What are the strengths and limitations of archaeology in helping us to understand the biblical story?
Archaeology is basically the recovery and study of the material remains including writing, of ancient cultures. Recently enormous advances have been made which can show the context of different aspects of the history of the Old Testament. However, physical archaeology cannot prove that God spoke to Moses, for example. This is more in the realm of theology. However, it is possible to show if Biblical accounts are historically consistent with the period and so help in our understanding.
Some of the limitations include the fact that certain sites are impossible to excavate. Jerusalem is an example of a city where, because it is occupied, excavation is limited. Other sites are impossible because of political problems, e.g. Damascus and Carchemish. Sites in the Egyptian Delta pose waterlogging problems. Ancient sites are often extensive and so stratigraphic methods are used and sometimes artefacts essential to the understanding of the site are missed.
An example of this is Jericho where Garstang excavated in 1928 and came to the conclusion that the walls had indeed collapsed, but in the 1950s Dame Kathleen Kenyon found that the dating of Garstang was quite wrong. The walls in Jericho dated from a much earlier period and hardly anything remained from the 13th Century BCE. This could cast doubt on the account in the Bible. There is also doubt about the city of Ai, where supposedly a great battle was fought during the Conquest but where archaeological evidence suggests the town was destroyed in 2400 BCE, much earlier than the Conquest. However, it is possible that the site of Ai has been wrongly identified. Erosion and misinterpretation of the artefacts can also lead to problems.
The strengths of modern archaeology lie in the insights it gives into the lives of the peoples of the Old Testament. The study of pottery types developed by Flinders Petrie and W F Albright has been very important in dating sites, as has Carbon 14 dating. Archaeology has shed light on the nature of ancient towns and cities, the types of buildings such as palaces and ordinary houses. Further studies of remains and analysis of pollen grains can even show such things as the advance of trade. Also, evidence suggests the eating of pigs was uncommon, which fits in with Lev.11:7. Camel remains are rare until the 8th century BCE perhaps suggesting that the Deuteronomistic parts of the Bible were written much later than before the First Millennium.
Inscriptions are significant too, for example the Siloam inscription on Hezekiah’s tunnel may confirm his preparations for a siege. The Moabite stone, the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser and the Stele from Tel Dan which mentions “the house of David” are all significant as they refer to events in the Bible. The “prism of Sennacherib” contains annals which report his early military campaigns including that of 701 BCE in which he surrounded, but did not capture Jerusalem, which is described in 2 Kings: 18 13-19.
Consequently archaeology has both strengths and weaknesses in helping us to understand the Bible.
Curtis Adrian: Oxford Bible Atlas 4th Edition Oxford University Press, 2009
Drane John: The Old Testament 3rd Edition Lion Press, 2011
Finkelstein Israel and Neil Asher Silberman: The Bible Unearthed, Kindle Edition
Zukeran Patrick: Archaeology and the Old Testament https://bible.org/article/archaeolgy-and-old-testament
Introduction to the Old Testament St John’s Extension Studies Chapter 2, 2006