volunteers unearth ancient biblical discoveries
By Gordon Govier
For decades, thousands
of Americans have used summer vacation time to travel to Israel for archaeological
excavations because they believe, as Evangel University history professor
James Murphy puts it, that "history is most exciting when you do it hands
is not just history, and it's not just digging in the dirt. It
goes beyond biblical studies. It's working in a field of scientific
research where average volunteers as often as highly trained professionals
make the most exciting and most important discoveries.
Murphy first decided
to go for the hands-on experience in 1996 while an Evangel undergraduate,
linking up with a Southwest Missouri State University team headed for Banias,
a site on Israel's northern border identified as the New Testament's Caesarea
There at the home
of one of the largest pagan shrines of Jesus' day, the disciples were told
that even "the gates of hell" could not stand against them (Matthew 16:18).
that culture to life" says Murphy, who helped excavate a palace that was
probably built by Herod Agrippa II a few decades after the time of Christ.
That would be around the same time that Agrippa heard the apostle Paul's testimony
on a visit to the Roman procurator Festus at the other Caesarea, on the Mediterranean
coast (reported in Acts 25).
for a second season of excavations at Banias in 1999 as an SMSU graduate student,
and is now anxious to give his Evangel students an opportunity to experience
the excitement of holding biblical history in their hands.
He remembers the
enthusiasm of a middle-aged pastor and his wife who worked alongside him for
five weeks during 1999. "To see an ex-Marine digging and swinging that pick
and getting so excited when we would uncover coins and things, it's just amazing"
It's clear evidence
that the biblical text is not just for creating Sunday School lessons or sermons.
"It's absolutely grounded in people who really lived, who really existed"
Murphy says, "and these are some of their remains."
for Murphy is that this type of archaeology is difficult right now, given
the unresolved tensions between Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East.
Archaeology hasn't quite come to a grinding halt, but the number of American
student volunteers has fallen drastically. "I could not see taking a group
of students over, at least the way the last few years have been" he says.
volunteers who have participated in biblical archaeology excavations in decades
past have enriched Americans' appreciation of the Bible, says Robert Cooley,
president-emeritus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. "In the skeptical
age we're living in, it's a sad moment in Holy Land history that this kind
of activity has to cease" he says.
more than a century of exciting progress in biblical understanding through
the scientific development of the field of archaeology, the discipline is
now going through some difficult times. Part of it involves a crisis of confidence
over unproven artifacts, those that did not come out of valid field excavations
but instead surfaced in the antiquities market.
The James ossuary
is the most prominent example. The inscription on the stone box stirred interest
when it appeared to identify the box as the receptacle for the remains of
James, the brother of Jesus. Israeli archaeological officials claimed their
tests showed the inscription was fraudulent. Doubts have now been raised about
other artifacts with a murky past that were previously validated by archaeological
experts and put on display in museums.
Critics say the
Israel Antiquities Authority is so anxious to make a statement against the
legally permissible but morally questionable antiquities trade that it rushed
to judgment on the ossuary and some of the other artifacts. They're calling
for more tests and more scientific discussions.
"It's the context
that's going to give meaning to an artifact, otherwise it's just a thing"
says Cooley. That's the ideal for an archaeological discovery. But Cooley
believes the current debate is healthy.
always good to re-evaluate prior finds that have been found out of context"
he says. "If you don't have that context, then you're open to more subjective
factors and misuse of fraudulent indicators. And some of these are coming
out on that side of the ledger. If they are fraudulent, let's eliminate them
from the record."
aside, scholars believe Christians know more about the biblical world now
than at any time in the past 2,000 years because of the understanding gleaned
enables us to uncover things previously unseen for centuries" says Murphy.
Even more intriguing, archaeology is virtually the only source of new facts
about the Bible and the biblical world.
does archaeology prove the Bible? Many scholars say that's not the role of
archaeology. Some scholars, in fact, say it's the Bible that proves archaeology.
try to look at archaeology as a science, built on theories,"
Murphy says. A discovery that seems to raise questions about the
Bible may look different a few years down the road, after more
study and new discoveries.
Evangel University History Department colleague Lew Hall exposes his students
to Missouri archaeological excavations, where the chronological references
sometimes challenge students. Whether in the United States or abroad, archaeologists
typically refer to dates that go many thousands of years into prehistory.
he doesn't see a large difficulty in reconciling science and church teaching.
Even when Galileo's astronomical discoveries conflicted with church teaching,
that didn't change any of the central doctrines of the church, Hall points
[the chronology] wouldn't change the vicarious atoning death of
our Savior Jesus Christ one bit" Hall says. "You have
to stand on faith and believe; I try to give them a rational defense