Science and religion have often been at odds. For instance, it took the Catholic Church more than 350 years to rescind its condemnation of Galileo for asserting that the earth wasn't the center of the universe. But now, scientists have proven that one Bible story is right on track.
Digging into a Bible story. I'm Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.
In Israel, an underground conduit winds its way from the Gihon Spring to the city of Jerusalem. According to the Old Testament, the Judean king Hezekiah built it to provide Jerusalem with a safe source of water. Using literary and historical evidence, biblical scholars date the construction of this conduit, known as the Siloam Tunnel, to around 700 B.C.
Now, this date has been verified scientifically. Amos Frumkin is a geographer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He and his colleagues drilled into the plaster used to seal the tunnel when it was built.
Within the plaster we found pieces of plants, which we could date by radiocarbon.
The radiocarbon dating revealed that the plants grew sometime after 822 B.C.
To constrain the age from the other side, we used stalactites, which started growing after the tunnel was constructed.
The researchers found the stalactites couldn't have formed before 500 B.C. So that span of time supports the 700 B.C. date proposed by scholars.
Frumkin says this work on the Siloam Tunnel marks the first time the age of a Biblical structure has been confirmed scientifically.
I'm Bob Hirshon for AAAS, the Science Society.
Making Sense of the Research
The story of Hezekiah (also called Ezechias) is found in the second book of Chronicles. Hezekiah's challenge was to protect the walled city of Jerusalem from the attacking Assyrians, who as it turns out had a pretty good track record for conquering walled cities. According to the Biblical account, Hezekiah ordered the tunnel built in order to get water into the city without giving the invaders access to it.
It must have worked, because by all accounts the Assyrians didn't conquer Jerusalem. The tunnel was really a marvel of ancient engineering, because it was dug rather quickly, using nothing but pickaxes, and appears to have taken advantage of existing cracks and crevices in the limestone caves that it snakes through. An inscription at the end of the tunnel states that workers began digging from both directions and describes the jubilation they felt when they finally met up in the middle.
The significance of this study is that it actually links the scientific dating of the tunnel to the time period suggested in the Biblical story. Although on one level, the researchers appear to be just confirming a link that is obvious, the confirmation aspect is key. Without the matched dates, one could reasonably assume that the tunnel was actually built at some other point in history for some other purpose.
The use of science to investigate artifacts of religious significance is, of course, politically charged. Already on the Internet, some groups are using Frumkin's research as evidence that every event described in the Bible is historically accurate. The truth is that Frumkin's research neither proves nor disproves that claim. It provides evidence that supports the accuracy of a single historical event mentioned in one book. Keep in mind that even the scientific dating narrows the date of the tunnel's completion only to a 300-year span. Proof, from a scientific point of view, is a rare commodity.
The truth is that verifying the accuracy of any ancient historical story, Biblical or otherwise, always involves a great deal of scientific detective work. Usually the result of the work is not indisputable proof, but rather a collection of evidence that either supports or conflicts with the historical account. In order to get the most accurate picture of the ancient world, scientists must be motivated not by a desire to advance a specific religious or non-religious agenda, but simply to find out what happened.
Now try and answer these questions:
- What is the significance of the Siloam Tunnel?
- How did Frumkin's team investigate its age?
- What exactly do we learn from Frumkin's study? What are its limitations?
- What is the purpose of scientifically studying artifacts and locations of religious significance? What are the dangers?
The Comeback of Noah's Flood from About.com is another Biblical story that's been investigated scientifically. Read about a recent hypothesis, and evidence against it in Noah’s Flood Hypothesis May Not Hold Water from Rensselear Polytechnic Institute.