We Christians have a particular interest in the past of the Near East, because our religious and cultural roots lie there. Our beliefs are guided by an ancient book, the Bible, that was produced in its entirety in lands strange to us by people who did not speak our tongue and whose customs were not ours. If the message contained in that ancient book is to have meaning for us moderns of the Western world, we must understand it and have confidence in its authenticity, its veracity, its timelessness, and its eternal values.
During the last two centuries, the Old Testament more than the New has been subjected to much critical investigation. We know it was written in Hebrew by Jews 2,500 years ago and more. It contains accounts of miracles that cannot be verified, events that seem unreal or fantastic, and prophecies in a symbolism that requires special study to be understood. Little wonder that many thinking people have questioned the value of the Old Testament for this modern age and have subjected it to a scrutiny that no other book, ancient or modern, has ever experienced.
Many fields have undergone revolutions during the last few centuries. In the space of 150 years, traveling has been accelerated from 4 to 17,000 miles an hour. Electronic computers now make calculations with breathtaking speed. Electric and atomic power has been harnessed and can be released at will. The worlds of the Arctic and the Antarctic, of the deep sea, of the air that surrounds us and of the empty space beyond our atmosphere—all these have been explored. No wonder the inquisitive mind of modern man began also to question traditional religious beliefs, when he saw that values changed in many areas and that the views of his forbears in many fields of knowledge proved false. It is only natural, then, that the basis of our Christian faith, the Bible, has been subjected to careful scrutiny.
For some the results of this investigation seemed to threaten doom for the Bible, particularly the Old Testament. The culmination Was reached at the time of World War I. Scholars did not yet know that a Hebrew alphabetic script existed before the eighth or ninth century B.C.; therefore they thought that the Pentateuch could not have been produced any earlier than the period of the Hebrew kings. Since ancient parallels for the strange customs described in the patriarchal stories had not been discovered, practically all scholars of standing in Europe and America considered these stories fictitious. Furthermore, the earliest known Hebrew Old Testament manuscripts came from the tenth century A.D. and thus were less than a thousand years old. This strengthened the suspicion that the Bible text had undergone substantial changes during its transmission from one generation to another over a period of many centuries from which no witnesses seemed to have survived.
Not surprisingly, many scholars therefore abandoned belief in traditional views about the Old Testament. Friedrich Delitzsch, a great German Assyriologist and Old Testament scholar, wrote in 1921 that “the books of Moses, Joshua and Judges suffer under the fault that history is indiscriminately mixed with legends and fairy tales, as is also the case in the Book of Kings” (Die grosse Täuschung, I, 10). He also asserted that “the Old Testament works, the alleged Word of God, has been transmitted in a much more faulty and careless way than we can comprehend” (II, 5). Julius Wellhausen, the famous higher Bible critic, proclaimed unchallenged his idea that the conditions of the later Jewish monarchy were retrojected into the hoary past, and that the patriarchal stories were no more than a transfigured mirage of unreality. He was so fully convinced of the unreliability of the biblical narratives that he exclaimed: “If it [the Israelite tradition] were only possible, it would be folly to prefer any other possibility” (Komposition des Hexateuch, p. 346).
But thanks to archaeological discoveries made during the last forty years, this situation has changed completely. In 1917 Alan Gardiner, noted British Egyptologist, made the first decipherment of the Proto-Semitic inscriptions found at Mt. Sinai by Flinders Petrie more than ten years earlier. These inscriptions, written in a pictorial script by Canaanites before the middle of the second millennium B.C., prove that alphabetic writing existed before the time of Moses. Numerous other inscriptions in the same script have since that time come to light in Palestine and near Mt. Sinai, showing that the art of writing in an alphabetic script was already widespread in the patriarchal age.
The discovery of a whole archive of legal and social texts at Nuzi, a small place in northeastern Iraq, has revealed that the social and legal background of the patriarchal age is reflected accurately and in great detail in the Old Testament patriarchal narratives. Nothing has done more in recent years to restore confidence in the reliability of these narratives than the humble Nuzi texts. Scholar after scholar has testified that “there is today no reason to doubt the authenticity of the general background of the patriarchal narratives” (E. A. Speiser, Annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research, XIII, 43). To the discoveries at Nuzi must be added the finding of several law codes from the early second millennium B.C.that have revealed the legal background for many strange customs encountered in the patriarchal period.
Since 1929, annual excavations carried out at Ras Shamra in northern Syria have given us a large mass of Canaanite literature, written in an alphabetic cuneiform script that was deciphered in an incredibly short time, chiefly through the ingenuity of two scholars, one German and one French. These texts have illuminated the religion as well as the moral and social conditions of the ancient Canaanites and have provided much linguistic help for a better understanding of the poetical sections of the Old Testament.
Excavations of numerous sites in Palestine, Syria, and other Bible lands have brought to light many bits of evidence that have made major or minor contributions to a better understanding or verification of the Bible stories. Professor W. F. Albright, the greatest living Orientalist, made the following significant remarks in 1958 when he reviewed the archaeological accomplishment of the recent past:
Then came the culmination of all discoveries in the field of biblical archaeology: the finding of Hebrew scrolls in the vicinity of the Dead Sea, scrolls that have given us samples, dating from the period from the third century B.C.to the second century A.D., of all Old Testament books save one. The few well-preserved documents as well as the tens of thousands of fragments of worm-eaten and rotten Bible scrolls, which patient scholars have deciphered and published, have already done much to restore confidence in the reliability of the Hebrew text. One can find scores of published testimonials by reputable scholars who as the result of their studies of the Dead Sea scrolls have declared their surprise that the changes the Masoretic Hebrew text experienced in the course of transmission were so few and so insignificant. Professor Albright said in this respect that the Dead Sea scrolls prove “conclusively that we must treat the consonantal text of the Hebrew Bible with the utmost respect and that the free emending of difficult passages in which modern critical scholars have indulged cannot be tolerated any longer” (Recent Discoveries in Bible Lands, 1955, p. 128).
Having taken this general look at the phenomenal changes in the evaluation of the reliability of the Old Testament, let us turn to some concrete examples of illumination and verification of the Old Testament by archaeological discoveries. First, in the patriarchal stories we find several strange accounts of a barren wife who asked her husband to produce a child for her by her maid servant. Sarah did this, and later also Jacob’s two wives, Rachel and Leah. Today we know that this practice was not unusual during the patriarchal age. The laws of that period as well as ancient marriage contracts mention it. For example, in a marriage contract from Nuzi, the bride Kelim-ninu promises in written form to procure for her husband Shennima a slave girl as second wife, if she fails to bear him children. She also promises that she will not drive out the offspring of such a union. In no other period besides the patriarchal age do we find this strange custom.
Another example is the sale of Esau’s birthright to Jacob for a dish of lentils. It is hard to believe that that status of an older brother or sister could ever have been attained by purchase. However, a Nuzi text deals with this very custom. In a written contract between Tupkitilla and Kurpazah, two brothers, Tupkitilla sells his inheritance rights to his younger brother for three sheep. Esau sold his rights for food in the pot, while Tupkitilla sold his for food still on the hoof.
Other texts show that a bride was ordinarily chosen for a son by his father, as the patriarchs did; that a man had to pay a dowry to his father-in-law, or to work for his father-in-law if he could not afford the dowry, as poor Jacob had to do; that the orally expressed will of a father could not be changed after it had been pronounced, as in Isaac’s refusal to change the blessings pronounced over Jacob even though they had been obtained by deception; that a bride ordinarily received from her father a slave girl as personal maid, as Leah and Rachel did when they were married to Jacob; that the theft of cult objects or of a god was punishable by death, which was why Jacob consented to the death of the one with whom the stolen gods of his father-in-law were found; that the strange relationship between Judah and his daughter-in-law Tamar is vividly illustrated by the laws of the ancient Assyrians and Hittites. These are only some of the many parallels to customs reflected in the patriarchal stories that archaeologists have discovered. Such evidence shows clearly that these narratives were written soon after the events described had occurred, when these strange customs either still existed or had not yet been forgotten.
Leaving the patriarchal period, let us see how archaeological material can illuminate biblical records without providing a scrap of written material. The excavations at Shiloh by Danish scholars provide an example. The early chapters of the first book of Samuel describe the story of Eli and Samuel at the tabernacle located at Shiloh. This city was at that time the seat of the desert sanctuary originally constructed under Moses’ direction at Mt. Sinai. Its greatest treasure was the Ark of the Covenant. Then we read that the Ark was captured by the Philistines in the battle of Aphek and held by them for some time. Finally it was returned to Israel, but not to the city of Shiloh. For many years it remained at Kirjath-jearim, until David transferred it to Jerusalem, his capital. Moreover, when we read again of the family of Eli, the Ark resides not at Shiloh but at Nob; nothing is said about the fate of Shiloh and its sanctuary.
What happened to it? In the book of Jeremiah, references are made to some great disaster that befell Shiloh at some unspecified period of Israel’s history. Nothing in Jeremiah’s references suggests that this disaster had occurred in the distant past. However, scholars have long supposed that the Philistines destroyed Shiloh and its tent sanctuary after they defeated the Israelites and took the Ark at the battle of Aphek. When the Danes excavated Shiloh, they found evidence that satisfactorily answers the question. The broken pieces of pottery discovered there provide a means for reconstructing the ancient history of Shiloh. This pottery evidence shows that there was a break in the city’s history from the eleventh century B.C. until the sixth century. From biblical evidence we know that the early eleventh century B.C. is precisely the period of the Philistine defeat of Israel and the capture of the Ark; hence we have proof that at that time the city of Shiloh and the Tabernacle must have been destroyed.
I want to inject a personal note about the discoveries at Shechem, for I have participated in its excavation. Our 1960 work at Shechem revealed that the city and its great temple of Baal were destroyed in the twelfth century B.C. That is exactly the time indicated in the Bible for the destruction of Shechem by Abimelech, the bastard son of the judge Gideon. The archaeological evidence—broken pieces of pottery—sets that date at about 1150 B.C. The agreement between the two dates, one obtained from biblical evidence and the other from archaeological data, could hardly have been closer. This is certainly a source of great satisfaction for us biblical archaeologists.
For another illustration of the value of archaeological evidence for a better understanding of the Old Testament, let us go to Jerusalem. Archaeological explorations have shed some interesting light on the capture of Jerusalem by David. The biblical accounts of that capture (2 Sam. 5:6–8 and 1 Chron. 11:6) are rather obscure without the help obtained from archaeological evidence. Take for example Second Samuel 5:8, which in the King James Version reads: “And David said on that day, Whosoevergetteth up to the gutter, and smiteth the Jebusites, and the lame and the blind, that are hated of David’s soul, he shall be chief and captain.” Add to this statement First Chronicles 11:6—“So Joab the son of Zeruiah went first up and was chief.”
Some years ago I saw a painting of the conquest of Jerusalem in which the artist showed a man climbing up a metal downspout, running on the outside face of the city wall. This picture was absurd, because ancient city walls had neither gutters nor downspouts, although they had weeping holes in the walls to drain water off. The Revised Standard Version, produced after the situation had become clear through archaeological discoveries made on the spot, translates the pertinent passages: “And David said on that day, ‘Whoever would smite the Jebusites, let him get up the water shaft to attack the lame and the blind, who are hated by David’s soul.’ ” “And Joab the son of Zeruiah went up first, so he became chief.” What was this water shaft that Joab climbed?
Jerusalem in those days was a small city lying on a single spur of the hills on which the large city eventually stood. Its position was one of great natural strength, because it was surrounded on three sides by deep valleys. This was why the Jebusites boastfully declared that even blind and lame could hold their city against a powerful attacking army. But the water supply of the city was poor; the population was entirely dependent on a spring that lay outside the city on the eastern slope of the hill.
So that they could obtain water without having to go down to where the spring was located, the Jebusites had constructed an elaborate system of tunnels through the rock. First they had dug a horizontal tunnel, beginning at the spring and proceeding toward the center of the city. After digging for ninety feet they hit a natural cave. From the cave they dug a vertical shaft forty-five feet high, and from the end of the shaft a sloping tunnel 135 feet long and a staircase that ended at the surface of their city, 110 feet above the water level of the spring. The spring was then concealed from the outside so that no enemy could detect it. To get water the Jebusite women went down through the upper tunnel and let their water skins down the shaft to draw water from the cave, to which it was brought by natural flow through the horizontal tunnel that connected the cave with the spring.
However, one question remained unanswered. The excavations of R. A. S. Macalister and J. G. Duncan some forty years ago had uncovered a wall and a tower that were thought to be of Jebusite and Davidic origin respectively. This tract of wall ran along the rim of the hill of Ophel, west of the tunnel entrance. Thus the entrance was left outside the protective city wall, exposed to the attacks and interference of enemies. Why hadn’t the tunnel been built to end inside the city? This puzzle has now been solved by the recent excavations of Kathleen Kenyon on Ophel. She found that Macalister and Duncan had given the wall and tower they discovered wrong dates; these things actually originated in the Hellenistic period. She uncovered the real Jebusite wall a little farther down the slope of the hill, east of the tunnel entrance, which now puts the entrance safely in the old city area.
David, a native of Bethlehem, four miles south of Jerusalem, may have found out about the spring and its tunnel system in the days when as a youth he roamed through the countryside. Later, as king he based his surprise attack on this knowledge, and made the promise that the first man who entered the city through the water shaft would become his commander-in-chief. Joab, who was already general of the army, did not want to lose that position and therefore led the attack himself. The Israelites apparently went through the tunnel, climbed up the shaft, and were in the city before any of the besieged citizens had any idea that so bold a plan had been conceived.
This water system, constructed more than three thousand years ago, is still in existence and can be examined by any tourist. Some good climbers have even climbed the shaft in modern times, though it is not easy to do so because the rock walls are smooth and slick and give little hold for hand or foot. The shaft is also a little too wide for a comfortable climb, as I learned in my unsuccessful attempt to climb it.
Among many other illustrations of how archaeology clears up disputed points of biblical history, I want to mention one more, involving the conquests of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar II. Various biblical records mention three conquests of Judah’s capital by the Babylonian king, first in 605 B.C., in the third year of King Jehoiakim, then in 597 after a three-month reign of Jehoiachin, and finally in 586 in the eleventh year of King Zedekiah. For a long time scholars did not doubt that Nebuchadnezzar had taken Jerusalem, for the biblical statements seemed quite clear on this point. However, many scholars became somewhat suspicious when a hundred years of excavations in Babylonia failed to turn up one single text of Nebuchadnezzar referring to any one of these conquests of Jerusalem, though numerous texts written by this monarch had come to light during these hundred years. Also, the city of Babylon, which the Germans excavated during a long campaign of eighteen years, failed to provide a single document to show that Nebuchadnezzar had ever been at war with the kingdom of Judah or had ever taken their capital, Jerusalem. A number of well-known scholars began to doubt that Nebuchadnezzar had ever taken Jerusalem during his reign. But today these doubts are groundless; at least one of Nebuchadnezzar’s three conquests of Jerusalem is well attested by several pieces of archaeological evidence, of which I shall mention two recent ones.
Shortly before the last war, Professor Ernst Weidner worked in the Berlin Museum on unimposing tablets that had been found in some storerooms of Nebuchadnezzar’s palace in Babylon many years ago. These tablets contained day-by-day records of the issuance of grain and oil to dependents of the royal palace, such as workmen engaged in royal building operations, musicians employed as entertainers, and hostages from foreign countries. As Weidner studied these somewhat dry records, he suddenly came upon the name of King Jehoiachin of Judah as recipient of royal rations of grain and oil. The tablets mentioning the king were written in 592 B.C., five years after he had been taken captive, and his five sons and their tutor are mentioned also. Jehoiachin received twenty times as much foodstuff as any other person listed, an indication that he was still considered an honorable personage and may have been allowed to keep servants for his use. His imprisonment, to which the Bible also refers, seems to have begun at a later time, probably when efforts were made during a rebellion (described by Jeremiah) to put him back on the throne of Judah.
The second interesting discovery bearing on this subject was made in 1955 by Donald Wiseman of the British Museum. Among tablets that had been in that museum for many decades Wiseman discovered one that chronicled several years of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign. This tablet describes briefly the military campaign of Nebuchadnezzar against Judah in 597 B.C. and the capture of Jerusalem on March 16 of that year—the first exact date of a biblical event obtained from a factual non-biblical record. The tablet also states that Nebuchadnezzar deposed King Jehoiachin and replaced him by Zedekiah.
These two discoveries teach us a valuable lesson. That some excavations from which we expect some information seem to shed no light on biblical events should not be taken as evidence that the biblical records are at fault. We should never forget that all our evidence is fragmentary and incomplete, spotty in some parts and more full in others. Conclusions based on incomplete or negative evidence can be entirely misleading, as this illustration clearly shows. Time after time, after a long period of patient waiting, solutions to our problems have been found. There are still many points awaiting clarification, which may come as more archaeological evidence comes to light.
Many more examples could be given of how archaeological evidence has shed light on interesting details of biblical history. The unpretentious castle at Gibeah, King Saul’s residence, has been excavated, and Solomon’s copper and iron mines in Edom have been rediscovered and in part are being exploited again by modern Israelis. The Assyrian cuneiform documents mention nine of the thirty-six Hebrew kings that reigned during the period of Assyria’s existence and give us much valuable information about the history of the divided kingdom. Egypt has produced welcome historical evidence, both in documents and in other material. There are records of King Shishak’s invasion of Judah and Israel after Solomon’s death, recorded in two Old Testament books. A large existing archive consists of scores of papyrus documents written by Jews of the post-exilic period; these have illustrated many obscure points of that interesting time we glimpse in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah.
The archaeologist’s pick and hoe have produced for the biblical scholar an abundance of auxiliary material that enables him to understand and defend the historical narratives much better than before. And we can assume that there is more to come.
Milton D. Hunnex is professor and head of the department of philosophy at Willamette University, Salem, Oregon. He received the B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of Redlands and the Ph.D. in the Inter-collegiate Program in Graduate Studies, Claremont, California. He is author of “Philosophies and Philosophers.”
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.