Biblical Archaeology’s Top 10 Discoveries of 2017
Each year, on an almost daily basis, archaeological discoveries help us better understand the Bible and affirm its details about people, events, and culture.
Below are the top excavation findings reported in 2017 which have increased our knowledge of the biblical world and the early history of Christianity.
10) Pagan center discovered at Hippos/Sussita
A theater and bath house complex discovered at Hippos/Sussita, overlooking the Sea of Galilee, was part of a pagan cult site. As part of the Decapolis—the pagan Roman cities mentioned in the gospels—Hippos/Sussita was not a focus of Jesus’ ministry, but many of its people were likely a part of his audiences (Matthew 4:25). The existence of this cultic center was first suggested by the discovery of a mask of the Roman god Pan in 2015.
9) Byzantine church mosaics found
Mosaic inscriptions found in the remains of churches excavated at the site of Byzantine villages in the Galilee give new evidence for the spread of Christianity in the region after the religion’s formal adoption by the Byzantine Empire in A.D. 380. The mosaics date to the fourth and fifth centuries. One includes the mention of a woman who was a donor to the church construction—clear evidence for the prominent role of women in the history of the early church. Then just last week, the discovery of another was announced, drawing more attention to how Christianity spread.
8) Augustus temple altar at Caesarea
Recent excavations at Caesarea Maritima found the base of an altar that stood near the entrance of a temple dedicated to Augustus Caesar that was built by King Herod. The historian Josephus reported that the temple, built high to overlook the harbor, contained a gigantic statue of Augustus and a statue of Roma. Beneath the level of the altar, archaeologists found two large halls and the remains of a large staircase similar in construction to the architecture around the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. A church was later built on the site of the temple during the Byzantine period. (Archaeologists are re-excavating the entrance area to Caesarea as part of a large renovation to make it into a much larger attraction, including the restoration of its 2,000-year-old synagogue.)
7) Merneptah’s destruction of Gezer
Ten years of archaeology at Tel Gezer wrapped up in 2017. Archaeologists Steven Ortiz of Southwestern Baptist Seminary and Sam Wolff of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) reported a clear sequence of occupations and destructions dating from the time of the Egyptian pharaoh Merneptah (13th century B.C.) to the Assyrian conquest (eighth century B.C.). The Merneptah destruction affirms the inscription on the Merneptah stele in the Cairo Museum, which states: “Gezer has been captured; Yano’am is made non-existent. Israel is laid waste and his seed is not.” Another destruction level corresponds to the biblical account of a pharaoh who captured the city and gave it as dowry for his daughter, who became one of King Solomon’s wives (1 Kings 9:16).
6) 12th Dead Sea Scrolls cave confirmed
Seventy years after the first discovery of Dead Sea Scrolls in caves overlooking the famous body of water, archaeologists identified one more cave where scroll materials had been stored. A careful reinvestigation of Qumran Cave No. 53 by a team led by Randall Price of Liberty University and Oren Gutfeld of Hebrew University found broken pottery of the type that had been used to store scrolls. In the remains of one pot, they found a scrap of rolled papyrus but with no writing on it. The archaeologists also found 1950s-era pickaxes in the back of the cave, indicating it had been looted many years ago.
5) Seal impressions and tower redating in City of David
The City of David, the oldest area of Jerusalem, continues to reveal new details of life in biblical times. In September, the IAA exhibited for the first time a collection of clay seal impressions (known as bullae) which came from various excavations. The clay sealings date from roughly the time of King Hezekiah (700 B.C.) to the end of the Judean monarchy (586 B.C.). One of the sealings bears the name of Achiav ben Menachem, which suggests a connection to two kings of the northern kingdom: Ahab and Menachem. Archaeologists believe this is evidence that refugees from the northern kingdom of Israel found their way into senior positions in the southern kingdom of Judea.
Meanwhile, a tower guarding the Gihon spring in the Kidron Valley may not be as old as archaeologists had believed. When originally excavated a number of years ago, it was dated to the Canaanite period, 1700 B.C., because of pottery and other findings. But an analysis of organic matter by the Weizmann Institute of Science suggests construction around 800–900 B.C., during the Judean Kingdom period.
4) Timna copper camp dated to time of David and Solomon
For several decades, some Bible scholars have suggested that a lack of convincing archaeological evidence raises doubts about the significance of the reign of the Old Testament kings David and Solomon. But the evidence to support a powerful 10th century B.C. centralized authority based in Jerusalem has been piling up. This year, archaeologists from Tel Aviv University announced results on tests of donkey dung discovered at Timna, a site of ancient copper mines along the Rift Valley in southern Israel. The animal waste was 3,000 years old, and the donkeys’ diet indicated that their feed came from near Jerusalem—another example of centralized power at the time of David and Solomon.
3) Rethinking the identity of Bethsaida
Hometown to three of the apostles (Peter, Andrew, and Philip), Bethsaida is believed to have been located just east of the outlet of the Jordan River into the northern Sea of Galilee. But its precise location has eluded Bible scholars. Archaeologist Rami Arav of the University of Nebraska–Omaha maintains Bethsaida was located at et-Tell, a site he has been excavating since 1987. But its distance—two kilometers from the current shore of the lake—has always raised questions about that identification. This year, a team led by archaeologist Mordechai Aviam of Kinneret College discovered remains of a Roman-era bathhouse at el-Araj, much closer to the shore. Neither site is convincingly identified as Bethsaida at this point; other archaeologists have weighed in to support each side.
2) A relic from the temple that Jesus knew
Solomon’s portico, the double colonnade that surrounded the temple built by Herod, came into a little sharper focus this year with the discovery of an ornamental capital from one of the tops of the columns. Discovered by the Temple Mount Sifting Project, the capital—an architectural feature which mediates between a column and the load it bears—indicates that the 41-foot column had a circumference of 30 inches at its top. Jesus is recorded visiting Solomon’s portico during the Feast of Dedication (Hanukkah) in John 10:23, and the early church used it as a meeting place (Acts 3:11, 5:12).
1) Small Roman theater found next to the Temple Mount’s Western Wall
Although this may not be the Jerusalem Roman theater described by the Jewish historian Josephus, it is the first example of a Roman public building discovered in Jerusalem. Its discovery highlights the centrality of the Temple Mount in Jewish history and Roman control of the Jewish holy city. The theater was discovered at the bottom of eight excavated courses of Western Wall stones, 26 feet below Warrens Arch and the current level of the Western Wall plaza. Smaller than the typical Roman theaters seen today at Caesarea and Betshean, this theater could seat about 200 people. It may have been meant for entertainment, or perhaps for government meetings. Its date has not been precisely determined, but IAA archaeologists believe that its construction was halted before it was finished and put into use—perhaps by the beginning of the Bar Kochba revolt, about 100 years after the time of Christ.
Bonus Item: New dating for the tomb of Jesus
A final note on recent news about last year’s top item: The National Geographic-sponsored renovation of the traditional tomb of Jesus at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem has offered new evidence that confirms the tradition linked to the site. Mortar recovered during last year’s renovation was dated to as early as A.D. 345, using a scientific process called optically stimulated luminescence. That supports the traditional dating of the construction of the first Church of the Holy Sepulchre, to mark the tomb of Christ, during the reign of the Roman emperor Constantine.
Gordon Govier is editor of ARTIFAX magazine and executive producer of The Book & The Spade radio program and podcast. He thanks Todd Bolen, professor of biblical studies at The Master’s University and editor of Bibleplaces.com, and John DeLancey of Biblical Israel Ministries and Tours for assisting with this list, which is subjective and based on news reports rather than peer-reviewed articles in scholarly publications.