Should we construct biblical narratives from archaeological facts?

Archaeologists tend to be storytellers. While I worked at Ashkelon, one of my most respected supervisors had an uncanny ability to stretch out long, detailed stories about the people who might have inhabited a space using nothing more than a mudbrick hearth and a few associated walls. The stories were captivating. They were more than that, they were engrossing. They became a way for excavators to connect to the dirt being excavated. For me, it became a well-worn tactic to motivate volunteers to dig for long hours in the sweltering sun.

After all, it has been said that archaeology is little more than pseudo-scientific storytelling. Anson Rainey used to tell his students that “Archaeology is the science of digging a square hole and the art of spinning a yarn from it.” To put it another way, the yarns and stories we construct from the pursuit of archaeological excavation, are not archaeological facts in and of themselves, they are art.

Archaeological facts, the science, are far different from the yarns and stories we tell. An archaeological fact is little more than a description of a relationship discovered while digging a square hole.  For example: “Surface A” can be observed touching “Wall A” and “Wall B” with no indication that “Wall A” or “Wall B” were deposited after “Surface A.” It may seem mundane, but that is exactly what archaeological facts are like.

The recent debate over the presence of domesticated camels in the book of Genesis demonstrates the difference between facts and interpretation well. The archaeological facts (in this particular case) are that, at two copper mining sites in the Aravah Valley, no excavated Camel remains have been dated to earlier than the 10th century.  The artful story being told is that there must not have been domesticated camels anywhere in the Southern Levant prior to the 10th century and thus the biblical text, which portrays Abraham as owning domesticated camels, must not have been composed until after the 10th century when “domesticated camels” would have been within the cognitive environment of the Israelites.

Our imaginings of Abraham are often flavored by images of 19th century Bedouins. Photo courtesy

Our imaginings of Abraham are often flavored by images of 19th century Bedouins. Photo courtesy of

The archaeological facts do not challenge the authority of the biblical narrative though. In fact, it may surprise you to know that archaeological facts have very little to do with the biblical text itself as an ancient document. The lack of camel remains at two very specific sites prior to the 10th century says nothing about the accuracy of the text’s claim that Abraham had domesticated camels. It is people, spinning yarns, extrapolating interpretations, which are calling the biblical text into question.

You see stories, yarns, interpretations, or even the biblical narratives themselves, operate on a different level than archaeological facts. They are constructed. Some archaeologists are willing to allow the ancient documents such as the biblical text to inform their interpretations of archaeological facts; others are not. Likewise, some biblical scholars, teachers and preachers are willing to allow archaeological facts to inform their construction of the biblical narrative; others are not.

Archaeological facts can inform and enliven the biblical text, just as the biblical text can inform and enliven archaeological facts. They are separate and discrete sources of information. Neither source is proven or disproven true by the other. But gathered together they can make a particular story more or less compelling.

My supervisor’s stories were compelling because they collected multiple lines of information, they developed a critical mass of archaeological, circumstantial, and textual evidence to produce an artfully constructed yarn that engrossed the hearer, compelling them forward to action.

Ultimately, I can think of no more engrossing a yarn than God’s redemptive history. When that story is artfully told, when it is informed by the biblical text, archaeological facts, ethnographic and geographic data and a myriad of other sources, it becomes very compelling indeed!

[For background on the domestication of Camels in the southern Levant, and camel yarns which are spun differently, using different archaeological facts, Todd Bolen at has already done a good job of drawing together a number of sources.]

Join the discussion below:  What makes a story compelling to you? What do you think about the current camel debate? How do you handle the intersection of archaeological facts and the biblical text? 

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