As Bible researchers, we patiently try to discover old artefacts and decipher old documents.
Archaeology takes years, decades, and even half centuries. The painstaking work of digging and sifting is followed by longer stretches of waiting, analysing, and interpreting. But the past 12 months have seen regular announcements of developments and discoveries — some expected but some quite surprising — that deepen and broaden our understanding of the world of the Bible.
Soil samples from excavations at King Herod his Jericho palace, taken almost a half century ago, were recently analysed, and the pollen particles revealed sophisticated horticulture.
Many of the tree species found, would not typically have grown in the desert around Jericho, and are making the garden a demonstration of Herod’s greatness, a horticultural feat to impress guests and subjects.
Herod was also known in his time for the dramatic locations of his palaces and fortresses, and this Roman-style construction, a public building for community activities, was no exception. Archaeologists in Ashkelon, Israel, have revealed the country’s largest Roman-era basilica, or public building.
While conducting renovations at Tel Ashkelon National Park, a 2,000-year-old basilica was unearthed. It was made with materials imported from Asia Minor. The edifice measured roughly 360 feet long and 130 feet wide, with a colonnade, or row of columns, standing some 40 feet tall. Like other pre-Christian basilicas in the Greco-Roman world, it served as a civic rather than religious centre and consisted of three parts: a central space and two side halls.
In 2021 an intricately carved sandstone slab that appears to have been installed by the pharaoh Apries 2,600 years ago, was discovered on a farmer’s land, in northeastern Egypt when he was preparing his land for crop planting.
The stele contains 15 lines of hieroglyphics, so far untranslated. Mostafa Waziry, secretary general of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, described it as a border stele which “the king erected during his military campaigns towards the east.” This raises the intriguing possibility that it might describe Hophra’s campaign to support Zedekiah.
Lost golden city of Luxor: the city of Akhetaten
Archaeologists announced the discovery of a previously unknown city on the west bank of the Nile near Luxor. Believed to be one of the largest Egyptian cities ever unearthed, it dates to the reign of Pharaoh Amenhotep III. This pharaoh was the grandfather of Tutankhamun but, more importantly perhaps, the grandson of Amenhotep II, believed by many evangelical scholars to be the pharaoh of the Exodus.
The pharaoh Akhenaten built the short-lived city of Akhetaten, where he ruled alongside his wife, Nefertiti and worshipped the sun. After his death, his young son Tutankhamun became ruler of Egypt—and turned his back on his father’s controversial legacy.
The city appears to have been suddenly abandoned. The inhabitants may have been driven out of their homes when Amenhotep IV, better known as Akhenaten, rounded up workers to build him a completely new capital city in central Egypt. What remains today may reveal many details of daily life in Egypt around the time of Moses.
Findings in the Cave of Horror
In March several groundbreaking discoveries were made, including dozens of biblical scroll fragments that represent the first newly uncovered Dead Sea Scrolls in more than half a century. They offer some exciting findings about how the earliest biblical texts were translated and adapted in ways like our own.
Unlike most of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were written in Hebrew and Aramaic, the fragments from the Cave of Horror contain Greek letters. Scholars determined they came from a Greek translation of the Book of the Twelve in Hebrew, what many Christians call the Minor Prophets.
Next to dozens of scraps of biblical texts, in the hard-to-reach caves overlooking the Dead Sea were found arrowheads, coins, combs, and the mummified remains of a young girl. For archaeologists, the most amazing discovery was a 10,500-year-old basket.
The modern city of Yavne, located between Tel Aviv and Ashdod, has been a prolific site for archaeological discoveries in 2021. The city is growing quickly, and as a large tract of land is prepared for new housing construction, archaeologists are uncovering amazing artifacts.
About 1,500 years ago, Yavne was an industrial centre for wine production, producing approximately a half-million gallons of wine per year. Archaeologists uncovered five huge winepress production areas, each over half the size of a basketball court, along with four huge warehouses and kilns for firing wine storage jars. They also found an older winepresses from the Persian period, dated to around 300 B.C.E..
In the decades after the destruction of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, Yavne became a spiritual centre, the home of many rabbis and the Sanhedrin. A building identified with that period has been excavated and a beautiful large mosaic from 1,600 years ago is being restored.
Eggs rarely survive for long in supermarket cartons, but at the site in Yavne IAA archaeologists came upon an unbroken egg in an ancient cesspit during large-scale excavations at the site in the central Israeli city that revealed an extensive industrial area from the Byzantine period.
Temple Mount banquet hall
A once opulent banquet hall that may have welcomed VIPs on their way to visit the nearby Temple Mount 2,000 years ago, has been excavated and opened to public tours. Part of the building was first discovered by British archaeologist Charles Warren in 1867, and the site was partially excavated in 1966. Now that the excavation is complete, archaeologists have dated its construction to C.E. 20 — during the lifetime of Jesus.
The place, which apparently stood along a street leading up to the Temple Mount, was used for public functions and may also have acted as a city hall, used by the elite members of the first-century Jewish community, before later being divided into three chambers to add a pool or ritual bath as future rulers put their own stamp on the grandiose structure.
Archaeologists say it was damaged by an earthquake in 33, then later rebuilt and reconfigured into three vaulted halls. The destruction date suggests possible evidence of the earthquake recorded in the Gospel accounts at the impalement of Jesus.
3.100-year-old inscription “Jerub-baal”
“Jerub-baal” is the nickname given to Gideon in Judges 6:31–32 after Gideon destroyed an altar to the pagan god Baal. It means “Let Baal contend with him.” It’s also the name found written on a pottery jug fragment excavated at Khirbat er-Ra’i, an archaeological site in the Shephelah region of Israel. It is located some 3 km northwest of Tel Lachish on a hill on the Lachish River‘s southern bank. Based on the archeological findings, including the architecture and the pottery, Khirbat er-Ra‘i was mainly a Canaanite site, but with a strong Philistine influence.
The archaeologists excavating at Khirbat er-Ra’i dated the stratum where the pottery was found to 1100 B.C.E., the period of the judges, a period of which there is a little archaeological record, but likely about a century after Gideon, based on the internal chronology of the Bible, so the discovery linking a biblical name to the era is notable.
The discovery of an alphabetic inscription at Lachish, dated to the 15th century B.C.E., also provides evidence for the spread of the alphabetic writing first developed by Canaanites living in Egypt around 1800 B.C.E. Nearby Lachish, where a few other Late Bronze Age Canaanite alphabetic inscriptions have been found, may have been a centre for the preservation of alphabetic writing.
Interestingly, the story of Gideon references a young man who “wrote down the names of the 77 elders of Sukkoth”(Judges 8:14).
Second ancient synagogue found in Migdal alters ideas of Jewish life 2,000 years ago
The uncovering at Migdal, on the northwestern edge of the Sea of Galilee, of a 2,000-year-old synagogue from the Second Temple Period was probably the most interesting find for 2021.
The first Magdala synagogue, discovered a dozen years ago, was notable because it was in use before the destruction of Jerusalem, when worship was still centred at the temple.
It is the first time that two synagogues have been found within the same settlement from the period when the Jewish Temple was still functioning in Jerusalem, a discovery that researchers said is changing their understanding of religious life at the time.
For a long time, several archaeologists thought there was no need for synagogues as long as the temple was standing there in Jerusalem. Now having found two synagogues, less than 200 meters apart, with the first in an industrial area and the second on a residential street, shows they were built “within the social fabric of the settlement,” Avshalom-Gorni said. This also may indicate such learning centres were also important in ancient times. Their presence testifies to
“the need for a dedicated building for study, reading the Torah and social gatherings.”
The recently discovered synagogue is of basalt and chalk, and comprises the main hall and two side rooms. A stone bench was also found. Six pillars held up the roof and the bases of two of those were also found. The walls were covered in plaster and colourfully decorated. A small room at the south end of the main hall had a shelf that may have been used to store scrolls.
Migdal, or by its ancient name Magdala, was an important centre of Jewish life at the time. It is mentioned in the writings of Flavius Josephus, who was a Jewish military leader in the revolt against the Romans in the 1st century C.E.E., but then eventually switched sides to become a Roman citizen and historian. Magdala is also mentioned in the New Testament as the birthplace of Mary Magdalene.
Only a handful of first-century synagogues have been excavated in Israel. Of those, these are the ones most likely visited by Jesus during his ministry (Matt. 4:23) because of their location near the Nazareth-to-Capernaum road and their association with the hometown of Mary Magdalene.