Scholar’s Chair Interview: Dr. Lawrence J. Mykytiuk

I’ve decided to start a new feature on my blog called, “Scholar’s Chair.”  It will be similar to my “Discussions with the Diggers” feature, in which I interview archaeologists.  With “Scholars Chair,” I will be inviting various scholars to sit in a virtual chair to be interviewed about issues related to biblical archaeology.

My first guest is Dr. Lawrence J. Mykytiuk (prounounced MICKey-took, as in: What did Mickey take?).  Dr. Mykytiuk is Emeritus Professor of Library Science at Purdue University, where he has a continuing courtesy appointment as an Associate Professor of History.  His research focuses primarily on the historicity of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, on which he has published both evidences and bibliographic surveys. 

Dr. Mykytiuk may be best-known to my readers from four important articles he published in Biblical Archaeology Review:

  • “Archaeology Confirms 50 Real People in the Bible” (March/April 2014)
  • “Archaeology Confirms 3 More Bible People” (May/June 2017) 
  • “New Testament Political Figures” (September/October 2017)
  • “Did Jesus Exist? Searching for Evidence Beyond the Bible” (January/February 2015)

Much of his research is freely available online here:

Dr. Mykytiuk, welcome to the Bible Archaeology Report.  It’s a pleasure to have you join us for the inaugural Scholar’s Chair column.  Thank you for joining me.

BIBLE ARCHAEOLOGY REPORT:  What sparked your interest in researching the evidence for people named in Scripture?

The bulla (seal impression) of “Yehozarakh, the son of Hilkiah, servant of Hezekiah” Photo © The Israel Museum, Jerusalem

DR. LAWRENCE MYKYTIUK: Thank you so much for inviting me, Bryan. It was a tiny lump of clay the size of a fingernail, called a bulla. In ancient Israel, bullae were used to seal documents or containers. A stone seal or signet ring was pressed into each bulla, leaving an inscription in ancient Hebrew letters. The one that attracted me gave a man’s name and his father’s name, then it said, “servant of Hezekiah.” It was in the ancient Hebrew language, and according to the article I was reading, it was datable to the time of the biblical King Hezekiah, around 700 BC/BCE.

When the word translated “servant” or “minister” appears in ancient stone seals and clay bullae, it’s always followed by the name of a king, the name of a deity, or the word for “the king.”  This bulla could only refer to the biblical Hezekiah, king of Judah. I could not take my eyes off the inscription. I had no idea that any such thing existed.

A drawing of the Yehozarakh bulla by Mrs. Margalith Eichelberg, Jerusalem. Image: Israel Exploration Journal,
vol. 24, no. 1 (1974), p. 27.

Slowly, silently, my lips formed the word: Wow.

That was in 1992, when biblical minimalism’s misguided denials of the historical value of the Hebrew Bible created a great stir and spirited opposition. Ever since then, I have been researching ancient inscriptions that refer to people in the Bible. I have published 53, and recently I arrived at strong identifications of three more in the Hebrew Bible. New candidates keep appearing in inscriptions that are being excavated.

BIBLE ARCHAEOLOGY REPORT:  Can you briefly summarize the set of criteria you used in your process for evaluating whether a person has been historically verified or not?

DR. LAWRENCE MYKYTIUK: Sure. I would rather say “confirmed” than verified, because “verified” gives the impression of imputing more credibility to inscriptions than to the Bible.  Even in secular terms, the Bible itself is an ancient source, no less authoritative than ancient inscriptions.

My dissertation arrived at three overarching criteria, all of which must be met to identify a reference to a person in the Bible:

First, authentic data: the inscription must be known to be authentic, not perhaps authentic. Items from the antiquities market are notoriously suspected of forgery. Also, biblical reference(s) to the person must be well supported in ancient Bible manuscripts.

Second, the settings (time and place) must match. Regarding time, the person in the inscription and the person in the Bible must within about 50 years of each other, since that is a plausible period for a person’s active life in the ancient world. Regarding place: they must also come from the same socio-political “place,” usually a kingdom. Examples are mid-ninth-century Israelite and early sixth-century Ammonite.

Third, identifying marks of an individual must point to one person. They must be sufficient to ensure that the inscription and the biblical text are not referring to two different persons.

The Kurkh Monolith, a victory stele of Shalmaneser III, names “Ahab the Israelite” as a combatant at the Battle of Qarqar. Photo: A.D. Riddle, BiblePlaces.com

Kings are often easy to identify with complete certainty, because biblical chronology tells us when the biblical king reigned, and often their enemies name them in claims to victory in war. Thus Ahab, a mid-ninth-century king of Israel (1 Kings 16-22), is named as “Ahab the Israelite” in a mid-ninth-century Assyrian enemy king’s victory monument.

For identifications that are not as easy, three or more marks of an individual are enough to identify someone with virtual certainty. Such marks may include name, father’s or husband’s name, title, and workplace. Three marks reduce to a negligible minimum the chances of mistakenly identifying two different people as one and the same person.

BIBLE ARCHAEOLOGY REPORT:  Give us an example of an inscription that people once thought verified someone in the Bible, only to later find out it didn’t.  How would your process have prevented this erroneous identification?

A seal impression purported to be that of Baruch, son of Neriah. Photo: Todd Bolen, BiblePlaces.com

DR. LAWRENCE MYKYTIUK: Beginning in 1978, there was intense interest in a Hebrew bulla translated “Belonging to Berekyahu, the son of Neriyahu, the scribe.”  The apparent reference was to the biblical “Baruch the scribe, the son of Neriah” (Jeremiah 36:32). Baruch is the shortened form of Berekyahu in the bulla, just as Neriah is short for Neriyahu.  This bulla appeared on the antiquities market, so it might easily have been a forgery, but people were attracted to it because it provided three marks of an individual and seemed to be a spectacular slam dunk. In 1994, a second bulla was published that was apparently made from the same seal.

Eventually the question about authenticity was answered in an excellent article in Maarav by Christopher Rollston, who revealed an error in the last line of the inscription, in the placement of two letters in relation to each other. One letter should have been far higher than the other, towering over it, but in the bullae, they were at about the same height. Although a few experts still try to cling to the authenticity of the bulla, I fully accept Rollston’s analysis and verdict, that it is a likely forgery.

The first of the three questions above, regarding authenticity, prevented me from giving any real endorsement to the identification of the biblical Baruch the scribe, the son of Neriah, in these two inscriptions.  Even today, however, you can go online and still find ringing affirmations of the identifications of the biblical Baruch in these two bullae.

BIBLE ARCHAEOLOGY REPORT:  You’ve published several significant articles in BAR: “Archaeology Confirms 50 Real People in the Bible,” along with the follow-up article, ““Archaeology Confirms 3 More Bible People.”  In addition, you wrote, “New Testament Political Figures Confirmed,” in which you identified 23 more people in the NT era.  Based on your research, what have you concluded about the general credibility of the Bible from a historical point of view?

DR. LAWRENCE MYKYTIUK: My limitations:

History depends on evidence.  I have not published on the Bible’s supernatural aspect, which relates to faith in God.  Further, the field of biblical studies is so vast that all researchers end up depending on others.  It is important to point out that I have not studied all relevant archaeological remains, and only some of the best part: writings from biblical times.  Because the writings I have worked with come from after the lifetime of David, who lived around 1000 BC/BCE, I will refrain from any general comments based on historical evidence outside of the Bible regarding any eras before 1000.  

My conclusion:

Quite apart from religious faith, and based on a large amount of clear, concrete evidence, I find no reason to reject—and many reasons to accept—the general historical credibility of the Bible, beginning with David and going on to later people and events.  Historical research on the Bible for periods before David is challenging, so be my guest (smile)!  The ravages of time have destroyed huge amounts of physical and written artifacts.  Still, if only on the remaining historical evidence, we have reason enough to take the biblical account of the past very seriously and to accept much of its account of the past.  

On historical evidence from periods in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament before and after 1000 BC/BCE, I suggest consulting the publications of many other researchers.  Among them are (in alphabetical order) Richard E. Averbeck, Avraham Faust, Richard S. Hess, James K. Hoffmeier, K. A. Kitchen, Jens Bruun Kofoed, Thomas E. Levy, Amihai Mazar, Alan R. Millard, Benjamin A. Noonan, Gary A. Rendsburg, Ephraim Stern, John H. Walton, K. Lawson Younger Jr., and many other worthy scholars.  

BIBLE ARCHAEOLOGY REPORT:  One of the biggest finds in biblical archaeology in 2019 was the bulla that was unearthed in Jerusalem that bore the inscription, ““[belonging] to Nathan-Melech, Servant of the King.”  Based on your criteria, do you believe the inscription and the archaeological context are strong enough evidence to conclude this was the seal of the Nathan-Melech who was official in the court of King Josiah (2 Kings 23:11)?

DR. LAWRENCE MYKYTIUK: My answer is that it is very likely to virtually certain that the bulla is that of the biblical Nətan-melekh.  (By the way, both letter e’s in melekh are pronounced as in the English word get.)  On objective grounds, I agree with Israeli epigrapher Anat Mendel-Geberovich that we cannot be absolutely certain it refers to this person in the Bible, and also with epigrapher Christopher Rollston that the identification is in the range from very likely to virtually certain.  I have sketched out the objective rationale for my conclusion, and it awaits publication.  

The “Natan-Melech” bulla found in the City of David. Photo Credit: Eliyahu Yanai, City of David.

BIBLE ARCHAEOLOGY REPORT:  Congratulations on your retirement from Purdue University.  What’s next on the horizon for you?

DR. LAWRENCE MYKYTIUK: God willing, I hope to publish three books.  I plan the first to be on inscriptions from biblical times that refer to people in the Bible, the second on Psalm 22 as predictive prophecy, and the third on Divine providences in my life.  I would appreciate prayer for the research, writing, and publication of these books.

I’d like to thank Dr. Mykytiuk for taking the time to answer my questions and for sharing with us his criteria for confirming the historicity of biblical people. 

I highly recommend Dr. Mykytiuk’s book, Identifying Biblical Persons in Northwest Inscriptions of 1200-539 B.C.E. for those who want to go deeper into the criteria he uses to determine whether inscriptions truly identify a particular person in the Bible.  It is available from SBL Press here: https://secure.aidcvt.com/sbl/ProdDetails.asp?ID=065012P&PG=1&Type=BL&PCS=SBL#

See also: Lawrence J. Mykytiuk, “Corrections and Updates to ‘Identifying Biblical Persons in Northwest Semitic Inscriptions of 1200̶–539 B.C.E.,’” Maarav16.1 (2009): 49-132; downloadable without charge at https://docs.lib.purdue.edu/lib_research/129/ .

Disclaimer: I allow each scholar to answer in his or her own words and may or may not agree with his or her interpretation.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s