Some places are associated with massacres (like Srebrenica) and some with miracles (like Lourdes), but both occurred at ancient Jericho. Jericho in the Middle East is said to be one of the oldest settlements in the world. It’s also the lowest city in the world, being in the Jordan rift valley.
Jericho was a strategic location on the route from the fords of the Jordan river to Jerusalem. This route is part of an ancient route between the Kings Highway to the east and the Via Maris (way of the sea) to the west. These were the major ancient routes between Egypt and Mesopotamia. Jericho was one of the gateways to the land of Canaan. It was the access point to the hill country of Palestine from the Trans-Jordan, being 8km (5 miles) west of the Jordan river and 22km (14 miles) east-northeast of Jerusalem.
Jerusalem experiences a Mediterranean climate, but due to the “rain-shadow” effect, Jericho on a plain in the Jordan valley has low rainfall. Because of a spring it’s an oasis in a desert which has been called “the city of the palms” (Dt. 34:3; Jud. 1:16; 3:13; 2 Chr. 28:15NIV).
In this post we look at some historical events that have occurred at Jericho.
The promised land
The exodus was when the Israelites journeyed from Egypt to the promised land of Canaan. The first mention of Jericho in the Bible is near the end of the journey when “the Israelites travelled to the plains of Moab and camped along the Jordan across from Jericho” (Num. 22:1). At this time Jericho was a fortified city occupied by the Canaanites.
Before their leader, Moses, died, he viewed the promised land from Mount Nebo, including “the valley of Jericho, the city of palms” (Dt. 34:1-4). Jericho was central in the land that was occupied by the Israelites: between Hazor in the north and the Negev in the south and the Trans-Jordan towards the east and the Cis-Jordan towards the west.
When the tribes of Israel were allocated land in Canaan, Jericho was in the territory occupied by the tribe of Benjamin. Jericho was near the boundary of Benjamin with Ephraim to the north (Josh. 18:12, 21). And the southern boundary of Benjamin was the Pass of Adummim (Josh 15:7) – the road from Jericho to Jerusalem goes up this ridge.
The Bible explains why the Canaanites were invaded and driven from their land. God told Abram that his descendants would be enslaved in Egypt for 400 years and after this “your descendants will come back here (Canaan), for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure” (Gen. 15:13-16). The peoples of Canaan were dispossessed of their land as an act of God’s judgement when their sin had reached God’s limit (Dt. 9:4-6). They were guilty of idolatry, sexual immorality, religious prostitution, witchcraft, and child sacrifice (Lev. 18:24-27; Dt. 9:4-6; 18:9-12).
Joshua at Jericho (1410BC)
The Israelites entered the promised land by crossing the Jordan River near Jericho. Because Joshua and the Israelites followed the Lord’s instructions, God gave them a great victory over the fortified city of Jericho. It was a miracle that the walls of the city fell down when the army shouted. Jericho was destroyed and lacked walls and gates for centuries after this because Joshua placed a curse on whoever would rebuild them (Josh.6:26). Only Rahab and her family, who cared for the spies, were rescued and saved from the massacre (Josh. 6:22-23, 25).
So the city and its occupants were destroyed because of their wickedness. And God gave it to Israel as their first possession west of the Jordan river. This incident reminds us: that Joshua had faith in the true God but the Canaanites didn’t, that God judges people’s sin, and that salvation is available to the repentant.
Israel destroys Jericho (1375BC)
But later on Jericho was destroyed by the Israelites themselves! When the Israelites punished the Benjamites because of a rape and murder at Gilead, 25,000 of the Benjamites died in battle and the Israelites “put all the (Benjamite) towns to the sword, including the animals and everything else they found. All the towns they came across they set on fire” (Jud. 20:48).
So there was another massacre in Jericho and the town was burnt once again. In this instance, God’s people also experienced God’s judgement.
Ehud at Jericho (1316BC)
When the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord, Jericho was attacked and captured by the Moabites (Jud. 3:12-30) and Jericho was ruled by the Moabites for 18 years. After the Israelites cried out the Lord, He gave them a deliverer named Ehud. Ehud assassinated Eglon the king of Moab and “took possession of the fords of the Jordan that led to Moab” (Jud. 3:28). So the Moabites were defeated and Jericho was ruled by the Israelites once again.
So, when the Israelites turned away from God, Jericho was captured and ruled by foreigners. But the city was regained by Israel after they repented and prayed.
Up to this time, Jericho was a place of battles, massacres and destruction.
David’s men at Jericho (995BC)
When king David sent some men to the king of the Ammonites, the king shaved their heads and cut off half of their beards, humiliating David’s men (2 Sam. 10:1-5). So David instructed them to stay at Jericho until their beards had grown back. This means that Jericho was still occupied at this time although it had no city walls or gates.
Fortification of Jericho (850BC)
When the kingdom was split into Judah and Israel, they became more vulnerable to foreign invasion. Two such enemies were Moab and Ammon, just east of the Jordan river. That’s probably why the city walls and gates of Jericho were rebuilt (1 Ki. 16:34) as a fortified city in the time of King Ahab (about 850 BC). Jericho had lacked such fortifications for about 560 years. Was the fact that Jericho was now fortified why Moab and Ammon attacked Judah from the south rather than from the east (2 Chr. 20:1-26)?
Elisha at Jericho (850BC)
Idolatry was prevalent in the 9th century BC in the kingdom of Israel. Even king Ahab worshipped Baal (Canaanite storm god) and Asherah (Canaanite goddess of love and fertility) (1 Ki. 18:18-19). But there were 7,000 Israelites who didn’t worship Baal (1 Ki. 19:18). These people who worshipped the true God were probably led by prophets. Besides Elijah and Elisha, there were groups of prophets at Bethel and Jericho (2 Ki. 2:3, 5). The prophets from Jericho went with Elijah and Elisha to the Jordan river to witness the miracle by which Elijah and Elisha crossed the river. But only Elisha returned and he had Elijah’s coat which symbolized that he was succeeding Elijah. Elisha began his ministry at Jericho with a miracle turning brackish spring water into pure water (2 Ki. 2:18-22).
So at this time there was a group of godly people living at Jericho and the prophet Elisha performed a miracle there.
David and king Zedekiah at Jericho (976BC & 586BC)
In God’s covenant with Israel, if they disobeyed God they were to be driven from their land (Dt. 28:32-37). And this is what happened 680 years later (when the Assyrians conquered the kingdom of Israel) and 820 years later (when the Babylonians conquered the kingdom of Judah).
Two Jewish kings fled from Jerusalem to Jericho. When the Babylonians invaded Judah and destroyed Jerusalem, the army and king Zedekiah escaped at night and fled towards the east. But the Babylonian army chased them and captured the king in the plains of Jericho (2 Ki. 25:3-6; Jer. 39:4-5; 52:8). David made a similar trip when he escaped from Absalom in 976BC by travelling from Jerusalem to the Jordan river (2 Sam. 15:28-16:14).
After the Babylonian exile, in about 537BC, 345 men of Jericho returned to Judah (Ezra 2:34). And in 444BC, men from Jericho helped to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem (Neh. 3:2). This showed that there were still godly people living at Jericho 260 years after Elisha began his ministry and that they returned to live in Jericho after the exile.
Jesus at Jericho (AD30)
The Jericho of New Testament times was built by Herod about 2.4 km south of the ancient site. It was at the mouth of Wadi Qilt, which is the valley north of the Pass of Adummim. In the middle ages the crusaders built a town about 2 km east of the ancient site and the modern town has expanded to include the ancient site.
Jericho was on the route between Galilee and Jerusalem if you wanted to avoid travelling through Samaria. It is supposed that the sites of Christ’s baptism (at the Jordan river) and temptation (at a mountain west of Jericho) are near Jericho.
In the parable of the good Samaritan (Lk. 10:29-37), the traveller was attacked as he was going down from Jerusalem (797m above sea level) to Jericho (250m below sea level). The distance was about 29 km (18 miles) and the difference in altitude about 1050m. At that time, it was a narrow, winding mountainous trail or footpath through rocky desert terrain. And there were plenty of hiding places and escape routes for bandits. Robberies in the wild and lonely terrain were so frequent that a Roman garrison had to be stationed there to protect travellers.
On the trip to Jerusalem before His death, Jesus stayed at Jericho. This was where the tax collector Zacchaeus was converted (Lk. 19:1-10) and Bartimaeus was healed of blindness (Mk. 10:46-52). This healing seemed to have occurred after Jesus left ancient Jericho (Mt. 20:29; Mk. 10:46) and before He reached Herodian Jericho (Lk. 18:35). After this Jesus climbed the ascent to Bethany, Bethphage and Jerusalem.
This history of Jericho began with a fortified city that was destroyed by God and ended with a fortified city that witnessed miracles of God. Between these times the city lacked fortifications and was destroyed and conquered. During this time period, Jericho was occupied by the Canaanites, the Israelites, the Moabites, the Israelites, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Seleucids and the Romans.
This reminds me of what Paul told the Athenians, “From one man He (God) made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and He marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek Him and perhaps reach out for Him and find Him, though He is not far from any one of us” (Acts 17:26-27). God determines the beginning and end of nations and the lands that they would occupy.
The incidents that happened at Jericho illustrate God’s supernatural power. The city walls fell when the army shouted. Ehud was able to assassinate Eglon. And Elisha and Jesus did miracles.
The people of Jericho were punished when their sins had reached God’s limit. In a coming day God will punish our sinful world because, “her sins are piled as high as heaven, and God remembers her evil deeds” (Rev. 18:5NLT). Meanwhile, on which side of the walls of Jericho are we?
Some of the occupants of Jericho were ungodly (the Canaanites, the Moabites, and the Israelites who disobeyed God by practicing idolatry) and some were godly (Elisha and the prophets, and the Jews who returned from the Babylonian exile). And some changed from being ungodly to godly (Rahab, the Israelites who repented of their idolatry, and Zacchaeus).
Lessons for us
Over the centuries, many things happened at Jericho – massacres, rescues and miracles. But it was always under God’s control. Likewise, many things happen in our lives. But we can be assured that God is in control.
Let’s trust God like Joshua, and change from our ungodly ways like Rahab and Zacchaeus. Paul told the Athenians how to do this by repenting of their ungodly ways by trusting in Jesus because “He (God) has set a day when He will judge the world (at the second coming of Christ) with justice by the man (Jesus) He has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising Him (Jesus) from the dead” (Acts 17:31).
Written, June 2018
Also see other articles on places in the Bible:
Bethlehem, God’s solution to our crises
Gehenna – Where’s hell?
Babylon, center of humanism and materialism
Lessons from Egypt
Lessons from Sodom
Rebellion and deception at Samaria
Nineveh experienced God’s mercy and justice
Worshipping God and idols at Bethel
The Bible is more reliable than archaeology
Old houses are being demolished in my suburb to make way for new ones. If we came back in 50 year’s time, what evidence will there be of how people lived in the old houses? Very little. But there would be more evidence if we excavated a rubbish dump. If the time gap was longer, like thousands of years, not much would be left to discover and it would be harder to work out the purpose and age of what was found.
In antiquity, instead of demolishing an old city, people would just build a new one on top of it. So the city grew higher with time until it became a hill called a tell. A tell is a mound of ruins and debris that is mainly comprised of mud bricks, which disintegrate rapidly. Excavating a tell can reveal buried buildings, pottery and other relics, located at different depths depending on their date of use. Archaeologists excavate tell sites to interpret the architecture, purpose, and date of occupation.
In this post we are looking at whether archaeology supports the Bible or not. The word archaeology comes from two Greek words meaning “ancient” and “knowledge”. So it means the study of ancient things. Archaeology is a historical science that studies ancient cultures through the excavation of sites and the analysis of artefacts, inscriptions, monuments and other physical remains. It’s like forensic science because it studies the past.
This topic is important because archaeology can impact our attitude towards the Bible. For example, a statement by an archaeologist that “the Israelites were never in Egypt or the Sinai desert”, can cause us to doubt the reliability of the Bible. But we will see that the Bible is more reliable than archaeology.
History and the Bible
What is the foundation of the Christian faith? Is it Jesus Christ? Is it His death and resurrection? Is it because we needed a Savior because of the sin of Adam and Eve? These are historical people and historical events. So you could say Christianity is based on history. But it’s not just any history, it’s biblical history. Only the Bible gives the history and its meaning that’s essential to becoming a Christian. Paul says that Christian faith comes through accepting “the word about Christ”, which is the good news in the Bible (Rom. 10:17NIV). The source of Christian faith is shown in this schematic diagram. When we hear the good news in the Bible about Jesus and the Holy Spirit convicts us of our need to accept it, we can come to trust in what Jesus has done for us.
But the Bible is often under attack. And disciplines such as history, archaeology, geology and biology are often used to attack the Bible. Today we are focusing on archaeology. We will begin by looking at examples from two ancient cities.
The first example is in Jerusalem, the capital of the kingdom of Judah at about 700BC. What does the Bible say happened?
“After all that Hezekiah had so faithfully done, Sennacherib king of Assyria came and invaded Judah. He laid siege to the fortified cities, thinking to conquer them for himself. When Hezekiah saw that Sennacherib had come and that he intended to wage war against Jerusalem, he consulted with his officials and military staff about blocking off the water from the springs outside the city, and they helped him. They gathered a large group of people who blocked all the springs and the stream that flowed through the land. “Why should the kings of Assyria come and find plenty of water?” they said” (2 Chr. 32:1-4).
“It was Hezekiah who blocked the upper outlet of the Gihon spring and channelled the water down to the west side of the City of David” (2 Chr. 32:30).
“As for the other events of Hezekiah’s reign, all his achievements and how he made the pool (of Siloam) and the tunnel by which he brought water into the city, are they not written in the book of the annals of the kings of Judah?” (2 Ki. 20:20).
Jerusalem’s water supply was vulnerable to enemy attack since it was outside the main city wall. And Sennacherib, king of Assyria, was invading Judah. So king Hezekiah, who reigned 715BC to 686BC, built a tunnel to bring water from the spring to a new pool. If these events really happened as described in the Bible, what would we expect an archaeologist to find? Maybe a tunnel through the rock from a water source outside the city to a pool inside the city.
What did they find? In 1880 a tunnel was discovered from Gihon Spring in Kidron Valley to bring water into the city. It is about 530 meters (1750 feet) long. Being cut into solid rock and 40 m (131 feet) underground, it’s one of the greatest engineering feats of the ancient world. Tourists can walk through the tunnel and it still carries water from Gihon Spring to the Pool of Siloam, 2,700 years after it was built. The other archaeological evidence of King Hezekiah includes many bullae (impressed clay pieces that were used to secure the strings tied around rolled-up documents) of his royal seal and Sennacherib boasting that he trapped Hezekiah in Jerusalem “like a bird in a cage” (Sennacherib Prism). But Sennacherib doesn’t mention taking Jerusalem because the Bible says that God intervened (2 Ki. 19:35-36; 2 Chr. 32:20-21a; Isa. 37:36-37). So archaeology can support the Bible.
The second example is in the city of Jericho at about 1400BC. It was an oasis north of the Dead Sea called the city of palms (Dt. 34:3; Jud. 1:16; 3:13; 2 Chr. 28:15).
What does the Bible say happened? When Joshua lead the Israelites into Canaan, Jericho was the first city they conquered. After circling Jericho 13 times over seven days, “When the trumpets sounded, the army shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the men gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed; so everyone charged straight in (“up” is a better translation), and they took the city … Then they burned the whole city and everything in it” (Josh. 6:20, 24).
“At that time Joshua pronounced this solemn oath: ‘Cursed before the Lord is the one who undertakes to rebuild this city, Jericho: At the cost of his firstborn son he will lay its foundations; at the cost of his youngest he will set up its gates’” (Josh. 6:26). This curse was fulfilled when Heil rebuilt the city walls in about 850BC (1 Ki. 16:34). So the city went about 550 years without a wall.
If these events really happened as described in the Bible, what would we expect an archaeologist to find? Evidence of: toppled walls, destruction by fire, a new people with a new culture coming into the land, a gap in occupation, and then the city being rebuilt.
What did they find at Tel es-Sultan (Sultan’s hill)?
– Carl Watzinger found the remains of two walls which he dated 1950-1550BC, and said that “in the time of Joshua, Jericho was a heap of ruins, on which stood perhaps a few isolated huts”.
– Kathleen Kenyon found many walls, some of which she thought may have been destroyed by earthquakes. The last of the walls was put together in a hurry, indicating that the settlement had been destroyed by nomadic invaders. She thought all these walls predated Joshua – they were in the middle Bronze age, not the Late Bronze age. After this there was little activity in Jericho until the 7th century BC. She did not find substantial evidence for renewed occupation in the Late Bronze Age at the time of Joshua and the biblical story of the battle of Jericho. Kenyon thought that there was no city and no wall at that time. She dated the demise of the city 150 years before the Israelites came into the land. Although Jericho was heavily fortified, it had been burned.
So in this case, archaeology and radiocarbon dating does not support the Bible. Instead it seems to contradict the Bible. How do we resolve this situation?
Interpretation of the evidence
At Jericho everything seems to fit in with the Bible except for the timing. When archaeologists excavate a tell they find items like broken pottery that require interpretation. These items don’t have labels to give their purpose and age. These depend on the assumptions or presuppositions used by the archaeologist.
What are the presuppositions of a secular archaeologist? These are beliefs about how the evidence is interpreted. And they depend on one’s worldview.
The Darwinian evolutionary theory in biology is often used to explain the process of cultural change with time. For example, cultural development is divided into three stages: Stone age, Bronze age, and Iron age. And the Stone age is usually divided into geological periods: Palaeolithic, Neolithic, and Chalcolithic. It is assumed that humanity developed gradually, both physically and intellectually, over millions of years. This timescale usually extends backwards past the creation of the universe according to the Bible! Whereas according to the Bible, the timescale should only go back the flood in about 2400BC. For example, Down suggested the following dates for Israel:
– Stone age – 2300 to 2100 BC
– Bronze age – 2100 to 540 BC
– Iron age – 540 to 300 BC
However, Anderson and Edwards quote the “generally acceptable” (secular) timing of:
– Stone age – creation to 3300 BC
– Bronze age – 3300 to 1200 BC
– Iron age – 1200 to 600 BC
Radiocarbon dating is often used without acknowledging the unreliability of this method (see Appendix A).
Naturalism is the belief that nature (or physical processes) is all that exists. It rules out the unseen, the spiritual and the divine. It also rules out the historical record in the Bible. They are biased against the Bible. The naturalist attempts to use logic and reason to support their position, but logic is not part of nature! Where in the physical world do the laws of logic come from? They can’t be explained by evolutionary processes. So the naturalist is inconsistent!
So a historical (forensic) science is a worldview discipline. Also, disciplines that depend on it like archaeology rely on one’s worldview. It’s findings largely depend on one’s worldview. We need to have the right worldview to get the right answer. If we reject the best account of ancient history in the Bible, our interpretation of archaeological evidence could be wrong, like that at Jericho. But when Bryant Wood made a better assessment of the pottery found at Jericho, he found that they were dated about 1400BC, which was consistent with the Bible (see Appendix B). He also realised when Israel destroyed Jericho, mud brick walls that were on top of a stone retaining wall fell to the ground to form a ramp so they could climb up into the city.
More archaeological findings
Here’s some more archaeological findings that are related to the Bible.
Merneptah Monument – About 1200BC
In 1898 a victory monument of Pharaoh Merneptah, the son of Ramesses II was found in the ancient Egyptian capital of Thebes. According to the traditional chronology, he reigned about 1200BC (but if Down can give a tentative date of 700BC, it shows that these dates are not robust). It has ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs engraved on granite rock. The monument documents his military victories such as over peoples and city-states in Canaan, including the Israelites. It says “Israel is laid waste; its seed is not”. This is claimed to be the earliest archaeological evidence of the Israelites.
Archaeologists have also dated the gates of Hazor, Megiddo and Gezer in Israel to the 10th century BC and the Bible says that Solomon had these constructed (1 Ki. 9:15-17).
Obelisk of Shalmaneser III – 840BC
In 1846 a black limestone obelisk that commemorates the deeds of King Shalmaneser III of Assyria (reigned 858-824 BC) was found at Nimrud (ancient Kalhu) in Iraq. It lists tribute paid by foreign kings, including Jehu the king of Israel. It has a relief of Jehu paying tribute to Shalmanaser, which is the only contemporary depiction of anyone mentioned in the Bible. It says, “The tribute of Jehu, son of Omri: I received from him silver, gold, a golden bowl, a golden vase with pointed bottom, golden tumblers, golden buckets, tin, a staff for a king [and] spears”.
Tel Dan monument – About 840BC
This broken monument (inscribed stone) was discovered in 1993-94 during excavations of Tel Dan in northern Israel. It is written on basalt in an Aramaic dialect. In it the king of Aram boasts of his military victories over the king of Israel and his ally the king of the “House of David” (Judah). This is the earliest mention of David outside the Hebrew Bible. The king of Aram was probably Hazael because Elisha appointed Hazael to be king (2 Ki. 8:7-15) in order to punish Israel for their sins (2 Ki. 9:14-16; 10:32; 12:17-18; 13:3, 22). The monument seems to have been set up by Hazael, king of Aram to commemorate his victory over Joram (king of Israel) and Ahaziah (king of Judah) at Ramoth-Gilead in 841 BC (2 Ki. 8:28–29; 9:15-28; 2 Chron. 22:1-9).
Assyrian Lachish Reliefs – About 690BC
Lachish, the second largest city in Israel, was destroyed by siege by the Assyrians in 701BC. In 1847 a huge relief of the battle was found in the ruins of Sennacherib’s palace in Nineveh. It was a waiting room for people getting ready to see the king. The relief covered all the four limestone walls and was 2.4 m (8 foot) tall and 24 m (80 foot) long. It demonstrated the power of the king and the fate of those who resist his rule. This indicates that Israel was a powerful country at this time and that he didn’t destroy Jerusalem (otherwise that would have been illustrated). The Bible says that Sennacherib “attacked all the fortified cities of Judah and captured them”, including laying siege to Lachish (2 Ki. 18:13; 2 Chr. 32:9; Isa. 36:1).
Keetef Hinnom amulet – About 600BC
In 1979 two tiny silver scrolls were fund in a burial chamber on the old road from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. An amulet is an ornament or small piece of jewellery used to protect its owner from danger or harm. When they were unrolled, it was evident that they were inscribed with a priestly blessing from Numbers written in ancient Hebrew (Num. 6:24-26):
“The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make His face shine on you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn His face toward you and give you peace”.
This is the oldest copy of any portion of scripture (at least 400 years older than the Dead Sea Scrolls). It also shows that the Pentateuch was written earlier than is claimed by some critics.
House of God inscription – About 600BC
In ancient times notes were often written on pottery because it was more common than papyrus. Such a message was found at Tel Arad (near the Dead Sea) that mentions “the house of God (YHWH)” in ancient Hebrew script. It is written in ink by a professional scribe. It seems to be a letter sent from Jerusalem to the commander of the Arad. It is an early reference to the temple in Jerusalem that was destroyed in 586BC.
Cyrus cylinder – 530BC
A clay cylinder was found in the ruins of Babylon in Iraq in 1879. It is inscribed in Akkadian cuneiform script with an account made by Cyrus king of Persia (559-530 BC). It records his conquest of Babylon in 539 BC, as mentioned in scripture. Cyrus allowed various captives to return to their homelands (as recorded on the cylinder), which is consistent with the end of the Jewish exile in Babylon (2 Chr. 36:22-23; Ezra 1:1-11). Isaiah mentions Cyrus 150 years before his birth (Isa. 44:28) and predicted the release of the Jews after the exile and their rebuilding of Jerusalem (Isa. 13:1, 17-19; 44:26 – 45:3).
Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) – 250BC to AD70
The Dead Sea Scrolls are a collection 980 Hebrew documents found in the Qumran limestone caves between in 1947 and 2017. Most of the texts are written on parchment. About 40% were copies from the Old Testament. Before the discovery of the DSS, the oldest Hebrew-language manuscripts of the Bible were Masoretic texts dating to the 10th century AD, such as the Aleppo Codex. The biblical manuscripts found among the Dead Sea Scrolls push that date back over one thousand years. The DSS have demonstrated that the Old Testament was accurately transmitted during this interval. This indicates that the Old Testament we have today is a very accurate copy of the original text (autograph) of Old Testament. By the way, the earliest copies of the Greek Septuagint Old Testament are dated about AD 350.
Pilate inscription – AD 36
In 1961 a block of limestone was discovered in Caesarea with the inscription “Pontius Pilate, Prefect of Judea”. Pilate was the prefect (governor) of the Roman-controlled province of Judaea from 26–36 AD. After AD 6 Caesarea replaced Jerusalem as the administrative capital and military headquarters of the province. The civil trial of Jesus was before Pilate and Herod Antipas (Mt. 27:11-26; Mk. 15:6-12; Lk. 23:6-15) and Pilate made the decision, “Wanting to satisfy the crowd, Pilate … had Jesus flogged, and handed Him over to be crucified” (Mk. 15:15). This inscription confirms the existence of a central character in the crucifixion of Christ.
Yehohanan crucifixion – AD 7 to70
In 1968 the remains of a crucified man were found in a stone ossuary (casket for bones) outside Jerusalem. According to the Hebrew inscription, his name was Yehohanan. A 11.5 cm (4.5 inches) iron nail pierced a heel bone. Iron was rare in Roman times so they would always remove the nails to use them again. However, in this case they could not remove this nail because it was bent so much at the tip. His feet had been nailed separately to the sides of the pole of the cross. The lack of traumatic injury to the arms and hands indicates that his hands were probably tied rather than nailed to the crossbar of the cross. The bones give clear evidence of first century AD Roman crucifixion. And this find proves that a victim of crucifixion (like Jesus) could receive a proper Jewish burial.
Ephesian theatre – AD 54
The theatre at Ephesus (in Turkey) was constructed in the 3rd century BC and enlarged to a seating capacity of 25,000 in the Roman period. Besides drama and gladiatorial combats, political and religious events were carried out in it as well. The Bible records conflict between Christians and the followers of Artemis in AD 54 when Paul’s safety was threatened. Luke records this riot as follows, “Soon the whole city was in an uproar. The people seized Gaius and Aristarchus, Paul’s traveling companions from Macedonia, and all of them rushed into the theater together. Paul wanted to appear before the crowd, but the disciples would not let him. Even some of the officials of the province, friends of Paul, sent him a message begging him not to venture into the theater.” (Acts 19:29-31).
These archaeological findings do support the Bible.
Lessons for us
We have seen that some archaeology supports the Bible and some doesn’t. Like in Jericho, many alleged conflicts are due to disagreements about chronology (timing). This is because archaeological findings can be strongly influenced by the worldview of the archaeologist. The findings are based on evidence that must be interpreted. Every archaeologist has a worldview and every person has a worldview. What about us? Is our worldview trustworthy? Does it include God’s revelation in the Bible? Is our worldview true or false?
As all knowledge about the past is fragmentary, all history (and archaeology) is fragmentary. How much do you know about your great-grandparents? You can’t read their life story on Facebook! We probably know more about Moses, who lived 3,500 years ago! So history and archaeology are limited by the amount of evidence available. Very little evidence remains from ancient history. This limits the scope of history. Only a small fraction of historical artefacts that once existed have survived to the present. This limits the scope of archaeology because conclusions can only be made from the evidence that is available. However, like fossils, artefacts are more likely to be preserved if they remain buried in the ground.
Archaeology is also limited by the small extent of excavations made to date. Only a fraction of ancient sites have been surveyed, excavated, and the results published.
In archaeological investigations, the absence of evidence doesn’t prove anything. The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Archaeology needs to draw conclusions from what it finds, not what it doesn’t find. For example, in 1961 Khrushchev spread atheist propaganda that the Soviet cosmonaut “Gagarin flew into space and didn’t see God”. Does that prove God doesn’t exist? No, because God is invisible! And if someone excavates the ground near a house in my suburb in 50-years’ time and sees no evidence of any previous houses, it doesn’t mean they didn’t exist. And the same applies to archaeological statements like, “the Israelites were never in Egypt”. I’m not surprised if there is no evidence of this after 3,500 years.
A lot of archaeological evidence doesn’t overlap with the Bible because it’s from a different place or a different time period. Only a fraction of what is discovered and published relates to the Bible. So we should be careful in trying to correlate biblical accounts and archaeological data.
Archaeology can’t prove the Bible. And it can’t disprove the Bible. And archaeology is unable to address the Bible’s theological claims. But archaeology can confirm and support some of the biblical record. For example, it confirms the predicted demise of ancient Babylon, Nineveh and Tyre (Jer. 51:37; Ezek. 26:4, 12; Zeph. 2:13-15). It also helps us understand aspects of the ancient world. As shown in the previous section, many archaeological discoveries are consistent with biblical history. However, those with a different world view have challenged some of these interpretations. This shows that archaeological discoveries can be open to more than one interpretation.
The Bible stands alone and needs no affirmative evidence to verify its truth. The Bible was written by eyewitnesses, and eyewitnesses trump archaeology in confirming ancient events. History trumps science when dealing with the past. The Bible is reliable and trustworthy (2 Pt. 1:19). But do we “pay attention to it”? Because the Bible is more reliable than archaeology, it’s best to use the Bible to understand archaeology rather than vice versa.
Archaeology can supply some information about the past, but it is limited and requires interpretation. The Bible also supplies some information about the past, but it provides its own interpretation. The Bible provides sufficient information for us to know what was important about the past, but it doesn’t answer all our questions.
Finally, we are looking at this topic because history and faith are connected. For example, we can’t separate the historical nature of Christ’s death and resurrection from the spiritual forgiveness of sin. Jesus told Nicodemus, “I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?” (Jn. 3:12).
Our attitude towards the Bible
Going back to the diagram about the source of Christian faith. When we hear the good news in the Bible about Jesus and the Holy Spirit convicts us of our need to accept it, we can come to trust in what Jesus has done for us.
The Bible teaches that we are separated from God because we have rebelled against Him. And so we deserve to be punished. But God has acted to address this serious situation. He sent Jesus to take our punishment. Jesus’ followers, the apostles, taught people how to get right with God and this is written down in the Bible (1 Cor. 2:10-13). God also sent the Holy Spirit to help us get right with God. He does this in two ways:
– Convicting us of our sinful situation (Jn. 10:8-9), and
– Helping us understand the true meaning of the historical events recorded in the Bible (1 Cor. 2:14-16). For example, Paul preached about the meaning of Genesis history (Acts 17:24-26), Israel’s history and Jesus’ history (Acts 13:16-41).
These are the first steps towards becoming a follower of Jesus. And they are both based on the Bible. If we don’t make this step, it’s like not getting to first base in baseball. If we think the Bible is unreliable, then we stay in our sinful situation. If we don’t trust the Bible, we remain separated from God and face His punishment. So our attitude towards the Bible can be a barrier to belief. We have seen that archaeology can provide some support for the reliability of the Bible. Are we willing to read the Bible with an open mind? And are we willing to reject the views of those who reject the Bible? Are we willing to get right with God?
If we are already following Jesus, is the Bible really our authority? Or do we trust in what we read and hear from the internet, movies, videos and TV? Do we critique these with a biblical worldview? We can use “If …, then …” statements like:
– If the Bible is true, then that is true and good, or
– If the Bible is true, then that is false and rubbish.
Otherwise, it’s like swallowing polluted water without filtering it. We need to keep our biblical glasses and filters on our eyes, ears and minds. And don’t just accept what is preached by the ungodly world.
The answer to the question, “Does archaeology support the Bible?” is yes and no! We have seen that archaeology can support the Bible. But because archaeology relies so much on the worldview of the archaeologist, it can also contradict the Bible. This is because archaeological discoveries can be open to more than one interpretation. And archaeology is limited because its discoveries only relate to very few parts of history. For these reasons, the Bible is more reliable than archaeology. So, let’s test archaeological claims before accepting them, while trusting the Bible and its history because it can lead to salvation.
Appendix A: Radiocarbon dating
Radiocarbon dating uses the fact that an isotope of carbon (14C) is radioactive and decays at a known rate (it has a half-life of 5,730 years, which means that it is undetectable after about 50,000 years). In the carbon cycle, carbon atoms move between the atmosphere, plants and animals and the rest of the environment. If we assume that the 14C/12C ratio is the same across the environment and across the last 50,000 years, then when a plant or animal dies, it will contain carbon with this ratio of isotopes. If it is assumed that 14C decays at a fixed rate after a plant or animal dies, then an elapsed time can be calculated from the difference between the 14C/12C ratio in the sample compared to that in the atmosphere. This also assumes that 14C isn’t added to or removed selectively from the dead plant or animal. The elapsed time gives the “raw” age of the sample. It is claimed that the assumption that 14C/12C in the environment is fixed across all time periods (in the past 50,000 years) is removed by calibration with the international radiocarbon calibration curve (which is used to convert the raw age to a calendar age). This curve is based on the raw ages and calendar ages obtained from trees and corals. The trees are dated by counting the rings and assuming that each ring represent a calendar year (an annual cycle of seasons). The corals are dated by other radioactive dating methods (such as thorium/uranium). So the dates on this curve are inferred and not verified against historical records.
For the following reasons, this radiocarbon dating method is an example of historical science that is based on a secular (unbiblical) worldview (viewpoint):
– Radiocarbon dating is only done for samples which are believed to be younger than 50,000 years (on the secular timescale). If a sample (believed to be older than 50,000 years) is tested and gives an age less than 50,000 years, the result is said to have been influenced by contamination (by more recent carbon).
– If a sample (believed to be less than 50,000 years) is tested and gives an unexpected age, the result is said to have been influenced by contamination (by foreign carbon).
– The tree ring record has been extrapolated well past verified historical records (see below).
– Because the assumed dates of tree rings are determined from their 14C/12C ratio, and these assumed dates are used to determine the international radiocarbon calibration curve, the method of radiocarbon dating uses circular reasoning. It uses radiocarbon dating to calibrate radiocarbon dating!
– Because the assumed dates of corals are determined by radioactive dating, and these assumed dates are used to determine the international radiocarbon calibration curve, the method of radiocarbon dating uses circular reasoning. It uses radioactive dating to calibrate radiocarbon dating!
Historically verifiable dates
As history trumps science when dealing with the past, radiocarbon dates should be verified against historical records. The Bible has historical records back to the creation of the earth. The oldest of these that have been verified independently by archaeology are dated in the 9th century BC:
– Omri king of Israel (880BC) is mentioned on the Moabite Stone (Mesha Monument), which is dated about 850BC.
– Jehu king of Israel is mentioned on the Obelisk of Shalmaneser, which is dated 840BC.
This means that the radiocarbon dating method hasn’t been verified against historical data past 3,000 years ago. Yet the international radiocarbon calibration curve extends to 50,000 years ago! This is an extrapolation of more than an order of magnitude!
Also, the global flood (~ 2,400BC), which buried plant and animal life, would have upset the earth’s environment. What impact did this have on the carbon cycle and the rate of 14C decay? This is unknown, but is likely to have been significant. It throws significant doubt on the international radiocarbon calibration curve which assumes uniformity in the carbon cycle across the last 50,000 years.
So, although the concentrations of carbon isotopes can be measured with great precision, the radiocarbon dating method has many assumptions which result in significant uncertainties. I believe that the uncertainty in the determination of dates 3,500 years ago by the radiocarbon method would be greater than 5%, which is the difference between the historical and carbon dating predictions of the fall of Jericho (see Appendix B). Therefore, there is no significant difference between these historical and radiocarbon dates.
Appendix B: Archaeological assessment of Tel Es-Sultan
There are two views on the date of the major destruction of ancient city of Jericho in the second millennium BC:
– Kathleen Kenyon claims it was about 1550BC.
– Bryant Wood claims it was about 1400BC.
There is evidence that there were two walls around Jericho:
– An outer stone revetment (retaining) wall (about 4.6 m or 15 feet high) upon which there was a mudbrick parapet wall (vertical extension), and
– An inner mudbrick wall which served as Jericho’s city wall proper.
There was a sloping earth embankment (rampart) between the inner and outer walls. A photo and drawing of an excavation on the northern end of the tell shows the revetment wall, the mudbrick parapet wall (a height of 2.4 m or 8 feet had been preserved) and the remains of mudbrick houses on top of the rampart between the inner and outer walls (Watzinger, 1911).
Kenyon based her opinion almost exclusively on the absence of pottery imported from Cyprus and common to the Late Bronze I period (1550-1400 BC). This is a major deficiency in her methodology. As noted above, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. And she paid little attention to the pottery that was excavated, although the primary method of dating should be a thorough analysis of the local (not imported) pottery. The presence or absence of imported pottery can be used as a supporting argument, but it should not be the sole basis for determining a date.
Wood also claims that “Kenyon dug in a poor quarter of the city where they found only humble domestic dwellings. She based her dating on the fact that she failed to find expensive, imported pottery in a small excavation area in an impoverished part of a city located far from major trade routes!”
Wood based his opinion on four lines of evidence: the ceramic data; stratigraphical considerations; scarab evidence, and a radiocarbon date. However, because of the uncertainty associated with radioactive dating, this method is unable to discriminate between the different dates proposed by Kenyon and Wood (see Appendix A). Wood’s major finding were:
– The pottery excavated by Kenyon are from the Late Bronze I period and not the Middle Bronze Age.
– Kenyon’s dating requires the city to go through 20 different architectural phases (with evidence that some of these phases lasted for long periods of time) in approximately 100 years of time!
– The cemetery outside Jericho yielded a continuous series of Egyptian scarabs from the 18th through the early-14th centuries BC (Garstang, 1936) contradicting Kenyon’s claim that the city was abandoned after 1550 BC. Scarabs are small Egyptian amulets shaped like a beetle with an inscription.
Bienkowski wrote an article disputing Wood’s conclusions. But a review of the evidence relevant to the date of the destruction of Jericho by Wood revealed that Bienkowski’s objections do not stand up to critical assessment.
It has been pointed out that scarabs tend to be handed down as heirlooms. But this means that scarabs only set an upper limit for the date and the actual date may be lower than indicated than the scarab. This doesn’t invalidate Wood’s dating, but it makes Kenyon’s dating less likely. However, Woods also states that “It is extremely difficult to correlate the tomb groups with the tell strata”.
For the above reasons, I think that Wood’s dating is more robust than Kenyon’s. The only other probable conclusion is that secular history and archaeology is unable to differentiate between the two dates because of the significant uncertainty in their determination of these dates.
Was this destruction of Jericho at the hands of the Israelites? The correlation between the archaeological evidence and the Biblical narrative is substantial:
– The city was strongly fortified (Josh. 2:5,7,15; 6:5,20).
– The attack occurred just after harvest time in the spring (Josh. 2:6; 3:15; 5:10).
– The inhabitants had no opportunity to flee with their foodstuffs (Josh. 6:1).
– The siege was short (Josh. 6:15).
– The mudbrick walls collapsed, possibly due to an earthquake (Josh. 6:20).
– The city was not plundered as the grain harvested was ignored by the conquering army (Josh. 6:17-18).
– The city was burned (Joshua 6:24).
Anderson C and Edwards B (2014) “Evidence for the Bible”, Day One Publications.
Down D (2010) “The archaeology book”, Master Books.
Lisle J (2013) “The ultimate proof of creation – Presuppositional apologetics”, YouTube.
Wood B (2008) Did the Israelites conquer Jericho? A new look at the archaeological evidence. http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2008/05/Did-the-Israelites-Conquer-Jericho-A-New-Look-at-the-Archaeological-Evidence.aspx#Article
Wood B (2012) “Dating Jericho’s destruction: Bienkowshi is wrong on all counts” http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2012/03/28/Dating-Jerichos-Destruction-Bienkowski-is-Wrong-on-All-Counts.aspx
Written, June 2017
Also see: Archaeology confirms Biblical characters