Two New Inscriptions in Israel

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.

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New photos of Hezekiah’s Tunnel

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.

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Ancient Church Found at Megiddo

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. 

Here’s why.

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.

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Don’t Come Back to Israel (Go to Jordan)

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.

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The Temple Mount You’ve Never Seen

If you’ve only been to Israel in the last five years, then you never had a chance to visit inside the Muslim buildings on the Temple Mount. In fact, chances are good you weren’t even allowed on the Temple Mount at all. If you visited before the outbreak of violence in 2000, you likely visited these but probably were not able to enter “Solomon’s Stables” below Al Aqsa Mosque. Now there’s a recent video showing all of that.

When I first saw the link, I ignored it because it didn’t seem that it would have anything of interest to me. Certainly no one has been able to take a videocamera through all of the off-limits areas in recent times. I was wrong. And the 4-minute video is worth watching if you have any interest in seeing the interior of the Dome of the Rock, the Al Aqsa Mosque and Solomon’s Stables. The clip could benefit with an audio commentary explaining what you’re seeing (including some remains of Herodian architecture!), but most of it is easy to understand.

Watch it at ynetnews.com.

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Barkay and others lecture in Los Angeles

I’ve known about this series for sometime because I originally had scheduled Gabriel Barkay for a trip for my class, but that had to be changed because of his LA engagement. In any case, full details of Excavating in Jerusalem and the Mountains Around Her: What the New Excavations Teach Us About the City, the Bible, the People and the Temple are now available from the University of Judaism. There are 7 lectures, with an entrance cost of $25 each. A few years ago I attended some of these lectures and I believe there was a student price at that time. The top three that I would attend if I could:

Gabriel Barkay: What Does Recent Excavation Reveal About the Temple Mount Past and Present?

Beth Alpert Nakhai: An Archaeological View of Biblical Women and Their Families

Thomas Levy: King Solomon’s Mines Revisited: Archaeological Explorations in Edom and What They Mean for Understanding Biblical History

$25 is not cheap, esp. for students, but these are the scholars who have made (or are making) the discoveries. And LA is a shorter drive than Israel.

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Siloam Channel: Before and After

Here’s a lesser known aspect of the Pool of Siloam excavations. Most people know that the pool is fed by Hezekiah’s Tunnel, but they may not be aware of a second channel (known as Channel #2, or the Siloam Channel/Tunnel) which connects the Gihon Spring and the Pool of Siloam but on the east side of the City of David. This channel runs on the western slope above the Kidron Valley and it was once believed that it watered the King’s Gardens in the valley via a series of square openings.

One of those openings is on the southern end of the City of David. Here’s a photo taken in September 2002.


You can see that the opening looks square and the channel looks full of trash. Also note the street pavement and the crack in the bedrock in the upper left.

Eli Shukron’s recent excavations of the Pool of Siloam has included work on this channel, and our students have had some involvement in that (no glory here: more like cleaning out a sewer). But you can see the difference once the pavement has been removed and the channel cleared. Stephen’s head (on the left) is at about pavement level.

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Poofy White Clouds

Today was a glorious day. Fortunately I was in town early for a lecture and had some free time before the church service, and I took advantage of it. I confess that of late I have become something of a poofy white cloud fanatic. So often the sky in Israel is flat blue and when you get poofy white clouds, the effect is dramatic. Here’s Jerusalem from the Mt. of Olives:


I could dig up a picture without the clouds, but it’s late and I’m tired, so just imagine :-).

And here’s Bethlehem this morning (from the north). This could be my favorite Bethlehem picture. I had to wait a while for the clouds to move so the city was in the sunlight. What I probably like most about the picture is that Bethlehem is hard to see :-). The countryside grabs more of your attention, which is how it all used to be. Now the modern city is so un-photogenic that you really can’t get anything interesting inside it.

My only regret on the day is that I wasn’t on the Mount of Olives for the beautiful sunset. Instead I watched it in my rearview mirror as I drove back into town for an evening lecture.

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City of David, Then and Now

I decided that blog format with its narrow width didn’t quite suit tonight’s post, so I’ve put it on a separate page. Today after dropping our three oldest off at VBS, I headed to the City of David with a handful of old photographs that I had printed off. My goal was to get the “now” version. For the most part, it was not successful. That doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it greatly, but it means that things have changed so much that many times I couldn’t even get to the same location where the photograph was taken (or figure out exactly where it was). But I had success in a couple of places, and one of them I have posted, with downloadable high-res versions so you can flip back and forth between them. Take a look.

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Did Worship of Yahweh Leave Archaeological Evidence?

I have two books on my desk right now, and both make the same annoying point. One is Finkelstein’s The Bible Unearthed, and the other is Dever’s Did God Have a Wife. A major premise of the latter and a point made in the former is that according to archaeology, worship of Yahweh only developed in the late period – time of Hezekiah or Josiah. Here’s Finkelstein:

“Yet archaeology suggests quite a different situation—one in which the golden age of tribal and Davidic fidelity to YHWH was a late religious ideal, not a historical reality. Instead of a restoration, the evidence suggests that a centralized monarchy and national religion focused in Jerusalem took centuries to develop and was new in Hezekiah’s day. The idolatry of the people of Judah was not a departure from their earlier monotheism. It was, instead, the way the people of Judah had worshiped for hundreds of years” (Finkelstein and Silberman 2001: 234).

One can hold to this view, but please don’t pretend that it is based on archaeological grounds. These authors seem to miss the most obvious point: worship of Yahweh as commanded in the Bible didn’t leave archaeological evidence. The exception would be the temple, and nothing of that exists thanks to the Babylonians, Zerubbabel, Herod, the Romans, and the Muslims. These authors argue that because they have found Asherah figurines, bull statuettes, high places, and inscriptions related to non-Yahwistic worship, and because they haven’t found the same for “Biblical religion,” then therefore the latter didn’t exist. They date it to the late kings because that’s when they date the text.

Still no archaeological evidence, mind you.

Another common error in these works is reflected in Finkelstein’s comment immediately before:

“The biblical picture of Judah’s history is therefore unambiguous in its belief that the kingdom had once been exceptionally holy but had sometimes abandoned the faith” (ibid.).

Why do some liberals insist on this mischaracterization? It is patently false. The biblical record is that the Israelites consistently failed to follow the Lord. The exceptions were those who did. That doesn’t make biblical faith less true, real, or required. It does tell us that archaeology should expect to find significant remains of non-biblical religion. When it does, archaeologists act surprised and say, “Aha, I told you the Bible wasn’t telling you the truth.” In fact it is, but like the ancients, moderns refuse to listen.

I’ve only skimmed Dever’s work at this point, but Finkelstein’s is full of similar errors, inconsistencies, and gaps of logic. It’s also one of the best-selling books on “biblical archaeology” in the last decade.

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