Does Archaeology Support the Bible?

FOR Bible students, archaeology is useful, since its findings often supplement their knowledge of life, conditions, customs, and languages in Bible times. Archaeology also provides helpful information on the fulfillment of Bible prophecies, such as those predicting the demise of ancient Babylon, Nineveh, and Tyre. (Jeremiah 51:37; Ezekiel 26:4, 12; Zephaniah 2:13-15) The science has its limits, however. Artifacts must be interpreted, and interpretations are subject to human error and modification.

Christian faith depends, not on broken vases, moldering bricks, or crumbling walls, but on the entire, harmonious body of spiritual truth found in the Bible. (2 Corinthians 5:7; Hebrews 11:1) To be sure, the Bible’s internal harmony, candor, fulfilled prophecies, and many other features provide convincing evidence that “all Scripture is inspired of God.” (2 Timothy 3:16) That said, consider a number of interesting archaeological discoveries that corroborate Biblical accounts.

A team of archaeologists digging in Jerusalem in 1970 came upon a charred ruin. “The picture was clear to any trained eye,” wrote Nahman Avigad, the team leader. “The building had been destroyed by fire, and the walls and ceiling had collapsed.” In one room were the bones [1] of an arm, its fingers spread, grasping at a step.

Strewn on the floor were coins [2], the latest of which dated to the fourth year of the Jewish revolt against Rome—69 C.E. Objects had been scattered before the building collapsed. “Seeing this,” said Avigad, “we recalled Josephus’s description of the Roman soldiers looting the houses after the city had been conquered.” Historians date the Roman sack of Jerusalem to 70 C.E.

Analysis determined that the bones belonged to a woman in her 20’s. “Caught in the fire when the Romans attacked,” says Biblical Archaeology Review, “a young woman who was in the kitchen of the Burnt House sank to the floor and was reaching for a step near the doorway when she died. The fire had spread so fast . . . that she could not escape and was buried by falling debris.”

This scene reminds us of Jesus’ prophecy concerning Jerusalem, uttered nearly 40 years earlier: “Your enemies . . . will dash you and your children within you to the ground, and they will not leave a stone upon a stone in you.”—Luke 19:43, 44.

Archaeological finds corroborating Biblical statements also include the names of individuals mentioned in the Scriptures. Some of these finds quashed earlier claims by critics that the Bible writers fabricated certain characters or exaggerated their fame.

Inscriptions of Biblical Names

At one time, prominent scholars held that Assyrian King Sargon II, whose name appears in the Bible at Isaiah 20:1, never existed. In 1843, however, near present-day Khorsabad, Iraq, on a tributary of the Tigris River, Sargon’s palace [3] was discovered. It covers some 25 acres [10 ha]. Raised from secular obscurity, Sargon II is now one of the best-known kings of Assyria. In one of his annals [4], he claims to have captured the Israelite city of Samaria. According to Biblical reckoning, Samaria fell to the Assyrians in 740 B.C.E. Sargon also records the capture of Ashdod, further corroborating Isaiah 20:1.

While excavating the ruins of the ancient city of Babylon, in present-day Iraq, archaeologists uncovered some 300 cuneiform tablets near the Ishtar Gate. Relating to the period of the reign of Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar, the inscriptions include a list of names, among which is “Yaukin, king of the land of Yahud.” This refers to King Jehoiachin of the land of Judah, who was taken captive to Babylon at the time of Nebuchadnezzar’s first conquest of Jerusalem, in 617 B.C.E. (2 Kings 24:11-15) Five of Jehoiachin’s sons are also mentioned on the tablets.—1 Chronicles 3:17, 18.

In the year 2005, while digging at a site where they hoped to find the palace of King David, archaeologists came upon an extensive stone structure that they believe was destroyed when the Babylonians razed Jerusalem just over 2,600 years ago, during the time of God’s prophet Jeremiah. Whether the structure is the remains of David’s palace is uncertain. However, archaeologist Eilat Mazar did identify one particularly interesting object—a 0.4-inch-wide [1 cm] clay seal impression [5] that reads: “Belonging to Yehuchal son of Shelemiyahu son of Shovi.” This impression was evidently made with the seal of Yehuchal (also Jehucal or Jucal), a Jewish official mentioned in the Bible as having opposed Jeremiah.—Jeremiah 37:3; 38:1-6.

Jehucal, says Mazar, is only the “second royal minister,” after Gemariah, the son of Shaphan, whose name appears on a seal impression found in the City of David. The Bible identifies Jehucal, the son of Shelemiah (Shelemiyahu), as a prince of Judah. Prior to the discovery of the seal, he was unknown outside the Scriptures.

Could They Read and Write?

The Bible indicates that the ancient Israelites were a literate people. (Numbers 5:23; Joshua 24:26; Isaiah 10:19) But critics disagreed, arguing that Bible history was largely transmitted by unreliable oral tradition. In 2005 this theory suffered a blow when archaeologists working at Tel Zayit, midway between Jerusalem and the Mediterranean, found an archaic alphabet, perhaps the oldest Hebrew alphabet [6] ever discovered, incised on a piece of limestone.

Dated to the tenth century B.C.E., the find, say some scholars, suggests “formal scribal training,” a “sophisticated level of culture,” and “a rapidly developing Israelite bureaucracy in Jerusalem.” So, contrary to the critics’ claims, it appears that at least as early as the tenth century B.C.E., the Israelites were literate and would have been able to record their history.

Assyrian Records Lend Further Support

Once a mighty empire, Assyria often appears in the Bible record, and many archaeological finds there attest to the accuracy of the Scriptures. For instance, an excavation at the site of ancient Nineveh, Assyria’s capital, revealed a sculptured slab [7] in the palace of King Sennacherib, which depicts Assyrian soldiers leading Jewish captives into exile after the fall of Lachish in 732 B.C.E. You can read the Bible’s account at 2 Kings 18:13-15.

The annals of Sennacherib [8], found at Nineveh, describe his military campaign during the reign of Judean King Hezekiah, whom the annals mention by name. Cuneiform records of various other rulers refer to Judean Kings Ahaz and Manasseh, as well as Israelite Kings Omri, Jehu, Jehoash, Menahem, and Hoshea.

In his accounts Sennacherib boasts of his military successes but, significantly, omits any mention of taking Jerusalem. This striking omission adds credence to the Biblical record, which states that the king never laid siege to Jerusalem but suffered defeat at God’s hands. Thereafter, a humiliated Sennacherib returned to Nineveh, where, the Bible says, he was assassinated by his sons. (Isaiah 37:33-38) Interestingly, two Assyrian inscriptions attest to the assassination.

Because of the wickedness of the people of Nineveh, Jehovah’s prophets Nahum and Zephaniah foretold the city’s complete destruction. (Nahum 1:1; 2:8–3:19; Zephaniah 2:13-15) Their prophecies were fulfilled when the combined forces of Nabopolassar, the king of Babylon, and of Cyaxares the Mede besieged and captured Nineveh in the year 632 B.C.E. The discovery and excavation of its ruins once again corroborated Bible accounts.

Nuzi, an ancient city to the east of the Tigris River and southeast of Nineveh, excavated between 1925 and 1931, yielded many artifacts, including some 20,000 clay tablets. Written in the Babylonian language, they contain a wealth of detail involving legal customs similar to those of the patriarchal era described in Genesis. Texts show, for example, that family gods, often small clay figurines, were a form of title deed, giving their owner a claim to the inheritance. This custom may explain why the patriarch Jacob’s wife Rachel took the family gods, or “teraphim,” belonging to her father, Laban, when Jacob’s family moved away. Understandably, Laban tried to recover the teraphim.—Genesis 31:14-16, 19, 25-35.

Isaiah’s Prophecy and the Cyrus Cylinder

The cuneiform inscription on the ancient clay cylinder illustrated here corroborates another Bible account. Known as the Cyrus Cylinder [9], this document was recovered at the site of ancient Sippar on the Euphrates, about 20 miles [32 km] from Baghdad. It speaks of the conquest of Babylon at the hands of Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire. Amazingly, some 200 years earlier, Jehovah, by means of his prophet Isaiah, said of a Medo-Persian ruler who would be named Cyrus: “‘He is my shepherd, and all that I delight in he will completely carry out’; even in my saying of Jerusalem, ‘She will be rebuilt.’”—Isaiah 13:1, 17-19; 44:26–45:3.

Significantly, the cylinder mentions Cyrus’ policy—in sharp contrast with that of other ancient conquerors—of returning to their homeland captives held by the previous power. Biblical and secular history testify that Cyrus did release the Jews, who then rebuilt Jerusalem.—2 Chronicles 36:23; Ezra 1:1-4.

A relatively new science, Biblical archaeology has become a major field of study that has yielded some valuable information. And as we have seen, many finds attest to the Bible’s authenticity and accuracy, sometimes down to the smallest detail.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

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Alexander the Great: Roma, Musei Capitolini

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Coins: Generously Donated by Company for Reconstruction Development of Jewish Quarter, Jerusalem Old City

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Society for Exploration of Land of Israel and its Antiquities

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3: Musée du Louvre, Paris; 4: Photograph taken by courtesy of the British Museum; 5: Gabi Laron/Institute of Archaeology/Hebrew University © Eilat Mazar

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6: AP Photo/Keith Srakocic; 7, 8: Photograph taken by courtesy of the British Museum

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Photograph taken by courtesy of the British Museum