NOTE: Here is the video version of this blog, from Episode 156 of the TV show, Digging for Truth, by the Associates for Biblical Research (biblearchaeology.org).
I love being able to look back at all that has occurred in biblical archaeology in the past 12 months. Despite the ongoing effects of the pandemic which cancelled numerous digs, many important discoveries were made. These finds both affirm details in Scripture and help us understand the biblical text in greater detail. As I do each year, I choose the ten discoveries that I feel are the most significant.
If you’re new to my annual top ten list, here are my criteria:
- These discoveries must be directly related to people, places or events mentioned in Scripture, or to the composition of Scripture itself.
- They must be discoveries or new studies about discoveries, as opposed to announcements.
You can also read my past top ten lists here: 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, and 2016, as well as the Top Ten Discoveries of the Decade (2010-2019), and Top Ten Discoveries of All-Time Relating to Both the Old and New Testaments.
With that said, here are the top ten discoveries in Biblical archaeology in 2021.
10. Evidence of Earthquake from the Time of King Uzziah Discovered in Jerusalem (Aug. 2021)
Archaeologists excavating in Jerusalem, near the Temple Mount and a First-Temple-era wall unearthed evidence of an 8th century BC earthquake. The earliest floor of the southernmost room of a building bore evidence of destruction, but not by fire, and was dated to a time period when no known conquest of Jerusalem occurred. Stones from an upper part of the northern walls had collapsed, shattering a row of vessels that had been along the wall beneath. The excavation directors from the Israel Antiquities Authority, Dr. Joe Uziel and Ortal Chalaf, believe this corresponds to the great earthquake which occurred in the days of King Uzziah, and is mentioned in Amos 1:1 and Zech. 14:5. Archaeological evidence for “Uzziah’s earthquake” has been found at other sites in Israel, including at Hazor and Tell es-Safi/Gath, but this is the first time archaeologists have identified evidence of this earthquake in Jerusalem. A similar 8th-century destruction layer was noted in a collapsed building 100 meters south of the current dig, which was excavated by Yigal Shiloh in the 1970’s, but it was not associated with Uzziah’s earthquake at that time.
9. 2700-Year-Old Toilet Discovered in Jerusalem (Oct. 2021)
An ancient bathroom, complete with a toilet, was discovered in-situ near the Armon Hanatziv promenade in Jerusalem. The cubical is part of the 7th-century BC palatial structure in which several Judahite capitals were unearthed in 2020 (the number one discovery of 2020). The lavatory cubical is approximately 1.5m by 2m (5ft by 6.5ft), and includes a septic tank beneath the toilet hewn out of the limestone bedrock. A carved stone toilet seat with a hole in the center was found positioned over the septic tank. Dozens of bowls were also found in the room, leading scholars to speculate they may have been used for incense to make the room smell better. Private toilets like this were considered a luxury during the era of the kings of Judah, and this is more evidence of the important nature of the structure.
8. Evidence of Roman Crucifixion Discovered in the UK (Dec. 2021)
The skeleton of a crucified man from Roman England was recently unearthed in the UK with a nail embedded in one his heel bones. The remains were found in a cemetery which held the graves of 48 people and dated to the third or fourth century AD. The victim was approximately 25-35 years old at the time of his death, and his skeleton displayed evidence of poor dental health and arthritis. He also had thinning leg bones, which archaeologists believe indicate he had been chained to a wall for a considerable period of time before he was executed. While Roman crucifixion is widely known from ancient writings, this is one of only a few archaeological discoveries that provide evidence of this type of punishment. The most famous find was unearthed in Jerusalem in 1968 when a first-century ossuary (bone box) containing the skeleton of a crucified victim were found in a tomb. The victim, named Jehohanen, also had a nail embedded in his heel bone, indicated he had been crucified. That artifact was named the number one discovery in biblical archaeology related to the New Testament. NOTE: Had this discovery dated to the first century, it would have been higher up this list; still, it is an important discovery.
7. Davidic-Era “Royal Purple” Dye Found on Ancient Cloth (Jan. 2021)
Scholars have identified “argaman” royal purple dye on three pieces of ancient fabric discovered at Slaves Hill, an ancient copper smelting camp in the Timna Valley. The results of their study were published in a recent article in the journal PLOS One entitled, “Early evidence of royal purple dyed textile from Timna Valley (Israel).” The dry conditions at Timna preserved the cloth, which was dated using Carbon-14 to 1000 BC, roughly the time of King David. Researchers tested the textiles at the Bar Ilan University laboratory using High Pressure Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) analysis, which identified molecules of 6-monobromoindigotin and 6,6-dibromoindigotin, unique to murex sea snails. Dye from murex snails was used in ancient times to produce the rich color, also known as Tyrian purple, which was highly-prized among elite and royals. This purple dye, known in the Hebrew Bible as “argaman” is mentioned in numerous passages, and is associated with the Tabernacle (Ex 26:1; 27:16) and royalty (Sg 3:10; Est 1:6). The authors of the study suggest that this discovery will shed new light on the fashions of the elite and royalty in the early Edomite and Israelite kingdoms 3000-years ago.
6. Inscriptions Discovered in “Church of the Apostles” at El-Araj/Bethsaida? (Oct. 2021)
Excavators at El-Araj, a candidate for the site of New Testament Bethsaida, unearthed two inscriptions which they believe demonstrates they have found the remains of the Byzantine “Church of the Apostles.” The Byzantine church is said to have been built over the house of Peter and Andrew in Bethsaida, and was described by Willibald, Bishop of Bavaria, in AD 725. The two inscriptions are incomplete, but enough is left to determine that one is a dedication to a bishop and describes renovations to the church during his time in office, and the other mentions the church deacon who built the compound. In addition, more flowing mosaics and walls were unearthed, which are oriented in an east-west direction, typical of many Byzantine churches. The excavators also discovered that the church was mysteriously buried after it was destroyed by an earthquake in AD 749. Walls were built on top of it along the exact outline of the original structure. In recent years, the excavators of both El-Araj and Et-Tell (located 3 km inland from the shore of the Sea of Galilee), have claimed to be the site of Bethsaida.
5. Stela of Pharaoh Hophra Discovered in Farmer’s Field (June 2021)
A stela naming the Egyptian Pharaoh Wahibre (known as Hophra in Hebrew, Apries in Greek) was recently found by a farmer who was cultivating his field; he immediately turned it over to the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities. The stela is carved out of sandstone and has the winged sun-disk and the cartouche of Wahibre on the rounded lunette at the top. Wahibre (Hophra/Apries) was a pharaoh of the 26th dynasty who ruled from ca. 589–570 BC. Egyptian Antiquities authorities believe the stela was erected during one of his military campaigns towards the east. The Bible records that King Zedekiah rebelled against the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar (Ez 17:15), who had placed him on the throne (2 Kgs 24:15-17), and turned to Egypt for help. Hophra’s army marched to Zedekiah’s aid, and Nebuchadnezzar’s army withdrew from attacking Jerusalem (Jer. 37:5-8). It will be interesting to see if the recently-discovered stele of Hophra is related to this campaign. Pharaoh Hophra is mentioned by name in Jeremiah 44:30, which reads, “This is what the LORD says: ‘I am going to hand Pharaoh Hophra king of Egypt over to his enemies who seek his life, just as I handed Zedekiah king of Judah over to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, the enemy who was seeking his life.’” It should be noted that, the stela was discovered in Ismailia, Egypt, only 29 miles south of the ancient city of Taphanhes, where Jeremiah had been taken (Jer. 43:6-7) and from where he made the prophecy against Pharaoh Hophra (Jer. 44:1).
4. New Fragments Discovered Near the Dead Sea (March 2021)
For the first time in over 60 years, fragments from a scroll have been found in a cave in the Dead Sea region. The scroll contains portions of the book of the 12 minor prophets, including text from Zechariah and Nahum written mainly in Greek, with the name of God is written in Hebrew. It may be a missing part of the Minor Prophets scroll which was discovered in 1952. The new fragments were discovered in the “Cave of Horror” in Nahal Hever, where over 24 human skeletons were previously discovered. In addition to the scroll fragments, the surveyors also found a cache of coins from time of the Bar Kochba revolt, the mummified remains of a child, and what may prove to be the world’s oldest basket. These discoveries were made as part of a national search to find ancient artifacts in the Dead Sea region before looters do. The discovery of the original Dead Sea Scrolls was named the number one find in biblical archaeology related to the Old Testament.
Dr. Randall Price, an expert on the Dead Sea Scrolls and one of the men behind the discovery of the new Dead Sea Scroll cave in 2017, provided the following helpful commentary on the recent announcement: “These texts, though called ‘Dead Sea Scrolls’ because of their being found in a cave in the Dead Sea region, are not to be confused with those scholars believe were collected, produced and preserved by the Jewish Community at Qumran…The scroll fragments found at Nahal Hever are from a later period and a different Jewish community….Aside from the historical and religious value such finds have for the academic community, this announcement comes as a continuing reminder of the treasures that remain in hiding in the many caves of the Dead Sea region and the urgent need for archaeologists to recover these materials before they are lost forever to local looters.”
3. Oldest Alphabetic Text in Israel Discovered at Lachish (April 2021)
In 2018, archaeologists excavating a Canaanite settlement at Lachish unearthed a 3500-year-old pottery sherd from a decorated Cypriot bowl which was inscribed with characters. In a recent article in the journal Antiquity, researcher Felexi Hoflmayer, has analyzed the text and suggests it is the oldest alphabetic yet discovered in Israel. According to the study, the Lachish ostracon dates to the mid-15th century BC, based on stratigraphy and was discovered in a large building that was once a part of the Late Bronze Age fortifications at Lachish. The words on the ostracon are difficult to decipher as the text is short, incomplete, and the direction in which it should be read is unclear. Still, researchers are hailing the find as an important step in filling in the gap in the history of alphabetic scripts between the earliest inscriptions in the Sinai and the later texts of Canaan. Some of the earliest alphabetic inscriptions come from Serabit el-Khadim, an ancient Egyptian turquoise mine in the southern Sinai, and were likely written by Semitic slaves from Egypt as early as the 19th century BC. Dr. Doug Petrovich, from The Bible Seminary, has studied the inscriptions from Serabit el-Khadim and believes that the language behind the world’s oldest alphabet is Hebrew. Future study of the Lachish ostracon will help us understand the development of the earliest alphabet script and may lead to an understanding of the language behind it.
2. Second Ancient Synagogue Discovered at Magdala (Dec. 2021)
The expansion of a highway near the ancient Galilean town of Magdala (now known as Migdal) has led to the discovery of an ancient synagogue. This is the second synagogue dating to the Second-Temple period that has been discovered at Magdala. The first synagogue was discovered in 2009 and was larger and more ornate than the recently discovered structure. The newly-found synagogue has a main hall with two side rooms and is constructed out of volcanic basalt and limestone. Six pillars would have held up the roof; the bases of two of these were found. The walls were plastered and still bear evidence of paintings on them. A small room at the south end of the main hall had a shelf which may have been used to store the Torah scrolls. The structure was dated by the glassware, pottery and coins that were unearthed within. The two synagogues of Magdala were situated less than 700 feet (200 meters) apart: the first was in an industrial area, the second on a residential street. This is the first time two ancient synagogues from the Second-Temple period have been discovered in the same town. Dina Avshalom-Gorni, the co-director of the dig, is quoted as saying, “The more we study this time, the more we realize that synagogues were very common.” This discovery affirms the biblical description of Jesus’ ministry: “And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction.” (Mt 9:35).
1. Biblical Name Jerubbaal Found on Pottery Sherd from the Time of the Judges (July 2021)
An ostracon (a pottery sherd with writing) bearing the name Jerubbaal, has been unearthed at Khirbat er-Ra‘I, located near the ancient city of Lachish. Jerubbaal (“Let Baal contend against him”) was the nickname that Gideon was given after he destroyed the altar of Baal (Judges 6:32). The ostracon dates to the 12th-11th century BC (ie. the time of the Judges) based on typology and radiocarbon dating from organic samples taken from the same archaeological layer in which it was found. The name Jerubbaal is only ever used for Gideon in the Bible, and this is the first discovery of it in an archaeological context. Due to the uniqueness and rarity of the name, some scholars believe this to be a reference to Gideon. Others have urged caution, noting that is impossible to know for certain if this inscription refers to the biblical judge without more information (ie. father’s name, title, or epithet). Regardless, this discovery is significant in that it affirms the name Jerubbaal was used during the time the Bible describes.
Each year I sift through over 200 news reports related to biblical archaeology. I do this both for my own blog and for the Associates for Biblical Research with whom I am a Staff Researcher and Writer. Each week I write a Breaking News update for their website. You can stay up-to-date on the latest BREAKING NEWS in biblical archaeology each week here: https://biblearchaeology.org/current-events-list
For over a century and a half, archaeologists have been unearthing the lands of the Bible, and discovery-after-discovery has affirmed hundreds of historical synchronisms (connections with the biblical text). My friend and colleague at the Associates for Biblical Research, Dr. Scott Stripling, has said, “After 150 years of archaeology in Israel, hundreds of synchronisms [connections] between the material culture and the biblical text have been established. At this point, it takes more faith to believe that the Bible is not true than to believe that it is true.”