Evidence for Belief
For 200 years Aarchaeological research has remained one of the most significant disciplines providing new information on the world of the Bible.
Michael G. HaselMar 20, 2023, 12:43 AM
In 1986. Professor Gabriel Barkay was introducing
Two tiny strips of silver, tightly wound and appearing like miniature scrolls had been carefully unrolled. They contained etched inscriptions bearing a shortened ver- sion of the Aaronic blessing of Numbers 6:24–26. Based on the archaeological context and style of script, Barkay dated the inscription to the late seventh or early sixth centuries BC—400 years older than the Dead Sea Scrolls. The silence was palpable in the room as many critical scholars (who dated this text in Numbers to the fourth century BC) were suddenly confronted with new evidence. Recent photographic techniques and new computer imaging conclusively dated the amulets to before the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 586 BC This means they date at least 150 years earlier than critical scholarship has assumed for the origin of Numbers, making the Ketef Hinnom inscription the earliest written biblical passage discovered to date. This was my dramatic introduction to archaeology’s power to challenge current interpretations of the Bible.
Since the dawn of archaeological research in the ancient
Following is a review of some of the most important finds made during the past 25 years by archaeologists working in the Middle East who have contributed greatly to the understanding of the Bible.
1. Nations of the Bible
The land of Canaan has been greatly illuminated in recent years through ancient texts and also through excavations at major sites like Hazor, the largest Canaanite city in Israel (see Joshua 11:10; Judges 4:2). Not only have modern excavations revealed a fortified site of some 200 hectares (500 acres), but textual sources indicate it was the south-westernmost city in an international trade system extending from Iran to the Mediterranean that included other centres like Babylon, Mari and Qatna. The site is mentioned in omens and geographical lists from Babylon and in the Mari texts. At the time of writing, 16 cuneiform documents have been found at the site so far, ranging from administrative letters to court records. The most recent discovery of a law code fragment was made in 2010 on the surface of the site. These records attest to the central and significant role Hazor played in the geopolitical climate of Bronze Age Canaan.
The Philistine cities of Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron and Gath have been excavated extensively, revealing a sophisticated culture of architecture, art and technology. In 1996, an in- scription was uncovered at Ekron in southern Israel, which mentions a dynastic line of five kings—including Achish, the son of Padi—that ruled Ekron until the destruction of the city by Nebuchadnezzar. The decorated Aegean-style pottery, the elaborate architecture and the technology of these cities reveal the Philistines were the elite in the ancient land of Canaan.
Even in an age of scepticism toward some of the Bible’s most famous kings, including David and Solomon, new discoveries call for caution among those who claim the Bible’s record of the kingdom of Judah is mythical. New excavations since 2007 at Khirbet Qeiyafa, by the Hebrew University and Southern Adventist University, have revealed a massively fortified garrison city dating to the time of the Hebrew kings Saul and David. Surrounded by 200,000 tonnes of double-fortified (or casemate) walls, with evidence of city planning, this garrison town was situated on the Elah Valley, overlooking the area where the famous battle between David and Goliath was fought (1 Samuel 17). The city is a precursor to later Judean cities with similar design elements. In 2009, a second gate was uncovered, which now identifies Khirbet Qeiyafa with the biblical city of Shaaraim, mentioned in 1 Samuel 17:52. This has major implications for the early history of Judah and the establishment of the United Monarchy.
2. Peoples of the Bible
At the site of Tall al-Umeiri in Jordan, archaeologists in 1984 uncovered a clay seal impression bearing the name “Milkom’ur . . . servant of Baal- yasha,” undoubtedly a reference to Baalis, the king of ancient Ammon, mentioned in Jeremiah 40:14. This obscure king was said to have plotted against the Judean king at the verge of the Babylonian destruction.
The excavations in 1993 at the northernmost biblical city of Tel Dan uncovered an inscription. The campaign account by an Aramean king mentioned for the first time
Archaeologists have excavated Herod the Great’s luxurious palaces at Cae- sarea Maritima, Herodium, Masada, Jericho and other sites. Herod spared no expense to decorate these buildings with detailed mosaics, frescoes and architectural elegance. At Masada, Herod’s desert fortress, the northern three-tiered palace had a nearly 360- degree view overlooking the Dead Sea. In 1996, I excavated with Ehud Netzer at Masada, where we uncovered an imported fragment of a wine amphora. On the fragment was an inscription: regi Herodi Iudaico—“for Herod, king of Judaea.” It was the first mention of Herod the Great’s title outside the Bible’s New Testament and the writings of Josephus, found in an archaeological context.
In 2007, a researcher in the British Museum deciphered an inscription of a financial record mentioning a donation made by a Babylonian official named Nebo-Sarsekim. The inscription dates to the tenth year of the reign of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, about 595 BC (2 Kings 24:1–4; Daniel 1:1; 2:1). This official, Nebo-Sarsekim, is also mentioned in Jeremiah 39:3, where he appears in the account of Nebuchadnezzar’s second campaign against Jerusalem in 597 BC In the biblical account, over 10,000 captives are taken to Babylon, but Nebuchadnezzar tasks Nebo-Sarsekim with taking care of the prophet Jeremiah, who is left behind in Jerusalem. This mention of the same person in a financial record of Babylon indicates the impor- tance of continued research in translating the thousands of discovered texts in the basements of museums that have never been deciphered or published.
3. Writing the events of the Bible
The Dead Sea Scrolls, found by a Bedouin shep- herd in 1947, were one of the most amazing discoveries to testify to the accuracy of the Bible’s transmission over 1000 years of history. In more recent years, questions about the extent of literacy in ancient Israel have been raised. Some scholars even question whether Hebrew writing extended back to the tenth century BC, while others go so far as to claim Hebrew was an invention of the Hellenistic period 700 years later. In recent years, several discoveries have been made that challenge this hypothesis.
A Tenth-Century Abecedary
In 2005, an ancient stone inscription was found at the site of Tel Zayit, excavated by the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. On it, an abecedary, or alphabet with 18 letters, was dated by the ceramic and archaeological evidence to the tenth century BC—the time of King Solomon or shortly thereafter. The building in which it was found was destroyed in a massive fire, leaving debris nearly one metre thick over the area. Excavators have dated this destruction to Shishak (1 Kings 14:25–28) but possibly someone else,
Oldest Hebrew Inscription
During the second season excavations in 2008 at Khirbet Qeiyafa, the site in the Elah Valley mentioned earlier, a text was found written on a broken piece of pottery. The ostracon consisted of five separated lines and begins with the injunction, “Do not do . . .” The initial phrase is only found in Hebrew and has led Haggai Misgav, the epigrapher, to suggest the inscription is Hebrew. If this is true, it would be the oldest Hebrew text ever found to date—some 800 years older than the Dead Sea Scrolls. Unfortunately, much of the rest of the text is incomplete with missing and obscure letters. One suggestion, although highly speculative, is this text is an injunction for the protection of widows and orphans. Gary A Rendsburg of Cornell University has observed, “Taken together, the Tel Zayit abecedary, the Khirbet Qeiyafa inscription and the Gezer calendar demonstrate writing was well-established in tenth-century Israel—certainly sufficiently so for many of the works later incorporated into the Hebrew Bible to have been composed at this time.” An even more recent discovery was made in Jerusalem by Eilat Mazar in 2012. The Ophel inscription is incised on a storage jar and found in what appears to be an eleventh or tenth century context. The existence of writing at such an early stage of the Iron Age is significant, because it implies historical data could have been documented and passed on from the early tenth century BC until the biblical narrative was finally formulated. It also suggests the paucity of evidence for writing is less secure than previously thought.
Archaeology remains one of the most significant disciplines providing new information for the world of the Bible. While it may be tempting for some to ask, for example, “What about this person of the Bible?” or “Why do we not have evidence for this event yet?” we need to be reminded that although over 200 years have passed since the discipline was established in the ancient Near East, we have barely scratched the surface—literally and figuratively. Only a fraction of biblical sites are known, and of those that are, only a fraction have been excavated. Then, most of those excavated have only had perhaps five per cent of the site uncovered; with fewer yet fully published. Of those that have been published, not everything has a direct bearing on the Bible. For these reasons, one needs to be cautious in making negative assessments of events and history.
One thing is certain, with the continued support for archaeological research in this part of the world, the next 20 years will no doubt reveal further illuminating discoveries, which in some dramatic cases, will directly impact our understanding of the Bible record.
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