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When Even Experts Get Stumped

The Limits of Human Understanding

Yesterday, I stumbled across an interesting story out of Jerusalem. Workers on the “City of David” archaeological dig have found some bewildering V-shaped carvings in one of the excavations. The pottery found in the area looks like it might have been from around 800 BC (so, the time of the kings, possibly during the reign of Joash). But the markings may well precede that period by centuries, and may even date to the Caananite period.

But the dating aside, the markings themselves have caused quite the stir. Even seasoned archaeologists and scholars are stumped. They’re having trouble even speculating what they might have been for. (One tech blog I read was suggesting “alien sacrifice,” but somehow I don’t think that hypothesis will take off!).

And so the discussion begins. I even read one article saying that there is an effort to “crowdsource” possible explanations for this on Facebook!

At the time I found the article, I posted a link on my personal blog and wrote that we, as Christians, can draw two practical lessons from this mystery. I thought I would restate them here and elaborate a little for everyone’s benefit. The two lessons I drew were:

Archaeologists, and archaeology itself, do not have all the answers. Here, in this case, they don’t even know what questions to ask. And so seeing something like this, something that challenges our understanding and our knowledge, is a useful reminder of the limitations of human learning and science.

Our culture loves its experts. Doctors and psychologists are given TV shows and share their insights to millions. Scientists write books and their papers and arguments are used to justify government policy. Yet even the experts are fallible, and even science and technology have their limits. So it is a good and sobering reminder to us, when we see something that the experts cannot explain, that our knowledge is, really, quite limited and any human “expertise” is relative at best.

Hence, our Christian responsibility to “test everything.” Men are fallible! More than that, because an unbelieving world carries out its studies largely without reference to the Creator and Sustainer of all things, we as believers are to expect that the results of those studies are going to be tainted in various ways by sin. We can expect that the unbelieving assumptions and presuppositions of our world’s experts will blind them to some things, and distort their interpretation of the evidence at times. So, believers are not to blindly follow our world’s experts in any field. Rather, we test all things by the infallible and inerrant Word of the One who put the world together in the first place.

2. Archaeology produces evidence in need of interpretation, not just brute facts. Here, the experts are struggling even to suggest possible interpretations. The only hard “brute” fact here is that someone cut “V” shapes into rock many years ago. How? Why? When? All those questions remain to be answered through study and interpretation of the spadework.

Much damage has been done to Christianity by those who identified their interpretation of facts as being the facts themselves. Convoluted theories about the origin of the Pentateuch, or about the possible nature of the conquest of Caanan, or hypotheses about the date of the Exodus that make a mess of the biblical account have all arisen in part because of scholars who gave too much authority to one particular interpretation of archaeological evidence. After I posted the link yesterday, Margot Grinwis sent me a rather funny, but revealing, anecdote:

“An Israeli taxi driver I met in Tel Aviv said: ‘The future here is always the same...every few years we go to war. It's the past that keeps changing - every time they dig they tell a different story!’”

Why is that? Is it because what is being dug up keeps changing? No, it’s because what is dug up keeps forcing the academy to revise its interpretations of the facts.

And so we need to accept the conclusions of archaeologists with caution, and hold their interpretations with a loose hand. They may change, after all.

Again, we must test all things by the one thing that will not change: the Word of God.