When a theist presents ‘evidence’ to an atheist for the existence of God, the atheist will often challenge the theist with whether the supernatural is ‘falsifiable.’ In other words, is a belief in God ‘testable?’ Atheists say that ‘religious beliefs,’ beliefs in the existence of a supernatural God, are not falsifiable because they cannot be verified or denied.
That was one of my challenges to theists, and Christians in particular, when I was an atheist. How can the theory of supernaturalism be tested empirically and shown to be false based on results from the testing (falsifiable)? Christians I talked with on my daily radio show would answer with a one-word answer — ‘faith.’ My answer to them was usually a question — ‘faith in what? You can’t see God, touch God, hear God, taste God or smell God. How can you test something that is not there?’ You can imagine how popular I was with Christians in those days.
When I began my investigation into the truth claims of theism and Christianity, that issue of falsifiability was paramount in my processing the ‘supposed evidence’ of the supernatural. I kept searching for evidence that could be tested and found historical, archaeological and textual evidences testable.
Atheists now ask me why I even bothered with those evidences since none of them ‘prove’ the existence of God (the supernatural). My answer is simple: if Christianity could not stand up to an investigation of the most basic of natural information, then it certainly couldn’t support the weightier matters of supernatural investigation. If Christianity failed at the basic level, I believed my investigation would have ended there.
Testing the Prophets
The Bible claims that God ‘spoke’ to people ‘by the prophets’ (Hebrews 1:1). Human speech – that might be ‘testable,’ thus ‘falsifiable.’ I didn’t know any way to test that ‘God’ spoke to the prophets, but I could test whether what the prophets spoke could be verified or denied.
In previous articles we’ve looked at the archaeological and historical evidence about the ancient empires of Assyria and Babylon attacking Jews in the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. Comparing ancient documents and inscriptions contained enough verification to continue investigating. My next step was to test the prophets.
Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel prophesied during the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar. What, if any, archaeological finds support these three prophets? We’ll begin with Jeremiah.
Jeremiah the Prophet
“The words of Jeremiah the son of Hilkiah, of the priests who were in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, to whom the word of the Lord came in the days of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah, in the thirteenth year of his reign. It came also in the days of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah, until the end of the eleventh year of Zedekiah the son of Josiah, king of Judah, until the carrying away of Jerusalem captive in the fifth month.” Jeremiah 1:1-3
The first paragraph in the Book of Jeremiah reads like history rather than myth or legend and so does the rest of Jeremiah. Here are some of the personal names, locations and time periods mentioned in the Book of Jeremiah along with links to historical information. Whenever possible I will link to non-Christian historical information since that’s the only source I trusted as an atheist. Would you agree that Jeremiah reads more like history than myth?
Names — Jeremiah, Hilkiah, King Josiah, King Amon, King Jehoiakim, King Zedekiah, King Hezekiah, Shallum (Jehoahaz), Coniah, Baal, Molech (Milcom), Bel, Marduk, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Rachel, Esau, Benjaminites, queen of heaven, Ammonites, David, Cushite, Moses, Samuel, Manasseh, Hezekiah, Asherah, Pashhur, Melchiah, Zephaniah, Maaseiah, Immer, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, Chaldeans, Pharaoh Hophra (Apries), Pharaoh Neco, kings of the land of Uz, kings of the land of the Philistines, kings of Tyre, kings of Sidon, kings of the coastlands across the sea, Dedan, Tema, Buz, kings of Arabia, kings of Zimri, kings of Elam, kings of Media (Medes), king of Sheshach, Micah the Moreshite, Uriah, Shemaiah, Elnathan, Achbor, Ahikam, Shaphan, Hananiah, Azzur, queen mother, Elasah, Gemariah, Ahab, Kolaiah, Nehelamite, Jehoiada, Hanamel, Baruch, Neriah, Mahseiah, Rechab, Rechabites, Jonadab, Hanan, Igdaliah, Aramean army, Micaiah, Elishama, Jehudi, Ishmael son of Nethaniah, Shelemiah, Cushi, Jerahmeel, Seraiah, Azriel, Abdeel, Jehucal, Ebed-melech, Jonathan, Nergalsharezer, Samgar-nebo, Sarechim the Rab-saris, Nebuzaradan (commander of the Babylonian guards), Nebushazban the Rab-saris, Kareah, Johanan, Jaazaniah, Hoshaiah, Hoshaiah, Azariah, Ludim, Hamutal, King Evil-merodach of Babylon, Nebo, Chemosh, Dedan, Ben-hadad
Locations — Anathoth, land of Benjamin, Judah, Jerusalem, Israel, Cyprus, Kedar, Memphis, Tahpanhes, Egypt, Nile, Assyria, Euphrates, Dan, Mount Ephraim, Zion, Topheth, Valley of Hinnom, Gilead, Edom, Moab, Tekoa, Beth-haccherem, Shiloh, Tarshish, Uphaz, Jordan, Negev, Arabah, People’s Gate, Lebanon, Potsherd Gate, Upper Benjamin Gate, Babylon, Bashan, Abarim, Samaria, Sodom, Gomorrah, Ashkelon, Gaza, Ekron, Ashdod, Moab, New Gate, Kiriath-jearim, Gibeon, Ramah, Tower of Hananel, Corner Gate, Gareb, Goah, Kidron Valley, Horse Gate, Middle Gate, Mizpah, Geruth Chimham, Bethlehem, Migdol, land of Pathros, Carchemish, Thebes, Caphtor, Kiriathaim, Heshbon, Luhith, Horonaim, Aroer, Arnon, Holon, Jahzah, Mephaath, Dibon, Neth-diblathaim, Beth-gamul, Beth-meon, Kerioth, Bozrah, Kir-heres, Sibmah, Jazer, Zoar, Eglath-shelishiyah, Nimrim, Ai, Teman, Red Sea, Damascus, Hamath, Arpad, Hazor, Elam, Carmel, Bashan, Merathaim, Pekod, Leb-qamai, Ararat, Minni, Ashkenaz, Media, Chaldea, Libnah, Jericho, Riblah, Hamath, Rabbah
Time periods — in the thirteenth year of King Josiah’s reign, end of the eleventh year of King Zedekiah, until the carrying away of Jerusalem in the fifth month, fourth year of Jehoiakim, first year of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, thirteenth year of Josiah son of Amon until this very day–23 years–, 70 years of desolation of land of Judah while Judeans serve the king of Babylon, punish the king of Babylon when the 70 years are completed, beginning of the reign of Zedekiah in the fifth month of the fourth year, in the seventh month, tenth year of Zedekiah, eighteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar, fourth year of Jehoiakim, fifth year of Jehoiakim in the ninth month, ninth year of Zedekiah king of Judah in the tenth day of the tenth month, fourth month of Zedekiah’s eleventh year on the ninth day of the month, Zedekiah was 21 years old when he became king and reigned 11 years in Jerusalem, tenth day of the fifth month of the nineteenth year of King Nebuchadnezzar, first year of King Evil-merodach’s reign
Number of people deported and year of deportation — 3,023 Jews in Nebuchadnezzar’s eighteenth year, 832 people from Jerusalem in Nebuchadnezzar’s twenty-third year, Nebuzaradan deported 745 Jews, all together 4,600 people deported
Testable Historical Data
The Book of Jeremiah was filled with historical data that I could test. So how did Jeremiah do?
Many archaeological discoveries concerning Judah and Babylon in the time of Jeremiah were available for me to research in 1971. Archaeologists William F. Albright and M.G. Kyle excavated the site of Tell Beit Mirsim in Israel (13 miles southwest of Hebron) during the early part of the 20th century. They discovered two stamped jar-handles in upper stratum (dated to early 6th century BC) bore the seal impression – ‘Belonging to Eliakim steward of Yokin.’ Yokin is rendered Jehoiachin in the Bible. A jar handle with similar inscription was discovered in Bethshemesh in 1930 by Elihu Grant. British archaeologist J.L. Starkey excavated Tell ed-Duweir, identified as ancient Lachish, during the third decade of the 20th century. Starkey discovered potsherds with Hebrew writing from an army officer complaining about royal officials sending letters that ‘weaken the hands’ of the people. That is similar to what is written in Jeremiah 38:4 – “Therefore the princes said to the king, ‘Please, let this man be put to death, for thus he weakens the hands of the men of war who remain in this city, and the hands of all the people, by speaking such words to them. For this man does not seek the welfare of this people, but their harm.” The ‘Lachish Letters’ also include support for the town of Azekah mentioned in Jeremiah 34. Lachish Letter 1 includes a list of several names, some of which were also listed in Jeremiah – Gemaryahu, son of Hissilyahu; Yaazanyahu, son of Tobshillem; Hageb, son of Yaazanyahu; Mibtahyahu, son of Yirmeyahu; and Mattanyahu, son of Neryahu. An archaeological dig at Tell en-Nasbeh (site of the ancient city of Mizpah) in 1932 discovered a seal listing the name of Jaazaniah as a servant of the King of Judah.
We read in Jeremiah 43 that Johanan the son of Kareah rejected the prophet Jeremiah’s advice about not taking the remaining people of Judah to Egypt. They went as far as Tahpanhes when God told Jeremiah to prophecy about what would happen to them by hiding large stones in the clay in the brick courtyard at the entrance to pharaoh’s house in Tahpanhes. English Egyptologist and archaeologist Sir Flinders Petrie excavated Tell Defenneh (ancient Tahpanhes) toward the end of the 19th century and discovered a large castle which may have been the pharaoh’s house. The Elephantine Papyri discovered at the end of the 19th century and early part of the 20th century showed that a Jewish community was in existence at least by the early part of the 5th century BC.
Beginning in 1969 Israeli archaeologist Nahman Avigad began excavations in the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem. Avigad and his team unearthed the Israelite Tower with evidence of the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC.
I had been a Christian for a few years when about 200 inscribed bullae surfaced through an antiquities dealer in East Jerusalem. Archaeologists have dated the seals to the 6th century BC. One of the seals had the name Berekhyah son of Ner-iyahu the scribe, believed to be the same Baruch who was scribe for the prophet Jeremiah.
More recently, in 2007, Austrian Assyriologist Michael Jursa was looking through undeciphered Babylonian cuneiform tablets in the British Museum when he found a notation about a temple donation made by an official named ‘Nebo-Sarsekim.’ The spelling of the name was the same as the name of a Babylonian official found in Jeremiah 39. The tablet was dated about 595 BC.
Dr. Eilat Mazar with the Institute of Archaeology of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem excavated the summit of the City of David between 2005 and 2008. She discovered what may be the palace of King David and inside the building found clay bulla. One of the seal impressions had Hebrew lettering with the name ‘Jehucal, son of Shelemiah, son of Shovi,’ mentioned in Jeremiah 37:3 and 38:1. Another seal impression had the name of ‘Gedaliah, son of Pashur,’ another high-ranking official mentioned in Jeremiah 38:1.
Jeremiah Passed the Test
The Book of Jeremiah did quite well in the area of ‘falsifiability.’ I was impressed during my investigation that the ancient documents that are part of the ‘Hebrew Bible’ had so much historical and archaeological ‘evidence’ to support the claims that the Old Testament is historical rather than mythical. However, just because ancient writings can be tested and verified doesn’t mean that what they claim about the ‘supernatural’ is true. So, the investigation continues.
Next time – Ezekiel and Daniel. What does archaeology reveal?
Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Mark said: “the Old Testament is historical rather than mythical.”
So, are you saying the Old Testament can’t contain both historical and mythical content too? Are you saying it must be either one or the other? It is not uncommon or unheard of, even at that time, for authors to place myths within a historical context or interweave real history with myth. Thanks for considering this as a factor.
Hi, Bret. The Old Testament includes writings from many authors. Each writing must be investigated separately for literary genre, then compared to the other writings included in the same volume. The writings that make up the Old Testament of the Bible include many genre (historical, legal, poetry, narrative, prophetic, wisdom, etc). And then there’s the definition of ‘myth’: “A traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining some natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events.” (Oxford Dictionary) People often think of ‘myth’ as being false, but that’s not the meaning of the word in the academic sense. They are stories of great power power and symbolic meaning. Whether the stories are true or false must be judged on the basis of the author’s intent and factual confirmation.
Renowned novelist, professor of literature, Fellow of Magdalen College in Oxford, and former atheist, C.S. Lewis, called the Gospel ‘true myth,’ meaning that they were stories with great symbolic meaning that were historically true.
The Old Testament writings should be understood in the same way.
Thank you for this
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