Yad VaShem and the Israeli National Museum

When I plan a trip to Israel, there are certain dates I check in order to avoid problems in Jerusalem. For example, it is very difficult to move a large group around on Jerusalem Day. But one date I have not checked in the past is 27 Nisan, Yom HaZikaron laShoah ve-laGvura, the Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day. But as it happens, I scheduled a visit to the Yad VaShem, Israel’s Holocaust museum. Other than a delay for the Prime Minister’s motorcade (“wave to Bibi” our driver said), our only inconvenience was not visiting Mount Herzl (closed for some official visit, we were told).

As we were waiting to enter the museum, all of the sirens in the city began at exactly 10:00 and we all stood in silence for two  minutes to remember the victims of the Holocaust. It was an eerie moment, but fitting for our experience in the Yad VaShem museum.

I have visited the museum many times, but this is the first time I have used the self-guiding audio players. I highly recommend it, although if you intended to listen to it all it would add several hours to your visit. I try to point students into certain directions, especially to the display on the role of anti-Semitic Christianity in the rise of Nazism. This was terrible theology and not at all the teaching of the Bible, yet people justified pure evil by appealing selectively to a few verses badly interpreted.

The museum is designed to physically represent the descent into the horrors of the Holocaust. The story is told through pictures and film documenting the beginnings of the anti-Jewish attacks in Germany and elsewhere. Many displays have video interviews with survivors which are (for me) challenging to watch without physically breaking down. In fact, I was standing next to one of our group and I heard her sob as she watched a film of people being loaded on to a train bound for a death camp. Several of my students said they were overwhelmed by the things they saw in the Yad VaShem.

After lunch we visited the Israel National Museum. There are three main things to see at this museum for biblical studies (the focus of this trip). First is model of Jerusalem in the first century. This model used to be at the Holy Land Hotel but was moved to this museum a few years ago. Although someone might raise a minor objection to nearly every detail of the model, it is extremely helpful for visually seeing the whole city as it might have appeared in the first century. Several of my students considered this the highlight of the museum since they are “visual learners.”

The second highlight of the museum is the Shrine of the Book, where the Dead Sea Scrolls are presented. There are a series of displays illustrating how the scrolls were found and some artifacts from Qumran, but the main room has examples of several types of scrolls found int eh caves at Qumran. These include Scripture (a few panels from the Great Isaiah scroll were on display), several apocryphal books (including the Genesis Apocryphon), and several of examples of the literature created by the Essenes (the Temple Scroll, the Habakkuk Pesher and the Thanksgiving Scroll). The Shrine of the Book also has a small display for the Aleppo Codex, the oldest Hebrew Bible in book form (just slightly older than the Leningrad Codex). If you visit the Shrine of the Book be sure to go down the stairs and see this display. There is a new (to me) display just outside the Shrine of the Book with pictures from the original excavation of Qumran (with several color pictures I had never seen before.

The third highlight is the archaeological wing of the museum. This section alone could take several hours to fully digest, we were only able to see some of the highlights. The Tel Dan inscription is on display and there are several inscriptions from the Second Temple. There is a fragment of the warning to Gentiles to stay out of the Jewish section of the temple courts, the so-called Trumpeting Stone which indicated where a priest sounded a trumpet from the Temple Mount, and the Theodotus Inscription.

Two other items should be mentioned because of their connection to the crucifixion of Jesus. Discovered in 1990, the Caiaphas Ossuary is an ornate bone box inscribed “Joseph, son of Caiaphas.” The bones belong to a 60-year-old male, likely the Caiaphas mentioned in the New Testament. In the same corner of the display is an ankle bone from a crucified man. Normally the Romans would not want the nail to pass through bone since it is more difficult to remove and reuse the nail for another crucifixion. In this case, the ankle was entombed along with the nail and later placed in a bone box for secondary burial. Although no one would doubt the Romans crucified many people, this is the only archaeological evidence of a person who was crucified and then buried.

Tomorrow we will start at the top of the Mount of Olives and work our way across the Kidron Valley and up to the City of David and finally to the Southern Temple excavations at the Davidson Museum.

Acts 5:12 – Solomon’s Portico

In Acts 3:11 and 5:13 Luke reports Peter regularly taught at Solomon’s Portico. The word στοά (stoa) is often translated “colonnade,” columned- porch, usually enclosed on one side covered with a roof. According to Josephus, Solomon’s Portico was a double-columned porch on the east side of the Temple near the court of the Gentiles. It was about 23 feet wide (15 cubits) and the columns were about 40 feet tall (25 cubits). Josephus claimed they were white marble with cedar-panels for a ceiling (Antiq. 15.11.3-5, §391-420; JW 5.5.1 §184-185). Josephus may have exaggerated on the marble; Ehud Netzer suggests they were stucco over stone drums, based on columns found at Masada (Netzer, 165). In either case the Portico would have been impressive, although not as monumental as the Royal Colonnade at the southern end of the Temple Mount.

Solomon's Porch, Solomon's Portico

Most Greek temples had porches to provide shelter for people gathering to worship. Keener points out a portico would one way a city could display wealth, although often they were built through the generosity of a benefactor’s gift (1:1074). In this case, Herod the Great likely rebuilt an existing colonnade from the Hasmonean temple. People assumed the area had been a part of Solomon’s original temple, as the name indicates. But nothing of Solomon’s Temple survived the destruction of the city in 586 B.C., just as nothing remains of Solomon’s Portico today.

The Herodians spent a great deal of money on the Temple courts in order to demonstrate their wealth and power. Since Jerusalem had only one God, all funds could be spent improving the buildings around the Temple. Solomon’s Portico was therefore a beautiful public area for Jewish people to gather in sight of the Temple.

Why did Peter and the other disciples return to this location? On the one hand, it is a likely location for teachers to gather with their disciples to discuss the Scripture.  According to John 10:23 Jesus taught his disciples there, so Peter and the disciples are continuing the practice of Jesus by gathering on the Temple Mount. Perhaps that is the reason Jesus went there – it was simply a great place to find religiously inclined people!

Bibliography. Netzer, Ehud. Herod the Builder (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker 2006); Smith, Robert W. “Solomon’s Portico (Place),” ABD 6:113.

Book Review: Matthieu Richelle, The Bible and Archaeology

Richelle, Matthieu. The Bible and Archaeology. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2018. 132 pages + 16 pages of color plates; Pb; $14.95.  Link to Hendrickson

This new publication from Hendrickson is a translation of Richelle’s La Bible et l’archéologie (Excelsis, 2012). This edition has been significantly revised, updated, and enlarged. Alan Millard contributed a forward and the book concludes with thirty-two color photographs (eight pages). As the title implies, this book is focuses the archaeology which would interest a reader of the Bible, although the concerns only the archaeology of ancient Israel. There is little in this book on the archaeology of Asia Minor or other sites in the ancient Near East.

The first three chapters of the book attempt to lower the expectations most people have for archaeology and the Bible. Unfortunately the only experience most people have with archaeology is watching the Indiana Jones movies. Although there have been some spectacular finds in the history of archaeology, most of the work of archaeology deals with far less exciting details. The evidence is always fragmentary and provisional (107). The first chapter describes what archaeologists actually discover, beginning with ancient cities. Richelle outlines the problems associated with even identifying an ancient location and the types of civic architecture associated with most sites.

Perhaps the most exciting discoveries archaeologist make are texts. The second chapter of the book is devoted to what kinds of texts are usually discovered, from royal stelae to clay tablets and ostraca. Richelle also discusses papyri and scrolls, including the Dead Sea Scrolls. Finding an inscription is only half the job. Richelle discusses the problems facing epigraphers as they decipher and interpret these written documents. He briefly mentions the extremely vexing problem of forgeries.

In the third chapter Richelle describes the limits faced by archaeologists as they try to interpret the data. For example, it is often extremely difficult to identify ancient sites and date finds accurately. Ultimately, archaeologists offer interpretations of data and all interpretations must be tentative. Excavations are always partial and often archaeologists fail to publish full reports for scholars to examine. As is often observed, real archaeologist love to dig, but hate to write.

The final three chapters deal with the relationship between the Bible and archaeology. This chapter begins with a summary of the often bitter debate over the role of the Bible in doing archaeology in Israel. Some of the earliest archaeologists went out with a spade in one hand and a Bible in the other. These so-called biblical maximalists accepted the Bible first and found what they expected to find in the archaeological record. On the other end of the spectrum, the so-called minimalists only use physical evidence from archaeology and have little interest in the Bible as source of historical information. Richelle argues for a balance view which makes judicious use of the Bible in archaeology. Since both sources are fragmentary, it is important to use one to illustrate the other. The Bible is “a precious source at the level of historical interpretation, but it must not prescribe in advance what should be discovered during excavations” (108).

To illustrate this problem, Richelle offers a case study using recent challenges to the traditional view of David and Solomon (chapter 5). The traditional view is that David and Solomon existed and biblical archaeology would point to several Iron Age sites as evidence for a central authority in Israel (the city gates at Megiddo and Gezer, for example). In Jerusalem the stepped structure at the City of David and evidence from the Ophel imply an Iron Age expansion of Jerusalem. However, all this evidence can be interpreted differently by re-dating sites (a “low chronology”).

The final chapter of the book extends this discussion to the lack of inscriptions from the time of David and Solomon. If there was a kingdom of David and Solomon in the tenth and ninth centuries B.C.E. with an extensive administration center in Jerusalem, where are the inscriptions? It is a fact there are very few examples of writing from the period, far less than in other areas explored by archaeologists (Egypt, for example). Richelle argues the absence literary texts in the archaeological record does not necessarily correlate with the development of a culture.  But he also outlines the development of a scribal tradition in ancient Israel.

Conclusion. This short book is a good introduction to the problematic nature of the Bible and Archaeology. It is perhaps too brief; since the book uses endnotes, there are only 108 pages of actual text. The Hendrickson website claims the book has 168 pages, but that is not the case.

 

NB: Thanks to Hendrickson for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

GBC – Israel Tour 2015

At Jaffa Gate 2013

At Jaffa Gate 2013

I am leaving today to lead a tour in Israel and Jordan.  This is my seventh trip to Israel since 2005 and I am looking forward to this one a great deal.  I have 24 students along with me on this trip and they are all ready for an adventure.  We arrive in Tel Aviv and begin with a walk through the Old City, the Rampart Walk, Western Wall and Davidson Archaeological Park.

We have a couple of days in Galilee, visiting all the “Jesus sites” as well as Tel Dan.  We will cross into Jordan at Tiberius, see Jerash and Mount Nebo on the way to Petra.  Finally, after crossing back into Israel at Eilat, we get a few days in the Negev, visiting Arad, Masada, En Gedi, Qumran and a few other sites.

Ten Dan, 2011

Ten Dan, 2011

I am particularly looking forward to the Southern Temple and City of David excavations, there are always and exciting things to be seen there.

I plan on walking down the Mount of Olives and across the Kidron Valley, then up the other side to the City of David excavations. While it is a long walking say, I think it will be an education on just how far people walked in and around Jerusalem in the first century.

Here is the basic itinerary, days 1-2 are travel and arriving in Jerusalem.

  • Day 3: (Wednesday-April 29) Jerusalem. Jaffa Gate and Old City of Jerusalem. We will pass the Citadel of David and begin the “Rampart Walk.” We continue to walk through the Old City market to the Western Wall, including parts of the Via Dolorosa and visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
  • Day 4: (Thursday April 30) Jerusalem. We will spend the morning at the Yad VaShem Museum and Israel Museum (Dead Sea Scrolls, Jerusalem Model, and the Archaeology wing of the Museum).
  • Day 5: (Friday-May 1) Jerusalem. The day begins on the Mount of Olives, looking across the Kidron Valley. Walking down the Mount we will visit Domiunis Flevit (where Jesus wept over Jerusalem), the Garden of Gethsemane and the Church of All Nations. We will walk across the Kidron Valley past Absalom’s tomb and up to the City of David and Hezekiah’s tunnel and the pool of Siloam. Finally we visit the Davidson Archaeology Park on the Southern wall of the Temple.

    At En Gedi, 2009

    At En Gedi, 2009

  • Day 6: (Saturday-May 2) Galilee. We will begin the day by driving from Jerusalem to Caesarea, through Nazareth to Beit Shean, and finally arrive at Maagan Holiday Village in the late afternoon.
  • Day 7: (Sunday-May 3) Galilee. We will begin this day by visiting Mount Arbel, the Mount of Beatitudes, Capernaum, Caesarea Philippi and/or Tel Dan, Kursi.
  • Day 8: (Monday- May 4) Jordan, Jeresh, Mt. Nebo, Amman. We will leave the Galilee early and prepare to cross into Jordan at the King Hussein Bridge and transfer busses in Jordan. We will stop at Jeresh for a tour of this spectacular Roman city.
  • Day 9: (Tuesday-May 5) Petra. We start out for Petra early, walking the Suq to the famous Al Khazneh or Treasury at Petra. We will ahve a full day to explore this fantastic site!
  • Day 10: (Wednesday-May 6) Aqaba, Eilot, Tamar. We will head south to the Red Sea, crossing the border back into Israel at Eilat. After some time swimming in the Red Sea we will arrive at Biblical Tamar Park.
  • Day 11: (Thursday-May 7) Mamshit Tel Arad, Masada, the Dead Sea, Tamar. We will be on the bus early to explore several sites in the desert. Our first stop will be Mamshit, a Nabatean trading village which has been beautifully restored by the Israeli Park service. Then we will visit Arad, an ancient Canaanite city captured by Joshua. We will visit the Israelite citadel and travel to Masada, the famed fortress built by King Herod 2,000 years ago.

    08 Mount of Olives 04 Group

    Mount of Olives, 2013

  • Day 12: (Friday-May 8) Ein Gedi, Qumran, The Dead Sea. We will hike to the waterfall in Ein Gedi where David hid from King Saul, then visit Qumran, the location where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. We end this day with a float in the Dead Sea.
  • Day 13: (Saturday-May 9). We will depart Tamar Park and visit a few sites on the way to Jerusalem to spend our last few hours in the Old City for shopping.

One of the highlights of my tours is spending a few days at Tamar, an archaeological site south of the Dead Sea.  The site is small but unique, with remains from the Iron Age (include a small Solomonic Gate and a four-room house), an Edomite shrine, a Roman bath and store rooms, a Turkish water system, a building once used as a jail during the British mandate, and an Israeli bomb shelter.

Look for frequent updates from Israel and Jordan over the next two weeks!

Tel Dan 2007

Tel Dan 2007

GBC Israel 2005

Free eBook from Biblical Archaeology Review

BARBiblical Archaeology Review is giving away a copy of their ‘Top Ten Archaeological Discoveries in exchange for your email address. Follow the link and sign up for the BAR daily emails and you will get a link to the book in PDF format, easily read on any platform.  I saved the file right to my Dropbox and opened it on my iPad and opened it with the Kindle Reader, although it will open with many other PDF readers.

The “top ten” articles are drawn from past issues of BAR and are accompanied by a number of illustrations (both B&W and color).  Some of these illustrations are better than others, I presume that the better photographs are from more recent articles (such as the Tel  Dan inscription).  The book is 148 pages, each article is 10-12 pages long. In a few cases, the original sidebars are also included.  Since the articles are from the BAR magazine, they are written for the non-specialist. (This book looks alot like the older “Best of BAR” series.)

As for the list of Top Ten archaeological discoveries, it is mixed list.  The Nag Hammadi library is first on the list, a worthy inclusion. But the book omits the Dead Sea Scrolls.  At first I thought this was because the discoveries were all after 1974 (when the Biblical Archaeological Society was founded), but the Nag Hammadi library was discovered in 1945, the same time as the Dead Sea Scrolls.  I think that the mosaic from Sepphoris on the cover of the book is beautiful, but I am not sure it rates the top ten.

For the cost of your email address, this is good book to download.  Everyone will disagree with about any “top ten” list, at least this one is free.

GBC – Israel Tour 2013

I am leaving today to lead a tour in Israel and Jordan.  This is my sixth  trip to Israel since 2005 and I am looking forward to this one a great deal.  I have 14 students on this trip and they are all ready for an adventure.  We arrive in Tel Aviv and begin with a walk through the Old City, the Rampart Walk, Western Wall and Davidson Archaeological Park.  We have a couple of days in Galilee, visiting all the “Jesus sites” as well as Tel Dan.  We will cross into Jordan at Tiberius, see Jerash and Mount Nebo on the way to Petra.  Finally, after crossing back into Israel at Eilat, we get a few days in the Negev, visiting Arad, Masada, En Gedi, Qumran and a few other sites.

Ten Dan, 2011

Ten Dan, 2011

I am particularly looking forward to the Southern Temple and City of David excavations, there are always and exciting things to be seen there.  One of the highlights of my tours is spending a few days at Tamar, an archaeological part south of the Dead Sea.  The site is small but unique, with remains from the Iron Age (include a small Solomonic Gate and a four-room house), an Edomite shrine, a Roman bath and store rooms, a Turkish water system, a building once used as a jail during the British mandate, and an Israeli bomb shelter.

Look for frequent updates from Israel and Jordan over the next two weeks!

Dome of the Rock, 2009

Dome of the Rock, 2009

Tel Dan 2007

Tel Dan 2007

GBC Israel 2005

Examples of the Value of Archaeology (Part 3)

1873 Wood Engraving

Southern Temple Excavations. There is a great deal of archaeological activity around the southern end of the Temple. Since the first two examples I used concern the Old Testament, I will focus on the importance of these excavations for New Testament studies. There are few who would deny the Western Wall represents the walls built by King Herod to expand the Temple Mount.

In 1838 E. Robinson, one of the first archaeological explorers of Jerusalem, discovered the remains of an arch on the southwest corner of the Temple Mount. Photographs show that this arch was only a few feet above ground level at the turn of the twentieth century, and even in 1968 it was near ground level with a vegetable patch growing beneath. Today, visitors to the archaeological park can see the arch some twenty feet from the ground level. Archaeologists have excavated to the level of the first century streets. The arch is part of a stairwell from ground level to the Temple Mount.

Photo Taken May, 2009

One of the most spectacular finds in this area was the “trumpeting stone” from the corner of the wall. On the inside of the parapet is an incomplete inscription saying “to the place of trumpeting.” The stone was 138 feet above the street level! It appears that a priest or Levite would sound a shofar (Josephus, JW 4.582, b. Sukk. 5:5).On the southern end of the Temple Mount a stairway goes up from the street level to a double gate and triple gate. It is likely that there was a plaza at the base of the steps, and there are several public ritual baths near the steps. The double gate is built in the Herodian style, although it was filled in by the Crusaders and a building was added by the Umayyads, nearly covering the entrances. Since the other since of the gate is now part of the Al Aska Mosque, detailed investigation is impossible. Ritmeyer suggests that this may be the Beautiful Gate mentioned in Acts 3, although it is impossible to know for certain. These gates opened up into the Royal Stoa, a huge area on the south end of the Temple Mount.

Trumpeting Stone

In summary, the southern Temple excavations demonstrate what Jerusalem looked like during the ministry of Jesus and the Apostles. The archaeology of the Southern Temple area gives the physical context of last week of Jesus life and the early part of the book of Acts. Let me suggest one application of this physical context to the book of Acts. As is well known, on the day of Pentecost 3000 people respond to the preaching of the apostles and were baptized. In Acts 4:4 and additional 5000 believe. How is it possible to baptize such large crowds in the Temple area? The only real possibility are the many mikvoth around the Temple area, including the pools of Siloam and Bethesda. I think that the baptism of Acts 2 and 3 is a self-baptism in one of the many ritual pools around Jerusalem. In this case, the archaeological context helps explain a detail of the text.

Examples of the Value of Archaeology (Part 2)

Khirbet Qeiyafa in the Valley of Elah. The Valley of Elah is the site of the well-known story of David and Goliath (1 Sam 17). The valley is about 18 miles southwest of Jerusalem, the ruins of Qeiyafa are on top of a hill that borders the valley to the north. The small settlement was protected by a casement wall and two gates, but was destroyed. The site is significant for several reasons. First, it is certainly an Israelite site dating to the early Iron age, or the kingdom of David. It is along the border of Judah and Philistia, indicating that there were indeed tensions along that border during the time of David requiring a military post to guard the valley.

The most significant artifact to be found at Qeiyafa is a small ostracon (pot sherd) with some early Hebrew writing on it. William Shea offers a unique translation of the text which recognizes that some of the letters are in fact pictograms. His suggested translation of the first two lines is a command to the king to “not make two servants of the judge and the prophet” (604). He suggests that the text was “written in a time of transition” from local judges and prophets to kings. These lines would be advice to a king to not usurp the tradition roles of the judges or the prophets. As Shea puts it, the judge and the prophet may have diminished in authority when the monarchy was established, but they were to continue “independent of the king” (610).

There are other suggested readings of the text, some differing a great deal from Shea’s reconstruction. For example, Gershon Galil of the University of Haifa renders the second and third line as“judge the slave and the widow and the orphan and the stranger.” Despite the variety of suggested readings, they all sound like advice to the king, whether that advice sounds like the voice of a prophet or a sage. After reading 2 Sam 23:1-7 and Prov 31:1-9, I would suggest that whatever the Qeiyafa Ostracon is, it represents advice to a young king on how to rule wisely. This advice reflects a transition from the rule of Judges to Kings, exactly as 1 Samuel records.

Examples of the Value of Archaeology (Part 1)

Introduction. I have been asked to give a “top ten archaeological finds” list on a few occasions. There are in fact far more major finds that I would be able to list in a single article or seminar. The list of inscriptions and other monuments mentioning biblical characters in the Old Testament is quite long given the relatively minor status of Israel in the ancient Near East. For the New Testament, the archaeology of Ceasarea, Bet-Shean, Sephoris, and Tiberias shows the Roman influence on Jewish life during the time of Jesus. The Dead Sea Scrolls are of monumental importance for understanding the Jewish religion in the first century. I have chosen to focus the attention of the rest of this paper on just two examples from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament which are both important as biblical history, but are also relatively recent and exciting.

The City of David in the Silwan Valley. The City of David was a Jebusite citadel captured by David in 2 Sam 5:6-9. There were a number of structures built along the ridge from the Temple Mount down to the end of the Kidron and Hinnom valleys. The City of David is best known for Hezekiah’s Tunnel, a tunnel cut through the stone to reach the Gihon Spring at the bottom of the valley. The Siloam Inscription was found in this tunnel in 1880 and has been in Istanbul since 1890. The inscription is one the most important artifacts ever found in Israel since the inscription commemorates the place where workmen joined the two tunnels, connecting the City of David to the Pool of Siloam at the bottom of the hill. Robert Coote comments that “it is the nearly unanimous view of historians that the Siloam tunnel is Hezekiah’s conduit, and that the inscription in it was written shortly before 701 B.C.E.” The tunnel is mentioned in 2 Kings 20:20 and 2 Chron 32:30, and is alluded to in Isaiah 22:11. It is unfortunate, on the one hand, that the inscription does not mention Hezekiah. But, on the other hand, any mention of Hezekiah might have been grounds for claiming that the inscription is a fake or dates from a later time.

Recent excavations at the City of David have uncovered hundreds of bullae, or seal impressions dating to the eighth and seventh centuries B.C. These impresses are seals placed on a papyri document as a legal seal. That so many of these little seals have been found is an indication that there was an administrative center which houses a large number of legal documents. It is likely that a fire destroyed the archive, burning the paper but hardening the seals. One seal bears the name “Gemaryahu ben Shafan” (Jer 36:10) and another seal discovered in 2008 appears to have the name Gedeliah, son of Pashur, an administrator in the last days of the kingdom of Judah (Jer 38:1). In summer of 2011 a small golden bell was discovered near the bottom of the valley. The bell may have been sewn into a priestly garment in the first century (Exod 28:33), although it is not certain that the bell came from a priest nor is it clear when the bell was made (it likely dates to the late Second Temple Period, much nearer the time of Jesus than Solomon!)

The excavations at the City of David are a good example of the politics of archaeology in Israel today. Since the archaeological work runs along the border of the village of Silwan. Israeli archaeologists are constantly expanding their work, crossing into a village which is historically Arab. In 1967 the neighborhood was annexed by Israel, but the residents consider this an occupation. They view the work of archaeology as a kind of cultural imperialism since the work is done by Israelis for the purpose of proving that Jerusalem is a Jewish birthright. (Whether anyone actually does archaeology for this reason is debatable, but that is the perception in Silwan!) Any further encroachment into the valley will be met with resistance, yet there is much to be learned by working in the valley. Likely there is no solution, whatever compromises are reached will be entirely political.

What Should We Expect From Archaeology?

Unfortunately, people tend to expect too much from archaeology. It would be nice if archaeologists discovered a tablet in Egypt which said something like, “I am glad I finally let those people go, Moses is such a nag….signed Rameses II.” Yet even if we did have such a remarkable artifact, many will remain unconvinced of the claims of the Bible. Unfortunately, there will be no proof-positive which convinces all the doubters. There are two reasons for this.

Jessica and her Major Find

The first reason is the nature of archaeological finds. Rarely do archaeologists find anything which specifically supports a particular story. The vast majority of things found by archaeologists are rather mundane. For every spectacular find like the Dead Sea Scrolls, there are tens of thousands of pottery shards discovered. The average person thinks an archaeologist is like Indiana Jones, having great adventures and finding golden idols or ancient writings. In 2011 a group of GBC students worked for a few hours on an archaeological site, sifting an area of a dig. We discovered pottery, a bucket’s worth for our morning’s effort. For the layman, the pottery is rather boring, but for the archaeologist it is quite exciting! The pottery can tell us a great deal about the people who lived at a site, although there is rarely anything in the pottery which can be described as a “biblical proof.”

We also might want to think about the sorts of things which potentially could be preserved which support biblical stories. For example, what sort of evidence would Abraham leave behind which could be discovered today? I doubt there are tent-spikes out there with “if found, please return to Abraham” inscribed on them. The earliest stories in the Old Testament are such that direct archaeological confirmation is unlikely.

Another factor is that the archaeological record is extremely incomplete. As a science archeology is relatively young and the methods used for digging have developed a great deal over the last 50 years. Since digging destroys the site, archaeologists must decide where to dig and how deep they should dig. If something significant is found, rarely will they attempt to go any deeper since that would destroy whatever was found. Because of this, a site is rarely excavated completely.

There are many reasons for this selectivity, but a primary reason is finances – it is very expensive to run an archaeological dig and there are not very many which have any real “pay-off” in terms of public interest. Let me offer a couple of examples from my experience in leading tours to Israel. I have spent time at a location in the Negev which is likely the location of Tamar, a small border town mentioned in 1 Kings. The small site has a great deal to see, but because of the location, it rarely attracts many visitors. As a result, no one really invests much money in the site. On the other hand, Megiddo is a rather spectacular site in the Jezreel Valley. The city is also mentioned in 1 Kings in the same context as Tamar, but because of the location of the city it is of far more importance. Megiddo has been excavated since the mid-1920’s and boasts some of the more spectacular archaeological sites in Israel. This includes a well-preserved water system which tourists may walk through. Because it is close to the main highway, the Israeli Antiquities Authority is able to put a great deal more money into the site as a “tourist attraction.”

The second issue concerns the politics of modern archaeology in Israel. For some in Israel, any archaeological find which supports a Jewish claim on the land or Temple Mount is immediately suspect. When a fragment of a stele with the phrase “house of David” was found at Tel Dan, several scholars immediately declared it was a fraud simply because it proved that there was a “house of David” in the seventh century B.C. When it became clear that the stone fragments were not planted by an Israeli, the same scholars tried to re-read the text so that it did not refer to the house of David at all. When a major find does occur, the immediate suspicion is that the artifact has been created by the Israelis in order to bolster their claim to the land. Imagine the impact of the discovery of evidence of a the first Jewish temple, prior to 586 B.C. Such a discovery would be denied by some because of the political implications and accepted by others on equally political grounds as a support for a Jewish homeland. Unfortunately, several artifacts have been proven to be fakes, or at the very least modifications of real artifacts to make the more valuable.

So what can we expect from archaeology? Aside from the occasional spectacular find, archaeologists regularly confirm the general history and culture of the biblical world. There are a number of important finds from the last 20 years which confirm Israel’s presence in the land from early Iron Age and the destruction of both Samaria in 722 B.C. and Jerusalem in 586 B.C. There is an impressive list of biblical names found in Assyrian records or other monuments. Recent excavations around the City of David, just outside the Old City of Jerusalem have found post-exilic Jewish building projects. Around the southern end of the Temple Mount on-going excavations have uncovered first-century streets, the remains of shops and other buildings which serviced visitors to the Temple, including a number of ritual baths (mikvoth). All of these sorts of “mundane” finds go a long way in illustrating how people lived in the ancient world and almost always confirm the history and culture of the Bible.

In summary, expecting too much from archaeology is almost as bad as expecting too little. By expecting to find a golden tablet inscribed with David’s name claiming the Temple Mount as his everlasting possession goes far beyond what archaeology is able to prove. On the other hand, archaeology does in fact go a long way in confirming the Bible’s presentation of the history and culture of both the Old and New Testament.