The impact of Judaism and Christianity on the Western world is hard to ignore. Modern scholars and theologians are able to progress our understanding of them by examining their history. The history told through the Bible spans thousands of years and crosses many regions in the Near East and beyond. Biblical archaeology picked up pace in the 19th-century and has since offered a great amount of discovery, debate, and insight into the worlds of the Israelites and Jesus Christ.
1. The Merneptah Stele, Situating the Israelites in Biblical Archaeology
The Egyptians were not the best neighbors to have in the ancient Near East. Relations often turned unfriendly with their many rivals in the region. This was so often the case that the Pharoah Merneptah, like many of his contemporaries, sought to immortalize his victories over his enemies. The stele that was created on his orders mentions many rival states, people, and victories. The Egyptians were quite satisfied with their success, to them it was just another laurel to add to their power.
However, when archaeologist Flinders Petrie found the stele in 1896, one small reference made it the important biblical archaeology find it is today. Among the other enemies of Egypt, the word Isrir or Israel can be found. Biblical scholars have dated this to be among the earliest mentions of the Israelites. The Pharoah reigned from around 1213 to 1203 BCE.
2. The Wilderness of Zin: Archaeology and Espionage
The Book of Exodus tells the story of the Israelites flight from Egypt and their search for the promised land. Exodus 16:1 names the Wilderness of Zin, or Sin depending on the geography, as one of the places they set up camp. The geographical debate surrounding the location of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments is itself an interesting archaeological question. This alleged campsite is important however, for its own controversy.
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As interest in biblical archaeology really picked up steam in the 19th-century many foundations were formed to promote it. The Palestine Exploration Fund was created in 1865 and became a bastion for British clergy and archaeologists, both serious and hobbyist. Just prior to World War I, the future Lawrence of Arabia, T.E. Lawrence and Leonard Woolley were tasked with surveying the area. Unlike most scholarly digs however, they were joined by members of British military intelligence.
Hopes of finding Israelite artifacts or settlement went hand in hand with the British Army’s desire to chart maps of the Ottoman Empire’s vast deserts. Unfortunately for both parties, minimal proof of anything was found and the cartographic goals were barely completed on time before the outbreak of war.
3. Carchemish: Caught Between Two Superpowers
The site of Carchemish is mentioned multiple times in the Bible and it plays an important role in the prophecies of Jeremiah. After the 605 BCE battle, the Israelites became fractured and were tossed between the power struggles of Egypt and Babylon. Jeremiah himself would go on to be an important figure for the Israelites and an advisor to their kings during this time, who were trying to control the panicked aftermath.
Importantly, the Babylonian victory at Carchemish directly led to the Babylonian Captivity of the Jews. This event was a turning point in the history of Judaism that called for many decisions to be made in the face of hardship. The biblical archaeological site’s history is important in a modern context as well. T.E. Lawrence began his archaeological career with the British Museum digging at Carchemish alongside Leonard Woolley, paving the way for their futures.
4. Bethlehem, the Messiah and the Matriarch
Bethlehem is one of the holiest cities in the Middle East for the Abrahamic faiths. Rachel, an ancient matriarch for the Jewish people, is buried here. For Christians, the New Testament begins with the holy family, the manger and the star above the city. These sites are not only important for religious reasons. They are also great examples of how biblical archaeology can further encourage debate and ask important questions.
Rachel’s Tomb is situated along the controversial modern boundaries separating the Jewish and Muslim populations in Bethlehem. Over the centuries, it has been a holy site for both groups. The tomb’s status as a site for pilgrims has been continually tested by the strains of the modern political situation. Muslims and Jews contest ownership of the site and the tomb’s status as a Jewish place of worship or a mosque.
On the other hand, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem has also caused archaeologists some doubt. Christian popular tradition and skepticism around some Biblical passages have made some question this site as well. For the Church of the Nativity, archaeologists and historians must read through Luke’s Gospel and interpret his intentions as well as local histories passed down by those who have lived in Bethlehem.
5. Jericho, the Story of a City
Jericho is a city that Is built on history. In the Bible, its legend is built on the triumph of the Israelites in Canaan and the power of the Ark of the Covenant. Jericho was well established and settled by the time the Jews made their way there. In fact, part of the intrigue of the city is its long past. Archaeologists have stretched Jericho back beyond its Biblical significance and dated it as one of the oldest settlements in the entire world. It also has the prestige of being considered the first truly fortified and urban city. Archaeology and theology have come together to create another historical debate here, much like Bethlehem.
In the 1950s, Kathleen Kenyon undertook several important modern biblical archaeological excavations in the city. Her digs came up short of finding any absolute proof of the Israelite legend. The surveying and unearthing of the city produced no evidence of the city walls as described in the Bible story. On top of this, many of the ‘50s dating tests failed to match up with the timelines of the Israelite campaign. Other interpretations, however, view the evidence in a different light from Kenyon, with several other digs having taken place in the decades since. For these archaeologists, there is evidence of living quarters within the walls, and of the complete destruction of important supplies like grain, which line up with the story of the battle.
6. Galilee, Linking the Old and New Testaments
When the Babylonians began expanding their empire the Israelites of Galilee were swept away by their armies. This was a climactic time for the Jews. Despite Jeremiah’s promise that God was still with them, many felt that they had been abandoned. What makes Galilee so important to Biblical archaeology and history is this troubled past. It is also where Christ first began to preach and is thus rich with the possibility to expand our understanding of the period. Matthew’s Gospel tells us that one of the prophecies surrounding Christ was that he would come to this region that had felt abandoned for so long.
The archaeology of the region offers some insight into important stories in the Bible as well as early Christian life in the first few centuries of the religion’s growth. Fishermen feature prominently in many parables and episodes of the Gospels. One of the most famous finds in this region was at the bottom of the Sea of Galilee: A fishing boat from the same period as the Gospels. It is very unlikely of course that Christ or the Apostles used this specific boat. But it offers a uniquely preserved specimen of the same type of boat Jewish fishermen would have worked with every day. Also buried on the shores of the Sea are several church mosaics and ruins. These date to the 400s CE when the Byzantines controlled the region and it offers well-documented artworks and records of Christian life.
7. Jerusalem: A Crown Jewel City
For Jews, Christians, and Muslims, one city in the world stands out among all others. Jerusalem is holy to all three faiths and is central to their religious histories. For archaeologists, a city with such a long and important past is filled with opportunity and potential. The city itself has so many historic sites that thousands of pilgrims travel there each year to pray and learn. These sites span from the Old Testament to the New Testament and beyond.
Ancient Jewish temples, early Christian churches, and even everyday finds like building materials and coins paint a picture for historians. Some finds have even caused great uproars over religious differences, such as at Gordon’s Calvary, which Protestant archaeologists allege is Jesus’ tomb. Jerusalem has seen rulers come and go and centuries of political conflict. From the Israelites to Rome, to the Crusader knights and the modern governments of Israel and Palestine, Jerusalem stands above conflict as a jewel of archaeology.
8. The Dead Sea Scrolls: Biblical Archaeology’s Greatest Find?
One of the best preserved and most intriguing artifacts from biblical archaeology is not merely one scroll or one fragment. In the mid-20th-century, archaeologists found troves of scrolls in the Dead Sea caves and the Jordan Valley. Scrolls like these are exceedingly rare finds, as they are fragile. In fact, many of the scrolls were found fragmented. But, as fragmented as they may be, they are legible. And that is the important part.
The environment has kept the scrolls relatively accessible for scholarly study. Because of the sheer number of scrolls, the work to put some back together is, even today, a major undertaking for biblical archaeology scholars. What has been uncovered so far though is an undeniably groundbreaking advancement of our knowledge. The scrolls contain fragments of Biblical books with both canonical and non-canonical passages. In addition, many of the scrolls have to do with the simple day-to-day records of life that offer their own valuable historical insight.