Dating in Archaeology: Challenges to Biblical Credibility

[EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second of a two-part series on “Dating in Archaeology.” Part I is titled “Dating in Archaeology: Radiocarbon and Tree-Ring Dating.”]

“Biblical historical data are accurate to an extent far surpassing the ideas of any modern critical students, who have consistently tended to err on the side of hypercriticism” (1949, Albright, p. 229).


“Archaeologists now generally agree that their discoveries…have produced a new consensus about the formation of ancient Israel that contradicts significant parts of the biblical version” (Strauss, 1988).

These statements represent the conflicting messages that characterize the field of archaeology. In Albright’s era, archaeologists’ interpretations of field excavations ordinarily corroborated biblical information. It was common for prominent archaeologists such as Nelson Glueck to confidently affirm: “…no archaeological discovery has ever controverted a Biblical reference” (1959, p. 31).

Prior to the 1970s, interpretations of archaeological explorations generally heightened the Bible’s credibility (Davis, 1993, 19[2]:54-59). Since then, however, the amiable relationship between archaeology and the Bible has deteriorated dramatically. It is commonplace for the new generation of archaeologists to spurn the historical credibility of the biblical narrative (see Dever, 1990, 16[3]:52-62).

Archaeology, therefore, presents a challenge to those who contend for the integrity of the Scriptures. How are we to respond? On what basis do many archaeologists repudiate the historicity of the biblical text, and how reliable are their methods? To answer these and other questions we must have a basic understanding of the science of archaeology.


An archaeologist is not a modern “Indiana Jones” searching for exotic treasures in booby-trapped caverns. His expeditions are carefully-planned pursuits, including a highly-trained staff of scientists from various disciplines.

Though much surface exploration occurs, we often associate archaeology with excavation. Most excavations involve a “tell,” which is the Arabic word for “mound.” More descriptively, the word traces back to the Babylonian tillu, which meant “ruin heap” (Albright, 1949, p. 18). Similar to the Indian mounds of North America, tells are artificial hills composed of the cultural remains (e.g., pottery, tools, weapons, statues) from different settlements on the same site.

Stratification—the Making of a Tell

The cross section of a tell resembles a layer cake, with each layer representing an occupational level. These mounds were not formed merely by the natural drifting of sands, or by the gradual accumulation of debris. Though these were factors, catastrophes such as war, fire, or earthquake destroyed a settlement. Then, new settlers leveled the ground, and rebuilt on the same site. The layer of debris from the previous city formed a stratum, which generally measured from about one to five feet thick (Free, 1969, pp. 6-7). This caused the ground level of the new settlement to be several feet higher than the previous one. Also, the cultural remnants of the older settlement lay underneath the new.

Over the years, this process was repeated until several successive strata were formed, and the mound rose higher. As the height of the mound rose, the occupational area generally decreased (though sometimes the reverse occurred; Albright, 1949, p. 17). When the site was finally abandoned, wind and rain leveled the top and eroded the sides, until a city wall or other structure halted the erosion process. The shape of these mounds resembles a truncated cone (see Unger, 1954, pp. 19-21). Most important biblical sites have this characteristic form, which trained archaeologists readily recognize.

Excavation and Dating

Once a tell has been identified, then comes the arduous and fastidious task of excavation. There is more to excavating one of these mounds than merely removing each successive occupational layer, since artifacts from one stratum can intrude into another level. Archaeologists, therefore, have developed methods that help them identify artifacts with their proper stratum (see Kenyon, 1957a, pp. 75-80; LaSor, 1979, 1:237-240). These methods also assist them in developing a sequential chronology of the tell, since artifacts from the top layer represent the most recent civilization and the bottom layer represents the oldest. But how do they assign specific dates to these levels?

Often, and especially for ancient dates, radiocarbon and dendrochronology (i.e., tree-ring dating) are employed, whose deficiencies have been well-documented (see Major, 1993). For more recent dates, archaeologists generally rely on a sophisticated dating system based upon pottery, which is used extensively in Syro-Palestinian archaeology. Sir Flinders Petrie (1853-1942), the famed Egyptologist, first introduced this method, and William Albright, the distinguished American archaeologist, refined it further. Pottery serves well for dating purposes for at least two reasons: (1) it was relatively inexpensive, and thus plentiful; and (2) pottery styles underwent frequent changes (see LaSor, 1979, 1:241-242; Laughlin, 1992; Wood, 1988). This system associates the marked changes of pottery styles with different archaeological ages (see Figure 1).

From Paleolithic to Ottoman Period

Figure 1: Cross section through an idealized tell showing pottery types, and successive layers of settlement from ancient to modern times. The evolutionary-based archaeological timescale on the right comes from Silberman (1989).

How do pottery types date the strata from which they are unearthed? Suppose workers discover a cooking pot with relatively straight sides, a row of holes just below the rim, and a rope decoration below the holes. According to pottery typology, this kind of vessel was dominant in the Middle Bronze Age (c. 2000-1500 B.C.; Laughlin, 1992, 18[5]:73). Thus, if a sufficient amount of such vessels is found in a level of a tell, an archaeologist will date the stratum between the years 2000-1500 B.C.


This pottery-based dating scheme has proved to be helpful in assigning general dates to occupational levels of a mound. Further, the dates determined by this scheme often coincide with biblical chronology. For instance, excavators at Shiloh have dated a destruction level on that site at 1050 B.C., which corresponds with the battle of Ebenezer recorded in 1 Samuel 4 (cf. Jeremiah 7:12; Albright, 1949, p. 228). Such finds (and there are many) confirm the historical data of the biblical text. However, archaeologists’ interpretations based upon this dating scheme often conflict with biblical chronology. Consider two examples.

The Age of the Earth

First, there is a discrepancy between the archaeological and biblical estimations of the Earth’s age. The chronologies supplied with the genealogies from Adam to Abraham prohibit the Earth from being as old as the archaeological timescale indicates. While it is true that genealogical rec~ords occasionally may contain gaps, this does not negate the force of the chronologies attached to them. If Seth were, for example, a distant relative of Adam, nevertheless, Adam was 130 years old when Seth was born (Genesis 5:3). We cannot dismiss a priori biblical chronology simply by assuming genealogical gaps.

The archaeological timescale indicates a Paleolithic era which dates back to 700,000 years ago. Further, archaeologists generally recognize a Neolithic settlement at Tell es-Sultan (Jericho) which dates to about 8000 B.C. (Wood, 1990, 16[2]:45). Since the Flood would have destroyed any orderly remains of antediluvian civilizations, the remnants of ancient societies preserved in mounds (as those at Jericho) most likely accumulated after the Flood (Vaninger, 1985a, 20:34). Such a timetable forces the Creation back several thousand more years than allowed by biblical chronology.

Conquest of Canaan

Second, biblical and archaeological dates of some historical events are in conflict. A classic example of this chronological tension is the conquest of Canaan. The Bible indicates that 480 years transpired between the exodus and the fourth year of Solomon’s reign (1 Kings 6:1). We can date his reign with reasonable confidence at 971-931 B.C., which places the date of his fourth regnal year at 967 B.C. This would place the date of the exodus at 1447 B.C. Allowing for the 40 years of wilderness wandering prior to the Israelites’ invasion of Canaan, the initial stages of the conquest occurred around 1407 B.C.

However, archaeologists generally believe that the Israelites entered Canaan about 1230-1220 B.C., nearly 200 years later than the biblical date (Bimson, 1987, 13[5]:40-42). Again, excavations at Jericho, the first fortified city conquered by the Israelites (Joshua 2-6), are at the heart of this controversy. John Garstang was the first to employ modern pottery chronology to explore this biblical site. He uncovered a residential area in the southeast slope of the tell, which he called “City IV.” This city had been destroyed by a violent conflagration. Based on pottery in the destruction debris, and other artifacts in the nearby cemetery, he associated City IV with the first city Israel defeated in the conquest. Garstang dated this destruction level to the late 15th or early 14th century B.C., and he believed that the invading Israelites caused the destruction, in harmony with the biblical record (Joshua 6:24; Wood, 1987, p. 7).

Kathleen Kenyon critiqued Garstang’s work in 1951, and did additional excavation at this site during 1952-1958. Kenyon disagreed with Garstang’s date of the destruction level, and placed it at c. 1550 B.C., many years before the biblical date of the conquest. She further contended that in 1400 B.C. there was no fortified city for Joshua’s army to conquer, and that the archaeological evidence does not agree with the biblical description of a large-scale military incursion contemporary with the destruction of Jericho (Kenyon, 1957b, p. 259). Kenyon based her conclusions largely upon the absence of pottery typically used around 1400 B.C.

Subsequently, scholars have critiqued Kenyon’s work and have vindicated the conclusions of Garstang, and, by implication, the biblical chronology (Wood, 1990; Livingston, 1988; see also Jackson, 1990). Kenyon’s conclusions, however, caused Jericho to become the classic example of the difficulties with correlating the biblical account of the conquest with the archaeological record. Pottery stands at the center of the interpretive and dating discrepancies of the conquest.


How should we respond when archaeologists’ interpretations are at variance with biblical facts? The following principles might be helpful as we struggle with the increasing antagonism toward the Scriptures from the field of archaeology.

Evolutionary Assumptions

As a rule, archaeologists endorse evolutionary assumptions that the Earth is ancient and that man developed gradually—both physically and intellectually—over millions of years. Kenyon attributed the development of the Jordan Valley to vast terrestrial movements two million years ago (Kenyon, 1957b, p. 23). Albright discussed in detail the “…artistic evolution of Homo sapiens,” which first began around 30,000 to 20,000 B.C. (1942, pp. 6-10). Allegedly, as man slowly “evolved,” he learned how to manufacture tools from stones, and gradually developed the ability to make pottery. With his discovery of fire, he learned to fashion tools from copper and iron. Thus, archaeologists assume that centuries transpired before man graduated from stone tools and weapons to metallic implements.

This, however, is an assumption that is plainly at odds with biblical revelation. Man was highly intelligent from the dawn of Creation, and possessed the ability to manufacture tools and musical instruments (indicative of artistic ability) from metals (Genesis 4:20-22). Further, the descendants of Noah retained the technical ability for making tools and weapons, which would allow for rapid cultural recovery and restoration after the Flood (see Vaninger, 1985b, 22:67). The tower of Babel is an eloquent, and infamous, witness to the postdiluvians’ technical abilities (Genesis 11).

In addition, the divinely prompted dispersion from Babel would account for the cultural disparity between ancient Egypt and Mesopotamian cultures. Researchers have found virtually no evidence of unsophisticated cultures in Egypt; advanced civilization in that region veritably explodes onto the historical scene. In contrast, Mesopotamia exhibits a clear cultural development from simple societies to more advanced civilization (Vaninger, 1985a, 22:38). This has puzzled archaeologists for many years. But, the ancient dispersion could account for these disparate cultural developments.

Evidence indicates that an aggressive transfusion of culture from the Near and Middle East into Egypt occurred in ancient history, which directly corresponds to biblical information (cf. Genesis 11:8-9; Albright, 1949, pp. 71-72). Those who migrated to Egypt obviously carried with them both culture and technology more advanced than those possessed by the people who remained in the Mesopotamian region. Accordingly, highly developed civilizations, and cultures which used stone implements, were contemporary; they were not separated by millennia. Even today, some cultures remain isolated from advanced technology, and continue to employ implements generally associated with the so-called Stone Age (see Livingston, 1992, 5[1]:7). Thus, evidence of settlements using stone tools does not demand an ancient Earth.

Paucity of Evidence

Second, we must recognize that archaeological evidence is fragmentary and, therefore, greatly limited. Despite the amount of potsherds, bones, ornaments, or tools collected from a given site, the evidence reflects only a paltry fraction of what existed in antiquity (Brandfon, 1988, 14[1]:54). Unearthed data often are insufficient, inconclusive, and subject to biased interpretation. The current debate about the time of the conquest is a case in point. Archaeological data alone are inadequate to determine the exact date, or cause, of Jericho’s destruction. Therefore, we should listen with cautious skepticism when archaeologists appeal to evidence that conflicts with the biblical text.

Presuppositions of Archaeologists

Third, the paucity of archaeological evidence provides fertile soil for imaginative—and often contradictory—conclusions. We must not overlook the matter of subjectivity in interpretations. Regarding this matter, Jesse Long Jr. correctly stated that “…presuppositions and assumptions determine interpretive stance and often color conclusions” (1992, 134[12]:12). He further added that “…the new archaeological consensus [regarding discoveries contradicting significant parts of the biblical version—GKB] may be more a reflection of philosophical assumptions than the concrete evidence of sherds and stones” (1992, 134[12]:12).

Inexact Science

Finally, archaeology is an imprecise science, and should not serve as the judge of biblical historicity. The pottery dating scheme, for example, has proved to be most helpful in determining relative dates of strata in a tell. But, at best, pottery can place one only within the “chronological ball park.” John Laughlin, a seasoned archaeologist, recognized the importance of potsherds in dating strata, but offered two warnings: (1) a standard pottery type might have had many variants; and (2) similar ceramic types might not date to the same era—some types may have survived longer than others, and different manufacturing techniques and styles might have been introduced at different times in different locales. Further, he mentioned the fact of subjectivity in determining pottery typology: “…in addition to its observable traits, pottery has a ‘feel’ to it” (1990, 18[5]:72). Therefore, we must recognize archaeology for what it is—an inexact science with the innate capacity for mistakes.


There are many archaeological evidences, both artifactual and literary, which have undermined liberal interpretations of the biblical text, and supported its credibility. However, archaeology, like other natural sciences, has its limitations. William Dever, for example, observed that although archaeology as a historical discipline can answer many questions, it is incapable of determining “why” something occurred (1990, 16[3]:57). The destruction level at Jericho, for instance, which many date to the early 15th century B.C., corroborates the biblical text, but it cannot prove that a transcendent God caused its walls to fall. We must turn to sacred history for causative details. However, the physical evidence does support the historicity of the biblical narrative—certainly something we would expect of a divinely-inspired volume. Further, archaeology often serves to illuminate biblical texts. The literary discoveries at Ras Shamra (ancient Ugarit), for example, have enhanced our knowledge of Baalism, shedding considerable light on biblical allusions to this pagan cult (see Brantley, 1993).

Indeed, archaeology is most helpful in biblical studies, often confirming and illuminating biblical texts. We must be aware, however, of its limitations, and deficiencies. The dating methods employed (e.g., radiocarbon, dendrochronology, pottery, and others) are imperfect, and are always based upon certain assumptions. Further, we should be aware of the current anti-biblical trend among many archaeologists. As with any scientific discipline, we need not sift God’s Word through the sieve of archaeological inquiry. Archaeological interpretations are in a constant state of flux and often wither as grass, but God’s Word abides forever.


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