AD 68. Every book of the Old Testament is represented, except Esther. Among them, the Great Isaiah Scroll was already 200 years old when it was hidden. It is substantially the same as the book of Isaiah that we use today.

In 1979 a team of archaeologists discovered two silver scrolls in a Jerusalem tomb at Ketef Hinnom. Their location and script indicated that the latest possible date for them was 587 BC. These scrolls were so fragile that they took years to unravel. The inscriptions turned out to be quotations from two Old Testament books: Numbers and Deuteronomy. Liberal scholars had theorised that much of these two books had been composed many centuries later but the material evidence continues to confirm their antiquity.

This post is an extract of a feature in Christianity magazine. To read the full article, follow this link: Unearthing the Old Testament.

Chris Sinkinson is a lecturer in Old Testament and Apologetics at Moorlands College and author of Time Travel to the Old Testament (IVP, 2013).

This extract was used by kind permission of Christianity.