Since the onset of "scientific" Middle Eastern archaeology in the mid-19th century and the deciphering of ancient languages and texts, biblical scholarship has come to understand the indispensable relevance of ancient Near Eastern (ANE) studies to the historical, cultural, and religious background of the Scriptures, in particular of the Old Testament. In fact, the Old Testament situates itself in that very environment as early as the Patriarchal Age (ca. 2600–1900 BC), if not earlier. The interface of these two related but different fields of study has subsequently found expression in two major ways, depending on the faith-stance of those seriously engaged in study of the respective sets of comparative data:
1. Scholars inclined to assign little or no historical or cultural validity to the Old Testament narratives suggest that either those narratives are late, retrospective renditions of traditions that enjoyed wide currency in Israel's larger milieu, or that the alleged commonalities between the textual evidence from the ANE and the OT are illusory, coincidental, or derived from common stock.
2. On the other hand, conservatives of many varieties have largely embraced the findings of archaeological research and have employed them heuristically, apologetically, or even polemically. Sadly, the extremes of both positions have resulted, in the first case, in an even stronger denial of any independent historical reality to OT texts (a position known as "minimalism"), and in the second case, a naive, uncritical "proof' of connections between archaeology and the Bible which, in fact, are incorrectly perceived or illegitimately employed to make a case for the reliability of the OT where no such case can be made on those grounds (misguided "maximalism'').1
Overview of Middle Eastern Scholarship
Since the focus of this article is on comparative studies and not on an exhaustive description of archaeology in general nor on all the aspects of OT criticism, only a few highlights of each can be explored.
First is a consideration of the ancient Near East. Religious pilgrims and other travelers from time immemorial have criss-crossed the Middle Eastern world searching for this place or that considered to be sacred because of their mention in the Bible or of the interest they generate through legends and traditions. Some, of course, were easily found either because of continuous occupation for thousands of years or deeply embedded tradition about sites that might or might not turn out to be correct. Among these in Palestine can be listed Bethlehem, Nazareth, Jerusalem, Damascus, and obviously such natural features as the Mount of Olives, the Jordan River, Mt. Carmel, Mt. Hermon, the Dead and Red Seas, and Lake Gennesaret (Sea of Galilee). Virtually all other places were lost beneath the soils of the Holy Land or gave evidence of their existence only in meager surface finds that had no way of being identified or even dated.
Worse still was the situation in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Anatolia. Legends abounded as to the whereabouts of cities referred to in the Bible as well as in classical historical writings such as those of Homer (ninth century BC), Herodotus (ca. 484–425 BC), Thucydides (ca. 460–390 BC), Xenophon (ca. 431–355 BC), Manetho (late fourth century BC), Berossus (early third century BC), Polybius (ca. 200–118 BC), Sallust (ca. 86–35 BC), and even the Jewish historian Josephus (ca. AD 37–100) or the Christian Eusebius (AD 263–339). By the time of the earliest of these historians wrote of them, the whereabouts of such ancient sites as Thebes, Memphis, Beersheba, Samaria, Ur, Babylon, Nineveh, and Susa had been lost. In fact, the very existence of a Hittite people, to say nothing of an empire, was thought to be a fable since nothing could be found of their historical reality despite what the Bible said about them.2
Overview of Old Testament Scholarship: The Enlightenment to the Present
Pre-Enlightenment considerations of biblical locations seemed by and large to be unfazed by the inability of travelers to locate them with confidence. The Bible said they existed, they were attached to real persons, they were the scenes of historically credible events, and that settled it. What seems in modern skeptical circles to have been naive credulity was part and parcel of both early Jewish and Christian thought to the effect that if the Bible is to be believed as a book of unerring doctrine and theology, it must also speak of actual historical persons and events. Early in the 1600s, however, a pall of agnosticism and a slippage of confidence in all things biblical began to enshroud the world of the Church as well as that of European society at large. The so-called Enlightenment, with its philosophical rationalism, particularly as expressed in England, France, and Germany, commenced to challenge everything “irrational” such as the miracle narratives of the Bible, its very character as inspired revelation, and, obviously and logically, what it had to say about the past. Such methods and their resulting agnosticism continue to this day in one form or another in large segments of biblical scholarship. However, the skepticism of 150 or even 100 years ago has had to reckon with the loud voice of archaeological research that cannot be silenced.3
Profits and Losses through Comparative Methods: Five Clear Profits
In a most unusual example of a thrice-recounted biblical event (2 Kgs 18:13–24:37; 2 Chr 32:1–23; Isa 36:1–37:38), Sennacherib, king of Assyria (705–681 BC), is reported as having come against Judah, and especially Jerusalem, to reduce it to vassalage. This occurred in the reign of Hezekiah, king of Judah, in his 14th year (701 BC).4 All three narratives record that Jerusalem was put under siege. The Kings version attributes Judah's deliverance to the “Angel of Yahweh” who slew 185,000 Assyrians (2 Kgs 19:35); the Chronicler5 recounts that the agent was “an angel” (2 Chr 32:31), with no figure as to the dead; and Isaiah, clearly an eyewitness to the event, agrees with Kings in every respect (Isa 37:36). A remarkable discovery in the royal archives of Nineveh included a stele providing a detailed report of Sennacherib's campaign against Judah and his siege of Jerusalem. In it he boasts that he had sequestered Hezekiah the Jew in his capital “like a bird in a cage.”6 Interestingly enough, he says nothing of the catastrophic loss of his army, being content merely to say that he gained much tribute and then returned to Nineveh. His very retreat with no mention of gaining access to Jerusalem speaks volumes about the humiliating setback he had experienced, of which the biblical accounts give full information. Nevertheless, the Assyrian document validates with great specificity the biblical versions.
In 1993 and 1994, Avraham Biran and his team of Israeli excavators, while undertaking a dig at Tell Dan, located in far north Israel on the border with Lebanon, found three fragments of an inscribed stone stele near a paved area in front of the outer Israelite city gate. Its significance is that it is an Aramaic text engraved sometime in the mid-ninth century (ca. 850), thus likely under the aegis of King Hazael of Damascus, well-known from the Bible as an oppressor of Israel during the reigns of Joram (852–841 BC) and Jehu (841–814 BC) of Israel and of Jehoshaphat (873-849 BC), Jehoram (849–842 BC), Ahaziah (842 BC), and possibly the inter-regnum of the wicked queen-mother Athaliah (842–836 BC), rulers of Judah (1 Kgs 19:15; 2 Kgs 8:9, 15, 28; 10:32; 12:17; 13:3, 22). None of these is mentioned in the inscription but Israel as a whole (including Judah) is referred to by the scribe of the text as "House of David" (bytdwd).7 This confirms not only the existence of a historical David, but also his importance more than a century after his death.
From the same time period as the Tell Dan inscription (ca. 850–840 BC) comes the Moabite monument self-attributed to Mesha, King of Moab. In it he provides a most telling reportage of his conflict with Joram, king of Israel, hence, the "other side" of the story recorded in 2 Kings 3:1–27. Both accounts suggest that Moab had become tributary to Israel, probably as early as the time of Omri (885–874; 1 Kgs 16:21–28), since Mesha refers to Israel as the "House of Omri." In any case, the historicity of the event as recorded in the book of Kings is established beyond doubt by the Mesha version. Of interest is the fact that historiography takes shape according to the vantage-point and predilections of the historian. In extreme cases, "our" side always wins and "their" side always loses.
The Babylonian Chronicles
With the collapse and disappearance of the Neo-Assyrian Empire in 605 BC, the Chaldean or Neo-Babylonian Empire not only took its place but expanded beyond Assyria's borders. Of special interest to the Old Testament is the fact that Judah, the rump kingdom of a once greater Israel, became incorporated into this new hegemony under its notorious ruler Nebuchadnezzar II. However, no Babylonian inscriptions that might speak to the historicity of the biblical accounts of the period made reference to Judah or any other entities in the Levant. At length a corpus of texts was found and published that shed illuminating light not only Babylonian-Judean affairs but with full sets of dates, even down to months, when this or that king of Babylon, beginning with Nebuchadnezzar's father Nabopolassar, through the 53-year reign of Nebuchadnezzar (605–562 BC), and even beyond.8 The effect of all this has been mutually enlightening: The history of Judah/Judea/Yehud has been put on unassailable chronological grounds and the Chronicles in turn have taken on a new humanness and pathos through the color provided by the Old Testament.
The absence of any sizable corpus of early Northwest Semitic texts was remedied to a remarkable extent in 1927 by the chance discovery of the ancient city-state of Ugarit at Ras Shamra, on the northern coast of Syria. Before that, a good number of Phoenician inscriptions had been recovered at Byblos, Zincerli, Karatepe, and a number of other sites in Syria and Lebanon. Punic texts were also known, even from as far away as Sardinia, Malta, Carthage, and Marseille, France. Aramaic was also attested to in more meager supply, notably at Zincerli, Barna, and Sfire. Except for the Gezer Calendar (tenth century) and the newly found inscription from Qeiyafa (see below), however, extant writings of any kind in Hebrew were virtually non-existent prior to 1000 BC.9 Thus, the importance of Ugaritic in filling the void can hardly be overstated. At least five profitable payoffs should be mentioned:
1. The texts date between ca. 1500–1200 BC, thus antedating the earliest Hebrew inscriptions by 300 years or more.10 This gives insight into what Mosaic Hebrew may have looked like as early as the 15th century.
2. Case endings and other orthographic phenomena only hinted at in the Bible are fully supplied in Ugaritic.
3. The major literary genres of the Hebrew Bible are attested to in Ugaritic, especially the copious poetic epic texts that comport well with biblical poetic form and style.
4. Letters and other non-poetic texts shed light on the larger ANE world in the Late Bronze Age.
5. The epic literature, particularly the Ba'al and Kirtu poems, sets forth in detail the mythic belief systems of the early Levant, only hints of which appear in the Bible.
Three Claimed and/or Apparent Profits
The City of David
Since 2005 Eilat Mazar, a grand-daughter of the famous archaeologist and Bible scholar Benjamin Mazar, has been occupied with the so-called "City of David" excavation on Mount Ophel, the old Jebusite settlement known from ancient times as Jerusalem11 and which was taken by David as his choice for a capital of the newly-formed state of Israel (Josh 15:8; 2 Sam 5:6–10; 24:16–18). It lies just to the south of the Al-Aksa Mosque, perched on the Ottoman wall of the Old City. Within a short time she had uncovered a massive structure of some kind which, on the basis of pottery and other chronological markers, she dated to the 10th–11th century BC, the time of David and Solomon.12 The palatial nature of the ruins soon led her to conclude that the structure must have been the royal palace built by Hiram of Tyre at David's behest. At the same time she has found increasing confirmative evidence for this identification, although many scholars have rejected her conclusions for any number of reasons. If she is correct, the view of many critics that David, if he existed at all, was simply the chieftain of a modest settlement will have to be totally rejected. It is too early perhaps for a consensus to emerge one way or the other, but her position seems very promising to those inclined to believe.
The Bible refers three times to a place named Shaaraim, located in the Shephelah tribal territory of Judah/and or Simeon (Josh 15:36; 1 Chr 4:31) not far from the Philistine city-states of Gath and Ekron (1 Sam 17:52). Its name suggests it was a fortified place with two gates, most likely an Israelite outpost on the border with Philistia. It existed as early as the time of David's youth since the record states that he pursued the Philistine host through it in their retreat from the Goliath incident. The location was uncertain, however, until it was unearthed under the direction of Yosef Garfinkel and Saar Ganor from 2007–2011.13 Their efforts yielded the foundations of two massive gates, one on the north and one on the south, and stout walls of many courses of large stones. Pottery and carbon-14 dating place the site at its height of development to the monarchies of David and Solomon (1010–931 BC). Of unusual interest is an inscription in archaic Hebrew of the type known elsewhere from this period. If confirmed, this would be the oldest Hebrew inscription found thus far.14 The architectural features of the place are remarkably similar to those at the City of David site, thus suggesting that both emanated from the golden age of the United Monarchy. The minimalist view, that tenth century BC Israel was a tiny enclave with little or no international significance, can no longer have any force or credibility.
This place name Ai (Heb עַי) means literally "the ruin," suggesting thereby a certain anonymity brought about by the destruction of the place and its original name. The importance of the site has to do with its linkage to the destruction of Jericho, which immediately preceded that of Ai, and the date of both in attempting to establish an accurate biblical chronology. If it can be demonstrated that Ai was left in ruins in the Late Bronze (LB) I period (ca. 1485–1400 BC) rather than LB III (1305–1173 BC), the so-called "Early Exodus (and Conquest)" dates (1446 and 1406 respectively) can be strongly validated. If not, Ai must be sought elsewhere than at Kh. el-Maqatir, most likely a short distance east at et-Tell, the consensus site which, ironically, fits neither the LB I or LB III.
Bryant Wood (from 1995–2013) and Scott Stripling (2013–2016) of the Associates for Biblical Research excavated at Kh. el-Maqatir, nine miles north of Jerusalem and three miles east of El Bireh (=ancient Bethel), except for a hiatus between 2000 and 2008 caused by the outbreak of the intifada.15 Though the publication phase of the project remains to be finished, the plethora of LB I pottery points strongly in the direction of a violent destruction of the place at ca. 1400 BC. A major find in 2013 was an Egyptian scarab which, based upon parallels, can be dated to the reign of Amenhotep II (ca. 1455–1418 BC). Though it is impossible to determine when the scarab was lost or deposited at Maqatir, the fact it was there at all and in an undisturbed LB I layer is certainly instructive at the very least. That Maqatir is Ai seems most plausible and, in my view, probable. As a member of the team and an "early dater" I obviously have a vested interest in the outcome, but I am quick to add that something larger than that is at stake. A confirmation of the Bible's own chronological scheme would engender among the people of God an even greater confidence in its historical credibility.
Two Mixed Blessings
No archaeological find provides unalloyed proof of the veracity of Scripture nor do any lack anything of value in that respect. All the examples cited above could and have found varying interpretations, sometimes in direct contradiction to what we have argued. Frequently evidence cited by either side is construed in favor of preconceived convictions, as we have already noted. Occasionally, however, no side of a debate over these matters can claim absolute vindication by a given discovery and must be content to salvage whatever is possible after rigorous study and interpretation from all angles. The following two examples are only samples of others that could be mentioned.
Nuzi (or Nuzu, modern Yorgan Tepe)
This site, near the junction of the Great Zab and Tigris rivers in what is now Iraq, was called in Old Babylonian Akkadian Gasur but later Nuzi after its conquest by the Hurrian peoples of the Zagros mountain country to the east. Tablets found there (more than 5,000 in all), beginning more than 100 years ago and in earnest in the 1920s and 1930s, turned out to contain laws and customs very much similar to those practiced by the biblical patriarchs. Conservative scholars began immediately to make comparisons and to argue triumphantly on the basis of the texts that the book of Genesis was indeed to be trusted because it was in line with ancient Hurrian practice. However, the provenance of the Nuzi tablets was not at all fitting to the argument because they reflected an LB period (ca. 1400–1300 BC) whereas Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob flourished in the EB-MB era (ca. 2100–1800 BC). Even liberal scholars such as Ephraim Speiser were disturbed by this disparity and he went so far as to re-date the Patriarchs to the Nuzi period in order to make things fit.
Conservatives, on the other hand, could not resort to such wholesale overhaul of the chronology and therefore proposed two major alternatives: (1), the customs at Nuzi had begun as early as patriarchal times and continued for hundreds of years thereafter in virtually unbroken succession; or (2), as later discoveries were made at places like Mari16 (18th century BC) Alalakh17 (18th–16th centuries BC), and even Babylon18 (18th century BC) that reflected similar if not exact parallels. The Genesis traditions might then be viewed as prototypes of these, if not precisely identical to them. Liberals, of course, reversed the proposal and maintained that E, J, and even P, the putative sources of Genesis, made use of all of these ancient customs and attributed them to the patriarchs, who, in any case, were not to be taken seriously as historical individuals.
The best that can be made of the Nuzi material is to see it as indicative of common and longstanding cultural and legal habits stretching over a millennium or more.
This remarkable site, some 200 miles south of Cairo, was accidentally found by a peasant woman in 1887 who was scratching in the topsoil and uncovered clay tablets, or so the story goes. In any event, the place turned out to be the sacred city of Akhetaton, built especially as a temple site by Pharaoh Amenhotep IV, better known as I/Akhnaton, who had newly begun to embrace the cult of the god Aten/Aton.19 Most important for Old Testament studies is the cache of cuneiform tablets found there in the royal archives. They were composed in an inelegant Akkadian by scribes not skilled in the script and language. They consist mainly of letters to and from the pharaohs Amenhotep III (1408–1369 BC) and Akhenateon (1369–1352 BC) by various co-equal states, and even more so by vassal states such as those in Canaan. Notable among them is correspondence by Abdi-Heba, the ruler of Jerusalem, who lamented that he was in grave danger at the hands of the 'apiru (Hab/piru) and expected the pharaoh to bail him out. “As for Urusalim, if this land belongs to the king, why is it of concern(?) to the king like Hazzatu [i.e. Gaza]?"20
Besides the obvious insights gained as to affairs in Canaan in the early 14th century BC (the time of the Judges, according to the early date of the Conquest), equally important are the linguistic features of the texts. As mentioned, they are in a crude Akkadian with its cumbersome syllabic cuneiform signs. Many scholars leapt to the conclusion that they must be the Hebrews, thus requiring an early Conquest. Those committed already to a Late (13th or 12th century BC) Conquest denied the equation on linguistic and phonological grounds, and properly so. However, this author has presented a case to the effect that the local Canaanites might easily have confused 'apiru with 'ibri, the name by which the Hebrews called themselves.21
From the examples presented above, I offer three conclusions for consideration:
1. Archaeological data, like biblical texts, must be "exegeted" with proper methodological rigor and with a mindset of neutrality so the evidence can speak for itself.
2. Both biblical exegetes and archaeologists must not make dogmatic claims about their conclusions until their work has been carefully tested against commonly accepted standards in their respective disciplines.
3. Should archaeological data and biblical data appear to be stalemated or impossible of resolution, but a decision must nevertheless be made one way or the other, the believer must always permit the living Word of God to trump the silent witness of pots and other artifacts.
1 Eugene H. Merrill, "The Development of the Historical-Critical Method," in Eugene H. Merrill, Mark F. Rooker and Michael A. Grisanti, The World and the Word: An Introduction to the Old Testament (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2011), pp. 130–148.
2 This skepticism is briefly addressed by Harry A. Hoffuer, Jr. "Hittites," in Alfred J, Hoerth, Gerald E. Mattingly and Edwin M. Yamauchi, eds., Peoples of the Old Testament World (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), pp. 152–153. For a brief summary of the discovery and publication of Hittite artifacts and inscriptions, see O.R. Gurney, The Hittites, 2nd ed. (Baltimore: Penguin, 1990), pp. 1–14. See also Bryant Wood, Hittites and Hethites A Proposed Solution to an Etymological Conundrum
3 Major pioneers in deciphering long-lost scripts, translating inscriptions, and publishing them are (1) Egypt: Jean-Francois Champollion (1790–1832); Flinders Petrie (1853–1942); and E.A. Wallis Budge (1857–1934); (2) Mesopotamia: Edward R. Robinson (1794–1863); Henry C, Rawlinson (1810–1895); Austen H. Layard (1817–1894); A.H. Sayce (1846–1933); and Sir Leonard Woolley (1880–1960); (3) Anatolia: William Wright (1837–1899); A.H. Sayce (1846–1933); Hugo Winckler (1863–1913); Albrecht Goetze (1897–1921); and Hans G. Guterbock (1908–2000).
4 This date itself is ultimately attainable through the discovery of numerous Assyrian monuments and documents such as the Assyrian Eponym Canon and royal inscriptions that describe Sennacherib's military forays into Israel and elsewhere. See passim James B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 3rd ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969); William W. Hallo and K. Lawson Younger, Jr. eds., The Context of Scripture, 3 vols. 2002.
5 The Chronicler depended on both Kings and Isaiah for his information but for unknown reasons omitted many statistical details to be found in the other two books.
6 A convenient translation of this inscription (the "Taylor Prism") is in Bill T. Arnold and Bryan E. Beyer, eds., Readings from the Ancient Near East (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002), pp. 145–146.
7 For the official publication of the Tell Dan inscription thus far, see Avraham Biran and Rachel Ben-Dov, eds., Dan 2: A Chronicle of the Excavations and the Late Bronze Age "Mycenaean" Tomb (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1996); and Avraham Biran, Biblical Dan (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1994).
8 The most authoritative edition of the texts is D.J. Wiseman, Chronicles of Chaldaean Kings (626–556 BC) in the British Museum (London: The Trustees of the British Museum, 1961).
9 For an exhaustive study and publication of these texts, see H. Donner and W Rollig, ed., Kanaanaische und Aramaische lnschriften, 3 vols. (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1969–1971).
10 Exceptions are the abecedaries found at Serabit el-Khadem in the Sinai Peninsula (ca. 1700–1500 BC) and at Wadi el-Hol in south Egypt (ca. 1850–1700 BC).
11 The name is attested to as early as the Ebla Tablets (ca. 2400–2300 BC). See Paolo Matthiae, Ebla and Its Landscape: Early State Formation in the Ancient Near East (Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press. 2013); Eugene H. Merrill, "Ebla and Biblical Historical Inenancy," BSac 140 (1982): 302–321.
12 Eilat Mazar, "Did I Discover King David's Palace?" BAR 32/1 (2006): 16–27, 70; Mazar, Discovering the Solomonic Wall in Jerusalem (Jerusalem: Shoham, 2011).
13 Yosef Garfinkel and Sa'ar Ganor, Khirbet Qeiyafa, Vol. I, Excavation Report 2007–2008 (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 2009); Yossi Garfinkel, Sa'ar Ganor and Michael Hasel, "Horvat Qeiyafa: The Fortification of the Border of the Kingdom of Judah," Hadashot Arkheologiyot 124 (2012): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khirbet_Qeiyafa [off-site link].
14 Among many translations, see Gershon Galil, "The Hebrew Inscription from Khirbet Qeiyafa/ Neta'irn: Script, Language, Literature and History," UF 41 (2009): 193–242.
15 Bryant G. Wood, "Khirbet el-Maqatir, 1995–1998," IEJ 50/1-2 (2000): 123–130; "The Search for Joshua's Ai," Critical Issues in Early Israelite History, eds. Richard S. Hess, Gerald A. Klingbeil and Paul J. Ray, Jr. (Winona Lake: IN: Eisenbrauns, 2008), pp. 205–240; and “Locating ‘Ai: Excavations at Kh .el-Maqatir 1995–2000 and 2009–2014,” https://www.academia.edu/28750045/Locating_Ai-_Excavations_at_Kh._el-Maqatir_1995-2000_and_2009-2014.pdf.
16 Andre Parrot, Archives Royales de Mari, 9 vols, 1950–1960; Mission archeologique de Mari, 3 vols, 1956–1967.
17 D.J. Wiseman, The Alalakh Tablets (London: British Institute of Archaeology at Ankara, 1953).
18 Robert Koldeway, The Excavations at Babylon, trans. Agnes S. Johns (London: McMillan and Co., 1914); A. K. Grayson, Assyrian and Babylonian Chronicles (Locust Valley, NY: J.J. Augustin, 1975). See especially M.E.J. Richardson, Hammurabi's Laws: Text, Translation, and Glossary (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000).
19 For detailed studies of various aspects of the site and the tablets and their publication as well as their linguistic, literary, historical, and religious significance, see C.R. Conder, The Tell Amarna Tablets (London: Palestine Exploration Fund, 1893); C. Bezold, The Tell el-Amarna Tablets of the British Museum (London: Trustees of the British Museum, 1892); Barry J. Kemp, Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization (London: Routledge, 1991), pp. 266–317; William L. Moran, The Amarna Letters (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992); William J. Murnane, Texts from the Amarna Period in Egypt (Atlanta: Scholars, 1995).
20 Letters 286 and 289 are of special interest. For Moran's translation, see COS, Vol. Three, pp. 237–238.
21 Eugene H. Merrill, Kingdom of Priests: A History of Old Testament Israel, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), pp. 119–125.