Unearthing the Old Testament

Chris Sinkinson explains how archaeology can serve to confirm the stories, people and places in the Old Testament

The discovery of what could be the biblical city of Sodom at Tall el-Hammam in Jordan wasshared widely by Christians on social media in 2015. But not everyone is convinced that the Bible’s account and the archaeological record are easily matched. The claims of sceptics such as Sheffield University professor Philip R Davies, who dismisses the biblical King David as ‘about as historical as King Arthur’, have attracted plenty of attention and publicity through popular media.

In reality however, the development of archaeology as a discipline has produced a wealth of material evidence for the essential reliability of the Old Testament. Wherever the truth of the Bible can be tested there are good grounds to trust it. While there are many evangelical Christians involved in archaeological research, even those of no faith are often supportive of the historical value of the Old Testament. Christians can be confident that there is plenty of archaeological evidence for many of the events, people and places described in its pages.

 

RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARKS

You may be hoping that in this article you will read of the evidence for Noah’s Ark, the bones of the Nephilim or the lost Ark of the Covenant. These are the sorts of events and objects that make great Hollywood movies. They also often lead to spurious claims and bogus evidence. On investigation, what may 

Wherever the Bible can be tested there are good grounds to trust it

 

appear to be a dramatic proof for the Bible can turn out to undermine Christian credibility. It is worth pausing here to consider what archaeology is. When Tony Robinson from Channel 4’s Time Team wrote a guide to the subject, he called it Archaeology is Rubbish – and it was not intended as an insult. Archaeology is the study of the material remains of human activity. Most of these remains are the rubbish that got left behind. Broken jars, the foundations of houses, rusty iron weapons and rotten timbers are the stuff of excavations. They require interpretation. Rarely does anything emerge with a date stamped on it or an explanation of how it got there. Entire towns can be excavated without so much as a road sign telling us where we are. So archaeology involves careful, and often debatable, interpretation.

Even if we cannot prove that a miracle happened, we can prove that it deals with real people at real times and in real places. However, through all these debates the Bible remains a trustworthy source for the history of the ancient world.

The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence

 

MISSING MANUSCRIPTS

Since the Enlightenment, European scholars have often been intensely sceptical about the reliability of the Old Testament text. The earliest complete Hebrew Old Testament known at the time was the Masoretic text, which dated to as late as AD 1000. Was it not fair to assume that it had changed over time?

The discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls in 1947 changed all that. The dry Dead Sea region of Qumran is perfect for the preservation of manuscripts that would otherwise turn to dust. First found by Bedouin herdsmen, later archaeologists have gathered 17,000 fragments of Jewish texts dating to the time of Jesus. Hidden from the Romans by a Jewish sect, nothing is more recent than AD 68. Every book of the Old Testament is represented, except Esther. Among them, the Great Isaiah Scroll was already 200 years old when it was hidden. It is substantially the same as the book of Isaiah that we use today.

In 1979 a team of archaeologists discovered two silver scrolls in a Jerusalem tomb at Ketef Hinnom. Their location and script indicated that the latest possible date for them was 587 BC. These scrolls were so fragile that they took years to unravel. The inscriptions turned out to be quotations from two Old Testament books: Numbers and Deuteronomy. Liberal scholars had theorised that much of these two books had been composed many centuries later but the material evidence continues to confirm their antiquity.

 

KINGS AND QUEENS

Official documents were often sealed with soft clay stamped with the name of the senders. Though very brittle, these seal impressions would have been common and many have survived from Old Testament times. Sometimes, the original seal itself, used to stamp the clay, has turned up. We now have seals, or their impressions, bearing the names of kings Hezekiah (pictured above, right), Ahaz and Manasseh, along with Queen Jezebel, Shebna the king’s steward, Baruch the scribe of Jeremiah and Gemaryahu, scribe of King Josiah. Biblical characters have left their fingerprints all over the land!

Sometimes, however, the Bible refers to a character for whom we have no archaeological evidence. Should we practice ‘guilty until proven innocent’ and doubt their existence? This would be a dreadful prejudice. As time has passed, evidence has in fact emerged for some of these figures, and so more biblical personalities are brought to life. A good example is King Belshazzar in the book of Daniel (5:22). The Babylonian lists make reference to his father as king, Nabonidus, but not to the son. Was the biblical writer mistaken?

The discovery of the Nabonidus Cylinder in Iraq provided direct reference to Belshazzar as son of the king and as co-regent in his father’s absence. Remarkably, this little find not only proved the historicity of Belshazzar but helped explain an otherwise odd remark in the book of Daniel. After Daniel interpreted the writing on the wall, Belshazzar appointed him ‘third highest ruler in the land’ (Daniel 5:29). Why not appoint him second in command? Archaeology provided the answer. Belshazzar himself was only the second highest ruler in the land, his father Nabonidus was number one. Thus, third highest ruler was the highest position to which Daniel could be appointed.

Davies’ dismissive comparison of King David with King Arthur, mentioned above, was challenged in the early 90s. In 1993 and 1994 fragments of a broken monument were discovered at an archaeological excavation in Dan, northern Israel. These proved to be a direct reference to the dynasty of King David, inscribed by his enemies, a century after his reign. Yosef Garfinkel, a highly respected archaeologist in Israel, said that the Tel Dan Stela (pictured above, left) ‘led to the collapse of the minimalist paradigm in which David was little more than a myth. There was a David. He was a king. And he founded a dynasty’. (Biblical Archaeological Review, May/June 2011). 

 

ISRAEL IN CANAAN

On display at the British Museum is the astonishing black obelisk of Shalmaneser III. Discovered in Iraq, it dates to c825 BC and not only makes reference to King Jehu of Israel but also provides beautiful images of Jehu, or his representative, and his entourage bringing their tributes to the Assyrian king.

The earliest extra-biblical reference to Israel in the land of Canaan is the intriguing Merneptah Stela, now at the Cairo Museum in Egypt. Pharaoh Merneptah launched a military expedition to Canaan some time before c1209 BC. The stone records his conquests, including many place names we know from the Bible. But towards the end of the list, the pharaoh makes reference to a people called ‘Israel’ being laid waste and destroyed. It is part of an obviously exaggerated piece of propaganda but certainly proves that Israel had arrived in the land by this time.

 

ANCIENT EVENTS

The Old Testament records a wealth of historical events, many of which are not recorded aside from Bible. This should not surprise us. Ancient kingdoms tend to record their successes and not their failures. Egypt would be unlikely to record the successful flight of thousands of its slaves at the time of Moses. However, the biblical writers do record the failures of their own kings and victories of their enemies.

Just such a record is found in the case of the fall of Lachish during an Assyrian invasion of Canaan (2 Kings 18). Isaiah himself is caught up in the siege of Jerusalem that follows the defeat of the smaller Judean town of Lachish c701 BC.

The Assyrians produced a detailed, elaborate record of this biblical event. The Lachish reliefs, housed at the British Museum, depict the Assyrian armies bringing down their military muscle upon the small, fortified city. The Israelite (technically ‘Judahite’) defenders valiantly hold out until being overwhelmed, many facing execution and others being deported. This particular event has further corroborating evidence in the form of other written Assyrian records and the remains of the great Assyrian siege ramp and missiles found by archaeologists at the site of Lachish.

 

DID JERICHO’S WALLS COME TUMBLING DOWN?

The further back in history we go the harder it becomes to find evidence. This is inevitable given the erosion of remains, the reuse of materials and reoccupation of sites. But the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Who knows what may yet turn up?

The site of Jericho (described in Joshua 6) is subject to great debate and controversy in dating. There is material evidence to support a sudden outward collapse of its walls and destruction by fire. Although the site was originally dated to the time of Joshua, most scholars accepted the later work of British archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon who argued that this period of Jericho’s turbulent history was too early for the time of Joshua. However, little has been done since her work 60 years ago and there are now suggestions by archaeologist Bryant G Wood that she missed crucial pottery evidence and some radiocarbon dating that could point to a Joshua date. So the debate continues.

It has been common among sceptical scholars to deny the period of a United Monarchy in ancient Israel (c1000–925 BC). Known as ‘minimalists’, such sceptics claim that any finds supporting such a period (such as monumental building work in Jerusalem) should be dated a century after the time of Solomon. They argue that the Bible has minimal historical value for the earlier period. However, this scepticism is again proving unwarranted.

Monumental building work discovered in Jerusalem fits the description of the palace of David and Solomon. Recent excavations at Khirbet Qeiyafa have exposed a significant fortified town in Judah, which is securely dated to the time of King David, c969 BC. This proved such an embarrassment to the minimalists that some claimed Qeiyafa must have been a Philistine town. However, pig bones are common at all Philistine sites and not so much as a pork chop has been found at Qeiyafa, a clear indication that this was a Jewish settlement.

One further find from Qeiyafa deserves mention. In 2008 archaeologists discovered an ostracon (a shard of pottery) bearing a very early Hebrew inscription dating to c1000 BC. Written in an ancient style of Hebrew script, scholars are not yet agreed on its meaning. However, Èmile Puech, a paleographer who has worked most closely on the text, believes that it is a reference to the establishment of the reign of King Saul. The 2012 official report on the dig concluded, ‘It can no longer be argued that the Kingdom of Judah developed only in the late eighth century BCE or at some other later date.’

Archaeology remains a work in progress. Debates continue as discoveries are made. Some things taken as evidence for the Bible may turn out to have been misunderstood. Yet it is clear that there remains overwhelming evidence that the Old Testament deals with real history. Bible scholar and Ancient Near Eastern historian Kenneth Kitchen wryly comments, ‘One minute biblical David did not exist (we were told), because no scrap of first-hand evidence was available to vouch for him. Then, some 18 months later, the Tel Dan Stela most unkindly brushed this silly, asinine myth aside…’ As time passes, and archaeology develops, there are more reasons to take the Old Testament seriously as a witness to history and more evidence that the minimalist case is sheer prejudice.

 

CHRIS SINKINSON is a lecturer in Old Testament and Apologetics at Moorlands College and author of Time Travel to the Old Testament (IVP, 2013)


« Back to the April issue

comments powered by Disqus