Three More Archaeological Finds Christians Should Know

In Three Archaeological Finds Christians Should Know, we discussed three major archaeological discoveries that are relevant for understanding the period of Joshua, Judges and 1 Samuel. They are of help to us because they corroborate the general outline of events as we find them in the Bible, and also help us to situate the Biblical events in their historical context. These finds are especially noteworthy because they shed light on a period of history (the Late Bronze Age Collapse) that is shadowy and not well understood. This lack of evidence also continues into the early part of the monarchical period, when all of Israel was united under one Monarchy.

Once we get to the period of the divided Monarchy, our knowledge of the Ancient Near Eastern Context improves, as we have much more inscriptional evidence. In this article, we look at two such inscriptions from the 9th century BC (roughly contemporaneous with the events of 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles), as well as one major archaeological site in the Holy City, which shed light on the monarchical period and provide historical corroboration for some of the major events recorded in these later historical books.

 

1) The Mesha Stele

The first archaeological find worth noting is the Mesha Stele. This stele was first discovered by local Bedouins in the Transjordan, who then presented the Stele on August 19, 1868 to the German missionary Frederick A. Klein, while on a journey there. It consisted of 34 extant lines of text, with additional lines having been broken off and lost. Because of its length, it is considered one of the longest and most informative Iron Age inscriptions found to date on the southern Levant, and is one of our main witnesses for the Moabite language.[1]

Th Mesha Stele was erected by a king of Moab named Mesha of Moab as a celebratory stele commemorating his victory over Israelite subjugation. This Mesha is frequently identified with the character named in the Hebrew Bible, who is said to have lived during the reign of king Jehoshaphat of Judah, and king Jehoram of Israel. 2 Kings 3 narrates how he broke free from vassalage to the kingdom of Israel and waged a war of independence. The events described could be dated to around 855-830 B.C., although the actual inscription could have been produced decades later, depending on how long Mesha reigned.[2] Based on references to events alluded to later in the stele, Lemaire has proposed a date of 810 BC, nearly four decades after the events described.[3]

The Stele itself speaks of how Moab became subjugated by Israel because the god Chemosh became angry with his land (line 5). King Omri of Israel is mentioned by name, and reference is made to his son, probably referring to either his son Ahab, or his grandson Jehoram (lines 4-6), with Moab’s subjugation taking place during their reigns. However, after this period, Chemosh empowered Mesha to retake Moab from Israel, and he erected this stele as well as a temple dedicated to Chemosh in thanksgiving (line 27).[4]

Although the conflict described in the stele is frequently associated by most scholars with the Israelite-Moabite war recounted in 2 Kings 3, this association is not universally accepted, and a few scholars have suggested that the events recorded in the stele actually took place earlier.[5] This is based on the fact that line 6 refers to the Moabite war of independence taking place halfway through the days of King Omri’s son. However, if we take this to be a reference to King Jehoram rather than Ahab, then the problem disappears. Be that as it may, the stele is valuable in that it provides us with archaeological evidence for the Omri dynasty, consisting of kings Omri, Ahab and Jehoram, and thus allows us to place these figures from 1-2 Kings firmly in the realm of history.

Another significant element of this stele is a lacuna in line 34. Andre Lemaire first proposed that the lacuna in the text should be read as bytdwd (House of David).[6] This reading has been accepted by a number of other scholars, including Schmidt, who renders it in his translation of the inscription as “Now, [as for] Hawronen, the Ho[use] of Da]vid dwelt in it and…”. [7] If this reconstruction is to be accepted, then the Mesha Stele, along with the Tel Dan Stele (discussed below) provide the earliest extra-Biblical references to the Davidic dynasty.

2) The Tel Dan Stele

The next major archaeological find to be discussed is the Tel Dan Stele. This stele is made up of a large basalt stone fragment with 13 lines of text discovered in July of 1993 by an archaeological expedition from the Hebrew Union College to Tel Dan in the upper Galilee. Based on paleographic analysis of the inscriptions and dating of the pottery found around the stele, it has been dated to around the second half of the ninth century B.C.[8]

The most significant element of the stele is the fact that in lines 7-9, it reads, “[I killed Jeho]ram, son of [Ahab,] king of Israel, and I killed [Ahaz]iahu, son of [Jehoram, kin-] of the house of David.”[9] We know from 2 Kings 9:22-28 that both these kings were killed by Jehu. Ignoring the Biblical attribution to Jehu, A. Biran and J. Naveh (authors of the first printed edition of the inscriptions) argued that the author of the Stele was actually king Hazael of Aram, who defeated the two kings in battle (but did not kill them) according to 2 Kings 8:25-29.[10] Against this, OT scholar Jan-Wim Wesselius defends the view that Jehu is indeed the author of the Tel Dan stele.[11] However, his view has not gained widespread support, with most scholars still opting for the view that an Aramean king (most likely Hazael) produced the stele.[12]

It is also possible that Jehu at this time was acting either as King Hazael’s ally, or as his vassal, so the latter could take credit for his actions. This possibility is raised by Kitchen, who notes that it was common in the Ancient Near East for rulers to take credit for others’ actions in this way.[13] This is further made plausible by the fact that Jehu and Hazael had a common enemy in Jehoram, and 2 Kings 9:15 states that Jehoram was already wounded by Hazael by the time Jehu finally finished him off.

Furthermore, the fact that these lines not only refer to the king of Israel (mlk ysr’l), but also to the house of David (bytdwd) is significant because it is the earliest attestation to the existence of a Davidic dynasty. Some interpreters have attempted to re-interpret this line as referring to “the house of the Beloved,” or “Bethdod” (a possible alternate name for Jerusalem). However, as OT scholar Hallvard Hagelia points out, these alternatives have not been very convincing, and the most probable reading of the text remains “House of David.”[14]

Amihai Mazar from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem concludes that this stele provides solid evidence for the existence of the Davidic dynasty:

The mentioning of bytdwd (‘the House of David’, as the name of the Judean kingdom in the Aramean stele from Tel Dan, possibly erected by Hazael) indicates that approximately a century and a half after his reign, David was recognized throughout the region as the founder of the dynasty that ruled Judah. His role in Israelite ideology and historiography is echoed in the place he played in later Judean common memory. [15]

3) The Large Stone Structure

In 1997, Israeli archaeologist Eliat Mazar began excavations of a large stone structure, about 30×10 metres in size, situated to the north of Jerusalem. The size and shape of the structure indicated that it was likely used for military or administrative purposes. It is connected to another site, known as the Stepped Stone Structure, and the two are often mentioned together as being built at the same time. Crucially, in her excavations, she found pottery dated to the 10th and 9th centuries B.C., placing it during the time of the United Monarchy. Mazar theorized that the structure was David’s stronghold mentioned in 2 Samuel 5:17, which was previously a Jebusite fort.[16] This proposal was immediately met with controversy. Some archaeologists, such as Gabriel Barkai at Bar-Ilan University, supported Mazar’s thesis. Others, such as the famed minimalist scholars Israel Finkelstein, Ze’ev Herzog, David Ussishkin, criticized it in a paper arguing for a later date for the structure, about a century after King David.[17]

Subsequent findings and analyses, however, appear to vindicate Mazar’s proposal. Two clay bullae found at the site during Mazar’s excavations bear the names of Gedaliah ben Pashhur and Jehukal ben Shelemiah. These two figures are named among King Zedekiah’s men in Jeremiah 38:1, indicating that the structure was still in during the 6th century B.C., and was indeed being used as a royal palace.[18] More recently, Nadav Naʼaman argued in the January/February 2014 issue of the Biblical Archaeology Review that the location, date and scale of the stone structure matches the Hebrew Bible’s description of David’s palace.[19] Supporting this view, Amihai Mazar examines Finkelstein, Herzog and Ussishkin’s arguments for a late dating of the structure, and finds them wanting.[20] Finally, Avraham Faust contends that the publication of all the excavated data has vindicated Mazar’s dating of the structure to the 10th century B.C., over against the later dates proposed by Minimalists, and that this structure is most likely the Jebusite fort which David captured when he took over Jerusalem.[21]

In light of the evidence, there seems to be no reason why the large stone structure to the north of Jerusalem couldn’t be King David’s palace. Eliat Mazar said it best when she wrote in her reflections on her excavations of the site:

The Biblical narrative, I submit, better explains the archaeology we have uncovered than any other hypothesis that has been put forward. Indeed, the archaeological remains square perfectly with the Biblical description that tells us David went down from there to the citadel. So you decide whether or not we have found King David’s palace.[22]

Conclusion

Writing on the period of Kings and Chronicles, John Bergsma and Brant Pitre write, “With the books of Kings, we come to some of the richest confirmations of contextual plausibility from archaeology that we possess.”[23] In this article, we see that there is indeed a wealth of archaeological evidence corroborating the events described by the books of Kings and Chronicles for the Monarchical period. Although we do not have corroboration of every single event that occurs in the Hebrew Bible, the amount of evidence we do have extant nonetheless is quite impressive.

This is not to say that all controversies are settled. Archaeology as a field is always in flux, and it is important to remain up to date on all current discoveries and the discussions surrounding these finds. However, Christians can be confident that the evidence we unearth can be used to shed light on the Bible and its underlying historical background, as well as show that its authors have recorded for us true history.

[1] Brian B. Schmidt, “Moabite stone,” 311-312, in Mark W. Chavalas, ed., The Ancient Near East: Historical Sources in Translation (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), 311-316.

[2] Schmidt, “Moabite stone,” 312.

[3] Andre Lemaire, “The Mesha Stele and the Omri Dynasty,” 137, in Lester L. Grabbe, Ahab Agonistes, The Rise and Fall of the Omri Dynasty (London: T&T Clark, 2007), 135-145.

[4] Schmidt, “Moabite stone,” 312-313.

[5] Lemaire, “The Mesha Stele and the Omri Dynasty,” 136.

[6] André Lemaire, “’House of David’ Restored in Moabite Inscription,” Biblical Archaeology Review 20:03 (May/June 1994)

[7] Schmidt, “Moabite stone,” 313.

[8] Brian B. Schmidt, “Tel Dan stele inscription,” 305, in Chavalas, The Ancient Near East, 305-307.

[9] Schmidt, “Tel Dan stele inscription,” 307.

[10] Schmidt, “Tel Dan stele inscription,” 305-306.

[11]Jan‐Wim Wesselius, “The first royal inscription from ancient Israel: The tel dan inscription reconsidered,” Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament 13.2 (1999), 163–186.

[12] Hallvard Hagelia, The Dan Debate: The Tel Dan Inscription in Recent Research (Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009), 32-43.

[13] K. A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2006), 37.

[14] Hagelia, The Dan Debate, 44-72. See also Schmidt, “Tel Dan stele inscription,” 305-306.

[15] Amihai Mazar, “Archaeology and the Biblical Narrative: The Case of the United Monarchy,” 52, in One God – One Cult – One Nation. Archaeological and Biblical Perspectives, edited by Reinhard G. Kratz and Hermann Spieckermann, (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2010), 29-58, https://www.academia.edu/40148883/Archaeology_and_the_Biblical_Narrative_The_Case_of_the_United_Monarchy

[16] Eliat Mazar, “Did I Find King David’s Palace?,” Biblical Archaeological Review 32.1 (January/February 2006), https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-sites-places/jerusalem/did-i-find-king-davids-palace/. See also Etgar Lefkovits, “Eliat Mazar: Uncovering King David’s Palace,” Moment (April 2006), 39-40, https://momentmag.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/Uncovering-King-Davids-Palace.pdf

[17] Israel Finkelstein, Ze’ev Herzog, Lily Singer-Avitz, and David Ussishkin (2007). “Has King David’s Palace in Jerusalem Been Found?” Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University 34.2 (2007), 142–164. See also Lefkovits, “Eliat Mazar,” 40.

[18] “Jeremiah, Prophet of the Bible, Brought Back to Life,” Biblical Archaeology Society, August 24, 2015 (originally published 2012), https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-artifacts/artifacts-and-the-bible/jeremiah-prophet-of-the-bible-brought-back-to-life/

[19] Nadav Naʼaman “The Interchange Between Bible and Archaeology: The Case of David’s Palace and the Millo,” Biblical Archaeology Review 40.1 (January/February 2014), 57ff. See also Robin Ngo, “King David’s Palace and the Millo,” Biblical Archaeology Society, February 4, 2019, https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-sites-places/jerusalem/king-davids-palace-and-the-millo/

[20] Mazar, “Archaeology and the Biblical Narrative,” 40-46.

[21] Avraham Faust, “The large stone structure in the City of David: a reexamination,” Zeitschrift des Deutschen Palästina-Vereins 126.2 (2010),” 116-130, esp. 127.

[22] Mazar, “Did I Find King David’s Palace?”

[23] John Bergsma and Brant Pitre, A Catholic Introduction to the Bible: The Old Testament, vol. 1 (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2018), 409.

Leave a Reply