II. The Background of the Bible
A. Extra-Biblical World Events
Use vertical time lines and chart these dates as horizontal bars with date and event on top of the bars. Insert maps showing the extent of the empires.
ca. 4000-2200/Sumerian and Akkadian empires in Mesopotamia
ca. 3600-3100/Pre-dynastic period in Egypt
ca. 3500/Hieroglyphic writing in Egypt
ca. 3200/Cuneiform writing in Mesopotamia
ca. 3100-2200/Old Kingdom in Egypt
ca. 3000-1100/Minoan-Mycenaean civilization (Aegean islands)
ca. 3000/First villages and cultures in the Americas
ca. 3000-2500/Early civilization in northern India
ca. 2700/Construction of great pyramids in Egypt
ca. 2500/Aryan invasion of India
ca. 2000-800/Cimmerians in Russia
ca. 2000-200/Phoenician confederacy
ca. 2000-A.D. 300/Kingdom of Kush (Nubia) in Africa
1991-1786/Middle Kingdom in Egypt
ca. 1950-1650/Old Babylonian kingdom
ca. 1900-1200/Hittite empire
1786-1570/Hyksos rule in Egypt
ca. 1700/Code of Hammurabi
ca. 1650/Overthrow of Old Babylonia by the Kassites
1570-1087/New Kingdom in Egypt
ca. 1500-900/Early Vedic Age in India
ca. 1500-1027/Shang Dynasty in China
1450-1423/Reign of Amenhotep II of Egypt (pharaoh of the exodus)
1445/Exodus from Egypt
1405-1000/Hebrew conquest and consolidation of Canaan
1301-1234/Reign of Rameses II of Egypt
ca. 1200-500/Chavin civilization in Peru
ca. 1200-300/Olmec civilization in Central America
ca. 1100-800/Dark Ages of Greek history
1043-931/United Kingdom of Israel (Saul, David, Solomon)
1027-256/Chou Dynasty in China
ca. 1000-900/Migration of Germanic tribes into Europe
ca. 1000-A.D. 600/African nation of Axum (Ethiopia)
931-722/Northern kingdom of Israel
931-586/Southern kingdom of Judah
ca. 900-500/Later Vedic Age in India
ca. 800-400/Etruscan culture in Italy
ca. 800-300/Scythians in Russia
ca. 800/Beginning of Greek city-states
ca. 800/Homer (Iliad and Odyssey)
ca. 800 B.C.-A.D. 200/Nok culture in west Africa
ca. 753/Founding of Rome
ca. 750-612/Assyrian empire
ca. 740-693/Ministry of Isaiah
670/Assyrians conquer Egypt
650-500/Age of the Tyrants in Greece
ca. 640-546/Thales of Miletus
612-539/Babylonian (Chaldean) Empire
605-536/Daniel in Babylon
ca. 604-531/Lao-tzu (Lao-tze), founder of Taoism in China
586-/Nebuchadnezzar destroys Jerusalem
550-529/Reign of Cyrus the Great of Persia
539/Persians conquer Babylon
525/Persians conquer Egypt
509/Establishment of Roman republic
ca. 500-100/Orphic and Eleusinian mystery cults in Greece
461-428/Age of Pericles; Athenian democracy
444/Walls of Jerusalem rebuilt under Nehemiah
ca. 432-415/Ministry of Malachi
336-323/Reign of Alexander the Great
321-183/Mauryan Dynasty in India
264-146/Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage
221-171/Ch’in Dynasty in China
185 B.C.-A.D. 78/Greco-Bactrian kingdom in India
171 B.C.-A.D. 220/Han Dynasty in China
ca. 140/Stoic philosophy introduced to Rome 106-43/Cicero
72-4/Herod the Great
ca. 30 B.C.-A.D. 270/Influence of Mithraism in Rome
46-44/Dictatorship of Julius Caesar
37 B.C.-A.D. 100/Flavius Josephus
37-4/Reign of Herod the Great
27 B.C.-A.D. 14/Reign of Augustus Caesar
4 B.C.-A.D. 33/Life of Christ
4 B.C.-A.D. 65/Seneca
A.D. 14-37/Reign of Tiberius
37-41/Reign of Caligula
41-54/Reign of Claudius
54-68/Reign of Nero
69-79/Reign of Vespasian
64/Burning of Rome and first Roman persecution of Christians under Nero
70/Destruction of Jerusalem
78-225/Kushan Dynasty in India
ca. 90-200/Spread of Gnosticism in the Roman Empire
ca. 100-476/Barbarian invasions of Rome
B. Archaeology and the Bible
The Contribution of Biblical Archaeology
Archaeology is the study of ancient relics, artifacts, and monuments of earlier cultures. Archaeologists seek to reconstruct the setting and history of the nations and civilizations of the past. For the student of Scripture, archaeology makes two significant contributions--illumination and confirmation of the biblical text.
Archaeological discoveries illuminate customs, practices, and obscure passages in the Bible. Excavations, inscriptions, monuments, tablets, pottery, and other artifacts illustrate the background of Scripture and make many biblical accounts more understandable.
Confirmation Archaeology cannot prove the validity of the Bible, but it generally supports its historical accuracy. As a result, there is a greater recognition of the reliability of the Bible as a source book. There are still some difficulties which will require more data before they can be resolved, but the direction of incoming evidence continues to offer positive substantiation of the accuracy of Scripture. Nineteenth and early twentieth century “higher” or literary criticism was influenced by the thought of Darwin and Hegel. This led to a skeptical attitude toward biblical reliability. These scholars made little use of archaeological evidence, partly because archaeology was still in its infancy. However, the flood of archaeological discoveries in the last hundred years has refuted many critical claims and changed attitudes toward the historicity of the biblical accounts. Most archaeologists and historians who work with the external evidence have a growing respect for the accuracy of Scripture. There is an abundance of instances where passages which were doubted by literary critics have been confirmed by archaeological finds.
The Content of Biblical Archaeology
Surface archaeology involves picking up pottery sherds and identifying them. Excavation archaeology involves layer-by-layer excavation. Excavations normally require several things: (1) a sponsoring school or other institution, (2) permission from the government of the country in which the excavation is to be made, (3) a reputable archaeologist as the director of the dig, (4) a pottery expert for dating of potsherds and pottery, (5) an architect to reconstruct and describe buildings, (6) a photographer to photograph objects in situ (in the original position), (7) helpers and basket carriers to dig trenches and work out in squares from the trench, (8) the decision of the director of board of antiquities of the country as to what must remain in the country for its museums. Ancient cities were buried through floods, fires, invasions, pestilence, refuse and debris, volcanoes, and earthquakes. They appear as mounds or tells (the word “tell” comes form the Arabic word for “mound” or “hill;” cf. Josh. 11:13). Ancient people kept rebuilding cities on the same spots because of water sources, defense, agriculture, and location near major or minor highways. Chronology is largely based on stratigraphy (the sequence of the layers). By its nature, archaeological evidence is fragmentary. Only a tiny fraction of the writings and artifacts of ancient cultures has survived through the centuries. Most sites have never been surveyed, and few of these have been excavated. In addition, only a small fraction of what has been excavated has been examined, and only a portion of this has been published. In many ways, archaeology is as much an art as it is a science; the data is sometimes highly interpretive, and this can lead to disagreements among scholars.
The Chronology of Biblical Archaeology
Dating and evidence for the earliest periods of human occupation (the Paleolithic, Mesolithic, and Neolithic) is unclear. After this time, the chronological scale usually follows this outline:
Chalcolithic Age (3500-3000)
Early Bronze Age (3000-2000)
Middle Bronze Age (2000-1500)
Late Bronze Age (1500-1200)
Iron Age (1200-586)
Persian Period (586-331)
Hellenistic Period (331-66)
Roman Period (66 B.C.-A.D. 300)
Byzantine Period (300-637)
Chalcolithic Age (3500-3000)
Mesopotamia is the cradle of civilization. The earliest village settlements that have ever been discovered are in the vicinity of Nineveh. Excavations in these settlements show stone tools and weapons, simple buildings, and pottery. Wind instruments were found at Tepe Gawra, one of these early settlements. Later settlements made tools and weapons out of copper as well as stone. This is why this period is called the Chalcolithic (“copper-stone”) Age. Archaeology supports the Genesis portrait of the rapid development of the arts and crafts, agriculture, cattle raising, and the early use of metal. The Sumerian civilization flourished during the Chalcolithic Period and Early Bronze Age.
Early Bronze Age (3000-2000)
About 17,000 clay tablets that date to ca. 2300 B.C. from the site of ancient Ebla mention several of the names that are found in the book of Genesis like ab-ra-mu (Abraham), e-sa-um (Esau), and is-ra-ilu (Israel). While these are not the same people, this discovery supports the historicity of the patriarchal narratives. The Ebla Tablets also include a creation and flood account that has several parallels to Genesis 1-11. A set of law codes has also been found in these tablets. The ancient site of Ur was discovered in 1854. Excavations by several archaeologists including Sir Leonard Woolley revealed that as early as 2700 B.C. (hundreds of years before the time of Abraham), Ur was an an impressive cultural center. The mention of camels in Genesis 12:16 and 37:25 was regarded as an anachronism by critics who claimed that camels were not used in the ancient Near East until many centuries after patriarchal times. A variety of discoveries including texts, figurines, a camel hair rope (ca. 2500 B.C.), and camel bones make it clear that camels were known and domesticated though not widely used during this period. A stele (stone monument) of Ur-Nammu, king of Ur (ca. 2044-2007) describes the construction of a temple tower or ziggurat. A clay tablet states that the gods were offended and destroyed the tower, scattered the builders, and confused their speech. A Sumerian version of the tower of Babel story has also been discovered; like the Genesis account, this story spoke of a universal language that was confounded.
Middle Bronze Age (2000-1500)
The period of 2000 to 1700 B.C. fits the Genesis description of the patriarchal period. Evidence from the Mari Letters, the Nuzi Tablets, and the Alalakh Tablets show that the customs of the early Middle Bronze Age are accurately reflected in the patriarchal narratives. Many of the names found in these texts are similar to those in Genesis (e.g., Laban and Benjamin). These materials support the authenticity of the biblical account and refute the critical view that the patriarchs lived later than the Bible indicates.
Archaeology is challenging earlier ideas about the development of biblical religion. It was commonly held that the religion of the Old Testament evolved from animism and ancestor worship, to fetishism and totemism, to polytheism, to henotheism, to monotheism, to the ethical God of the prophets Amos and Hosea, and finally to the New Testament understanding of God. This view was shaped more by the presuppositions of nineteenth-century philosophy than by external evidence. There is growing evidence that the religion of Israel was an ethical monotheism from its inception. In addition, studies by Albright, Langdon, Zwemer, and others reveal an underlying monotheism behind the polytheism of primitive cultures. Law codes were common during and before the time of Abraham. At Eshnunna, a code of laws of King Bilalama dates to about 1950 B.C. The Lipit-Ishtar code is dated at ca. 1860 B.C., and the codified laws of Hammurabi were written ca. 1700 B.C.
The nineteenth-century excavation of the library of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh by Layard and Rassam included the discovery of a seven-tablet Babylonian creation epic known as Enuma elish. While there are similarities between this epic and the biblical creation account, they are outweighed by the differences. There is no evidence that the two accounts are related; it appears that both go back to a common source, of which the Babylonian epic is a corruption. The Gilgamesh Epic, a Babylonian account of the flood, was also found at the library of Ashurbanipal. This epic was related to an earlier Sumerian flood account; the Sumerian Noah was Ziusudra, and the Babylonian Noah was Utnapishtim. Another Babylonian work called the Atrahasis Epic contains both a creation and a flood account. Again, there are similarities and profound differences between these accounts and the Genesis 6-9 flood narrative.
The Genesis account was not borrowed from any text now known to us, but knowledge of the flood survived. The major difference is between the polytheistic versus monotheistic interpretation of the events. The Genesis 13:10-11 passage about Lot’s choice of the plain of Jordan was held to be erroneous because of the climate and barrenness of the Jordan Valley in the region of the Dead Sea. But excavations at many sites including Khirbet Kerak, Bethshan, and Bab ed-Dra show that in Lot’s time this was a densely populated and evidently desirable area in which to live.
The battle of the four kings from Mesopotamia against the five kings from Palestine in Genesis 14 was previously regarded as unhistorical. Critics claimed that the names of these kings were fictitious, but archaeological inscriptions from this period show that these names were known. Evidence from the Mari Letters and other sources reveals that Mesopotamian kings did in fact exercise control over Palestine in this early period. The power alliances described in Genesis 14 fit the period of 2000-1700 B.C.
The “iniquity of the Amorites” (Gen. 15:16) during this period of time is well illustrated by the evidence of the Canaanites’ child sacrifice and sexual degradation in their cultic worship of the goddesses Astarte and Anath. Literary critics held that the Hittites mentioned in 40 biblical passages did not exist, or were insignificant if they did exist. However, the Hittite capital was discovered at Boghazkoy in Asia Minor. Excavations have shown that the Hittites were an Indo-European group who ruled a significant empire between ca. 1900 and 1200 B.C.
Genesis 19:24-29 records the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. At least since Roman times, the level of the Dead Sea has been slowly rising. There is evidence that the site of these cities is under the shallow waters of the southern area of the Dead Sea. Late in the first century B.C., the Greek geographer Strabo mentioned ground fissures, ruined settlements, scorched rock, and other evidence of destruction in the southern end of the Dead Sea. The “brimstone and fire” may have resulted from a violent explosion of oil, asphalt, sulphur, and possibly natural gas set off by an earthquake.
The mention of the Philistines in the time of the patriarchs (Gen. 21:34; 26) is usually called an anachronism because there are no records of the Philistines in Palestine prior to 1200 B.C. This is an argument from silence, and it is possible that the early peaceful Philistines of Genesis 26 were Minoans who migrated from the Aegean, and that the later warlike Philistines were dominated by the more aggressive Mycenaeans.
The Horites mentioned in the genealogy of Esau (Gen. 36:20) were previously thought to be cave dwellers. Discoveries have shown that they were the Hurrians, an important people of Western Asia who migrated into Mesopotamia and throughout the Fertile Crescent. Hurrian tablets from about 1800 B.C. were found at Mari, and they are also mentioned in the Ras Shamra texts (ca. 1400 B.C.). There is also evidence that the biblical Jebusites and Hivites were part of the Hurrian circle. As the story of the Israelites moves into Egypt in the latter part of Genesis and the early part of Exodus, a number of Egyptian words and other elements are sprinkled through the Hebrew text. These words and details (e.g., the scene in Gen. 41:42-44) attest to the authenticity and historicity of the biblical account.
It was thought that Semitic people could not have been in Egypt in the time that Genesis says the household of Jacob went to Egypt. But tombs at Beni Hasan show that Semites were in Egypt as early as 2000 B.C.
Exodus 1:8 speaks of “a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” A number of scholars believe this relates to the expulsion of the Semitic Hyksos rulers who dominated Egypt around 1786-1570 B.C. The “new king” who enslaved the Israelites may have been the Seventeenth Dynasty ruler Ahmose. Those who favor an early date of 1445 B.C. for the exodus contend that Eighteenth Dynasty Egypt fits well against the details of Exodus 1-15. Moses may have been adopted by Hatshepsut (reigned 1504-1483), daughter of Thutmose I. Thutmose III (reigned 1483-1450) may have been the pharaoh of the oppression, and Amenhotep II (reigned 1450-1423) may have been the pharaoh of the exodus. Amenhotep had no military campaigns in the last part of his reign (if he was the pharaoh of the exodus, his military power would have been severely weakened due to losses in the Red Sea). There is evidence that Amenhotep’s successor, Thutmose IV (reigned 1423-1412), was not his firstborn son (as the pharaoh of the exodus, his firstborn son would have perished in the tenth plague). It has been claimed that the use of straw in making bricks (Exod. 5:7,13) was unnecessary because of the cohesiveness of the Nile mud. But Papyrus Anastasi III indicates that straw was a key ingredient in brickmaking. In addition, straw has been found in many Egyptian mud bricks. Late Bronze Age (1500-1200)
The ten plagues in Exodus 7-12 discredited the gods and godesses of Egypt and demonstrated that Yahweh is the true and living God. They increased in intensity and severity, culminating in human death, including Pharaoh’s own firstborn. Significantly, the plagues related directly to a number of the Egyptian deities, including the frog goddess Hekt and the sun gods Re and Aton. While it has been claimed that the Passover was merely an agricultural feast adapted from the Canaanites, the Canaanite mythological texts in the Ras Shamra tablets reveal the wide gulf between the feasts of Israel and the paganism of the Canaanite festivals.
As noted above, written law codes existed before the time of Moses and even before the time of Abraham. The civil legislation in these Sumerian, Babylonian, Assyrian, and Hittite codes is sophisticated enough to refute the claim that the laws of the Pentateuch must have been written later than the time of Moses. While there are similarities between the civil laws of Moses and those of the Code of Hammurabi (ca. 1700 B.C.), the differences in the moral and religious injunctions are profound enough to show that the Law of Moses is not an adaptation of the Babylonian code. The abundance of early written material discredits the older view that the Hebrews could not have written during the time of Moses. Pictographic writing dates back to ca. 3300 B.C., and cuneiform ideographic writing began ca. 3000 B.C. Akkadian syllabic writing appeared ca. 2100 B.C., and alphabetic writing (Proto-Sinaitic, Ugaritic, and Phoenician) arose ca. 1800 B.C. According to the documentary hypothesis, the Levitical laws were the work of the priestly school around the time of Israel’s second temple (ca. 500 B.C.). According to this view, the sacrificial and feast system in these laws reflected developments later than the time of Moses. But the Ras Shamra tablets (ca. 1400 B.C.) contain legislation and forms of worship that are similar to those in Leviticus. Studies have shown that the Book of the Covenant (Exod. 20-31) as well as the book of Deuteronomy have striking parallels with the form used in Hittite treaties around 1400 B.C. between a sovereign and his vassal. This includes a preamble, historical prologue, stipulations, provision for deposit and periodic public reading, the calling of witnesses, and cursings and blessings formulae. Significantly, the Sinai covenant fits the second-millennium covenant form but not the later first-millennium covenant form. This argues against the documentary hypothesis that the documents of the Pentateuch were not written until the sixth to ninth centuries B.C. Evidence supporting Joshua’s military campaign has been found in excavations of the ancient cities of Hazor, Debir, and Shechem. At the present time, however, only a small amount of Late Bronze Age materials have been found in the sites of Jericho, Gibeon, and Ai.
Iron Age (1200-586)
The biblical account indicates that the Philistines reached the peak of their power in the early eleventh century before the Saul became Israel’s first king, and this harmonizes with the archaeological evidence. The Philistines for a time maintained a military advantage by developing and monopolizing the technology for making iron implements (1 Sam. 13:19-22).
The common critical view is that the establishment of the temple musicians did not occur until the post-exilic period with the building of the second temple. However, external evidence reveals that it is unnecessary to deny the internal biblical evidence that David instituted the temple musicians. Musical guilds were known in Syria and Palestine centuries before the time of David, and a relief from Beni-Hasan in Egypt depicts Semitic craftsmen carrying musical instruments into Egypt ca. 1850 B.C. Egyptian records from the sixteenth to the eleventh centuries B.C. repeatedly refer to Canaanite musicians and instruments.
Ugaritic texts from Ras Shamra illustrate clear parallels to the poetic patterns and verbal style of the Hebrew poetry contained in the Psalms and Proverbs. According to 2 Samuel 8:3-6 (cf. 1 Chron. 18:3-6), the Davidic empire extended north to Syria and included the area of Zobah. Some scholars have minimized the extent of David’s empire by claiming that Zobah was in Palestine, but archaeological discoveries confirm that Zobah was north of Damascus in Syria. The great extent of the Solomonic empire (cf. 1 Kings 4:21; 2 Chron. 9:26) is consistent with the external evidence that the period of 1100-900 B.C. was a time of political decline for Egypt and Assyria.
Studies of hundreds of primary sources have confirmed the names of over 40 foreign kings mentioned in Scripture.
Solomon’s port city of Ezion-geber could not be found until Nelson Glueck decided to pay attention to the biblical text that described its location; he discovered it exactly where the Bible said it was located.
The period of the divided kingdom began in 931 B.C. when the ten northern tribes of Israel split apart from the tribes of Judah and Benjamin. Archaeological discoveries have solved what appeared to be discrepancies in the chronology of the kings of Israel and Judah.
Excavations at Samaria have uncovered many pieces of ivory from the level dating to the ninth century B.C. These may have been from Ahab’s “ivory house” (1 Kings 22:39) which was built at that time.
The Moabite Stone written by Mesha, king of Moab in the ninth century B.C., reveals that Omri, the sixth king of Israel, conquered Moab. This stele agrees with the statement in 2 Kings 3:4-5 that Mesha rebelled against Israel after the death of Ahab.
Kings Omri and Ahab of Israel are mentioned in the texts of the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III. Shalmaneser’s Black Obelisk shows King Jehu of Israel (or his emissary) prostrate and paying tribute before him.
The KJV rendering of 1 Chronicles 5:26 led some scholars to think that Pul and Tiglath-Pileser III were two different kings of Assyria. However, two clay tablets describe events during this time in Assyria’s history, one using the name Pul (a Babylonian name [Pulu]), and the other using the name Tiglath-Pileser (an Assyrian name) for the same king. The NKJV correctly translates the passage in this way: “So the God of Israel stirred up the spirit of Pul king of Assyria, that is, Tiglath-Pileser king of Assyria.”
According to 2 Kings 15:19-20, Menahem (the sixteenth king of Israel) gave tribute to Pul when the Assyrian king came against Israel. The annals of Tiglath-Pileser specifically mention Menaham and the tribute he paid. Sennacherib, king of Assyria (704-681 B.C.), made Nineveh his capital and greatly fortified it with massive walls and moats. The palace of Sennacherib and the library of Ashurbanipal (containing about 22,000 tablets) were excavated in the middle of the nineteenth century. Jonah 3:3 says that “Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, a three-day journey in extent.” Nineveh had a very large suburban area which had a perimeter of about 60 miles. This area includes the palace of Sargon at Khorsabad, about 12 miles north of Nineveh.
The Taylor Prism records the Assyrian king Sennacherib’s 701 B.C. siege against Jerusalem during the reign of Hezekiah (2 Kings 18; 2 Chron. 32; Isa. 36-37). Second Kings 20:20 says that Hezekiah “made a pool and a tunnel and brought water into the city” of Jerusalem (see 2 Chron. 32:30). This 1,777 foot tunnel, cut out of solid rock, is a water conduit from the Gihon spring to the Pool of Siloam inside the city walls. A Hebrew inscription, describing how the workmen working from opposite sides met in the middle of the tunnel, was discovered near the Siloam end. The Lachish Letters consist of 21 ostraca (inscribed potsherds), most written in 589 B.C., two years before Nebbuchadnezzar destroyed the city of Lachish during his final invasion of Judah. These letters confirm the statement in Jeremiah 34:6-7 that among the cities of Judah, only the strongholds of Lachish and Azekah had not yet fallen.
Persian Period (586-331)
About 300 tablets dating from 597-570 B.C. were found in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. One of these tablets refered to the monthly ration which was being given to Jehoiachin and his five sons (cf. 2 Kings 25:27-30; Jer. 52:31-34). Many scholars believed that the mention of Belshazzar as king of Babylon in Daniel 5 was in error since no such king was known. However, three stelae were found in 1956 at Haran which say that Nabonidus had entrusted kingship to his son Belshazzar while he went on a campaign against the invading Persians. This coregency explains why Belshazzar proclaimed that Daniel “should be the third ruler in the kingdom” (Dan. 5:29).
The Cyrus Cylinder announces the liberation of the city of Babylon by the Persian king Cyrus the Great. This royal proclamation of restoring the gods to their native cities is consistent with the edict of Cyrus in 2 Chronicles 36:22-23 and Ezra 1:1-4 which allowed the Jewish exiles to return to Palestine and rebuild their temple. The Elephantine Papyri are a set of letters written ca. 500-400 B.C. in Aramaic by a colony of Jews on the island of Elephantine in Egypt, almost 600 miles south of Cairo. They support the authenticity of the Aramaic letters recorded in Ezra 4, and shed light on the period described in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. The detailed prediction of the destruction of Tyre in Ezekiel 26:1-14 was fulfilled to the letter by the 13-year siege against the mainland city by Nebuchadnezzar in 585- 573 B.C., and later by the seven-month siege against the island city by Alexander in 333 B.C. Ezekiel predicted that the walls of Tyre would be destroyed, the dust would be scraped from it so that it would be like the top of a rock, the stones and timber would be cast into the water, the city would be used as a place for spreading nets, and it would never be rebuilt. Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the walls, and Alexander scraped the rubble of the mainland city and threw it into the water in the process of building a land bridge to the island city.
Hellenistic Period (331-66)
The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) beginning in 1947 greatly aided our understanding of the transmission and reliability of the Hebrew text of the Old Testament. Over 500 manuscripts dating from 250 B.C. to A.D. 70 were recovered from the caves in the area of Qumran, and about 175 of these are manuscripts of the Old Testament. Before this time, the earliest Old Testament manuscripts were from the ninth century A.D. The DSS antedate the medieval Masoretic Text (named after Jewish scribes called the Masoretes) by 1,000 years, and comparisons reveal the remarkable accuracy of the Masoretic Text. The DSS also include a number of nonbiblical works which give details about the practices of the Qumran Sect which was probably an Essene community.
Roman Period (66 B.C.-A.D. 300)
Both Old and New Testament literary criticism were originally developed before archaeology came into its own. The theories developed by the Tubingen School, the Religionsgeschichtliche (“history of religions”) School, redaction criticism, and form criticism discount or minimize the historicity of the New Testament. On the other hand, historians who examine the New Testament documents in the light of the external evidence provided by archaeology as well as classical texts are more inclined to affirm the historical accuracy of the New Testament. Luke 2:2 speaks of a census that “took place while Quirinius was governing Syria.” Quirinius was governor of Syria in A.D. 6-7, and the Jewish historian Josephus writes that a census was taken under him in A.D. 6. The problem is that the records do not indicate that he was governor in the time before Herod’s death in 4 B.C. However, recently discovered inscriptions show that Quirinius governed the Roman Orient like a vice-emperor during most of the years between 12 B.C. to A.D. 16. The reference to Lysanias as the “tetrarch of Abilene” in Luke 3:1 was thought to be inaccurate because no such ruler was known in that time. Two Greek inscriptions from Abila near Damascus verified Luke’s statement because they refer to “Lysanias the tetrarch” who ruled in A.D. 14-29. The ancient sites of Capernaum and Chorazin near the Sea of Galilee have been positively identified. Evidence of the Capernaum synagogue of Jesus’ day has been found, and a recent excavation has uncovered the remains of a first-century fisherman’s home which may have belonged to Peter. Many parallels have been found between the non-biblical Qumran texts and the Gospel of John. These parallels (e.g., “sons of light”) show that the background of John is Palestinian, not Hellenistic as many had thought. Thus, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls supports a first-century date for this gospel. The site of Jacob’s Well where Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman in John 4 has long been known. She said that “the well is deep” (John 4:11), and measurements show that it is about 100 feet in depth. According to John 5:1-9, the Pool of Bethesda had five porches and was sufficiently large to accomodate “a great multitude.” The location of this pool was unknown until 1888 when a flight of steps leading down to the twin pools was uncovered. The pools are quite large and originally had five porticoes. Excavations of the first-century level of Jericho reveal that this was a prosperous city in New Testament times. Its palatial civic center and villas show that as a “chief tax collector” in Jericho (Luke 19:2), Zacchaeus must have been quite wealthy. Luke’s geographical and political terminology in the book of Acts was once extensively criticized. However, monument inscriptions and papyri texts found in Asia Minor consistently vindicate Luke’s precision as a historian. Paul’s use of titles like procurator, praetor, Asiarch, proconsul, and politarch reveals an accurate firsthand knowledge of the people, places, and events he describes. Writing to the Romans from the city of Corinth, Paul mentioned “Erastus, the treasurer of the city” (Rom. 16:23; cf. Acts 19:22). An inscription was found near the theater in Corinth which mentions Erastus as the aedile, or commissioner of public works. It is likely that this was the same person. A cave was found in Bethany that was used for burials in New Testament times. Some of the names included Mary, Martha, and Eleazar (the Greek spelling of Lazarus). It is possible that these are the Mary, Martha, and Lazarus of John 11. First-century ossuaries (limestone boxes for the redeposit of the bones of the dead) from the Mount of Olives also list several of the names that appear in the New Testament.
The remains of the Antonia Fortress were uncovered by excavations in Jerusalem. Games carved out by Roman soldiers were found on the flagstones in the courtyard. Since “The Pavement” (Lithostroton; John 19:13) was the site of the trial of Jesus before Pilate, one of these may have been used in the mocking of Jesus. The use of the word “bishop” in the Pastoral Epistles was regarded by critics as an evidence that they were written in the second, not the first century. But it was discovered that the Qumran community had such an “overseer,” and this provides evidence for the office of bishop in the first century.
C. Cultural Phenomena
In Genesis 15:2, Abraham assumed that since he had no children, his chief servant, Eliezer of Damascus, would be his heir. The Nuzi Tablets, which reflect the Mesopotamian customs in the period of ca. 2000-1500 B.C., show that it was not uncommon for a childless couple to adopt a slave. He would care for his foster parents and become their heir. But if the parents later had a son, the real son would be the chief heir (cf. Gen. 15:4). The marital customs in the Nuzi Tablets illuminate Sarah’s decision to give her handmaid Hagar to Abraham as her substitute (Gen. 16:2-3; Rachel and Leah did the same in Gen. 30:3,9). The custom at that time was that a barren wife would provide a slave for her husband to bear children. A son born in this way was not to be expelled, and this clarifies Abraham’s reluctance to comply with Sarah’s demand in Genesis 21:9-11.
Genesis 19:1 states that “Lot was sitting in the gate of Sodom.” Gates of Pelestinian cities often had stone benches that would be used by the people as they engaged in business and legal transactions (see Ruth 4:1-2). The city gate was also a place of public proclamation (2 Sam. 18:24,33). There is a precedent in the Nuzi Tablets for Esau’s sale of his birthright to Jacob (Gen. 25:33-34). Tablet N204 records the sale of inheritance rights by a man named Tupktilla to his brother Kurpazah for three sheep. Nuzi tablet P56 illuminates the importance of the oral blessing in the ancient Near East. This tablet shows that in patriarchal times, an oral blessing was legally binding. Once it was bestowed, it could not be revoked. This explains why Isaac could not change his blessing after he discovered he had been deceived (see Gen. 27:33-41). Before she fled with her husband Jacob, Rachel stole her father Laban’s household idols (teraphim) and hid them in her camel’s saddle (Gen. 31:19,34). Nuzi tablet G51 reveals that the teraphim signified rule over the family and title to the family’s property. Thus, Laban was anxious to recover them for his own sons (Gen. 31:1,30). Archaeological finds provide a background for the story of Joseph in Potiphar’s house. Egyptian papyrus documents show that the Canaanites were highly desirable as slaves in Egypt. Egyptian monuments refer to the overseer (merper) of large houses, a position which Joseph held. In addition, excavations at Tell el Amarna in central Egypt explain why Potiphar’s wife would speak to Joseph each day. In the floor plans of large houses, the storerooms in the back could only be reached by going through the inner chambers of the house. In Genesis 38:8, Judah told his son Onan to marry Tamar, his brother’s widow. The Mosaic Law provided for levirate marriage (Deut. 25:5-10; cf. Matt. 22:23-33), and this has a precedent in the Nuzi Tablets which record a father’s will that if his son dies, the widow should marry another of his sons. The bodies of Jacob and Joseph were mummified in Egypt (Gen. 50:2-3,26). Mummification was practiced in Egypt by 2500 B.C. and was generally reserved for royalty, high officials, and the wealthy. First the organs were removed (except for the heart and kidneys) and placed in stone canopic jars. Then the body was dehydrated from 40 to 70 days with natron, a form of sodium carbonate. Next, the chest and abdominal cavities were stuffed with resin-soaked linen, and the body was treated with ointments, wrapped in linen, and placed in a painted wooden coffin.
Formal education was a social privilege, and Moses “was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians” (Acts 7:22). In addition to reading and writing, he probably learned mathematics and music. Most education in Israel took place in the home as the parents taught their children spiritual and moral principles (Deut. 6:6-9; cf. Prov. 1:8-9; 4:1-13) as well as practical skills. When synagogue worship was developed after the Babylonian exile, male children attended synagogue schools where they learned the Bible and the Talmud (the Jewish traditions and commentaries on the Law). Jesus probably studied at the synagogue school in Nazareth. Saul of Tarsus had the privilege of studying under the great Pharisaical rabbi Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). Houses in Palestine were often made of sun-dried mud bricks (“houses of clay,” Job 4:19) with roofs of thatch and clay. Because of this, grass could grow on the roof (“Let them be as the grass on the housetops,” Ps. 129:6). A hole could be made in the roof and later repaired, as in the case of the paralytic who was lowered through the roof (Mark 2:4; Luke 5:19). According to Deuteronomy 22:8, low walls were to be built on the rooftops to prevent people from falling off. Roofs were used for several purposes, including sleeping, storage, and prayer. Ruth 4:7 refers to the custom of removing a sandal and giving it to another as a way of confirming an agreement to redeem property. The Nuzi Tablets also speak of the transfer of shoes as a token denoting property transaction. Sheep were abundant in Palestine, and shepherding was a common occupation. In farming households, the youngest boy would often take care of the sheep (1 Sam. 16:11). The shepherd carried a rod to protect the sheep from wild animals and a staff to handle and guide the sheep (Ps. 23:4). He had to lead his flock to new pastures when the food supply was exhausted (1 Chron. 4:39), and he brought them to streams or quiet pools for water (Ps. 23:2). When these were unavailable, he would water them by drawing from a well (Gen. 29:7-10). Sometimes flocks would be mixed while being watered, but when it was time to go, they were easily separated by each shepherd’s call. They recognized their shepherd’s tone of voice and would not respond to the call of a stranger (see John 10:4-5). The shepherd knew each sheep and would name many or all of them according to their characteristics (John 10:3,14). He knew the state of his flock (Prov. 27:23) and could sense the absence of even one sheep. The shepherd found and restored any that strayed (see Ps. 119:176; Isa. 53:6), carrying them back to the fold on his shoulders (Luke 15:5). An Oriental shepherd did not drive his sheep but led them, often by going before them (Ps. 23:3; John 10:4). He would stay close to the mothers who were with young and carry small lambs that could not keep up with the rest of the flock (see Isa. 40:11). He anointed the heads of the sick and scratched sheep (Ps. 23:5), and watched over his flock by night (Luke 2:8), defending them against thieves (John 10:10) and wild animals. In biblical times these included not only wolves, hyenas, jackels, and panthers, but also lions and bears (cf. 1 Sam. 17:34-37). The custom in the East has always been for the parents to select a bride for their son. Because of this, love normally followed marriage (Gen. 24:67), though there were exceptions (Gen. 29:10-18; Judg. 14:2). Once the bride was chosen, a deputy (“the friend of the bridegroom,” John 3:29) would negotiate the dowry to be paid for the woman (Gen. 29:18; 1 Sam. 18:25). The woman’s ten silver coins in the parable of the lost coin (Luke 15:8-9) was probably part of her marriage dowry. A bethrothal was a spoken covenant before witnesses, and normally a year would elapse between the bethrothal and the wedding. It was during this period between the bethrothal and the actual marriage that Mary was “found with child of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 1:18). For the wedding, the groom dressed like royalty (Isa. 61:10) and the bride elaborately adorned herself (Jer. 2:32; cf. Rev. 21:2). The bridegroom usually went to receive his bride at her parent’s house and brought her to his house in a joyful wedding procession, often with music and dancing (Jer. 7:34), in which the invited guests would carry torches or lamps (cf. the parable of the ten virgins in Matt. 25:1- 13). After the arrival at the bridegroom’s house, the couple were brought to a canopy where a benediction would be pronounced upon them. A “master of the feast” (John 2:8-9) would preside over the marriage feast, and the guests were required to wear wedding garments (Matt. 22:12). The bride was then brought to a prepared room and the husband was escorted to her by his friends. The festivities sometimes lasted a week (Judg. 14:17).
Women would carry clay pots on their shoulders (Gen. 24:15) or heads and draw from a common well or spring in the early morning or late afternoon. The Samaritan woman in John 4 went alone to draw water in the heat of the day because she was a social outcast. Since carrying a pitcher of water was almost always done by women, it would be easy to spot a man carrying water, as Jesus instructed His disciples to do (Mark 14:13).
It was customary for guests to be urged to accept an invitation to an Oriental feast (the guests in Luke 14:23 were compelled to come; cf. Acts 16:15). Those who were excluded from the brilliantly lit banquet room were thought to be cast into the “outer darkness” of the night (Matt. 8:12; cf. 25:30).
Bread has always been the principal food of the Orient, and because of this, the people have a reverence for this sustainer of life. When Jesus said “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35), He was offering Himself as the source of spiritual sustenance. The custom was not to cut bread with a knife, but to break it with the hands. “Jesus took bread, blessed it and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, ‘Take, eat; this is My body’” (Matt. 26:26).
Wine was made from grapes that were gathered in September and pressed by foot in winepresses that were cut out of rock (Isa. 5:2). The grapes were treaded on a shallow upper level and the juice flowed to a deeper lower level. The wine was then placed in jars or new skins for further fermentation. The treading of grapes was a joyous occasion (Jer. 48:33), but it is also used in Scripture to portray divine judgment (Isa. 63:2-6; Rev. 19:15). Jesus used wine to speak of His life’s blood which sealed the new covenant and redeemed His people (Matt. 26:27-29; 1 Pet. 1:18-19). When a guest entered a home, he and the host would bow and exchange a greeting of peace. They would also kiss one another on their right and left cheeks (Jesus told Simon the Pharisee, “You gave me no kiss,” Luke 7:45). Following this, a servant would bring water and wash the guest’s feet. Since the disciples would not assume this humbling role, Jesus became a servant to His disciples by washing their feet after the last supper (John 13:4-5; cf. Luke 7:44). It was also customary to anoint the guest with olive oil (see Luke 7:46; sometimes the oil was mixed with spices). In New Testament times, the Roman custom of reclining on three couches which formed three sides of a square (a triclinium) was often followed. With the weight of the upper body on the left arm, a guest would lean back upon the breast of another if he wanted to speak to him privately as John did with Jesus (see John 13:23-25; cf. Luke 16:22). The highest place of honor was on the right of the host, and the second highest was on his left (see Mark 10:35-37). Torn off pieces of bread served as a spoon for eating sauces out of a common bowl. The “sop” was a morsel of food which was dipped into the bowl and given by the host to a guest as a sign of friendship (see John 13:25-26).
Related Topics: Bibliology (The Written Word)