Islam, Christianity, and Archaeology

Last month it was reported that nearly two thousand potential archaeological sites had been discovered in Saudi Arabia – and all from an office in Perth, Australia.

Thanks to high-resolution satellite images from Google Earth, David Kennedy, a Classics and Ancient History professor at the University of Western Australia, was able to find 1977 potential archaeological sites, including 1082 “pendants” – ancient teardrop-shaped tombs made of stone.

Archaeologically, Saudi Arabia is said to be one of the least explored parts of the Middle East. Few research teams are given access because of the fear that findings could contradict the Quran and undermine Islam.

But any religion that claims to be true, must be true – not just in a religious sense – but in public sense. Not just “true for me”, but universally, objectively true. If Muslims are confident in the truth of their religion, they should be prepared to submit the claims of the Quran to historical and archaeological investigation.

Christianity, on the other hand, is a religion that invites open and honest investigation – the more the better. We expect questions (1 Peter 3:15) and are not timid about subjecting theological claims to the light of history and archaeology (and other scientific enterprises). In fact, since the mid-1880s and the initial work of geographer Edward Robinson and Yale graduate Eli Smith, the historicity of many of the Biblical narratives have been validated by archaeological discoveries.

By the middle of the twentieth century, William Foxwell Albright (1891-1971), a professor of Semitic languages at Johns Hopkins University, was able to comment: “Discovery after discovery has established the accuracy of innumerable details of the Bible as a source of history” (W.F.Albright, The Archaeology of Palestine, 1954 edition, p. 128). Even today, Dr. John Sailhamer, Professor of Old Testament and Hebrew, can go so far as to say:

“After nearly a century of serious digging, biblical archaeologists have reached a broad consensus on how the bits and pieces of the historical puzzle should fit together. In viewing the total picture, the pieces supplied by modern archaeologists fit remarkably well with the picture supplied by the biblical narratives. It is, thus, widely acknowledged that, on balance, the events recorded in the OT Scriptures should not only be taken as historical in the true sense of the term, that is, they actually happened, but also they should be considered as a close, if not exact, replica of the actual events of the ancient world.” (Archaeology and the Reliability of the Old Testament, Contact Vol.35 No.2, page 9)

Christians can be confident of the truth of the Bible, but we should not be afraid of questions or rational scrutiny. Many of its claims are made in the arena of history and we should we be aware of the incredible resources that we have available to us (for example, check out these helpful online tools for biblical geography put together by David Instone Brewer). Furthermore, to be able to defend what we believe with reasons, to diligently seek answers to troubling questions is a requirement of the Christian religion. These are in fact virtuous enterprises. Not so for Islam. And that should tell us something.

(For those that are interested, Walter Kaiser has a good list of the top fifteen finds from Biblical Archaeology here.)

4 replies
  1. OriginalSimon
    OriginalSimon says:

    People are afraid of areas where they know that evidence will probably contradict their beleifs. Like many, particularly U.S. fundamentalists, when it comes to the age of the earth and evolution.

    And where many more liberal-reading Christians would claim "the Bible doesn't really say that" (and also claim that they aren't liberal-readers) Islam probably has the same fundamentalist vs. liberal makeup.

  2. Jared Clarke
    Jared Clarke says:

    It's true that we can always point to candidates from any religion or worldview that are resistant to counter-evidence and data that conflicts with their beliefs. After all, it isn't hard to find even atheists who are just as close-minded and stubborn as religious fundamentalists.

    However, in comparing Islam and Christianity, the real issue is what do the founding documents of each religion say? Do they encourage the practice of wrestling with ideas, questions and counter-claims, or do they discourage it? And the point of this post, I think, is that the source of Christianity – the Bible – rather than stifling rational thought and truth-seeking, actually encourages it (1 Pet 1:13, Eph 1:18, Eph 3:18, Phil 4:8, 1 Cor 2:15, for some quick examples). And the history of Christianity testifies to this fact pretty strongly too (Rodney Stark's The Victory of Reason does a convincing job of showing this).

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