Category Archives: Archaeology

Tel Lachish in the Toilet

Tel Lachish in the Toilet

Ancient toilet found at Tel Lachish, Sept. 2016. Photo by:Igor Kreimerman
Ancient toilet found at Tel Lachish, Sept. 2016. Photo by:Igor Kreimerman

Actually, our title is slightly misleading. Tel Lachish is not literally “in the toilet,” but there is a toilet in Tel Lachish! Recent discoveries at Tel Lachish, including a temple and (of all things!) a toilet,  provide further confirmation of the religious reform of King Hezekiah of Judah mentioned in 2 Kings 18:4-6 and 2 Chronicles chapters 29-31. It also provides interesting confirmation of 2 Kings 10:27 which mentions the destruction of the temple of Baal and how it was defiled by being turned into a “latrine” or “refuse dump.” There are a number of ways of desecrating a temple, but certainly turning it into a lavatory is one of the most humiliating. I know what you’re all thinking: “Was the toilet ever used for it’s natural purpose?” Laboratory tests return a disappointing “no.” It appears the toilet was more symbolic than functional.

The Monumental Gate at Tel Lachish

The large 6-chambered gate at Tel Lachish can be clearly seen in this arial photo.
The large 6-chambered gate at Tel Lachish  with the main street of the city running between 3 chambers on each side can be clearly seen in this arial photo. Photo by Guy Pitossi IAA.

Our “bathroom curiosity” actually gets us ahead of the story however, and so we need to backtrack in order to understand how this discovery came about. Tel Lachish, a city of Judah about 30 miles southwest of Jerusalem in the area known as the Shephelah, is mentioned 24 times in the Old Testament. The Tel is one of the largest in Israel measuring about 31 acres. It was one of the fortified cities of Judah and considered to be second in importance, only to Jerusalem. Tel Lachish (also known as Tel ed-Duweir) has frequently seen teams of excavators since the 1930s. The site was first excavated by a British team from 1932-1938. This was followed in 1966 and 1968 with a small scale expedition by the famous Israeli archaeologist Yohanan Aharoni. Another famous Israeli archaeologist, David Ussishkin of Tel Aviv University, excavated at Tel Lachish from 1973-1994. Recently, a team under Yosef Garfinkel (formerly the lead archaeologist of the dig at Khirbet Qeiyafa, see my post HERE), as well as the IAA (Israeli Antiquities Authority) have been digging at Tel Lachish. Although the gate was discovered decades ago, it was only fully uncovered this year by the IAA.  According to an article in history.com, “The gate, now exposed and preserved to a height of four meters (around 13 feet), consists of six chambers, measuring some 80 by 80 feet in total. Three chambers are located on each side, with the ancient city’s main street running in between them.” It is the largest gate ever uncovered in Israel that dates to the First Temple Period (the time of Solomon to the exile).

A young lady sits on the bench in the gate at Tel Lachish, leaning on the armrest. Photo by Sa'ar Ganor IAA
A young lady sits on the bench in the gate at Tel Lachish, leaning on the armrest. Photo by Sa’ar Ganor IAA

The first chamber in the gate revealed benches with armrests, a vivid reminder of the  Bible’s description of the judges and elders of a city sitting in the gate (e.g., Gen. 19:1; Prov. 31:23). Gates of ancient cities were also known to have temples or shrines to their god contained in them. An example of this is recorded in 2 Kings 23:8 which tells us that King Josiah of Judah, “broke down the high places at the gates.” The rest of the verse goes on to describe one of these high places being at “the entrance to the gate.” So we should not be surprised to hear that the IAA discovered one of these “temples” within the city gate of Tel Lachish. Here is a description of the discovery by Sa’ar Ganor, the director of the IAA excavation: “Steps to the gate-shrine in the form of a staircase ascended to a large room where there was a bench upon which offerings were placed. An opening was exposed in the corner of the room that led to the holy of holies; to our great excitement, we found two four-horned altars and scores of ceramic finds consisting of lamps, bowls and stands in this room” (read more: http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/1.744861). The altars had the horns broken off; another sign of temple desecration. Watch Sa’ar Ganor’s explanation of the discovery at the following youtube link HERE. Other items discovered included jar handles labelled “lmlk” (belonging to the king) with a depiction of a four-winged beetle (scarab). Both of these markings are commonly associated with the reign of Hezekiah, being found in other excavations of this time period.

Other Notable Facts About Tel Lachish

One of the wall panels depicting the conquest of Lachish by Senacherib. The entire panel is on display in the British Museum.
One of the wall panels depicting the conquest of Lachish by Sennacherib. The entire panel is on display in the British Museum.

Tel Lachish has long been famous since the discovery of a wall panel in the palace of Sennacherib, the Assyrian king, depicting its conquest in 701 BC. For a 3D depiction of the entire panel watch the short youtube video HERE. The Assyrians built a very impressive ramp in order to scale the walls of the city which can still be seen today at Tel Lachish. Numerous pieces of armor, arrowheads, and stones (from slings) have also been recovered, a reminder of the ferocity of the battle. It would be expected that the excavation of the large gate complex by the IAA would also yield evidence of the battle and indeed it has with the discovery of more arrowheads and sling stones.

A replica of one of the Lachish letters.
A replica of one of the Lachish letters.

Lachish was rebuilt after the destruction by the Assyrians only to be laid waste a second time by the Babylonians. One of the most famous discoveries at Tel Lachish dates to this period. A cache of letters written on broken pieces of pottery known as ostraca were discovered in a guardhouse inside one of the city gates in 1935 and 1938. The letters, known as the Lachish Letters (or ostraca), include correspondence between a subordinate and the commander of Lachish as the siege with the Babylonians nears. One of the more famous letters reads as follows:

Salutation (lines 1)
May Yahweh give you good news at this time.

General Statement (lines 2–4)
And now, your servant has done everything my lord sent (me word to do). I have written downj everything you sent me (word to do).

Report on Bet-HRPD (lines 4–6)
As regards what my lord said about Bet-HRPD, there is no one there.

The Semakyahu Situation (lines 6–12)
As for Semakyahu, Shemayahu has seized him and taken him upk to the city. Your servant cannot send the witness there [today]; rather, it is during the morning tour that [he will come (to you)]. Then it will be known that we are watching the (fire)-signals of Lachish according to the code which my lord gave us, for we cannot see Azeqah. (Hallo, W. W., & Younger, K. L., 2003. Context of Scripture (p. 80). Leiden; Boston: Brill.)

The last few words of the letter state that the fires of Azekah can no longer be seen, which many interpret to mean that the Babylonians had destroyed Azekah, and thus would be marching on to attack Lachish. This statement recalls a passage in Jeremiah 34:7 which reads as follows: “When the king of Babylon’s army fought against Jerusalem, and all the cities of Judah that were left, against Lachish and Azekah; for only these fortified cities remained of the cities of Judah” (emphasis mine). A comparison of this text with the Lachish letter above sends a chill up the spine as the reader realizes that contrary to Jeremiah 34:7, this letter asserts that only Lachish is now left!

With a large portion of the Tel yet to excavate, we await further findings of this fascinating city. Meanwhile work is being done at Tel Lachish to make it more tourist friendly by turning it into a National Park. For more on Tel Lachish, check out the following links. For an aerial view of the Tel click HERE. For another short video of the recent discoveries (without commentary) click HERE. For more about past work at Tel Lachish you can see the website at Tel Aviv University. Finally, my cyber buddy Luke Chandler is currently working with the excavation at Tel Lachish and shares an article about the recent discoveries HERE.

Philistine Cemetery Discovered!

Philistine Cemetery Discovered!

One of the skeletons excavated from the Philistine cemetery at Ashkelon.
One of the skeletons excavated from the Philistine cemetery at Ashkelon.

The 30 year excavation of ancient Ashkelon, (one of the five major Philistine cities–e.g., Judg. 14:19), is coming to a dramatic conclusion this year with the discovery of the first, and only, Philistine cemetery ever uncovered. Ashkelon was an important Mediterranean port for the Philistines and boasted a thriving marketplace. I had the opportunity of visiting this impressive site during the summer of 2009. The Leon Levy expedition, led by Lawrence E. Stager (Dorot Professor of the Archaeology of Israel, Emeritus, at Harvard University), and Daniel M. Master, (Professor of Archaeology at Wheaton College), has been conducting large-scale excavations on the tell of ancient Ashkelon since 1985. The cemetery was first discovered in 2013 and excavation began on it in 2014, but it was only in this final season of digging that an announcement was made regarding its discovery and significance. Findings from the Philistine cemetery date from the 11th to 8th centuries B.C. That is, from the biblical period of the Judges (think Samson!) to the time of the divided monarchies of Israel and Judah. Over 210 individuals have been excavated from the Philistine cemetery.

Why Is the Discovery of the Philistine Cemetery Important?

Excavating the Philistine cemetery at Ashkelon.
Excavating the Philistine cemetery at Ashkelon.

One way to summarize the importance of this discovery is in the following statement by Lawrence E. Stager: “Ninety-nine percent of the chapters and articles written about Philistine burial customs should be revised or ignored now that we have the first and only Philistine cemetery found just outside the city walls of Tel Ashkelon” (quoted in BAR, First-Ever Philistine Cemetery Unearthed at Ashkelon). Admittedly, some may not be overly concerned with ancient Philistine burial practices, but there are other significant insights that should interest all those interested in the history of Israel and the Bible. Among them are:

  1. It is thought that the Philistines came from the island of Crete. Amos 9:7 states that the Philistines came from Caphtor (which many identify with Crete). Now DNA samples should help to resolve that question. DNA results will also help us understand how the people in the cemetery are related to each other, as well as their interconnectedness with other cultures.
  2. The skeletons will yield other interesting information such as, the average height of the people who lived here, what kinds of diseases they died from, and what the average life span was.
  3. Personal items buried with various individuals provide more data for understanding ancient Philistine culture. Although a majority of Philistines were not buried with personal items, nonetheless, the list of items found is impressive. Items include, bracelets, earrings, necklaces, rings, decorated juglets, storage jars, perfumed oil, small bowls and weapons.

Philistine Burial Practices

The Philistine cemetery in Ashkelon exhibits a unique burial process that differs from other cultures in ancient Canaan.
The Philistine cemetery in Ashkelon exhibits a unique burial process that differs from other cultures in ancient Canaan.

One of the significances of the discovery of the Philistine cemetery is how distinctive it is in comparison to the burial practices of the Canaanites and the ancient Israelites. The Canaanites and Israelites buried their dead by laying them on a bench inside a tomb. About a year later when the flesh had dissolved, loved ones would return to the tomb, gather up the bones and add them to the bones of previous ancestors. The Philistines burial practices are more similar to modern burial practices in the West. People were buried in pits dug in the earth. At times the pits were dug up and other individuals were buried on top without disturbing the remains buried a little deeper. The Philistine cemetery also shows evidence of cremation, however, one interesting aspect of the burials is that there are very few children or babies. The question remains, “Where did the Philistines bury most of their infants?” The cemetery continues to testify to the the distinctiveness of Philistine culture.

For more information addressing the discovery of the Philistine cemetery in Ashkelon see the following links: the Jerusalem Post, National Geographic, and, if you have a subscription to BAR, you can click here for an informative article.

Where is King David’s Tomb?

Where is King David’s Tomb?

The traditional site of David's tomb on Mount Zion dates no earlier than the early Islamic period.
The traditional site of David’s tomb on Mount Zion dates no earlier than the early Islamic period.

Where is the burial place of Israel’s most famous king? When touring Israel, groups are often taken to the traditional site of the Upper Room on what is called Mount Zion today. The ground floor of this structure is reputed to be the location of David’s Tomb (click here for video). This area is not only a tourist attraction, but a place of contention, as orthodox Jews have been known to block others from entering it (click here to read an article from the Jerusalem Post). I have had the opportunity to visit this site on a few occasions. It is a place believed to have healing powers by some of the orthodox faith where prayers are offered for fertility. The problem is, this is the wrong location for David’s tomb. As noted in a previous post (The City of David: Lost to History), the identity of Mount Zion was shifted from the original hill on which the City of David stood, to the hill west of it. The Bible states that David (as well as many of his descendants) was buried in the City of David (1 Kgs 2:10). The Western Hill, where the traditional site of David’s tomb is, was not part of Jerusalem in the time of David. The traditional site of David’s tomb appears to date from the early Islamic period, although some suggest it is as late as the Middle Ages (see Wikipedia on David’s Tomb, also see the link to the Jerusalem Post article above).

What Evidence Exists for David’s Tomb in the City of David?

In an article entitled, Is This King David’s Tomb (BAR, Jan/Feb 1995), editor Hershel Shanks lists 5 criteria all agree on as a starting point:

(1) King David’s Jerusalem was located on the eastern ridge of the city, south of the present Temple Mount, the area called today the City of David. All agree that this is the original City of David and that it is a mere 10 or 11 acres.
(2) There was a widespread ancient belief that corpses contaminate. Israelite law reflects the belief that corpses impart impurity. Burials were almost always outside, not inside the city. Royal burials were exceptions.
(3) The Bible tells us that the kings of Judah from David to Ahaz were buried “within the City of David”—somewhere in this small 10-acre site.
(4) Nehemiah tells us that the Davidic tombs were in the southern part of the City of David (Nehemiah 3:16).
(5) The proposed site of David’s tomb, and of others adjacent to it, is precisely where one would expect to find the burial site mentioned in the Bible—in the southern part of the City of David, an area that would normally be forbidden to burials.

In 1913-1914 archaeologist Raymond Weill undertook an excavation in the southern end of the City of David (where the Bible locates David’s tomb). He located 8 tombs hewn out of the bedrock, and found a 9th tomb in an additional excavation in 1923-1924 (Ahron Horovitz, City of David: The Story of Ancient Jerusalem, p. 150). The largest of these tombs is referred to as T1. Although Weill, and others, believed he had found the tombs of the ancient Davidic kings, objections have arisen that cast some doubt on the discovery. Some have argued:

  1. The so-called tombs are water cisterns from the Second Temple Period (famed archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon made this suggestion and she is followed in this by current City of David excavator, Ronny Reich). They have also been considered to be basements of Second Temple period houses.
  2. The so-called tombs are not impressive enough to be royal tombs. Opponents note that there are other First Temple period tombs to the north and east of the city of Jerusalem (belonging to nobility) which are much grander in style. How is it possible, they argue, that the tombs of these nobles could be grander than the tombs of the kings?
The sarcophagus of Ahiram, king of Byblos, a close contemporary to David. Ahiram's tomb is not impressive, like many royal tombs of this time period.
The sarcophagus of Ahiram, king of Byblos, a close contemporary to David. Ahiram’s tomb itself is not impressive,. This is true of  many royal tombs of this time period.

In a more recent article entitled Is T1 David’s Tomb? (BAR, Nov/Dec 2012–available at this link), author Jeffrey R. Zorn responds to the objections as follows:

  1. Regarding the cistern theory: a) Cisterns of the Second Temple Period are usually constructed of masonry (which is not true of the T1 tomb). b) The tombs are longer than any known cisterns. c) Certain features such as triangular niches and mortar cement suggest that T1 was altered during the Second Temple Period. d) Finally, even if T1 was used as a cistern in the Second Temple Period, this does not preclude its use as a tomb in the First Temple Period.
  2. Regarding the “not impressive enough to be royal tombs” theory: a) The tombs of the nobility used as comparisons (in the northern and eastern parts of Jerusalem) date from 200 years later. Since they date from a later time period, this disqualifies them. b) Royal tombs that date closer to the time of David, like the tomb of Ahiram in Byblos, are far from spectacular. In fact, while the sarcophagus of Ahiram is impressive, the tomb itself is very plain.

Zorn is convinced that T1 is David’s tomb, while the other tombs (T2-T9) are the tombs of his descendants.

Concluding Thoughts on the Identification of T1 as David’s Tomb

Tombs labelled T1 and T2 discovered by Robert Weill in 1913-1914 are thought by some to be David's tomb and that of the kings of Judah.
Tombs labelled T1 and T2 discovered by Raymond Weill in 1913-1914 are thought by some to be David’s tomb and that of the kings of Judah.

One of the unfortunate things about these tombs is that, to date, they have not yielded a single bone or artifact. There are several reasons for this:

  1. Royal tombs have been the prey of treasure hunters from ancient times to the present. In fact, if Josephus’s accounts are accurate, David’s tomb was raided twice by other royals in Jerusalem! Josephus notes that John Hyrcanus (the Hasmonean ruler from 130-104 B.C.) swiped 3000 talents of silver from David’s tomb in order to pay off the Syrian ruler Antiochus who was besieging Jerusalem (Antiquities of the Jews, XIII, viii, 4). He also reports that King Herod looted David’s tomb (Antiquities, XVI, vii, 1). From these incidents, and other potential robberies, it appears the royal tombs were emptied of their contents long ago.
  2. The area in the southern portion of the City of David also became a quarry area. Ronny Reich dates quarrying activity to the Persian Period (5th century B.C.), but others date it later. It appears that the Romans under the emperor Hadrian (117-138 A.D.) used this area for quarrying stones in the rebuilding of Jerusalem, which they renamed Aelia Capitolina. This means the original landscape has been greatly altered, along with damage to some of the tombs. One would also guess that any remaining artifacts (if there were any) would have been removed by this time.

Unfortunately, if these tombs were the tombs of David and his royal descendants, there appears to be nothing left except the hollowed out rock which once housed their bones. Because no evidence has been discovered, it leaves many questions unanswered, and therefore, also leaves doubt about whether David’s tomb has indeed been found. One of the weaknesses in Zorn’s argument for these being the tombs of the kings is that they appear to have been altered during the Second Temple period. It seems unlikely that the Jews of this period would have tolerated the desecration of David’s tomb (or that of his descendants). The fact that King Herod still knew where to find David’s tomb, as apparently did others in Jerusalem according to Acts 2:29, suggests it was still largely intact (although already looted). If the quarrying can be shown to have happened much later (i.e., 2nd century A.D. under the Romans), this leaves open the possibility that these were the tombs of the Judean kings. However, if it is proven that the quarrying happened much earlier (the Persian period), this makes it less likely in my opinion, unless the Persians were careful to avoid desecrating  the tombs. However, since ancient Jerusalem was such a small site (only 10-11 acres), and since we know David’s tomb was located in the southeast portion of the city, one wonders whether any other option is possible. So even though there are some doubts, these may well be the tombs of the Judean kings, and if so, we must live with the sad fact that they were looted and destroyed long ago, leaving us no physical trace of David and his dynasty.

The First Century Synagogue at Magdala

The First Century Synagogue at Magdala

magdala
An aerial view of the area of Migdal, the location of ancient Magdala. Magdala can be located to the left of center in this picture. The city of Tiberius, is located approximately 3.7 miles (6 kilometers) south of Magdala and can be seen in the top of the picture.

Whenever, I have the opportunity to visit Israel, the inevitable question that is asked is, “What was your favorite place to visit?” There are always perennial favorites like, Tel Dan, the City of David, or the Garden Tomb, but I’m always excited to see something I haven’t seen on previous trips. On my most recent trip (March 4-12, 2016), I would have to say the first century synagogue at Magdala qualifies as my favorite place.

The synagogue at Magdala was only recently discovered in 2009. The discovery occurred as a result of the Magdala Project. This project was the vision of the Legionaries of Christ, a group whom Pope John Paul II had asked to take charge of the Pontifical Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center in 2004. The vision was to create a similar center in Galilee for prayer and hospitality for visitors. As with every building project in Israel, it is important to first do some preliminary archaeological investigations, so that ancient remains are not destroyed. It can be said without exaggeration that the Magdala Project hit the motherload when, not only a portion of the ancient first century town of Magdala was uncovered, but especially when a synagogue at Magdala, dating from the first century was discovered! Listen to the words of Dina Gorni, one of the directors of the archaeological excavation: “It is a kind of a miracle, I think. We didn’t know there was any ancient material on this site. We knew of material further south, where there had been extensive excavations. We were only digging here as a precautionary measure before a building project began.” (Read more at http://www.wnd.com/2013/01/stunning-find-from-time-of-jesus/#r7rL5xUJroSoJzjE.99)

The Significance of the Synagogue at Magdala

Why is the synagogue at Magdala such an exciting find? There are several reasons. First, Gorni notes that it is only one of seven synagogues in all of Israel that is dated to the 1st century A.D. Second, and more significantly, it is the oldest synagogue that has ever been found. Dates range from 50 B.C. – 68 A.D. for the life of the synagogue. Some would even date its beginnings to 1 A.D. It seems certain that the synagogue was destroyed by the Romans in 67-68 A.D. during the First Jewish Revolt. This means the synagogue dates to the time when the Second Temple (Herod’s Temple) was still standing. Third, for Christians, this means the synagogue at Magdala was in use during the life and ministry of Jesus.

The synagogue at Magdala: frontal view
The synagogue at Magdala: frontal view

Although there is no mention of Jesus teaching in the synagogue at Magdala, it seems likely for several reasons: 1) The gospels testify to Jesus preaching in the synagogues throughout Galilee (Matt. 4:23; Mark 1:39); 2) Jesus’ association with Mary Magdalene (Mary of Magdala) makes it possible that he met her in Magdala (although she could have met him elsewhere); 3) The journey from Nazareth to Capernaum (a major center of Jesus Galilean ministry) would have involved passing by (or going through) Magdala (Capernaum is 5 miles further north along the Sea of Galilee). The Lexham Bible Dictionary states: “Jesus’ two journeys between Nazareth and Capernaum also would have taken Him through Magdala, which is situated between the two locations (Matt 4:15, Luke 4:16, 31). The journey from Cana to Capernaum depicted in the Gospel of John (John 2:1, 12) could also have taken Jesus through Magdala” (Ryan, J. [2012, 2013, 2014, 2015]. Magdala. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press). This means that when standing in the synagogue at Magdala, looking around at the mosaic floor (see photo immediately below), the rows of stone benches, and the frescoes still visible on the walls (see the last photo in this article), we are probably seeing the very site where Jesus would have taught, and where Mary Magdalene would have worshipped. As those associated with the  Magdala Project point out, some of the worshippers at this synagogue would certainly have been witnesses to the life and ministry of Jesus, including perhaps the feeding of the 5,000, as well as other miracles he performed in Galilee. Who knows, perhaps Jesus cast seven demons out of Mary Magadalene (Luke 8:2) in Magdala. Maybe even in the synagogue itself (cf. Mark 1:21-27).

This photo shows some of the mosaic floor. A pillar of the synagogue and the Magdala Stone can be scene on the left-center.
This photo shows some of the mosaic floor. A pillar of the synagogue and the Magdala Stone can be scene on the left-center.

Two Significant Finds from the Synagogue at Magdala

The Magdala Stone. The menorah, the jars, and the pillars to the Temple are clearly visible in this view.
The Magdala Stone. The menorah, the jars, and the pillars to the Temple are clearly visible in this view.

Besides the synagogue itself, there are two other important finds. One is a coin that dates to 29 A.D. This coin was found in the synagogue and firmly dates it to the time of Jesus’ ministry. The second important discovery has become known as the “Magdala Stone” (see photo above). In the main hall of the synagogue, a square stone was found with reliefs carved on the top and all four sides (only the bottom is blank). One of the reliefs depicts a menorah surrounded by amphorae (jugs) and pillars that represent the Temple in Jerusalem. The significance of the menorah (the 7-branched candlestand that stood in the Holy Place) is that it is the oldest known carving of a menorah. Since it dates to the time when the Temple was still standing, and since it is pictured in the relief as being inside the Temple, it is thought that it is a good representation of what the menorah would have looked like.

This photo is a closeup of one of the walls of the synagogue in Magdala which still shows signs of the colorful frescoes which once adorned its walls.
This photo is a closeup of one of the walls of the synagogue in Magdala which still shows signs of the colorful frescoes which once adorned its walls.

For further information on the synagogue and other archaeological discoveries at Magdala, as well as the Magdala Project, click on the links to the following youtube videos: MAGDALA and Discovery at Magdala.

Also see the following articles: First-Century Synagogue Discovered, and Ancient Synagogue Unearthed at Magdala.

 

Has Jesus’ Home Been Found?

Has Jesus’ Home Been Found?

Jesus' home in Nazareth is located only a few miles away from the Sea of Galilee where a major portion of his ministry occurred.
Jesus’ home in Nazareth is not far from the Sea of Galilee where a major portion of his ministry occurred.

It sounds like a title to simply grab headlines doesn’t it? Throughout the centuries claims have been made to have pieces of the cross of Christ, or an actual nail used in crucifying Jesus. On and on the claims go. During the Byzantine and Middle Ages pilgrimages were frequently made to see such so-called “relics.” So when someone claims that Jesus’ home in Nazareth may have been discovered, it is quite natural to expect that claim would be met with a great deal of skepticism. However, when a reputable magazine like BAR (Biblical Archaeology Review) lists Jesus’ home as one of the top ten discoveries of 2015, it’s at least worth investigating.

The Original Discovery of What May Be Jesus’ Home

Sisters of Nazareth Convent where Jesus' home may have been discovered.
Sisters of Nazareth Convent where Jesus’ home may have been discovered.

Although the discovery has only made headlines this past year (see the article by the Daily Mail here), the story actually begins in the 1880s when an ancient cistern was accidentally discovered at the Sisters of Nazareth Convent. The nuns and others associated with the school began excavating the area and uncovered a number of ancient features including Crusader period walls and vaults, a Byzantine  cave-church, Roman period tombs and other structures. The nuns created a small museum from the coins, pottery, glass, and other objects that were uncovered. Previously, construction on the convent had revealed a large Byzantine church which included mosaic floors and marble fittings, rebuilt during the Crusader period. Jesuit priest Father Henri Senès carried out further work in 1936, including making detailed drawings of the discoveries.

Recent Excavations in Nazareth and the Evidence for What May Be Jesus’ Home

The exterior of the house that may have been Jesus' home, showing a doorway which is still preserved to its original height.
The exterior of the house that may have been Jesus’ home, showing a doorway which is still preserved to its original height.

The Nazareth Archaeological Project which began in 2006, is the first professional archaeological excavation to take place on this site, although discovered long ago. This recent excavation project has revealed “a lengthy chronological sequence of well-preserved structures and features” (Ken Dark, “Has Jesus’ Nazareth House Been Found?,” BAR, Mar/Apr. 2015). These include the features mentioned above plus “a rectilinear structure with partly rock-cut and partly stone-built walls” (Ken Dark, BAR). Further investigation confirmed that this structure was a house from the earlier Roman period, built in either the 1st century AD or shortly before. A doorway survives to its original height and part of the original chalk floor is still visible. The date is confirmed by cooking pottery and other items  (including a spindle whorl) which also date to this period. The discovery of limestone vessels also suggests that this was a Jewish home, since limestone was not considered subject to impurity.

The forecourt of the tomb can be seen in this photo. Note the stone on the right and the two niches inside for bodies. These tombs cut right through the house
The forecourt of the tomb can be seen in this photo. Note the stone on the right and the two niches inside for bodies. These tombs cut right through the house

The age of the house is further confirmed by a curious feature. Two Roman period tombs cut through the house. Archaeologist Ken Dark confirms that the tombs are 1st century AD but were made after the house had already been built. Of course no Jew would have had a tomb in their house while the house was being occupied. It is interesting to speculate why the tombs were built. If this was the boyhood home of Jesus, were the tombs built by unbelievers to desecrate what had come to be considered a sacred place? Or, what seems to me less likely because of the uncleanness associated with tombs, would some zealous believer have wanted to be buried in the boyhood home of Jesus? These are questions that cannot be answered, but the presence of the tombs further confirms the date of the house.

This map taken from Ken Dark's article in BAR shows the site of the Sisters of Nazareth Convent, as well as other significant sites in Nazareth.
This map taken from Ken Dark’s article in BAR shows the site of the Sisters of Nazareth Convent, as well as other significant sites in Nazareth.

But what evidence connects this with possibly being Jesus’ home? The churches that have been built on the site are strongly suggestive of this being considered a sacred area. In fact, Ken Dark notes that great efforts were made by both the Byzantine and later Crusader churches to completely encompass the house, thus protecting it from further destruction. Why build a church on this site and why go to the trouble to protect an old house? The most obvious answer is that the house was considered to be a special place. What house in Nazareth could be considered more special by future generations of Christians than the house of Jesus? Of course, this involves making some intuitive leaps, but there is one other piece of historical information that is intriguing. An ancient pilgrim text written in 670 AD by abbot Adomnàn of Iona  known as the De Locus Sanctis, speaks of making a pilgrimage to Nazareth and seeing two churches. One can be identified as the Church of the Annunciation (well known in Nazareth). The other church is said to be built over vaults that contain a spring and two tombs. Between the tombs Adomnán says there was a house in which Jesus was raised. The church is called The Church of the Nutrition, meaning, “the upbringing of Christ.” Adomnán’s description is clearly speaking about the same house that has been uncovered and now sits in the Sisters of Nazareth Convent. Is the tradition reliable? Who can say? But the fact that a church had been established on this site before Adomnán’s trip in 670 AD suggests that the house had a long tradition of being identified as Jesus’ home.

Is the House in Nazareth Jesus’ Home?

Another 1st century house has been discovered in the recent excavations in Nazareth.
Another 1st century house has been discovered in the recent excavations in Nazareth.

The best answer to this question is given by Ken Dark himself when he states, “Was this the house where Jesus grew up? It is impossible to say on archaeological grounds. On the other hand, there is no good archaeological reason why such an identification should be discounted. What we can say is that this building was probably where the Byzantine church builders believed Jesus had spent his childhood in Nazareth.

Besides the house that may be Jesus’ home, archaeologists have uncovered another 1st century house in Nazareth across from the Church of the Annunciation (see photo on the left). I’ve made a number of trips to Israel, but I have only been to Nazareth on one occasion and even then, we were just passing through on a bus. I inquired why tours never seemed to stop in Nazareth and was told that there was simply “nothing to see.” I asked that question back in 2006, the same year that the Nazareth Archaeological Project began. Thanks to the recent efforts of archaeologists, our knowledge of ancient Nazareth is slowly being transformed. I imagine if I were to ask the question again, the answer would be quite different!

(For another informative article on the archaeological excavations on Jesus’ home, see the Bible Blender by clicking here. Of course, if you have a subscription to BAS library you can see the original article by clicking here.)

Bulla of Hezekiah Discovered in Jerusalem

Bulla of Hezekiah Discovered in Jerusalem

A bulla of Hezekiah of Judah. It reads "Belonging to Hezekiah [son of] Ahaz king of Judah
A bulla of Hezekiah of Judah. It reads “Belonging to Hezekiah [son of] Ahaz king of Judah

It was recently announced that a clay bulla of Hezekiah King of Judah (727-698 B.C.) was discovered during excavations in the Ophel area of Jerusalem. Although found in 2009, the discovery has only recently been made known to the public. While previous bullae (plural of “bulla”) of Hezekiah are known, this is the first one discovered in an archaeological context (others have appeared on the antiquites market and in the collections of antiquities dealers). A bulla is a small piece of clay, which has been impressed by the owner’s seal. Bullae were used to seal papyrus documents that were rolled and tied with a string (see picture below). In the middle of the bulla of Hezekiah is a picture of a two-winged sun disk. The wings of the sun disk point downward and it has six rays of light projecting from it (3 from the top and 3 from the bottom). On either side of the sun disk (the one on the right is most clearly visible) are ankh symbols from Egypt known as “the key of life.”

Example of an ancient papyrus (from the 5th century B.C.) still rolled and tied with strings. The back of the bulla shows the imprint of the papyrus grain. Image taken from http://www.archaeological-center.com/en/monographs/m13/
Example of an ancient papyrus (from the 5th century B.C.) still rolled and tied with strings. The back of the bulla shows the imprint of the papyrus grain. Image taken from http://www.archaeological-center.com/en/monographs/m13/

Given Israel’s aversion to symbols, especially by a King known for his sweeping religious reforms (2 Kgs. 18:1-6; 2 Chron. 29), it is somewhat surprising to find this iconography on King Hezekiah’s seal. The use of Egyptian symbols may also surprise many. As far as current knowledge tells us, Hezekiah seems to be the first king of Judah to use a royal emblem with an icon on it. It is also known from other bullae that Hezekiah adopted the use of the two-winged scarab (dung beetle), known in both Egypt and Phoenicia. Thus, we are now aware of two different images that were employed on the royal seals of Hezekiah. There are several passages which suggest a dependence on Egypt by Hezekiah, and this may be why the king’s seals show Egyptian influence. For example, when Sennacherib is laying siege to Jerusalem, the Rabshakeh (an Assyrian official) rebukes Hezekiah for trusting in Egypt (Isa. 36:4-6). Although Hezekiah is not specifically mentioned in Isaiah 30, this passage condemns Judah’s leadership for trusting in Egypt for military aid. As far as the imagery on the seal itself, given Hezekiah’s aversion to idolatry, Robert Deutsch’s conclusion seems correct. He states, “Although winged sun disks and scarabs had originated in foreign lands, by the eighth and seventh centuries BCE, when they appeared on Hebrew seals, they were already quite old and bereft of any religious significance. They were used solely for their decorative value and their connotation of power – and should be regarded as Israelite/Judahite. When Hezekiah adopted the two-winged scarab and the two-winged sun disk with six rays as royal emblems, he was simply appropriating generally accepted icons of royal power and not importing meaning from either Phoenicia or Egypt” (Lasting Impressions: New Bullae Reveal Egyptian-Style Emblems on Judah’s Royal Seals–the whole article is worth reading).

The Bulla of Hezekiah and the Ophel

The bulla of Hezekiah was found in the Ophel which is the area circled in the photo above..
The bulla of Hezekiah was found in the Ophel which is the area circled in the photo above..

As noted above, the bulla of Hezekiah was discovered during excavations of the Ophel in Jerusalem. The Ophel is the area between the Temple Mount and the City of David (see the picture on the right). The bulla was found in an ancient refuse dump near a royal building that dates back to Solomon’s time (mid-tenth century B.C.). I had the opportunity of exploring this area last Spring (2015). The bulla was discovered through a process known as wet-sifting. Wet-sifting is a process utilized by Dr. Gabriel Barkai and Zachi Dvira at the Temple Mount ever since the illegal dumping of tons of soil bull-dozed on the Temple Mount in 1999 by the Waqf. These archaeologists realized that “this discarded earth represented a treasure trove of information relating to the Temple Mount’s history” (see Temple Mount Sifting Project). Since Barkai and Dvira implemented this system of searching through the dug up soil, it has become a staple of archaeological excavations. Many smaller items, like this bulla of Hezekiah, would easily go undiscovered if this method were not employed.

Wet-sifting continues at the Temple Mount and thousands of volunteers participate each year.
Wet-sifting continues at the Temple Mount and thousands of volunteers participate each year.

Well known Israeli archaeologist Dr. Eilat Mazar was in charge of the excavations at the Ophel. You can watch a very interesting video here showing Dr. Mazar’s explanation of the discovery, and of the bulla of Hezekiah. The same video with an accompanying article can be found at phys.org. The bulla of Hezekiah is not only one of several bullae that exist of the Judean King, it is also one among a number of other bullae that have been discovered that refer to people mentioned in the Bible. Bullae of several of Hezekiah’s court officials have also been discovered (see the link to Deutsch’s article above). We also have a seal impression of King Ahaz, the father of Hezekiah, as well as several Judean officials from the time of Jeremiah. Whether archaeological discoveries in Israel are big or small, they continue to help us better understand the ancient world of the Bible.

Life on an Archaeological Dig: Interview with Luke Chandler

Life on an Archaeological Dig: Interview with Luke Chandler

What’s it like to participate in an archaeological dig? Exciting? Difficult? Do you have to be a certain age? These are just a few of the questions that Luke Chandler, volunteer archaeologist for the past 7 seasons, addresses in this post. If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to go on an archareological dig, then continue reading.

A picture of Luke participating in the archaeological dig at Tel Lachish
A picture of Luke participating in the archaeological dig at Tel Lachish

Luke is a minister at North Terrace Church or Christ in Temple Terrace, Florida. He holds an MA in Ancient and Classical History and has participated in archaeological digs at Khirbet Qeiyafa and Tel-Lachish. You can find his insightful posts about archaeology and other subjects, as well as information on tours that he leads at https://www.lukechandler.wordpress.com/

Thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions regarding your archaeological experiences Luke.
What first kindled your interest in archaeology?
I grew up with the Bible and occasionally heard or read about artifacts from biblical times. My parents had a college friend who was involved in the excavations at Tel Lachish during the 70’s and 80’s. He visited once when I was 8 or 9 years old and let me hold an oil lamp from around the 10th century BC, the period of the early Israelite monarchy. This fascinated me and kindled an interest that eventually became my college major. When I decided to become a minister, archaeology became even more interesting, especially as it related to the Bible.
It must be said… Indiana Jones made archaeology look cool. Of course, he’s a terrible archaeologist. He does not record or preserve anything except the object of his obsession, and he destroys most ancient structures he enters. Still, he’s a lot of fun to watch and his character has introduced archaeology to new generations.

How many years have you been participating in digs in Israel and how has your “job description” evolved, if at all during those years?
This summer (2015) was my seventh year with a dig but the job hasn’t really changed. I still excavate soil and stones, sift dirt for small finds, identify and clean architecture, discover things that were last seen and touched thousands of years ago, and have a wonderful time doing it. The job also means getting to know like-minded people from around the world, which is as enjoyable as the dig itself.
Since I’m not staff (which requires additional time with the dig), I don’t manage the paperwork or take part in the off-season research and analysis. I’ve learned to do a couple of additional things in the field but it’s best to say that after several years I am a “more experienced” archaeological volunteer.

An archaeological dig is hard work, but also fun and rewarding.
An archaeological dig is hard work, but also fun and rewarding.

What advice would you give to someone who has never been on an archaeological dig and how can they best prepare themselves to join one?
If you’ve never been, don’t worry. It’s honest work but it’s not overbearing, and some jobs are fairly easy. In the end, the archaeologists know we are all volunteers and they want to make us happy.
How can you prepare for a dig? Some physical preparation certainly helps, even if it is light exercise a few times a week. It can be as simple as walking, some golf/tennis, jumping jacks, etc. – anything to get the muscles accustomed to activity. You can dig without this kind of preparation but being active makes it a little easier.
The best preparation is to learn something about your dig site before going. Find out its history, both biblical and extra-biblical. What took place there? Who lived there, and what happened to them? Have previous excavations found anything? This gives context to your experience. You know why you are digging as well as the potential impact of your work.

What is the most difficult part of an archaeological dig in your experience?
The schedule is probably the most difficult if not opting for a decent bedtime. We get up each morning around 4:15am, which comes quickly if you stay up late!
That being said, it’s not a bad schedule if managed properly. Work at the site begins before sunrise and concludes at 1pm sharp. The rest of the day is pretty easy with lunch, a restful siesta, pottery washing & reading (a good chance to sit and chat, and maybe discover something new about the day’s finds), followed by an archaeology lecture and dinner. Go to bed fairly soon after dinner and you’ll be fine. Stay up too late, too often, and the mornings get tougher. Not that this problem is without remedy – God has given us caffeine.

What is the most rewarding part of that experience?
This is hard to answer. I love the thrill of discovery, when you realize you have something no one has seen or touched since Bible times. On one occasion, a friend and I were the first people in nearly 3,000 years to pass through a city gate we had just unblocked. You can’t forget moments like that.
For me, the most rewarding part is what follows the dig. Simply put, the experience changes the way you read and study the Bible. I’ve used Bible commentaries and dictionaries, studied biblical languages, read Bible-based journals, subscribed to Biblical Archaeology Review, and even traveled to Israel on a tour, but none of these gave me the same insights and perspectives as a dig. A dig gives you an up-close, intimate view of the land and the people who lived there. You do not constantly move from place to place with only minutes to appreciate what you see. You get to soak in the Bible Lands and see more of what Bible people saw. It puts you inside their heads. This has deepened my own understanding beyond words.

This is the fertility goddess mentioned by Luke. This photo is taken from his website.
This is the fertility goddess mentioned by Luke. This photo is taken from his website.

What is the most exciting discovery that you, or the team you were with, ever found?
That is hard to narrow down. Finding my first sling stone stands out, as does a fertility goddess from this year, but my favorite discovery may be two jars full of burnt grain that I found in 2014. It was someone’s pantry some 3,200 years ago when Lachish was burned to the ground. Whoever the grain belonged to, they did not get to eat it before their home and city were destroyed. Were they killed in the process? Did they have to flee with no food? Those burned jars told a personal story. As a bonus, we were able to carbon date the burned grain and get an approximate date for the destruction of that city level. It is hard to select one favorite discovery, but this one is near the top.

Khirbet Qeiyafa, where Luke participated in his first archaeological dig.
Khirbet Qeiyafa, where Luke participated in his first archaeological dig.

There are some archaeologists, as well as Bible scholars, who believe that the kingdom of David and Solomon is largely fictional. If it existed, it certainly wasn’t as powerful and sophisticated as portrayed in the Bible. The discoveries at Khirbet Qeiyafa are thought by some to refute this viewpoint. What insights have you gained regarding this controversy, based on your experience of digging there?
Skeptics of the early Israelite kingdom have always based their conclusions on negative evidence. “We have no evidence that David was a king… No evidence of a central authority in that period… No evidence of literacy…” and so on. They rely primarily on what has not been found. The risk in this approach is that someone, someday, may find that missing something and collapse the paradigm. That seems to be exactly what has happened with my first dig site, Khirbet Qeiyafa.
At Khirbet Qeiyafa, we have uncovered a small planned city with massive fortifications. Tribal shepherds could never build something like that! It is on Judah’s border with the Philistines but from the material culture we know it was not a Philistine city. The builders were strong enough to hold off the Philistine army during the years of construction, which suggests a powerful military. The architecture and finds show strong links to other sites in ancient Judah and indications of central administration. We also found multiple inscriptions. It’s almost as if someone made a list of the “missing” evidences for an early monarchy and put all of them in one place. This site has changed the debate over the beginning of the Israelite and Judahite kingdoms.
I believe the Qeiyafa discoveries validate accounts of an early Israelite monarchy. They do not prove that David killed Goliath or that Solomon built the first temple, but are evidence of a central government in that region and in that time. This is a big deal, especially in light of what we had to work with just ten years ago. Only some of the excavation results have been formally published at this point. It will be a few more years before everything is known and available to other scholars.

Tel Lachish was an important fortified city of Judah in biblical times
Tel Lachish was an important fortified city of Judah in biblical times

As I understand it, the discoveries at Khirbet Qeiyafa have inspired Dr. Yosef Garfinkel, who directed the excavation there, to move on to Lachish. Although Lachish has been excavated in the past with some exciting finds, the layer which contains 10th century BC remains (the time of David and Solomon) has not been excavated. Can you tell us what has been learned so far in the first couple of seasons (recognizing that there are things you may not be able to reveal until they are published)?
Previous excavations identified at least eight different habitation strata and it appears the fifth one is relevant to the early kings in Judah. The problem is that not enough has been found from Level V to provide a date for its habitation. Was it built in David’s time? In Rehoboam’s reign? We just don’t know at this point. The Bible says that Rehoboam fortified the city. Does this mean he actually built Level V or that he expanded an existing settlement? Our primary goal is to obtain enough physical evidence of Level V to date it. It would be especially useful to find something organic, such as olive pits, that can be carbon dated. C-14 dating is not accurate enough to pinpoint a year but it gives an approximate range. Who knows? Maybe we’ll be lucky enough to find an inscription that zeroes in the date.
What have we found at Lachish? Oddly enough, the top five levels (dating from the Persian period back to the Canaanite period) are missing entirely from portions of our current excavation area. On the first day of the first season, some people in my group uncovered Level VI just a couple of inches below the surface. We don’t know why this is. One possible explanation is that these layers were removed from our area in the 8th century BC to build stronger defenses elsewhere in the city during an attack. We may get a solid answer to this in the future. We may have found Level V in another area of the site, though we won’t know for sure until we resume digging next summer
We have been able to find wonderful things from the Canaanite civilizations that preceded the Judahites at Lachish. We have found a temple with multiple idols/figurines, imported pottery, an inscribed Egyptian scarab, and at least one inscription. We’ve also identified some new entrances to the city that are currently blocked. We plan to begin opening and dating them next year. It’s possible one of these gates is from the elusive Level V. The Bible does not tell us much about the early Divided Kingdoms, so our work over the next few years may impact on our understanding of that period. It is exciting stuff.

Is there anything else about an archaeological dig that you would like to add Luke?
Let me say one thing for anyone who has not yet experienced a dig… If you want a deeper understanding of the Bible and its world, find a way to get yourself on a dig, even if just for a couple of weeks. It will give you understanding and insights that no book can provide. You will benefit from it the rest of your life, along with others whom you teach or influence. I’ve excavated with people as young as 13, with others who are in their 70’s, and with every age in between. Most of the best digs are open for people just like you. The sooner you go, the longer – and greater – the benefit will be.
– – – – – – – – – –
Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions Luke and may God continue to bless the work that you are involved in. I am hoping to join you at Tel-Lachish in the season after next, Lord willing. For any who might be interested in learning more about joining an archaeological dig you can contact Luke at his website (regarding Lachish), or you can go to biblicalarchaeolgy.org and click on the “digs” menu.

The Ishbaal Inscription At Khirbet Qeiyafa

The Ishbaal Inscription At Khirbet Qeiyafa

Ishbaal inscription from Khirbet Qeiyafa. Photo by Tal Rogovski, borrowed from http://blog.bibleplaces.com/2015/06/second-inscription-from-qeiyafa.html
Ishbaal inscription from Khirbet Qeiyafa. Photo by Tal Rogovski, borrowed from http://blog.bibleplaces.com/2015/06/second-inscription-from-qeiyafa.html

After Saul was killed in battle against the Philistines (1 Sam. 31), his army captain Abner took Saul’s son, Ish-bosheth (Ishbaal) and made him king (2 Sam. 2:8-10). As I discuss in my book Family Portraits, Ish-bosheth is also known by the names Ishbaal and Eshbaal in the Bible (1 Chron. 8:33; 9:39). It has recently been announced that in the summer excavations of 2012 at Khirbet Qeiyafa (see my article on Khirbet Qeiyafa), a large stone storage jar (pithos) was discovered with the name Ishbaal / Eshbaal inscribed on it.

One of the latest finds at Khirbet Qeiyafa is an inscription with the name Ishbaal. (map taken from holylandphotos.org)
One of the latest finds at Khirbet Qeiyafa is an inscription with the name Ishbaal. (map taken from holylandphotos.org)

This discovery has several interesting features. For starters, this is the first time that the name Ishbaal has been found outside of the Bible. Second, the layer in which the Ishbaal inscription was found dates to the period of 1020-980 B.C., according to radiometric dating. This is precisely the time period in which Saul’s son, Ishbaal would have been active. This Ishbaal, however, is not the son of Saul. We know that because the inscription goes on to read, “son of Bedaʿ.” The name Bedaʿ is unique, not being found in the Bible or in an archaeological context before. According to the authors of a recent article in BASOR (Bulletin of American Schools of Oriental Research) announcing this discovery, “The letters of the inscription are large and clear, similar in size and evenly spaced, and were written by a skilled hand in Canaanite script” (see the full article here). The inscription is the result of a skilled scribe and thus suggests the presence of a developed society. The fact that this inscription is Canaanite is of special interest to paleographers (those who study ancient scripts). Originally it was thought that the Canaanite script was replaced by the so-called Phoenician script at the end of the second millennium B.C. Now we have evidence of the Canaanite script being in use during the monarchy of David thanks to this discovery, along with four other inscriptions (2 more from Khirbet Qeiyafa, 1 from Beth Shemesh, and 1 from Jerusalem).

A bronze statue of Baal discovered at Ugarit from the 14th-12th centuries B.C.
A bronze statue of Baal discovered at Ugarit from the 14th-12th centuries B.C.

Baʿal is the name of the Canaanite storm god and was often attached to names just as God (el) orYahweh (yahu, usually spelled with “iah” in English) was. This practice is called using a “theophoric” element, which simply means that the name of the god is embedded in a person’s name. What is interesting about the use of “baal” as a theophoric element in names is that the Bible shows no evidence of its use after the early monarchic period (10th century B.C.). Previous to, and including the early monarchic period, it is found in names like Jerubaal (Gideon’s other name), Meribbaal (Jonathan’s son, also called Mephibosheth), and, of course, Ishbaal. Archaeology reflects the same practice. No inscription has ever been found in Judah from the 9th – 6th centuries with “baal” used as a theophoric element. While Baʿal means “lord” or “master,” its association with the Canaanite god seems to have made it an unpopular name in Judah during those centuries.

There is still one more inscription from Khirbet Qeiyafa yet to be translated. It will be interesting to see what further light it might shed on this period of history.

Seeing the City of David: Part II

Seeing the City of David

IrDavid1
Seeing the City of David has become a more pleasant and informative experience over the years. Here is a view of the entrance.

The first time I travelled to Israel was in 2005 on a tour with my church from Calvary Chapel York. I had anticipated coming to Israel all my life. When I was younger I wanted to study at the Hebrew University. Unfortunately, those plans never materialized. In 2000 my home church in the states planned a trip and Gloria and I were going, but the Intifada cancelled our plans. Needless to say, by 2005 (our next opportunity to go) I was chomping at the bit, and tops on my list was seeing the City of David. Imagine my disappointment when I discovered that a tour of the City of David wasn’t even on our list of sites to see! Seeing the City of David would have to wait until my next visit in 2006. As evidenced by my first tour in 2005, the City of David has not always been considered a “must see” site. But things have changed dramatically in the past 10 years. Archaeological excavations have continued to uncover dramatic finds, such as what some believe to be David’s palace (known as the “Large Stone Strucuture”), and the Canaanite tower that protected Jerusalem’s main water supply–the Gihon Spring.

On my recent visit (2015), I was impressed how seeing the City of David is becoming a more enjoyable and tourist-friendly experience. I was fortunate enough to visit Israel in 2005, twice in 2006 and again in 2007, 2008, and 2009. However, my current visit in February-March of 2015 was my first time back in 6 years. As everyone who is interested in Israel and the Bible knows, new discoveries are constantly being made. But one of the things that impresses me is how Israel continues to develop many of its sites, like the City of David, and make it a more informative and pleasant experience. This post is about the changes I have noticed between my earlier visits to the City of David, and my recent visit in 2015, as well as things you can expect to see and experience at the City of David.

Seeing the City of David: The Large Stone Structure

Seeing the City of David in 2006, once could look down through some boards to see the excavation of the Large Stone Structure in progress.
When seeing the City of David in 2006, one could look down through some boards to see the excavation of the Large Stone Structure in progress.

When I first visited the City of David in March 2006, Eilat Mazar was only a year into excavating what she, and others, now believe to be David’s palace. Today as you enter the City of David, you descend a few stairs to a platform that houses a ticket office, gift shop, bathrooms, and a small store. Underneath the platform are the results of Mazar’s excavation which can be accessed by a stairway that takes you down to the “Large Stone Structure.” Obviously, none of this was there when I first visited the City of David in 2006. Above is a photo I took of the excavation that was then in progress.

capitol
A reproduction of the Proto-Aeolic capital discovered by Kenyon. Such capitals are known to have adorned palaces and governmental buildings of the 1st Temple Period.

Today, not only can you descend the stairs to see the Large Stone Structure (which was also possible in some of my earlier trips), but there is a display of a few other significant findings. One of the most significant is an ornate Proto-Aeolic capital (The one at the site is a reproduction. The original is in the Israel Museum.). This capital was not found by Mazar, but by Kathleen Kenyon years earlier. However, it was one of the pieces of evidence that led Mazar to believe there was an Israelite palace in the area she ended up excavating. The result, of course, was the uncovering of the Large Stone Structure. Archaeologists are still debating whether this building dates to 1200 B.C. and, thus, to the Jebusite occupation, or to 1000 B.C. to the time of David. Either way it is clearly an old building and an important one.

Clay bullae discovered in the Large Stone Structure with names of individuals mentioned in the Book of Jeremiah.
Clay bullae discovered in the Large Stone Structure with names of individuals mentioned in the Book of Jeremiah.

Further confirmation of the significance of this building occurred with the discovery of two bullae that are from ministers in the court of King Zedekiah (the last King of Judah). Horovitz (City of David: The Story of Ancient Jerusalem) gives the following details: “The ‘Large Stone Structure’ remained standing until the Babylonian destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E., as proven by pottery from the sixth century B.C.E. discovered at the site. A surprising find amidst the structure’s large stones delineated the time-frame in which the structure was destroyed. This was a bulla, a clay seal impression used for sealing scrolled documents written on parchment or papyrus, belonging to a high-ranking minister of the last king of Judah, Zedekiah. The minister’s name was Jehucal the son of Shelemiah…” (p. 117). Jehucal is mentioned in Jeremiah 37:3. Another bulla was subsequently discovered with the name Gedaliahu the son of Pashhur, another individual in the court of Zedekiah who is also mentioned in the book of Jeremiah (Jer. 38:1).

Seeing the City of David: The Canaanite Tower

Artist's conception of the Spring Tower.
Seeing the City of David in ancient times would ahve involved seeing this protective structure around the Gihon Spring. This is an artist’s conception of the Spring Tower.

The newest, and most dramatically altered, area in the City of David since my last visit, is the presentation of the ancient Canaanite walls and tower that protected the Gihon Spring. Archaeologists Ronny Reich and Eli Shukron have been excavating this area (near the bottom of the eastern hill where the Gihon Spring bubbles to the surface) since 1995. Over the years, as I observed this excavation I was excited about what would be learned. The Gihon was the main water source of ancient Jerusalem, but it is situated in a difficult place for an ancient city. For the protection of the city, the walls had to be built higher up the slope, but this meant the Gihon was exposed. This is fine during peaceful times, but during times of siege, this was a great problem. Along with tunnels carved out of the rock, the Canaanites built a large tower that came out from the city walls and enclosed the Gihon. This tower is usually called the “Spring Tower,” or “Pool Tower.” The drawing in the upper right is one artist’s conception of what the Spring Tower may have looked like.

The Spring Tower area. My visit in 2006.
The Spring Tower area. My visit in 2006.

What impressed me the most on my recent visit was how the vicinity around the Spring Tower has been transformed into a tourist friendly, and more informative area, than in my past visits. There are now two movies that run offering explanations of the area in Canaanite times and later, as well as offering visuals of what the Tower would have looked like.

ir david foundation
This photo from the Ir David Foundation shows a stairway in the back, as well as a walkway that takes you around the ruins of the ancient Canaanite walls.
Here is another view (courtesy of bibleplace.com) of the way it looks today.
Here is another view (courtesy of bibleplaces.com) of the way it looks today.

For more information on the Spring Tower, or Pool Tower as it is also known. Click on the following link: https://lukechandler.wordpress.com/2014/04/02/15-year-excavation-completed-at-jerusalem-gihon-spring-video/ Also, see the video link at the bottom of this article.

Seeing the City of David: Other Attractions

IMG_9969
This tunnel was the ancient drainage system that led from the Temple Mount down to the Pool of Siloam. Many Jews tried escaping through this tunnel when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 AD. That’s my wife Gloria bravely leading the way!

Of course a must on anyone’s list when seeing the City of David is Hezekiah’s tunnel. Hezekiah’s tunnel is the next stop after the Canaanite Tower. Exiting the tunnel brings one out at the steps of the ancient Pool of Siloam (John 9:7). One of the other new attractions that was not available on my last trip in 2009 is the tunnel that can be followed underneath the City of David, leading one all the way up to the base of the Temple Mount. There are actually two tunnels. The entrance to both is just outside Hezekiah’s tunnel. One tunnel shows the ancient street that existed in the time of Jesus that led from the Siloam Pool all the way to the Temple Mount. However, only a small portion of this street has been excavated. If you want to go all the way to the Temple Mount, you must enter the second tunnel which is actually a drainage system that goes underneath the ancient street. Our guide jokingly referred to it as the “sewer tour,” which is, in fact, what its purpose was in the 1st century.

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These tombs are believed to be the tombs of the Judean Kings, with the one on the left being identified by some as the possible tomb of David.

Besides exiting through Hezekiah’s tunnel, one can also opt to take the “dry” tunnel (which is an ancient Canaanite tunnel–I know, yet another tunnel!). The exit from the Canaanite tunnel actually brings you out in the middle of the ancient city near some of the ancient walls on the eastern slope of Jerusalem. A little further down the slope you can see the remains of what is believed to be the tombs of the Judean kings. One is even speculated to be King David’s tomb.

If you’ve never been to the City of David, hopefully this brief post will whet your appetite for seeing its many interesting discoveries. If you’ve been to the City of David, but it has been a few years, I think you’ll be as pleasantly surprised as I was about the continuing progress being made regarding both new discoveries and the tourist-friendly environment.

(For those who would like more information on the City of David, I have included a few links below that I have found helpful.)

Here is a brief video introducing the City of David: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KShWyvHYyvM

To watch a short video on the excavation of the ancient Canaanite Fortress: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iDRDjOxFSuc

Link to the City of David: http://www.cityofdavid.org.il/en/tours/city-david/city-david-tours-biblical-jerusalem

Tel Beersheba: My Impressions

The following post is based on my visit to Tel Beersheba on March 2, 2015.

Tel Beersheba: Location

This map shows the Negev region in Israel. Tel Beersheba can be found at the center of the map.
This map shows the Negev region in Israel. Tel Beersheba can be found near the center of the map.

Tel-Beersheba is located in the northern Negev (“Negev” meaning “South,” so the southern area of Israel) east of the modern city of Beersheba. Tel Beersheba is situated in the heart of the Beersheba Valley, an area with rich soil for cultivation. However, the valley sits near the edge of the desert and receives little rainfall. Beersheba is, of course, famous in the Bible as one of the places where Abraham and Isaac stayed (Gen. 21:22-34; 26:15-33), although Tel-Beersheba did not exist in their day. There are many other ancient sites in the area, even some buried beneath the modern city of Beersheba, and it is probably one or more of these sites that would have existed in the time of Abraham and Isaac (some scholars think that a site known as Bir es-Saba’ may be the site of the patriarchs).

The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land. There are currently 5 vols. available.
The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land. There are currently 5 vols. available.

The Negev region around Tel Beersheba is more hilly than I expected, and I learned that the Tel sits on a hill that overlooks the Beersheba and Hebron valleys. “The city that developed at Tel Beersheba is located at an important crossroad: Mount Hebron in the north; to the Judean Desert and the Dead Sea in the east; to the Coastal Plain in the west; and to the Negev hills, Kadesh-Barnea and Elath in the south” (Ze’ev Herzog, The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land, vol. 1, ed. Ephraim Stern, 1993, pp. 167-173–some of the information from this post comes from this source, see photo on the left). In biblical times, Beersheba, which was alloted to the tribe of Simeon (Josh. 19:1-2), was known for being the southern boundary of Israel. “From Dan to Beersheba,” is a well-known expression in the Old Testament (e.g., Judg. 20:1; 1 Sam. 3:20; 2 Sam. 3:10) describing the entire land from north to south.

Tel Beersheba: History

An aerial view of Tel Beersheba
An aerial view of Tel Beersheba borrowed from http://shalomisraeltours.com/

Tel Beersheba consists of 9 different layers (or strata). It was originally inhabited in the 4th millenium B.C., but was then abandoned for 2,000 years and only resettled during the beginning of the Iron Age (for Old Testament readers, this is the period of the Judges and dates from 1200-1000 B.C.). The city was continuously inhabited for about 500 years and experienced a violent destruction, probably at the hands of the Assyrian King Sennacherib in 701 B.C. Sennacherib boasts to have destroyed 46 fortified cities in Judah and left Judah’s King Hezekiah “like a bird in a cage” inside Jerusalem. The first four strata (IX-VI) date to the Judges era. The city was not fortified early on and consisted of simple dwellings with houses gradually appearing in later layers. Stratum VIII shows evidence of the first houses and it is suggested that these houses mark the progress toward a permanent settlement and may reflect the time period of Joel and Abijah, the sons of Samuel, who were appointed judges in Beersheba (1 Sam. 8:1-2).

This photo shows a storage room to the right of the main gate of the city upon entering. Notice the line that separates the original walls from the reconstruction.
This photo shows a storage room to the right of the main gate of the city upon entering. Notice the line (center wall) that separates the original walls from the reconstruction.

The time period most clearly reflected at Tel Beersheba is what is known as Iron Age II–specifically, 1000-700 B.C., the time of the united kingdom (David and Solomon), through the time of Hezekiah (the Judean monarchy). This consists of Stratum V-II, but it is particularly Stratum II (which represents the final destruction stage) that is most apparent. The city was clearly laid out according to a plan and I was struck by the fact that Tel Beersheba allows you to picture what a small fortified city in Judah would have looked like. The gate, houses, governmental buildings, and the streets have all been uncovered. In fact, the original excavation (led by the well-known Israeli archaeologist Y. Aharoni from 1969-1975) took great care to not only preserve the original walls, but also to rebuild part of the walls with the original material. The reconstructed area can be seen today by a line that marks the original from the reconstruction (see my photo at right).

 A modern tower has been constructed at Tel Beersheba that allows one a wonderful view of the layout of the city. The following photos show the city from left to right from the vantage point of the tower.

Tel Beersheba
Tel Beersheba
Tel Beersheba
This view of Tel Beersheba shows the city square ( upper middle to right of the photo). The “governor’s palace is just to the left of the city square.
Tel Beersheba
This view of Tel Beersheba shows the city gate (upper middle) and the storage room to the left of the gate.

Tel Beersheba: Important Discoveries

The 4-horned altar from Tel Beersheba which is now located in the Israel Museum.
The 4-horned altar from Tel Beersheba which is now located in the Israel Museum.

One of the interesting discoveries at Tel Beersheba was of a four-horned altar. This altar helps to confirm that Beersheba had a “high place.” Aharoni (the original excavator) believed that it provided proof of a temple in the city (similar to Arad, click here to read my article on the temple at Arad). The parts of the altar were found incorporated into one of the storehouse walls (see photo of storehouse above), which suggests it was dismantled during the cultic reform carried out by Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:1-6). The prophet Amos denounces those who worship at Beersheba (Amos 8:14). He compares it to the “sin of Samaria” and the false temple at Dan (see my article on Tel Dan here), which may suggest that Aharoni was right about an actual temple existing in Beersheba.

I am standing in a typical Israelite 4-room house at Tel Beersheba.
I am standing in a typical Israelite 4-room house at Tel Beersheba.

Although 4-room houses are not an unusual discovery–they were the common Israelite house of the First Temple period–I was surprised how many were uncovered at Tel-Beersheba. The photo at the right shows me standing in a typical 4-room house. These houses consisted of 3 parallel rooms with one long room against the back of the house. Based on the housing available, estimates of the population of Tel Beersheba are small. The inhabitants appear to have numbered no more than 300-400. The reason for this, however, is because it was a special admistrative and defensive city. Therefore, the city consisted of officials, soldiers, and their families.

My friend and host in Beersheba, Howard Bass, standing in the governor's palace.
My friend and host in Beersheba, Howard Bass, standing in the governor’s palace.

The most impressive building at Tel Beersheba is what is referred to as “the governor’s palace.” This is the building that was used by the commanders of the city and (as noted in the photo above) it is situated near the city square. This building consisted of 3 large reception halls, plus two dwelling units, and a kitchen and storeroom. Down the street is another large structure called the “Basement House.” The special characteristics of this building caused Aharoni to suggest that this was the area where the temple in Beersheba had originally stood. All of the rooms of this building had their foundations dug down to bedrock and the space between the rooms was filled with earth. This could have been the result of Hezekiah’s destruction of the temple at Tel Beersheba.

Bible Walks has helpfully provided a plan of the city, showing it's significant structures. For more info go to http://www.biblewalks.com/Sites/TelBeerSheba.html
Bible Walks has helpfully provided a plan of the city, showing it’s significant structures. The basement house can be found in the upper corner in blue, while the governor’s palace is in yellow at the bottom left. For more info go to http://www.biblewalks.com/Sites/TelBeerSheba.html
This photo also from biblewalks.com provides a nice overview of some of the important places at Tel Beersheba.
This photo also from biblewalks.com provides a nice overview of some of the important places at Tel Beersheba.

The water system at Tel Beersheba is also very impressive. Besides the ancient well that sits in front of the city gate (dated to about 1200 B.C.), there is a huge reservoir than can be accessed by going down a long stairway and into a tunnel that has been carved out of the rock. This water system was excavated by Ze’ev Herzog between 1993-1995, who formerly worked with Aharoni and took over the excavation in 1976 after Aharoni died. The system, as is the case in other cities as well, was built to access the water supply during times of siege. It consists of three parts: 1) A shaft 17 meters deep with a flight of steps; 2) a reservoir hewn into the chalk rock and thickly plastered, divided into five spaces, with a total capacity of about 700 cubic meters; 3) a winding channel that led flood waters from the Hebron streambed into the reservoir (this information is taken from the brochure at Tel Beersheba). Below are a few photographs I have taken of this impressive system.

The shaft leading to the reservoir at Tel Beersheba
The shaft leading to the reservoir at Tel Beersheba
The entrance to the tunnel at the bottom of the shaft at Tel Beersheba
The entrance to the tunnel at the bottom of the shaft at Tel Beersheba
One of the reservoir compartments inside the tunnel at Tel Beersheba.
One of the reservoir compartments inside the tunnel at Tel Beersheba.

Finally, I’ll end my tour of Tel Beersheba where I probably should have started–at the gate of the city! The first photo shows the gate and the second shows the old well that sits out in front of the gate.

The city gate at Tel Beersheba
The city gate at Tel Beersheba
The old well near the gate at Tel Beersheba.
The old well near the gate at Tel Beersheba.

Tel Beersheba isn’t usually on the list of top spots to see in Israel. For one thing, it’s a bit out of the way, and for another, it can’t be identified with Abraham or Isaac. However, if you can sqeeze in a visit while you’re in Israel, I definitely believe it’s worth the time and the 15 shekel entry fee. It will give you one of the best views (if not the best) of the layout of an ancient Israelite fortress city. After all, Elijah stopped here (1 Kings 19:3), why shouldn’t you?

(All photos are my own unless otherwise noted. They may not be sold or used for commercial purposes, but they may be freely used for educational purposes)