In 1986, Professor Gabriel Barkay was introducing a new groundbreaking discovery made at Ketef Hinnom, a burial site southwest of Jerusalem, where the oldest biblical inscription was found. Along with hundreds of Old Testament scholars, I sat spellbound at a meeting of the International Organization for the Study of Old Testament in Jerusalem’s Israel Museum. Two tiny strips of silver, tightly wound and appearing like miniature scrolls, had been carefully unrolled. They contained etched inscriptions bearing a shortened version of the Aaronic blessing (Num. 6:24–26). Based on the archaeological context and style of script, Barkay dated the inscription to the late seventh or early sixth centuries B.C.—400 years older than the Dead Sea Scrolls. The silence was profound in the room as many critical scholars, who dated this text in Numbers to the fourth century B.C., 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 B.C. This means that they dated at least 150 years earlier than critical scholarship had assumed for the origin of Numbers, making the Ketef Hinnom inscription the earliest written biblical passage discovered to date.1 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 Near East in 1799, no other discipline has provided more new data and insights on the nations, people, and events of the Bible. Discoveries in the nineteenth century have been multiplied many times during the last 150 years of archaeology in the land of the Bible, as artifacts, cities, and ancient records reveal the trustworthiness of Scripture.2 In this essay we will review some of the most important fi nds made during the last 25 years by archaeologists working in the Middle East who have contributed greatly to the understanding of the Bible.
Nations of the Bible
Canaan. The land of Canaan has been greatly illuminated in recent years through excavations at major sites such as Hazor, the largest Canaanite city in Israel (see Josh. 11:10; Judg. 4:2). Not only have modern excavations revealed a fortifi ed site of more than 200 acres, but textual sources indicate that it was the southwesternmost city in an international trade system extending from Iran to the Mediterranean, which included other centers such as Babylon, Mari, and Qatna. The site is mentioned in omens and geographical lists from Babylon3 and in the Mari texts. Sixteen cuneiform documents have been found at the site itself so far, ranging from administrative letters to court records.4 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.
Philistia. The Philistine cities of Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron, and Gath have been excavated extensively, revealing a sophisticated culture of architecture, art, and technology.5 In 1996, an inscription was uncovered at Ekron revealing a dynastic line of five kings including Achish, the son of Padi, who ruled over Ekron until the destruction of the city by Nebuchadnezzar.6 The decorated Aegean-style pottery, elaborate architecture, and the technology of these cities reveal that the Philistines were the elite in the ancient land of Canaan.
Judah. Even in an age of skepticism toward some of the Bible’s most famous kings, such as David and Solomon, new discoveries call for caution among those who claim that the Bible’s record of the kingdom of Judah is mythical in proportion.7 New excavations since 2007 at Khirbet Qeiyafa by the Hebrew University and Southern Adventist University have revealed a massively fortified city dating to the time of Saul and David. Surrounded by 200,000 tons of a doubly fortified 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 Sam. 17). The city is a precursor to later Judean cities with similar design elements. In 2009, a second gate was uncovered that now identifies Khirbet Qeiyafa with the biblical city of Shaaraim, mentioned in the narrative (v. 52).8 This has major implications for the early history of Judah and the establishment of the united monarchy.
People of the Bible
The existence of at least 70 biblical characters, including kings, servants, scribes, and courtiers, has been confirmed over the last two centuries of research. In the last two decades, many more people have been added to this list through the discovery of seals, seal impressions, ostraca, and monumental inscriptions.
Baalis. In 1984, at the site of Tall al-Umeiri in Jordan, archaeologists uncovered a clay seal impression bearing the name “Milkom’ur . . . servant of Baalyasha,”9 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.
David. The excavations in 1993 at the northernmost biblical city of Tel Dan uncovered an inscription by a student volunteer.10 The campaign account by an Aramean king mentioned for the first time the “house of Israel” and the “house of David,” clearly a reference to the southern kingdom of Judah and Israel’s famous king. David not only existed, but he was remembered over a century later as the founder of a great dynasty.
Herod. Archaeologists have excavated Herod the Great’s luxurious palaces at Caesarea 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 of the New Testament and Josephus, found in an archaeological context.11
Nebu-sarsekim. In 2007, a researcher in the British Museum deciphered an inscription of a financial record of a donation made by a Babylonian official named Nebusarsekim. The inscription dates to the tenth year of the reign of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, about 595 B.C. (2 Kings 24:1–4; Dan. 1:1; 2:1). This official Nebu-sarsekim is also mentioned in Jeremiah 39:3, 11–14 where he appears in the account of Nebuchadnezzar’s second campaign against Jerusalem in 597 B.C. In the biblical account more than 10,000 captives are taken to Babylon, but Nebuchadnezzar orders Nebu-sarsekim with the task of taking care of Jeremiah who is left behind in Jerusalem. This mention of the same person in a financial record of Babylon indicates the importance of continued research in translating thousands of discovered texts in the basement of museums that have never been read or published.12
Writing the events of the Bible
The Dead Sea Scrolls, found by a Bedouin shepherd boy in 1947, were one of the most amazing discoveries that testified to the accuracy of the Bible’s transmission over 1,000 years of history. In more recent years, scholars have raised questions about the extent of literacy in ancient Israel. Some scholars question whether Hebrew writing extended back to the tenth century B.C., while others go so far as to claim that Hebrew was an invention of the Hellenistic period 700 years later.13 In the last six 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, the time of Solomon or shortly thereafter. The building in which it was found was destroyed in a massive fire, leaving debris nearly one meter thick over the area. Excavators have dated this destruction to Shishak (1 Kings 14:25–28), or possibly someone else, in 925 B.C. The Tel Zayit abecedary is one of the oldest attestations of the alphabet known. Since it was found in a clear archaeological context that dates it to the tenth century B.C., the abecedary also provides a distinct connection between the development of language in ancient Israel and the growing archaeological evidence of cities and buildings during the united monarchy.14
Oldest Hebrew inscription. During the second season excavations in 2008 at Khirbet Qeiyafa, a site in the Elah Valley already mentioned above, a text was found written on a broken piece of pottery. The ostracon consisted of five separated lines and began with an injunction, “Do not do . . .” The initial phrase is only found in Hebrew and has led Haggai Misgav, the epigrapher, to suggest that the inscription is Hebrew.15 If this is true it would the oldest Hebrew text ever found—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 that this text was written as an injunction for the protection of widows and orphans.16 As Gary A. Rendsburg has observed, “Taken together, the Tel Zayit abecedary, the Khirbet Qeiyafa inscription, and the Gezer calendar demonstrate that 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.”17 The existence of writing at such an early stage of the Iron Age is significant because it implies that historical data could have been documented and passed on from the early tenth century B.C. until the biblical narrative was finally formulated. This also indicates that the paucity of evidence for writing is less secure than previously thought.
Archaeology remains one of the most significant disciplines that provides new information for the world of the Bible. It may be tempting for some to ask, 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 more than 200 years have passed since this discipline was established in the ancient Near East, we have barely scratched the surface. Only a fraction of biblical sites are known. Of those that are, only a fraction have been excavated. Most of those excavated have only had 5 percent of the site uncovered; fewer yet are fully published. Of those that have been published, not everything has a direct bearing on the Bible. For these reasons, we need to be cautious in 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 five or ten years will reveal untold further discoveries that will illuminate, illustrate, and, in some dramatic cases, directly impact our understanding of the Bible.
1 G. Barkay et al., “The Amulets From Ketef Hinnom: A New Edition and Evaluation,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 334 (2004): 41–71; G. Barkay, et al., “The Challenges of Ketef Hinnom: Using Advanced Technologies to Reclaim the Earliest Biblical Texts and Their Context,” Near Eastern Archaeology 66, no. 4 (2003): 162–171.
2 For a general overview, see Al Hoerth, Archaeology and the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1998); John McRay, Archaeology and the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2002); Clyde E. Fant and Mitchell G. Reddish, Lost Treasures of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008).
3 Wayne Horowitz, “Two Late Bronze Age Tablets From Hazor,” Israel Exploration Journal 50 (2000): 16–28.
4 Wayne Horowitz and Takayoshi Oshima, Cuneiform in Canaan: Cuneiform Sources From the Land of Israel in Ancient Times (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society; Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2006), 65–87.
5 For further references, see Trude Dothan, The Philistines and Their Material Culture (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1982); Trude Dothan and Moshe Dothan, People of the Sea: The Search for the Philistines (New York: Macmillan, 1992); Seymour Gitin, “Philistines in the Books of Kings,” in The Books of Kings: Sources, Composition, Historiography and Reception, eds. André Lemaire and Baruch Halpern (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 308, 309.
6 Seymour Gitin, Trude Dothan, and Joseph Naveh, “A Royal Dedicatory Inscription From Ekron,” Israel Exploration Journal 47 (1997): 9–16.
7 Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, David and Solomon: In Search of the Bible’s Sacred Kings and the Roots of the Western Tradition (New York: Free Press, 2006); and most recently John Van Seters, The Biblical Saga of King David (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2009).
8 Yosef Garfinkel, Saar Ganor, and Michael G. Hasel, “The Contribution of Khirbet Qeiyafa to Our Understanding of the Iron Age Period,” Strata: Bulletin of the Anglo-Israel Archaeological Society 28 (2010), 39–54; Yosef Garfinkel, Saar Ganor, and Michael G. Hasel, “The Iron Age City of Khirbet Qeiyafa After Four Seasons of Excavation,” in The Ancient Near East in the 12th-10th Centuries BCE: Culture and History, ed. Gershon Galil (Münster, Germany: UgaritVerlag, forthcoming); Michael G. Hasel, “New Excavations at Khirbet Qeiyafa and the Early History of Judah,” in Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith? A Critical Analysis to Modern and Postmodern Approaches to Scripture, eds. James K. Hoffmeier and Dennis R. Magary (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, forthcoming).
9 Randall W. Younker, “Israel, Judah, and Ammon and the Motifs on the Baalis Seal From Tell el-‘Umeiri,” Biblical Archaeologist 48 (1985): 173–180.
10 Avraham Biran and Joseph Naveh, “An Aramaic Stele Fragment From Tel Dan,” Israel Exploration Journal 43 (1993): 81–98; Fant and Reddish, Lost Treasures of the Bible, 103–106.
11 Michael G. Hasel, “He Missed the Opportunity of His Life,” Adventist Review (August 9, 2007), 15–17.
12 The official translation from Michael Jursa is forthcoming, see provisionally Bob Becking, “The Identity of Nabusharrussu-ukin, the Chamberlain: An Epigraphic Note on Jeremiah 39:3. With an Appendix on the Nebu(!) sarsekim Tablet,” Biblische Notizen 140 (2009): 35–46.
13 See Finkelstein and Silberman, David and Solomon, 142; Philip R. Davies, “In Search of ‘Ancient Israel,’ ” supplement, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 148 (1992).
14 Ron E. Tappy et al., “An Abecedary of the Tenth Century B.C.E. From the Judaean Shephelah,” Buletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 344 (2006): 5–46; Ron E. Tappy and P. Kyle McCarter, eds., Literate Culture and Tenth-Century Canaan: The Tel Zayit Abecedary in Context (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2008).
15 Haggai Misgav, Yosef Garfinkel, and Saar Ganor, “The Khirbet Qeiyafa Ostracon,” in New Studies in the Archaeology of Jerusalem and Its Region, eds. D. Amit, G. D. Stiebel, and O. Peleg-Barkat (Jerusalem: Hebrew, 2008), 111–123; Haggai Misgav, Yosef Garfinkel, and Saar Ganor, “The Ostracon,” in Khirbet Qeiyafa Vol. 1. Excavation Report 2007–2008, eds. Yosef Garfinkel and Saar Ganor (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 2009), 243–257.
16 Gershon Galil, “The Hebrew Inscription From Khirbet Qeiyafa/Neta‘im: Script, Language, Literature and History,” Ugarit Forschungen 41 (2009): 193–242.
17 Gary A. Rendsburg, review of Literate Culture and Tenth-Century Canaan, eds. Ron E. Tappy and P. Kyle McCarter, Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 359 (2010): 89.