Tuesday, October 8, 2019

External Confirmation Required

At every laboratory where I've done research there have always been at least two major experiments designed to investigate similar scientific questions. At CERN, where I currently do research, I am a member of the ATLAS collaboration, one of the two "general purpose" experiments at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) constructed to explore a broad range of scientific questions with LHC data. The CMS experiment, which sits at the opposite side of the 27 km (17 mile) circumference tunnel, is also a general purpose detector designed to look at a broad range of scientific topics. Despite the fact that having two somewhat redundant experiments costs twice as much to build and maintain, this arrangement is optimal so that each experiment can corroborate the results of the other. New discoveries and measurements require external confirmation to affirm their validity, and so complementary experiments are established in order to provide the necessary verification.

There have been a few times during my career in particle physics that one experiment seemed to have evidence for a discovery of something entirely new, but was eventually shown to be wrong, partially because other experiments were unable to provide external confirmation. Such cases involve the false "discoveries" that quarks have substructure, that particles can travel faster than the speed of light, and that weird particles called lepto-quarks actually exist. (These things may still turn out to be true but the past experiments that seemed to have found them have all been shown to be incorrect.)

External confirmation is not only one of the requirements for determining if a proposition is valid or not in any scientific endeavor, but also in other arenas where claims about objective truth are made. In a series of blog posts I have been applying some of the same principles used in my scientific research to the beliefs and world-view of Christianity to investigate whether or not they seem to have objective validation. I have already addressed the questions (1) "Is the data logically self-consistent?", (2) "Is there enough evidence to support the hypothesis?", (3) "Is the hypothesis compatible with other known data?", (4) "Is contradictory evidence conclusive?", and (5) "Is something essential missing?". This blog post will address the sixth question, (6) "Is there External Confirmation?", while two future posts will discuss the final two questions,  (7) "Can the hypothesis be falsified or confirmed with other data?", and (8) "Are there other possible explanations that are more feasible?".

The Bible tells stories that are grounded within historical and geographical contexts. It describes people, places, and events that are rooted in history. If the biblical record is accurate, then there should be external confirmation of some fraction of these data. The most likely place to search for any such confirmation would be in the archeological record. If the archeological record can substantiate much of the biblical record, then there is an increased probability that other aspects of the biblical texts are accurate even if they cannot be validated. If the Biblical stories are true, then archeology should be able to supply some reasonable level of external confirmation.

During much of the modern era a pattern has emerged in which critics of the Bible claim that the Bible must be inaccurate because there is no external evidence for a certain person, people, place, or event. Eventually new archeological evidence is uncovered that validates the biblical record and the critics move on to a different criticism based on a still unconfirmed biblical story. This has happened many times in the past, and continues to occur. By now I would claim that archeology has indeed provided the required external confirmation to support the validity of the biblical texts. There are more examples of how archeology has supported the biblical record than I can write about in a short article, but I'll describe a few.

In the late 19th century the only recognized mention of a Hittite civilization was in the Bible and critics claimed such a civilization did not exist. But in 1906 ancient tablets were uncovered that confirmed the existence of the Hittites. It is now known that the Hittites were a formidable and expansive empire between the 15th and 13th centuries BC.

Some scholars questioned the existence of Pontius Pilate as the Roman governor of Judea since he was only mentioned in the New Testament, by the Jewish historian Josephus (which seemed to be similar to the New Testament accounts) and by Philo of Alexandria. But in 1961 a stone from the 1st century was discovered in Caesarea Maritima which had a partial inscription saying "To the Divine Augusti Tiberieum...Pontius Pilate...prefect of Judea...has dedicated." Pilate's place in history as governor of Judea was solidified.

For much of the period that modern archeology has been practiced, King David was considered likely a fictional character since there was no evidence for his existence outside of the Bible. In 1993 a 9th century BC stone was discovered that mentioned the death of Jehoram, the son of Ahab, king of Israel and the king of the house of David. Though this inscription gives no detail about David's life, it validates that a kingdom existed in the 9th century BC that was accredited to the house of David, thus giving credence to a historical David.

Doubts were expressed concerning many of the details surrounding the crucifixion of Jesus. Critics claimed that ropes, not nails were primarily used by the Romans to crucify victims and that crucified criminals were thrown into a mass grave but would not be buried in a private tomb. But in 1968 the ankle bone of a crucified man was found with the nail still embedded in the bone. The ankle was found in an ossuary, a burial box in a private tomb, showing that the method of crucifixion described in the gospels was practiced by the Romans and that some crucified criminals were allowed burial in private tombs.

There are situations where the biblical story does seem to still have discrepancies with the archeological record. For instance, the book of Daniel mentions Darius the Mede as the conqueror of Babylon, yet archeological records indicate Cyrus the Great of Persia conquered Babylon. However, other aspects of the story that were once criticized have possible reconciliations. Daniel claims that Belshazzar was "king" of Babylon while ancient records indicate Nabonidus was the last king of Babylon. However, it is now known that Nabonidus waged a military campaign in Arabia leaving Belshazzar to reign in Babylon. Though Belshazzar's title was not officially the "king" it seems reasonable that he might be colloquially called king by those whom he ruled.

There are other biblical accounts that do not have any archeological confirmation yet, like the Israelite exodus from Egypt. Many historical events do not leave archeological evidence so we should not expect to have validation of every biblical story. Yet the past record shows that continued archeological excavations tend to confirm biblical accounts even for those events that critics claim did not occur.

It is important to have external confirmation to validate any scientific or historical proposition. In general, archeological findings have provided abundant external confirmation of the reliability of the biblical stories. Places in the Bible like Nazareth and the Pool of Siloam have been discovered. Coins mentioned in the Bible have been found. Accounts of King David and rulers of countries outside of Israel are written in many near eastern texts. In cases where archeology has not yet confirmed the biblical account, I would not bet against the Bible. In the past, that would most likely have been a losing bet.

Drawing of the ATLAS Detector

Drawing of the CMS Detector


  1. While I am aware of your reticence to apply your expertise as a scientist to other fields of science where controversy with the biblical accounts continues, I can't resist noting the perceived difficulties your several elements of argument pose for the neo Darwinian construct of evolution writ large. Perhaps an interesting project for our Discovery Institute friends with your urging.

    1. In talking to people about this subject (mainly On Line) I have 2 small simple questions I ask.
      1. How Do You Get Something From Nothing?
      2. How Do You Get Life From Non-Life?

      I have yet to get anything like an answer.

  2. Dr. Strauss, thanks for a fascinating article. I haven't read the preceding articles, so perhaps my comment is superfluous. But, it seems that Jesus Himself used the same standard you do in requiring evidence. On a Discovery Institute Alaska cruise I discussed an article answering Euthyphro's dilemma with John Lennox. Jesus stated, "If I bear witness of Myself, My witness is not true [i.e., not credible]" (John 5:31; the Greek word ἀληθὴς means also dependable.) Christ later (justly) asserts that His testimony is in fact true (John 8:14). So by His 5:31 admission Jesus did not mean that His testimony was untrue. Rather, Christ states that His own claim is not sufficiently credible to persuade the thinking man apart from other testimony. "If I bear witness of Myself, My witness is not credible." Why? Because people lie. And they get confused. A respect for the truth will challenge extraordinary claims for corroboration. Just as a single frame is bested by multiple reference frames in explaining reality, a theme of the Scriptures is that, "two or three witnesses establish a matter." This of course points to the Trinity (and, incidentally, to the answer to Euthyphro's Dilemma).