- Aren Maeir
Biblical archaeology is defined as the study of the archaeological remains of the peoples, cultures, and periods in which the biblical texts were formed. While in the past biblical archaeology was often seen as an ideologically motivated field of inquiry, currently, a balanced and scientifically advanced approach is common among most practitioners. The large body of research in this field, continuing to the present, provides a broad range of finds, insights, and understanding of the relevant cultures, peoples and periods in which the biblical texts were formed.
Biblical archaeology may be defined as the study of the archaeological remains of the regions, cultures, and periods, in which the biblical texts were formed. Modern biblical archaeology does not attempt to prove or disprove the Bible. Rather, archaeological study of the cultures in which the Bible was formed, or which are included in the Bible narratives, can provide a better understanding of the material and intellectual context of the biblical texts. The primary aim, however, is to study the archaeology of these regions, periods, and cultures associated with the Bible, the biblical interface being secondary. Biblical archaeology focuses primary attention on the regions and cultures of the Southern Levant, specifically the region of modern-day Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, and southern Syria. Nearby regions such as Egypt, northern Syria, Mesopotamia, Anatolia, Cyprus, and the Aegean are within its scope of interest. The main chronological focus of biblical archaeology are the periods in which the actual biblical texts were formed and written down—the Iron Age, Persian period, and Hellenistic period for the Hebrew Bible, about 1200 to 100 bce, and the Roman period for the New Testament, around 100 bce to c. 200 ce. But a broader temporal scope is often taken, to include the periods in which the backgrounds of these cultures were formed, and required perspectives range from the Neolithic Period, beginning about 8000 bce, through the Bronze Ages, ending c. 1200 bce. Similarly, post-Biblical developments are studied as well, up until the end of late antiquity.
Biblical archaeology is a field of research that is quite often labeled as controversial. On the one hand, there are those who insist that the very name—biblical archaeology—should not be used, as it shows preference to specific written sources that present religious and ideological perspectives. Accordingly, some would prefer the terms “Syro-Palestinian archaeology,” “archaeology of Palestine,” “archaeology of the Southern Levant,” or “the archaeology of the Bronze and Iron Age Eastern Mediterranean.”
Another controversial issue is the use or misuse of biblical archaeology in the context of modern political and religious ideologies. In the past, and in some cases even presently, discoveries or lack of discoveries have been used to promote or support ideological views. Claims that certain finds prove the Land of Israel belongs to the Jews, or that it does not, are part of this controversy. Likewise, claims that certain finds corroborate or disprove specific biblical stories, thus strengthening or weakening various religious beliefs, are also controversial.
History of Research
The scientific discipline of biblical archaeology commenced in the mid-19th century ce , when scholars from various countries in Europe and North America began to study the history, cultures, and archaeological remains of the lands of the biblical settings—the region of the ancient Near East. Explorers such as the American scholar Edward Robinson, the British engineers Charles Warren and Charles Wilson, French diplomat Charles Clermont-Ganneau, and German architect Conrad Schick were among the pioneers in the field. The efforts of these early researchers intended both to clarify the cultural background of the Bible in the context of Judeo-Christian traditions and culture, and to enable the various western powers to stake a political claim in the region. The British Palestine Exploration Fund (PEF) was the leading institution in the first few decades of this activity, but French, German, American, and Russian societies were also involved in early biblical archaeology. Toward the end of the 19th century and moving into the 20th century ce , excavations commenced in the region, both in Israel/Palestine and in adjacent countries. Prominent archaeologists of this era were figures such as Petrie, Bliss, Macalister, Reisner, Schumacher, and Vincent, with early excavations conducted at sites such as Jerusalem, Gezer, Tell es-Safi, Tell el-Farah (south), Jericho, and Megiddo. At the same time, exploration and excavations in Egypt and Mesopotamia, and the decipherment of ancient Egyptian and Akkadian, added substantial sources relevant for the study of the ancient biblical periods. These early excavations were often conducted in haphazard and inconsistent manners, both in the excavation methods and in their subsequent publications.
Following the First World War, during the British Mandate in Palestine (1922–1948), archaeological research in Israel/Palestine and neighboring lands increased considerably. Scholars such as William Foxwell Albright, Eleazar Sukenik, C. S. Fischer, Nelson Glueck, Roland de Vaux, Martin Noth, and others dominated the field. Large scale excavations were conducted at many sites, including the American excavations at Megiddo, Sebastia-Samaria, Tell Beit Mirsim, Beth Shemesh, Tell en-Nasbeh (Mizpah), and Tell el-Jib (Gibeon). Numerous projects were carried out by the PEF, the Jesuits, the Dominicans, and many others in Jerusalem and at other sites. This era of great advances and activity closed with a flourish: the discovery in 1947 of the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran, and its subsequent excavation, were directed in large part by de Vaux.
After World War II, with the collapse of colonial and mandate rule in the region and the foundation of various states in the region (such as Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria), biblical archaeology went through substantial development. While foreign scholars and institutions continued to work in the region (such as Kenyon, Bennet, Wright, and others), at sites such as Jericho, Shechem, and Gezer, Israeli archaeologists became more and more dominant in the field. The first generations of scholars included figures such as Benjamin Mazar, Yigal Yadin, Nahman Avigad, and Yohanan Aharoni, who conducted excavations and surveys at many sites and in many regions in Israel, at sites such as Hazor, Megiddo, Tel Qasile, Jerusalem, Arad, Masada, and many others. While excavations methods substantially improved during this period, a major problem was the lack of comprehensive publications of many of these excavations.
Following the Six-Day War in 1967, and the expansion of archaeological work into areas conquered by Israel during the war, many more sites were excavated, by a new generation of archaeologists. Western scholars such as Dever, Gitin, Cole, Stager, Seger and others, alongside Israeli scholars such as Amnon Ben-Tor, Amihai Mazar, Zeev Herzog, Moshe Kochavi, Trude and Moshe Dothan, Israel Finkelstein, Yigal Shiloh, and others, conducted numerous excavations at many sites relevant for Biblical archaeology. This included excavations at Tel Qasile, Tel Batash, Hesi, Tel Miqne-Ekron, Shiloh, Aphek, Izbet Zartah, Tel Sheva, Arad, Kuntillet Ajrud, and many other sites. In addition, a large number of regional surveys were conducted in various regions of Israel, such as Finkelstein and Zertal in the West Bank, Haiman, Rosen, and others in the Negev, and Dagan in the area of Judah.
More recently, in the last two decades or so, extensive excavations continued to be carried out in Israel and surrounding countries, with many finds relevant to biblical archaeology. Salvage excavations, conducted mainly by the Israel Antiquities Authority due to building and infrastructure development in Israel, have revealed important finds at sites such as Jerusalem, Moza, Beth Shean, and Caesarea. At the same time, excavations of varying scales, conducted by both Israeli and foreign archaeological expeditions, have continued to reveal additional important finds. These include excavations at Hazor, Dan, Megiddo, Kinrot, Bethsaida, Rehov, Akko, Shimron, Jezreel, Jokneam, Kabri, Dor, Jaffa, Gezer, Ashkelon, Beth Shemesh, Jerusalem, Kh. Qeiyafa, Azekah, Ramat Rachel, Tell es-Safi/Gath, Lachish, Burna, and many other sites. Active biblical archaeologists include Amnon Ben-Tor, Amichai Mazar, Israel Finkelstein, Daniel Master, Assaf Yasur-Landau, Eric Cline, Yosi Garfinkel, Eilat Mazar, Joe Uziel, Itzik Shai, Steve Ortiz, Aren Maeir, Ron Tappy, Gunnar Lehmann, Ann Killebrew, David Ussishkin, Shua Kiselivitz, Avi Faust, Yuval Gadot, Yuval Goren, and many others.
Of particular importance are the substantial methodological and theoretical developments that have occurred in the field of biblical archaeology in the last few decades. At most sites, meticulous excavation methods are employed, along with a rising utilization of inter- and multi-disciplinary research designs, with a heightened awareness of theoretical perspectives in the planning, execution, and interpretation of archaeological excavations and research. By and large, modern biblical archaeology has become a highly sophisticated branch of archaeology overall, many times being at the very forefront of archaeological research in the world.
No less important is the fact that, for the most part, contemporary practitioners of biblical archaeology deal with the relationship between the archaeological remains and the biblical text in a more sophisticated manner, and in connection with modern biblical research. As such, while the archaeological remains are relevant for understanding certain aspects in the biblical texts, and some biblical texts can be useful for the interpretation of the archaeological remains, naïve or unsubstantiated connections between archaeological finds and the biblical texts are now rarely suggested by contemporary scholars in the field.
Biblical archaeology has come of age in recent years, and after more than a century and a half of development, it has become a sophisticated, vibrant, and constantly developing field.
Over the last century and half, there have been many finds of importance in the field of biblical archaeology. Following is a list of some of the more important finds and sites that have been or are still being excavated:
The Dead Sea Scrolls and Qumran: A large collection of ancient scrolls, mostly dating to the Roman period and most belonging to the Essenes, an early Roman period Jewish sect, was discovered in the arid region at the north end of the Dead Sea, both by antiquities thieves and in archaeological excavations. These scrolls provide important data on the formation of the biblical texts, on Jewish sectarian beliefs before the destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans (c. 70 ce), and various aspects relating to the history and culture of the region during the Hellenistic and Roman periods.
Jerusalem: Extensive excavations in Jerusalem for the last century and a half have revealed numerous finds relating to the history and culture of the city from the Bronze Age through the Byzantine period. This includes finds relating to the city when it was the capital of the Kingdom of Judah during the Iron Age, Jerusalem of the time of Maccabees in the Hellenistic period, and Jerusalem of the time of Herod, Jesus, and the apostles during the Hellenistic and Roman periods.
Megiddo: This is an important multi-period site (tell) in the Jezreel Valley, straddling one of the most important junctions in the region, with extensive remains from the Bronze and Iron Ages. The site was of importance during various stages of the Iron Age, and was one of the central cities of the Israelite Kingdom during the Iron Age. According to some views, there is also evidence of the time of King Solomon at this site.
Hazor: An important multi-period site (tell) in northern Israel, with extensive remains from the Bronze and Iron Ages. During the Late Bronze Age, this was the largest city in Canaan, a status that is perhaps remembered in the biblical text (“the head of all those kingdoms”—Joshua 11:10). The site was of importance during various stages of the Iron Age, and was one of the central cities of the Israelite Kingdom in that era. According to some views, there is also evidence of the time of King Solomon at this site.
Tell es-Safi/Gath: An important multi-period site (tell) with extensive remains from the Bronze and Iron Ages. During the Late Bronze Age it was a major Canaanite center, and during the Iron Age it was one of the largest cities in the Levant, and is identified as Gath of Philistines, capital of the five chief Philistine sites. The site was destroyed c. 830 bce by Hazael, King of Aram (as mentioned in II Kings 12:17), and until then, was most probably the most important polity in the southern Levant.
Tel Miqne-Ekron: A large site in northeastern Philistia, settled in the Middle and Late Bronze Ages and in the Iron Age I–II. During the Iron Age, it was the location of Philistine Ekron, one of the five major cities of the Philistine “Pentopolis.” Important remains of the various stages of the Philistine culture have been found, including: several temples from various stages of the Iron Age; a royal inscription from the 7th century bce that lists the names of several kings of Ekron—and the goddess “Patgaya”; and the final destruction of the site by the Babylonians in 604 bce.
Ashkelon: Important site in the southern coastal plain that was settled from the Neolithic period until modern times. During the Middle and Late Bronze Ages, Ashkelon was an important Canaanite city, controlling land and sea-borne trade between Egypt and the Levant. During the Iron Age, it was the location of Philistine Ashkelon, one of the five major Philistine cities. During the classical periods, it was an important city in Roman and Byzantine Palestine. Important finds from the site include: impressive fortifications and gates from the Middle Bronze Age; extensive remains of the various phases of the Philistine culture, including an extensive Philistine cemetery of the Iron II, and the impressive destruction level of the site, destroyed in 604 bce by Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon.
Gezer: An important multi-period site (tell) in central Israel with extensive remains from the Bronze and Iron Ages. The site was of importance during various stages of the Iron Age, and was one of the central cities of the Israelite Kingdom during the Iron Age. According to some views, there is also evidence of the time of King Solomon at this site.
Azekah: A multi-period (Early Bronze to modern) site in the central Shephelah, just to the east of the border with Philistia. Current excavations have revealed impressive remains of the Early through Late Bronze Age, Iron Age IIB–IIC (when the site was an important Judahite site) and from the Persian and Hellenistic Periods.
Lachish: Important multi-period site in the southwestern Shephelah. During the Late Bronze Age it was a major Canaanite city state and a center of Egyptian control. During the Iron Age II, it was the 2nd most important site in Judah. Among the many important finds are: the destruction of the site by Sennacherib in 701 bce; the Judahite palace/fort in the center of the city; and the collection of Hebrew ostraca from the final Iron Age phase of the city, destroyed in 586 bce by the Babylonians.
Samaria: Capital of the Israelite Kingdom, was captured and destroyed by the Assyrians in 722 bce. Among the many finds at the site, important collections of ostraca (sherds with ink inscriptions) probably serving as tax receipts, and ivory inlays, were found at the site.
Khirbet Qeiyafa: A short-lived fortified site in the Judean Foothills (Shephelah) that the excavator (Y. Garfinkel) has suggested was built by King David in the 10th century bce and is evidence for the existence of the Kingdom of David. This interpretation has been challenged by various scholars.
Shiloh: According to the biblical text, once the Israelites entered Canaan, the Tabernacle, the forerunner of the temple in Jerusalem, was located in Shiloh, about half way between Jerusalem and Nablus/Shechem. Several excavations conducted at the site have revealed hints to the cultic function of the site, not only during the Iron Age but in other periods, as well, but no clear remains of the location of the Tabernacle have been revealed.
Gibeon: Multi-period site situation to the north of Jerusalem, with remains from the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. During the Iron Age it was a site associated with the Judahite Kingdom, with remains of fortifications, water systems, and an impressive winery.
Jericho: Important multi-period site in the southern Jordan Valley, settled from prehistoric through Classical periods. Extensive excavations since the very beginning of modern research have revealed many finds from extensive periods. While Jericho figures extensively in the biblical narratives relating to the Israelite conquest of Canaan, evidence at the site does not show any remains, from the end of the Late Bronze Age and from the early Iron Age, that can be connected to this narrative.
Tel Dan: A large multi-period site on the northern border of Israel that was an important site in the northern Kingdom of Israel. Among the important finds at the site are: The Aramean stele found at the site, with perhaps the only mention of David outside of the biblical text, and the large cultic precinct located in the site.
Deir Alla: A site in the Central Jordan Valley at which important cultic remains from the Late Bronze and Iron Ages were found. Of particular importance, the texts found in an Iron Age cultic context mention Balaam, a prophet mentioned in the biblical text.
Kuntillet Ajrud: A caravanserai excavated in eastern Sinai dating to the early 8th cent bce, and apparently connected to the Israelite Kingdom. Inscription and art from the site include mention of the Israelite god, YHWH, and may even provide evidence of a female consort of the Israelite god
Caesarea: Large city of the Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine periods. Among other finds are finds relating to Herod the Great and to Pontius Pilates, the Roman Governor of Judea who supposedly sentenced Jesus to Death.
Beth-Shean: An important site with extensive remains from the Bronze and Iron Ages on the top of the site, and an extensive Roman-Byzantine city in its vicinity. Finds from the site include a series of temples from the Late Bronze and Early Iron Ages, and impressive remains of the classical period city
Ancient synagogues: At various locations throughout Israel (and in other countries as well), various early synagogues have been revealed. A few of them date to before the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, while most date to the late Roman and Byzantine period. These synagogues reveal important information in the development of Jewish religion and culture after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Some of these synagogues contain elaborate mosaic floors, depicting biblical, and at times pagan, narratives.
Ancient churches: Several early churches relating to the very first centuries of the Christian religion have been discovered in Israel (such as Capernaum, and most recently, near Megiddo) and enable a glimpse at the social and cultural background of early Christianity.
Akkadian texts and art relating to biblical history: Over the century and a half, excavations in Mesopotamian (primarily in modern Iraq) have revealed extensive remains of cultures writing texts in cuneiform scripts, particularly in Akkadian. These include the Assyrians and the Babylonians, which left extensive texts on various issues. During the Iron Age, some of these texts relate to various issues relating to the Bible, such as the mention of various kinds (e.g., Ahab, Omri, Hezekiah) and various events (such as the capture of Samaria [722 bce], the destruction of Lachish [701 bce], and Jerusalem [586 bce]). These texts provide important historical and cultural background for understanding the southern Levant during this period.
Egyptian texts relating to biblical history: Excavations in Egypt during the last century and a half have revealed impressive remains of the Egyptian culture over many periods. Various finds are connected to historical events and people relevant to biblical archaeology. This includes the reliefs of Ramses III from Medinet Habu, depicting the battles between the Egyptians and the “Sea Peoples”; the so called “Israel Stele” of Merneptah, dating to the late 12th century bce, with the earliest mention of the ethnonym “Israel”; an inscription depicting the military campaign of the Pharaoh Shishak/Sheshonq (c. 925 bce), which is mentioned in the Bible as well; and the collection of Aramaic letters from Elephantine in southern Egypt, dating to the Persian Period, evidence of a colony of Jewish mercenaries serving in the Persian Army.
Various sites in Syria, Turkey, Cyprus, and Greece relating to the New Testament: Various sites in these countries appear in the New Testament. Excavations at these sites reveal the physical and cultural backgrounds of the events depicted in the New Testament.
- Cline, Eric H. Biblical Archaeology: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
- Maeir, Aren. “Archaeology and the Hebrew Bible.” In The Jewish Study Bible. Edited by Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, 2124–2136. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.
- Magness, Jodi. The Archaeology of the Holy Land: From the Destruction of Solomon’s Temple to The Muslim Conquest. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
- Richelle, Matthieu. The Bible and Archaeology. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2018.
- Yasur-Landau, Assaf, Eric H. Cline, and Yorke Roman, eds. The Social Archaeology of the Levant: From Prehistory to the Present. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2018.