Biblical Archaeology: Good Grounds for Faith

U.S. Catholic, July 1994 | Go to article overview

Biblical Archaeology: Good Grounds for Faith


What was the world like in Jesus' time? James Charlesworth has spent most of his life digging into ancient texts, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, to help deepen the world's understanding of Christianity.

Charlesworth, professor of New Testament Language and Literature and editor of the Dead Seas Scrolls Project at Princeton Theological Seminary, says, "The most beautiful thing about Christianity is that if we had scholars spending their whole lives raising questions, in the end we'd only find more and more power in our traditions. We shouldn't be afraid of research."

What does archaeology have to do with faith?

I remember back in the 1970s, a reporter interviewed me on biblical archaeology. When the story came out, I was horrified to see that the headline read, "Charlesworth finds data that shores up the Bible." Where did he ever get the impression that the Bible needed shoring up? Archaeology isn't here to prove anything; it asks questions. I like the idea that archaeology doesn't form faith but rather informs faith.

Faith is an absolute conviction. It's not a feeling; it's a conviction. It doesn't look for confirmation. We don't go around trying to shore it up because it's weak. As Christians, our faith is a personal commitment to God through the story of Jesus. Faith does not need archaeology for its own conviction. It needs nothing. However, a person of faith is a human being who asks questions and who would like to know what Jesus was like, what his world was like. Archaeology is our best and sometimes our only means to reconstruct that time and the lives of its people.

Are some people afraid of what archaeologists might find?

Some of the fundamentalists might be. Personally I think the most beautiful thing about Christianity is that if we had scholars spending their whole lives raising questions about it, in the end we'd only find more and more power in our traditions. We shouldn't be afraid of research.

When I was being interviewed about the Dead Sea Scrolls, the national news media kept asking me, "Don't the contents of these scrolls undermine the Christian faith?" I told them that I couldn't imagine anything in a Jewish library from Jesus' time, or from any time, that would in any way undermine anybody's faith. It can only strengthen and clarify faith.

What are some of the biggest archaeological discoveries from recent years that have helped you understand Christian faith better?

Archaeology covers a wide range. First of all, archaeology is the study of anything found from the past. The Dead Sea Scrolls are archaeological discoveries. The caves at Qumran in modern-day Jordan, where the scrolls were found, are an archaeological discovery. So are all the ancient writings that we've found through the years. One thing we're finding, from the Dead Sea Scrolls and from other ancient texts that have been found, is that they explain many of the terms that Jesus used, such as the "end of time" and "Son of Man." Almost every major term Jesus uses, he never defined.

Some people think, for example, that no one used the term "Son of God" before Jesus, but now we find it appearing in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Some of the Galilean miracle workers referred to themselves as sons of God. Clearly that was a term from Jesus' world. So was "Son of Man," which is a term for a celestial, eschatological (the end) judge who has incredible power to judge, rule, condemn, and send people to heaven or hell. To look at the term "Messiah" is even more interesting. There's not one teaching from Jesus on the Messiah, not one question to him from the disciples about the Messiah. But the Dead Sea Scrolls contain a variety of ideas about the Messiah, as well as references to people who are eschatological figures but who aren't the Messiah.

Did Jesus think he was the Messiah?

The ancient writings are clear on one point: only God can declare who is the Messiah. …

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