I have the privilege of being part of the Associates for Biblical Research, a group of archaeologists and Bible scholars dedicated to demonstrating the historical reliability of Scripture through archaeological and biblical research. I serve in a small way by following the happenings in the world of biblical archaeology and writing a weekly Current Events update for their website – biblearchaeolgy.org.
As we approach the end of 2016, I thought I’d look back at the most exciting discoveries and announcements from the archaeological world that relate to the Bible. In choosing the top ten, I focused on discoveries that were both spectacular and also specifically related to biblical people, places and events (as opposed to the many discoveries that are made in Bible lands which teach us much about the different cultures; these discoveries are helpful too, but I’ve chosen to narrow the focus for my list). Here then are what I consider to be the top ten discoveries in biblical archaeology in 2016.
#10 – Discoveries relating to the Temple in Jerusalem (1st and Second)
I’m going to cheat a bit with this one by grouping several discoveries related to the Temple(s) in Jerusaelm.
In April, a bronze incense shovel and bronze jug were unearthed in archaeological excavations at Magdala, a 2000-year-old Jewish community on the shore of the Sea of Galilee and the site traditionally known as birthplace of Mary Magdalene, one of Jesus’ followers. The incense shovel fit the description given in Exodus 27:1-3: “You shall make the altar…you shall make pots for it to receive its ashes, and shovels and basins and forks and fire pans; all its utensils you shall make of bronze.” According to the chief archaeologist, “The incense shovel that was found is one of ten others that are known in the country from the Second Temple period.”
In September, archaeologists from the Temple Mount Sifting Project announced that they had restored some of the flooring tiles from the Second Temple using colored stone floor tile segments found in the earth and rubble that had originally come from the Temple Mount. Known as opus sectile, Latin for “cut work,” this style of floor tile is more expensive and prestigious than the more common mosaic flooring. Of the many tile segments discovered so far, more than 100 date to the time period of Herod’s Second Temple. Seven floor tile designs were assembled by using basic geometry, the known size of a Roman foot (approximately 29.6 cm), and similarities to the tile designs used by Herod at other sites, including his palaces at Masada, Herodium and Jericho.
In November, Israeli archaeologists recently announced the discovery of the first artifacts to have been unearthed in situ on the Temple Mount that conclusively date to the time of Solomon’s Temple. The digs were carried out quietly from 2007 to this past year in a rare display of cooperation between the Islamic Waqf and Israeli archaeologists, and occurred during infrastructure work at the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Pottery shards, animal bones and olive pits were found and dated to be 2500-2600 years in age.
#9 – Unprecedented Discovery: 3000 Year-Old Textiles (Feb. 2016)
For the first time ever, a collection of fabrics from the era of Kings David and Solomon were found. The textiles were discovered at the Timna copper mines in the Arava Valley, believed by some to be the site of King Solomon’s mines. The fragments, most 5 x 5 centimeters in size, are from clothing, bags, tents, and rope and vary in color, weave, and ornamentation. This discovery sheds a unique light on the fashions of the time period.
#8 – Stone Vessel Factory Excavated Near Nazareth (Aug. 2016)
Recent excavations in a cave near Nazareth uncovered a 2000-year-old quarry where stone vessels were produced. The cave, hewn of chalkstone, revealed numerous stone vessels in various stages of production, and has lead archaeologists to conclude that there was a healthy market for such items in that geographical region. In the first century, Jews in Galilee used pots and storage jars made of stone, as they did not become ritually impure. In John 2:6, the gospel writer describes Jesus turning the water into wine in stone jars during the wedding at Cana. Interestingly, the stone quarry cave is located in the same general vicinity as biblical Cana likely was, suggesting the possibility that the stone jars described in the gospel may have come from the nearby stone vessel factory currently being excavated. At the very least, the discovery confirms the use of stone jars in first-century Galilee, just as the Bible describes.
#7 – Desecrated Gate-Shrine Discovered at Tel Lachish (Sept. 2016)
Archaeologists excavating a six-chambered gate at the biblical city of Lachish made three discoveries that they claim confirm details described in the Old Testament. The gate-shrine of Tel Lachish – the largest discovered from the First Temple period – has been dated to the eighth century BC using artifacts that were found in the rooms, including jars, grain scoops, and jar handles stamped with a lmlk (“belonging to the king”) seal:
1) Benches were unearthed at the city gate, confirming what is known from history, that the city gates were a place the elders, judges, governors, and kings sat to do business. “Her husband is known in the gates, when he sits among the elders of the land” (Prv 31:23).
2) Within one of the rooms in the city gate, excavators found two four-horned altars with the horns intentionally broken off. This is believed to be evidence of the reforms of King Hezekiah, who “removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles” as part of his reforms (2 Kgs 18:4).
3) Finally, a stone chair with a hole in the middle, which archaeologists have identified as a toilet, was found in the corner of the room. This suggests an intentional desecration of the gate-shrine, and is reminiscent of the Bible’s description of Jehu turning the temple of Baal in Samaria into a latrine (2 Kgs 10:27).
#6 – Philistine Cemetery Unearthed in Ashkelon (July 2016)
An unprecedented 3000-year-old Philistine cemetery was discovered outside of the city of Ashkelon. The find demonstrates that the Philistines held very different burial practices than their Canaanite and Israelite neighbors. Researchers hope that the discovery will help answer the question of the origins of the Philistines, who seem to have settled along the coast of Israel sometime in the 12th or 13th century BC, ruling from the five cities of Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron, Gath and Gaza. An international team of researchers will be conducting DNA tests and biological studies to determine the origins of those buried in the Ashkelon cemetery. In the Bible, the Philistines are described as the oft-times enemies of the Israelites, with infamous people like Delilah and Goliath being of Philistine heritage.
#5 – Analysis of Inscriptions Suggests Widespread Literacy in Judah (April 2016)
A new analysis of 16 inscriptions on ancient pottery shards (called ostraca) previously unearthed at the Judahite military fortress of Tel Arad points to a widespread level of literacy in the Kingdom of Judah by 600 BC. The researchers from Tel Aviv University developed a computer software program to reconstruct and perform handwriting analysis on the ancient Hebrew inscriptions. The high-tech study suggests that the ostraca were written by at least six different authors, ranging in rank from a top military commander down to a subordinate who worked in the fortress warehouse. The authors of the report have concluded that this implies an education system that would have supported the composition of biblical texts before the destruction of the First Temple.
#4 – First-Century Synagogue Unearthed in Galilee (Aug. 2016)
A synagogue, predating the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD, was discovered at Tel Rechesh in Galilee. The synagogue was unearthed at the site of an ancient Jewish farm. The estate was identified as Jewish by the ritual stone jars that were found and the lack of pig bones. The synagogue itself measures 26 feet by 29.5 feet and its walls are lined with the remains of limestone benches. Excavators also found one of the pillars which would have supported the synagogue’s roof. This discovery marks the eighth synagogue found in Israel which predates 70 AD, but the first found in a rural rather than an urban setting. The Bible says that “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people” (Mt. 4:23).
#3. Solomon-Era Palace Found in Gezer (Sept. 2016)
A 3000-year-old palace, dating to the time of King Solomon, was discovered in Gezer. The massive building had a large, central courtyard, much like the palatial buildings discovered at Hazor and Megiddo. It was built of large, rectangular-shaped monolithic hewn stones, unusual for domestic structures of the day, but the type of building materials that would be used in a palace. Philistine bichrome pottery and an “Ashdod figurine” – believed to be a Philistine goddess – were also discovered at the site, providing evidence that the Bible’s description of Gezer being under Philistine control when King David broke their power “all the way from Geba to Gezer” (2 Sm 5:25; 1 Chron 14:16) is true. The team excavating the site dubbed the building “Solomon’s Palace,” not because they believe Solomon dwelt there, but because of the Bible’s description of Solomon’s building projects at Gezer after his wife – Pharaoh’s daughter – received the city as a wedding gift from her father, the King of Egypt (1 Kgs 9:15-17). This discovery demonstrates, yet again, that the descriptions found in the Bible are historically accurate.
#2 – Burnt Scroll of Leviticus Digitally Unfolded (Sept. 2016)
A badly damaged ancient scroll, discovered in the burnt-out remains of a synagogue in En-Gedi, was digitally unfolded to reveal the first two chapters from the book of Leviticus. Because the scroll was burned so badly (essentially only a charred lump remained), researchers had conserved the scroll until technology had advanced to the point where it might be readable. That day has arrived, as computer scientists from the University of Kentucky worked with scholars in Jerusalem to scan the scroll and use new software to virtually unroll it and translate the revealed text. Carbon-14 tests had dated the scroll to approximately 300 AD. Paleographic analysis of the style of writing used suggests a first-century date between 50-100 AD. The translated text of Leviticus is identical to that in the Masoretic text of the Old Testament. This makes the En-Gedi scroll the earliest copy of the Masoretic text, and bridges a gap in the history of Bible translation that had existed between the Dead Sea Scrolls and medieval copies the Old Testament.
#1 – Tomb of Jesus Uncovered for First Time in Centuries (Nov. 2016)
For the first time since at least 1555 AD, the purported tomb of Jesus in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was unsealed, revealing the surface of the limestone burial bed on which it is believed Jesus’ body lay. The burial bed had been covered with a marble slab centuries ago to prevent pilgrims from chipping off pieces of the tomb as souvenirs. After removing the marble slab, archaeologists were surprised to find a layer of fill, and then a second marble slab with a cross carved into its surface. The researchers had been given only 60 hours to complete their work. Just hours before their time was up, the original limestone surface of the burial bed was uncovered and found intact. Throughout the operation, the archaeologists photographed and documented their findings; these will be studied in further detail in the coming months and years. The tomb has since been resealed, and renovations to the badly deteriorating Edicule (shrine) will continue until next spring. While it is impossible to know conclusively that this is the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth described in the Gospels, the historical claims of the site are significant and nothing initially discovered in the recent unsealing would contradict the long-standing Christian tradition that this is the original empty tomb of Jesus.
As I’ve stated before (in previous blogs), these discoveries do not “prove” the Bible is true. They demonstrate that the Bible is a historically reliable document. As my colleague at the Associates For Biblical Research, archaeologist Gary Byers, recently stated:
“From my two decades of doing archaeological excavations in the Holy Land, I can see how archaeology demonstrates that we can trust the Bible for the past (history). And, if we can trust the Bible for history, we should also be able to trust it for the future (eternity). And if we can trust the Bible for both the past and the future, we should also trust it for the present – learning how to live, under God, one day at a time!” (From a personal letter to the teens at Camp ABK this past summer).
If you’d like to follow along with all of the latest discoveries in biblical archaeology in the coming year, you can find them here: http://www.biblearchaeology.org/currentevents.aspx