The first point of this post is that this is not news. It happened about five years ago or so. But it took me a few years after it occurred before I visited the site, and then a few more years before I got the idea to put a photo comparison here.
The Shephelah is full of caves, tunnels, and tombs. One of the nicest rolling stone tombs in the country was in the area of Khirbet Midras. This is how it used to look:
Some years ago, vandals destroyed the majority of the tomb. Most suspect that the vandalism was caused by ultra-Orthodox Jews, who are against the archaeological excavation of tombs. This is how the tomb looks now:
Of course, archaeological sites are being destroyed all the time, but not usually sites that are well-known and extraordinary. Sites are destroyed by 1) building contractors who don’t want the delay that would be caused by an excavation of their property; 2) looters who are looking for artifacts to sell; and 3) vandals. My guess is that the frequency is in the order listed.
Two very early inscriptions were found in excavations in the Shephelah this summer and word leaked about them both this week, in advance of the annual SBL/ASOR meetings in Philadelphia. Since lots of news reports and bloggers have written about them, I am not motivated to say more, though both are more interesting to me than the “Megiddo church,” which was also announced this week.
An inscription found at Gath (Tell es-Safi) has a name that is similar to the foreign name Goliath, known from the Bible as the giant who was defeated by David. Higgaion has the best summary of the story with lots of links and a few photos.
South of Gath is Tell Zayit, for which a biblical identification is yet unknown. A 38-pound stone had the alphabet written on it in the 10th century B.C. (which constitutes one of my favorite words in the English language, an abecedary; see why?). The best run-down of the best and most recent articles is at the Language Log. This is not the earliest abecedary (the Izbet Saratah inscription dates to the 11th century), nor is it the only 10th century inscription from the Shephelah (the Gezer Calendar is also dated to this time, though not on the basis of stratigraphy as the mound was “excavated” by Robert Alexander Stewart Macalister). It is important because of the paucity of inscriptions from this time.
I used to think that I took good photos in Hezekiah’s Tunnel. I remember when most people’s photos didn’t come out and mine did (because of the difficulty of focusing in the dark). That was back in the days when I was mainly shooting students in the tunnel for the early IBEX website. But yesterday I had the chance to shoot some photos of the tunnel without students; ones that should have more general use.
As of a few years ago, this was my best shot (currently on the Hezekiah’s Tunnel page at BiblePlaces.com). It was used a few years ago by NationalGeographic.com when they did an article about the tunnel.
This is one of the shots I took yesterday. I think it’s better.
Curiously enough, some poster on a forum at dpreview.com asked a question a couple of days ago about how to get a good photo in Hezekiah’s Tunnel. Now that I had done some experimenting, I had an answer for him.
I’m being asked for my opinion on the latest archaeological discovery: the “earliest church” found at Megiddo (AP story, Washington Post, photos and more photos). Frankly, I’m not all that excited.
1. It seems like every few years the “earliest church” is discovered (in Jordan). Of course, they mean the earliest church building, and that means a building which is decorated with things which I do not find necessarily helpful nor biblical.
2. Israel has plenty of ancient churches, chapels, and monasteries. They are everywhere, and usually in exactly the wrong place. Many of them have beautiful mosaics, like this one. Thus the only thing that makes this “newsworthy” is the claim that the church is from the 3rd century (before 300 A.D.).
Now that would be remarkable, since Christianity was a persecuted religion until about 310. I suppose I can imagine a group of believers meeting publicly in Israel (far from the Roman center) at this time, but it is harder to imagine them building a lavish structure. Perhaps this will help to re-write history. And if so, that is fine. But I also confess that I am a bit suspicious of the claim, knowing as I do, that this would be a non-story if it were a few decades later. Knowing that the archaeologist can get a lot of attention out of this and quite likely get the site preserved on the basis that this is a unique structure. Perhaps it is, but I see too many other motivations for preferring a lower date if the evidence is ambiguous.
3. Even if it were everything claimed for it, I still wouldn’t be very excited because it’s just a church building. I don’t see how it is going to help me to better understand any of the things I care about, including the Bible and theology. That doesn’t mean it’s not important, just that it’s not important to me.
Today, however, was a good day of excavating in the City of David. There will be more news about the work there in the years to come.
After spending a semester in Israel, many students have a love for the land and a desire to return. Exactly how to do that isn’t always clear. One option that I recommend is to study the “other half” of the land, what is today the country of Jordan. You really don’t understand how integral that “half” is until you spend time learning about it (just as most people don’t understand the value of knowing the geography of Israel before they come). IBEX used to offer a course on Jordan, but it’s been many years since we have. This wouldn’t be ideal for returners anyway, because it was a regular semester course. A better way is a short-term program focused on Jordan.
The Biblical Archaeology Society is now promoting their “Jordan In Depth” tour. You can see the itinerary, and if this is your only option, I don’t doubt that it would be helpful. But it’s certainly not the best, nor is it the best value for your money. You get 8 days touring the land at a cost of $3700 from New York.
A better option is the Jordan program offered by the University of the Holy Land and taught by Dr. Ginger Caessens. This program is about 13 days of touring at a cost of $1575 (without airfare). If you can get airfare for $1100 (from NY), you save $1000 and get 5 extra days. And 2 credits for grad school or college.
I have participated in the UHL Jordan program and it is excellent in every way. The professor has a thorough knowledge of the biblical connections that the BAS program doesn’t have. You can see this just by looking at what the BAS itinerary doesn’t include: the biblical sites of Ramoth Gilead, Jabesh Gilead, Penuel, Mahanaim, Sukkot, Heshbon, Dibon, Ezion Geber area, and many other smaller sites.
To me, these skipped sites are what biblical Jordan is all about. Any tour of Jordan will take you to Petra and Jerash.
P.S. I, of course, get nothing from promoting this. One of the reasons the BAS program is $1000 more for 5 days less is because BAS is taking their cut for promoting the program and I’m advertising the UHL program for free (and without anyone asking). The UHL program also knows how to eliminate multiple layers of middlemen and that cuts the cost significantly.