Category Archives: Biblical Sites

This feature includes photos of biblical sites and a brief overview of the significance of the site.

Oldest Hebrew Writing Discovered From Egypt?

Oldest Hebrew Writing Discovered From Egypt?

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This is one of 18 inscriptions from Egypt believed to contain the oldest Hebrew script.

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

Serabit el Khadim in the Sinai is one of the Egyptian sites believed by Petrovich to contain the oldest Hebrew writing.
Serabit el Khadim in the Sinai is one of the Egyptian sites believed by Petrovich to contain the oldest Hebrew writing.

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?

Reading from right to left, this chart shows the modern Hebrew letters with the ancient pictographic letters beneath.
Reading from right to left, this chart shows the modern Hebrew letters with the ancient pictographic letters beneath.

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.

New Dead Sea Scrolls Revealed

New Dead Sea Scrolls Revealed

Cave 4 near Qumran where many Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered.
Cave 4 near Qumran where many Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered.

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

This new Dead Sea scroll fragment is from the Book of Leviticus. Credit: copyright The Schøyen Collection, Oslo and London, MS 4611.
This new Dead Sea scroll fragment is from the Book of Leviticus. Credit: copyright The Schøyen Collection, Oslo and London, MS 4611.

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!

Temple Mount Sifting Project Discoveries

Temple Mount Sifting Project Discoveries

Brief History of Temple Mount Sifting Project Beginnings

 

The Temple Mount Sifting Project was a direct result of the illegal bulldozing of the Temple Mount by the Islamic Waqf in 1999.
The Temple Mount Sifting Project was a direct result of the illegal bulldozing of the Temple Mount by the Islamic Waqf in 1999.

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

 

This seal was recently discovered at the Temple Mount Sifting Project. Photo taken from templemount.wordpress.com
This seal was recently discovered at the Temple Mount Sifting Project. Photo taken from templemount.wordpress.com

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).

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Bronze arrowhead from the 10th century B.C.
Pottery shards dating to the 10th-9th centuries B.C. (All photos from Temple Mount Sifting Project)
Pottery shards dating to the 10th-9th centuries B.C. (All photos from the templemount.wordpress.com)
Clay impression bearing the name of a member of the priestly family of Immer.
Clay impression bearing the name of a member of the priestly family of Immer.

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.

Reassembled stone floor tiles from the Herodian Temple.
Reassembled stone floor tiles from the Herodian Temple.

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.

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Photos from templemount.wordpress.com.
temple-mount-sifting-project-jewelry
Photos from templemount.wordpress.com.

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.

Related articles across the web

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.)

Where Will the Battle of Armageddon Be Fought?

Where Will the Battle of Armageddon Be Fought?

The battle of Armageddon is pictured in the Book of Revelation as the final battle where God defeats evil.
The battle of Armageddon is pictured in the Book of Revelation as the final battle where God defeats evil.

Although the word Armageddon comes to us via the Bible, it has entered the modern vernacular as a term that refers to doomsday, or a cataclysmic event. Biblically speaking, it is the final battle to end all wars when evil is dealt a decisive blow. In the Book of Revelation, the apostle John describes it this way: “And the sixth angel poured out his bowl on the great river Euphrates, and its water was dried up so that the way of the kings from the east might be prepared. And I saw three unclean spirits like frogs coming out of the mouth of the dragon, out of the mouth of the beast, and out of the mouth of the false prophet. For they are spirits of demons, performing signs, which go out to the kings of the earth, and of the whole world to gather them to the battle of that great day of God Almighty….And they gathered them together to the place called in Hebrew, Armageddon” (Rev. 16:12-14, 16).

Tel Megiddo and the surrounding valley is frequently identified as the site of the battle of Armageddon.
Tel Megiddo and the surrounding valley is frequently identified as the site of the battle of Armageddon.

Most bible scholars and commentators preoccupy themselves with when Armageddon will occur, based on their understanding of Revelation and end-time events. When asked where the final battle of Armageddon will take place, the usual answer is the valley of Megiddo in Israel. This identification is based on breaking the word “Armageddon” into its two parts. “Ar” is the English equivalent to the Greek and Hebrew rendering which is “Har.” “Har” in Hebrew means “mountain.” The second part of the word “magedon” (one “d” in the Greek, not two) is usually thought to refer to the city of Megiddo. Because the ancient city of Megiddo was built and rebuilt many times over the centuries, a tell or small mound has developed. This is the result of the ancient practice of building one city on top of another. Thus Megiddo has the appearance of being a small hill or mountain as can be seen in the photo to the left. Armageddon, or Harmageddon is thus interpreted to mean “the mountain of Megiddo.”

Could the Equation of Armageddon with Mountain of Megiddo Be Wrong?

In his recent book The Unseen Realm, Bible scholar Michael Heiser argues that Armageddon should be equated with Jerusalem, not Megiddo. (If Heiser is correct, this means I need to revise one of my statements in  my post entitled: Tel-Megiddo!) Heiser makes the following points to advance his argument:

  1. Megiddo is a tell, it is not a mountain.

2.  Zechariah 12:9-11 pictures Jerusalem as the place where the final battle against the nations will take place. Interestingly, Megiddo is also mentioned in this passage. Heiser states, “It is crystal clear that the final conflict occurs at Jerusalem, not Megiddo. Megiddo is referenced only to compare the awful mourning that will result.” He continues by also noting, “verse 11 tells us explicitly that Megiddo is a plain, not a mountain!” (p. 370, all italics are the author’s).

417i-jxItJL._SX337_BO1,204,203,200_3.  Heiser’s third point  is more complicated and involves knowing a little Hebrew as he attempts to show that the word “magedon” does not come from Armageddon, but from a different Hebrew expression. He points out that there are 2 letters in the Hebrew alphabet that are transliterated with a “g” in Greek and English. Transliteration means writing the letters of another alphabet in the equivalent forms of our alphabet. One of those letters is the Hebrew letter ‘ayin (ע). An ‘ayin is pronounced in the back of the throat like a hard “g” but it is represented in English transliteration as a backwards apostrophe (‘). Heiser notes that the transliteration of the city Gomorrah is ‘amorah. I would add, the same is true for the city Gaza which also begins with an ‘ayin and is transliterated as ‘aza. If the letter “g” in “magedon” is an ‘ayin, then, Heiser argues, that the Hebrew expression would be har mo’ed which means “mountain of assembly.” If you’re unfamiliar with Hebrew, I know that going from “Armageddon” to “har mo’ed” seems like a stretch. But trust me, it works. Heiser notes that this expression is found in Isaiah 14:13. This is a passage usually attributed to Satan’s defiance of God and Heiser treats it fully elsewhere in his book. To fully appreciate his point, it is necessary to read the book. For the full argument on this particular point see pages 370-373.

4. “Jerusalem is a mountain–Mount Zion” (p. 373). Heiser’s point is that when John uses the word Armageddon, he is meaning the mountain of assembly which every one who knew Hebrew would equate with Mount Zion, or Jerusalem.

Megiddo or Jerusalem?

Since David conquered Jerusalem 3,000 years ago, it has been the center and hearbeat of Israelite life. Something rings true to me about the final battle taking place in Jerusalem. After all, even today, Jerusalem remains the focal point of controversy and contention when it comes to the Middle East. Even if it can’t be proven that Armageddon means “mountain of the assembly,” Heiser’s other arguments make sense of an important biblical event that all Christians long to see take place. For more of Heiser’s arguments regarding Armageddon or his book, The Unseen Realm, check out his website at moreunseenrealm.com.

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.