Archaeology is a study of the past based upon the recovery, examination, and explanation of the material remains of human life, thought, and activity, coordinated with available information concerning the ancient environment.
Biblical archaeology, a discipline largely developing since 1800, searches for what can be learned about biblical events, characters, and teachings from sources outside the Bible. Dealing with what ancient civilizations left behind, its goal is to give a better understanding of the Bible itself.
Many biblical students have participated in the actual work of field archaeology; most have been interested in its practice; and all have benefited from its contributions to the study of the Bible. In the past, archaeology has aided Old Testament studies especially, but its value to the student of the New Testament also is now being recognized more fully.
Students of the Bible are particularly interested in the archaeology of ancient Canaan and its adjacent regions. Today, this is the land forming the countries of Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. In addition, the biblical world included other regions such as Egypt, Greece, Italy, Cyprus, the Arabian Peninsula, and the large areas occupied by present-day Turkey, Iraq, and Iran.
Objective The Bible lands have as yet been only partly investigated. Few mounds have been completely excavated. The significance of the objects found is subject to diverse interpretation, and conclusions once held are often abandoned in favor of new hypotheses. In using archaeological data, biblical students need to take precautions to be current. They also need to be conscious of what archaeology can and cannot do. The basic affirmations of the Bible—that God is, that He is active in history, and that Jesus is His Son raised from the dead—are not subject to archaeological verification. One can demonstrate from archaeological materials that Sennacherib invaded Judah in the time of Hezekiah, but that he was a tool in the hand of the Lord can only be known from biblical assertion. That claim is not open to archaeological verification.
The goal of excavation now is to reconstruct, in as far as possible, the total ancient environment of the site, making materials previously ignored to be important. Epigraphers, anthropologists, botanists, bone, pottery, and architectural specialists are all essential to the effort.
Middle Eastern archaeology has moved away from any earlier biblical focus to become a humanistic study. Practicing field archaeologists are often lacking in the various biblical disciplines, while most biblical students are deficient in knowledge of archaeological technique. Much sifting has to be done in technical reports of strata and loci to find the residue which is useful when doing exegesis of specific biblical texts; however when done competently, the result is rewarding. Biblical students are often remiss, and many commentaries are deficient, in making use of what materials are available.
A brief history of archaeology The work of archaeologists in the biblical world in general, and in ancient Canaan in particular, can be divided into three over-lapping periods.
1. Stage One In the earliest period, prior to about A.D. 1900, the practice of archaeology was primarily a “treasure hunt” with no organized, systematic way of going about the work. Individuals set forth to find spectacular items from the past. No clearly determined methodology was followed. Pits and trenches dug into ancient cities often destroyed more than they revealed. Since the area occupied by ancient Israel was relatively poor in “treasure,” much of this work was carried out in Egypt and in Mesopotamia, the ancient homeland of the Assyrians and Babylonians (the present site of the country of Iraq). The leading question asked the archaeologists by a fascinated public was, “What did you find?” Much was found, and the large museums of the world began to accumulate many items of interest, particularly objects of art.
Before 1800 little was known of the biblical world except from often inaccurate data transmitted by classical writers. The secrets of Egypt opened following the discovery in 1799 of the Rosetta stone and its decipherment by Champollion. The secrets of Mesopotamia began to unfold following the copying and decipherment of the Behistun inscription by Rawlinson begun in 1835, and by the later discovery in 1852 of Ashurbanipal's library by Rassam. Architecture, art, and written sources recovered from numerous ancient sites began to cast rays of light on the Bible, particularly on the Old Testament. About the middle of the nineteenth century, English archaeologists excavated portions of the city of Nineveh, capital of the ancient Assyrian Empire at the height of its power. Nineveh is mentioned often in the Old Testament and is featured prominently in two books, Jonah and Nahum.
Among the discoveries at Nineveh were two great palaces. The huge palace of the Assyrian king, Sennacherib (704-681 B.C.), contained hundreds of feet of wall space lined with sculptured reliefs depicting the exploits of the king. Included is a striking picture of the siege of the important biblical fortress-city of Lachish which was captured by the Assyrians in 701 B.C. Also among the discoveries was the Taylor Prism which contains a written Assyrian version of their invasion of the kingdom of Judah in 701 B.C. The biblical account of the siege of Jerusalem at this time is found in 2 Kings 18:13-19
:37 . It is interesting to compare the two records. Although Sennacherib does not claim to have captured Jerusalem, he makes no mention of the calamity suffered by his troops as described in the biblical account.
The palace of King Asshurbanipal (668-633 B.C.) was also uncovered. The most significant find here was a great library of written documents which the king had collected from many portions of the empire. These have provided the student of the Bible with much primary source material from this portion of the ancient world. Of particular interest are mythological stories relating traditions of creation and of a great flood as understood by the people of ancient Mesopotamia.
Numerous other sites investigated during the first stage of archaeology produced information helpful in the illumination of Scripture. One thinks, for example, of early attempts to excavate the cities of Ur, Babylon, and Jerusalem. Archaeologists gradually learned, however, that they needed to approach their task in a more systematic and disciplined manner in order to extract greater information from ancient civilizations.
2. Stage Two Near the beginning of the twentieth century, significant developments in the discipline of archaeology began to occur. In 1890, Sir Flinders Petrie, an English archaeologist who had done important works in Egypt, began excavations at Tell el-Hesi in southwestern Palestine. This work was continued in 1891-92 by an American, F. J. Bliss.
The word “tell” refers to an ancient mound built up over a long period of time by the occupational debris of persons living at the site. People chose to live at a site for certain reasons. The presence of a water supply was crucial. The site might need to be defended from enemies and, therefore, high ground was usually chosen. Fertile soil, the presence of minerals or other natural resources, and accessibility to trade routes were also important factors.
In time, a site was often abandoned, either briefly or for a long duration. The reason might be destruction by an enemy or by a natural catastrophe, such as an earthquake. A town might be deserted because of an epidemic of disease. Another important and probably common reason for people leaving a site was a weather change such as drought. Regardless of why people left, the reasons for settling there in the first place often drew them back. The debris of the earlier occupation was made smooth by leveling off and filling in, and a new village was built on top of the ruins. This process, along with the ordinary accumulation of debris and rebuilding that occurs in any area of human occupation, gradually over the centuries and millennia resulted in the site becoming higher and higher—a “tell” was formed, containing many strata (layers). A large number of these artificially formed mounds dot the biblical landscape.
The work of Petrie and Bliss referred to above was highly significant in two interrelated ways. First, they tried very carefully to excavate Tell el-Hesi layer by layer. Second, they made careful notes of the style of pottery found in each layer. Since the way pottery was made changed through the years, the type found in any one layer permitted the archaeologist to assign an approximate date to that level. Almost a century of study of pottery now enables archaeologists to give almost an absolute date for each strata excavated. Petrie and Bliss's work marks the beginning of a scientific, disciplined approach to archaeology in Palestine. The principles of stratagraphic excavation (isolating each layer) and of pottery analysis are still basic to sound methodology, although many improvements have occurred since the beginning of the twentieth century.
Archaeologists attempt to determine when they are leaving one layer and entering another on the basis of such items as changes in the color, consistency, and content of the soil, or, in some cases, the presence of ashes between strata. A stratum may be very thin or quite thick depending on the nature of the occupation and how long it lasted.
During the first half of the twentieth century, many archaeological expeditions from numerous countries were sent to the biblical world. Stratigraphic excavation and pottery analysis became more precise and exact. Careful records (written reports, drawings, photographs) were kept. The question asked archaeologists was not primarily “What did you find?” Now the question was “What did you learn about the site?”
Much was learned. Space permits only one illustration at this point. Samaria was the capital of the Northern Kingdom of ancient Israel. The city was built by the Hebrew Kings Omri and his son Ahab in the first half of the ninth century B.C. During the first third of the twentieth century, excavations sponsored by Harvard University, with the help of several other institutions, partially recovered this old capital city of the Northern Kingdom.
Among the many interesting discoveries at Samaria was a group of over sixty ostraca, probably from the time of King Jeroboam II (782-743 B.C.). An ostracon (plural, ostraca) is a piece of broken pottery that has been written upon. Ancient peoples often employed pieces of pottery as a writing surface and used these for records, lists, and letters. The ostraca from Samaria contain the records of supplies, including grain, oil, and wine, which had been sent in for the support of the royal palace by persons living in various towns. From these, some information can be deduced about the economy and the political organization of the land. In addition, the presence of names of several persons containing Baal as a component (e.g. Abibaal, Meribaal) reveal the continued influence of Baalism in the land.
A comparison of these ostraca with Amos 6:1-7
also suggests that the “tax” levied on the common people was being used to support a life-style of luxury and debauchery on the part of the high officials in the government. The passage in Amos also mentions “beds of ivory” ( Amos 6:4
; see Amos 3:15
; 1 Kings 22:39
). Several hundred pieces of ivory were found in the excavations of Samaria. Many of these had been used as inlays in furniture.
In addition to Samaria, excavations began or were continued at a large number of sites in the biblical world during the first six or seven decades of the twentieth century. The list includes such important places as Babylon and Ur in ancient Mesopotamia and Ai, Bethel, Hazor, Jericho, Jerusalem, Lachish, Megiddo, Shechem, and many other sites in ancient Israel.
3. Stage Three Beginning about 1960, a new stage in the history of archaeology in the Ancient Near East began to emerge. It was prompted in part by a new question that people began to ask: “What does it all mean?” Archaeologists and others began to realize that it was not enough to make discoveries and to describe those discoveries. They needed synthesis of information and the explanation of data.
During the second stage of archaeology, primary attention had been paid to art, architecture, pottery and written sources, with little or no thought given to the investigation of other possible windows of information to the past. As the third stage began to unfold, it became clear that to determine the meaning of the evidence being recovered and to understand more fully the people and civilizations of the past required additional information.
This stage of archaeology, sometimes called the “New Archaeology,” is characterized by a multidisciplinary team approach to the archaeological task. The approach also emphasizes the use of volunteer help and a strong educational program. In the previous stage much of the labor of digging had been done by persons living in the region who were paid for their services. The third stage of archaeology also is characterized by a growing tendency to think in terms of a regional approach rather than concentrating exclusively on one site. Interest is growing in the investigation of small villages as opposed to an almost total concentration in the past on large, “important” cities.
In Israel, the modern approach was pioneered at Tell Gezer in the 1960's and early 1970's and was continued at numerous sites, such as Tell el-Hesi and Tell Halif in the 1970's and 1980's. The professional staff of an archaeology team in the new stage includes not only field archaeologists, but also botanists, geologists, zoologists, and anthropologists with various areas of expertise and interest. The plant and animal life of an ancient site can now be determined. This allows one to reconstruct the diet of the people and may shed significant information about weather patterns in the past. Examination of human skeletons and burial customs provides important clues about the health of the people and about some of their religious beliefs. Careful analysis of stone tools sheds light on the kinds of industry common in the community. Examination of the constituents in the clay used for pottery often permits one to determine where the vessel was made and may provide helpful information about commerce and trade routes.
All of this permits a much more complete picture than is available from buildings, pottery forms, and even from many written sources. Now there seems to be a real possibility that information about the everyday life of ordinary men and women during the biblical period can be gained.
Contributions of Archaeology to Biblical Study The purpose of archaeology is not to “prove the Bible.” This lies outside the scope of archaeology and, in any case, the Bible does not need to be “proved.” Archaeology can, however, make considerable contribution to one's understanding of the Bible. It can help clarify and illuminate the Bible in many important ways.
1. Archaeology and the Biblical Text The oldest complete copy of the Old Testament in Hebrew, the Leningrad Manuscript, has a date of A.D. 1008. The major Greek manuscripts from which the New Testament is translated came from the fourth century A.D. The Bible, particularly the Old Testament, was copied by hand many times before reaching the form found in the manuscripts just mentioned. During that process some mistakes were inevitably made by the human scribes. Also, some words in the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament, are obscure—their meaning is not certain. This can be a particularly difficult problem when a word is used only once or twice in the Bible.
Archaeology, through the recovery of ancient Hebrew and Greek copies of the Scripture, plus the discovery of other old literature written in related languages has helped scholars to determine a more exact text of the Bible than was available previously. It has also demonstrated that the scribes were very careful in their work.
At the end of the last century in a rubbish room (now known as the Cairo Geniza) of an old synagogue in Cairo, Egypt, an invaluable find of Hebrew materials was made. In 1947 archaeologists began to see the Dead Sea Scrolls found in eleven caves. This moved knowledge of Hebrew manuscripts back from the Middle Ages to the period 250 B.C. to A.D. 70.
A new Old Testament critical text is being prepared by the Hebrew University in Jerusalem from an old codex from the synagogue at Aleppo, Syria, with comparisons with the new materials.
The Dead Sea Scrolls are from Qumran, an old community located near the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. At least a fragment of every Old Testament book except Esther was found in the Qumran caves. A complete copy of the Book of Isaiah was written about 100 B.C. The text of this manuscript is very close to that found eleven hundred years later in the Leningrad Manuscript. During all those years, the scribes did their job very well. In a handful of cases, however, minor problems which had crept into the text of Isaiah could be corrected by use of the older scroll. Modern translations of the Old Testament usually include these improvements.
Knowledge of writing has greatly increased. The earliest documents now known from Syria-Palestine would be the Ebla texts (the first of which were found in 1975) dating about 2400 B.C., followed by the Ugaritic texts (found 1929-1937) on the coast of Syria and dating about 1400 B.C. Examples of eight different writing scripts in Palestine which antedate the time of Moses have solved the question debated in the last century of whether or not Moses could have known writing. Examples of decipherable Hebrew found by archaeologists begin at about the time of Solomon with the Gezer calendar.
In 1929 French archaeologists began to excavate the ancient city of Ugarit near the coast of Syria. Many clay tablets containing ancient writing were unearthed. Most of these were written in a previously unknown language, soon called Ugaritic. Ugaritic is a Northwest Semitic language. Hebrew belongs to this same family of languages. Ugaritic is the earliest example of a language written in an alphabetical script. A study of Ugaritic has helped Old Testament scholars better understand the nature and development of the Hebrew language, and it has been of particular value in the clarification of some of the ancient Hebrew poetry contained in the Bible. Also, a number of obscure words in the Old Testament have now been defined by the presence of the same or similar words in the Ugaritic tablets. See Canaan.
Earlier scholars defined Old Testament words by comparison with Arabic and by meanings derived from rabbinic tradition. Discovery and decipherment of previously unknown ancient Middle Eastern languages like Sumerian, Akkadian, Hittite, Ugaritic, Aramaic, and Eblite give a wider base for definition of words, making (by the study called Comparative Semitics) for a substantial reorientation of Old Testament vocabulary.
In 1 Samuel 13:21
there is a Hebrew word, pim , which occurs nowhere else in the Bible. The meaning of this word was not known to early readers and translators of the Bible. Although the translators of the King James Version of 1611 chose the word file to translate pim , there was no firm basis for the choice. Since that time archaeologists have found several small weights from ancient Israel bearing the word pim . A pim appears to have weighed a little less than a shekel. Now it is clear that the word pim refers to the charge made by the Philistines for working on the Hebrew's iron tools. Recent translations of the Bible reflect this new understanding.
With reference to the New Testament, during the last one to two centuries, numerous old papyrus manuscripts have been found, mainly in Egypt, which contain portions of the biblical text. At least a small portion of every book in the New Testament, except 1,2Timothy, has been found in these ancient Greek papyri. The oldest of these is known as the Rylands Papyrus dated about A.D. 125. It contains John 18:31-33
:37-38 . These papyri are useful to scholars involved in the task of determining the best textual base of the New Testament. The number of Greek manuscripts and fragments known has increased from about 1,500 in 1885 to 5,373 in 1986. Included are ninety-three papyrus items which carry knowledge of the text behind the fourth century codices previously depended upon to the second century for the parts of the text covered. New Greek critical texts are being prepared to make all the material available to students, and already English translations are reflecting the new finds.
The non-biblical papyrus find made in Egypt at the end of the last century furnished new insights into everyday Greek usage and vocabulary which have now become the substance of New Testament language study. Adolph Deissmann at the turn of the century projected the thesis that the New Testament was written in the language of common people of the first century rather than in a Holy Spirit Greek, or in a special Jewish Greek, as some had previously theorized. Though it is recognized today that some advocates carried the theory too far, this insight did change New Testament study and has laid the basis for modern speech Bible translation efforts.
Related to the matter of text is the question of canon. Why were some books included in the Bible and others omitted? How and when did this selection take place? The Dead Sea Scrolls from Qumran throw some limited light on these questions. For example, some parts of the canon were still not finalized during the time of this Jewish community (ca. 150 B.C. to A.D. 68). Scrolls containing the Book of Psalms have been found in cave eleven which differ in several ways from the Book of Psalms as it was finalized by the Jews about A.D. 100. The Qumran material contains some psalms that eventually were left out of the Bible and omit some that were finally included.
Also, the Qumran group had two different old Hebrew copies of the Book of Jeremiah. One, a longer version, was eventually accepted as the standard by the Jewish people and is the one now translated in the Christian's Old Testament. The shorter version can be found in the Septuagint, the ancient translation of the Old Testament into Greek.
2. Archaeology and Biblical Geography As late as A.D. 1800, the location of many of the places mentioned in the Bible was unknown. In 1838, an American explorer by the name of Edward Robinson, and his assistant, Eli Smith, made a trip through Palestine on horseback. On the basis of their study of geography and the analysis of place names, they were able to identify over one hundred biblical sites. Robinson returned for further exploration in 1852. Because of his significant work, Robinson has sometimes been called the “father” of Palestinian geography.
Since the time of Robinson, archaeologists have been able to identify a great many of the sites mentioned in the Bible, including the places visited by the apostle Paul on his travels. Not only have villages and cities been identified, but entire kingdoms have been located. For example, excavations beginning in 1906 by German archaeologists in what is now Turkey recovered the lost empire of the Hittites. In 1968 Italian archaeologists identified the mound of Tell Mardikh, in Syria, as the ancient city of Ebla. Although this city is not mentioned in the Bible, it was very large and important in the third millennium B.C., and the discovery of its location and nature has contributed much to a better understanding of this part of the biblical world. Although some locations still remain in doubt, biblical maps and atlases testify eloquently to the success of archaeology in the realms of geography.
The location of places like Jerusalem and Bethlehem were never forgotten. Other places were destroyed and their location lost. Edward Robinson developed a technique by which literary information and travelers' reports, coupled with local historical memory, could give probable identities. Excavation of the ruins in the areas has helped. Twenty-eight jar handles found in the cistern at El Jib made certain the location of ancient Gibeon; six stone carvings with the name “Gezer” identify that place, and “Arad” seven times scratched on a potsherd confirms its location. Y. Aharoni
stated that 262 places out of the 475 mentioned in the Old Testament had with a degree of certainty been identified.
3. Archaeology and Biblical History The Bible makes no attempt to give a complete history of the people of God, much less of the entire biblical world. The material included in the Bible was carefully selected under the guidance of God, and the history contained therein is theologically interpreted. Today's reader, far removed from the ancient event, often wishes for a more complete understanding of the historical context. Archaeology has helped a great deal in this regard by recovering many ancient historical records, including documents from Assyria, Babylonian, and Egypt. This information fills in some of the blank spaces, illuminating the biblical narrative and making the sacred accounts more understandable and interesting.
Leonard Woolley excavated the site of Ur (1922-1934) whose location had been determined by discovery of a cylinder describing repairs carried out in Ur by Nabonidus. Woolley found tombs whose splendor rival that of King Tut in Egypt. Ur, a city with a high degree of civilization at a time contemporary with Abraham, was a center of the worship of the moon god Sin, which illustrates the idolatrous background out of which Israel's ancestors came.
Egyptian reports like “The Tale of Sinuhe” show how Palestine appeared to Egyptians about the time of Abraham. The Tell Amarna tablets found by a peasant woman in Egypt are letters from Palestinian rulers to the reigning pharaohs; but they show the unstable conditions in Palestine prior to the Israelite conquest which enabled Israel to conquer the enemy one by one.
The Egyptian Pharaoh Merneptah (1213-1204 B.C.) invaded Syro-Palestine during his brief reign. A monument found in his mortuary chamber at Thebes contains a record of this venture and includes the oldest reference to Israel outside of the Bible. Israel is called a people, rather than a nation. Merneptah claimed to have utterly destroyed them. Here is clear evidence that Israelites were in the land of Canaan by no later than the thirteenth century B.C., and it supports the biblical picture that the people were not organized as a nation by this date. The Israel stele (memorial monument celebrating a victory) of Merneptah is the only Egyptian monument mentioning Israel. Though the claim was earlier made on inadequate basis, evidence of cities built by the Israelites in Egypt has not actually been found. Students also have not yet conclusively settled the questions about the date of the Exodus. Nelson Glueck's claim that there was no evidence of settled habitation in the areas of Edom and Moab at a date that could be harmonized with an early Exodus is now called in question.
The discovery of the law code of Hammurabi in 1901 at Susa with its preamble and 282 laws opened the way for interesting comparisons with Israel's laws. Archaeologists now have five cuneiform law codes which were written before the time of Moses: those of Ur-Nammu, Eshnunna, Lipit-Ishtar, Hammurabi, and the Hittites. Slightly later are the Middle Assyrian laws. Interesting comparisons in the “eye for an eye” law, the case of rape on the mountain as contrasted with in the city, possession of the goring ox, kidnapping, killing a thief in the house, and matters of deposited property can be made between these laws and those of Moses. Contrasts include the number of acts for which the accused is subjected to the ordeal (Numbers 5:1
) and the punishments of mutilation (Deuteronomy 25:12
). While these codes have both similarities and differences from the laws of Moses, the claim of borrowing cannot be established. The varieties of bodily mutilation prescribed by Hammurabi are absent in Israel's laws as are also the unlimited floggings.
Though searched for in the Jericho area, the location of Gilgal, the Israelites' camping place, remains elusive. Despite what now seems to have been unfounded claims earlier made for Jericho by John Garstang, archaeological evidence for the conquest of Jericho, Ai, and Gibeon, after excavation of the sites, remains debated. K. Kenyon demonstrated that Garstang misdated the walls which he assumed were those Joshua took. Debate continues over whether archaeological evidence shows a cultural change which could be identified with Israel's conquest of the land. Cities on the Palestinian hill country like Shiloh, Bethel, Gibeah, Bethzur, Debir, and Hazor underwent destruction in the late Bronze Age, and poorer cities rose on their mounds; but the destroyer and rebuilder remain unidentified.
Egypt had been dominant in Palestine for a long time. Thutmoses III won a major victory at Megiddo in 1490 of which he left a record claiming that Megiddo is worth a thousand cities. However, the Tell Amarna letters show that respect for Egypt was weakening as the petty kings struggled with each other while begging Egypt for aid. Steles of Seti I, Rameses II, and Rameses III were found at Beth-shan. Rameses II negotiated peace with the Hittites in 1280 B.C. after a clash at Kadesh on the Orontes which is described in both Hittite and Egyptian sources.
The Philistines, a part of the “Sea Peoples” who came into the land following their being blocked in Egypt by Rameses III, and who left their name on the land, offered major opposition to the Israelites. Rameses III depicted his battle with them on sea and land on the walls of the temple at Medinet Habu. Philistine levels have been identified on numerous Palestine sites, and Trude Dothan has summarized all that is known in her The Philistines and Their Material Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982).
Interesting sidelights on the general period of the Judges and Kings include the Egyptian custom of counting the victims of a campaign from stacks of severed hands (compare Judges 8:6
), the putting out of an eye (1 Samuel 11:1-11
), or both eyes (2 Kings 25:7
), and depiction of circumcised men on a Megiddo ivory
where the subject described his ordeal.
Tell el-Balatah (ancient Shechem) had foundations of a temple from the late Bronze Age conjectured to be those of Baal-Berith (Judges 9:1
). The Danites migrated north to Laish (Judges 18:1-31
), the site known as Tel Dan. Later Dan became a shrine city, and excavation has yielded an inscription from about A.D. 200 in Greek and Aramaic, “To the god who is in Dan.” Dagon to whose temple the ark was taken while in Philistine territory (1 Samuel 5:2
) is now known from occurrences of his name all over the