NOTE: Here is the video version of this blog, from episode 57 of the TV show, Digging for Truth by the Associates for Biblical Research.
Every year hundreds of discoveries are made in archaeological digs in the lands of the Bible. Many of these finds relate directly to the Bible; others shed light on different periods in biblical history. While no discovery in archaeology can “prove the Bible is true,” hundreds of finds over the past 150 years have continuously demonstrated the historical reliability of Scripture.
I was going to compile a list of the top ten biblical discoveries of all time, but the list was simply too big. So I’ve decided to choose two top ten lists – one of finds relating to the Old Testament and one of finds relating to the New testament.
In order to make these lists, I’ve used the following criteria:
- The discovery must be directly related to biblical people (or people groups), places or events; or
- It must be related to the composition of the Bible itself.
For example, an article in the ESV Archaeology Study Bible of the top ten discoveries in biblical archaeology lists the Rosetta Stone as the #1 discovery of all time. The Rosetta Stone is a monument that was discovered by Napoleon’s army in 1799. Written in three languages – Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic and demotic scripts, as well as ancient Greek – it was the key to unlocking many Egyptian Inscriptions. It’s a significant find which indirectly relates to Scripture, but it’s not on this list because I’ve chosen to narrow the focus by only including finds which are directly related to the Bible.
With that in mind, here are the discoveries that I would consider to be the top ten finds in biblical archaeology relating to the Old Testament.
10. Assyrian Inscriptions
I’m going to cheat a bit and select the numerous Assyrian inscriptions as a whole because they work together to both confirm historical details of numerous kings of Israel, as well as help establish a biblical chronology
a. Assyrian Limmu Lists
In the Old Testament no absolute dates are given…only relative dates (ie. a prophecy in relation to the specific year of a king’s reign or Nadab the son of Jeroboam beginning his reign over Israel “in the second year of Asa king of Judah” – 1 Ki 15:25)
Can we establish any absolute dates in order to reconstruct an accurate biblical chronology? Yes we can, thanks to the discovery of numerous Assyrian Limmu Lists.
The Assyrians had a practice of naming each year after a person which the called the limmu: a high official of the court, the governor of a province or the king himself. Historical events were then dated in terms of the year named after the particular limmu.
When Austen Henry Layard excavated at Ninevah he discovered many cuneiform tablets including four copies of the Assyrian Limmu Lists which listed the over 250 years of Assyrian history dated to specific years named after specific individuals. Numerous other Assyrian Limmu Lists have been discovered and these have allowed scholars to cross-reference each year and expanded what we know about Assyrian history. One tablet in particular listed an eclipse of the sun that took place in the month of Simanu in the year of the limmu Bur-Sagale. Astronomy as fixed the date for this eclipse as having occurred on June 15, 763 BC. This is significant because it allows us to absolutely date over 250 years of Assyrian History.
b. Annals of Assyrian Kings
The nation of Israel had numerous interactions with the Assyrians which are recorded in their annals. One inscription – the Kurkh Monolith of Shalmaneser III – lists King Ahab as one of the kings of a western coalitions that fought against Shalmaneser III in the battle of Qarqar, which has been dated to 853 BC. Another inscription – the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III – states that King Jehu brought tribute to Shalmaneser in 841 BC. In fact, the Black Obelisk includes a carving of Jehu bowing before Shalmaneser and is the only depiction yet discovered of a Hebrew king. The dating of these inscriptions allows us to date the chronology of kings of Israel and Judah as listed in the biblical books of Kings and Chronicles. In his book, The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings, scholar Edwin Thiele successfully reconstructed the chronology of the entire Hebrew monarchy (both the united monarchy and the divided kingdoms) from these dates.
The Limmu Lists and the annals of the Assyrian kings have allowed scholars to establish an absolute chronology for many events in the Old Testament. That’s significant!
FOR FURTHER STUDY: Biblical chronologist has done much work studying and refining the work of Edwin Thiele in The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings. I recommend the following article for further study: http://www.rcyoung.org/articles/threev.pdf
9) Cyrus Cylinder
One of the most famous artifacts in biblical archaeology is undoubtedly the Cyrus Cylinder. Sometimes hailed as the first declaration of human rights, a copy of it resides in the headquarters of the United Nations. More to the point of this blog, the Cyrus Cylinder confirms the biblical claim that Cyrus allowed the Jewish people who had been captured by the Babylonians to return to their homeland and rebuild their temple.
The Cyrus Cylinder was discovered in 1879 in the ruins of Babylon by Hormuzd Rassam. It is a baked clay cylinder, measuring 22.5cm by 10cm. and inscribed in Akkadian cuneiform script. It contains a general declaration by Cyrus the Great stating;
I sent back to their places…whose shrines had earlier become dilapidated, the gods who lived therein, and made permanent sanctuaries for them. I collected together all of their peoples and returned them to their settlements…I returned them unharmed to their cells, in the sanctuaries that make them happy. May all the gods that I returned to their sanctuaries, every day before Bel and Nabu, ask for a long life for me, and mention my good deeds
The inscription confirms Cyrus’ general policy of returning exiles to their “settlements” and allowing them to take their gods with them and rebuild their “sanctuaries.” The Jewish people had no idols, so the articles that had been taken from the Temple were returned. Cyrus’ specific proclamation for the Jews is recorded in Ezra 1:1-3:
In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing: “Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and rebuild the house of the LORD, the God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem.
Ezra further records that “Cyrus the king also brought out the vessels of the house of the LORD that Nebuchadnezzar had carried away from Jerusalem and placed in the house of his gods” (1:7).
While 19th century skeptics had scoffed at the biblical claim that a king would allow captured people to return to their homes and rebuild their temples, the Cyrus Cylinder confirms that this was indeed the policy of Cyrus the Great.
8) Merneptah Stele
The Hebrew Bible records that throughout their history the Israelites and Egyptians had significant interactions on numerous occasions. But is there any evidence of this from the Egyptian side?
In 1896, Sir Flinders Petrie discovered a huge 10 foot tall inscribed monument – called a stele – that recounted the victories of the ancient Egyptian Pharaoh, Merneptah, who reigned from 1213 to 1203 BC. Known as the Merneptah Stele, or the Victory Stele of Merneptah, it is an account of his victories over the Libyans. The last three lines on the Stele, however, deal with a separate campaign into Canaan. There we read, “Israel is wasted, its seed is not.” While Merneptah is claiming to have destroyed Israel, we know from the Bible and other historical records that this did not happen. In fact, Israel continued to live and prosper in Canaan for the next 600 years!
Still, the Merneptah stele is an important discovery in biblical archaeology for several reasons:
First, is the oldest definitive reference to Israel as a nation outside of the Bible.
Second, it’s the clearest Egyptian reference to Israel as a nation.
And thirdly, it confirms the chronology of the Bible. According to clues in 1 Kings 6:1, the exodus from Egypt took place in the year 1446 BC, not 1270 BC as some have claimed. After wandering in the desert for 40 years, the Israelites eventually reached the promised land and began the conquest of Canaan, a process that took years. The Merneptah Stele itself dates to around 1205-1210 BC, and supports the early date for the exodus. There simply isn’t enough time from 1270 BC to 1210 BC for the exodus, the 40 years of wandering in the dessert, the conquest of Canaan, and the establishment of the nation of Israel there before Merneptah claims to have conquered them. Rather Merneptah’s campaign dates to the time of the Judges, when Israel was already settled in Canaan.
FOR FURTHER STUDY: http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2006/03/15/The-Merenptah-Stela.aspx
7) Moabite Stone
In 1868, an Anglican missionary named Frederick Klein discovered a black basalt stone monument in Jordan with an inscription recording the acts of Mesha, King of Moab around 840 BC. The Moabite Stone or the Mesha Stele, as it has come to be known, contains 34 lines of text written in Moabite that describes the same event as 2 Kings 3. This passage tells the account of how Moab had once been subject to Israel, but had rebelled. 2 Kings 3:4-6 states, “Now Mesha king of Moab was a sheep breeder, and he had to deliver to the king of Israel 100,000 lambs and the wool of 100,000 rams. But when Ahab died, the king of Moab rebelled against the king of Israel. So King Jehoram marched out of Samaria at that time and mustered all Israel.”
The Moabite stone begins…
“I am Mesha, son Kemosh, king of Moab, the Dibonite.” It goes one to say, “Omri was king of Israel and he oppressed Moab for many days because Kemosh was angry with his land. And his son replaced him; and he also said, “I will oppress Moab”. But I was victorious over him and his house. And Israel suffered everlasting destruction…And I built…the temple of Baal Meon and I established there […] the sheep of the land”
The Moabite stone is significant for three reasons:
- The stele corroborates events in 2 Kings 3 and other biblical passages. It confirms that Moab was subject to Israel but rebelled. It confirms that the primary god of the Moabites was Kemosh/Chemosh. It even confirms that Mesha was a sheep herder.
- It contains a reference to YHWH. Among the spoils Mesha claims to have taken from Israel were the “altar-hearths of Yahweh” (lines 17–18). This is the earliest mention of Yahweh, God of the Israelites, outside the Bible.
- It may also contain a reference to the “house of David.” In 1994, André Lemaire was able to identify a previously indistinguishable letter which resulted in the phrase “house of David” being translated. This would be the earliest extra-biblical reference to King David and to his dynasty
FOR FURTHER STUDY: http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2006/09/27/Mesha-King-of-Moab.aspx
6) The “Jerusalem Chronicle” (Babylonian Chronicle, 605-595 BC)
The Babylonian chronicles are a series of clay tablets held by the British Museum that recount the history of the kings of Babylon. The Babylonian Chronicle for the years 605-594 BC records the fall of Jerusalem under Nebuchadnezzar (hence it’s nickname – the Jerusalem Chronicle). It reads:
“Year 7 [597 BC] in Kislev the king of Babylonia [Nebuchadnezzar] called out his army and marched to Hattu [the west]. He set his camp against the city of Judah and on the second Adar [March 16] he took the city and captured the king [Jehoiachin]. He appointed a king of his choosing there [Zedekiah], took heavy tribute and returned to Babylon”
This account refers to the second deportation of the Hebrews in 597 BC (the first being in 605 BC when Daniel and his friends were taken to Babylon). It confirms the biblical description of Nebuchadnezzar’s siege and eventual capture of Jerusalem (2 Kings 24:10), the deportation of King Jehoiachin (2 Kings 24:15), the appointment of a new King (Zedekiah – 2 Kings 24:17), and the heavy tribute taken back to Babylon (the treasures of the Temple and the treasures of the kings – 2 Chron. 36:18).
The importance of the Jerusalem Chronicle is twofold:
- It confirms a significant biblical event in the history of Israel, and;
- It gives the exact date that the city of Jerusalem fell: March 16, 597 BC.
5) Hezekiah’s Tunnel
The Bible describes the preparations that King Hezekiah made when he knew the Assyrian King, Sennacherib was on his way to besiege Jerusalem. In 2 Chron. 32:2-4, 30 we read,
“When Hezekiah saw that Sennacherib had come and that he intended to make war on Jerusalem, he consulted with his officials and military staff about blocking off the water from the springs outside the city, and they helped him. A large force of men assembled, and they blocked all the springs and the stream that flowed through the land. “Why should the kings of Assyria come and find plenty of water?” they said….It was Hezekiah who blocked the upper outlet of the Gihon spring and channeled the water down to the west side of the City of David.”
2 Kings 20:20 then summarizes Hezekiah’s life this way, “As for the other events of Hezekiah’s reign, all his achievements and how he made the pool and the tunnel by which he brought water into the city, are they not written in the book of the annals of the kings of Judah?”
In 1838, Edwin Robinson discovered an ancient aqueduct in Jerusalem. Later, in 1880, some youths who were exploring the aqueduct discovered an ancient Paleo-Hebrew inscription in the wall of the tunnel that Robinson had missed. Based on the script it has been dated to the 8th century BC – the time of Hezekiah. The inscription records how the men digging the tunnel worked from two directions—one from the north, the other from the south—and met in the middle.
The inscription reads: “… this is the story of the tunnel … the axes were against each other and while three cubits were left to (cut?) … the voice of a man … called to his counterpart, (for) there was [a crack?] in the rock, on the right … and on the day of the tunnel (being finished) the stonecutters struck each man towards his counterpart, ax against ax and flowed water from the source to the pool for 1,200 cubits.”
The Siloam inscription and the tunnel of Hezekiah both provide significant evidence of the historical events described in the pages of Scripture. If you go to Israel today, one of the biggest attractions for tourists interested in biblical history is Hezekiah’s tunnel. You can actually trek through the knee-high water following the ancient aquaduct that was carved by King Hezekiah’s men.
FOR FURTHER STUDY: https://www.bibleplaces.com/heztunnel/
4) Lachish Reliefs
Among the most spectacular artifacts in all of biblical archaeology are the Lachish Reliefs. These stunning stone carvings from the wall of the palace of Sennacherib depict the siege of the city of Lachish. In the Bible we read:
After this, Sennacherib king of Assyria, who was besieging Lachish with all his forces, sent his servants to Jerusalem to Hezekiah king of Judah and to all the people of Judah who were in Jerusalem, saying, “Thus says Sennacherib king of Assyria, ‘On what are you trusting, that you endure the siege in Jerusalem? (2 Ch 32:9-10)
The reliefs from Sennacherib’s palace depict the siege and eventual victory over the Judean city. Battering rams ascend the siege ramp followed by Assyrian soldiers. Hebrew archers and soldiers throwing rocks try to defend the city from the attackers. The battle proceeds in each panel of the reliefs. The city falls. Assyrian soldiers capture some of the Hebrew soldiers and impale others. In another scene, the city gate is opened and the inhabitants flee. Yet another scene has the Assyrian King, Sennacherib on his throne overseeing the battle while captives come and bow before him.
The Lachish reliefs display in vivid detail this biblical battle. Moreover, archaeological excavations at the city of Lachish itself have uncovered the remains of the Assyrian siege ramp on the northwest corner of the Tell (mound).
What is really interesting about Sennacherib’s campaign is that he never captured Jerusalem. The Bible describes how God came to the rescue of King Hezekiah and Jerusalem. Sennacherib himself could only brag that he had walled King Hezekiah up in is city “like a bird in a cage.” Had Sennacherib taken the Judean capital, the reliefs on the walls of his palace would have been those of the capture of Jerusalem. The best he could boast about was taking the Judahite city of Lachish.
FOR FURTHER STUDY: http://etc.ancient.eu/photos/siege-lachish-reliefs-british-museum/
3) Silver Ketef Hinnom Scrolls
In 1979-80, excavations led by Gabriel Barkay in a series of burial caves at Ketef Hinnom led to the discovery of two amulets which dated to the 7th century B.C. Each amulet was a rolled up sheet of silver each with an inscription. When translated they revealed biblical passages, including the Priestly Benediction.
Num 6:24-26 reads, “The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.”
The silver scrolls read, “May Yahweh bless you and keep you; May Yahweh cause his face to Shine upon you and grant you Peace.”
Further tests in 1994 resulted in new high-resolution digital photographs which allowed scholars to identify traces of new letters and clarify those letters that were difficult to read. Moreover, it confirmed the date, based on the palaeography of late seventh century BC to early sixth century BC. The new images also allowed scholars to better decipher the inscriptions, which demonstrated that they referred to other Old Testament passages as well. Amulet I (Lines 2-7) speak of God keeping his covenant with Israel as well as his graciousness and love toward those who love Him and keep His commandments – a clear references to Deut. 7:9
The Ketef Hinnom scrolls contain the oldest portion of Scripture ever found outside of the Bible and significantly predate even the earliest Dead Sea Scrolls. They also contain the oldest extra-biblical reference to YHWH. Furthermore, they provide evidence that the books of Moses were not written in the exilic or post-exilic period as some have suggested. Finally, they demonstrate the accuracy of scribes who copied the Scriptures over hundreds of years.
2) Tel Dan Stele
Throughout the 1980’s and early 1990’s a movement called Bible minimalism was growing. Minimalists believe the Bible is of minimal value historically, given that it’s not really reliable, in their opinion. One of their prime targets was King David. For example, University of Sheffield Professor, Dr. Philip R. Davies, stated, “I’m not the only scholar who suspects that the figure of King David is about as historical as King Arthur.” Archaeologist, Israel Finkelstien has claimed, “The united kingdom of David and Solomon, described in the Bible as a regional power, was at most, a small tribal kingdom….David’s kingdom was simply 500 people with sticks in their hands shouting and cursing and spitting.” Bible minimalists asserted that King David’s expanded kingdom, as described in the Bible were nothing more than legend and myth.
In 1993 archaeologists were digging at Tel Dan, the site of the ancient city of Dan in northern Israel. While excavating part of a wall, they discovered a broken stone, approximately 32 cm high by 22 cm wide, with an Aramaic inscription on it. The next year, two more fragments of the stele were unearthed. The inscription caused an instant sensation, and put minimalists, who had crowed about the fact that there was no evidence for King David outside of the Bible, squarely on the defensive.
The stele records the victory of the King of Aram (most likely Hazael, although he is not named) over the King of Israel, and his ally, the king of the “House of David.” It dates to the ninth century B.C., about 200 years after David’s rule. The phrase, “House of David,” set the archaeological world afire. For the first time, there was a clear, widely-acknowledged reference to David. Archaeologist, Yosef Garfinkel explains the importance of the inscription: “‘House of David’ means ‘dynasty of David’. So now we know that there was a guy called David and he had a dynasty…this is absolutely clear that David is not a mythological figure. So the mythological paradigm collapsed in one moment.”
1) Dead Sea Scrolls
In 1947 a Bedouin goat herder accidentally discovered several manuscripts in a cave at Qumran near the Dead Sea. He delivered them to a Christian antiquities dealer in Bethlehem, which eventually caught the attention of scholars worldwide. Between in 1947 and 1956 numerous excavations of 30 more caves resulted in discovering more scrolls in 11 of those caves. In all over 980 manuscripts dating from the 3rd century BC to the 1st century AD were found. 230 of these manuscripts turned out to be portions of the Hebrew Scriptures. While most of these manuscripts were fragmentary, a complete copy of Isaiah was discovered, and every book of the Old Testament was represented except for the book of Esther.
Before this discovery, the earliest complete Old Testament manuscript was the Leningrad Codex, dating to 1008 AD. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls allowed scholars to see how much the biblical text had changed in over 1000 years of transmission. The answer: very little had changed.
In their book, The Popular Handbook of Archaeology and the Bible, Holden and Geisler sum up the significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls:
“The scrolls proved to be an important link in an unbroken chain of texts that contribute to establishing the textual reliability of the Old Testament Scriptures – a chain whose links date from 600 BC (the Ketef Hinnom Scrolls) to AD 1008 (Codex Leningradensis)…The Dead Sea manuscripts give scholars biblical texts that date over 1000 years earlier than any previously known Hebrew manuscripts. It s important to note that these texts come from a time where no authorized standard text existed from which to transmit the Hebrew Bible, and therefore, greatly informed scholars of the process of transmission and the care with which the Hebrew Scriptures were copied through the centuries.”
Many people today write off the Bible as a book of myths and legends. Some, with questionable logic, dismiss it as unreliable simply because it is a “religious book.” I believe these ten discoveries – but a few of the hundreds that have been made – confirm that the Old Testament is a historically accurate document which has been reliably transmitted over millennia.
EVEN MORE DISCOVERIES:
There are many, many other discoveries that I wanted to include on this list but could as this blog is long enough already. Consider the following discoveries as “honorable mentions” for further research:
- The Taylor Prism
- The Nabonidus Cylinder
- The Lachish Letters
- The Berlin Pedestal
- The Shishak City List from the Temple at Karnak
- The Megiddo/Jeroboam II Seal
- The Soleb Inscription
- Annals of Tiglath-Pileser III
- Palace of Sargon II at Khorsabad
- The Epitaph of Uzziah
- Arad Ostracon with the phrase “House of Yahweh”
- The walls of Jericho
- The city gates of Hazor, Gezer and Megiddo
- Khirbet el-Maqatir (the city of Ai in Joshua 7&8)