When trying to establish the reliability of eyewitnesses in cold case investigations, I use a template that I learned from criminal trials (I’ve written about this at length in my book). One of the four areas I examine is whether or not an eyewitness account can be verified in some way by outside evidence that corroborates the claims of the witness. Detectives are usually able to locate DNA, fingerprint, or other forensic evidence that validates and affirms the statement offered by a witness (sometimes an additional witness is even used to verify a statement). But what about historic eyewitness accounts that were recorded so long ago that forensic evidence is no longer available? Well, here’s where I think archeology can step into the gap to help us substantiate the claims of ancient eyewitnesses.
I’ve written online about some of the archeological evidence that supports the claims made by Luke in the Book of Acts (I’ve written more on this in Cold Case Christianity), but it’s clear from any authority on Biblical archeology that we don’t have support for every detail of the gospels. Critics often cite this reality as a challenge for those of us who claim the gospels are accurate. But let’s take a minute to compare the state of Biblical archeological support with the state of Mormon archeological support. Both the New Testament and the Book of Mormon make claims about the ancient past that can be verified with archeological discoveries. But while the Biblical narrative has been robustly (although incompletely) confirmed with archeology, the Book of Mormon narrative has not been corroborated by a single archeological discovery. Not a single Mormon city has been discovered. Not a single Mormon artifact. Not a single inscription bearing a name from the Mormon narrative. Christianity does not suffer from such a complete absence of archeological confirmation.
But what are we to say to those who argue the Biblical archeological record is incomplete? The answer is best delivered by another expert witness in the field, Dr. Edwin Yamauchi, historian and Professor Emeritus at Miami University. Yamauchi wrote a book entitled, The Stones and the Scripture, where he rightly noted that archaeological evidence is a matter of “fractions”:
Only a fraction of the world’s archaeological evidence still survives in the ground.
Only a fraction of the possible archaeological sites have been discovered.
Only a fraction have been excavated, and those only partially.
Only a fraction of those partial excavations have been thoroughly examined and published.
Only a fraction of what has been examined and published has anything to do with the claims of the Bible!
See the problem? In spite of these limits, we still have a robust collection of archaeological evidences confirming the narratives of the New Testament (both in the gospel accounts and in the Book of Acts). We shouldn’t hesitate to use what we do know archaeologically in combination with other lines of evidence. Archaeology may not be able to tell us everything, but it can help us fill in the circumstantial case as we corroborate the gospel record.