Archaeology and the Bible
Minor Prophets and Intertestament Period
Dates for the prophets
Most of the Minor Prophets refer to the reigns of kings in their opening verses and can, therefore, be dated securely. Jonah does not, but the book of Kings mentions him, so we can place him in the time of Jeroboam II. The remaining books are dated on what is termed "internal evidence", which varies from book to book. Obadiah seems certain to be around the time of the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians, but Joel could be anywhere from the 9th to the 7th centuries BC.
|Amos||750 BC||Jeroboam II|
|Jonah||750 BC||2 Kings|
There is little of archaeological interest in these books, though some of them fill out the historical picture of this period. For example, Obadiah depicts the outright enmity that existed between Judah and its neighbours and how those neighbours - Edom in particular - grabbed as many refugees from the capture of Jerusalem as it could, handing them back to the Babylonians, and then swarming into the city to join in the looting.
There is some evidence that during the reign of Adad-nirari III there was a religious revolution similar to that of Akhenaton in Egypt. The god Nabu, patron god of Borsippa, was proclaimed as principal or possibly sole god, an innovation that did not last very long. However this was the time of Jeroboam II and the prophet Jonah and some have linked this religious novelty with Jonah's mission to Nineveh. More and clearer knowledge about this curious episode is needed before we can say for certain whether Jonah's preaching was responsible or not.
Again, however, we find interesting background information, namely that Jonah could go down to the coast at Joppa and find a ship headed for Tarshish, believed to be Tartessus on the southern coast of Spain. That is a significant distance, even today, and represents substantial trading links between Phoenician Spain and Palestine via Joppa, which are confirmed by the archaeological evidence. Incidentally, to the north of Beirut there is a suburb known as Jounieh, on whose stoney beach the whale is supposed to have deposited Jonah after his impromptu undersea voyage!
The statement that Nineveh was a city "of three days' journey" has led to some confusion. Early commentators believed that it meant that Ninevah was three days' journey from one side to the other. Although Nineveh was possibly the largest city in the ancient Middle East, with walls seven miles in circumference and no doubt suburbs outside those walls, there is no way that could be three days' journey! Alternative interpretations are that the distance referred to the province of Nineveh - the area controlled by the city, which would have been impressive to someone used to the small city states elsewhere in the Middle East - or more likely that it referred to someone attempting to walk up and down every street in Nineveh - which presumably Jonah did, uttering his dramatic warning cry "Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown!"
Nahum refers to the fall of "No" (Nahum 3:8), an Egyptian city known to the Greeks as Diospolis, which was captured by the Assyrians in 663 BC. As Nahum predicts the fall of Nineveh, he must have lived and prophesied between those two events, so a date of 640 BC is not unreasonable.
Between the Testaments
The Persian period is poorly represented in Palestine, for reasons that have already been considered, however archaeologists have found evidence for what they believe to be Nehemiah's rebuilding of the wall of Jerusalem in several places. The most interesting discovery relating to this period is the Elephantine Papyrii and the heterodox temple at Aswan, which has already been discussed.
However although there are very few archaeological remains for this period there is one important piece of evidence which should not be overlooked, and that is the existence of the Samaritans and their own version of the Torah. Known as the Samaritan Torah or Samaritan Pentateuch, the most famous copy is the one kept in Nablus and claimed by the Samaritans to date back to Abishua, the great-grandson of Aaron. They claim that it was written thirteen years after the children of Israel entered Canaan. Scholars, however, believe that the text is the product of several different hands and the earliest dates to the 12th century AD.
|Led by their high priest, Samaritans pray on the summit of Mt Gerizim.|
Interestingly, the Samaritan Pentateuch is very similar to the LXX (the Septuagint). In a third of the instances where the Samaritan differs from the Masoretic, it is supported by the LXX. In addition, some of the Dead Sea Scrolls contain a text which is similar to the Samaritan, indicating that the Samaritan version is a valid version of the Scriptures. Apart from a statement that the central altar to Yahweh should be built on Mt Gerezim, there is nothing sectarian in the Samaritan text and some have even argued that the Samaritan version is correct in view of the prominence given to the area with the Blessing and Cursing from Mts Gerezim and Ebal.
Curiously, the Samaritan version is longer than the Masoretic text, mainly because it adds in many repetitious details. When the Lord tells Moses to warn pharaoh of a coming plague, the Masoretic text simply has God's warning and then proceeds to the plague; the Samaritan adds in how Moses gave the warning (in identical words) to pharaoh. The Masoretic text relates how the Children of Israel complained to Moses, "Did we not say in Egypt, 'Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians'?" but the Samaritan text actually has the complaint (in the very same words) a few chapters earlier.
The Jewish Encyclopaedia has an interesting article on the Samaritans, who still celebrate the Passover with sacrifices on Mt Gerizim. The total number of Samaritans is no more than about 750 worldwide but the number of pure-bred Samaritans is decreasing and recent estimates put it as low as twenty or thirty. Given the genetic problems inherent in in-breeding, this is probably no bad thing, but as the religion is inseparable from the race, it means that the number of those practising the Samaritan religion is also decreasing.
The Coming of the Greeks
In contrast to the Persian period, the Greek period left multiple remains all over Palestine. Alexander gave the Samaritans permission to build their own temple on Mt Gerizim (where it remained until destroyed by John Hyrcanus in 128 BC), though archaeological investigations point to an earlier date - around 475 BC - for the first structure on the site. Retired Greek soldiers are thought to have established the flourishing cities of the Decapolis, Greek styles of architecture became fashionable throughout Palestine and the Greek language became the lingua franca of the entire Mediterranean.
One factor in making Greek thought and culture so influential was the fact that the Greeks were amazingly tolerant of other religions, identifying the local gods with the members of their own pantheon. For example, Baal was quickly seen as another form of Zeus and the Greeks saw nothing incongruous in worshipping their own god beside a local person worshipping his god, though Greek theologians speculated on why the demands the Phoenician Zeus made were so different from those made by their own Zeus. (On the whole they tended to shrug their shoulders and conclude that no one can understand the will of the gods.) They could not understand the Jewish insistence that there was only one God and that one God was their God.
When, in addition, the Jews refused to assimilate to Greek culture, as just about everyone else did, it led to friction and eventually to the persecution unleashed by Antiochus IV of Syria. The worship of Yahweh was banned, circumcision forbidden, and commissioners were sent throughout the land to ensure that everyone sacrificed to the Greek gods. Most submitted, though there were many cases of martyrdom, explicitly described in the first chapters of 1 Maccabees and alluded to in the closing verses of Hebrews 11 (the "Faith Chapter").
When the commissioners came to the village of Modin the local priest, outraged that one of his compatriots should be willing to offer the required sacrifice, snatched up a sword and killed him, then attacked the commissioner and, with the aid of his sons, killed him as well. This was the start of the Maccabee revolt.
|The so-called "Maccabee Graves" near Modin.|
As you drive from Lod airport to Jerusalem, just as you reach the hills at Latrun there is a sign pointing off to the "Maccabean Tombs". After several miles and a bit of hunting, these turn out to be graves cut in the rock - no monuments, no inscriptions, just these rectangular holes in the rock. Unfortunately there has been no archaeology here; the Arabic name for the area is "tombs of the Jews" and because they are close to Modin the modern Israelis have leaped to the conclusion that they must be Maccabee! (You can seen a film about these tombs on the NWTV website.)
However in 1995 work to widen Route 443 led to the chance discovery of a burial cave containing 23 ossuaries, including one on which was written "Hasmonean". Others were inscribed with Jewish names but in Greek script, apart from one in Hebrew that said "Simon". Archaeologist Shimon Riklin identifies this new burial site with one depicted on the Madeba mosaic map and points out that this is the first archaeological evidence for the existence of the Maccabees. Unfortunately the identification has been disputed and it now seems likely that the tomb is rather later than the Maccabean period.
When the Jewish forces retook Jerusalem and cleansed the temple - an event which happened exactly three years after it was defiled - a Seleucid garrison remained in the Akkra, a fortress overlooking the temple. From there they were able to harrass worshippers in the temple for several years before being finally driven out. There has been some dispute over the exact location of this fortress. Some have even suggested that it stood on the site of the Antonia Fortress of Roman times - in which case the Jewish temple would have to be north of the Via Dolorosa and thus well outside the area of the present Haram.
Excavations to the south of the Haram uncovered a substantial cistern which the archaeologists interpreted as the water supply for the Akkra. The fortress itself was completely demolished and its stones used in other buildings, so there was no trace of the Akkra, only of the cistern in its foundations. If the archaeologists are correct, then the temple could indeed have stood on the traditional Temple Mount - though the Akkra must have been a very substantial structure indeed to overlook the temple courts!
The Hasmoneans and the Teacher of Righteousness
Once the Seleucid threat had been defeated the Maccabees became the rulers of an independent Jewish state - the first since the Babylonian conquest and the last until the modern state of Israel. However power had its usual corrupting effect and there have been few worse rulers than this line of priest-kings.
We have already mentioned how John Hyrcanus (135-104 BC) destroyed the Samaritan temple on Mt Gerezim. He also conquered an area in the south of Palestine that had been settled by Edomites and was known as Idumea, forcing its inhabitants to accept the Jewish religion. According to Josephus:
Hyrcanus ... subdued all the Idumeans; and permitted them to stay in that country, if they would circumcise their genitals, and make use of the laws of the Jews; and they were so desirous of living in the country of their forefathers, that they submitted to the use of circumcision, and of the rest of the Jewish ways of living; at which time therefore this befell them, that they were hereafter no other than Jews. Josephus, Antiquities xiii,9,1
Excavations conducted by the Diggings team at Mareshah, one of the Idumean cities, indicate that not all the former Edomites were willing to become Jews. Many of the cisterns beneath the houses are blocked by stones and pottery from this period and we believe that the houses were deliberately demolished by disgruntled Idumeans, who threw the stones into the cisterns to render them unusable before leaving for friendlier territory.
Aristobulus I was the first to claim the title of king (his predecessors had been satisfied with the title "prince"), and his first act was to throw his mother into prison and allow her to starve to death there. Fortunately this monster only ruled for one year, before dying in 103 BC after a painful illness. When his brother, Alexander Jannaeus, succeeded him the emerging Pharisees demanded that he choose between being king or high priest. His response was to side with the Sadducees and bloodily repress the Pharisees. After one episode in the struggle Jannaeus had 800 rebels crucified - and then ordered his men to cut the throats of the wives and children of those hanging helplessly on the crosses.
It is believed that these events are the background to the establishment of the sect known as the Essenes. The Damascus Document found at Qumran speaks of a "Teacher of Righteousness" and hint that this mysterious individual engaged in some protest against the Jewish hierarchy. There may even have been a confrontation in the temple precincts, but the end result was that the Teacher fled to the desert with his followers and there established a community of "pure ones". It is further suggested that the Wicked Priest finally pursued the Teacher, possibly to Qumran itself, and killed him, though the movement he had established lived on.
There has been considerable speculation as to the historical identity of these figures with some even suggesting that the Teacher is Jesus Christ. As most scholars date the Document to the first century BC, this is extremely unlikely. Others see him as an unrecorded high priest whose office was usurped by Jonathan maccabeus, others as an unnamed Sadducee and yet others as Hillel the Elder or as James the Just (the brother of Jesus)! None of these identifications are convincing and my opinion is that the Teacher was some relatively insignificant religious leader whose importance was exaggerated by his followers, but who genuinely rejected the corruption introduced by the Maccabees and withdrew (voluntarily or otherwise), with his followers, to the desert.
|The entrance to Qasr al-Abd, the fortified palace of Hyrcanus, son of Tobias.|
Under Ptolemy III Euergetes another Tobiah was given the job of collecting taxes from the whole of the province of Palestine, which made him both extremely wealthy and intensely disliked. Nevertheless the family had immense influence in Jerusalem which continued until the Seleucids drove the Ptolemies out of Palestine. The current head of the family, a man called Hyrcanus, retreated to the ancestral homeland and built for himself a massive fortress palace, whose ground floor still remains. As Josephus describes, the building is decorated with bold reliefs of various animals and nearby the rocky side of the valley has been cut away to make an artificial terrace into which are cut the tombs of various members of the Tobiad dynasty. When Antiochus IV intervened in Jerusalem Hyrcanus was so afraid that he actually committed suicide, which brought the family fortunes crashing down - though they were still influential enough to be involved in the Maccabee revolt.
There is evidence preserved in the Letter of Zeno and also archaeological evidence to suggest that the Tobaids were not the strictest of Jews and may, indeed, have encouraged the worship of Aphrodite. No doubt they saw this as part of the process of Hellenisation, of "adapting to the modern world", but such an attitude, if it went back through the generations, would explain both why questions were raised about the family's Jewishness and also why Nehemiah reacted so strongly when he learned that Tobiah had been given a room in the temple.
|Watched by curious onlookers, Samaritans prepare the Passover lamb. Photo from http://muqata.blogspot.com|
still celebrate the Passover At one time this took place in the open air on the summit of Mt Gerezim and descriptions of the ceremony speak of robed priests slaughtering the Passover lambs and scattered family groups eating their roast lamb by candlelight. Today thousands of visitors cram the area and the Samaritans have been obliged to erect a stout iron fence around the sacrifice site (which is in the middle of town) and everything takes place in the glare of floodlights and television cameras. The event has become a mixture of circus and abbatoir with the officiants in white overalls and wellington boots. White robes and patriarchal beards are rare these days. As the sun sets the head of every family cuts the throat of his lamb and the blood is then daubed not only on the doorposts of the family home but also on the foreheads of family members. Return
exactly three years The point is emphasised in the books of Maccabees and also in Josephus. A popular intepretation of the prophecy of Daniel 8 identifies the tyrannical "little horn" with Antiochus IV Epiphanes whose defiling of the temple would last 2,300 "evenings and mornings". That figure can be massaged down to around 3 years and two months, but it still doesn't fit the historical facts.
Of course, if you believe that the book of Daniel is a fraud, a pious fiction written to encourage the Maccabees in their struggle, you will not be surprised that the alleged prediction is faulty - indeed, you may even be surprised that it turned out to be so close to the mark! If, however, you believe that the Bible is a divinely inspired book and that its prophecies are accurate, then you will have to look elsewhere for the fulfillment of this prophecy. Return
Jewish ancestry Ironically, there is a Tobiah mentioned in the Lachish Letters and Professor Mazar claims that he is the ancestor of the Tobiah of Ezra's time. There is no certainty about this and other scholars dispute the identification. Return
Letter of Zeno An Egyptian official called Zeno, who was in the service of Ptolemy II Philadelphus (285-246 BC) kept an archive of correspondence, in which were a number of letters from Tubias (Tobiah) or from one of his secretaries. One letter says:
(Docket, written by Zeno) Tubias, about his consignment to the king, and the copy of his letter to the king. Year 29, 16 Artemision, at Alexandria.
Tubias to Apollonios
Greetings. On the tenth of Xandikos I sent Aineias our servant, bringing the gifts for the king which you wrote and asked me to send in the month of Xandikos: two horses, six dogs, one wild mule out of an ass, two white Arab donkeys, two wild mulesí foals, one wild assís foal. They are all tame. I have also sent you the letter which I have written to the king about the gifts, together with a copy for your information.
Farewell. Year 29, Xandikos 10.
(Appended letter:) To King Ptolemy from Tubias,
Greetings. I have sent you two horses, six dogs, one wild mule out of an ass, two white Arab donkeys, two wild mulesí foals and one wild assís foal.
So far so good. The animals were either tribute or a gift to win or retain favour at court. In other letters, however, Tobiah appears as somewhat of a slave dealer. Take, for example, this one:
(Docket, written by Zeno) Tubias, about a eunuch and 4 boys he has sent. Year 29, Artemision 16, at Alexandria.
Toubias to Apollonios
Greetings. If you and all your affairs are flourishing. and everything else is as you wish it, many thanks to the gods! I too have been well, and have thought of you at all times, as was right.
I have sent to you Aineias bringing a eunuch and four boys, house-slaves and of good stock, two of whom are uncircumcised. I append descriptions of the boys for your information.
Farewell. Year 29, Xandikos 10.
Haimos. About 10, dark skin, curly hair, black eyes, rather big jaws, with moles on the right jaw, Uncircumcised.
Atikos. About 8, light skin, curly hair, nose somewhat flat, black eyes, scar below the right eye, uncircumcised.
Audomos. About 10, black eyes, curly hair, nose flat, protruding lips, scar near the right eyebrow, circumcised.
Okaimos. About 7, round face. nose flat, gray eyes, fiery complexion, long straight hair, scar on forehead above the right eyebrow, circumcised.
In these days of the internet and instant messaging, it will probably apall you to learn that this letter was 36 days in the post from the time it was sent till the time it arrived. Return