Picture it - sweat drips down your face as you use every tool you can to carefully remove the seal of a stone sepulcher. Upon opening, you finally lay eyes on them - you’ve been hunting for them for years. The bones of Abraham - the character from the stories in Genesis. You’re sure all the various validation methods will confirm your find. And it turns out later, they do. It is now a well-established fact among scholars of history and archaeology that Abraham was a real person and that you found the evidence!
Here’s my question: what difference would the discovery of Abraham’s bones make for you theologically?
There’s no doubt that decent fame and wealth may come from such a monumental discovery, but for your own theological or faith journey, what would such a discovery mean for you?
You might say that it bolsters the credibility of scripture because the archaeological record has offered an additional corroboration of a story. It is now more difficult for the skeptic to outright reject the historicity or reliability of the Bible, and thus other sacred truths proclaimed by the Bible cannot as easily be dismissed due to biblical unreliability.
But this take assumes something about the Bible - that one of its chief goals is to present its reader, ancient or modern, with 100% accurate historical facts.
To be fair, some theological claims seem to rely on the historicity of certain events, e.g. the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, but these would be the exception rather than rule. For instance, how much does it matter that there was a guy named Jonah who was actually at one point swallowed by a whale? Would we lose something truly valuable about the story of Jonah if it was revealed to be a myth of sorts - akin to Aesop’s fables? I’m not so sure that we would.
Back to Abraham, who features in a number of stories in Genesis and is mentioned elsewhere in scripture. Are the theological and moral takeaways from those stories enhanced significantly, if at all, were we to discover his bones? And on the flip side, are we currently being deprived of some meaning in those stories by our lack of having Abraham’s bones?
Consider the Sacrifice of Isaac story; here God provides a proper sacrifice just in time before Abraham goes through with God's prior command to sacrifice his son Isaac. It’s a notoriously odd and challenging story to interpret - but these difficulties, in my opinion, have nothing to do with whether Abraham or Isaac corresponded to real individuals or that any such event actually occurred in history.
What has endured, and ultimately should matter most to us, are the interesting moral and theological questions raised by this tale regardless of its historicity.
If this idea is right, then archaeology becomes far less important as an apologetic or polemic for the Bible. Rather, archaeology remains one of the best ways we can come to have evidence regarding the distant past - no matter what the evidence reveals or, better, is interpreted to reveal.
To dig into the relationship between archaeology and the Bible, check out the full Open to Truth episode with Dr. Cynthia Shafer-Elliott who is a real-life archaeologist in Israel.
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