More evidence has been found confirming the historical existence of Pontius Pilate, the infamous Roman governor who ordered Jesus’ execution. A ring that has the Roman Prefect’s name inscribed on it has come to light. The ring, along with thousands of other artifacts, was actually uncovered in a dig 50 years ago led by Gideon Forster from the University of Jerusalem. The excavation took place at Herodium in 1968-1969, but no one knew the significance of the ring until recently. The (re)discovery of the ring is due to a thorough cleaning and technological advances in photography which revealed a Greek inscription with the name “PILATO” surrounding a wine vessel (see photo on right). The letters “PI” (ΠΙ–Greek) are on the right as one looks at the ring, while the letters “LATO” (ΛΑΤΟ–Greek) are on the left. There seems to be little doubt that the ring is in someway connected with Pontius Pilate. Professor Danny Schwartz in an article in haaretz states, that the name was rare in the Israel of that era. The fact that the ring was discovered at Herodium, one of King Herod’s ancient palace fortresses, also suggests it was connected with a government or administrative official of the time.
One of the intriguing features of the ring is the way in which the name is spelled. Robert Cargill, editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, in a recent post points out that when a name was inscribed on an ancient coin or ring it was usually done in the nominative or genitive case. The name in the nominative (subject) case in Greek would read “PILATOS” (Pilate). In the Greek genitive (possessive) case, it would read “PILATOU” (belonging to Pilate). In other words, the form of Pilate’s name as “PILATO” is unusual. Cargill notes that one explanation of this form, offered by Cate Bonesho of UCLA, is that “PILATO” is a Greek transliteration of the Latin dative form (Latin of course being the language of Roman officials such as Pilate). The dative form denotes an indirect object. Therefore, this form of Pilate’s name would suggest something that is being sent to him. In other words, it would be used by someone working for Pilate (an administrative official) who would use the ring to stamp the goods (taxes) being sent to Pilate. Therefore, whether the ring was worn by Pilate or by an official who sent goods to Pilate–which seems more likely– it still acts as an authentication of the historical existence of Pilate
The ring, however, is only one of two physical evidences for the historical Pilate. In 1961 an inscription was discovered at Caesarea Maritima that contains the name Pilate. When Pilate commissioned this inscription in the first century it served to honor his benefactor and current emperor Tiberius. The stone was reused centuries later and became part of the nearby theatre in Caesarea. As a result, it suffered damage and the inscription is only partially readable. The final letters of Pontius (the “us”) and the name Pilate (PILATUS–the common Latin nominative form, see discussion above), along with the name Tiberius are clearly visible. For more information on Caesarea see my article here and for further information on this inscription see Pilate Stone.
An exciting new discovery has recently been announced regarding the discovery of a small (2 inch/5 cm) sculpted head at Abel Beth Maacah. The discovery is exciting for at least two reasons. First, no human likeness like this has ever been discovered in Israel that dates to this time period. Eran Arie, the Israel museum’s curator of Iron Age and Persian archaeology states that it is one of a kind. “In the Iron Age, if there’s any figurative art, and there largely isn’t, it’s of very low quality. And this is of exquisite quality.” Second, the likeness appears to be that of a king. More on that below, but first, where is Abel Beth Maacah and what is its significance? (For a YouTube video that shows a fly-over of Abel Beth Maacah click here).
Location and Biblical Significance of Abel Beth Maacah
Abel Beth Maacah is located on the northern border of present-day Israel (bordering Lebanon), at the northern end of the Huleh Valley. This ancient tell, lies 4.5 miles (6.5 km) west of Tel Dan and a little over 1 mile (2 km) south of the modern town of Metulla. It is one of the largest tells (a little over 24 acres or 10 hectares), that remained unexcavated in Israel until a few years ago. Although this important archaeological site was initially identified in the 19th century as the probable site of ancient Abel Beth Maacah, an extensive survey of the mound was only conducted in 2012 with excavations beginning in 2013 under the auspices of Robert A. Mullins of Azusa Pacific University, Los Angeles and Naama Yahalom-Mack and Nava Panitz-Cohen of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The site consists of a large lower mound on the south, a smaller upper mound on the north, and a moderately high “saddle” that connects them. Evidence of settlement begins in Early Bronze II and continues through the Iron Age (I & II), and includes the Persian, Hellenistic, Medieval, and Ottoman periods. Continuing into the modern era, an Arab village existed on part of the site until 1948.
The Bible refers to Abel Beth Maacah in three places. The first occurrence is found in 2 Samuel 20:14-22. Following Absalom’s revolt against David, a man by the name of Sheba son of Bichri attempts to draw Israel away from David. His rebellion is not nearly as successful as Absalom’s (which ultimately ends in failure also) as he retreats to Abel Beth Maacah. Joab, David’s commander, in hot pursuit besieges the city. A wise woman intervenes and saves the city by having Sheba’s head cut off and thrown over the wall. One of the interesting asides of this story is the wise woman’s characterization of Abel Beth Maacah as “a city and a mother in Israel” (v. 19). Furthermore, she claims that Abel was known as a place for seeking wisdom and ending disputes (v. 18). The wise woman’s words testify to the ancient significance of Abel Beth Maacah, which the size of the tell also suggests. The next mention of Abel is found in 1 Kings 15:20. It is this reference that may be the most significant regarding the discovery of the sculptured head. The story in 1 Kings 15 tells of Asa king of Judah asking for the help of Ben Hadad I of Syria (Hebrew–Aram) against his rival from Israel, Baasha. War had broken out between Asa and Baasha and it appears that Baasha had the upper hand. As Baasha fortified the city of Ramah (the prophet Samuel’s hometown)–a city only a few miles from Jerusalem–Asa sent treasures from the Temple to enlist the aid of Ben-Hadad. According to 1 Kings 15:20, Ben Hadad came against Israel and among the cities he attacked was Abel Beth Maacah. The head sculpture fits roughly within this period of time. We shall return momentarily to discuss the significance of this. Finally, Abel is also mentioned in 2 Kings 15:29 among a list of cities conquered by the Assyrian king Tiglath-pilesar III. As a border city (bordering the kingdoms of Israel, Aram, and Phoenicia), Abel was always vulnerable to attack by foreign enemies.
Is This a Royal Face and Can We Identify Him?
The sculptured head discovered in last summer’s excavation is made of faience, a glass-like material that was popular in jewelry and small human and animal figurines in ancient Egypt and the Near East. According to Yahalom-Mack, “The color of the face is greenish because of this copper tint that we have in the silicate paste.” There are several reasons why the archaeologists at Abel Beth Maacah believe this is the face of a Semitic king. First, the hair-do is very decisive for suggesting this is an ancient Near-Eastern king (see my article on the significance of Absalom’s hair and Niditch’s quote regarding hair here). Second, this is the way ancient Egyptian art depicts its Near-Eastern neighbors. Yahalom-Mack states, “The guy kind of represents the generic way Semitic people are described.” Third, the striped golden diadem that surrounds the head seems to clinch the idea of royalty. But who is this bearded wonder? Can archaeologists identify him?
The royal head has been dated to the 9th century B.C. There are two reasons for the dating. First, carbon dating has placed it in the 9th century B.C., but cannot pinpoint it more exactly. Second, after digging through the floor of a massive Iron Age structure, the head was found in the layer underneath dated to the 9th century B.C. Because, the head cannot be dated more precisely than sometime in the 9th century, and because Abel Beth Maacah was a border city and changed hands several times in the 9th century, it is not possible at present to identify what royal figure the head may represent. There are a number of candidates. If it is an Israelite king, the archaeologists suggest either Ahab or Jehu as possibilities. Because Abel was conquered by the Arameans during this time Ben Hadad I and his son Hazael are also candidates. Finally, because Abel was also on the border of Phoenicia and because Ahab was married to the infamous Jezebel (who was from the city of Tyre in Phonecia), her father, Ithobaal I is also considered a possibility. What is interesting about each of these candidates is that they are all mentioned in the Bible (1-2 Kings). Those excavating at Abel Beth Maacah remain hopeful that this summer season (2018) may reveal further evidence regarding this enigmatic (but exciting) find. Perhaps another part of the statue, or some other evidence will one day unravel the mystery. If further news comes to light, be sure that I will be informing the readers of this blog!
For information on the story of Abel Beth Maacah in 2 Samuel, or the characters of Absalom and Joab check out my book: “Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1 and 2 Samuel.” Available at Amazon USA / UK, Barnes & Noble, or WestBow Press.
In the latest issue of BAR (Biblical Archaeology Review), archaeologist Eilat Mazar announces what may be a find of great significance. A bulla (clay seal) has been discovered that may be the seal impression of the prophet Isaiah. In an excavation conducted in the Ophel (the area southeast of the Temple Mount staircase, see photo below), Mazar discovered 34 bullae, among other objects. Included in these finds was the bulla of King Hezekiah which I have written about previously (click here). As most readers of the Bible are aware, the Prophet Isaiah was a close personal advisor to King Hezekiah (2 Kgs 18-20; 2 Chron. 32; Isaiah 36-39) and played a pivotal role in Jerusalem’s deliverance from the Assyrian king, Sennacherib.
As one can tell from the photo on the right, the bulla has been partially damaged. The upper end is mostly missing and the left side of the bulla is also damaged. Enough of it can be seen, however, to note that it consists of three tiers. The top tier reveals the remnants of a grazing doe. According to Mazar a grazing doe is “a motif of blessing and protection found in Judah.” This motif is known on another bulla from the same area. The second tier reads “leyesha‘yah[u],” which translated means, “belonging to Isaiah.” The letter represented as a “u” in the brackets is missing due to the damage on the left side. It represents the Hebrew letter vav (ו) and is a certain reconstruction. Therefore, there is no doubt that the name on this seal impression reads “Isaiah.” The bottom line is where the main problem of interpretation comes in. It reads“nvy” (Hebrew: נבי–pronounced nahvee). It is possible that the damaged portion of the seal (recall that Hebrew is read from right to left) also once contained the Hebrew letter aleph (Hebrew: א). If this is the case, then the Hebrew word would mean “prophet.” In which case, the bulla would read, “belonging to Isaiah the prophet.”
Isaiah the Prophet or Isaiah the son of Nvy?
The other possible interpretation is that the letters “nvy” are a personal name and would refer to Isaiah’s father. In that case the inscription would read “belonging to Isaiah the son of Nvy.” This would mean the Isaiah mentioned on the bulla wold be a different Isaiah, since we know that the father of the biblical prophet was named “Amoz” (Isa 1:1). The inscription does not have the words “son of,” but Mazar points out that other seals, due to space considerations, do not always include the word for “son.” One argument in favor of this word not being a proper name is that Mazar states there is plenty of room on the bulla to have written the Hebrew word for “son.” Therefore it can’t be argued that it was left off due to space considerations. However, for this word to mean “prophet,” not only should it have the Hebrew letter aleph at the end, but one would expect the Hebrew word for “the” (Hebrew: ה, just one letter pronounced like our “h”) before “prophet.” There is plenty of room on the bottom line to have included this Hebrew letter. Mazar points out, however, that the Hebrew letter meaning “the” could have appeared on the middle line which is damaged on the left side. Although one would normally expect the word “the” to be connected to the word prophet in Hebrew, Mazar points out that other bullae often divide words in strange ways. For example, the bulla of Hezekiah’s father, king Ahaz, divides Ahaz’s name by putting the “z” on the next line. It is also true, however, that the Hebrew letter for “the” is not always found on inscriptions.
The Prophet Isaiah and King Hezekiah Laying Side by Side
Another interesting feature of the Isaiah bulla is that it was found less than 10 feet from the bulla of Hezekiah! It is interesting that two men who are associated so closely in the Bible, would have bullae laying this close to each other. Their close association in life, makes this placement of the bullae logical. If this bulla is from the prophet Isaiah, then it is understandable that something with his signature would be in the same area as that of King Hezekiah. We would expect that those of Hezekiah’s court would have documents or items kept in a royal storage area. So while this doesn’t prove that the bulla definitely belongs to the prophet Isaiah, it is a piece of circumstantial evidence worth considering. Mazar writes, “Finding a seal impression of the prophet Isaiah next to that of King Hezekiah should not be unexpected. It would not be the first time that seal impressions of two Biblical personas, mentioned in the same verse in the Bible, were found in an archaeological context.” I’ll conclude with another quote from Mazar regarding the mystery of this bulla. She writes, “Could it therefore be possible that here, in an archaeological assemblage found within a royal context dated to the time of King Hezekiah, right next to the king’s seal impression, another seal impression was found that reads “Yesha‘yahu Navy’ ” and belonged to the prophet Isaiah? Is it alternatively possible for this seal NOT to belong to the prophet Isaiah, but instead to one of the king’s officials named Isaiah with the surname Nvy?” Perhaps further study of this artifact, or future discoveries will reveal the answer to Mazar’s questions. For now, it is a tantalizing discovery that might have come from the prophet Isaiah himself.
(The quotes and information for this article, along with the pictures of the Isaiah bulla are taken from Eilat Mazar’s article entitled, “Is This the Prophet Isaiah’s Signature?,” in the March/April, May/June 2018 issue of BAR [vol. 44:2]). If you have a subscription to BAR you can read Mazar’s article here. You can also sign up for “Bible History Daily” on the BAR website and read a companion article by Megan Sauter entitled, “Isaiah’s Signature Uncovered in Jerusalem.”
Is it possible that ancient Hebrew writings over 3800 years old exist from Egypt? In other words, writings that date to the time that Joseph was reputed to be there? Is it also possible that these writings mention the biblical names Joseph, Asenath (his wife), Manasseh (son of Joseph), and even Moses? And could it be that the oldest Hebrew writings have been right under our noses for the past 150 years? These are some of the assertions of Douglas Petrovich of Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Canada. Petrovich is an archaeologist and epigrapher (one who studies ancient scripts). Petrovich made these claims in a paper presented at the recent ASOR (American Schools of Oriental Research) meeting in San Antonio (Nov. 17).
In total, their are 18 inscriptions from 4 sites in Egypt and the Sinai that Petrovich has translated and identified as ancient Hebrew. Scholars are well aware that the language is some form of ancient Semitic script but until now positive identification has eluded them. In the ASOR abstract (a summary of the session’s contents), Petrovich states, “After stumbling across the writing of the word “Hebrews” in a text that features the earliest attestation of a proto-consonantal letter, the present writer successfully has identified Hebrew as the language of the proto-consonantal script and translated 18 inscriptions of Egypt’s Middle Kingdom and New Kingdom eras.” Not all scholars are convinced however. According to Semitic language expert and Bible scholar Christopher Rollston of George Washington University, Petrovich’s identification is “starved for evidence.”
Petrovich’s Conclusion and the Exodus
Petrovich is not the first to suggest this ancient script is Hebrew. A German scholar in the 1920s made the same identification, but he did not have enough evidence to back up his claim. According to an article in ScienceNews, “Petrovich…combined previous identifications of some letters in the ancient alphabet with his own identifications of disputed letters to peg the script as Hebrew.” Unfortunately, any identification of anything Hebrew dating from 1800-1400 B.C. is going to be met with skepticism by the scholarly community. Part of the reason for this is the skepticism related to the Exodus. Many believe there was no Exodus, and others maintain that if there was, it consisted of a small number of people and was nothing like the event depicted in the Book of Exodus. Another scholarly dogma holds that if there was an Exodus, it probably occurred during the reign of Ramses II (1279-1213 B.C.). However, investigations by Bimson, Rohl, and others, recently highlighted in the film Patterns of Evidence, suggests there’s more evidence that needs to be considered (see my related article HERE). If Petrovich is correct in deciphering this script as Hebrew, it would have major implications for the biblical story of the Exodus.
What Does This Alphabet Look Like?
This alphabet, which Petrovich calls “proto-Hebrew” (others call it “proto-Canaanite,”) makes the step from pictures (like hieroglyphics) to letters. However, the letters themselves are pictoral in nature (see the photo at right). The beginning of this form of the alphabet dates from somewhere around 1800-1500 B.C. (depending on who you ask!). By the time of Israel’s united monarchy (Saul-David-Solomon), the Hebrew alphabet had changed again. Four such inscriptions have been found so far in Israel dating from 1200-1000 B.C. The four inscriptions are the Qeiyafa Ostracon, the Gezer Calendar, the Tel Zayit Abecedary and the Izbet Zayit Abecedary. An Abecedary is an inscription that has the entire alphabet, much like a practice sheet from a child writing their ABCs. Of course it is debated by scholars as to whether these inscriptions are ancient Hebrew or ancient Phoenician (believed to be the predecessor to Hebrew). Once again, Christopher Rollston weighs in concluding they are Phoenician. He believes that the ancient Hebrew Alphabet did not develop until a little later. If, however, Petrovich (or others) can conclusively demonstrate that the writings found in Egypt are Hebrew, it would be revolutionary. It would mean that Hebrew was the first alphabet of the ancient world. It would also mean that the Hebrew writing system didn’t develop from Phoenicia, and it would suggest the four inscriptions from Israel are also Hebrew. In other words, a lot of sacred cows would be knocked over. Don’t expect this debate to go away without a fight! But because Bible believers want it to be so, or because skeptical scholars do not want it to be so, cannot be the criteria. Ultimately, it should not be prejudice, but honest painstaking scholarship that decides whether the inscriptions from Egypt are the oldest Hebrew writings.
The Dead Sea Scrolls are considered to be the most sensational archaeological discovery of the 20th century. A young bedouin’s discovery of the first scrolls in 1947, touched off a frantic search that lasted until 1956. During that period thousands of fragments were discovered in 11 caves consisting of more than 900 documents. Today, thanks to The Digital Dead Sea Scrolls website, several of these manuscripts are available to the public.
Scholars have always suspected that more scrolls existed in the caves in the Judean Wilderness. Two factors have revived the fervour to renew the search. First, is the recent publication of two books presenting 25 new Dead Sea scrolls. Second, is the fact that nearly 70 new Dead Sea scroll fragments have appeared on the antiquities market since 2002. History.com reports, “the cabinet minister in charge of Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) joins a number of scholars in the belief that looters in the Judean caves are finding even more undiscovered scroll fragments. With that in mind, the IAA is sponsoring scientific surveys and excavations in the hopes of getting to these historic artifacts before the looters do.”
The Contents of the New Dead Sea Scrolls
Live Science reports, “Between 2009 and 2014, Steve Green, the owner of Hobby Lobby, a chain of arts and crafts stores, purchased 13 of the fragments, which he has donated, along with thousands of other artifacts, to the Museum of the Bible.” These fragments have been studied and published by a team of scholars in a new book entitled, “Dead Sea Scrolls Fragments in the Museum Collection” (Brill, 2016). One of the most interesting fragments in this collection is from Nehemiah 2:13-16. This is the first time the Book of Nehemiah appears among the Dead Sea scrolls.
Martin Schøyen, from Norway, began collecting biblical manuscripts in 1986. The other fragments from the Dead Sea scrolls come from his collection. According to history.com, “In the end, the collector ended up with about 115 fragments from 27 different scrolls.” These have recently been published in “Gleanings from the Caves: Dead Sea Scrolls and Artefacts from The Schøyen Collection.” The Book of Leviticus is particularly highlighted in this collection. The photo above pictures one of the fragments from Leviticus. All combined the list of biblical books includes, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Samuel, Kings, Nehemiah, Proverbs, Psalms, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Joel, Jonah, and Micah.
Certainty vs. Forgeries
Unfortunately, all of these new Dead Sea scrolls have been recovered from the antiquities market. Of course some of the original Dead Sea scrolls were acquired this way as well. However, since antiquities are big business, this leaves open the possibility of forgeries. Thus, scholars are in the process of studying all of the fragments to determine their authenticity. This is another reason for the IAA to step up the search of discovering future scrolls. Rather than leave it to looters and antiquities dealers, how much better to discover them in their original archaeological context. This all means that the near future may hold more fascinating discoveries!
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.
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.”
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
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
Did you know that a number of prominent scholars believe that the Jehoash Inscription is authentic? Some of you might be saying, “Back up, I don’t even know what the Jehoash Inscription is!” Jehoash (also referred to as “Joash”) was king of Judah from 835-796 B.C. He is perhaps best known for being the king who initiated repairs on Solomon’s temple (2 Kgs. 12; 2 Chron. 24). The Jehoash Inscription (JI) is reputedly a royal inscription from the time of King Jehoash detailing the repairs that were carried out on the temple. It consists of 15 lines engraved on a black stone plaque. The inscription has similarities with the descriptions given in the biblical texts cited above, especially 2 Chronicles 24:8-14. A copy of the translation is given below.
For a clearer picture of this translation, go to the following site from Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR) and click on the photo to enlarge it. If this inscription is authentic, it would be a discovery of momentous proportions!
The Jehoash Inscription: No Stranger to Controversy
Unfortunately, the Jehoash Inscription is shrouded in controversy. Among other problems, it was not found “in situ.” That is, it was not found in an official archaeological excavation, but in the collection of an antiquities collector named Oded Golan. Because antiquities are “big money,” scholars are always suspicious of objects that come from the antiquities market. Are they forgeries, or are they authentic relics of the past? The problem has become more complicated as criminals become more adept at making a forgery look like the real thing. If an artifact is not found in its ancient archaeological context, then it is open to suspicion.
The Jehoash Inscription was only one of several objects included in Oded Golan’s collection accused of being modern forgeries. The most famous object of this collection was the James Ossuary which included the provocative inscription, “James the son of Joseph, the brother of Jesus.” An ossuary is simply a “bone box” where the bones of the deceased were placed after the desiccation of the flesh. Such bone boxes were only used for a limited time in Israel’s history (1st century B.C. through the 1st century A.D.), which happens to correspond with the time of Jesus and the early church. As a result, this ossuary and its inscription caused quite a stir. Charges of forgery also began to circulate. All of this came to a head with the indictment of Oded Golan and 3 others on December 29, 2004, and the confiscation of the supposed forgeries. The long trial finally concluded on March 14, 2012 with Golan’s acquittal. An account of the court’s decision, as well as details on the supposed forgeries (which many were convinced were authentic) can be found at BAR’s website at this location. Even though Golen had not been convicted, the Israel Antiquity Authority (IAA) demanded that the contested objects be kept and not returned to Golan. However, this demand was overruled and all of the objects, including the Jehoash Inscription, were returned to Golan who plans to put them on public display. More information of the possible authenticity of these items and the decision to return them to Golan can be found at the following site: Return the Jehoash Inscription.
Is the Jehoash Inscription Authentic?
This is a question that I am not qualified to answer, but the response of many of those who are qualified seems to be leaning in the direction that the Jehoash Inscription is indeed authentic. Besides the BAR articles sited above, the interested reader may also consult the following articles: for a detailed account of authenticity see: Archaeometric evidence for the authenticity of the Jehoash Inscription Tablet. Hershel Shanks, the editor of BAR has recently written another article supporting the authenticity of the Jehoash Inscription. It can be found in the July/August issue of BAR, 2014. For a summary of Shanks article you can click on the following site: Generation Word Bible Teaching.
It is unfortunate that questions of authenticity surround the Jehoash Inscription and, perhaps, always will. If it is authentic then it is the only royal Israelite inscription ever discovered. Moreover, it would be further evidence for the temple of Solomon, and it would confirm the biblical accounts of this event. Although we may never be certain of its provenance, the Jehoash Inscription is reported to have been discovered near the eastern wall of the Temple Mount in what is an old Muslim cemetery. This would certainly be the vicinity in which such an item would be expected to be found. If this is accurate there is a certain irony to the discovery of the Jehoash Inscription. It is said that in recent years the Muslim cemetery has been used for the burial of several Palestinians who were killed in suicide attacks on Israelis. It was during one such burial that the Jehoash Inscription was reported to have been discovered. Therefore, it appears that the burial of a Palestinian militant led to the discovery of an artifact that further testifies to Israel’s historic claim to the land. God certainly works in strange ways!