INTRODUCTION TO BIBLICAL ARCHAEOLOGY

Copyright, John T. Stevenson, 2000

 The Bible is a historical book. Rather than being a "once upon a time" fairytale, it is rooted in history. Ernst Renan once said that "all history is incomprehensible without Christ." But it is also true that both Christ and the Scriptures are equally incomprehensible without the historical backdrop against which they are framed.

 

WHAT IS ARCHAEOLOGY?

Archaeology is one of the newer sciences. As such, it is a new study of old subjects. The word itself takes us back to antiquity. "Arche" is the Greek word for "beginning." Archaeology therefore is the study of beginnings. The following definitions have been proposed.

  1. The science of the study of history from the remains of early human cultures as researched primarily by systematic excavations.
  2. A systematic and descriptive study of antiquities via the exploration of the remains of past humans.
  3. That branch of historical research which investigates past civilizations from surviving art, architecture, monuments, inscriptions literature, language, customs, and other material traces.

Biblical archaeology is that area of archaeology which throws light upon our understanding of the Bible. As such, Biblical archaeology will be primarily restricted to the study of the culture and history of the Middle East and the Mediterranean world - that area which served as the historical context for the Bible.

 

REASONS FOR STUDYING BIBLICAL ARCHAEOLOGY

1. To Aid us in Understanding the Bible.

Each book of the Bible was written to a particular audience.

In each case, the human author of the book assumes a certain amount of a prior knowledge. He assumes that he can speak of various geographic or cultural areas and that they will be known and understood and applied by his readers.

Our problem is that we are reading ancient Scriptures from a 21st century vantage point. A study of Biblical archaeology helps us to step into the sandals of the original readers and to interpret the Scriptures properly. It is only then that we will be able to apply the truths of the Scriptures rightly in our day.

2. To Affirm the Scriptural Narrative.

The Bible's historical accuracy has long been the source of attack. These attacks have not abated in recent years; they have escalated in intensity. One of the necessary fields of Biblical apologetics will be the defense of the historical veracity of the Bible. The battlefield for this conflict will be the arena of Biblical archaeology.

Make no mistake, this is no easy conflict. There are many archaeologists who reject the Bible out of hand, going so far as to deny the historicity of the patriarchs, the Exodus event and the existence of David or Solomon and their kingdoms.

At the same time, we must realize that there are many things in the Bible which are not substantiated in current Biblical archaeology. That is because we have only found a small fraction of the remains of antiquity.

Principle: The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. This has been proven time and time again as new finds have substantiated areas which were previously thought to be in error.

3. To Aid us in the Work of Bible Translation.

Language is not a constant. It is always changing. One has only to pick up a King James Bible to see how much the English language has changed over the past 400 years. What it true of the English language is also true of the languages in which the Bible was written.

How are we to determine the meanings of such words? It is the field of archaeology which provides assistance. Archaeological writings give us other examples of the usage of certain words and are a great help in interpreting the Bible.

 

THE SCOPE OF BIBLICAL ARCHAEOLOGY

The lands of the Bible go far beyond the tiny boarders of the land of Israel. The story of the Bible begins in Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. By the end of the New Testament, our horizons have been stretched westward all the way to Spain. This means that we could divide Biblical Archaeology into two distinct parts:

1. Old Testament Archaeology.

The lands of the Old Testament would be those around the Fertile Crescent. This is a large band of relatively fertile land stretching from the Persian Gulf northward along the courses of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and then south along the Levant. Though known as the "Fertile Crescent," much of these lands can only be considered fertile when compared to the surrounding deserts.

2. New Testament Archaeology.

Although still centered in the land of Palestine, our focus in the New Testament turns its attention westward. The story of Acts and the Epistles is a movement from Jerusalem to Rome.

Between these two periods is a time known as the "Silent Years." It is a period when there were no prophets in Israel. But it is not a period which is silent with reference to history.

Old Testament

New Testament

1600+ Years of History

400 "Silent Years"

70-90 Years of History

Centered on the Fertile Crescent

Centered on the Mediterranean World

The Jewish writings known as the "Apocrypha" and specifically the books of Maccabees were written during this period. The books of Maccabees are an excellent resource in filling in for us the historical details of what took place in Israel between the close of the Old Testament Scriptures and the beginning of the New Testament.

 

MILESTONES IN THE HISTORY OF BIBLICAL ARCHAEOLOGY

1. The Rosetta Stone.

Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt in 1798. He was hoping to cut England's supply line to her holdings in India. It was an ill-fated expedition for Napoleon and for France, but it also marks the beginning of modern archaeology. Napoleon had brought with him 175 scholars made up of linguists, botanists, naturalists, artists and historians. Though Napoleon left the following year in defeat, this group of scholars eventually succeeded in publishing their findings in the 36-volume study entitled, "Description of Egypt."

In August 1799, just two months before Napoleon would abandon his army to escape back to France, a French soldier digging a trench at the fort of St Julien near Rosetta came across a black stone covered with writing.

It was a black, irregular-shaped stone

Height

44 inches

111 centimeters

Width

32 inches

81 centimeters

Thickness

10 inches

25 centimeters

One side was polished and inscribed with a text in three different languages.

Hieroglyphic

14 lines

These were Egyptian symbols in which each symbol would represent a syllable.

Demotic

32 lines

A shorthand form of hieroglyphics written from right to left like Hebrew, this form of writing dated to 700 B.C. and ultimately developed into the Coptic script.

Greek

54 lines

The commemoration of the coronation of King Ptolemy 5th in the year 196 B.C.

No one living in that day was able to read either the hieroglyphs or the demotic. The Greek, on the other hand, was easily readable.

As the spoils of war, the Rosetta Stone ended up in the British Museum where it resides to this day. But it was left to a young French scholar to break its secret.

Jean Francois Champollion theorized that all three inscriptions were differing translations of the same message. In 1822, he used this as the key to deciphering the mystery of the Egyptian hieroglyphics. His first breakthrough was in determining the meaning of the symbol representing Ptolemy.

It had been assumed in the past that hieroglyphics were "picture-writings" in which each symbol represented a single word or concept. Thus a picture of a pig might mean "dirty man" or a lion's front paws might stand for "strength." But this proved not to be the case.

There were actually three types of hieroglyphics:

    1. Pictures.
    2. Some symbols did indeed represent a single word or concept. For example, a picture of a man with a stick stood for the verb, "to beat."

    3. Related Sounds.
    4. Some pictures came to stand for things which they sounded like. It would be like drawing a picture of a train in order to communicate the idea of "training (teaching) a student." An actual example is the Egyptian word wr. It is the word for a swallow (bird). The hieroglyphic is a picture of a swallow. But it is also the word for "great."

    5. Syllable Sounds.

The symbol for "swallow" came to be used whenever the Egyptians were writing a word which had the sound wr as one of its syllables.

2. The Behistun Inscription.

In 1833 British officer Sir Henry Rawlinson traveled to Persia to organize the Shah's army. There he came across a Persian inscription located high up a cliff wall on the Rock of Behistun in western Iran. The rock stands above a spring of water on the caravan route between Ecbatana and Babylon; it is the last peak of a long narrow range of mountains. Today the small village of Behistun lies around the spring.

In 1842, Rawlinson succeeded in climbing the wall and copying the entire inscription. The inscription is composed in three languages:

a. Old Persian.

b. Elamites

c. Akkadian.

All three languages are written with cunieform characters. An Aramaic version of the inscription was later discovered at Elephantine in Upper Egypt.

It was ultimately determined that the pictorial relief was of King Darius of Persia. The scene represents Darius receiving the submission of a group of rebels. The king's left foot is placed on the neck of one of his enemies.

Rawlinson managed to decipher the Persian part of the inscription. This was then used to make the first translations of the other two languages. Thus the Behistun Inscription is to cuneiform was the Rosetta Stone is the Egyptian hieroglyphics.

3. Moabite Stone.

This stela was discovered by a French Anglican medical missionary by the name of F.A. Klein in 1868 in Divon, modern Jordan on the east side of the Dead Sea. The inscription parallels Biblical history as it relates the events described in 2 Kings 1 and 3, though it relates these same events from the Moabite perspective. The stone measures as follows:

Tall

3 feet, 8 inches

113 centimeters

Wide

2 feet, 3 inches

70 centimeters

Thick

1 foot, 1 inches

40 centimeters

Approximate Date: 830 B.C.

39 Lines of Writing

Unfortunately the stone was broken into pieces by the local Bedouin before it could be acquired by the authorities. About two-thirds of the pieces were recovered and those, along with an impression made before the stela was destroyed, allowed all but the last line to be reconstructed. There are a total of 34 lines, written in Moabite, a language almost identical to Hebrew.

Origins

Erected by King Mesha at Dibon

Discovery

Seen by Clermont Ganneau and Rev. F. A. Klein in 1868 in Jerusalem. They took a squeeze of the stone at that time.

The stone was broken into pieces by Arabs. Two large fragments and 18 smaller pieces were recovered

Today

Resides in the Louvre

4. Gezer Calendar.

Discovered in 1908 at Tell el-Jazari, the site of the ancient city of Gezer about 15 miles to the northwest of Jerusalem, this small limestone rock seems to be a student's homework. The translation reads as follows:

Two months are harvest
Two months are planting
Two months are late (planting)
One month is hoeing flax
One month is barley-harvest
One month is harvest and feasting
Two months are (vine-)pruning
One month is summer fruit.

This inscription dates back to 925 B.C. It serves as evidence that the Hebrews living in Israel at that time were a literary people capable of writing the Old Testament Scriptures.

5. Ras Shamrah - The Lost City of Ugarit.

In the spring of 1928, Mahmoud az-Zir, was ploughing land he had rented in the south of Minet el-Beida ("white harbor"), Syria. As he was working, his plough struck something hard just under the surface. That evening, he returned to the site with some companions, and they began to clear away a thin layer of top soil. They very quickly came across some man-made paving stones, and on lifting these, they discovered a chambered tomb full of pottery.

When archaeologists were sent in to investigate, they discovered a palace and an entire royal port city buried beneath the tell. Within these ruins were hundreds of cuneiform tablets. It was not until 1932 that it was determined that the name of this lost city was Ugarit.

The style of writing discovered at Ugarit is known as alphabetic cuneiform. This is a unique blending of an alphabetic script (like Hebrew) and cuneiform (like Akkadian); thus it is a unique blending of two styles of writing. Most likely it came into being as cuneiform was passing from the scene and alphabetic scripts were making their rise. Ugaritic is thus a bridge from one to the other and very important in itself for the development of both.

Ugaritic greatly helps us in correctly translating difficult Hebrew words and passages in the Old Testament. As a language develops the meaning of words changes or their meaning is lost altogether. This is also true of the Biblical text. But after the discovery of the Ugaritic texts we found information concerning archaic words in the Hebrew text.

6. Ebla.

In 1964 Italian archaeologists directed by Paolo Matthiae of the University of Rome excavated a mound in northern Syria known as Tell Mardikh. In 1968, Matthiae and his team uncovered ancient Akkadian inscriptions of King Ibbit-Lim. In this text the king identified himself as the ruler of Ebla. During excavations in 1974 and 1975, public and royal archives containing over 15,000 clay tablets came to light. The Eblaite scribes recorded information on clay tablets, inscribed in cuneiform, as developed by the Sumerians, which was found in the ruins of the royal palace in 1974 A.D. The people of Ebla spoke a Semitic language that resembled ancient Hebrew. The most likely date of these archives is about 2500 B.C.

A royal library was found in 1974 consisting of 20,000 clay tablets, 80 percent of which were written in Sumerian and the rest in an unknown Semitic language akin to Hebrew that is now called Eblaite. Located halfway between modern Aleppo and Hama, at the top of the Fertile Crescent, the city was in the heart of Abraham's ancestral home territory of Haran and flourished in 2200 B.C. Names like David, Micah, Jerusalem, Sodom, Gomorrah, Haran, and Ur appear in the texts. The city of Ebla was destroyed around 2250 B.C.

7. Tell Dan Inscription.

In 1994, a team working under Avraham Biran in Upper Galilee discovered three pieces of a single inscription on basalt. It is written in Aramaic and mentions a military victory over Bth-Dwd - "The House of David." This is the earliest archaeological mention of King David.

8. Tell El-Amarna.

A series of letters were discovered at the ancient Egyptian city of Akhenaton, located on the east bank of the Nile midway between Giza and Thebes. The city has since become known as Tell el-Amarna by the combining of two names:

a. El-Til is the name of the modern-day village in the area.

b. El-Amarna is one of the Arab tribes which has settled in the area.

In 1887, a peasant woman digging for fertilizer found some tablets in the ruins of Tell el-Amarna. She sold them for ten piastres. The tablets were offered to European scholars, but were suspected of being forgeries and were rejected. The tablets were taken to Luxor and sold to tourists. By the time that scholars realized the tablets were genuine, a number of the tablets had been sold. Excavations began in 1891 and a total of 380 tablets were eventually uncovered.

The tablets date to the 18th dynasty of Egypt, specifically during the reign of Akhenaton. These tablets consist correspondence between the Pharaoh of Egypt at the kings of the cities of Jerusalem, Gezer, Lachish, Jarmuth and Eglon. However, they are written in Akkadian, demonstrating that this was the language of international diplomacy.

In several of these letters, there are complaints and requests for protection from invading Hapiru, a nomadic people who were overrunning the land. Some of these Hapiru had been joined by the Canaanites and some had offered their services as mercenaries (there is a possible correlation here to the Gibeonites).

 

THE FORMING OF ANCIENT TELLS

Ancient cities were sometimes built on a hill. This would allow the natural formation of the landscape to assist in the fortifying of the city. Jerusalem is a good example of this phenomenon. The original Jebusite city was located on a narrow ridge so that three sides of the city were protected by steep inclines.

Other cities often found themselves in areas which were originally lowlands, but which began to elevate as each succeeding city was built over top of its predecessor.

The word tell in both Hebrew and Arabic means "mound." What originally appeared to be mere hills in the landscape sometimes turned out to be a series of forgotten cities each built one on top of the rubble of its predecessor.

One example of this phenomenon is Tell el-Husn on the Jordan River, 14 miles south of the Sea of Galilee. This was the site of the Biblical city of Bethshan, the home of those who took the body of Saul after he had been slain in the battle of Gilboa.

This site was excavated from 1921 to 1933 by the University of Pennsylvania. Excavators dug down 70 feet through 18 distinct strata. The history of the city begins as early as 3500 B.C. and continues into the present era.

METHODS OF EXCAVATIONS

There are four basic methods of excavation which are used by modern archaeologists.

Complete Excavation of a Site

The whole area is systematically laid bare

Most expensive

Ideal method

Used for Megiddo, Levels 1-4.

Pit Method

Large pits sunk into important areas

Cheaper

Trench Method

Trenches cut in long rows through successive layers of strata

Used in Jericho from 1953 to 1957.

Grid Method

The area to be excavated is divided into small squares with 3 feet between each square.

Only 2-3 people enter each pit to excavate

Lessens the damage to objects

All finds are labeled and mapped according to the area

 

THREE TYPES OF SURVIVING WRITINGS

These are texts for public display. They were made on monuments and they were made to last and to withstand the elements.

Texts made by trained scribes. They were often done of clay tablets or on papyrus.

These were things written in everyday business. They could be written on papyrus, parchment, goatskin, or even upon broken pieces of pottery known as "potsherds" or "ostraca" (the ancient version of "scrap paper").


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