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Have you ever wondered why the Apostles’ Creed mentions Pontius Pilate? The Apostles’ Creed is very concise, and yet in its second article on the Lord Jesus Christ, it includes a brief statement about Christ’s suffering “under Pontius Pilate.” Why is that important? In a nutshell, it is because Christianity is a historical religion. The events narrated throughout the Bible occurred in real-world history, in real geographical locations, among real people such as Pontius Pilate.

The events of the Bible did not occur in an imaginary world like Narnia or Oz or the Shire. They did not occur in fairy-tale worlds. The world in which Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob lived is the world in which you and I live. The world in which Jesus suffered and died is the world in which you and I live. The rivers and seas, the hills and valleys, the cities and empires encountered in the Bible existed in real-world history.

It is because the events of the Bible occurred in the real world that archaeology is relevant. Archaeology is “the study of human history and prehistory through the excavation of sites and the analysis of artifacts and other physical remains” (Oxford Languages). For many of my generation, our first exposure to archaeology was through watching the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark. The hero of that film, Indiana Jones, was an archaeologist with a knack for getting caught up in adventures that spanned the globe. I suspect that the lives of most archaeologists don’t involve quite that much adrenaline.

Real archaeologists look for sites where human beings lived and worked. A lot of preliminary research is involved in finding sites. Once a probable archaeological site is located, the dirty work begins. Preliminary surveys are done and test pits are dug. When those are completed, archaeologists begin the larger search for artifacts. Any artifacts that are found are later analyzed in an attempt to learn about the lives of the people who lived at the site.
Biblical archaeology is a narrower field in that it focuses on sites mentioned in the Bible. It is centered on Israel and the lands around Israel. The archaeologists who do this kind of work are looking for artifacts that can shed light on the lives of those who lived at those biblically relevant sites.

Biblical archaeology serves at least two major purposes. First, it provides important information for biblical hermeneutics. In other words, it provides contextual information that helps us better interpret the Bible. In the twenty-first century, we are removed from the biblical cultures by thousands of years. Things that would have been second nature to an original hearer or reader are often completely foreign to our experience and knowledge.

For example, in Deuteronomy 22:8, we read: “When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, that you may not bring the guilt of blood upon your house, if anyone should fall from it.” Many modern readers are puzzled at the requirement to build what amounts to a safety railing around their roof because nowadays most houses have sloped roofs that people seldom spend time on. But it would have made perfect sense at a time when the roof of a house was flat and both family and guests would spend time on those roofs. Archaeology helps us better understand such features of ancient life.

Christianity is a historical religion. The events narrated throughout the Bible occurred in real-world history.

In a related vein, archaeology has contributed to our understanding of the ancient languages of Scripture. Archaeologists have discovered clay tablets and other artifacts with writing on them. If the writing is related to Hebrew, these artifacts can help us increase our knowledge of the language of the Old Testament. If it is not related to Hebrew, it can still help us better understand the cultures in the surrounding regions.

Biblical archaeology also serves the purpose of Christian apologetics, probably more so today than at any other point in history. In previous centuries, fewer people directly attacked the historicity of Scripture. Today—in the West at least—many people dismiss the Bible as legend or myth. Many individuals assume that the stories of the Old Testament were invented by the Jews of the postexilic period to legitimize themselves. The stories of Jesus found in the Gospels, it is assumed, were likewise invented by the early Christians to legitimize their beliefs. The stories of the Bible, so it is claimed, have no more to do with real history than the story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

How do we as Christians share the gospel with people who have been taught such things at home, in school, or online? The gospel is a message rooted in the biblical story. If the person with whom you are sharing the gospel won’t even listen and dismisses you right away by saying that the Bible is simply a collection of myths, legends, and fairy tales, how do you respond? Biblical archaeology can be an enormous help in such situations. It can undermine the person’s belief that the Bible is not a historically reliable book.

This raises some questions about apologetic methodology, however. There are numerous debates among Christians over how best to answer the challenges raised by unbelievers. Those who stand in the tradition of classical apologetics would advise using the information provided by archaeologists to help remove the grounds of the unbeliever’s claim that Scripture is myth. Others might object, wondering whether such an approach implicitly denies the grounds of our belief in the authority of Scripture.

The Westminster Confession of Faith, for example, states: “The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, depends not upon the testimony of any man, or church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God” (1.4). Does this rule out any use of evidence, including archaeological evidence, in discussions with unbelievers? The answer is no, but we need to understand why.

God’s Word carries God’s own ultimate authority, whether that Word is spoken or written. The Westminster Confession is responding here to specific Roman Catholic claims that grounded the authority of Holy Scripture in the testimony of the Roman Catholic Church. The next section of the confession goes on to explain that the testimony of the church might move us to “an high and reverent esteem” of the Scriptures and that Scripture evidences itself in many ways to be the Word of God, but it concludes: “Yet notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts” (1.5). This is all in response to the teaching of Rome.

It is also important to note that the Westminster Confession of Faith is just that. It is a confession of faith, the faith of those who already believe that the Bible is God’s Word and who already acknowledge its divine authority. Christian apologetics addresses those who have not yet confessed faith. The question that the unbeliever is raising isn’t about where the authority of God’s written Word is grounded. The question that the unbeliever is asking is whether the Bible is God’s written Word. There are numerous books in the world that claim to be God’s Word. The unbeliever has been told that all of them are myths and legends.

We are approaching the unbeliever in a way analogous to the way that Moses approached the Israelites in Egypt. Moses wonders what he will do if the people don’t believe that he is speaking God’s word to them (Ex. 4:1). God promises Moses that He will give evidence that authenticates the claim. The evidence doesn’t give God’s word its authority. It simply gives evidence that it is, in fact, God’s word. The use of archaeological evidence is analogous to this. It doesn’t prove or ground the authority of Holy Scripture. It attempts to remove the grounds of the unbeliever’s objections to the claims of Scripture and provide some reason to believe that it is what it claims to be.

So if an unbeliever dismisses your attempt to share the gospel right away by saying that the Bible is simply a collection of myths, legends, and fairy tales, you can point out to this person that his statement contradicts the findings of archaeology. You can point out that archaeologists have uncovered abundant artifact evidence that substantiates the basic historicity and historical reliability of the Bible. If he claims that historical reliability is ruled out by accounts of the miraculous or language about God, you can point out that the basic historical reliability of other ancient Near Eastern documents is not rejected simply because the authors mention their “gods.” The goal is not to “prove” the authority of the Bible. The goal is to remove barriers grounded in misconceptions that are taught at every level of modern culture.

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