Jerusalem in Bible Times—What Does Archaeology Reveal?
INTERESTING major archaeological activities have taken place in Jerusalem, especially since 1967. Many of the excavated sites are now open to the public, so let us visit some of them and see how archaeology matches Bible history.
King David’s Jerusalem
The area that the Bible refers to as Mount Zion, on which the ancient City of David was built, looks quite insignificant in the metropolis of modern Jerusalem. Excavations of the City of David, led by the late professor Yigal Shiloh between 1978-85, revealed a massive stepped-stone structure, or supportive wall, on the eastern side of the hill.
Professor Shiloh claimed that it must be remains of an immense substructure of terrace walls on which the Jebusites (inhabitants prior to David’s conquest) built a citadel. He explained that the stepped-stone structure he found on top of these terrace walls belonged to the new stronghold built by David on the site of the Jebusite citadel. At 2 Samuel 5:9, we read: “David took up dwelling in the stronghold, and it came to be called the City of David; and David began to build all around from the Mound and inward.”
Near this structure are the entrances of the city’s ancient water systems, parts of which seem to be from David’s time. Some statements in the Bible about Jerusalem’s water-tunnel system have given rise to questions. For instance, David told his men that “anyone striking the Jebusites, let him, by means of the water tunnel, make contact” with the enemy. (2 Samuel 5:8) David’s commander Joab did this. What exactly is meant by the expression “water tunnel”?
Other questions have been raised about the famous Siloam Tunnel, likely dug by King Hezekiah’s engineers in the eighth century B.C.E. and referred to at 2 Kings 20:20 and 2 Chronicles 32:30. How could the two teams of tunnelers, digging from opposite ends, manage to meet? Why did they choose a serpentine path, making the tunnel considerably longer than a straight one? How did they get enough air to breathe, especially since they would likely have used oil-burning lamps?
The magazine Biblical Archaeology Review has offered possible answers to such questions. Dan Gill, a geological consultant of the excavation, is quoted as saying: “Underlying the City of David is a well-developed natural karst system. Karst is a geological term that describes an irregular region of sinks, caverns and channels caused by groundwater as it seeps and flows through underground rock formations. . . . Our geological examination of the subterranean waterworks beneath the City of David indicates that they were fashioned essentially by skillful human enlargement of natural (karstic) dissolution channels and shafts that were integrated into functional water supply systems.”
This may help to explain how the Siloam Tunnel was excavated. It could have followed the winding course of a natural channel under the hill. Teams working from each end could have dug a provisional tunnel by altering existing caverns. Then a sloping channel was dug for the water to flow from the Gihon spring to the Pool of Siloam, which probably was located inside the city walls. This was a real engineering feat as the height difference between the two ends is only 12.5 inches [32 cm], despite its length of 1,749 feet [533 m].
Scholars have long recognized that the ancient city’s main source of water was the Gihon spring. It was located outside the city walls but close enough to allow for a tunnel and a 36-foot-deep [11 m] shaft to be excavated, which would enable the inhabitants to draw water without going outside the protective walls. This is known as Warren’s Shaft, named after Charles Warren, who discovered the system in 1867. But when were the tunnel and the shaft made? Did they exist in David’s time? Was this the water tunnel used by Joab? Dan Gill answers: “To test whether Warren’s Shaft was in fact a natural sinkhole, we analyzed a fragment of calcareous crust from its irregular walls for carbon-14. It contained none, indicating that the crust is more than 40,000 years old: This provides unequivocal evidence that the shaft could not have been dug by man.”
Remains From Hezekiah’s Time
King Hezekiah lived when the nation of Assyria was sweeping everything in its path. In the sixth year of his reign, the Assyrians took Samaria, the capital of the ten-tribe kingdom. Eight years later (732 B.C.E.) the Assyrians were back again, threatening Judah and Jerusalem. Second Chronicles 32:1-8 describes Hezekiah’s defense strategy. Are there any visible evidences from this period?
Yes, in 1969, Professor Nahman Avigad discovered remains from this period. Excavations revealed a section of a massive wall, the first part being 130 feet [40 m] long, 23 feet [7 m] wide, and, according to estimates, 27 feet [8 m] high. The wall stood partly on bedrock and partly on recently built houses. Who built the wall and when? “Two passages in the Bible helped Avigad pinpoint the date and purpose of the wall,” an archaeological magazine reports. These passages read: “Furthermore, he took courage and built up all the broken-down wall and raised towers upon it, and on the outside another wall.” (2 Chronicles 32:5) “You will also pull down the houses to make the wall unattainable.” (Isaiah 22:10) Today visitors can see part of this so-called Broad Wall in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City.
Various excavations also reveal that Jerusalem at this time was much larger than had heretofore been thought, probably because of the influx of refugees from the northern kingdom after it was defeated by the Assyrians. Professor Shiloh estimated that the Jebusite city covered an area of about 15 acres [6 ha]. In Solomon’s time it covered almost 40 acres [16 ha]. By the time of King Hezekiah, 300 years later, the fortified area of the city had grown to about 150 acres [60 ha].
The First Temple Period Cemeteries
Cemeteries from the First Temple period, that is, before the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem in 607 B.C.E., have been another source of information. Spectacular findings were made when a group of burial caves on the slopes of the Hinnom Valley were excavated in 1979/80. “In all the history of archaeological research in Jerusalem, this is one of the very few First Temple repositories to be found with all its contents. It contained over one thousand objects,” says archaeologist Gabriel Barkay. He continues: “The fondest dream of every archaeologist working in Israel, and especially in Jerusalem, is to discover written material.” Two small silver scrolls were found, containing what?
Barkay explains: “When I saw the unrolled silver strip and placed it under the magnifying glass, I could see that the surface was covered with delicately made characters, scratched with a sharp instrument onto the very thin and fragile sheet of silver. . . . The Divine Name that clearly appears in the inscription is composed of the four Hebrew characters written in ancient Hebrew script, yod-he-waw-he.” In a later publication, Barkay adds: “To our surprise both silver plaques were inscribed with benediction formulas almost identical with the biblical Priestly Blessing.” (Numbers 6:24-26) This was the first time Jehovah’s name was found in an inscription discovered in Jerusalem.
How did scholars date these silver scrolls? Mainly by the archaeological context within which they were discovered. More than 300 pieces of datable pottery were found in the repository, pointing to the seventh and sixth centuries B.C.E. The script, when compared to other dated inscriptions, points to the same period. The scrolls are displayed in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
Jerusalem’s Destruction in 607 B.C.E.
The Bible tells of Jerusalem’s destruction in 607 B.C.E. in 2 Kings chapter 25, 2 Chronicles chapter 36, and Jeremiah chapter 39, reporting that Nebuchadnezzar’s army put the city to the torch. Have recent excavations verified this historical account? According to Professor Yigal Shiloh, “the evidence [of the Babylonian destruction] in the Bible . . . is complemented by the clear-cut archaeological evidence; the total destruction of the various structures, and a conflagration which consumed the various wooden parts of the houses.” He further commented: “Traces of this destruction have been found in each of the excavations carried out in Jerusalem.”
Visitors can see remains from this destruction that took place over 2,500 years ago. The Israelite Tower, the Burnt Room, and the Bullae House are names of popular archaeological sites preserved and open to the public. Archaeologists Jane M. Cahill and David Tarler summarize in the book Ancient Jerusalem Revealed: “The massive destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians is apparent not only in the thick layers of charred remains unearthed in structures such as the Burnt Room and the Bullae House, but also in the deep stone rubble from collapsed buildings found covering the eastern slope. The biblical descriptions of the city’s destruction . . . complement the archaeological evidence.”
Thus, the Bible’s picture of Jerusalem from David’s time down to its destruction in 607 B.C.E. has in many ways been verified by archaeological excavations made during the past 25 years. But what about Jerusalem of the first century C.E.?
Jerusalem in Jesus’ Day
Excavations, the Bible, the first-century Jewish historian Josephus, and other sources help scholars to picture the Jerusalem of Jesus’ day, before the Romans destroyed it in 70 C.E. A model, exhibited behind a large hotel in Jerusalem, is regularly being updated according to what new excavations reveal. The main feature of the city was the Temple Mount, which Herod had doubled in size compared to that of Solomon’s time. It was the largest man-made platform in the ancient world, about 1,575 feet [480 m] by 910 feet [280 m]. Some building stones weighed 50 tons, one even close to 400 tons and “unequaled in size anywhere in the ancient world,” according to one scholar.
No wonder that some people were shocked when they heard Jesus say: “Break down this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” They thought he meant the huge temple building, although he meant “the temple of his body.” Therefore, they said: “This temple was built in forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” (John 2:19-21) As a result of excavations of the Temple Mount surroundings, visitors can now see parts of walls and other architectural features from Jesus’ time and can even walk the steps he likely walked up to the southern temple gates.
Not far from the western wall of the Temple Mount, in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, are two nicely restored excavation sites from the first century C.E., known as the Burnt House and the Herodian Quarter. After the discovery of the Burnt House, archaeologist Nahman Avigad wrote: “It was now quite clear that this building was burnt by the Romans in 70 A.D., during the destruction of Jerusalem. For the first time in the history of excavations in the city, vivid and clear archaeological evidence of the burning of the city had come to light.”—See photographs on page 12.
Some of these discoveries throw light upon some of the events in Jesus’ life. The buildings were located in the Upper City, where Jerusalem’s wealthy people lived, including the high priests. A large number of ritual baths were found in the houses. One scholar observes: “The large number of baths testify to the strict observance of the laws of ritual purity practiced by the residents of the Upper City during the Second Temple period. (These laws are recorded in the Mishnah, which devotes ten chapters to the details of the mikveh.)” This information helps us to appreciate Jesus’ comments on these rituals to the Pharisees and scribes.—Matthew 15:1-20; Mark 7:1-15.
A surprisingly large number of stone vessels have also been found in Jerusalem. Nahman Avigad notes: “Why, then, did they appear so suddenly and in such quantities in the Jerusalem household? The answer lies in the realm of halakhah, the Jewish laws of ritual purity. The Mishnah tells us that stone vessels are among those objects that are not susceptible to uncleanness . . . Stone was simply not susceptible to ritual contamination.” It is suggested that this explains why the water Jesus turned into wine was stored in stone vessels instead of earthenware vessels.—Leviticus 11:33; John 2:6.
A visit to the Israel Museum will show two unusual ossuaries. Biblical Archaeology Review explains: “Ossuaries were used primarily in the roughly one hundred years preceding the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. . . . The deceased was placed in a recess carved into the wall of a burial cave; after the flesh had decomposed, the bones were collected and placed in an ossuary—a container usually of decorated limestone.” The two on display were found in November 1990 in a burial cave. Archaeologist Zvi Greenhut reports: “The word . . . ‘Caiapha’ on two of the ossuaries in the tomb appears here for the first time in an archaeological context. It is probably the name of the family of the High Priest Caiaphas, mentioned . . . in the New Testament . . . It was from his house in Jerusalem that Jesus was delivered to the Roman procurator Pontius Pilatus.” One ossuary contained the bones of a man about 60 years old. Scholars speculate that these actually are the bones of Caiaphas. One scholar refers the findings to the time of Jesus: “A coin found in one of the other ossuaries was minted by Herod Agrippa (37-44 C.E.). The two Caiaphas ossuaries might be as early as the beginning of the century.”
William G. Dever, professor of Near Eastern archaeology at the University of Arizona, commented concerning Jerusalem: “It is no exaggeration to say that we have learned more of the archaeological history of this key site in the last 15 years than in the previous 150 years put together.” Many of the major archaeological activities in Jerusalem during recent decades have certainly presented findings that elucidate Bible history.
[Picture Credit Line on page 9]
Reproduction of the City of Jerusalem at the time of the Second Temple – located on the grounds of the Holyland Hotel, Jerusalem
[Pictures on page 10]
Above: Southwest corner of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount
Right: Descending into Warren’s Shaft