Archaeology, Amarna, and Doubt

I have been in Pasadena the last few days theologizing and schmoozing with fellow leaders in Messianic Judaism at the Hashivenu forum. My roommate, as always at conferences like this, is the inimitable Kirk Gliebe, Rabbi at Devar Emet in Chicago.

Like me, Kirk gets a subscription to Biblical Archaeology Review. Unlike me, at least this month, Kirk never fails to read his. Mine, by contrast, is sitting in a pile unread (though much beloved). So, Kirk wowed me with a story in the latest edition of BAR and the article makes an interesting case. Below is my presentation of the idea . . .

amarnatabletThere are two texts that have a problem. They both cannot be confirmed by archaeology.

One is the corpus of letters known as the Amarna letters, written in Akkadian cuneiform on small clay tablets. There are over 300 of them and they are letters from Canaanite city-state rulers back to their Egyptian overlords, from the period between 1500 – 1150 B.C.E.

The second is the Bible, a corpus of texts written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, the most ancient copies of which date to 200 – 150 B.C.E.

There is a certain argument, widely believed and propagated by those who doubt the truth of the Bible’s historical record and its depiction of the origin and growth of Israelite culture. The argument is actually fallacious and it goes like this:

1. The record of the Bible cannot be completely confirmed in many details by archaeology.

2. Archaeology is more accurate than texts written with propagandistic motives (the Bible).

3. Thus, the record of the Bible is largely or completely untrue.

The problem with this argument is that the Amarna letters face the same problem. They depict a Canaanite province under the rule of Egypt, with the heavy presence of Egyptian forces and administrators in the land, and with thriving city-states and a healthy population.

Nadav Na’aman is a professor of Jewish history at Tel Aviv University. He is one of the scholars who worked on the Amarna letters and has written along with Yuval Goren and the famously skeptical Israel Finkelstein. In the January-February 2009 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review he writes about “The Trowel vs. the Text.” His arguments expose the fallacy of the above argument.

To see the problem, try putting the above argument this way:

1. The record of the Amarna letters cannot be completely confirmed in many details by archaeology.

2. Archaeology is more accurate than vague ancient texts written (the Amarna letters).

3. Thus, the record of the Amarna letters is largely or completely untrue.

The problem with this argument? It is epistemological suicide!

Sure, the rulers who wrote the Amarna letters to the Egyptian royal administration may have used exaggeration here or there to persuade Egypt to send aid or troops. But these letters make no sense as a deliberate conspiracy of revisionist history.

Therefore, I suggest a new argument:

1. Archaeology sometimes, and for reasons not too difficult to imagine, cannot verify the historical picture revealed in ancient texts.

2. Archaeology depends on many factors to get access to preserved remains.

3. Archaeology cannot be the sole factor in determining historical reality.

Suddenly, in light of this reality and in light of the providential record of letters from some Canaanite vassals to their Egyptian overlords, we can silence those who insist the Bible is balderdash.


About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Archaeology, Bible, messianic, Messianic Jewish, Messianic Judaism. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Archaeology, Amarna, and Doubt

  1. rightrudder says:

    The funny thing is that anti Bible historians and archaeologist eventually stick their foot in their mouth when archeology proves parts of the Bible true. They just don’t seem to revise their view with the eveidence – so who’s text is propaganda?

  2. judeoxian says:

    The main issue here is that archaeology is about 10% hard evidence and about 90% interpretation. You dig up some painted pottery, coins, and a scrap of cloth, now interpret what it means. Does it prove or disprove the Bible? The revisionist will interpret it in a way that supports his latest article in BAR and conservatives will keep it within the frame of Bible narrative. That’s a gross over-generalization, but regardless it’s very hard to either prove or disprove historical details through archaeology alone. All archaeologists operate with a certain narrative of how history is supposed to fit together.

    Scholars (revisionist and conservative alike) should have the humility to refrain from dogmatic judgments on history and realize we are only going to glean a limited amount of information from archaeology alone.

  3. rightrudder says:

    Well put and very informative.

  4. Pingback: Archaeology, David, the Valley of Elah « Messianic Jewish Musings

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s