When Ancient Records and Archaeology Seem to Conflict

Many Christians must feel some level of concern when archaeologists state that large sections of the Bible are clearly fictitious. A frequent target of these attacks is the United Israelite Monarchy of David and Solomon. The reasons usually boil down to a lack of evidence in the archaeological record, such as ‘We have abundant remains of earlier Canaanite civilizations and the later Israelite kingdoms, but there is a large hole right where David should be. Such a great ruler and empire, as described in the Bible, should have left some significant physical evidence for archaeologists to find.’

An article in the January/February 2009 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review may shed some light on this problem. The article is “The Trowel vs. the Text: How the Amarna Letters Challenge Archaeology by Nadav Na’aman.

The Amarna Letters are a set of inscribed clay tablets discovered in Egypt over 120 years ago. They contain diplomatic correspondence between Pharoah Akhenaten (1353-1337 B.C.) and various Canaanite kings in that period (Late Bronze Age). For Bible students, this is near the time of the Israelite settlement in Canaan. These tablets are currently divided between the British Museum, the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, and the Louvre, among other places.

Amarna tablets on display at the British Museum. Photo by Luke Chandler.

Amarna tablets on display at the British Museum. Photo by Luke Chandler.

Here is the problem Na’aman addresses: The Amarna Letters indicate Late-Bronze (LB) Canaan had a “thriving urban culture” with numerous city-states in close proximity throughout the territory. Yet… the archaeological evidence from that period indicates impoverished, sparse city populations and large uninhabited regions.

Jerusalem is among Na’aman’s examples. The Amarna correspondence shows LB Jerusalem as the center of a kingdom of substantial strength… enjoying a solid economy and dominating a territory.” The city has a king sitting in his “house” (palace), heavily involved with neighboring kings, hosting Egyptian officials, and sending substantial tribute to Egypt. But the archaeological record for LB Jerusalem shows “only some unimpressive walls and a modest amount of pottery.” Archaeology reveals an insignificant, humbler Jerusalem than the written records from the same period.

These types of contradictions between the Amarna tablets and the archaeological record also exist for the cities of Shechem, Lachish, Gezer, Megiddo and Hazor.

How does one reconcile these seemingly contradictory pictures of LB Canaan? In the case of Jerusalem, Na’aman puts forth the following explanation:

The discrepancy between the documents and the archaeological findings can largely be explained by the state of preservation of the settlement strata from the Amarna period, as Jerusalem was inhabited continuously through thousands of years. Given that the bedrock at the site is very high and there is little accumulation of strata on top of it, every new settlement damaged the previous strata, especially those from the city’s periods of decline. Many of the ancient structures at the site, especially those that were skimpy and fragile to begin with (big, robust structures are naturally better preserved), had disappeared entirely, and only a few poor remnants survived from the Canaanite city that stood there during the Late Bronze Age.

Archaeology involves material remains such as pottery, construction, bones, ash/debris, etc.  The more material remains that are discovered, the more information may be gleaned.  If the material remains were destroyed, eroded, removed or recycled, then we have little to no physical evidence of that civilization. The only way we may learn of that civilization is through surviving literary references or yet-to-be-discovered archaeological evidence.

In the case of the Amarna tablets, Na’aman concludes that while the archaeological record reveals a Canaan in material decline, the modest cities were clearly more important than the archaeology would indicate. The LB Canaanite cities were much more politically active with one another, and with Egypt, than archaeology alone can reveal.

Na’aman then jumps ahead a few centuries in time to make a point about the Israelite United Monarchy “which, archaeologically, was a time of decline when only a few poor public buildings were constructed.” The Bible, like the Amarna tablets, describes an active, politically centralized civilization which doesn’t seem to be reflected in the archaeological record. Some scholars thus declare the written record of the Bible to be errant and cling to the archaeology, an approach that can easily distort ancient reality.

In Na’aman’s conclusion: 

I don’t mean to disparage the importance of archaeology. Archaeology sheds light not only on the material culture of a site, but also on its economy and social relations, trade, religion and cult. But in regard to political relations in a broader territory, the relative status of cities vis-à-vis their neighbors, as well as the cities’ relationship to the dominant political power (in this case, Egypt), archaeology is severely limited. Exclusive reliance on archaeology can give rise to a distorted picture of ancient reality.

It is dangerous to form too many conclusions based on what archaeology does not find. The Bible indeed indicates that Israel was largely weak and impoverished during the Judges and early Monarchy. (Impoverished cultures tend to build “skimpy and fragile” structures that have little chance of preservation.) There were few, if any, monumental structures until Solomon’s building program late in the United Monarchy. The Bible itself records that many Solomonic sites were destroyed/rebuilt/refurbished during the Divided Monarchies, leaving less original material for archaeological discovery. Destructions by Assyria, Babylon, and the results of countless wars since that time would have obliterated material traces of early Israelite culture. (Not to mention the constant reconstruction, which would also obliterate evidence.) Just because we have not found material evidence of the United Monarchy does not mean it never existed. Besides, one does not know what may be unearthed tomorrow.

Archaeology is an honorable field which no one should fear to use objectively, especially in regard to the Bible. But we must acknowledge and respect the boundaries of what it can and cannot reveal.

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About LukeChandler

Luke holds an M.A. in Ancient and Classical History and has been an adjunct professor at Florida College in Temple Terrace, Florida. Luke and his wife Melanie have five children. He serves as a minister in English and Spanish with the North Terrace Church of Christ and participates annually in archaeological excavations in Israel. Luke also leads tours to Europe and the Bible Lands.
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