March 14, 2021 - Evidence

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Today we’re going to take a look at evidence that backs up the Bible. The Bible makes more historically verifiable claims than the scriptures of any other religion, claims that can be tested. These claims do not prove that the Bible is the Word of God, but they do bolster our ability to trust the Bible on those claims that have to be taken on faith.

For instance, the Bible makes a claim that there was a local earthquake while Jesus was on the cross. It does not claim that mountains and cities fell all over the continent, but it does claim that the veil inside the Temple was torn in 2 from top to bottom. We can’t prove that this happened, we pretty much have to take it on faith. But there is a memory preserved in the Talmud about the Temple doors opening automatically 40 years before Jerusalem was destroyed (which would be just the right year). These are the sorts of historical references that can strengthen our confidence in a book that makes statements about God and morality which cannot otherwise be proved.

Books like the Bible can be tested to see if the names in it ring true to the historical record. The names in Genesis are not fictitious. We find many of them in the Ebla tablets from Syria from around 2000 BC, where we find personal names like Adam, Abram, Ishmael, and Israel, plus cities like Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboiim, Hazor, Megiddo, and Jerusalem. The names in Genesis 4-5 can all be found in Old Akkadian and Sumerian, before 2000 BC. Cain builds the first city, and names it after his son Enoch; in the Sumerian language, the name Unug is the name of possibly the oldest city in Mesopotamia (we know it by the name Uruk).

From the mid-800’s BC onward, over half of the kings of Israel and Judah and nearby countries who are named in the Bible are mentioned in the records of Assyria, Babylon, and Moab. We have Hazael of Aram, Mesha of Moab, Omri, Ahab, Jehu, Uzziah, Menahem, Hoshea, Hezekiah, and Manasseh, in records outside the Bible. For Jehu, we actually have a picture of him, bowing before Shalmanezer III king of Assyria; I had my picture taken with him at the British Museum! It’s the only picture of an Israelite king in all of Iron Age archaeology.

Plus, we have found the names of many royal characters from Judah on clay seals (signature stamps). We have Shema‘ servant of King Jeroboam II. We have Jotham (probably the king – you’ll see that stamp in the Smithsonian Museum). We have Shebnayahu servant of Hezekiah. We have Nathan-Melech servant of Josiah. We even have Yeshayahu – Isaiah! And the list goes on!

And recently in Babylonia, tablets from 513 BC have been dug up in a town that called itself Al-Yahudu, “City of Judah,” written in the Babylonian language, but where we find names of the descendants of the Jews who were exiled from Judah, names such as Jeremiah, Haggai, Zechariah, Zedekiah, Berechiah, Hananiah, Jonathan, and 70 other names that contain the name of the God of Israel! One of those names even takes the name Belshazzar and replaces the pagan god Bel with the sacred name of God!

So many names from the Bible are confirmed from outside the Bible! No other ancient scripture comes close. The Bible even names obscure military leaders who are not fiction. They are real people in real history. Sometimes they go by other names. In the case of Cushan-Rishathayim in Judges 3, the Egyptians know a guy from Syria at this time who invades Canaan. In the case of Nimrod from Genesis 10, the best candidate for a king of Ur from the south who goes north and conquers Assyria is a guy named Lugalbanda (2600 BC). In the case of Chedorla‘omer in Genesis 14, we found the guy’s name: he is a king of Elam whose attack on Sodom dates to the 48th year of Shulgi king of Ur, around 1954 BC.

In Egypt, it’s ironic: we know the names of the Hebrew midwives, but not the name of the Pharaoh – they kept his name out of the Bible, as an insult. But we do have leather scrolls from 1275 BC that keep track of the making of bricks; they had 40 taskmasters who had to produce 2000 bricks per day, and they rarely met their quota. The scrolls also say the slaves were always asking for time off, including so they can sacrifice to their gods.

When the Hebrew Bible proclaims its #1 faith event, the parting of the Red Sea, it specifies an exact place, in terms that we can recognize in data from the 13th century BC. (Check it out in the works of Egyptologist James Hoffmaier, Israel in Egypt and Ancient Israel in Sinai.) Sukkoth is called Tjeku by the Egyptians; it’s a strong fort on the Wadi Tumilat. Etham is a place that means “Isle of the god Atum” in Egyptian. Baal-Zaphon is the Lake of Horus. Pi-ha-ḥiroth means “mouth of the canal.” Yes, there was a Suez canal, even back then. All of these help pinpoint where God drove back the waters, and then brought them back upon the Egyptians.

The Bible says that Joshua set up an altar on Mount Ebal near today’s West Bank city of Nablus. A huge altar has been found there dating to the end of the Late Bronze Age; we can’t prove it’s Joshua’s, but it’s at the right place and time. The Bible also says that when Joshua charges the nation, “Choose ye this day whom you will serve,” Joshua set up a stone to witness the covenant they make there at Shechem; we can’t prove it’s Joshua’s but there’s what appears to be a large sacred stone standing there in the right time and place. And there is plenty of evidence for destruction of cities all over central Canaan at the end of the Late Bronze Age, including evidence for a huge fire at Hazor, one of only 2 cities that Joshua burned.

There is debate about whether David and Solomon’s empire ever really existed. Solomon’s Jerusalem has left very few traces, because the site keeps getting scraped clean and the stone reused. We have found cities with large stone gates, like Megiddo, Gezer, and Hazor, evidence of a powerful empire. But are these cities from Solomon’s time (950 BC), or 100 years later (from the time of Ahab)? Scholars have read the evidence either way, but then we dug up Khirbet Qeiyafah and found a well-fortified city from about 1000 BC (around the start of David’s reign). Because it has 2 gates, which is extremely rare, we think this is the town of Shaaraim, which means Two Gates. It is the closest town to the place where David and Goliath fought, and here we found one of the very oldest pieces of Hebrew writing ever found. This town is evidence of a strong kingdom specifically in the time of David.

We ask, what happened to all of Solomon’s gold? The Bible says that 5 years after Solomon dies, Shishaq king of Egypt takes it all away. Interestingly, when Shishaq dies, his son gives an unprecedented 383 tons of gold to his gods. I think I know where that gold came from. By the way, Shishaq’s invasion of Judah in 925 BC is backed up by his own monument, where he gives us a list of 187 places he conquered in the invasion the Bible tells us about, including Gibeon, Megiddo, the “field of Abraham” (Hebron?), and a place called the “Heights of David.”

King Mesha of Moab gives his account of his war with Israel (2 Kings 3) on a monument we call the Moabite Stone (about 830 BC). He gives us over 30 lines of Moabite Hebrew, and he confirms the Bible’s account that he ends up winning the war.

The book of Amos says that God’s word came to Amos “2 years before the earthquake.” Archaeologists have found evidence in Israel for a huge earthquake that they date to around 760 BC, an earthquake so big that they remembered it in Zechariah’s day, 250 years later.

We do not have the evidence for Jonah being swallowed by a huge fish. But we do have evidence that lends credibility to an even greater miracle: How did Jonah get the entire city of Nineveh to repent? I believe that God used a total solar eclipse in Nineveh on June 15, 763 BC. A total solar eclipse would have produced exactly the results we see in the book of Jonah.

According to the Assyrians, here’s what a solar eclipse would have meant to them: “the king will be deposed and killed, and a worthless fellow will seize the throne…rain from heaven will flood the land…the city walls will be destroyed.” The Assyrians tell us that at such a time, there would be solemn fasting, and the king would hand over his throne to a substitute until the danger passed. At least once when there was a total solar eclipse, the Assyrians cry, “Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (which can also mean, “Nineveh shall be made to repent!”).

I believe that Jonah was in Nineveh in June of 763 BC during the total eclipse of the sun, which would help explain the remarkable response of the people of Nineveh. Jonah preaches at exactly the right time for the people of Nineveh to listen to him. The Assyrian nation was weak and in chaos in the decade around 760 BCE. They had one earthquake (one sign of divine wrath). There was a famine from 765-758 BCE. Assyria was losing battles and losing territory to its enemies. There were domestic riots. With all the trouble they already had going on, the city could have easily believed that Jonah’s warning would come to pass. Now was a perfect time for a prophet from far away to arrive on the scene and command a response.

In the case of Sennacherib’s showdown with Hezekiah in 701 BC (Isaiah 36-37 and 2 Kings 18-19), we have Sennacherib’s version of the story, which backs up the Bible’s version in amazing detail. We have his version on a 6-sided prism on display at the Oriental Museum in Chicago (I’ve seen it; I had my selfie taken there). Sennacherib claims he extorted out of Hezekiah 800 talents of silver and 30 talents of gold; the Bible says he got 300 talents of silver and 30 talents of gold. Sennacherib claims he conquered 46 cities of Judah (the Bible just says “all”). He claims he exiled 200,150 people (probably exaggerating a little), and he gives us pictures of his conquest of Judah (now at the British Museum). But he does not claim to have actually captured Jerusalem; he just says he shut up Hezekiah “like a bird in a cage.” And Assyrian records confirm the Bible’s account that Sennacherib was assassinated by 2 of his sons.

Hezekiah has given us his own inscription celebrating the day he finishes the 1800-foot water tunnel he cut from the Gihon Spring to the new Pool of Siloam that he built, which dates to 701 BC. We also appear to have found the tomb of Hezekiah’s Prime Minister, Shebna, marked by another inscription. Isaiah scolds him for building this fancy tomb in Isaiah 22.

The 597 BC capture of Jerusalem is found not only in the Bible, but also in a text called the Chaldean Chronicle from Nebuchadnezzar himself. He says that on the second day of Adar in the 7th year of his reign, he seized the “city of Judah” and captured the king, “appointed there a king of his own choice” (meaning Zedekiah), took heavy tribute, and returned to Babylon. What happened to the king Nebuchadnezzar captured? Years later in Babylonian records we find the names of him and his 5 sons getting monthly rations from the king. The Bible tells us that after King Jehoiachin has been in prison 37 years, a new king, Awil-Marduk (“Man of Marduk”) replaces Nebuchadnezzar, lets Jehoiachin out of prison, and lets him sit at the royal dinner table.

For the OT, the best book I can recommend full of evidence to confirm God’s word is Kenneth Kitchen’s book On the Reliability of the Old Testament. Kitchen was professor of Egyptology at the University of Liverpool, and possibly the greatest expert on Ramses II. His book is like a complete master’s degree course on the evidence for the truth of the OT.

For the NT, we have far less doubt that these are real people and real cities than we had for the OT period, because we have far more information. Think how many libraries-full we have of Greek and Roman writings, plus the writings of the rabbis. Archaeologists have found what appears to be the home where Jesus grew up in Nazareth. Underneath the remains of a third-century synagogue, we can see the black basalt foundation for the synagogue in Capernaum where Jesus casts his first demon out, plus we can plainly see the houses and streets of this town that Jesus put on the map. Recently, the site of ancient Magdala was discovered and excavated.

Overseas, we can see the Roman road on which Paul traveled to Philippi, and the forum where he was whipped. We can see the theater at Ephesus where the crowd rioted and screamed for 2 hours, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” We can see the meat market at Corinth, and the judgment seat where Paul was hauled into court before Gallio. From elsewhere in Corinth, there is a section of concrete with the name of Erastus the city treasurer, who was a Christian; it reads, “Erastus laid this pavement at his own expense.” We know these places! These are real places and real people, reported by a book that is not inventing them out of thin air.

In the case of the Gospels, we have the famous criteria of authenticity for the words and deeds of the historical Jesus, where the reports of the four Gospel authors can be rigorously cross-examined to show that they are reliable and not made up by wishful thinkers. (Again, we’ll talk about those criteria on Palm Sunday.)

There are debates about the exact year that Jesus was crucified and rose again, and exactly where. We’ll save that discussion for Easter Sunday. There are also questions about evidence for the events surrounding Jesus’ birth, including the star and the census. We’ll save most of that for the Christmas season, but I would like to say a little bit about the census.

Critics claim that Luke was wrong, that the census taken under Quirinius was in 6 AD, way too late for Jesus’ birth. But highly respected scholar N T Wright argues that Luke 2:2 should be translated: “This was the first census before Quirinius was governor of Syria, leaving room for another census. Also, 2 different Greek words are used for “census” by Luke and Josephus. Luke uses the word apographÄ“, the word for the inventory of taxable property, while the word Josephus uses for the 6 AD census was the kind where you paid your tax. We also know that Augustus held a census every 14 years, and there is also evidence from Egypt and North Africa to back up a census several years before the one in 6 AD, probably in 8 BC. We’ll save this subject until Christmas!

Yes, for the Bible, absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence. But there are so many points where the Bible’s text can be demonstrated as reliable, that it becomes a lot easier to take it on faith at those points where we don’t have evidence, and points where evidence would be virtually impossible, such as proof for the existence of God.

Only the Holy Ghost can convince us to accept the evidence for what it is. But God has generously given us evidence to help us see why we should trust the Bible, rather than trusting books that have given us far less reason why we should believe them, other than just because they say so.

Once we can trust the Bible, we can begin to explore: what exactly does the Bible say about God? Next week on Biblical Words and World, we’ll be looking at why Christians have been compelled by the Bible to believe that there is one God in 3 persons, reasons why God is what we call a “triune” God.