What are the key artefacts discovered in the Holy Land and what can they tell us about the Old Testament?
The Merneptah Stele
The stone inscription that offers the earliest reference to Israel
The Merneptah Stele is an incised stone inscription that was erected under the order of Merneptah, king of the 19th Egyptian Dynasty, who reigned between approximately 1213 and 1203 BC. On this stele is written the earliest clear mention of the entity ‘Israel’, in the context of a description of the king’s campaign to ancient Canaan.
In the description of the enemies who were defeated in this campaign, the statement “Israel is laid waste and his seed is not” appears. As such, this is of central importance for the study of history of early Israel, because this mention can serve as the well-accepted “Archimedean point” for the earliest recognition of a cultural/ethnic entity called Israel.
This late 13th-century BC mention corresponds quite well with the earliest (possible) archaeological evidence of the settlement of the ‘Israelite’ tribes in Canaan in the central hills region. This thus indicates the likelihood of this date for the first appearance of Israel in Canaan at the time. Significantly, further mention in non-biblical texts of other aspects relating to ancient Israel and Judah does not occur before the mid-ninth century BC, some 350 years later.
Discovered in Thebes, the ancient capital of Egypt, in 1896, the Merneptah Stele is now housed in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. (Image by Alamy)
Is this Iron Age site connected to Joshua’s altar?
On the north-eastern side of Mount Ebal, just to the north of modern-day Nablus (ancient Shechem/Neapolis) in the West Bank, the Israeli archaeologist Adam Zertal discovered a site dating to the early Iron Age – the period covering the late 13th/early 12th century BC. Zertal suggested identifying it as a cultic site of the early Israelites, and postulated that the site might be connected to the biblical narrative of an altar erected by Joshua on Mount Ebal (Joshua 8:31–35). He suggested that it served as a central cultic site for the earliest Israelite settlers in this region following their arrival in Canaan from the east.
The site at Mount Ebal, as seen today. (Image by Alamy)
Zertal’s interpretation has been questioned by many scholars. Though this site clearly dates to the early Iron Age and is most likely Israelite, other parts of his interpretation are debated. Most agree that it is a cultic site related to the early Israelite settlement in the region, but not directly connected to ‘Joshua’s altar’, while others question the very cultic orientation of the site. In any case, it is one of the more important and well-known sites illustrating the earliest evidence of the Israelite tribes in Canaan.
Ahab: A ninth-century BC king of Israel. He was married to Jezebel, whose name has come to embody wickedness.
Aramaic: A Semitic language, similar to Hebrew, that was spoken widely in the Middle East in the biblical era. It was commonly spoken by Jews, and parts of the Old Testament are written in it.
Assyria: A kingdom in what is now Iraq that was the centre of a major Middle Eastern empire from the ninth to seventh centuries BC.
Cultic: Relating to a religious cult.
Daughters of Zelophad: Five sisters who appear in the Book of Numbers. The Bible speaks of them petitioning Moses for women’s rights, during the period of the exodus.
Hellenistic: Relating to Greek language or culture, in the period following the death of Alexander the Great (323 BC). By this stage Greek culture was absorbing a number of foreign influences.
Kingdom of Israel: A kingdom mentioned in the Old Testament that roughly corresponds to modern Israel/Palestine. According to the Bible, after the reign of Solomon (end of the 10th century BC) it split into two, with the northern half retaining the name Israel.
Kingdom of Judah: The more southerly of the two kingdoms formed when the Kingdom of Israel was divided in the 10th century BC. It took its name from the tribe of Judah.
Sennacherib: An Assyrian king who reigned from 704–681 BC.
Tabernacle: A tent that the Bible says was used to house the Ark of the Covenant by the Israelites before the construction of the Temple.
The discoveries of Jerusalem
The Holy City shows its history at every turn
Jerusalem is mentioned or referred to more often than any other site in the biblical text. As the capital of the Judahite monarchy during the Iron Age (the so-called ‘First Temple period’) and the location of the most important cultic site (the Temple of Solomon), it has been the religious, cultural and political focus of Israelite and Jewish history ever since.
Following the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem around 586 BC, the city has experienced many ups and downs. During the Persian, Hellenistic and early Roman periods, a Jewish temple once again existed in Jerusalem, the city returning to being the political and religious centre of the Jews until its destruction again by the Romans in AD 70.
Early Christianity, and subsequently Islam as well, continued to see Jerusalem as a holy city where major religious events occurred. Among the most noteworthy finds in Jerusalem relevant to the Bible are the Iron Age remains in the City of David, the original kernel of the city, where fortifications, water systems, houses and even a possible palace have been found. On the Temple Mount, remains of the external construction of the Second Temple’s precinct have been found, dating to the Hellenistic and Roman periods. In other parts of the old city, impressive remains of the Iron Age (First Temple), Hellenistic-Roman periods (Second Temple, early Christian), reflecting various stages in the history of Jerusalem and relating to the biblical periods, have been uncovered.
Ruins from the time of Jerusalem’s Second Temple located in the underground Western wall tunnel. (Image by Alamy)
Israelite fortifications at Hazor, Gezer and Megiddo
These sites’ finds are possible indications of King Solomon’s reign
In I Kings 9:15, the biblical narrative informs us that King Solomon, as part of his building projects, fortified the settlements of Hazor, Megiddo and Gezer. These three locations in modern-day Israel have been excavated and, at each site, similar large-scale city gates were found. Some scholars date these from the 10th century BC; according to standard biblical chronology, this was the period in which Solomon reigned.
Accordingly, these gates are seen by some scholars as evidence of the impressive building activities of Solomon’s reign, and as indicating the actual existence of this reign (which is not mentioned in any non-biblical source). Other scholars question this interpretation, believing that these gates may not have been built at the same time, and may date not to the 10th century BC but to later phases in the Iron Age.
Ruins that date to the 10th or 9th century BC at Megiddo, which is now a Unesco World Heritage Site. (Image by Alamy)
Hazael’s conquest of the city of Gath
Evidence from the siege shows the level of contemporary warfare
Hazael, King of Aram Damascus, was perhaps the most important king in the southern Levant (the area covering modern Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine and Jordan) during the second half of the ninth century BC. His military campaigns and exploits are often mentioned in the biblical text, as well as in Assyrian and Aramaic texts. Apparently, for a period of several decades Hazael’s kingdom dominated the entire region.
In recent years, impressive evidence of his military campaigns has been discovered. In particular, archaeological evidence of the siege and subsequent destruction of Philistine Gath (modern Tell es-Safi in central Israel) demonstrates the enormous extent of his warfare and its effect on the various kingdoms and peoples in the ancient Levant. Though the destruction of Gath is mentioned only briefly in the biblical text (half a verse in I Kings 12:17–18) – and in a rather matter-of-fact way – the enormous effect of this and other campaigns of Hazael is apparent.
The Tel Dan Aramaic inscription
Is this the first mention of the House of David?
Fragments of a monumental inscription, written on basalt in Aramaic, were discovered outside the gate of Iron Age Tel Dan in northern Israel in the mid-1990s. In this inscription, an Aramean king, most likely Hazael (see above), boasts of his military feats; among them, he credits himself with killing the kings of Israel and the ‘House of David’.
Most scholars believe that this inscription was written under the orders of Hazael around 840 BC and describes his victory over the kings of Israel (most likely Joram, son of Ahab) and the House of David (most likely Ahaziah, son of Joram). As such, it is seen as the earliest mention in an extra-biblical text of the name ‘David’ – specifically referring to the Kingdom of Judah as the ‘House of David’ – some 150 years after the time of David.
It is also seen as the first non-biblical evidence for the very existence of a historical David. Other scholars have questioned this interpretation. A minority have debated whether it is a forgery, but this is seen as very unlikely. Others have suggested relating the inscription to Ben Hadad, the son of Hazael, and relating it to a slightly later stage.
The temple at Arad
An intriguing discovery at a crucial Iron Age fort
At the site of ancient Arad, in the north-eastern Negev desert in modern-day Israel, a fort dating to the Iron Age was discovered. The fort guarded an important east–west route from the Dead Sea to the Mediterranean, and the south-eastern flank of the Judahite kingdom.
In the midst of the fort a small temple was found. This has elements reminiscent of cultic features mentioned in relationship to the biblical Tabernacle and the temple in Jerusalem, including being home to altars of various sizes.
It is one of the few temples relating to the Israelites/Judahites of the Iron Age that have been discovered in ancient Israel, and sheds important light on the cultic practices of these cultures and the fascinating question of the relationship between the temple in Jerusalem and other cultic centres. The temple went out of use, most likely during the reign of Hezekiah, King of Judah (in the late eighth century/early ninth century BC), and may reflect a cultic reform during his reign which is mentioned in the biblical text (II Kings 18:3–4).
The ostraca of Samaria
Inscribed pottery fragments reveal everyday Israelite life
The city of Samaria, founded by King Omri, father of Ahab, was the capital of the Israelite kingdom from the ninth century BC until its destruction by the Assyrians in 721 BC. Archaeological excavations at the site have provided evidence of the impressive fortifications and palatial remains at the site, evidence of the various stages of the late Israelite monarchy and a reflection on the central role of this kingdom during the ninth and eighth centuries BC.
Within the remains of a building that’s been identified as the royal palace, a collection of more than 100 ostraca (fragments of pottery on which ink inscriptions were written) was discovered. These ostraca are most probably tax receipts or records of provisions sent to officials, and date from the final years of the Israelite kingdom. Most often, the inscriptions mention a regnal year, the recipient/provider of the shipment, its origin and, in some cases, the commodity itself (wine or oil).
In addition to illuminating aspects relating to the Israelite kingdom in its last decades, including names, language and other facets, very interestingly some of the clans mentioned are similar to the names of the ‘Daughters of Zelophad’ (Numbers 26:28–34).
The conquest of Lachish and the discovery of letters
These finds help to unravel the chronology of the late Iron Age
Lachish was the second most important city in the Judahite kingdom during the Iron Age. As such, some of the most important finds relating to the Judahite kingdom were discovered in its excavations. Two finds are of particular importance. Impressive evidence of the siege and conquest of the city in the late eighth century BC was discovered, and this dovetailed with evidence both biblical (for instance, II Kings 18:14) and Assyrian (texts and royal reliefs) of the Assyrian conquest of Lachish during the campaign of Sennacherib in 701 BC.
The interface between the various types of evidence provides a solid foundation for the chronological and biblical history of the late Iron Age.
The siege of Lachish was depicted on the walls of the palace of Sennacherib. (Image by Alamy)
The second find that’s worthy of mention is a collection of ostraca (one of which is shown above) found in the city gate that was destroyed when the Babylonians conquered Lachish in 588 or 586 BC. The letters are written in biblical Hebrew in a dialect similar to the language of some of the late Iron Age prophetic books, such as certain parts of the Book of Jeremiah.
The ostraca are letters written either to or by the commander of Lachish. They reflect the dramatic events of the very last days of the kingdom of Judah.
The earliest biblical textual remains
The discoveries of the Ketef Hinnom amulets and the Dead Sea Scrolls
The biblical text as we know it today is a complex set of documents composed, collated and edited over a long period of time. Of particular importance are the earliest examples of biblical texts, whether fragmentary or more complete, which enable the reconstruction of the formation of these documents.
The two most important groups of biblical texts are the Ketef Hinnom amulets and the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Ketef Hinnom amulets were discovered in a late Iron Age tomb to the west of the Old City of Jerusalem, and most scholars date them to the early sixth century BC (although some have suggested later datings). These two amulets, written on small silver plaques, have on them texts that are very similar to several biblical passages.
In particular, Amulet 2 is strikingly similar to the “priestly benediction” of Numbers 6:24–26. Though hardly proving that these biblical texts existed in entirety during the late Iron Age, they do indicate that portions of these texts were already known at the time.
The Temple Scroll, from the Dead Sea Scrolls found at Qumran, scroll number 11Q20, late 1st century BC – early 1st century AD, ink on parchment, Israel Museum, Jerusalem. (Photo by VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images)
The Dead Sea Scrolls number close to 1,000 documents, mainly written on parchment in Hebrew, Aramaic and a few other languages. These were found in caves in the region of the Dead Sea in the mid-20th century, mostly around the site of Qumran. Dating from the late third century BC to the first century AD, these represent a wide collection of texts, both biblical and non-biblical, most likely related to the sect of Essenes, which apparently resided in Qumran and its surroundings.
The Dead Sea Scrolls shed light on many aspects relating to Second Temple Jewish culture. They are the largest – and, in many cases, the earliest – examples of the various parts of the biblical texts.
As such, they provide evidence of relatively early stages of these texts’ development, as well as revealing various versions, some of which were previously unknown. They also shed important light on the Essenes.
This article first appeared in BBC History Magazine’s ‘The Story of the Holy Land’ special edition (2015). Find out more here