Were the ancients dummies? If so, why does archaeology keep confirming what they wrote? I’ll tell you why a healthy dose of humility can help us understand the past.
In his conversion story, “Surprised by Joy,” C. S. Lewis explains how his close friend, Owen Barfield, demolished his “chronological snobbery.” Lewis defined chronological snobbery as “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate of our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that count discredited.”
In Lewis’s time, much of academia was already convinced that every past generation formed a staircase of progress, leading (of course) to enlightened modernity. And since Lewis’s death, many intellectuals have only become more convinced of their own perch at the pinnacle of history. These days, we barely even notice the snobbery.
But it’s time to notice, especially in archaeology. An article last week in The New York Times describes new evidence for the Chinese great flood, an event which ancient records say coincided with the rise of China’s first imperial dynasty. For many years, Western academics have considered this flood a myth—on par with Noah’s Flood in Genesis which, unsurprisingly, they also dismiss as fiction.
But several new dig sites have unearthed inscriptions that refer to just such a flood along the Yellow River, almost 4,000 years ago. And a team of geologists led by Qinglog Wu of Peking University in Beijing says they’ve found evidence in the rocks of a natural dam that trapped several cubic miles of water. When the dam collapsed, it sent a deluge downriver large enough to wipe out a civilization—just as the Chinese legends suggest.
Western experts were less than enthused at the news. The Times quotes several prominent archaeologists who scoff at the discoveries as attempts to read too much into Chinese myths. Dr. Paul Goldin of the University of Pennsylvania derides what he sees as a “fixation” among Chinese archaeologists with “[proving] that all the ancient texts and legends have some fundamental truth … It shouldn’t be every archaeologist’s first instinct,” he says, “to see if their findings are matched in the historical sources.”
Come again? Shouldn’t archaeologists want to know if what they’re digging up has significance in known history? Sadly for many in the West, the answer is a resounding “not really.” This dismissal of ancient writings—including the Bible—is rooted in chronological snobbery. The ancients, experts today assume, were just too dumb or superstitious to get their own histories right.
This attitude has not only blinded us to potential discoveries, it’s made it very embarrassing for archaeologists when the ancients do turn out to be correct. I think, for example, of the recent discovery of Goliath’s hometown, Gath. Or what about the unearthing of evidence for the biblical King Hezekiah, the likely discovery of the palace where Pilate tried Jesus, or the compelling evidence that “the house of David,” contrary to decades of secular scholarship, was founded by a real, historical man after God’s own heart?
All of these discoveries came as shocks to archaeologists and historians who doubted that such figures, places, or people ever existed. But again and again, our belief that the ancients were better at making myths than they were at recording history has handicapped archaeology, and left a lot of smart folks scraping egg off their faces.
Now, I’m not suggesting every legend is a history textbook, or even that Scripture renders archaeology superfluous. What I’m suggesting is that we set aside our chronological snobbery and stop dismissing the ancients out-of-hand.
They were not dummies. And we who dig up the remains of their civilizations aren’t always as clever as we like to believe.
Eric Metaxas is the bestselling author of “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Prophet, Martyr, Spy.” He is the radio host of “The Eric Metaxas Show” and the co-host of “BreakPoint.”
Editor's Note: This piece was originally published by BreakPoint.