Biblical Archaeology — Always True, Not Always Reliable

The Bible in the British Museum

Omrit Roman Temple

Omrit Roman Temple

Omrit is about two and a half miles from Caesarea Philippi (see Matthew 16).  As far as I know, Jesus never went to Omrit, nor is it mentioned in Scripture.

Nor does the British Museum have any artefacts from Omrit, as far as I know.  But  a recent find there illustrates a key principle of Biblical archaeology (which is, of course, the focus of my British Museum articles.

Just Another Roman Site

As far as anyone knows, nothing happened at Omrit until just a few years before Christ, when someone built a Roman temple there.  Josephus told of Herod building three temples in honour of Caesar Augustus, and this seems a likely candidate for one of them (discussed at Israel Tour Guide, which has some nice pictures of the site).

Students of the Bible might find the Herod connection interesting, as well as the fact that Christ visited nearby, but perhaps this really isn’t a lot different from a lot of other Roman sites, including some here in Britain.  Or it wasn’t, until they found an Assyrian seal from the time of Sargon II in a layer of filler between an interior and exterior wall.  The seal is superbly preserved (picture here).

Ferrell Jenkins has some of the details (the original story was in Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper, but it is behind a pay-wall).  One of the students working on the site wrote a blog post mentioning the seal, as well.

What?  An Assyrian Seal?

Sargon BullAccording to Professor Grossmark (cited in those articles) this is one of the most beautiful seals ever found, and is very rare — but why is it at a Roman site?

The seal depicts a bull in battle with a winged figure.  That, at least, sounds familiar.  Some of the largest items in the British Museum are winged creatures from Assyria, and there are matching 16 ton winged bulls from Sargon’s palace in Room 10c of the museum.  (I wrote about Sargon briefly in “O Assyrian, the Rod of Mine Anger.”)

But how did a “perfectly preserved” seal from the time of Sargon (around 720-700 BC) end up as building material for a Roman temple, built 700 years later, on a site where there is no evidence of Assyrian activity, or any other earlier building activity, for that matter?  Who took it there?  Why did they do it?  And if they valued it enough to take it there from somewhere else, how did it become wall filler?

The Fog of History

The short answer to these questions is that nobody knows.  The slightly longer answer is that I’m not even sure anyone has any good guesses.  Professor Grossman suggested that the seal may have been buried in an Assyrian grave, found in Roman times, and then offered at the temple as a jewelry sacrifice to a Roman god.

That is as good a guess as any, but it is guessing wildly.  And it doesn’t actually seem very likely.  Why would a jewelry sacrifice at a Roman temple be dumped as filler between the walls?  Wouldn’t the priests have been much more likely to keep this item, or if they didn’t want it, to sell it?  Not only that — if it was found behind the wall of the earliest shrine, it may have been there even before the temple was functioning as a temple.

Perhaps an Assyrian official, coming through as part of an army, simply dropped the seal.  Maybe his army camped at Omrit for a night, and he didn’t discover until after they left that his seal was missing.  Perhaps it then got scooped up with other filler material without the Roman builders even noticing it.  That’s wildly speculative, too.

At some point in the distant past, someone did something involving this seal for which we have no explanation.  They were probably behaving in a way that seemed to them entirely logical and appropriate.  But we simply don’t know the circumstances that influenced their decisions and actions.  It’s lost in the fog of history, and all we have is speculation.

Always True, not Always Reliable

With most discoveries, it is fairly easy to understand why archaeologists find what they find, isn’t it?  Actually, no.  It is fairly easy to understand possible, even very likely, reasons for their finds.  But even the most plausible, seemingly understandable, discoveries have come down to us through the fog of history.

What really happened?  The stones, the artefacts, can’t really tell us.  We can piece them together with other evidence and develop theories with varying degrees of certainty.  But we can’t always rely on those explanations.

Archaeology is always true.  There is an old stone structure at Omrit.  It does look like a Roman temple.  That is demonstrable fact.  There was a cylinder (which has every appearance of being an Assyrian seal) found between an inner and outer wall.  That is a fact.  Old stones don’t lie.  Facts are facts, and archaeology is always true.

But how did the stones get there?  There is evidence to make it appear the stone building was constructed at the time of Herod as a Roman temple.  There is good reason for thinking it is the third temple described by Josephus.  But the builders are lost in the fog of history.

It could have been someone else, even in a slightly different time period, copying Roman architecture.  That’s not very plausible, but we don’t have any conclusive proof as to who built this building, or why.

We have a plausible explanation for the stone structure (built by Roman builders in the time of Herod, possibly as the third temple described by Josephus).  We don’t really have a plausible explanation for the Assyrian seal found there.  But plausible or not, the real explanations are lost in history, and we can’t prove that either the explanation of the building or suggested explanations for the seal are true.

Archaeology may be true (the stones are the stones and the seal is the seal, and they were found together), but it is not always reliable.

  • It is incomplete.  Only some items which could help us understand were buried.
  • It is often unclear.  The stones can’t talk, and the data is easily misinterpreted even by honest scholars.
  • It is subject to deception.  Ancient monuments were propaganda, extolling the virtues of the monarch, and truth was not always a major consideration.  People did things intentionally to deceive others.  Archaeologists, also, may hide some of the facts if they don’t fit their theories and their agenda, or portray things inaccurately.  Their work may be scrutinised by other scholars, but that cannot guarantee that deception never takes place.
  • It is imperfectly preserved.  Even if the stones and artefacts gave a perfect representation in the past, they don’t any longer.  Buildings fell and some of the stones were carried away.  Many items decayed.  Erosion and animal behaviour took a toll.

This all seems entirely obvious, but sometimes people forget.  All archaeology, Biblical archaeology included, is true, but it is not reliable.  It reveals true facts, but the interpretation and explanation of those facts is speculative, uncertain, and easily mistaken, even if the interpretation / explanation seems entirely plausible.

In reading my British Museum articles (past articles or any I may write in future), always remember — the stories the artefacts appear to be telling could be mistaken, whether they appear to match the Bible or not.  If the truth of the Bible depended on archaeology, we would all be in trouble — for no one could know, based on archaeology, whether to believe or reject the Bible.  Archaeology may speak to that question, but its voice is too uncertain, too unreliable, to provide definite answers.  The truth of the Bible remains, as it always has been, a matter of faith.

Next:  The Bible — Not Like Archaeology — Always True, Always Reliable


Sources for the British Museum series:

Summary post for the series, with links to other articles on Bible-related artefacts:
The Bible in the British Museum

About Jon Gleason

Former Pastor of Free Baptist Church of Glenrothes
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2 Responses to Biblical Archaeology — Always True, Not Always Reliable

  1. Ruth Gleason says:

    A fascinating read and also some fascinating conclusions and non conclusions! Love it. But how wonderful to know that what the Bible tells us was true when it was written, and is still true today!.

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