Capital Importance: Ancient Judean Capitals Discovered!
While COVID-19 has certainly put a damper on the 2020 archaeological season in Israel, a number of exciting discoveries continue to occur. Just yesterday (Sept. 3, 2020) the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) announced the discovery of three 2700 year old capitals, along with other artifacts. According to the Jerusalem Post, “The capitals are linked to the Davidic Dynasty because such designs from the period of the kingdoms of Israel and Judea have only been found within the areas they ruled. The design has been found from later periods in other locations throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East (Davidic Dynasty Symbol Found in Jerusalem).
The Capitals, which are in perfect condition, were found buried, one on top of the other. It is not known why the capitals were buried. What is known is that they are from either a royal administrative building, or a royal estate. An in-depth interview conducted by Eric Stakelbeck of Christians United for Israel (CUFI) with Ze’ev Orenstein can be found here.
The capitals date from the period between the Assyrian oppression, which resulted in the miraculous deliverance of Jerusalem in the time of King Hezekiah (Isaiah 37), to the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem (586 B.C.). Since the style of these capitals are linked to the Davidic dynasty, it has been memorialized on Israel’s 5 shekel coin (see image below).
A similar capital was discovered in Jerusalem during Kathleen Kenyon’s excavations in the City of David (1961-67). This discovery prompted Israeli archaeologist Eilat Mazar in 2005 to search and uncover what she believes is King David’s Palace. In a video showing a tour of the City of David the guide in the video sits in the building discovered by Mazar. Beginning at 3:30 in the video you can hear him talk about the palace and you can see a replica of the capital that was discovered. Watch the video here. Note the identical nature of this capital to the ones just discovered!
Among other items found were lavishly decorated window frames (seen in the picture above). These window frames, along with the capitals, can be seen in this short video interviewing the archaeologist who discovered them. Other items are currently being studied and investigated. A future announcement will detail what else has been discovered.
Administrative Site of the Kings of Judah Uncovered
The IAA (Israel Antiquities Authority) has recently uncovered a 2700 year old administrative site dating to the time of the biblical kings Hezekiah and Manasseh. This administrative site is located in a neighborhood of Jerusalem where the US Embassy now resides. The neighborhood, known as Arnona, is only 1.8 miles outside the Old City located between Talpiot and Ramat Rachel (where another ancient administrative site also exists). While preparing for a new residential complex two year ago, the discovery was made. As always in Israel, before any building activity can commence, an archaeological survey must be carried out by the IAA. Prior to excavation, the only ancient remains known consisted of a giant hill of flint stones. Excavating led to the discovery of a monumental concentric structure. The size of the site and the other objects discovered has led to the conclusion that it was an administrative site. The announcement about its discovery was released this past week (July 22, 2020).
An Administrative Site for Storage and Collecting Taxes
One of the discoveries includes a large collection of royal Judah seal impressions. The impressions on the handle of storage jars are known as LMLK seal impressions (see photo above). The letters LMLK in Hebrew mean “belonging to the king” (pronounced lam melech). About 120 of these stamped jars were found. Only about 1300 are known from various sites throughout Judah. The jars were normally used for tax collection purposes and included various agricultural items such as olive oil, and wine. The jars also include the names of four cities in Judah: Hebron, Socho, Ziph, and Memshat. Three of these are known from Scripture. The location of the fourth, Memshat, is still a bit of a mystery. These, and other finds, date the site to the eighth and seventh centuries–the time of Hezekiah and Manasseh, kings of Judah. One of the interesting observations to be made is that somehow this site survived the siege of Jerusalem by Sennacherib in 701 BC (Isaiah 37). It continued until the Babylonian destruction in 586 BC and began to be reused shortly after that up through the period of Persian rule.
What Else Was Discovered?
Seals impressions bearing the names of a number of individuals were also found. These individuals are believed to be governmental personnel or wealthy land owners who held economic clout in the area. None of the names are known from the Bible, but they are found on jar handles at other sites in Judah. For the stout of heart who don’t mind reading ancient Hebrew names, here is the list: Naham Abdi, Naham Hatzlihu, Meshalem Elnatan, Zafan Abmetz, Shaneah Azaria, Shalem Acha and Shivna Shachar. Among the other items found are female and animal figurines which the excavators equate with idolatrous practices. This is not a surprise, since this is a well-known feature of ancient Judah. Although Hezekiah sought to rid the land of idolatry (2 Kgs. 18:1-6), his son Manasseh brought it back with a passion (2 Kgs. 21:1-10).
It’s been awhile since I’ve written about the latest archaeological discoveries. This post will cover five recent archaeological discoveries announced in the past five months.
Royal Israelite Complex at Horvat Tevet
As frequently happens in modern Israel, new construction often reveals old treasures. Preparations for the new Highway 65 running through northern Israel in the Jezreel Valley has revealed an ancient Israelite Administrative complex dating to the time of Israel’s kings Omri and Ahab. Dr. Omer Sergi, who co-directs the expedition has stated, “When you go inside the main building at Horvat Tevet, you are standing in the best-preserved building of the House of Omri ever found in Israel.” This main building is described as a royal estate and measures 20 meters (60 ft) long and 30 meters (90 ft.) long. Findings, which include kilns for making pottery, storage jars, textile workshops and grinding stones for milling grain into flour, suggest that this location was part of an administrative complex where officials collected and redistributed agricultural products. For a more detailed description of this discovery see this link at Patterns of Evidence.
Temple Discovered at Motza
Although originally discovered in 2012 (when another highway was being constructed!), Motza has only hit the news recently (although see this article from December 2012 by The Times of Israel). Starting in the Spring of 2019 a fuller study was begun on this interesting place. This is a fascinating discovery. More and more, temples and cultic sites are being discovered in Israel (see my post here and here for example, and see the final item below). This fits in quite well with the Old Testament’s description of high places and unauthorized places of worship. The intriguing part of this recent archaeological discovery is that the temple complex at Motza is only four miles from the Temple Mount in Jerusalem! This temple is believed to have been in use from 900 B.C. through the early sixth century B.C. It is about 2/3 size of Solomon’s Temple and the close proximity to Jerusalem suggests that it operated under the auspices of Jerusalem. It is well known that Solomon sanctioned the building of many temples (1 Kings 11:4-8), and his successors, even the “good” ones are censored by the author of Kings for not removing the high places (e.g., 1 Kings 15:9-14; 22:41-43). Among the fascinating discoveries are some figurines of human heads (see photo below) and some horse figurines with riders. For a more in depth look at this discovery and other photos, click this link on Patterns of Evidence or this link at haaretz. For a more cautious approach about this discovery, see the article at ABR here.
Altar Discovered at Shiloh
A lot of exciting discoveries are being found at the biblical site of Shiloh by the team from ABR (Associates for Biblical Research) under the direction of Dr. Scott Stripling. Past discoveries include animals bones of sacrificial animals that are consistent with the type of animals ancient Israelites would have sacrificed. Many coming from the right side of the animal. Why is this important? Leviticus 7:29-32 notes that the right side of the animal was the portion given to priests. A burn layer at Shiloh has been examined and dated by carbon-14 dating to 1060 B.C., plus or minus 30 years. This is the time period the Bible indicates the destruction of Shiloh by the Philistines. A ceramic pomegranate was discovered in 2018. The significance of the pomegranate is that pomegranates were worn on the garment of the High Priest (Exodus 28:31-35). Another interesting discovery is a large monumental building, dating from the time of the Tabernacle which is in the initial stages of being uncovered. One of the sensational discoveries of the 2019 archaeological season was the discovery of three horns of an altar that is of biblical dimensions. A photo of one of those horns can be seen below. Other discoveries include numerous scarabs and bullae. If you’re interested in watching a two-part series on the recent discoveries at Shiloh hosted by the folks at ABR click here. For further information on the ongoing excavation at Shiloh by ABR click here.
Archaeological Discovery of an Ancient Canaanite Metropolis
A constant theme of this post is how the construction of new highways in Israel leads to surprising archaeological discoveries. None is more surprising or sensational than the discovery at Ein Esur. In the words of excavation director Yitzhak Paz, “The study of this site will change forever what we know about the emergence [and] rise of urbanization in the land of Israel and in the whole region.” It is being called “the New York City of the Early Bronze Age.” The city dates to about 3000 B.C. and there is another city beneath it believed to date 2000 years earlier. This massive city covers 160 acres and, including outlying areas, stretches to about 700 acres. To quote R. Brian Rickett of Patterns of Evidence: “Despite previous paradigms, land surveys, and scholarly consensus, an ancient and well-established city existed in Northern Israel around the time of the establishment of the first Egyptian Kingdom. Furthermore, the newly discovered city is the largest known city to date from this period anywhere in Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, or Syria. Scholarly consensus is already in transition as this new discovery is reshaping everything that was believed about the ancient urbanization process in the land of Israel.” Discoveries like this demonstrate that there is still much to learn about ancient Canaan and that biblical descriptions of large and ancient cities are more reliable than previously thought by more skeptical scholars and archaeologists. This kind of discovery also illustrates that it is premature to come to conclusions based on a lack of evidence, a practice followed by some scholars and archaeologists. One never knows what is lurking just below the surface, waiting to be discovered! To watch a short video on the discovery at Ein Esur click here. You can also check out two articles at The Times of Israel by clicking here.
Ancient Temple Found at Lachish
The archaeologists who have uncovered this new discovery at Lachish are calling it a Canaanite Temple. The reason for this is the numerous artifacts found including two small bronze “smiting gods” who are believed to represent the Canaanite gods Ba’al or Resheph (see photo below). The structure had two columns and two towers which led into a large hall. There was an inner sanctum (a holy of holies) with two standing stones believed to represent the temple gods (for the plan of the temple, see the drawing below). Some of the other fascinating finds include Egyptian-inspired jewelry, daggers, axe-heads, scarabs, and a gold-plated bottle inscribed with the name of Rameses II. A piece of pottery with Canaanite/Hebrew writing has also been discovered. This writing includes the first time the letter samech has been found in an inscription this old (roughly 1130 B.C.). The temple is dated to the 12th century B.C. The interesting thing about this date is that it falls within the biblical period of the Judges. My own thought is that, unless Lachish had somehow fallen back into Canaanite hands during this period (and there is evidence of two destruction layers dated to the 13th and 12th centuries B.C.), it is possible that this temple may further confirm the rampant idolatry of the Judges period, as described in the Book of Judges (Judges 2:11-13). The discovery of the writing on the piece of pottery also provides further evidence that there was an alphabetic system in use during this time (at least in certain areas of Canaan). For further information on this archeological discovery see the article by the Jerusalem Post here, or the very informative article in The Times of Israel here.
The ancient city of Gath (modern Tell es-Safi) has been experiencing the archaeologist’s spade for the past 23 years under the direction of lead archaeologist Aren Maeir from Bar-Ilan University. This excavation has revealed much about the Philistines, the ancient people who lived there. Perhaps, most famously, a piece of pottery was discovered in the excavation that bears similarities with the name Goliath (see my article here and the photo below). Maeir recently stated, “One of the nice things about excavations at this site – and archaeology in general – is that every time you excavate, there are surprises.” One of those surprises, just recently announced, is the discovery of an older city of Gath laying below the one that has been excavated for the past 23 years. This older city dates to the 11th century B.C., the time of David and Goliath, and is even larger and more impressive than the one Maeir and his team have been excavating over the past, almost, quarter of a century!
Goliath’s Gath is Impressive!
The Jerusalem Post states, “While archaeologists have known for decades that Tell es-Safi contained the ruins of Goliath’s birthplace, the recent discovery beneath a pre-existing site reveals that his native city was a place of even greater architectural grandeur than the Gath of a century later” (for the full article click here). Digging beneath a previously explored area in Gath, this year (2019) the team discovered a large fortified structure with massive stones. Maeir states that the monumental architecture is larger than almost anything found in the Levant during this time period. As an example of the difference in size, Maeir compares the stones of the upper (later) period of the city (1.6 feet, or 1/2 meter long) with what he calls the “Goliath layer” recently discovered (3.2 – 6.5 feet, or between 1-2 meters). The walls of the older layer are also twice the width of the later walls (13 feet wide as opposed to 6.5 – 8 feet wide). The area covered by ancient Gath is also impressive. Maeir states that it covered about 123.5 acres, more than twice the size of comparable cities in the Levant. By comparison, the city of Jerusalem is estimated to have been about 10 acres in the time of David! For more details on the impressive size of Gath, see the excellent article in The Times of Israel.
Interpretation of the Find and Presuppositions
As we are all aware, all of us have certain presuppositions in our approach to anything in life. The same is true for archaeologists and biblical scholars. Maeir’s presuppositions differ from mine. He believes that much of the Bible was written at a later time period than the events that are described. Consequently he also believes that the Bible contains various myths, legends, and inaccuracies. As a result, he has suggested that the story of the gigantic size of Goliath (and others) may be related to the size of this ancient city and its walls. He thinks that ancient people would have reasoned that giant walls require giants to build them. Thus he does not believe the story of David and Goliath is literally true but derives from some such supposition.
Although Goliath may not be as tall as some think that he was (see my article here), I do respectfully disagree with Professor Maeir, since I hold to a strong view of the inspiration of Scripture. In my opinion, the power and sophistication of the Philistines and their great city of Gath, which has been revealed through archaeology, only confirms what the Bible has to say about them. They are pictured as a more technologically advanced society than the Israelites (e.g., 1 Sam. 13:19-22), as well as a dangerous and powerful foe. Many of the articles announcing this discovery are running with Professor Maeir’s theory. I for one, cannot agree. While we may not always be in agreement with the presuppositions and conclusions of others, we are certainly debtors to the men and women archaeologists who are uncovering the rich history of Israel’s past.
For other articles related to this recent discovery, see the following links:
Fearing that Saul would one day catch up with him, David, his six hundred men and their families, fled to King Achish, king of Gath (1 Sam. 27:1-4). After spending some time there and pretending to be a loyal vassal, David prevailed on Achish to give him his own city. Achish chose Ziklag and David, his troops and their families, turned a former Philistine town into an Israelite town (1 Sam. 27:5-7).
According to 1 Samuel 27:7, David spent 16 months in the land of the Philistines. Presumably, most of that time was spent at Ziklag. From Ziklag, David and his men carried out raids against the enemies of Judah in the South (1 Sam. 27:8). However, when reporting his activities to Achish, he would inform him that he had been attacking areas in southern Judah associated with Israelite allies and inhabitants (1 Sam. 27:10-12).
When the Philistines gathered their troops to fight against Saul, Achish expected David, as a loyal vassal, to accompany him (1 Sam. 28:1-2). However, the other Philistine commanders did not trust David and his men and sent them packing back to Ziklag (1 Sam. 29:1-11). During the time that David and his men were absent from Ziklag, the Amalekites, a perennial enemy of Israel (and among those whom David had attacked—1 Sam. 27:8), captured the defenseless city of Ziklag. They set it on fire and took all of the families of David and his men captive (1 Sam. 30:1-4). The story turns out well for David and his men as they pursue the Amalekites and are able to save their families (1 Sam. 30:18-20).
Identification of Khirbet a-Ra‘i as Ziklag
The dig at Khirbet a-Ra‘i commenced in 2015. The leaders of this excavation include archaeologists who also excavated Khirbet Qeiyafa. Khirbet a-Ra‘i is located between Kiryat Gat and Lachish. Keimer, one of the lead archaeologists states that three elements must exist for a city to qualify as the location of Ziklag. 1. 12th-century BCE Philistine habitation; 2. 10th century settlement, and; 3. a destruction layer. All of these are present at Khirbet a-Ra‘i. Regarding other possible candidates for the location of Ziklag Keimer stated, “Each candidate had a problem — the sequence, the geography, no destruction layer. But Khirbet a-Ra‘i seems to check all the boxes.”
Other archaeologists are not as convinced. Bar Ilan University Professor Aren Maeir, director of the Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project for the past 23 years, is against the identification. In a phone conversation with The Times of Israel, Maeir said, “This suggestion of Yossi Garfinkel is so unacceptable, it’s unbelievable. There is simply no basis for this. I don’t know how he got to it.” Another prominent archaeologist, Israel Finkelstein, agrees. One of the main arguments by these archaeologists is that the ancient city of Ziklag must be farther south than Khirbet a-Ra‘i. One reason for this is that Joshua 19:5 states that Ziklag was part of the inheritance of the tribe of Simeon, which was given a southern portion of the tribe of Judah. In the map at the top of the page the reader will notice that guesses as to possible locations for Ziklag are much further south of Gath. This isn’t the first time that Maeir and Finkelstein have had disagreements with Garfinkel over biblical sites (e.g., Khirbet Qeiyafa). Only time will tell if Khirbet a-Ra‘i may be ancient Ziklag. Meanwhile, it is certainly another interesting excavation in a land full of fascinating archaeological sites!
For more information on this discovery see the following links:
More evidence has been found confirming the historical existence of Pontius Pilate, the infamous Roman governor who ordered Jesus’ execution. A ring that has the Roman Prefect’s name inscribed on it has come to light. The ring, along with thousands of other artifacts, was actually uncovered in a dig 50 years ago led by Gideon Forster from the University of Jerusalem. The excavation took place at Herodium in 1968-1969, but no one knew the significance of the ring until recently. The (re)discovery of the ring is due to a thorough cleaning and technological advances in photography which revealed a Greek inscription with the name “PILATO” surrounding a wine vessel (see photo on right). The letters “PI” (ΠΙ–Greek) are on the right as one looks at the ring, while the letters “LATO” (ΛΑΤΟ–Greek) are on the left. There seems to be little doubt that the ring is in someway connected with Pontius Pilate. Professor Danny Schwartz in an article in haaretz states, that the name was rare in the Israel of that era. The fact that the ring was discovered at Herodium, one of King Herod’s ancient palace fortresses, also suggests it was connected with a government or administrative official of the time.
One of the intriguing features of the ring is the way in which the name is spelled. Robert Cargill, editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, in a recent post points out that when a name was inscribed on an ancient coin or ring it was usually done in the nominative or genitive case. The name in the nominative (subject) case in Greek would read “PILATOS” (Pilate). In the Greek genitive (possessive) case, it would read “PILATOU” (belonging to Pilate). In other words, the form of Pilate’s name as “PILATO” is unusual. Cargill notes that one explanation of this form, offered by Cate Bonesho of UCLA, is that “PILATO” is a Greek transliteration of the Latin dative form (Latin of course being the language of Roman officials such as Pilate). The dative form denotes an indirect object. Therefore, this form of Pilate’s name would suggest something that is being sent to him. In other words, it would be used by someone working for Pilate (an administrative official) who would use the ring to stamp the goods (taxes) being sent to Pilate. Therefore, whether the ring was worn by Pilate or by an official who sent goods to Pilate–which seems more likely– it still acts as an authentication of the historical existence of Pilate
The ring, however, is only one of two physical evidences for the historical Pilate. In 1961 an inscription was discovered at Caesarea Maritima that contains the name Pilate. When Pilate commissioned this inscription in the first century it served to honor his benefactor and current emperor Tiberius. The stone was reused centuries later and became part of the nearby theatre in Caesarea. As a result, it suffered damage and the inscription is only partially readable. The final letters of Pontius (the “us”) and the name Pilate (PILATUS–the common Latin nominative form, see discussion above), along with the name Tiberius are clearly visible. For more information on Caesarea see my article here and for further information on this inscription see Pilate Stone.
An exciting new discovery has recently been announced regarding the discovery of a small (2 inch/5 cm) sculpted head at Abel Beth Maacah. The discovery is exciting for at least two reasons. First, no human likeness like this has ever been discovered in Israel that dates to this time period. Eran Arie, the Israel museum’s curator of Iron Age and Persian archaeology states that it is one of a kind. “In the Iron Age, if there’s any figurative art, and there largely isn’t, it’s of very low quality. And this is of exquisite quality.” Second, the likeness appears to be that of a king. More on that below, but first, where is Abel Beth Maacah and what is its significance? (For a YouTube video that shows a fly-over of Abel Beth Maacah click here).
Location and Biblical Significance of Abel Beth Maacah
Abel Beth Maacah is located on the northern border of present-day Israel (bordering Lebanon), at the northern end of the Huleh Valley. This ancient tell, lies 4.5 miles (6.5 km) west of Tel Dan and a little over 1 mile (2 km) south of the modern town of Metulla. It is one of the largest tells (a little over 24 acres or 10 hectares), that remained unexcavated in Israel until a few years ago. Although this important archaeological site was initially identified in the 19th century as the probable site of ancient Abel Beth Maacah, an extensive survey of the mound was only conducted in 2012 with excavations beginning in 2013 under the auspices of Robert A. Mullins of Azusa Pacific University, Los Angeles and Naama Yahalom-Mack and Nava Panitz-Cohen of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The site consists of a large lower mound on the south, a smaller upper mound on the north, and a moderately high “saddle” that connects them. Evidence of settlement begins in Early Bronze II and continues through the Iron Age (I & II), and includes the Persian, Hellenistic, Medieval, and Ottoman periods. Continuing into the modern era, an Arab village existed on part of the site until 1948.
The Bible refers to Abel Beth Maacah in three places. The first occurrence is found in 2 Samuel 20:14-22. Following Absalom’s revolt against David, a man by the name of Sheba son of Bichri attempts to draw Israel away from David. His rebellion is not nearly as successful as Absalom’s (which ultimately ends in failure also) as he retreats to Abel Beth Maacah. Joab, David’s commander, in hot pursuit besieges the city. A wise woman intervenes and saves the city by having Sheba’s head cut off and thrown over the wall. One of the interesting asides of this story is the wise woman’s characterization of Abel Beth Maacah as “a city and a mother in Israel” (v. 19). Furthermore, she claims that Abel was known as a place for seeking wisdom and ending disputes (v. 18). The wise woman’s words testify to the ancient significance of Abel Beth Maacah, which the size of the tell also suggests. The next mention of Abel is found in 1 Kings 15:20. It is this reference that may be the most significant regarding the discovery of the sculptured head. The story in 1 Kings 15 tells of Asa king of Judah asking for the help of Ben Hadad I of Syria (Hebrew–Aram) against his rival from Israel, Baasha. War had broken out between Asa and Baasha and it appears that Baasha had the upper hand. As Baasha fortified the city of Ramah (the prophet Samuel’s hometown)–a city only a few miles from Jerusalem–Asa sent treasures from the Temple to enlist the aid of Ben-Hadad. According to 1 Kings 15:20, Ben Hadad came against Israel and among the cities he attacked was Abel Beth Maacah. The head sculpture fits roughly within this period of time. We shall return momentarily to discuss the significance of this. Finally, Abel is also mentioned in 2 Kings 15:29 among a list of cities conquered by the Assyrian king Tiglath-pilesar III. As a border city (bordering the kingdoms of Israel, Aram, and Phoenicia), Abel was always vulnerable to attack by foreign enemies.
Is This a Royal Face and Can We Identify Him?
The sculptured head discovered in last summer’s excavation is made of faience, a glass-like material that was popular in jewelry and small human and animal figurines in ancient Egypt and the Near East. According to Yahalom-Mack, “The color of the face is greenish because of this copper tint that we have in the silicate paste.” There are several reasons why the archaeologists at Abel Beth Maacah believe this is the face of a Semitic king. First, the hair-do is very decisive for suggesting this is an ancient Near-Eastern king (see my article on the significance of Absalom’s hair and Niditch’s quote regarding hair here). Second, this is the way ancient Egyptian art depicts its Near-Eastern neighbors. Yahalom-Mack states, “The guy kind of represents the generic way Semitic people are described.” Third, the striped golden diadem that surrounds the head seems to clinch the idea of royalty. But who is this bearded wonder? Can archaeologists identify him?
The royal head has been dated to the 9th century B.C. There are two reasons for the dating. First, carbon dating has placed it in the 9th century B.C., but cannot pinpoint it more exactly. Second, after digging through the floor of a massive Iron Age structure, the head was found in the layer underneath dated to the 9th century B.C. Because, the head cannot be dated more precisely than sometime in the 9th century, and because Abel Beth Maacah was a border city and changed hands several times in the 9th century, it is not possible at present to identify what royal figure the head may represent. There are a number of candidates. If it is an Israelite king, the archaeologists suggest either Ahab or Jehu as possibilities. Because Abel was conquered by the Arameans during this time Ben Hadad I and his son Hazael are also candidates. Finally, because Abel was also on the border of Phoenicia and because Ahab was married to the infamous Jezebel (who was from the city of Tyre in Phonecia), her father, Ithobaal I is also considered a possibility. What is interesting about each of these candidates is that they are all mentioned in the Bible (1-2 Kings). Those excavating at Abel Beth Maacah remain hopeful that this summer season (2018) may reveal further evidence regarding this enigmatic (but exciting) find. Perhaps another part of the statue, or some other evidence will one day unravel the mystery. If further news comes to light, be sure that I will be informing the readers of this blog!
For information on the story of Abel Beth Maacah in 2 Samuel, or the characters of Absalom and Joab check out my book: “Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel.” Available at Amazon USA / UK, Barnes & Noble, or WestBow Press.
In the latest issue of BAR (Biblical Archaeology Review), archaeologist Eilat Mazar announces what may be a find of great significance. A bulla (clay seal) has been discovered that may be the seal impression of the prophet Isaiah. In an excavation conducted in the Ophel (the area southeast of the Temple Mount staircase, see photo below), Mazar discovered 34 bullae, among other objects. Included in these finds was the bulla of King Hezekiah which I have written about previously (click here). As most readers of the Bible are aware, the Prophet Isaiah was a close personal advisor to King Hezekiah (2 Kgs 18-20; 2 Chron. 32; Isaiah 36-39) and played a pivotal role in Jerusalem’s deliverance from the Assyrian king, Sennacherib.
As one can tell from the photo on the right, the bulla has been partially damaged. The upper end is mostly missing and the left side of the bulla is also damaged. Enough of it can be seen, however, to note that it consists of three tiers. The top tier reveals the remnants of a grazing doe. According to Mazar a grazing doe is “a motif of blessing and protection found in Judah.” This motif is known on another bulla from the same area. The second tier reads “leyesha‘yah[u],” which translated means, “belonging to Isaiah.” The letter represented as a “u” in the brackets is missing due to the damage on the left side. It represents the Hebrew letter vav (ו) and is a certain reconstruction. Therefore, there is no doubt that the name on this seal impression reads “Isaiah.” The bottom line is where the main problem of interpretation comes in. It reads“nvy” (Hebrew: נבי–pronounced nahvee). It is possible that the damaged portion of the seal (recall that Hebrew is read from right to left) also once contained the Hebrew letter aleph (Hebrew: א). If this is the case, then the Hebrew word would mean “prophet.” In which case, the bulla would read, “belonging to Isaiah the prophet.”
Isaiah the Prophet or Isaiah the son of Nvy?
The other possible interpretation is that the letters “nvy” are a personal name and would refer to Isaiah’s father. In that case the inscription would read “belonging to Isaiah the son of Nvy.” This would mean the Isaiah mentioned on the bulla wold be a different Isaiah, since we know that the father of the biblical prophet was named “Amoz” (Isa 1:1). The inscription does not have the words “son of,” but Mazar points out that other seals, due to space considerations, do not always include the word for “son.” One argument in favor of this word not being a proper name is that Mazar states there is plenty of room on the bulla to have written the Hebrew word for “son.” Therefore it can’t be argued that it was left off due to space considerations. However, for this word to mean “prophet,” not only should it have the Hebrew letter aleph at the end, but one would expect the Hebrew word for “the” (Hebrew: ה, just one letter pronounced like our “h”) before “prophet.” There is plenty of room on the bottom line to have included this Hebrew letter. Mazar points out, however, that the Hebrew letter meaning “the” could have appeared on the middle line which is damaged on the left side. Although one would normally expect the word “the” to be connected to the word prophet in Hebrew, Mazar points out that other bullae often divide words in strange ways. For example, the bulla of Hezekiah’s father, king Ahaz, divides Ahaz’s name by putting the “z” on the next line. It is also true, however, that the Hebrew letter for “the” is not always found on inscriptions.
The Prophet Isaiah and King Hezekiah Laying Side by Side
Another interesting feature of the Isaiah bulla is that it was found less than 10 feet from the bulla of Hezekiah! It is interesting that two men who are associated so closely in the Bible, would have bullae laying this close to each other. Their close association in life, makes this placement of the bullae logical. If this bulla is from the prophet Isaiah, then it is understandable that something with his signature would be in the same area as that of King Hezekiah. We would expect that those of Hezekiah’s court would have documents or items kept in a royal storage area. So while this doesn’t prove that the bulla definitely belongs to the prophet Isaiah, it is a piece of circumstantial evidence worth considering. Mazar writes, “Finding a seal impression of the prophet Isaiah next to that of King Hezekiah should not be unexpected. It would not be the first time that seal impressions of two Biblical personas, mentioned in the same verse in the Bible, were found in an archaeological context.” I’ll conclude with another quote from Mazar regarding the mystery of this bulla. She writes, “Could it therefore be possible that here, in an archaeological assemblage found within a royal context dated to the time of King Hezekiah, right next to the king’s seal impression, another seal impression was found that reads “Yesha‘yahu Navy’ ” and belonged to the prophet Isaiah? Is it alternatively possible for this seal NOT to belong to the prophet Isaiah, but instead to one of the king’s officials named Isaiah with the surname Nvy?” Perhaps further study of this artifact, or future discoveries will reveal the answer to Mazar’s questions. For now, it is a tantalizing discovery that might have come from the prophet Isaiah himself.
(The quotes and information for this article, along with the pictures of the Isaiah bulla are taken from Eilat Mazar’s article entitled, “Is This the Prophet Isaiah’s Signature?,” in the March/April, May/June 2018 issue of BAR [vol. 44:2]). If you have a subscription to BAR you can read Mazar’s article here. You can also sign up for “Bible History Daily” on the BAR website and read a companion article by Megan Sauter entitled, “Isaiah’s Signature Uncovered in Jerusalem.”
Is it possible that ancient Hebrew writings over 3800 years old exist from Egypt? In other words, writings that date to the time that Joseph was reputed to be there? Is it also possible that these writings mention the biblical names Joseph, Asenath (his wife), Manasseh (son of Joseph), and even Moses? And could it be that the oldest Hebrew writings have been right under our noses for the past 150 years? These are some of the assertions of Douglas Petrovich of Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Canada. Petrovich is an archaeologist and epigrapher (one who studies ancient scripts). Petrovich made these claims in a paper presented at the recent ASOR (American Schools of Oriental Research) meeting in San Antonio (Nov. 17).
In total, their are 18 inscriptions from 4 sites in Egypt and the Sinai that Petrovich has translated and identified as ancient Hebrew. Scholars are well aware that the language is some form of ancient Semitic script but until now positive identification has eluded them. In the ASOR abstract (a summary of the session’s contents), Petrovich states, “After stumbling across the writing of the word “Hebrews” in a text that features the earliest attestation of a proto-consonantal letter, the present writer successfully has identified Hebrew as the language of the proto-consonantal script and translated 18 inscriptions of Egypt’s Middle Kingdom and New Kingdom eras.” Not all scholars are convinced however. According to Semitic language expert and Bible scholar Christopher Rollston of George Washington University, Petrovich’s identification is “starved for evidence.”
Petrovich’s Conclusion and the Exodus
Petrovich is not the first to suggest this ancient script is Hebrew. A German scholar in the 1920s made the same identification, but he did not have enough evidence to back up his claim. According to an article in ScienceNews, “Petrovich…combined previous identifications of some letters in the ancient alphabet with his own identifications of disputed letters to peg the script as Hebrew.” Unfortunately, any identification of anything Hebrew dating from 1800-1400 B.C. is going to be met with skepticism by the scholarly community. Part of the reason for this is the skepticism related to the Exodus. Many believe there was no Exodus, and others maintain that if there was, it consisted of a small number of people and was nothing like the event depicted in the Book of Exodus. Another scholarly dogma holds that if there was an Exodus, it probably occurred during the reign of Ramses II (1279-1213 B.C.). However, investigations by Bimson, Rohl, and others, recently highlighted in the film Patterns of Evidence, suggests there’s more evidence that needs to be considered (see my related article HERE). If Petrovich is correct in deciphering this script as Hebrew, it would have major implications for the biblical story of the Exodus.
What Does This Alphabet Look Like?
This alphabet, which Petrovich calls “proto-Hebrew” (others call it “proto-Canaanite,”) makes the step from pictures (like hieroglyphics) to letters. However, the letters themselves are pictoral in nature (see the photo at right). The beginning of this form of the alphabet dates from somewhere around 1800-1500 B.C. (depending on who you ask!). By the time of Israel’s united monarchy (Saul-David-Solomon), the Hebrew alphabet had changed again. Four such inscriptions have been found so far in Israel dating from 1200-1000 B.C. The four inscriptions are the Qeiyafa Ostracon, the Gezer Calendar, the Tel Zayit Abecedary and the Izbet Zayit Abecedary. An Abecedary is an inscription that has the entire alphabet, much like a practice sheet from a child writing their ABCs. Of course it is debated by scholars as to whether these inscriptions are ancient Hebrew or ancient Phoenician (believed to be the predecessor to Hebrew). Once again, Christopher Rollston weighs in concluding they are Phoenician. He believes that the ancient Hebrew Alphabet did not develop until a little later. If, however, Petrovich (or others) can conclusively demonstrate that the writings found in Egypt are Hebrew, it would be revolutionary. It would mean that Hebrew was the first alphabet of the ancient world. It would also mean that the Hebrew writing system didn’t develop from Phoenicia, and it would suggest the four inscriptions from Israel are also Hebrew. In other words, a lot of sacred cows would be knocked over. Don’t expect this debate to go away without a fight! But because Bible believers want it to be so, or because skeptical scholars do not want it to be so, cannot be the criteria. Ultimately, it should not be prejudice, but honest painstaking scholarship that decides whether the inscriptions from Egypt are the oldest Hebrew writings.
The Dead Sea Scrolls are considered to be the most sensational archaeological discovery of the 20th century. A young bedouin’s discovery of the first scrolls in 1947, touched off a frantic search that lasted until 1956. During that period thousands of fragments were discovered in 11 caves consisting of more than 900 documents. Today, thanks to The Digital Dead Sea Scrolls website, several of these manuscripts are available to the public.
Scholars have always suspected that more scrolls existed in the caves in the Judean Wilderness. Two factors have revived the fervour to renew the search. First, is the recent publication of two books presenting 25 new Dead Sea scrolls. Second, is the fact that nearly 70 new Dead Sea scroll fragments have appeared on the antiquities market since 2002. History.com reports, “the cabinet minister in charge of Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) joins a number of scholars in the belief that looters in the Judean caves are finding even more undiscovered scroll fragments. With that in mind, the IAA is sponsoring scientific surveys and excavations in the hopes of getting to these historic artifacts before the looters do.”
The Contents of the New Dead Sea Scrolls
Live Science reports, “Between 2009 and 2014, Steve Green, the owner of Hobby Lobby, a chain of arts and crafts stores, purchased 13 of the fragments, which he has donated, along with thousands of other artifacts, to the Museum of the Bible.” These fragments have been studied and published by a team of scholars in a new book entitled, “Dead Sea Scrolls Fragments in the Museum Collection” (Brill, 2016). One of the most interesting fragments in this collection is from Nehemiah 2:13-16. This is the first time the Book of Nehemiah appears among the Dead Sea scrolls.
Martin Schøyen, from Norway, began collecting biblical manuscripts in 1986. The other fragments from the Dead Sea scrolls come from his collection. According to history.com, “In the end, the collector ended up with about 115 fragments from 27 different scrolls.” These have recently been published in “Gleanings from the Caves: Dead Sea Scrolls and Artefacts from The Schøyen Collection.” The Book of Leviticus is particularly highlighted in this collection. The photo above pictures one of the fragments from Leviticus. All combined the list of biblical books includes, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Samuel, Kings, Nehemiah, Proverbs, Psalms, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Joel, Jonah, and Micah.
Certainty vs. Forgeries
Unfortunately, all of these new Dead Sea scrolls have been recovered from the antiquities market. Of course some of the original Dead Sea scrolls were acquired this way as well. However, since antiquities are big business, this leaves open the possibility of forgeries. Thus, scholars are in the process of studying all of the fragments to determine their authenticity. This is another reason for the IAA to step up the search of discovering future scrolls. Rather than leave it to looters and antiquities dealers, how much better to discover them in their original archaeological context. This all means that the near future may hold more fascinating discoveries!