The Jewish scriptures that made up the Old Testament were written over a period of a hundred years during a time when the Israelites were established and prosperous, but also during the times when the whole religion and lifestyle were under threat throughout exiles and national crises. Biblical scholars study the evidence within the scriptures themselves and also use other resources such as prehistoric documents and archaeological findings in order to inform us more thoroughly about the Old Testament.
Archaeology is a modern science calling for much patience and skill. Generally speaking there are three kinds of archaeology. The first is ruins of buildings, homes, temples and fortifications. These reveal culture, worship, social structure and manner of life. The second is artefacts, pots, lamps, weapons and ornaments. These reveal something about wealth and culture. The third is inscriptions, also known as epigraphic material. This reveals what people wrote about. We have to be cautious about what archaeology can prove. From reading ancient texts, scholars can not always tell whether it is true or not. We can simply tell what the writer of the text wanted the world to believe. Archaeology can help to provide evidence that an event happened, but it cannot always show why it happened nor who was involved. Therefore it is most useful for corroboration.
Through archaeology scholars can discover more about the times in which people in the Bible lived. What importance did they have as a nation among other nations? What were their everyday lives like? What animals did they keep? What did they eat? How did they trade? What were their social habits and family interactions? What was the nature of the other religions by which they were surrounded when Judaism was first beginning and much more?
One of the main reasons scholars look for archaeological evidence is due to an issue that causes the most controversy- whether the events described really happened. For many people who are strong believers this is not an issue for them as the Bible, which is the Word of God is thought to them to be more true than any other foundation of information, so therefore the events portrayed in the Bible are true to them. If there is no outside evidence to support this, or discoveries of scholars contradict what the Bible says, then the Bible remains true to the believers as the people investigating the evidence are thought to be able to be fallible whereas for the believers, the Bible is not. Many people are also willing to accept that some of the Bibles accounts are true in a theological rather than a historical sense. However, it is argued that the accuracy of the historical accounts might have been sacrificed in order to put emphasis on the theological point.
It is very difficult for events in the Old Testament to be accurately dated for many reasons. The main reason is that many of the written records have not survived. This is because many of the texts were written on insubstantial materials and the climate was not particularly dry and therefore could not preserve the texts. Another reason is that much of the Old Testament originated as oral traditions rather than written, which means whilst being passed on from one person to another, the real translation could have sometimes been changed through misunderstanding or false impression. This makes it extremely difficult for scholars to work out which parts are historically correct and which are not as elements may have been removed or added. Texts occasionally referred to features which were thought to be of a later date than the story itself and therefore scholars have to decide if the older parts of a narrative were correct or had been altered. Biblical writers also often exaggerated what was written in order to express that someone was particularly blessed by God.
This means scholars have to make informed guesses where they do not know facts, which means they can easily make mistakes in accuracy as well as writing according to their own biases. A final reason why the Bible cannot be accurately dated is because Biblical writers primary purpose was not to write an accurate historical record. Their main interest was to illustrate the relationship between God and humanity, particularly the relationship between God and his chosen people, Israel. This meant important rulers and political events of global importance, which could give the Bible definite dates if they were mentioned in the texts, were ignored because they did not show any relevance for religious faith.
Some people dispute that a date from the Bible can be found using the text itself as many do believe the Bible is historically accurate and reliable as the Bible is inspired by God. However, for many scholars this is thought to be very unreliable. As well as using documents to attempt to place the Bible in historical context, archaeologists have searched for evidence of the existence of cities and buildings mentioned in Biblical stories.
Since the First World War, scholars have used archaeology to discover more reliable sources about events that were said to have happened in the Old Testament. For example, excavations on the southern bank of the river Euphrates in Syria revealed the existence of a city called Mari. From this city, archaeologists found cuneiform (wedge-shaped writing of ancient civilisations) tablets dating from the nineteenth and eighteenth centuries BC.
They provided a wealth of information containing economic factors which helped scholars to understand the ways in which people lived in the Middle Bronze Age. In the past, thousands of tablets covered with cuneiform have been discovered. They provide information about the Biblical world before 100 BC. After that time alphabets with letters not made up of combinations of triangles begin to emerge and we are on our way to the Hebrew script known to Biblical scholars.
Names found through archaeology can provide more clues to the dating or geographical setting of particular events in the Old Testament because when scholars find evidence of other people with comparable names to those of characters in the Bible, it can suggest a background for the Biblical writings.
To conclude, archaeology can help to inform us more about events that happened in the Old Testament and help us understand what happened and who was involved more than we already do. However, we cannot always rely on archaeology to inform our understanding of the Old Testament as archaeologists and scholars do not always know the truth behind evidence found, they are only able to use what they see with their own eyes and make educated guesses with what they already know.