Q. I notice on the History Channel that many liberal archaeologists reject Israel’s exodus. Is this common among liberalism? — This question and the following answer were originally written for the Louisburg Journal, March 15, 2011.
A. Revelation comes from above–from God to man, from the sky down (as it were). But, there is a new priesthood in biblical studies claiming that revelation comes from the ground up. This, in part, helps to explain the title of Israel Finkelstein’s popular book, The Bible Unearthed. Archaeologists are digging up ancient history as a rival canon and Finkelstein’s point is that what is unearthed is revelation (i.e., bible), even as they debate among themselves the meaning of their findings. And using the spade, these new priests are constructing a story that is at odds with the text of Scripture. These archaeologists are self-assigned guardians, of sorts, controlling the data and the knowledge of the god they have excavated, where each turn of the spade is viewed as a sacred and sacramental act.
I would be happy if this analysis and analogy was purely my own, but I must give credit to a professor from Beirut University who I met while working at Megiddo in Israel. He argued in one of his lectures that archaeology is revelatory, and encouraged us as excavators to keep digging, “For god’s sake, keep digging!” He believed that we, as excavators, were revealing the true god, and we found him through a study of dirt and stones and pottery shards. However, what archaeologists freely admit is that they interpret the dirt and stones and pottery, as none of these things tell us what to conclude. As helpful as it is, archaeology is still an interpretive science, not a self evident one (nor is it reproducible — following the scientific method — as the very act of digging up the evidence destroys its original context).
I am afraid that the notion of archaeologists as priests of revelation is not anomalous, but informs the posture of many researchers who are excavating their own version of biblical history. It is spade vs. text, and many archaeologists are not simply on the side of the spade, but they are predisposed to be against the text and so they are guaranteed to uncover their own history of Israel.
And in their post-enlightenement version of ancient history, there is no room for Israel’s exodus from Egypt. I asked one of the leading archaeologists from Tel Aviv, “Why then celebrate the Passover if it is a myth?” His solution was something quite familiar. He was able to distinguish between the Israel of history and the Israel of his family faith, just as many religious Americans distinguish between a Jesus of history and the Jesus they got from their parents. Many religious Americans easily reject the reality of the virgin birth of Jesus and his physical bodily resurrection, even as they keep Christmas and Easter on their calendar. They can reject the historical facts of his kingly divinity, but retain the sentimental love of the seasonal celebrations. Thomas Jefferson was one such American — for whom, see his October 31st, 1819 letter to William Short. Jefferson found a way to be close to Christianity without being too close (to have Easter, but no resurrection).
Many enlightenment thinkers of mainline denominations are able to reject the biblical accounts of the deity of Christ and his resurrection, yet retain their warm childhood memories of decorations, trees, family singing, Lent, Christmas presents, candles, and all the rest. For them, revelation may not come from the ground up as it does for the professional archaeologists, but it comes from the inside out. For them, what they know most certainly of a god is what they feel inside to be true. But either way, revelation is rejected as finally, solely and authoritatively generating from above. This makes them rival priests to Christ, for Christ alone is the one who came from above and spoke rightly of what he saw (John 3:31-32). Jesus is the incarnated revelation of God, and the bible is the inscripturated revelation of God.