Archaeology and the Bible

by Shawn Nelson

We have discovered many ancient inscriptions confirming biblical peoples, places and events. There is confirmation of the flood account, worship practices of Israel’s pagan neighbors, the names of people, locations, battles, including the exile and return back into the land. This confirmation is strong evidence that the biblical record can be trusted.

Flood tablet in Akkadian

Flood tablet in Akkadian

First, nearly every ancient culture has a flood story. One such story is the Epic of Gilgamesh found inscribed on the Deluge Tablet discovered in the city of Nippur in the 1890s. It dates to around 2200 BC and shows striking similarities to the biblical account: “The springs of the deep will I open. A flood will I send which will affect all of mankind at once… Take wood and pitch and build a large ship!… preserve their life… the ship which thou makest, take into it… the animals of the field, the birds of the air and the reptiles, two of each.” Flood stories like this are found in Indian, Chinese, Korean, Asian, Australian, native North American, and native South American cultures. While the stories differ and do contain obvious embellishments, we would expect to find such stories from a global flood.

Black Obelisk 841 BC. Earliest known picture of an Israelite: possibly Jehu son of Omri, or Jehu's ambassador, kneeling at the feet of Shalmaneser III.

Black Obelisk 841 BC. Earliest known picture of an Israelite: possibly Jehu son of Omri, or Jehu’s ambassador, kneeling at the feet of Shalmaneser III.

Next, we have found religious writings which corroborate biblical descriptions of the pagan worship practices of Israel’s surrounding neighbors. There are the Hittite Texts (Catalogue des Textes Hittites) of the seventeenth century BC and the Ugaritic religious texts from Ras Shamra of the fourteenth to twelfth century BC. The latter sheds a great deal of light concerning the Canaanite religion. When compared with the Bible’s depiction of their religious practices, we find that the biblical description matches perfectly.

Replica of the Gezer Calendar in Israel Museum, Israel.

Replica of the Gezer Calendar in Israel Museum, Israel.

We also have some discoveries which confirm that Hebrew was used as far back as the eleventh century BC. The first is the Gezer Calendar (found in the biblical city of Gezer no less) dated from the tenth century BC. And the second is the Izbet Sartah Ostracon (from the biblical site of Ebenezer) which pushes this date further back to the end of the eleventh century BC. It contains an abecedary, an alphabetic guide or practice text, written in Hebrew on a potsherd, and is an example of early literacy. The Siloam Inscription records the construction of Hezekiah’s tunnel in the eighth century BC. It is also one of the oldest examples of Hebrew using the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet.

The Merneptah Stele (JE 31408) from the Cairo Museum

The Merneptah Stele (JE 31408) from the Cairo Museum

We also have confirmation of the use of the name “Israel” outside the Bible. The Merneptah Stele (ca. 1209/1208 BC) contains an inscription by the Ancient Egyptian king Merneptah which reads: “The princes are prostrate, saying, ‘Peace!’ Not one is raising his head among the Nine Bows… Israel is laid waste and his seed is not.” It is significant that Israel is not only mentioned, but mentioned as being one of the nations on Egypt’s “Nine Bows” list, a term the Egyptians used to refer to their most worthy enemies. The date of the Stele places it during the period of the Judges, a time when Israel had a general occupation of the land, but it was still dominated by local people groups. The reference suggests that although Israel did not have a king, it had become a formidable presence as the book of Judges indicates.

The Nabonidus Cylinder (British Museum copy)

The Nabonidus Cylinder (British Museum copy)

Many biblical people have also been confirmed. We have found potsherds from the tenth to ninth centuries with the name Goliath. This demonstrates that this name fits within the context of Philistine culture at that time. The Tel Dan Stele from the ninth century BC commemorates Hazael’s victory over the Israelites. The king boasts of his victories over the king of Israel and his ally the king of the “House of David” (ביתדוד). This is the first time the name David has been found outside the Bible. Hezekiah’s comptroller, Shebna, is mentioned over the doorway of a tomb. The Seal of Jehucal was a seal “belonging to Yehucal, son of Shelemiyahu, son of Shovi”, the official that King Zedekiah sent to Jeremiah (Jeremiah 37:3). The Stele of Zakkur (eighth century BC) mentions Hazael king of Aram. King Ahaz’s Seal (eighth century BC) mentions the name of Ahaz of Judah, as well as the name of his father, Yehotam (Jotham), identifying Ahaz as the “king of Judah”. The Cylinder of Nabonidus (555–539 BC) and Nabonidus Chronicle prove that Belshazzar was a real person just as Daniel says (5; 7:1; 8:1). The Elephantine Papyri, an ancient Jewish papyri dating to the 5th century BC, names three persons mentioned in Nehemiah: Darius II, Sanballat the Horonite and Johanan the high priest. And the Deir ‘Alla or Balaam Inscription (ca. 840–760 BC) found on a wall inside a multi-chambered structure in Jordan is a story about the visions of the seer of the gods called Bala’am son of Be’or.

Bubastis Portal between the temple of Ramesses III and the second pylon.

Bubastis Portal between the temple of Ramesses III and the second pylon.

Many biblical battles have been confirmed too. The Bubastis Portal, located outside the Temple of Amun at Karnak, contains a series of inscriptions recounting pharaoh Shishaq’s invasion of Judah and Israel in 925 BC (1 Kings 14:25; 2 Chronicles 12:1–12). The Kurkh Monolith (ca. 859–824 BC) erected by Shalmaneser III names King Ahab of Israel along with many other regional leaders who participated in the Battle of Karkar. The Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III (ca. 858–824 BC) depicts either Jehu son of Omri (a king of Israel mentioned in 2 Kings), or Jehu’s ambassador, paying homage to Assyrian king Shalmaneser III (c.825 BC). This is possibly the earliest surviving relief of an Israelite. The Annals of Tiglath Pileser III (730 BC) records how many Judean and Israelite kings paid tribute. It mentions by name Menahem, Pekah and Hosheah of Israel as well as Ahaz and Uzziah of Judah. The Mesha stele or Moabite stone (ca. 850 BC) describes the victories of Moabite king Mesha over the Kingdom of Israel. It has been suggested that this also contains a reference to the “House of David” (בת[ד]וד), although this is disputed because one letter has been destroyed on the stele. It is also the earliest known written reference to the sacred Hebrew name of God (YHWH).

Taylor prism on display at the British Museum. Describes the Assyrian king Sennacherib's siege of Jerusalem in 701 BC during the reign of king Hezekiah, which is recorded by Herodotus and the Bible in Isaiah chapters 33 and 36; 2 Kings 18:17; 2 Chronicles 32:9. Photo by David Castor.

Taylor prism on display at the British Museum. Describes the Assyrian king Sennacherib’s siege of Jerusalem in 701 BC during the reign of king Hezekiah, which is recorded by Herodotus and the Bible in Isaiah chapters 33 and 36; 2 Kings 18:17; 2 Chronicles 32:9. Photo by David Castor.

We have confirmation of Israelite sieges and their eventual captivity. The Lachish Relief celebrates the Assyrian victory over Judea during the siege of Lachish in 701 BC, and describes how they were led away into captivity (2 Chronicles 32:9). The Taylor Prism and Sennacherib Prism are inscribed with the annals of the Assyrian king Sennacherib. It mentioned the siege of Jerusalem during the reign of king Hezekiah (Isaiah 33 and 36; 2 Kings 18:17; 2 Chronicles 32:9). What is especially interesting is that it says that Sennacherib laid siege on Jerusalem as well, but did not take the city. Instead, he exacted tribute from Hezekiah, and for some unstated reason, withdrew. This fits well with the account in the Bible that the Angel of the Lord killed 175,000 of the Assyrians (2 Chronicles 32:21; 2 Kings 19:35). This would have been an extremely embarrassing event for Sennacherib, one he would not care to record in his annals. The Babylonian Chronicles (ca. 747–247 BC) records the capture of Jerusalem by the Nebuchadnezzar in 597 BC. Jehoiachin’s Rations Tablets (sixth century BC) describe the rations set aside for a royal captive identified with Jehoiachin, king of Judah.

The Cyrus cylinder, regarding King Cyrus's treatment of religion, which is significant to the books of Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah.

The Cyrus cylinder, regarding King Cyrus’s treatment of religion, which is significant to the books of Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah.

Finally, there is even witness to the return of the exiles back to the land. The Cylinder of Cyrus (ca. 559 BC-530 BC) says that Cyrus was sympathetic towards the religion of his captives. This corroborates Ezra 1:1-4 which says that Cyrus allowed the Jewish captives to return to rebuild their temple in Jerusalem.

Clearly, there is confirmation from archaeology that the Bible can be trusted. There is much archaeological evidence that the peoples, places and events of the Bible happened just the way the Bible described. If it can be trusted as being historically reliable, then the message it contains about God’s redemption in the person of Jesus Christ can also be trusted.

The above is an excerpt from a writing assignment I completed as a requirement for a class at Veritas Evangelical Seminary.  My professor was Dr. Steven Collins who is the dean at Trinity Southwest University’s College of Archaeology, as well as chief archaeologist for the Tall el-Hammam excavation currently underway in Jordan.  His recent discovery of Sodom is shaking the world of archaeology. Further info can be found in his new book Discovering the City of Sodom.

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Author: Shawn Nelson

Shawn Nelson is the President of Geeky Christian, a ministry which seeks to use technology to evangelize the lost and provide free material for Christian growth. He holds a BA in Biblical Studies from San Diego Christian College and is married with two children. He is also the author of several free books and others on Amazon.

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4 Comments

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