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Saturday, October 20, 2012

Can You Dig It?

One of the biggest bones of contention in Christianity is the physical evidence - or lack of it - for major events, nations, and individuals in the Bible.

I'm not talking about 'biggies' like the Flood, and the Resurrection, and Christ's miracles. Those (with the exception, perhaps, of the Flood) are more issues of faith. But what about kings like Saul and David, what about the Israelite nation? What about Moses?

Not a lot of evidence has come out of the ground, it's true - but this, by itself, proves exactly nothing. The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

Take a couple of analogies - first, the Hittite empire. It had received brief but tantalizing mention on tablets in various Mediterranean cultures, but for centuries, scholars couldn't place it, and couldn't be sure that it really existed. Not until the discovery of a large archive in the ruins of Boghaz Koy did the Hittites step out of the shadows - and this was less than a hundred years ago.

But what if the archive had not been found, or had been destroyed? Boghaz Koy itself, though an impressive site with its own cuneiform inscriptions, simply didn't tell the whole story.

A second example is the Trojan War. Immortalized by the blind poet Homer, its historicity was first accepted, but then fell under the shadow of doubt...because no one really knew where Troy was! It was traditionally identified with several sites in what's now Turkey, but none of these had a big sign saying "TROY".

Heinrich Schliemann, Troy's major modern champion, believed that a mound at a place called Hissarlik contained the ruins of the city. So he dug...and he dug...and he dug. he found ruins that he thought were consistent with Homer's description, and found a huge cache of treasure (lost from the end of WW2 until quite recently). he found signs of burning - and Homer said Troy had been destroyed by fire.

Ergo, Troy was discovered. or was it?

The problem was that the Hissarlik site contained a number of cities, built one atop the other. Schliemann's choice, Troy II, was small, rude, and, crucially, too old to be Homer's Troy.

Unfortunately, Schliemann's methods were crude in the extreme (though not inconsistent with late-19th century digs). He simply hacked huge trenches through the site to uncover what he thought was the real Troy, destroying structures above it, and forever losing the exact locations of artifacts which came from later developments on the site.

The Troy that corresponds most closely to the Trojan War is probably Troy VIA, a larger and more carefully built city. It was also destroyed by fire, and showed evidence of a mass evacuation, followed by only slow re-occupation. Many of the details fit Homer...but not all. The mystery will likely never be solved with any finality.

And so it is with the Bible. We can only find that which still exists, and given the habitation patterns of Mediterranean cultures - the 'layered look' of cities - a lot of evidence is forever lost.

The Hittites were major players in the Mediterranean world around 1200 BC, and the Trojan War was (at least according to Homer) one of the most important events, unifying the Greek city-states in battle. And yet, the historical record of one was found only by accident, and the specific site of the second has only recently been - approximately - identified.

Does it matter? Should it? Those are questions for each individual to answer.

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