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!
Brief History of Temple Mount Sifting Project Beginnings
Want to go to jail or start WWIII? Try doing an archeological excavation on the Temple Mount! Although such an excavation is currently impossible, there is a project that has been going on for the past 12 years that is bringing to light objects from the Temple Mount that date to the 1st and 2nd Temple periods. This project, known as the Temple Mount Sifting Project (TMSP), was originally inspired by a young archaeology student named Zachi Dvira. The story begins in 1999 when the Islamic Waqf (the trust that manages the Islamic structures on the Temple Mount), decided to illegally bulldoze a section in the southeast corner of the Temple Mount to create a stairway that would provide access to the Al-Marwani Mosque. This project was performed without archaeological supervision, a clear violation of the law. The dirt from the project (over 9000 tons) was then unceremoniously dumped into the Kidron Valley. Inspite of the careless and illegal operation by the Waqf, the dirt from the Temple Mount has turned out to be an archaeologist’s dream. Through the foresight and effort of Zachi Dvira, and his former professor at Bar-Ilan University Gabriel Barkay, a new archaeological enterprise known as the Temple Mount Sifting Project was birthed in 2004. The Temple Mount dirt is hauled to a nearby site inside the Tzurim Valley National Park on the southern slopes of Mount Scopus. There, volunteers sift the dirt in a process developed by Dvira and Barkay known as wet sifting. Since the project began, over 500,000 artifacts have been discovered by nearly 200,000 volunteers! Below I look at some of the most fascinating discoveries.
Discoveries at the Temple Mount Sifting Project
Among the most recent discoveries is a 3,000 year old seal dating to the time of Kings David and Solomon (10th century B.C.). The seal was discovered by 10-year-old Matvei Tcepliaev (a young volunteer from Russia). Although small in size (see photo on the left), the seal has significant implications. It was most likely used to seal letters. According to the co-directors, this provides evidence that, “administrative activity … took place upon the Temple Mount during those times.” This is important because some scholars/archaeologists in the 90s suggested that the biblical portrayal of Jerusalem from the time of David and Solomon was inaccurate. Their view, known as the “minimalist” view, maintains that Jerusalem was only a small village in the 10th century B.C. and that it did not extend up to the Temple Mount area. The seal, along with other discoveries in the Temple Mount area, is providing evidence “that the descriptions found within the Biblical text relating to [the] expansion of Jerusalem may, in fact, be authentic” (templemount.wordpress.com). The seal itself depicts two animals, one on top of the other (perhaps suggesting its prey). Similar seals, dating to the same time period, have been discovered at other archaeological sites in Israel including, Tel Beit Shemesh, Tel Gezer, and Tel Rehov. Because none of the items in the Sifting Project are found “in situ” (in their original archeological context), dating is established by similar objects from other sites and by experienced archaeologists familiar with such ancient objects. Other artifacts recovered from the time of King Solomon include, a bronze arrowhead (a rare find according to the co-directors) and pottery shards (see the photos below).
Speaking of seals, one of the most significant finds from the Temple Mount Sifting Project, discovered in 2006, is a seal impression dated to the 6th century B.C. It is believed the clay impression was used to seal a fabric sack (one side of the impression has fabric lines on it). The seal impression bears a name, but it is only partially visible. It reads: “(Belonging to) […]lyahu (son of) Immer,” The Immer family was a priestly family, and one of its members, “Pashhur son of Immer” is known to us from Jeremiah 20:1 which states that Pashhur was “chief governor in the house of the Lord.” Pashhur was an opponent of Jeremiah’s who had the prophet locked in stocks. Jeremiah predicted the severe judgment that would befall him (Jer. 20:3-6). The seal impression does not belong to Pashhur, but it does belong to a family member. Barkay suggests it may be a brother.
Another significant discovery (this one relating to Herod’s temple) are hundreds of fragments of colorful stone floor tiles. Recently, some of these fragments were pieced together forming an impressive display of what some of the flooring on the Temple Mount looked like during the 1st century B.C. – A.D. According to Josephus, “Those entire courts that were exposed to the sky were laid with stones of all sorts” (Jewish War 5:2). By using geometrical principles and comparing floor designs in some of Herod’s other buildings, the floor tiles were able to be reassembled. For further information, see the related articles below at the bottom of the page.
Besides the discoveries detailed above, the Temple Mount Sifting Project has recovered over 6,000 coins and numerous pieces of jewelry. According to Bible History Daily, “The finds range in chronology from the Middle Bronze Age II (1950–1550 B.C.E.) to the present day, but most date from the 10th century B.C.E. onward.” See the photos below. According to Dvira and Barkay, about 70% of the debris has been sifted. If you’re planning a trip to Jerusalem and have 2 hours to spare, you may want to volunteer to do some wet sifting at the Temple Mount Sifting Project. For information on how to sign up click HERE. Who knows, you may make the next significant discovery. Thanks to the efforts of Dvira and Barkay (and thousands of volunteers), what once looked like an archaeological nightmare, has become a treasure-trove of information about the first and second Temple period. We look forward to when all of the artifacts have been examined and Dvira and Barkay publish their findings.
If you’d like to watch a short video (under 8 minutes) click HERE. Dvira and Barkay explain the past, present, and future of the Temple Mount Sifting Project.
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
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).
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
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.
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.
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?
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:
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.
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.
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
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 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?
(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:
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.
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?
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:
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.
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
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:
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.
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.