Top Three Reports in Biblical Archaeology – April 2023

Over the past month several important studies were published related to the world of the Bible. Here were the top three reports in biblical archaeology in April 2023.

3. Severed Hands Discovered in Egypt are Evidence of Trophy Taking

Some of the severed hands discovered in Egypt at Tell el-Dab’a (the site of the ancient Hyksos capital of Avaris). Photo: From the open access journal Scientific Reports /

A new study in the journal Scientific Reports concludes that 12 severed hands discovered in 2011 at Tell el-Dab’a (the site of the ancient Hyksos capital of Avaris) constitute the first bioarchaeological evidence of the gruesome “trophy taking” practice of amputating the right hands of defeated enemies. Ancient reliefs and inscriptions from Egypt describe a ceremony in which soldiers would present the severed right hands of enemies to Pharaoh in order to be rewarded. The hands from Tell el-Dab’a were discovered buried, palms facing down, in several pits within the courtyard of a Hyksos palace that may have been in use from ca. 1640 to 1530 BC. Examination of the hands revealed that they were from 11 adult males and one female, that they were likely buried within 24 to 48 hours after death, and that the tendons and ligaments held the bones together. The authors of the study concludes that the discovery supports the reality of the ancient Egyptian ‘gold of honor’ ceremony where severed hands would be offered to the pharaoh. The practice of presenting severed body parts to the king for reward is referred to in 1 Samuel 18:27: “David arose and went, along with his men, and killed two hundred of the Philistines. And David brought their foreskins, which were given in full number to the king, that he might become the king’s son-in-law. And Saul gave him his daughter Michal for a wife” (ESV).



2. New Study Ties the Ophel Pithos Inscription to the Queen of Sheba

The Ophel pithos inscription. Photo: Ouria Tadmor / (c) Dr. Eilat Mazar

In a new study in the Jerusalem Journal of Archaeology, Dr. Daniel Vainstub proposes that the Ophel pithos inscription is written in Ancient South Arabian script and is connected with the account of the Queen of Sheba’s visit to Jerusalem in the days of Solomon (1 Kings 10:1–13). The inscription was discovered in 2012 during the Ophel excavations led by Dr. Eilat Mazar, and has been dated to the tenth century BC. Most epigraphers believe the inscription is written in an ancient Canaanite script, although establishing a coherent translation has proved difficult. Vainstub believes that the inscription is not Canaanite, but rather comes from the region that was once the kingdom of Sheba. According to his translation, it refers to ladanum, an aromatic resin that was an ingredient in the incense used in Israelite worship (Ex 30:34–38). Because the pithos bearing the inscription was made of clay that originated in Jerusalem, Vainstub suggests that a scribe from Sheba who was fluent in Ancient South Arabian oversaw the trade in spices between the two kingdoms.



1. Third-Century Syriac Translation of the Gospel of Matthew Found

A palimpsest under UV light revealing a Syriac translation of the Gospel of Matthew. Photo: Vatican Library

A scholar from the Austrian Academy of Sciences has discovered a palimpsest fragment of a third-century Syriac translation of the Gospel of Mathew in the Vatican Library. The Syriac Gospel of Matthew was erased over 1,300 years ago by a scribe who reused the parchment for another work. In a study published in the journal, New Testament Studies, Grigory Kessel reports that the manuscript was discovered while researchers were using ultraviolet light to reveal the hidden text that had been erased. In this case, it turned out to be a double palimpsest, as text had been erased twice to make room for new writing, resulting in three layers of text. The Syriac Gospel of Matthew was written on the parchment sometime in the third century but was erased in the sixth century so that a Greek work called the Apophthegmata Patrum could be recorded. Finally, this was erased in the tenth century  and the parchment was reused to write a collection of Georgian hymns. This manuscript is only the fourth known textual witness to the Old Syriac translation of the Gospels discovered to date.



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