What is the Quantum of Proof Necessary to Believe a Biblical Account?

Believers are told to take the stories of the Bible in faith, Skeptics take the opposite view. There is evidence consistent with belief that the stories are true, but insufficient evidence to prove them beyond a reasonable doubt.

Ruins and remains in Tell es-Sultan, better known as Jericho, the oldest city in the world

I previously wrote a piece on the city of Jericho of biblical fame that was inspired by a presentation given by an archaeologist, Ted Wright, who excavated at tell es-Sultan, the modern site known formerly as Jericho. He commented that archaeology is not really divided over issues like whether Jericho existed. Rather, archaeologists differ on the chronology they find in the story of the stratified remains of prior habitation.

That issue of timing regarding the destruction of the city of Jericho was the focus of the previous blog. There is no doubt that Jericho was surrounded by a double wall of which the interior wall collapsed on the outer wall, forming a virtual ramp up into the city. The city was also clearly destroyed by a conflagration (fire). The only question is: when did those events that are evident in the rocky soils on the site took place?

The first archaeologist to dig at the site reached the conclusion that the city of Jericho was destroyed in the early bronze period, well before the Israelites may have come upon the heavily fortified City. According to the first assessment, Jericho had long been uninhabited by the time the Israelites arrived.

Subsequent archaeological digs revealed disputing conclusions. John Garstang found evidence in the 1930s that Jericho was destroyed around 1400 BC, exactly the time frame of the biblical account. Subsequently, archaeologist, Kathleen Canyon, came to the opposite conclusion, reaffirming the earlier opinion that the city was uninhabited by the time Joshua and his combatants came along. But wait… there is more.

The most recent archaeological findings, seem to suggest that the biblical timing is correct. Kathleen Canyon apparently ignored and failed to register the significance of Late Bronze period pottery that would not have been found in an area that was uninhabited by that time. Many factors that she missed reveal the error and suggest a date consistent with biblical chronology. (See Believers Score in Battle Over the Battle of Jericho, by John Noble Wilford, published February 22, 1990, The New York Times).

The story of the excavation of Jericho reveals how archaeology and interpreting what we find is sometimes highly influenced by what we believe about history. The same finding can suggest different conclusions, depending on what we are looking for (or not looking for). The difference as Ted Wright suggested, isn’t in the what, but the when.

The Bible, of course, has many fantastic stories in it. They are so fantastic, that many people simply find them incredible, as in not credible at all. Believers are told to take the stories on faith. Skeptics take the opposite view and reject them, hook, line and sinker (to turn a phrase). There is evidence consistent with belief that the stories are true, but insufficient evidence to prove them beyond a reasonable doubt.

Should modern archaeology require something more than reasonable doubt simply because the biblical accounts have a miraculous, religious bent to them?

The scriptures of Christianity, and Judaism before it, are uniquely historical in the nature of their claims. They are written with a clear intention to be taken seriously as historical accounts. Being largely historical in nature, the accounts are verifiable (or falsifiable) in a way that is unique among other religions that rely more clearly on myth than history. (Obviously, not every portion of the Old Testament scripture is intended as historical. Some of it is wisdom literature, like Proverbs. Some of it is written in the nature of poetry and song, though even these writings have some historical context. Some of it is unclear.)

It’s amazing to me, as I study these things, how often the biblical accounts are vindicated. Regardless of how fantastic and, therefore incredible, the stories may be, the facts that are given in the detail of the biblical accounts often bear out to be true. Over and over again, archaeological finds have affirmed details of those biblical accounts. (See for example, The Ebla Tablets Confirm Biblical Accounts.)

This is true of the story of Jericho. We read in Joshua that he and his men came to the river Jordan where Joshua was instructed to take 12 men who would carry the Ark of the Covenant to the shore of the River, stand in the water and the waters of the Jordan would cease to flow, allowing them to cross. This is the account of what took place when they did that:

“[T]he waters which were flowing down from above stood and rose up in one heap, a great distance away at Adam, the city that is beside Zarethan; and those which were flowing down toward the sea of the Arabah, the Salt Sea, were completely cut off. So the people crossed opposite Jericho. And the priests who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord stood firm on dry ground in the middle of the Jordan while all Israel crossed on dry ground, until all the nation had finished crossing the Jordan.” (Joshua 3:16-17)

Archaeology doesn’t give us the tools to confirm whether God exists, whether he might have instructed Joshua or what God might have said to Joshua. These things seems too incredible to be true, and, therefore, we often dismiss everything about the account. In this case, however, some of it turns out, at least, to be plausible.

Records exist demonstrating that the River Jordan was cut off at Adamah, modern Damiya, by mud slides no less than five (5) times since 1160. (See  Did the Israelites Conquer Jericho? A New Look at the Archaeological Evidence, by Bryant Wood, Ph.D., published May 1, 2008, Associates for Biblical Research.)

Later in the story of Joshua, we read that the men were told to march around Jericho for seven days, and on the seventh day, they were told to march around it seven times, and on the seventh time the priests were told to blow a long blast on rams horns and for all the men to shout. This is reportedly what they did, and the walls crumbled. After the walls came down, they climbed up the fallen walls, and they took the city. (Joshua 6)

Again, the story sounds too incredible to be true, and some people would stop right there, giving the account no more attention. Even the skeptical archaeologists who dispute the biblical chronology, however, confirm that the inner wall at Jericho crumbled over the outer wall at some point in the City’s history. This is not a disputed fact. The same instability that may have caused the tremors, triggering the mudslides that have cut off the Jordan at various times in history could account for the crumbling of the walls of Jericho.

Thus, the biblical account is partially factual – the walls actually crumbled and fell down. The account is also, at least, explainable as it was described by phenomenon that we know to have happened – the River Jordan has been cut off at various times in its history such that it stopped flowing. To this extent, the biblical story is not contrary to the evidence revealed by archaeology (other than the timing of these events, which is disputed).

Bryan Wood agrees with Kathleen Kenyon that the walls date back to the Early Bronze period, well before the Israelites existed in the area. But, that doesn’t mean they crumbled to the ground at that time. In fact, if the walls date back that far, they would have been brittle with age by the Late Bronze I period when the Israelites arrived. They would have been more susceptible to destruction by earthquake tremors in the Late Bronze I period than they were earlier in time. In fact, they probably weren’t so brittle when they were constructed in the Early Bronze period.

None of this is to say that these facts and this information proves the biblical account of the story of Joshua, but the facts are not inconsistent with the biblical account. The facts don’t prove the biblical account, but they don’t disprove it.

Of course, we could never have the kind of proof most skeptics demand for a biblical account. That kind of proof is not attainable for any historical event, and it isn’t reasonable, or even realistic, to expect it. We can’t meet the standard of proof that is often demanded of biblical accounts even in matters of recent history. But, outside of the context of biblical accounts, we rely on much lesser evidence. For instance, people are convicted of murder on the basis of circumstantial evidence that is no more reliable than the biblical accounts and archaeological evidence we have for most biblical accounts.

The standard in a criminal trial is beyond a reasonable doubt. What is the standard for historical accuracy?

For some, the evidence that has been found in regard to places like the city of Jericho provide sufficient proof to have confidence in the biblical text. When considered in light of evidence for other information and accounts in the Bible, that confidence only grows. For others, they need more. There is no mathematical formula for the sufficiency of evidence necessary to eliminate doubt or to reach a conclusion with a high degree of certainty. The quantum of evidence necessary may be different for every person. Sometimes, however, it seems that skeptics go out of their way to try to find inconsistencies that aren’t there.

In Jesus’s day, he reportedly performed miracles in front of crowds. Some people believed on account of the miracles he performed, but many people did not. People observed the very same actions and came to different conclusions. It’s no different today. The quantum of proof necessary to believe is more a matter of individual willingness to draw the conclusions than proof.

I, personally, do not expect ever to have the quantum of proof to satisfy a person who demands proof beyond a reasonable doubt. On the other hand, modern archaeology has done little to call into question the historicity of the Bible. Rather, each modern archaeological find in the Levant seems to provide more reason for confidence. One recent example is the discovery of the Tel Dan Inscription. Until the Tel Dan Inscription was discovered in 1993, no one had found any proof that King David existed outside of the biblical texts. (See The Tel Dan Inscription: The First Historical Evidence of King David from the Bible.) Now we do.

This is not proof that Bible can be taken as the word of God, or even that it is historically accurate in all respects, but more and more discoveries have affirmed biblical names, cities, locations and events as time goes on. The evidence is mounting, and that evidence, at a minimum, is tending in harmony with biblical accounts. Whether a person believes the Bible beyond the accuracy of the persons, places and events is up to each individual. Archaeology is part of the proof, but a person should weigh all the evidence, scientific, historical, philosophical and even experiential. Jesus invited us to seek, knock and ask, and Paul says we should test everything.

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