By Russell J. Schmidt
In 1986, archaeologists found the earliest known text of the Bible dated to about 600 B.C. It suggests that at least part of the Old Testament was written soon after some of the events it describes. Also in 1986, scholars identified an ancient seal that had belonged to Baruch, son of Neriah, a scribe who recorded the prophecies of Jeremiah in 587 B.C. Hershel Shanks, founding editor of the influential magazine, Biblical Archaeological Review said: “Seldom does archaeology come face to face with people actually mentioned in the Bible.
In what may be the most important of these discoveries, a team of archaeologists uncovered a ninth century B.C. inscription at an ancient mound called Tel Dan, in the north of Jerusalem in 1983. Words carved into a chunk of basalt refer to the ‘House of David’ and the ‘king of Israel.’ It is the first time the Jewish monarch’s name has been found outside the Bible, and appears to prove that he was more than mere legend.
The first serious researcher was Edward Robinson, an orientalist at New York City’s Union Theological Seminary. In 1837 and 1852, he journeyed to Palestine and identified hundreds of ancient sites by questioning Arabs who had preserved the traditional names for centuries. Robinson pinpointed Masada. He also found a monumental arch supporting the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. “He did more than anybody before or after for biblical topography,” says Magen Broshi, curator emeritus of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The pendulum swung the other way again in the 1920s when William Foxwell Albright appeared on the scene. A professor of Semitic languages at Johns Hopkins University and the son of a Methodist missionary, he took a much more scientific approach than most of his predecessors. Rather than assume that the Bible was either entirely accurate or completely fictional, he attempted to confirm Old Testament stories with independent archaeological evidence. Under his considerable influence, biblical archaeology finally became a disciplined and scientific enterprise. He assumed the existence of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, for example, and then used circumstantial physical evidence to deduce that they probably lived arounf 1800 B.C. He excepted the idea of the Exodus from Egypt and military conquest of Canaan (Palestine), and went on to date those events at about 1200 B.C.
Albright’s intellectual heirs, including Israeli archaeologists Avraham Biran and the late Yigael Yadin, made similar assumptions. A few years before his death in 1984, Yadin said, “The Old Testament for me is a guide. It is the authentic history of my people.” The Bible says that King Solomon fortified the cities of Hazor, Gezer and Megiddo during his reign. Sure enough, Yadin went out in the late 1950s and found a city gate at the ruins of Hazor and dated it to Solomon’s time in the 10th century B.C. When he found that early explorers had discovered a similar-looking gate at Gezer, he assigned that to Solomon’s era, also. Because the Bible mentions Megiddo in the same breath with the other cities, he looked for – and conveniently found – a third gate at Megiddo, and concluded that Solomon built them all.
In 1979, Israeli archaeologist, Gabriel Barkay, found two tiny silver scrolls inside a Jerusalem tomb. They were dated to around 600 B.C., shortly before the destruction of Solomon’s Temple and the Israelites exile into Babylon. When scientists carefully unrolled the scrolls at the Israeli Museum, they found a benediction from the Book of Numbers etched into the surface. The discovery made it clear that parts of the Old Testament were being copied long before some skeptics had believed they were even written.
In 1986, archaeologist’s revealed that several lumps of figured clay called ‘bullae,’ bought from Arab dealers in 1975, had once been used to mark documents. Nahman Avigad of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem identified the impressions stamped into one piece of clay as coming from the seal of Baruch, the son of Neriah mentioned above. Another bore the seal of Jerahmeel, who is mentioned several times in the Old Testament and may be the name of three distinct people. The Book of I Samuel mentions a people called the Jerahmeelites, which signifies that the leader of this people as being an authoritative and ruling person and having the name Jerahmeel. This would also validate him having his own royal seal or coat of arms that was discovered, and also once again, confirming the existence of biblical characters.
In 1990, Frank Turco, an Egyptologist at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, used hieroglyphic clues from a monolith known as the Memeptah Stele to identify figures in a Luxor wall relief as ancient Israelites. The Stele itself, dated to 1207 B.C., and celebrates a military victory by Pharoah Memeptah. “Israel is laid waste,” it reads, suggesting that the Israelites were a distinct population more than 3,000 years ago, and not just because the Bible tells us so.
In 1993, Avraham Biran of Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion and Joseph Naveh of the Hebrew University announced they had found an inscription bearing the phrases “House of David” and “King of Israel.” The writing dating back to the 9th century B.C. – only a century after King David’s reign – described a victory by a neighboring king over the Israelites. Some minimalists tried to argue that the inscription might have been misread, but most experts believe Biran and Naveh got it right. The skeptics claim that King David never existed, but now that belief is now hard to defend.
In 2009, the French scholar Andre Lemaire reported a related “House of David” discovery in biblical archaeology Review. His subject was that the Mesha Stele (also known as the Moabite Stone), the most extensive inscription ever recovered from ancient Palestine. Found in 1868 at the ruins of biblical Dibon and later fractured, the basalt stone wound up in the Louvre, where Lemaire spent seven years studying it. His conclusion: the phrase “House of Israel” appears there, as well. As with the Tel Dan fragment, this inscription comes from an enemy of Israel boasting of a victory – King Mesha of Moab, named in the Bible in 2 Kings 3:4. Lemaire had to reconstruct a missing letter to decode the wording, but if he is right, there are now two 9th century references to David’s dynasty.
Many scholars believe the archive must exist. Yigael Yadin thought he knew where it was; in the ancient city of Hazor in northern Galilee. At his death, Yadin was planning a major dig there to find the clay tablets he was sure lay hidden beneath the surface. His protégé, Ben-Tor, has inherited the project. Hazor is the largest biblical site in the country, and it will take years of digging to explore it fully.
If and when Ben-Tor or his successors locate the archive, the effect on biblical scholarship would be profound. Instead of relying on half legible inscriptions and fragments of clay and stone, historians would suddenly have access to huge amounts of information that would help record secular events. The historical accuracy of much of the Bible would be settled one way or the other.
Below is a 2012 interview with archaeologist, Ben-Tor, on the update of his excavation of the Hazor site.