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Digging for truth about scripture

12 October 2010

These books advance understanding, says John Rogerson


The Word of God: The Bible after modern scholarship
Keith Ward
SPCK £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9

BIBLICAL archaeology is, as Eric Cline points out, a branch of Syro-Palestinian archaeology, and in some circles the very term “biblical archaeology” is regarded with suspicion. Yet the combination of the noun “archaeology” and the adjective “biblical” lends a fascination to the subject, and anyone wanting a concise, authoritative, and up-to-date account can do no better than turn to Eric Cline’s “very short introduction”.

A “table” at the beginning lists the main archaeological findings from the excavation of Jericho around 1500 BC to the third century AD Megiddo Prison mosaic, compares them with the biblical narratives, and ranks as “yes”, “no”, and “possible” their concordance with each other. The book then comes in two parts. Part 1 gives an overview of the history of the discipline, beginning with the American travellers Edward Robinson and Eli Smith in 1838, and ending with the bitter disputes that have raged since the 1990s, as a younger generation of scholars has challenged the findings of earlier archaeologists.

Part 2 works its way chrono­logically through the narrative traditions of the Bible, beginning with Noah’s flood and ending with chapters on the period from Herod the Great to the early Christian centuries. The last chapter is probably the most intriguing, because it discusses the probability that some recently discovered artefacts are forgeries. These include an inscribed ivory pomegranate allegedly from the time of Solomon’s temple, the ossuary inscribed with the names James and Jesus, and an inscribed black tablet describing the repairs to the temple carried out in the reign of Jehoash (c.836-798 BC).

The book is a model of fairness and good judgement, and the only (unimportant) error that I spotted was the claim that the Copper Scroll from Qumran was cut open with a metal lathe. In fact it was done with a dentist’s drill adapted to work a small cutting disc.

The Bible is too important to be left solely to biblical scholars, and it is therefore appropriate that Keith Ward, who is not a biblical scholar, should write what is, in effect, a brief introduction to how the Bible can be approached today. The opening chapters tackle head-on some of the most difficult issues: is the Bible inerrant, what does it mean to say that it is inspired, must we believe that the miracles that it records actually happened?

Ward is frank about his own position. He regards it as highly probable that Jesus performed acts of healing, is doubtful about the nature miracles and the Virgin birth, but finds it believable “that the physical body of Jesus . . . was instantaneously transfigured into a spiritual body, and left the tomb empty”. This combination of reasonable doubt and positive faith characterises the book, which then has sections on the Old and New Testaments, biblical metaphors, and Christian doctrines, and ends with the development of ideas in the Bible, including morality and the afterlife.

Among many valuable insights there is one serious error, when it is asserted that Eastern Orthodox Christians excluded most of the Apocrypha from their biblical canon at a Council in 1672. They did, but it was not the Apocrypha as understood by Anglicans, and the Eastern Churches certainly accept 49 Old Testament books as canonical. It is also arguable that the author’s definition of metaphor as statements that are literally false or false in their primary sense, but which com­municate truth, is not fit for the purposes to which it is put in dealing with topics such as creation, salvation, and atonement.

It is to be hoped, however, that the book will be a success in enabling thoughtful non-specialists to find their way to the enduring power of the Bible’s witness.

Canon John W. Rogerson is Emeritus Professor of Biblical Studies at the University of Sheffield.

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