I’d like to touch on two different ways in which the modern study of the Bible has changed in the last few centuries, namely through the disciplines of text criticism and archeology.
In the early centuries of Christianity, texts were compiled and circulated by Christians to preserve the teachings of the early Christians and early Jewish authors. The reading of these texts formed an essential part of community worship and belief.
This continued for centuries, and remains to this day. However, what happened was that the Biblical text was standardized and also largely confined to liturgical reading and a source of inspiration for theologians, most of whom were much different than the “common man” (e.g. they were monks or aristocrats). The distrust of such people was evident in the Reformation, and the result was a new kind of theologian, one who was not a monk or bishop (but usually still an aristocrat) but a scholar and preacher. The Protestant preacher became not the new bishop or Pope, but the new Prophet bringing reform to the corrupted Israel who had essentially forgotten the Law.
In the 18th century the West became flooded with Greek manuscripts from the East. This influx of ancient texts (often procured by questionable means) led to a relatively new possibility for the Prophet Scholar: judging the text of the Bibles in circulation.
Since the Bible was the final arbiter of Truth (the Church had shown itself in their views to be a half truth and half lie) the circulating Biblical texts should be as true as possible. But how can one gauge the truthfulness of the source of Truth? The answer was now available: by having the biblical texts themselves perform the evaluation. Ancient manuscripts of Mark could be compared to current ones. The ancient would ratify or disqualify the modern text. The purity of the texts in circulation will improved.
This was a welcome development in terms of correcting the text of the Bible, at least in theory. But an unintended consequence (or perhaps it was intended) was that the Bible was now a text that was authoritative only inasmuch as it was seen as authoritative. The possibility of a false Biblical text was more palpable and real at this point in history than ever before. The Church could not be trusted to preserve the text, since in some instances since it was implicating in changing the text.
This dethroning of the Church in favor of the Text is not altogether negative, since the Church (viewed generically) did have problems in need of correction. Likewise, the authority of the Church was not what it had been in the first millennium.
A strange product of this process was not only the means to determine (to a reasonable degree) the original text of the Bible, but also the realization that no text of the New Testament was pure. Every single manuscript found if every single gospel or letter contains elements that are deemed to be spurious. All of the written versions of the Bible were flawed. It was only by looking at all extant versions, and favoring the individual elements of the manuscripts that appeared to be authentic, that one arrived at the “pure” text. Yet this was a text that was never written, as far as the manuscripts tell us. The pure New Testament, according to the physical evidence, can be reconstructed but never found. We have no physical evidence of a pure NT writing, but instead a 100% rate of corrupt texts.
This is a perplexing state of affairs, and one that calls into question the legitimacy of text criticism when compared to how the Bible was historically read. Historically, it appears that the New Testament has always been a corrupt text, and only in the modern period have we begun to weed out the mistakes and corruptions.
The investigation of ancient manuscripts is basically archeology in a narrow sense. The manuscripts are archeological finds, but in archeology writ large we have other kinds of evidence to consider. The fallout from the reliance on archeology in the modern period is similar to the issue of manuscripts, but with a twist. While the manuscript finds served to dethrone the standard biblical texts in favor of an eclectic and synthetic text that never existed physically (as far as we can tell) the finds in archeology served to dethrone the content of the Bible itself.
This was the natural outcome of the approach to archeological finds. With the discovery of the Rosetta Stone and the interest in Egypt and the Ancient Near East in the 18th century continuing to today, the possibility of confirming the Biblical stories with archeological evidence became real. The biblical stories started to look more like history, since the mythological times of the ancient past were becoming tangibly present with the discovery of artifacts and the decoding of languages. So did the finds support the truth of the Bible?
The question doesn’t seem to really have ever been asked. The researchers begged the question, assuming not that the stories could be proven or disproven, but that the evidence could be used to confirm or disconfirm the Bible. In other words, the main emphasis was the status of the Bible, and archeology was here the handmaid of biblical archeology. The evidence would confirm the Bible and show it be historical rather than mythical. It was a rational document rooted in actual history.
In the 20th century (if not before) this actual history became the working definition of “truth.” The assumption that the Bible was part of this truth was a relatively new idea. The “history” of the Old Testament became one of many Ancient Near East histories, rather than the one correct history as recorded by inspired writers. The Bible was one of many religious texts.
But it was a valuable text, and so it was worthwhile to purify it through text criticism. It also seemed to be worthwhile to vindicate the truth of the Biblical accounts through archeology. If the story of the Bible (now one of many ancient ANE stories) was to privileged over other ANE texts, it was on the basis that hte Bible was “true.” And what was truth except historical accuracy? Truth now could be dug up and studied. It ceased to be the inspired text, and now was the unearthed text. Claims of inspiration were no longer accepted. Text criticism had shown that claims of accurate texts were merely claims. Archeology and the fixation with Orientalism had uncovered a new data set, and that data set was compared to the biblical stories.
The result of this can hardly be overstated:
the content of the Bible was subjected to various criteria to evaluate its truth.
This seems innocent enough, even intuitive. After all, if the bible were true than there should be no problem in evaluating the truth of it. The result will be that the Bible passes with flying colors, laying to rest any doubts about the truth of the Bible. One will not even need faith to believe the Bible, since archeology has rendered that superfluous. One can affirm the truth of the Bible through the intellect alone.
However, there were two major problems with this approach.
The first was that the ultimate test of truth had become archeological evidence. Prior to this we had to have faith in the transmission of the Bible, a faith that became less important as text criticism progressed. One needed to trust (have faith) in the text much less since one could be assured (to a large degree) in the accuracy of such textual transmission. So far so good. But when it came to archeological finds regarding the world of the Old Testament, things turned out for the worse. The monarchy of David has yet to be confirmed. Practically all of the Old Testament stories failed the test of archeology. The exodus had shifted from a spiritual reality/paradigm/myth recorded in ancient times to an account of an historical event that can be confirmed or disproven. One need not believe, but simply judge.
In the cases where archeology did not confirm the biblical accounts, the result had to be agnosticism of skepticism. By submitting the Biblical stories to the authority of archeological evidence, archeology become the truth that the Bible must submit to or be seen as false. The content of the Bible had been dethroned, and was only true of archeology let us believe that it was true. I use the phrase “let us believe” because at best archeological finds allow us to still retain the idea that certain stories in the OT are true. This allowance (until more evidence shows them to be false) was the pinnacle of the “positive” effect of archeology. At best it could allow us to still believe some parts of the Bible, since those stories had yet to be disproven.
The submission of the Bible to archeology is a losing battle. Archeology is powerless to affirm the OT stories in any meaningful way. It cannot tell us what kind of a person David was, or how God interacted with humanity. These things are outside of the scope of archeology. Archeology can only affirm the Bible in terms of allowing it to be plausible. It can never show it to be true, or even likely to be true.
The only thing that archeology can do in a convincing way is to disprove. The Davidic monarchy does not appear in archeology, nor does the exodus, nor the conquest of Canaan. Archeology and the Bible are fundamentally at odds on these issues, and only archeology can win in the end. This is because archeology judges the Bible, and never vice versa. The only relation between archeology and the Bible is that of opposition. Even if archeology “supports” some parts of the Bible, this is the best it can do. The Bible is supported, denied, and judged by archeology, the new Truth.
The Bible (for the “historian”) has largely become a handbook for archeology. Bethel is no longer the “house of God” but a town that we can dig up. We might even find the stone that Jacob dreamed upon, but we would be unable to confirm its identity. The truth of the story disappears because we are looking for the only truth still available to us (we think) which is archeological evidence. The story of Jacob wrestling with the angel becomes a matter of finding a stone rather a matter of the relation between Israel and God. This misdirection is an abuse of the Bible, making Wisdom into the handmaiden of archeology, the real revealing of Truth. A truth which is no longer divine, but human and dead.