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.