by Doug Ward

JUNE 2009-For students of the Bible, following the latest news in archaeology can be an exciting pastime. Nearly every week, it seems, there are reports of archaeological research that promises to augment our knowledge of the biblical world.

It is not always easy, though, to determine the actual significance of a publicized discovery. Initial reports of archaeological work are often packaged to garner maximum media attention, with the goal of attracting increased funding for future research. As a result, first impressions can be misleading.

For example, in 2004 archaeologist Shimon Gibson authored a book entitled The Cave of John the Baptist: The Stunning Archaeological Discovery That Has Redefined Christian History. As it turns out, the cave Gibson had explored about seven miles west of Jerusalem was an interesting find. Originally created as a cistern sometime during the eighth-sixth centuries B.C., it was later visited by Christians during the Byzantine period (330-630 A.D.). However, there is no real evidence connecting the cave with John the Baptist, and Gibson's assertion that followers of John the Baptist had carried out ritual immersions there is pure speculation. Five years later, this cave still has not “redefined Christian history.”

One way to gain a clearer perspective on biblical archaeology is to tap into the wisdom of an expert on the subject. One such expert is Dr. Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., an editor of the NIV Archaeological Study Bible (Zondervan, 2006). Kaiser, a leading evangelical scholar of the Hebrew Scriptures, has stayed abreast of the best scholarship in archaeology for over forty years. On March 28, 2009, Kaiser provided an insightful overview of biblical archaeology in a lecture delivered at Miami University.

Kaiser's talk was the fourth in a series of annual lectures given in honor of Dr. Edwin Yamauchi, Professor Emeritus of History at Miami. Since archaeology is one of Prof. Yamauchi's abiding interests1, it was a fitting topic for a lecture in this series. And since Kaiser and Yamauchi have been friends since graduate school days, when both were Ph.D. students of Cyrus Gordon at Brandeis University, Kaiser was a natural candidate to give the 2009 Yamauchi Lecture.

At the beginning of his lecture, Kaiser gave a brief survey of the history of biblical archaeology. He noted that this is a relatively young research area-less than 200 years old-and estimated that only one to two per cent of the possible excavation sites have been explored so far. It is not surprising, then, that this field of study has raised at least as many questions as it has answered, and the "wish list" of things that have not been found is quite lengthy. In particular, there is as yet no archaeological evidence for the existence of the patriarchs, Moses, Joshua, or Samuel and the other Judges of Israel.

On the other hand, a number of people from the Bible have been found in ancient inscriptions and documents, including Balaam the seer and kings David, Omri, Ahab, Jehu, Hezekiah, Menahem, and Jehoiachin. Overall, much has been discovered that corroborates or illuminates the biblical record.2 In his lecture, Kaiser listed some of biblical archaeology's "greatest hits", leading discoveries from each period of biblical history.


Gilgamesh and the Flood

Kaiser mentioned the discovery of the Gilgamesh Epic, a masterpiece of ancient literature probably composed in Babylonia early in the second millennium B.C., as the greatest find connected with the Pre-Patriarchal Period (the long stretch of time covered in Gen 1-11). In 1853 Hormuzd Rassam, an Iraqi Christian representing the British Museum, led a team that found an extensive stash of clay tablets-over a hundred thousand tablets and fragments-in Kuyunjik, a large mound near Mosul containing the ruins of ancient Nineveh. The tablets were from the magnificent library of Asshurbanipal, a great Assyrian king who ruled from 669-627 B.C. When Nineveh was destroyed by the Medes and Babylonians in 612 B.C., the royal palace collapsed, crushing but preserving the contents of the library.

The tablets were shipped to the British Museum, where they awaited the work of people who could reassemble the fragments and translate the Akkadian cuneiform script inscribed in them. In November 1872 George Smith, a young genius who had become adept at both reassembly and translation, pieced together most of a tablet containing an ancient flood story with clear parallels to Gen 6-9. News of this tablet (now known as Gilgamesh Tablet XI) spread quickly, giving Smith an opportunity to do some archaeological work of his own. He convinced London's Daily Telegraph to send him to Mosul for the purpose of locating the remainder of Tablet XI. Remarkably, within a week after he started work on May 7, 1873, he found a piece from another copy of Tablet XI that included almost all of the lines he was missing!3

The hero of the story told in Tablet XI is Utnapishtim, who like the biblical Noah saves some people and animals from a deluge by building a large boat. Like Noah's ark the boat comes to rest on a mountain, and Utnapishtim sends out three birds--a dove, swallow and raven-in order to determine when the waters have receded. The parallels between Gilgamesh Tablet XI and Gen 6-9 suggest that both were drawing upon well known traditions about an actual great flood from the past. The Epic of Atrahasis, another Babylonian work pieced together from the remains of Asshurbanipal's library, gives a third account of this flood.4


The World of the Patriarchs

Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the biblical patriarchs, are believed (based on I Kings 6:1 and Exod 12:40) to have lived around the turn of the second millennium B.C. (Kaiser dates Abram's journey to Canaan at about 2092 B.C.) And indeed, the details of their lives as described in Gen 12-50 are consistent with what archaeology has learned about Ancient Near Eastern cultures from that historical era.

One illustrative example cited by Dr. Kaiser concerns the price of a slave. When Jacob's son Joseph was sold into slavery, traders paid Jacob's brothers twenty shekels of silver (Gen 37:28), which seems to have been the going rate for a slave during the early second millennium B.C. That is the price listed, for instance, in Hammurabi's Code and other sources from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries B.C. A few hundred years earlier-e.g., under the Akkad Empire (2371-2191 B.C.)-the price of a slave was only ten to fifteen shekels. Later, during the latter half of the second millennium B.C., the price rose to thirty shekels, as reflected in Exod 21:32. By the time of the Assyrian Empire in the eighth and seventh centuries B.C., this figure had risen further to the 50-60 shekel range, and it climbed to 90-120 shekels during the days of the Persian Empire in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C.

These data on slave prices have become widely known thanks to the writings of Kenneth A. Kitchen.5 Kitchen also points out that the names Yitzhak, Yakov, and Yosef (Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph) share a beginning sound that is more prevalent in names from the early second millennium than in those from later periods.

These examples and others support the basic historicity of the patriarchal narratives. If the book of Genesis were a work of fiction composed around 600 B.C., as liberal scholars often claim, then how would its authors have been aware of authentic details from over a thousand years earlier?

The leading Ancient Near Eastern city of Abraham's time was Ur, a site known in modern times as Tell-el-Mukayyar in Iraq. In an expedition cosponsored by the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania, this site was carefully excavated in 1922-1934 by Leonard Woolley (1880-1960).6 One of Woolley's greatest finds was a group of sixteen tombs from about 2600 B.C. that he called the Royal Tombs of Ur. These tombs contained a wealth of finely-crafted artifacts-lyres, jewelry, drinking vessels and more-made from valuable materials like gold and silver.

It is not clear whether this Ur is the "Ur of the Chaldees" from which Abraham's family came (Gen 11:28, 31), since we now know there were several cities named Ur or Ura in that part of the world.7 Still, Woolley's excavations greatly expanded our background knowledge of the world into which Abraham was born. Kaiser listed the discovery of the Royal Tombs as one of the most important finds related to the time of the Patriarchs.


Slavery and Freedom

According to the first and fifth chapters of the book of Exodus, Israelite slaves were part of the workforce that enabled the Pharaohs of Egypt to complete their ambitious building projects. The details given in Exodus are consistent with the information we have from ancient Egyptian documents.8 These documents show that taskmasters on construction projects were responsible for making sure that the workers produced a certain quota of bricks, as Exod 5 indicates.

A construction crew is pictured in a wall painting from the tomb of Rekhmire, a vizier of Thutmose III. (Thutmose III ruled Egypt c. 1504-1450 B.C.) The painting shows workers making and carrying bricks and is accompanied by an inscription reading, "The captives whom his majesty has brought to build the temple of Amon at Thebes ... making bricks to reconstruct the stores [of Amon]." Kaiser notes that "the overseer of the brick-making slaves was known as a 'sar, `slave master,' the same term used in Hebrew and the name that appears on this famous wall painting at Thebes ...."9

Thebes is also the location of an important archaeological discovery related to a later period of Israel's history. In 1896 English Egyptologist Flinders Petrie found at Thebes a slab of granite inscribed with a poetic eulogy to the military exploits of Merneptah, a Pharaoh who ruled near the end of the thirteenth century B.C. (This type of inscribed stone slab is called a stela or stele.) The closing section of the eulogy claims that Merneptah had prevailed in a campaign against several city-states and peoples in Canaan:

"Plundered is the Canaan with every evil; Carried off is Ashkelon; seized upon is Gezer; Yanoam is made as that which does not exist; Israel is laid waste, his seed is not; Hurru is become a widow for Egypt! All lands together, they are pacified."

This mention of Israel on the Merneptah Stela is the oldest known extrabiblical reference to the people of Israel. It implies that by the end of the thirteenth century B.C., Israel was well enough established in the land of Cannaan to be an adversary worthy of mention in Egypt.

Kaiser highlighted one more discovery related to the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures.) In 1979 Israeli archaeologist Gabriel Barkay led an investigation of seven burial caves at Ketef Hinnom near Jerusalem. One of the caves contained a treasure trove of small artifacts, including two tiny rolled-up strips of silver. When unrolled, the larger strip measures approximately an inch by four inches, the smaller one about a half inch by an inch and a half. Tiny Hebrew letters are etched into each one.

Unrolling the strips and deciphering the tiny writing have proven to be challenging tasks. But researchers have been able to determine that the writing on the smaller strip is a prayer that the owner be blessed by God, the warrior (or helper) and rebuker of evil. Next comes an abbreviated form of the priestly blessing of Num 6:24-26: "May Yahweh bless you, keep you. May Yahweh make his face shine upon you and grant you peace."10

The inscription in the larger strip is also a blessing and affirmation of faith. It seems to begin with Deut 7:9 and continues with the priestly blessing. Each silver strip was probably worn by its owner as part of a necklace and was intended to invoke the inscribed blessing for the wearer. The strips have been dated to around 600 B.C., a time shortly before the destruction of Solomon's temple. Their inscriptions constitute the oldest known copies of verses from the Bible.


Conflict Over the Conquest

One of the most controversial periods of biblical history is Israel's conquest of the land of Canaan. There is widespread skepticism in the scholarly world about the historical validity of the book of Joshua's account of the conquest, and there are strong differences of opinion over how to interpret the available archaeological evidence.11

In considering the data related to the conquest, it is helpful to understand how Israel was to conduct this military campaign. According to the Bible, Israel was instructed to destroy the inhabitants of Canaan and anything connected with pagan worship, but to leave the buildings in Canaan's cities intact so that those cities could be repopulated (Deut 6:10-11; 7:5; 12:2-4; 19:1). And that is how Israel is said to have carried out the campaign, the lone exceptions being Jericho, Ai, and Hazor, where buildings were destroyed along with people (Joshua 6; 8; 11:10-14; 24:13).

The Bible suggests, then, that three likely places to look for past destructions giving physical evidence of the conquest are Jericho, Ai, and Hazor.12 All three have received extensive attention from archaeologists.

Kaiser singled out the painstaking work of Kathleen Kenyon at Jericho in the 1950s as the most significant archaeological research related to this historical period. In the area denoted City IV, Kenyon found several things that are consistent with the biblical account of the Israelite attack on Jericho:

· evidence of a fire (Joshua 6:24);

· large numbers of red mud bricks that had fallen outward from a wall, providing a convenient ramp for invaders (6:20);

· large amounts of grain, indicating that Jericho fell suddenly rather than after a long siege.

Kenyon estimated that City IV fell in around 1550 B.C., too early to be the work of invading Israelites. However, Bryant G. Wood, after a close examination of the full reports of Kenyon's findings (which were not available until after her death) has argued persuasively for a more recent date. His estimate of 1400 B.C., around the traditional time of Israel's entry into the Promised Land, is based on:

· the presence of pottery at the site from throughout the fifteenth century B.C.

· the finding of scarabs (beetle-shaped Egyptian amulets) inscribed with the names of Egyptian Pharaohs of the fifteenth century, implying continuous use of the cemetery at the site during that century;

· a carbon-14 sample of burned material from the site that was dated at 1410 B.C. ±40 years.13

Joshua 7:2 records that the small outpost of Ai was "beside Bethaven, on the east side of Bethel" (KJV). For archaeologists, it has been a challenge to identify locations for Ai, Bethaven, and Bethel that have the geographical features described in Joshua 7-8 and were inhabited during the days of Joshua. Wood believes that he has solved this puzzle. He locates Bethel at el-Bira, Bethaven at Beitin, and Ai at Khirbet el-Maqatir. His excavations at Khirbet el-Maqatir (1995-2000) have found evidence that the site was inhabited and fortified during the fifteenth century B.C. and then destroyed by fire and left in ruins. All of this seems to be consistent with the Bible. Further exploration of the site has been undertaken in 2009.14

Digs at Hazor have been led by Yigael Yadin (1955-58, 1968) and by Amnon Ben-Tor (throughout the 1990s).15 The findings from these digs include the following:

· Hazor was a major Canaanite city, as mentioned in Joshua 11:10.

· The Canaanite Hazor was razed sometime in the fourteenth or thirteenth century B.C., perhaps the result of the defeat of Hazor by Deborah and Barak (Judges 4-5).16

· A refortification of Hazor took place in the middle of the tenth century B.C., as indicated by I Kings 9:15.

· The Israelite Hazor was later destroyed, consistent with I Kings 15:29 and Assyrian records.

Stellar Stelae

A number of key archaeological discoveries related to the period of Israel's monarchy involve the testimony of enemies of Israel. For example, in 1993 a fragment of a basalt stela was found at Tel Dan, a site in northern Galilee, by the team of archaeologist Avraham Biran.17 The fragment contains portions of thirteen lines of text in the Early Aramaic language, written in the paleo-Hebrew script of the ninth century B.C. Enough words can be translated to show that the stela commemorates the victories of a military leader of ancient Syria who was a follower of the god Hadad. The phrases "king of Israel" and "house of David" are also present, giving extrabiblical confirmation of the existence of King David and his dynasty.

The fragment does not give enough information to pinpoint the name of the Syrian commander or the military campaign being celebrated. The stela's location at Dan suggests that the commander took Dan as part of his campaign. It is possible that the stela is referring to the time in the early ninth century B.C. when King Asa of Judah induced Benhadad of Syria to attack the territory of King Baasha of Israel. The Bible reports that on this occasion Benhadad captured Dan (I Kings 15:16-22; 2 Chron 16:1-6). In any case, Israel later retook Dan and recycled the stela as building material.

The stela from Tel Dan is similar in many ways to the Mesha stela, which was found at Dhiban (biblical Dibon) in 1868. Both are made of black basalt, both date from the ninth century B.C., and both mention a king of Israel and (apparently) the house of David. Unfortunately, the Mesha stela was broken in 1869, but it has been largely reconstructed at the Louvre in Paris, where it has been located since 1875.

Written in the Moabite language in paleo-Hebrew script, the thirty-four lines of the Mesha stela pay homage to the exploits of Mesha, king of Moab. Among those exploits are victory over the tribe of Gad, which, according to the stela, had lived in the area east of the Jordan River "from of old." Also chronicled are the capture of sacred articles for the worship of Israel's God YHWH. Epigrapher André Lemaire has determined that the last four lines of the text, the most difficult to reconstruct, deal with a campaign against territory controlled by the kings of Judah, the "house of David."18

It is not clear when the activities described in the stela occurred in relation to the conflict between Mesha and the kings of Israel, Judah, and Edom recorded in 2 Kings 3. Some believe that Mesha's victories were part of the "rebellion" referred to in 2 Kings 3:5, while others place them in the time period following the events of 2 Kings 3.19

A third enemy of Israel who gives us information about biblical history is Shishak (a.k.a. Shoshenq I), a pharaoh of Egypt whose reign extended from about 945 to 924 B.C. In 925 B.C., shortly after the division of Israel into northern and southern kingdoms, he attacked Judah (the southern kingdom) and took large quantities of gold from Jerusalem (2 Kings 14:25-26; 2 Chron 12:1-12). In Egypt, Shishak's victories are celebrated in a wall relief at the temple of the god Amon at Karnak. The relief lists names of some one hundred and fifty places in Israel that Shishak claimed to have subdued. Many of the places are in the territory of the northern kingdom, so Shishak's invasion apparently extended beyond Judah, a detail not mentioned in the Bible.20

The detailed records of the Assyrian Empire supplement the biblical account in a number of places. One example highlighted by Kaiser is the Black Obelisk, which was excavated in 1846 at Nimrud (in what is today Iraq) by Austen Henry Layard and now resides in the British Museum. This limestone monument displays five scenes of tribute being presented to Assyrian monarch Shalmanesar III, who ruled from 858 to 824 B.C. The second scene from the top is accompanied by the following caption:

"Tribute of Iaua [Jehu], son of Omri. Silver, gold, a golden bowl, a golden beaker, golden goblets, pitchers of gold, tin, staves for the hand of the king, [and] javelins, I [Shalmaneser] received from him."

Jehu ruled the northern kingdom of Israel from 841-814 B.C. The Bible identifies him as "the son of Jehoshaphat the son of Nimshi" (2 Kings 9:2). The Black Obelisk's inscription raises the possibility that Jehu's grandfather Nimshi was a descendant of King Omri.21

Dr. Kaiser also mentioned a further spectacular find from Assyria: a human-headed winged bull sculpture that "guarded" the throne room of Sargon II (722-705 B.C.) at Khorsabad, Sargon's capital. The sixteen-foot high, forty-ton bull was discovered in 1929 by Dr. Edward Chiera of the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute and subsequently shipped to Chicago, where it continues to be on display. Since Sargon ruled at a time when thousands of Israelites from the northern kingdom were deported by the Assyrians, it is possible that slaves from Israel were involved in the construction or transport of this massive sculpture.

In the southern kingdom of Judah, the threat of an attack from Sargon's successor Sennacherib (705-684 B.C.) motivated one of the greatest feats of ancient engineering. Anticipating that Sennacherib would lay siege to Jerusalem, King Hezekiah of Judah (715-686) took steps to safeguard Jerusalem's water supply by having a tunnel built that channeled water from the Gihon Spring, Jerusalem's water source east of the city wall, to a pool on the opposite end of the city (2 Kings 20:20; 2 Chron 32:3-4, 20; Sirach 48:17). This tunnel, which is over 1700 feet long, was rediscovered in 1838 by American explorer Edward Robinson and his friend Eli Smith.

An inscription found inside the tunnel in 1880 reveals that the tunnel was constructed by two teams of workers that cut channels through the limestone rock deep beneath the city and somehow managed to meet in the middle. Geologists now believe that the two teams of workers were aided by a third team at ground level that hit the rock in appropriate places, sending sound waves to guide the underground excavators.22

The biggest archaeological controversy from the period of Israel's monarchy involves the reigns of David and Solomon, a time portrayed in the Bible as Israel's "golden age." There is skepticism in some circles about the historical reliability of the biblical account. Kaiser mentioned that the ongoing work of Eilat Mazar in Jerusalem may have a bearing on this controversy. Mazar has found a large stone structure that she believes may be the palace of King David. It will be interesting to hear what happens as Mazar's explorations continue.


Captivity and Exile

As it turned out, the Assyrian Empire was never able to launch a successful siege against Jerusalem. But throughout the seventh century B.C., the kingdom of Judah was caught in the middle of a power struggle among the empires of Assyria, Egypt, and Babylonia.23 Ultimately Babylonia prevailed, and Babylonia's King Nebuchadnezzar attacked Judah in three separate campaigns, taking captives each time. During the third campaign he destroyed Jerusalem, including the great Temple of Solomon, in 586 B.C.

The Babylonian version of these events is recorded in the Babylonian Chronicle, a series of clay cuneiform tablets now located in the British Museum. Professor Donald J. Wiseman, the translator of some of these tablets, has stated that the Chronicle "proves to be an objective, reliable, and unique historical source for many events between 626 and 505, and between 556 and 539 B.C."24 One tablet, published by Wiseman in 1956, gives details from Nebuchadnezzar's second campaign in 597 consistent with those given in the Bible (see 2 Kings 24:10-17):

"In his [Nebuchadnezzar's] seventh year he called up his army and marched to Palestine. He besieged the city of Judah [i.e., Jerusalem], and on the second day of the month of Adar he seized the city and captured its king. He appointed there a king of his own choice, received its heavy tribute, and sent [them] off to Babylon."25

The Bible goes on to say that Jehoiachin, the king of Judah captured by Nebuchadnezzar, was treated well in captivity (2 Kings 25:27-30; Jer 52:31-34). This detail is also corroborated by evidence from Babylon. During excavations of Babylon conducted by Robert Koldewey between 1899 and 1917, a large number of cuneiform tablets were discovered in an underground building near the famous Ishtar Gate. Four of these tablets list the regular rations allotted to King Jehoiachin and his family. (The tablets are now housed at the Pergamum Museum in Berlin.)

The Babylonian Chronicle and other ancient records also shed light on Daniel 5, which describes events from the eve of the fall of the Babylonian Empire in 539 B.C. Scholars in the nineteenth century had wondered about a seeming discrepancy between the Bible and other available accounts. In Daniel 5 Belshazzar is the final Babylonian monarch, while other sources placed Nabonidus (556-539) in that position and did not mention Belshazzar.

We now know that both are correct. It turns out that King Nabonidus was a devotee of the moon god Sîn, putting him at odds with the people of Babylon, who favored the sun god Marduk. Because of this difference Nabonidus spent much of his reign away from Babylon, at Teima in northern Arabia. He appointed his son Belshazzar to rule in Babylon in his place.26

This information may explain two other details in Daniel 5:

·   In Daniel 5:7, Belshazzar offers to make the successful interpreter of the "handwriting on the wall" the "third ruler of the kingdom." Since Belshazzar was second after his father Nabonidus, the third position is the highest he would have been able to offer.

·  The fact that Nabonidus was a follower of the moon god hints at the reason for the banquet held that night (Dan 5:1). There is evidence that a festival in honor of the moon god was celebrated on the seventeenth day of the month Tasritu (the month after which the Hebrew Tishri is named). Since the banquet was held on the eve of that day, it could well have been a banquet in honor of the moon god.27

On the day after Belshazzar's banquet, Babylon was taken by Cyrus the Great of Persia. One significant archaeological find related to the transition to Persian rule is the Cyrus Cylinder, a nine-inch long clay barrel discovered at Babylon by Hormuzd Rassam in 1879 and now located in the British Museum. The cylinder is inscribed with a proclamation from Cyrus to the people of Babylon. Cyrus asserts that it was the will of their god Marduk that he rule in place of Nabonidus. He also states his policy of allowing subject peoples to return to their homelands and worship their own gods. Both the language and the message of the Cyrus Cylinder are consistent with Cyrus's proclamation inviting exiles from the House of Judah to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple (2 Chron 36:22-23; Ezra 1:1-4).


Exiles at Elephantine

Dr. Kaiser noted one more significant discovery from the Persian period: the Aramaic papyri that were found at Elephantine, an island in the Nile River near Aswan, around the turn of the twentieth century. The papyri come from a small Jewish colony that lived on the island, consisting of a garrison of Jewish mercenaries and their families. The soldiers occupied a fort that guarded Egypt's southern border.

The Jewish colony shared the island with Egyptians who worshipped the ram-headed god Khnum, a deity believed to control the annual flooding of the Nile. There was friction between the two groups, partly because the Jews regularly sacrificed rams at a temple they had constructed on their part of the island. In 410 B.C. the priests of Khnum took advantage of the temporary absence of the Persian governor Arsames and destroyed the Jewish temple.

One of the papyri, dating from 407, is a letter from Jedaniah son of Gemariah, the leader of the Jewish colony, to Persian officials in Judea and Samaria, asking for permission to rebuild the temple. Permission was subsequently granted, subject to the condition that animals no longer be sacrificed there. (Cereal and incense offerings were permitted.) Another papyrus indicates that the rebuilding was carried out by 402.28

In 1997, a German archaeological team led by Cornelius von Pilgrim found a tile floor on the island that appears to have been the floor of the Jewish temple. The floor was laid down in two stages, perhaps corresponding to the original and rebuilt temples. The temple, which apparently had two chambers and measured about six meters by sixteen meters, was located inside a courtyard with dimensions approximately twenty three by forty meters. Based on this evidence, von Pilgrim believes that the temple was loosely patterned after the Israelite tabernacle described in the book of Exodus.

It is not certain when and under what circumstances the Jewish colony was formed. Stephen G. Rosenberg29 speculates that the original Jewish soldiers hailed from the northern kingdom and were pressed into service by the Egyptians sometime in the late seventh century B.C., when Egypt dominated the land of Israel. If the group did originate in the northern kingdom, that would help explain the fact that their papyri were written in Aramaic rather than in Hebrew, along with the fact that they wrote to both Judea and Samaria after the destruction of their temple.

It is also not known how long the Jewish group remained on the island. Von Pilgrim's team found animal dung on the tile floor, a possible indication that after the colony had disbanded, someone desecrated the temple by using it as a stable.

Sadly, the worship at this temple was syncretistic, typifying the spiritual darkness that led to the exile of Israel and Judah. According to Kaiser, the list of gods honored by the Elephantine colony included Ishumbethel, Herembethel, Anathbethel, and even Anatyahu, a Canaanite fertility goddess regarded as a consort of YHWH!30


The Gospels

Dr. Kaiser singled out four archaeological discoveries related to the Gospels. Two of them, the well known Pilate inscription and Caiaphas ossuary, were part of an exhibit from the Israel Museum in Jerusalem that visited Cleveland, Fort Lauderdale, and Atlanta in 2006-07.31

Another was a recent find. In May 2007 Hebrew University's Ehud Netzer announced that he had found the location of the tomb of Herod the Great, who was king of Judea under Roman rule from 37 B.C. to 4 B.C. Herod was known for his magnificent building projects, including the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple, as well as for his paranoia and cruelty in eliminating all potential threats to his position. In particular, when he heard reports of the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem, he ordered the deaths of all male children in Bethlehem of ages two and under (Matt 2:16).

For Dr. Netzer, an expert in Herodian architecture, finding Herod's burial place was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.32 Following a report of Josephus (Ant. 17.8.3), Netzer's team conducted its search as part of an ongoing investigation of Herodium, an elaborate palace/fortress complex that Herod had constructed about eight miles south of Jerusalem and 3.5 miles east of Bethlehem. Among their discoveries were some fragments of Herod's sarcophagus, which was probably smashed during the First Jewish Revolt in the late 60s A.D.

One location of great interest to Christians is Tell Hum, the site of Capernaum, the city on the northwest coast of the Sea of Galilee that was the home of Jesus' disciples Peter, Andrew, and James and John the sons of Zebedee (Matthew 4:12-22; Mark 1:16-29). Under the auspices of the Franciscan Order, which owns one part of the site, and the Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem, which owns the other part, Tell Hum was extensively investigated during the twentieth century.

The two most important finds at Capernaum are both located in the Franciscan section of the site. One of those finds is the walls from the synagogue where Jesus often taught and healed (Mark 1:21-27; Luke 4:31-37; John 6:59). These black basalt walls lie directly underneath the remains of a limestone synagogue that was built sometime during the period from the second through fifth centuries A.D.33 The building of the original synagogue was financed by a Roman centurion whose servant Jesus later healed (Luke 7:1-10).

The other major Capernaum discovery is the site of Peter's house, eighty four feet south of the synagogue.34 This is apparently a place where Jesus often stayed during his Galilean ministry (Matt 4:13; Mark 1:29; 2:1; Luke 4:38). Peter's house was turned into an early Christian meeting place that later became a popular location for visits by Christian pilgrims. Christian Graffiti has been found on the walls of this meeting place in several languages, including Greek, Aramaic, Latin, and Hebrew. An octagonal church was built on the site during the fifth century A.D. (Octagonal churches commemorated some sites of special significance in Christian history. The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is another example.)

One discovery from the section of Capernaum owned by the Greek Orthodox Church is a Roman bathhouse from the second or third century A.D. Capernaum seems to have been a place where Romans, Christians, and Jews lived side-by-side for several centuries.35


The Apostolic Period

Dr. Kaiser mentioned two famous landmarks in Athens in connection with Paul's missionary journeys. One is the Parthenon, a temple of the Greek goddess Athena. When Paul arrived at Athens, the sight of this imposing structure would have contributed to his sense that Athens was "wholly given to idolatry"(Acts 17:16). In Athens Paul was brought before the Areopagus, an administrative council named after the hill that was the site of its traditional meeting place. He confronted the leaders of Athens with the message of the one true God, the Creator who is not "unknown" (v. 23) but instead has revealed himself in the resurrected Christ.

The Parthenon and Areopagus have not had to be excavated by archaeologists. They have remained visible through the centuries, giving a reminder of an ancient pagan culture that was ultimately transformed by the message of the Gospel. Significantly, a street that runs around the south side of the Acropolis, the hill on which the Parthenon stands, has been named after Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus who believed Paul's message (v. 34). According to Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History 3.4; 4.23), Dionysius was the first bishop of Athens.36

From Athens Paul traveled to Corinth, where he followed his usual custom of preaching first at a local synagogue (Acts 18:4). In 1898 excavators at Corinth found a marble cornice block with an inscription that apparently reads, “Synagogue of the Hebrews.” Another piece of marble contains several Jewish symbols: three menorahs (menorot in Hebrew), a palm frond (lulav), and a citron (etrog). These artifacts probably come from after Paul's time, but they do attest to a Jewish presence in Corinth.

One of those who assisted Paul on his journey was a man from Corinth named Erastus (Acts 19:22; 2 Tim 4:20). In Rom 16:23, Paul mentions that he was a "city treasurer" (NRSV, NASB). In 1929, a pavement inscription from the second half of the first century was found in Corinth that may well refer to this early Christian. It reads, "Erastus in return for his aedileship laid [the pavement] at his own expense." An aedile was like a "commissioner of public works," a higher office than city treasurer. Presumably the treasurership was a stepping stone for Erastus on the way to this more prestigious position.37

The final item on Kaiser's list was the John Rylands Papyrus, a small fragment from one page of a codex of the Gospel of John. Known to textual scholars as P52, this fragment measures about 3.5 inches by 2.5 inches. On one side, it contains most of John 18:31-33 in Greek, while the other side has most of verses 37-38. It dates from the first half of the second century A.D., making it the oldest known copy of verses from the New Testament. Found in Egypt, it is now housed in the John Rylands Library in Manchester, England. The existence of this fragment supports the traditional view that John's Gospel was written no later than the late first century A.D.



Dr. Kaiser's lecture covered a tremendous range of territory over the course of an hour. But as one audience member observed during the ensuing question and answer session, he had nowhere mentioned the Dead Sea Scrolls, one of the greatest archaeological finds of the twentieth century. This observation afforded Kaiser an opportunity to talk briefly about the Great Isaiah Scroll, an intact copy of the book of Isaiah found in Cave 1 at Qumran. The Isaiah Scroll is over a thousand years older than our next oldest Hebrew manuscript of Isaiah, and a comparison of the scroll with the modern Masoretic Text demonstrates how faithfully the Hebrew Scriptures have been preserved.

Kaiser said that one of his teachers, Dr. Harry Orlinsky, was part of the team that produced the RSV English translation of the Bible. The RSV included thirteen changes in spelling or wording in Isaiah based on Dead Sea Scroll information. However, about ten years after the translation appeared, Orlinsky told his class that he was convinced the committee should have made only three or four spelling changes in the entire book of Isaiah. Kaiser noted that this is a remarkable testimony to the accuracy of the transmission of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Kaiser predicted that the most exciting days for biblical archaeology still lie ahead of us. He urged the audience to watch closely for news of further discoveries.


1Yamauchi's works include The Stones and the Scriptures (Lippincott, 1972); "Archaeology and the New Testament," pp. 647-689 in Vol. 1 of The Expositor's Bible Commentary (Zondervan, 1979); The Archaeology of New Testament Cities in Western Asia Minor (Baker, 1980); and The Scriptures and Archaeology: Abraham to Daniel (Western Conservative Baptist Seminary, 1980).

2For many examples, see Dr. Kaiser's books A History of Israel: From the Bronze Age Through the Jewish Wars (Broadman and Holman, 1998) and The Old Testament Documents: Are They Reliable and Relevant? (Intervarsity Press, 2001), along with the Archaeological Study Bible.

3For more details about Smith, Rassam, Asshurbanipal, and Gilgamesh, I recommend David Damrosch's book The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh (Henry Holt, 2006).

4For insightful comparison of the purpose and meaning of each of these flood narratives, see the article "What the Babylonian Flood Stories Can and Cannot Teach Us about the Genesis Flood" by Tivka Frymer-Kensky in Biblical Archaeology Review, Vol. 4, No. 4, Nov./Dec. 1978.

5See Kitchen's article "The Patriarchal Age: Myth or History?" in Biblical Archaeology Review, Vol. 21, No. 2, March/April 1995. Kitchen places the time of the patriarchs about two hundred years later than Kaiser does, but his observations seem to be applicable for either dating.

6For more on Woolley, see Edward M. Luby's article "Backward Glance: The Ur-Archaeologist" in Biblical Archaeology Review, Vol. 23, No. 2, March/April 1997.

7Cyrus Gordon argued that Abraham's Ur was further north, in Turkey rather than Iraq. His article "Where is Abraham's Ur?" in Biblical Archaeology Review, Vol. 3, No. 2, June 1977, gives more details.

8Some of these documents are described in Kitchen's article “From the Brickfields of Egypt,” Tyndale Bulletin 27 (1976) 137-147.

9A History of Israel: From the Bronze Age Through the Jewish Wars, p. 84.

10Gabriel Barkey, Marilyn J. Lundberg, Andrew G. Vaughn, and Bruce Zuckerman, "The Amulets from Ketef Hinnom: A New Edition and Evaluation," Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 334 (2004) 41-71.

11Dr. Kaiser discusses the various points at issue in Chapter 10 of A History of Israel: From the Bronze Age Through the Jewish Wars, and in Chapter 8 of The Old Testament Documents: Are They Reliable and Relevant?

12On this point see Eugene H. Merrill's article, “Palestinian Archaeology and the Date of the Conquest: Do Tells Tell Tales?” Grace Theological Journal 3 (1982) 107-121.

13See Wood's article, "Did the Israelites Conquer Jericho? A New Look at the Archaeological Evidence," Biblical Archaeology Review, Vol. 16, No. 2, March/April 1990, and follow-up articles in Vol. 16, No. 5, Sept./Oct. 1990.

14Wood describes his work in “The Search for Joshua’s Ai,” pp. 205-240 in Critical Issues in Early Israelite History, Richard S. Hess, Gerald A. Klingbeil, and Paul J. Ray, editors, Eisenbrauns, Winona Lake, Indiana, 2008.

15Ben-Tor reports on his excavations in two articles that appeared in Biblical Archaeology Review, Vol. 15, Nos. 2 and 3, 1990.

16This suggestion is made in Wood's article, “The Rise and Fall of the Thirteenth Century Exodus-Conquest Theory,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 48 (2005) 475-489.

17See the report " `David' Found at Dan" in Biblical Archaeology Review, Vol. 20, No. 2, March/April 1994.

18See Lemaire's article, " `House of David' restored in Moabite Inscription," Biblical Archaeology Review, Vol. 20, No. 3, May/June 1994.

19See the article by Siegfried H. Horn, "Why the Moabite Stone Was Blown to Pieces," Biblical Archaeology Review, Vol. 12, No. 3, May/June 1986.

20See A History of Israel: From the Bronze Age Through the Jewish Wars, p. 308.

21Tammi Schneider presemts a case for this possibility in the article "Did King Jehu Kill His Own Family?" Biblical Archaeology Review, Vol. 21, No. 1, Jan./Feb. 1995.

22Hershel Shanks summarizes the research of geologists Aryeh Shimron and Amos Frumkin in the article "Sound Proof: How Hezekiah's Tunnelers Met," Biblical Archaeology Review, Vol. 34, No. 5, Sept./Oct. 2008.

23Hebrew University's Abraham Malamat describes the latter stages of this power struggle in his article, "Caught Between the Great Powers" in Biblical Archaeology Review, Vol. 25, No. 4, July/August 1999.

24"Archaeology of the Old Testament" in Volume 1 of the Expositor's Bible Commentary (Zondervan, 1979), p. 331.


26See for example Alan R. Millard, "Daniel and Belshazzar in History," Biblical Archaeology Review, Vol. 11, No. 3, May/June 1985.

27See the article by Al Wolters, “Belshazzar’s Feast and the Cult of the Moon God Sin,Bulletin for Biblical Research 5 (1995) 199-206.

28See the article by Bezalel Porten, "Did the Ark Stop at Elephantine?", in Biblical Archaeology Review, Vol. 21, No. 3, May/June 1995.

29"The Jewish Temple at Elephantine," Near Eastern Archaeology 67 (2004) 4-13.

30A History of Israel: From the Bronze Age through the Jewish Wars, pp. 451-453.

31Further details about these artifacts and the traveling exhibit can be found in the article “The Holy Land Comes to Ohio" in Issue 23 of Grace & Knowledge.

32Netzer tells of his quest in “Searching for Herod’s Tomb,” Biblical Archaeology Review, Vol. 9, Number 3, May/June 1983.

33See the article by James F. Strange and Hershel Shanks, "Synagogue Where Jesus Preached Found at Capernaum," Biblical Archaeology Review, Vol. 9, No. 6, Nov./Dec. 1983.

34Strange and Shanks describe this discovery in "Has the House Where Jesus Stayed in Capernaum Been Found?", Biblical Archaeology Review, Vol. 8, No. 6, Nov./Dec. 1982.

35John C.H. Laughlin, "Capernaum from Jesus' Time and After," Biblical Archaeology Review, Vol. 19, No. 5, Sept./Oct. 1993.

36J. Daryl Charles, "Engaging the (Neo)Pagan Mind: Paul's Encounter with Athenian Culture as a Model for Cultural Apologetics (Acts 17:16-34)," Trinity Journal 16 (1995) 47-62.

37See the article by Victor Paul Furnish, "Corinth in Paul's Time: What Can Archaeology Tell Us?", Biblical Archaeology Review, Vol. 14, No. 3, May/June 1988. The New International Version uses this bit of archaeological evidence in its rendering of Rom. 16:23, listing Erastus as "director of public works."

Issue 25


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