Highlights from Biblical Archaeology News
As an intelligent-design science, archaeology continues to interpret the actions of human intelligence from the observation of physical artifacts. Here are some recent stories bearing on Bible history and archaeology.
- Battle of the Ages: Science had a special section on Jerusalem archaeology in the Feb 2 issue. Andrew Lawler1 critiqued the spectacular claim that the palace of David and Solomon has been discovered in the City of David (south of modern Jerusalem). The series included sidebars about the lead archaeologist of the site, Eilat Mazar,2 who accepts the Biblical chronology, and her ideological opponent Israel Finkelstein,3 a leader of the “minimalist” school that sees the early kings as mere legends.
Lawler concedes Finkelstein’s views have made him a “lightning rod” and “bad boy” to other, more conservative, archaeologists. Finkelstein himself admitted he has a “big mouth” that tends to get him in trouble. Critics say he “requires his detractors to carry the burden of proof” and that he “resorts to bellicose rhetoric.”
At the City of David, Eilat Mazar wrapped up a second season of digging on “what could be the most significant archaeological find in Jerusalem’s history: the palace of the king who, according to biblical texts, united the ancient Israelites.” She denies charges that her conservative views influence her scientific interpretations. The most interesting part of the discovery is a large building, covering as much as 2000 square meters, that she claims dates from the time of King David. Much of the controversy is about the dating of the building that sits above the impressive Stepped-Stone Structure on the eastern slope, 37 meters high, portions of which have been dated to before the time of David.
Imprecision in dating methods fuels the controversy over this major find. Dates before the Assyrian king Sennacherib (701 BC) are not considered firm. Mazar’s dates are based on pottery (usually pretty reliable). Radiocarbon dates are just imprecise enough to allow advocates of any date to rationalize their claims. Lawler ended with hopes that refinements and more samples will “shed more light–and generate less heat–on Jerusalem’s Iron Age predecessor.” He quoted Ayelat Gilboa (Haifa U), who works on a radiocarbon team, who believes better dating may lead to “a new and more vigorous biblical archaeology” that uses the Bible as a guide once again.
- Tunnel Vision: Further down the City of David slope to the south, tunneling has exposed a large cardo (street) that experts think went all the way from the Siloam Pool to the Temple Mount in Roman times. Todd Bolen’s interesting BiblePlaces Blog 02/02/2007 and 01/15/2007 describes the excavations with pictures. The real Siloam Pool of Jesus’ day was discovered by accident a few years ago. Now this street heading north indicates that it was part of a large Roman complex. It could be the very path the blind man took when Jesus told him, “Go wash in the pool of Siloam” (John 9).
- Ramping Up: The rickety wooden ramp to the west side of the Temple Mount is being replaced (see BiblePlaces Blog). Anything this close to the most sacred site of the Jews and one of the three most sacred sites of the Muslims is bound to stir up trouble, and it did; a riot erupted today (Feb. 9), reported MyWay.com, with hundreds of angry Muslims fighting Israeli police in the Old City. Paleojudaica is keeping a daily tab on the activity and the Washington Post also has a report and background information. Sympathy protests took place in Nazareth and Damascus. There were fears the violence could spread to the West Bank and Gaza. The fact that the Temple Mount itself was not under any threat is prompting some, however, to interpret the ramp excavation as a pretext for a few Muslim activists in Jerusalem to gain publicity. Some Palestinians are threatening a new intifada if the work by the Israeli Antiquities Authority continues, “even though the work, at the Western Wall plaza, is not taking place on the Mount and poses no threat to the holy site,” according to World Net Daily. The Muslims fear that excavations required before any new construction may turn up artifacts Jews will use as evidence of Jewish presence in Jerusalem in Biblical times, especially their sacred Temple. Only Muslims deny the existence of the Jewish Temple on the site now occupied by the Dome of the Rock. An article on National Geographic News discusses the skirmish over the ramp, and also details about the Siloam Pool excavations at the south end of the old City of David. Palestinians are condemning those excavations as well even though they are far from the Temple Mount. Archaeologists are finding a large complex with the main street of Jerusalem from the second temple period.
Previous excavation work on the western and southern sides of the Temple Mount has already shed much light on the Roman and Judahite periods despite repeated instances of violence. The public now has access from the Jewish Quarter to attractive archaeological parks that display and explain the discoveries. These parks do not discriminate against visitors. Friendly signs that are not partial to Jewish interests explain all the relevant periods and civilizations involved, including the Muslim and Turkish periods.
Muslims, however, have a free rein on the Mount while denying access by Jews to their holiest site of all. They deny clear archaeological evidence of Jewish civilization on the site from Biblical times. Israel goes overboard to cater to the Muslims. The Israeli government, for instance, is allowing construction of a new minaret on the Temple Mount, another WND article reports, even though four minarets already exist there and construction of a fifth and taller one is offensive to most Jews. Five times a day Jews endure Muslim calls to prayer from loudspeaker-equipped minarets. Yet with reckless disregard for the sensibilities of their Jewish neighbors, Muslims have done massive illegal digging at the south end of the Temple Mount in order to build a huge new underground mosque in addition to the Al Aqsa Mosque already there. While making the Temple Mount a Muslim-only park, they purposely try to eradicate all historical evidence of Jewish presence. Piles of artifact-laden debris sit inside the Mount. Much of it has been recklessly tossed over the wall. Archaeologist Gabriel Barkay has sifted through some of the rubble and found artifacts dating from the first temple period (10/31/2006), crucial evidence for establishing Jewish claims to the site (see pictures and descriptions at Bible Places Blog).
The Muslim Waqf police control all access to the Mount and forbid any Jewish archaeology there under threats of violence. Eilat Mazar and Gabriel Barkay are among Jewish archaeologists protesting the double standard and betrayal of the Jews’ archaeological heritage by their own government. Additional news and remarks can be found on Haaretz and the Jerusalem Post. See also this Jerusalem Post editorial link found on the news site of the Biblical Archaeology Society. Barkay, incidentally, is on a lecture tour in the US; see Bible Places Blog for schedule.
- Canaanite Spell: National Geographic News was among several sources carrying the story of an ancient Semitic text just deciphered in an Egyptian tomb. Translated into Egyptian hieroglyphs, the text was a prayer to the snake god for protection. Dating from 2400 to 3000 BC, this is the oldest example of a proto-Canaanite language, a predecessor of Hebrew. Apparently Egyptians sought the help of magicians from Byblos (in modern Lebanon) for incantations to protect from snake bite. The inscription was known since the 19th century but was only recognized recently to be a transliteration of Semitic words into Egyptian characters.
The significance of the find is that it shows written language and commerce existed before the time of Abraham. (Early critics had doubted that Moses, half a millennium later than the patriarchs, could have used written language.) “This is a discovery of utmost importance,” Moshe Bar-Asher [Hebrew U] said. “Almost all the words found [in these texts] are also found in the Bible.” Richard Steiner [Yeshiva U, NY] added, “It’s not as different from biblical Hebrew as some people might have expected. A lot of the characteristics of Hebrew that we know from the Bible are already present in these texts.” Scholars are expecting that the find may even shed light on the pronunciation of Egyptian words.
- Flood Flash: Want to see what it’s like to be caught in a flash flood in the dry, barren desert of Israel? Watch this homemade video for a shaky experience. Israel’s many dry washes (wadis) can become torrents of rapid erosion under the right circumstances. This one looks like it occurred in the Paran Wilderness near Timnah. Biblical poets and prophets like Habakkuk were well acquainted with the power of torrential rains.
- Paul’s Last Good Fight: Have the bones of St. Paul been discovered? Todd Bolen thinks it’s within reason to believe so (see Bible Places Blog). This story goes back a couple of months, but excavations at the cathedral of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome have uncovered a sarcophagus that scholars think could store the bones of Paul the Apostle (see also National Geographic News). According to tradition, Paul was beheaded by Nero shortly after writing a final letter to his apprentice Timothy, saying, “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith” (II Timothy 4). If the authorities allow the sarcophagus to be opened, it will be interesting to see if the skeleton shows signs of beheading. This elaborate church has long been considered the site where Paul was martyred. A former Pharisee, Paul traveled thousands of miles over Europe and Asia, enduring all kinds of hardships, including stonings, beatings and shipwrecks, proclaiming, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God unto salvation for all who believe, to the Jew first, and also to the Greek” (Romans 1).
Another story worth watching is about the search for oil under Israel. World Net Daily reported that chances are good that oil will be found. It has been carrying ads for initial public offerings for Zion Oil and Gas, a startup looking to dig for oil in the Holy Land. It opened on the American Stock Exchange on January 3. If successful, it might make Israel energy independent and alter the dynamics of near Eastern politics.
1Andrew Lawler, “Judging Jerusalem,” Science, 2 February 2007: Vol. 315. no. 5812, pp. 588 – 591, DOI: 10.1126/science.315.5812.588.
2Andrew Lawler, “All in the Family,” Science, 2 February 2007: Vol. 315. no. 5812, p. 590, DOI: 10.1126/science.315.5812.590.
3Andrew Lawler, “Holy Land Prophet or Enfant Terrible?”, Science, 2 February 2007: Vol. 315. no. 5812, p. 591, DOI: 10.1126/science.315.5812.591.
Paul wrote, a few verses later, that the unbeliever has no excuse for denying God, because of the infallible witness of creation (Rom 1:18-22). He used this argument when speaking to the people of Lystra (Acts 14) and to the philosophers in Athens on Mars Hill (Acts 17). The argument is still powerful today. To the Jews and God-fearing Gentiles, Paul also frequently pointed to the authority of the Scriptures.
If it weren’t for Muslim threats of violence, Biblical archaeology would be in a wonderful renaissance right now. New scientific techniques and technologies hold promise for more rapid discovery and analysis of data. Brave investigators in the 1800s revived the study of Palestine and began uncovering amazing things, but that was before photography, computers, radiocarbon, radar, aerial reconnaissance, rapid transportation and all the tools we have available now. Photography arrived in the late 1800s. Biblical archaeology began in earnest in the early 20th century, and indeed was the testbed for the science of archaeology in general. The clumsy early techniques are now refined and standardized. Tremendously interesting digs are going on now (dig this blog, but after a century of work, only a tiny fraction of historical sites have been explored. Some claim only 1% of Biblical sites have been investigated, and of those, only a small fraction have been thoroughly excavated. What wonders remain under millennia of soil!
Though much remains to be learned, the well-studied sites are remarkable. You can stand in the synagogue at Capernaum, where basalt stones still stand from the building in which Jesus taught and healed a demoniac. From there you can walk a short distance to the remains of Peter’s house, where Jesus healed Peter’s mother. To the west a few miles away is a first-century fishing boat, found a few years ago, of the type the disciples used. The uninhabited remains of Bethsaida and Chorazin, cursed by Jesus for their unbelief, are nearby. Up north in Dan, you can stand on the platform where the apostate King Jeroboam erected a golden calf, then walk to an arched mudbrick gate through which Abraham could have passed. A short distance farther down the trail are the iron-age walls and city gates where kings and prophets of Israel walked.
At the ruins of Jezreel, Gibeah, Megiddo, Hazor, Arad, Beth-Shemesh, Timnah and numerous other sites are ruins dating from Biblical times that correspond to the way they are described in the Scriptures. You can go to the British Museum and see Sennacherib’s magnificent relief of his destruction of Lachish, and a few paces away see his stele describing Hezekiah in Jerusalem; then you can travel to Lachish and see the ruins intact. Another stele in the British Museum shows the Israelite king Jehu. The Moabite Stone describes Biblical kings from the time of Ahab. Jerusalem itself is a treasure trove of places and artifacts, like Hezekiah’s Tunnel and Broad Wall, and much more from the time of Christ to Canaanite times a thousand years earlier.
It should not be surprising that occasionally there are difficulties with dating and evidence. The Holy Land has been the scene of many major wars and destructions for 5,000 years; in a way, it is surprising there is so much left. Before assuming the Bible is in error, it is good to remember what happened to previous criticisms. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. The Hittites, for instance, were unknown outside the Bible till their flourishing civilization was discovered. The traditional site of Ai did not seem to match the Biblical battle, but new excavations at a neighboring site show a better fit to the geographical details described in Joshua 8. Sometimes a third look is necessary. Early excitement about Jericho’s walls matching the account in Joshua, as excavated by Garstang, were deflated by Kathleen Kenyon when her team decided the destruction layer was too early for Joshua’s time. Now, however, evidence is emerging that Kenyon’s methods were flawed and biased. A destruction layer fitting the Joshua story, including a house on the wall matching the description of Rahab’s house (on a part of the wall that did not fall), fit the story well when the pottery-based dating is corrected. This gives renewed confidence that the Biblical record is reliable when all the evidence is in.
The news stories reported above demonstrate that Biblical dating by archaeology is imprecise and controversial. Nothing has been found that rules out this historicity of the Bible, and much has been found that corroborates it. A book with that good a track record needs to be taken seriously. Consider also the internal evidence. The Bible (unlike other religious texts) reads like a narrative by eyewitnesses and historians. Read Joshua 12-22, for example; the attention to detail is staggering: place names, kings, countries, cities, villages, towns, directions and persons are all recorded. Such detail does not fit the stereotype of wandering tribes passing along oral tradition, or priests fabricating their social history centuries after the fact. In some cases, only contemporaries could have known idioms of the day that are preserved in the text.
The processes by which our modern copies of the Bible came to be do not rule out the use of some oral and external sources, later compilation, insertion of editorial comments, and even occasional scribal errors (none of which affect major doctrines). The Bible has better textual support and internal and archaeological evidence corroborating its authenticity and reliability than any other ancient text. Scholars would have to throw out Herodotus, Thucydides and other reputable sources under the same criteria by which some skeptics distrust the Bible. Remember, too, that Jews and Christians were extremely careful handling what they believed to be the inspired Word of God. Consider that the Dead Sea Scrolls show near-perfect correspondence with the Masoretic Text a thousand years later. This was an astonishing confirmation of the reliability of transmission that has come to light just since 1948. Believers add the proposition that a God able to communicate His Word is able to preserve it.
Inscriptions, though rare in Palestine, fit the Bible: e.g., Pilate’s name at Caesarea, the Hezekiah Tunnel inscription, the Lachish letters. More recent finds continue to illuminate the Bible as trustworthy history. This include the Tel Dan inscription corroborating the existence of a dynasty of David, a seal of a royal official mentioned in the Bible at Megiddo, the silver scrolls of Ketef Hinnom (the earliest Scriptural fragment, 700 BC) proving the Iron-Age familiarity with the Levitical priestly blessing, Barkay’s discovery last year of a clay seal with the name of a Biblical character from Jeremiah (10/31/2006), jar handles stamped with Hezekiah’s royal seal (and a pottery fragment with a possible sketch of the king himself) at Ramat Rahel south of Jerusalem (08/20/2006, and a pottery shard etched with a name resembling Goliath found late 2005 (11/11/2005) at the site of the Biblical giant’s home town, Gath. We could expect many more if archaeologists were unhindered by political stresses and threats of violence. Many of the most promising sites, unfortunately, are off limits in the Palestinian-controlled West Bank. Where is the scientific community in protest? Where is the United Nations to demand fair access to these important sites that could so enrich our understanding of the Bible and the foundations of Western civilization?
We can only hope that more tantalizing tidbits will continue to surface during intervals of peace in the Middle East. (Iraq, by the way, is another vast landscape filled with archaeological treasures. We should work to ensure they do not fall to another closed dictatorship.) In the meantime, you can hold in your hand a book unlike any other. The Bible invites scrutiny! No other ancient or religious text has this much detail that can be cross-checked. You don’t need archaeology to enjoy the Bible and profit from its message. But for those who appreciate the value of building their views on a solid foundation within a well-rounded and informed context, these are the best times to weigh the evidence. Online resources like Bible Places and Todd Bolen’s excellent BiblePlaces Blog can bring you the latest news. Get a copy of the new Archaeological Study Bible, a set of maps and a Bible dictionary. Embark on an adventure of science, intelligent design, history, faith and contemplation that will do your soul good.