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Biblical Personalities and Archaeology

By Leah Leah Bronner

Archaeology has a great fascination for most people. It is thrilling to dig and see the spade unearth the secrets of the past. Biblical archaeology has fired the imagination of men and women throughout the ages, and they have flocked to the Holy Land to discover the sites where the heroes of the Bible lived their lives. Even in modern times the stream of pilgrims has not abated. Jews, Christians, and Moslems continue to visit the land of the Bible in ever growing numbers. This interest in the Bible is understandable as it is the bedrock of Western civilization. One of the surprises of modern archaeological discoveries has been that the peripheral lands of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Syria, and Anatolia have greatly added to Biblical knowledge. From each of these neighboring countries have come written documents and monuments of great importance for the understanding of the life, literature, and history of the peoples who once dwelt in Palestine. I shall endeavor to illustrate in this book how history, as treated in the Bible, has been greatly enlarged by the past century of archaeological investigation.

First, let us ask ourselves : what is the aim and what are the methods of archaeology in general, and Biblical archaeology in particular? The term archaeology is derived from the two Greek words archaios, meaning ancient, and logos, meaning knowledge. Archaeology is the study of past civilizations through their material remains. To begin with, archaeology is not an end in itself, not just an abstract study. It is the method of finding out about the past of the human race in all its material aspects and the study of the products of this past : the way people lived, the way they worshiped, the way they built, their art, their trade, their travels. All these aspects are of course also studied by historians. But it must be pointed out that historians are primarily concerned with written records, while archaeologists deal with the solid material remains of civilizations. It studies very closely the objects man used and made, his dwelling places and defense structures, his tools and weapons, the remains of his food, his own bones and burial places. From these he deduces how he lived. Archaeologist work like detectives and treat the artifacts they find as clues to the lives of the people who made and used them. Archaeologist may make exciting new discoveries such as Egyptian tombs filled with gold, as was the case with the Tutankhamon discovery by Carter in 1922. But a few grains of hardened corn from a buried cave in Palestine may reveal more about the life of men in that country than all the treasures of the pyramids.

Archaeology today is a well-developed science. The archaeologist needs the help of many kinds of scientists to carry on his work. Geologists tell him about the earth structure at different periods. Botanists trace ancient plant life for him. Zoologists identify animals. Petrologists and mineralogists supply information about stones and other minerals used for implements and weapons. Chemists and physicists help discover what things were made of and contribute new methods of dating and preserving archaeological finds and discoveries.

Archaeology is also considered a branch of anthropology, and other branches of this science also help the archaeologist. Physical anthropologists identify the faces of early men from parts of their skeletons. Cultural, or social, anthropologists help figure out the religious beliefs, social organization, and other customs of ancient peoples.

Biblical archaeology is a special branch of general archaeology. The Biblical archaeologist may or may not himself dig, but he studies closely the discoveries resulting from the numerous excavations taking place which touch on the Bible, and he endeavors to glean from them every fact that throws a direct or indirect light on Scripture. The Biblical archaeologist must be fully at home with stratigraphy and typology, upon which the methodology of modern archaeology rests and of which more will be said later in this chapter. Yet his chief concern is not with techniques or pots or weapons in themselves. His central and absorbing interest is the understanding and exposition of the Scriptures. For there are two sides to archaeology : digging and deciphering. The Biblical archaeologist may excavate, but his major concern is to study the results of excavations and help interpret them and see what light they can shed on his understanding of the Bible.

The exciting story of Biblical archaeology has been narrated in many books. Yet it will not be out of place to name a few of the epoch-making discoveries in the history of this discipline. One may begin with the discovery of the Rosetta stone in Egypt by Napoleonís men. The engineer Bouchard and his companions who discovered the stone immediately sensed that they had hit upon something of great moment. They proved correct. The Rosetta stone, which has three different scripts inscribed on it, namely hieroglyphic, demotic, and Greek, was the epoch-making find which made Egyptian records available to Western man. It was the Greek inscription which made possible the decipherment of the hieroglyphic characters, the old picture writing which was used from the earliest times for nearly all state and ceremonial documents that were intended to be seen by the public, and the demotic characters, a cursive and abbreviated form of the hieratic script which was a later development of the hieroglyphs. It came into use in the 7th century B.C.E. and was the prevailing script in the Ptolemaic period. The hieroglyphic text consists of 14 lines only, and these correspond to the last 28 lines of the Greek text. The demotic text consists of 32 lines, the first 14 being imperfect at the beginnings; the Greek text consists of 54 lines, the last 26 being imperfect at the ends. It was Champollion who correctly deciphered the writing on this stone and thus supplied the master key to unlock the secrets of the records of ancient Egypt. The Rosetta stone is one of the prized possessions of the British Museum.

The next landmark in the field of Biblical archaeology was the discovery of the Behistun rock in Iran. The Englishman Rawlinson risked life itself in order to scale the rock and transcribe part of the inscription. International political friction forced Rawlinson to leave the country before his finished his work. Eventually he returned and this time he was able to transcribe and decipher the inscription on the Behistun rock. The writing on the stone described in three languages : Old Persian, Elamite and Babylonian : the triumph of Darius the Great over all enemies in revolt against him; Rawlinsonís work proved to be the master key which revealed the secrets of the Assyrian and Babylonian literatures, which have an important bearing on Biblical events.

These discoveries were eventually followed by numerous others in different countries of the Near East. In 1887 the Amarna tablets were found accidentally by a woman digging in the southern part of Egypt. They are the only cuneiform tablets found on Egyptian soil. The year 1902 witnessed the discovery of the code of Hammurapi. Since then many other sizeable collections of laws have been discovered in the Ancient Near East. We shall discuss these in a later chapter. The Ugaritic texts were discovered in 1929, and they broadened our understanding of the gods and religion of Canaan before the coming of the Israelites. These were followed by discoveries at Nuzi, Mari, and the Dead Sea. Some of these finds were the result of planned excavations while others, as in the case of the Dead Sea Scrolls, were the result of sheer chance. It was the decipherment of the various ancient languages that gave Biblical archaeology a new significance and led to an intensified search for more written material.

In the first stages of archaeological research, the excavators were merely looking for museum pieces, especially sculptures and reliefs. Chiera, in his interesting book They Wrote on Clay, tells us that whenever he led visitors through the Oriental Institute of Chicago, which houses a large quantity of relics of the Assyrian world, he found that they were always dazzled by the huge bulls, the massive stone reliefs that he had brought back from the palaces of the Assyrian kings. When they turned to enter the room containing the ancient clay tablets, most of them seemed uninterested and anxious to move on to more spectacular finds. Chiera always tried to impress upon the visitors to the archaeological museum that the most interesting material was to be found in the writing room where the cuneiform tablets are stored. He felt that here lay the key with which to unravel the riddles of past civilizations. These writings open up the secrets of the diaries of the past. Museum pieces of towering sizes and precious metals indeed dazzle the layman, but the archaeologist knows that it is the dull-looking clay tablets that communicate the most exciting information about how the people in the ancient world lived and what they thought about God, man, and history.

Methods of excavation have improved greatly in the last few decades. It was H. Schliemann who looked for Homeric Troy and discovered the true nature and importance of mounds. Throughout the Near East one sees curious earthen formations in the general shape of a rounded hills or truncated cone. These are the remains of ruined cities called in Hebrew tel and in Arabic tell. The archaeolgist excavates these mounds and makes a careful study of each stratum to pottery and thus arrive at the date of the specific level. In other words, typology and stratigraphy are the alphabet of archaeology.

It was Flinders Petrie who demonstrated that importance of typology especially for digging in the land of Israel. In countries like Egypt and Assyria, where one finds the ruins of magnificent palaces and tombs which are adorned with reliefs and inscriptions, the chronological problem is less acute. For these inscriptions indicate to which period of history these finds belong. But in a poor country like Palestine, where palaces where indeed rare and even inscriptions very few, it is the science of typology and stratigraphy that enables the dating of ruins.

The science of Palestinian archaeology was born with the arrival of Flinders Petrie in that country in 1890. He began to dig at a mound called by the Arabs Tell el-Hesy, where there was an abundance of ancient pottery, a site which he felt was therefore worth a dozen other places put together. Although Petrie mistakenly thought it was the ancient site of Lachish, it now seems likely that it was the Biblical Eglon. He was the first to stress that the importance of excavation in Palestine cannot be measured in terms of museum pieces. The great discovery was the demonstration by Petrie that the history of ancient Palestine was written in the forms and shapes of broken fragments of pottery. It was he who established the need for scrupulous and accurate recording of every scrap of evidence found on a dig. His publication of the results of his digging at Tell el-Hesy ahs five large plates of pottery, each piece carefully marked with the depth at which it was found. The observation that certain types of pottery belong to certain layers of occupation, and the dating of these strata by the presence of objects whose age was known, cleared the way for determining the chronology of ancient Palestine. Flinders Petrie made the famous statement: ìOnce settle the pottery of a country, and the key is in our hands for all future explorations. A simple glance at a mound of ruins, even without dismounting will show as much to anyone who knows the styles of pottery, as weeks of work may reveal to a beginnerî (Wright, Biblical Archaeology, p.24).

This trustworthy standard has been checked, revised, and improved since Petrie by leading archaeologists such as W. F. Albright, K. Kenyon, R. Amiran, and many others. In Amiranís book, entitled The Ancient Pottery of the Holy Land, she writes: ìIn 1890 Petrie conducted the first excavation of a tell in this country, after accumulating much knowledge and experience in ten years of digging in Egypt. While working at Tell el-Hesy, Petrie recognized the chronological value of potsherds in stratigraphical excavation and established a basic scale of dated shards. Every field or desk-work undertaken since then has contributed to the steady progress being made in the study of pottery and other aspects of archaeology as wellî (Amiran, Ancient Pottery of the Holy Land, p. 13). It was Petrieís discovery of the value of pottery as an index to chronology, the essential alphabet of archaeology, which more than anything else justly earned for him the title given to him by the great American archaeologist Albright : ìThe Revered Nestor of Archaeologists.î

Pottery is a very sensitive product of human inventive power. Though the potterís craft serves the needs of everyday life, it reflects all the changes which political events and artistic trends bring about in the progress of humanity. A brief glance at a chart indicating the different shapes of pottery from earliest times until, let us say, the Hellenistic period illustrates even to the untrained eye of the layman how quickly pottery styles change. Thus, these artifacts play a most important role in sequence dating.

Today archaeology has become an exceedingly careful and meticulous study. The science of Palestinian topography has begun by E. Robinson who undertook his epoch-making trips to the Land of the Bible (1837, 1852), in the course of which he improved existing maps and located hundreds of modern sites there. However, since his days the science had been greatly improved and perfected and the serious student can find numerous excellent books to guide him in this field. The archaeologist now is expected to undertake his work with an adequate staff; it is not longer a random treasure-hunt. The excavating team is provided with all necessary equipment such as surveying instruments, photographic apparatus, drawing tools, hoes, sieves, and other necessary material. Many photographs are taken to show the exact appearance of the ruins as they are cleared, and especially to record the relation of objects to one another as well as to the entire dig. The drawings and photographs that are prepared by the excavating team enable scholars who have not participated in the excavation to understand and identify it and then to get down to the difficult task of interpreting the finds.

As soon as a discovery is made the task of interpretation arises. It is the duty of the Biblical scholar to study the finds and endeavor to explain their significance for Biblical studies. Needless to say, there will always be differences of opinion concerning the material discovered. It is accordingly undesirable to be too dogmatic about archaeology. As in other spheres of study, whether it be history or literature, there are large gaps in the material available, with the result that divergent opinions are often held by experts. This is more true in the field of archaeology than in other disciplines, for the material available for study is often fragmentary. The scholars study the internal evidence of the Bible and the external evidence of archaeology. Both are interpreted and reinterpreted. However, different scholars still arrive at different opinions concerning problems which are of central importance to the study of Scripture. As an example, we might cite the different views that have been advanced for the date of the Patriarchs. There is still no unanimity on the date of this period.

With the assistance of the above-described methods archaeology is able to reconstruct the ancient world. For archaeology aims at recreating the material world of the Biblical heroes. To cite an example from II Kings: We are told there that the Shunammite woman prepared for Elisha a little room where he could lodge when he visited that part of the country. It is written: ìLet us make a little chamber, I pray thee, and let us set for him there a bed and a table, and a stool, and a candlestick; and it shall be, when he cometh to us that he shall turn in thitherî (II Kings 4:10). It is the task of archaeology to try to reconstruct what such a chamber and its furnishings looked like. This gives us the nature of the physical environment in which the people of the Bible worked, walked, lived, and thought.

Archaeology is also interested in the political, cultural, and religious history of the times, because these events influenced the thinking of the people. Being a science that deals with the material remains of civilization, it brings back the objects of religious worship, such as altars, idols, lamps, and temples. But it cannot bring back the life of the soul, or all the spiritual values associated with it. However, if you can reconstruct the physical environment, the spiritual teachings become more acceptable and feasible. Thus, archaeology can bring back the world of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It cannot bring back the moment God spoke to Abraham. This way, and always will be, a matter of faith. But archaeology gives us greater confidence in the encounter of God with man, because now at least we can visualize that world because of recent archaeological discoveries.

Let us cite a few concrete examples to illustrate what archaeology has done. The Bible tells us that the Assyrians captured Samaria (II Kings 17:3ff). Cuneiform texts tell us the same thing (Barnett, Illustrations of Old Testament History, p. 52). Again, the Bible declared that when Sennacherib tried to conquer Jerusalem, God protected the city and the invading army was destroyed through Divine intervention (II Kings 19:35; Isaiah 37:36). From Sennacheribís own account we know that he attached Jerusalem. In the Taylor Prism he claimed that he locked up Hezekiah, the Jew, ìas a caged bird in his royal city Jerusalemî (Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts, p. 288). Though the text continues to describe all that Hezekiah had to pay to the king, it never claimed that he conquered the city of Jerusalem. Thus, one can state that these texts corroborate the Bible.

Another direct contact between the Bible and archaeological finds is the Moabite stone. The inscription on this stone refers to the triumph of Mesha, the son of Chemosh, king of Moab, whose father reigned over that country for 30 years. He tells us he threw off the yoke of Israel and honored his god by building an altar to him. Part of the inscription on the stone reads as follows: ìAs for Omri, King of Israel, he humbled Moab for many years. For Chemosh was angry at his land. And his son followed him and said, ëI will humble Moab.í In time he spoke thus but I triumphed over him and over his house, while Israel has perished forever. Now Omri had occupied the aland of Medeba and Israel had dwelt there in his time and half the time of his son [Ahab], forty years; but Chemosh dwelt there in my timeî (Ancient Near Eastern Texts, p. 320). This account seems to imply that Mesha broke free from Israel before Ahabís death. It thus appears to class with II Kings 1:1, where it is written: ìThen Moab rebelled against Israel after the death of Ahabî (II Kings 3:5). There is no contradiction, however, for during the last years of Ahabís life he was hardpressed by the Syrian wars and probably lost control over Moab. From Meshaís point of view his freedom dated from then, but as far as Israel was concerned Moab could not be regarded as free until after the abortive campaign conducted by Ahabís son Joram described in II Kings 3.

On the other hand, the Assyrian king Shalmaneser, on his Black Obelish, presents a picture of Jehu paying him homage and bring him presents. That episode is not to be found in the Bible. Are we to conclude then that the Bible is not true? Of course not. The correct interpretation is that the Biblical historian did not find it important for his purpose to mention this incident. He was not concerned primarily with history per se, but with ethical and religious truths. Those incidents that he felt would underline these were included; and those that would not were omitted.

The ancient writer of Jewish history, whose work was preserved by the People of Israel and enshrine in the Bible, was interested chiefly in spiritual and ethical attitudes. What interested him was a religious evaluation of the activities of the kings. Thus, of every king it is written whether he did good in the eyes of the Lord or whether he did evil in the eyes of the Lord. Then he adds that ìthe rest of the doings of this or that king are to be found in the records of the kings of Israel and Judah.î Political and secular matters did not concern him. The salient fact is that it was not the royal political and military archives that survived but religious history, and it became eternal. We would not even know that royal archives of this nature ever existed, had it not been mentioned incidentally by the spiritual history which ignored most of their content. The historian was a religious historian, whose aim was to demonstrate that evil led to national destruction and righteousness to Godís help. The Talmud stresses that only ìthose prophecies that had a moral message for coming generations were written down.î Therefore, events like the one with Jehu, as represented on the Black Obelisk, or even the Battle of Karkar and many others, are not mentioned, for they are not important for the ethical and religious history of mankind.

Often when writing on this subject one finds that layman asking : does archaeology prove or disprove the Bible? Any intelligent student of archaeology knows that it is impossible to answer such a question with an outright ìyesî or ìno.î One must be careful when answering such a question. One must clearly define the problem before endeavoring to reply to it. In the sense that the Biblical languages, the life and customs of its people, its history and its conceptions have been illuminated by archaeological discoveries, the scholar believes that such a question can be answered in the affirmative. Biblical literature no longer stems from the chaos of history as though it were a fossil; there is now contemporary evidence to demonstrate its authenticity. The scholar knows that the primary purpose of Biblical archaeology is not to prove but to discover. The vast majority of the digs neither prove nor disprove. They fill in the background and provide the setting for the story. The ultimate aim of the Biblical archaeologist is Truth. Indeed, archaeology has illumined the dark past and has realized the word of the Psalmist that 'truth has sprung forth from the earth' to illustrate the living world of the Bible' (Psalm 85:12).