Biblical inscription from Mt. Ebal, but a note of caution

Archaeologists have revealed a small, ancient lead amulet with an inscription that was discovered on Mt. Ebal in the rubbish pile of a previous excavation. Back in the 1980s, Dr. Adam Zertal uncovered a stone structure atop Mt. Ebal that some interpret as an altar built by Joshua in the Bible (Josh 8:30-31) Mt. Ebal is also one of the mountains of blessing & cursing in Deut. 27 and Josh. 8. These types of amulets are known from the ancient world and contained inscriptions folded and sealed inside thin sheets of lead. The lead folds on this amulet couldn’t be opened without breakage so researchers employed tomographic scans of the exterior and interior to try and discern the hidden inscription.

Images of the folded lead tablet found on Mt. Ebal. The object is small, roughly 1 inch square.
Photo by Michael C. Luddeni. (Courtesy of Associates for Biblical Research)

Dr. Scott Stripling and staff with the Associates for Biblical Research recently announced the results of this scientific analysis at a press conference at the Lanier Theological Library in Houston. Dr. Scott Stripling, the project head, stated that thousands of scans enabled them to discern 40 proto-alphabetic letters. The researchers did not share any original images or transliteration from the scans, which is curious for an inscription reveal, but offered their English translation of the hidden text.

Cursed, cursed, cursed – cursed by the God YHW.

You will die cursed.

Cursed you will surely die.

Cursed by YHW – cursed, cursed, cursed.

The amulet is a “curse” tablet, a type of ancient legal text describing consequences if a person does not fulfill conditions of an agreement. The Blessings & Curses at Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Ebal in Deut. 28 are an example of this ancient practice.

Big Claims: The researchers claim this is the earliest example of Hebrew writing yet discovered, though written in a precursor alphabet to paleo-Hebrew. (This is not unusual since we have other inscriptions from this approximate period written in early alphabetic scripts.) Some scholars insist early Israel was not a literate society, meaning the historical books of the Hebrew Bible could not have been written in the era of Moses, the Judges, or the earlier kings. This inscription would show the tribes of Israel were literate, able to record their history and laws, and potentially compose biblical books at that time.

Scott Stripling also claims this inscription may date to around 1400 BC, when Israel entered Canaan in the traditional biblical chronology. This is a big point of contention among scholars since many archaeologists believe the Hebrew Exodus from Egypt would have occurred in the 1200s instead. If these claims are true, this would suggest the Israelites entered Canaan around the earlier date.

Its discovery near a place biblically associated with the renewal of a covenant agreement would also be notable. Mt. Ebal is associated with a famous blessing/cursing event in the Bible (Duet 27-28). The ABR people suggest this tablet could be connected with that famous story.

If all of these claims are true, especially regarding the inscription date, this discovery would be on the level of the Dead Sea Scrolls or the “House of David” inscription from Tel Dan. However, big claims require solid evidence, and their press announcement didn’t offer it.

Concern and Caution: ABR presented weighty conclusions on controversial biblical matters, yet chose not to share the actual data that informed their conclusions. They announced an inscription without showing the inscription. This is unusual. Why withhold original images while announcing an inscription and a proposed translation?

Putting faith in the Bible and believing a certain archaeological claim are two different things.

Assuming the inscription scan results were indeed clear enough to support the translation, the proposed dating to ca. 1400 BC seems to be the least established conclusion, yet the most consequential. The amulet was taken out of its original context around 40 years ago, away from the pottery and other remains that best inform the dating, before being recently sifted from dump debris. The press conference and previously published materials note the site’s pottery ranged from the Late Bronze to Early Iron ages, a period that extends into the 11th century BC, far later than the proposed early 15th century date. The most secure dating for the altar site points to the 1200s BC, so a claim of ca. 1400 needs clear supporting evidence.

The stated reason for the early 15th century BC date is the writing style. While the shape and orientation of the letters can suggest approximate dates, the lack of standardization in the Late Bronze and Early Iron periods (the biblical judges and early kings) make it difficult to pin down dating. Writing rules often differed from one place to the next. It’s possible the amulet could date to 1400 BC but maybe just as likely (or more likely) that it dates to the 1200s or later. The press conference was sprinkled with words like “possibly,” “could be,” and “maybe,” indicating the ABR team is aware the amulet may not fit their desired paradigm.

This drawing shows the Divine Name of YWHW rendered in a proto-Canaanite (or Early Alphabetic) script. This is the only part the inscription that was revealed at the press conference, but it is only a reconstructed drawing. None of the scans or images on which this drawing is based were shown during the announcement of the inscription. (Drawing by Gershon Galil, courtesy of the Associates for Biblical Research)

Whatever its date, this amulet is a genuine ancient find in a notable place. However, believers have been burned many times by quickly embracing preliminary announcements, even from sincere people, because the results seem to support the Bible. Early conclusions often do not withstand later scrutiny. Once they publish their actual data, we can see if these announcements hold up. There’s always a gap between conclusions we form vs. what we actually find. Mind the Gap!

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Contrary to earlier report, Turkey not returning Siloam inscription

A couple days ago, an Israeli news source quoted an Israeli official that Turkey had agreed to send the Siloam inscription to Israel as a result of diplomatic negotiations. Turkey has since responded that the Siloam incsription will not be returning to Jerusalem after all.

Maybe someone just got excited too early, or perhaps a higher-up nixed the proposal. In any case, this is not the first time the attempt has been made. Nor, undoubtedly, will it be the last.

One can see a replica of the inscription in Israel. If you want to see the original 8th century BC Siioam inscription with your own eyes, you must visit Istanbul’s archaeological museum.

The original Siloam inscription from Hezekiah’s tunnel on display in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum. (Wikipedia Commons)
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Updated Report: Turkey will NOT return Hezekiah’s Tunnel inscription to Israel

(See update at bottom)

A report today states that Turkey has agreed to return the famous inscription from Hezekiah’s tunnel back to Jerusalem. The inscription, etched on stone near the western end of the 8th BC water tunnel, describes how workers began the project at the two ends and met in the middle. The inscription, discovered in the 19th century during the Ottoman Period, was taken to Istanbul after its removal from the tunnel wall.

A replica of the Siloam Inscription at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. The original is in the Istanbul Archaeology Museum. (יעל י CC BY-SA Wikimedia Commons)

You may enjoy taking a minute to read a news article announcing this agreement.

If this report is true, Israel is gaining one of the most important biblical inscriptions ever found. The repatriation of such an important find may reflect warming ties between the two governments.

The Bible mentions King Hezekiah created a tunnel to secure the city’s water supply before the arrival of Assyrian king Sennacherib. Water flows through the tunnel today, as it did in biblical times, and a walk through the system is a favorite experience for visitors today. A replica of the inscription sits where the original was found inside the tunnel.

UPDATE: Turkey has responded that the Siloam incsription will not be returning to Jerusalem after all. Maybe someone just got excited too early, or perhaps a higher-up nixed the proposal. In any case, this is not the first time the attempt was made. Nor, undoubtedly, will it be the last.

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Recent Discoveries: another 1st-century synagogue in Magdala and an early Christian’s ring

A few years ago, we found a synagogue from Jesus’ time in the biblical town of Magdala, where Mary the Magdalene once lived. The excavated synagogue had its original mosaic floors and a clear central room with benches along the walls and a decorated stone reading table in the center, which was the typical layout in that period.

Archaeologists recently announced the discovery of a second synagogue in Magdala. It was in use during the same time period as the first synagogue. This structure is smaller and has a simpler interior with just a plastered earthen floor, but shows the same typical synagogue layout. Did Jesus teach in one or both of these very buildings? While we can’t be completely sure, He probably did.

Site where the second synagogue was discovered in Migdol (ancient Magdala). (Photo credit: University of Haifa)

This is the first time two synagogues have been discovered in the same locale. The first Magdala synagogue was surrounded by an industrial area whereas the newly-discovered synagogue is near a residential street. This suggests these and other ancient synagogues served specific communities within the same municipality.

You can visit the first Magdala synagogue with me during my upcoming Bible Lands Tour from May 9 – 21, 2022. We don’t know yet whether the second synagogue will be open for visitors, but it’s possible we will be able to see it.

Read more about the newly-uncovered synagogue from Jesus’ time here and here.

Another very recent discovery is an octagonal gold ring with a gemma stone engraved with a “Good Shepherd” motif, a representation of Jesus that was used by early Christians. Based on the date of other objects from the shipwreck and the ring’s size, it is likely from the mid-3rd century AD and was owned by a Christian woman.

The underwater discovery of the gold ring. (Photo: Israel Antiquities Authority Marine Archaeology Unit)
Gold ring with gemma engraved with the figure of the Good Shepherd. (Photo: Dafna Gazit, Israel Antiquities Authority)

Discoveries like these illuminate the lives of people who lived long ago. A better understand of peoples from the past gives us deeper understanding of people in our own time, which makes for a much more effective life.

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Paul’s Epistles now available for Photo Companion to the Bible

The excellent photo/commentary series from BiblePlaces has added Paul’s Epistles to its collection, and with a very generous sale price. You can get all nine biblical volumes for $129, which works out to around $14 per volume. (The regular cost per volume runs nearly 3x to 5x times more.) This is an amazing price for a wealth of commentary and other historical information, accompanied by thousands of high-quality photos relating to the biblical text. This promotion is ending soon! Buy all nine volumes for immediate download today.

As BiblePlaces.com describes the new volumes:

“We expect that many pastors, teachers, and serious Bible students will enjoy numerous insights and “aha” moments as they flip through more than 8,000 slides illustrating Paul’s 13 letters.

“As with our previous volumes, we have designed this resource to be:

Quick to access – jump straight to any chapter and verse

Easy to copy – right into your own presentations

Completely adaptable – every element can be changed to suit your needs

Beautiful – lots of engaging photos that take you to the biblical world

Full of helpful notes – background information about the site or artifact

Affordable – less than $10 per epistle when purchasing the set on sale

Excellent – the best visual tool for Bible study and teaching

My library includes the full Photo Companion to the Bible set, including these new volumes. I use them regularly when preparing sermons, Bible classes, or simply studying for my own enrichment. This resource is unlike anything else on the market today, and I highly recommend it.

Anyone who already owns the Romans and/or Corinthians volumes of this series can buy this complete set for a low upgrade price. See the BiblePlaces Paul’s Epistles website to pursue this option.

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A King’s John? Another Biblical-Era Toilet Found in Jerusalem

Archaeologists announced the discovery of a 2,700 year-old toilet, complete with septic tank, in a large ancient building along the Haas Promenade, just south of Jerusalem.

Stone toilet from Iron Age Judah (Divided Kingdom period), discovered along the Haas Promenade in Jerusalem. (Credit: Yoli Schwartz / Israel Antiquities Authority)

A couple of other toilets have been found in Jerusalem and Judah over the years, including the Lachish toilet in early 2016. An indoor toilet appears to have been a luxury afforded by a wealthy few during Iron Age Judah (a.k.a. the Divided Kingdom period).

This toilet has a septic tank that may have been cleaned out occasionally by servants or slaves. A number of bowls were found in the room, which archaeologist Yaakov Billig suggests may have held aromatic substances to act as air fresheners.

The large building may have been a royal palace of Judah. The location afforded a great view of the City of David, the Temple Mount, and the Mt. of Olives in the distance. (credit: YOLI SCHWARTZ/IAA)

Archaeologist Yaakov Billig, who excavated this toilet, notes this it was located in a palace-like building with Judahite royal capitals in its architecture. It may have belonged to a king of Judah. Could this have been the other throne of a biblical king?

Archaeology Yaakov Bullig examining the ancient toilet en situ. (Credit: Yoli Schwartz / Israel Antiquities Authority)

Learn more about this new discovery here and here.

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Join a Webinar on the Archaeology of David, Solomon, and Rehoboam

ASOR (the American Society for Overseas Research) is hosting a webinar this Sunday, Sept. 19, at 4:30pm (US Eastern Time) on “David, Solomon, and Rehoboam’s Kingdom – the Archaeological Evidence.”

In recent years, we have uncovered many things from the time of Israel & Judah’s first kings. I invite you to join this online session presented by Prof. Yossi Garfinkel, the Israeli archaeologist with whom I’ve worked. He will present new discoveries from Jerusalem and Lachish, plus Khirbet Qeiyafa and Khirbet al-Rai, two newly-excavated sites in biblical Judah.

 

The presentation will include Q&A, giving you an opportunity to communicate directly with the archaeologist. Registration is just a few dollars. Sign up at this link before Sunday to join in.

Posted in Ancient sites, archaeologists, Conferences & Meetings, Israel, Jerusalem, Khirbet a-Ra'i, Khirbet Arai, Khirbet Qeiyafa, Lachish, New Discoveries, Webinars & Online | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Archaeologist Dr. Eilat Mazar passes away

We just learned today that Dr. Eilat Mazar passed away in Jerusalem. No details have been released except that she will be buried tomorrow. She became widely known in the archaeological world for her discovery of “David’s Palace” in Jerusalem, among other biblically-related finds.

Here is a release from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where she taught.

(Jerusalem, May 25, 2021)—Dr. Eilat Mazar, a pioneering archaeology professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Institute of Archaeology died today, she was 64.  Mazar was a third-generation Israeli archaeologist who participated in digs from a young age, as the granddaughter of Benjamin Mazar who excavated the Land of Israel during the British Mandate period.  Eilat Mazar specialized in the Phoenician culture of Israel’s northern coastal plain and directed excavations in the City of David and the Temple Mount’s southern wall. 

During her tenure, Mazar discovered the possible remnants of King David’s palace and a portion of an ancient city wall presumed to be built by King Solomon. In 2013, Mazar unearthed a trove of gold coins and a rare Byzantine medallion with a menorah (candelabra) etched into it.  Most recently, Mazar made headlines when she unearthed clay seals “Belonging to Hezekiah, (son of) Ahaz, King of Judah” and later, seals that may have belonged to Isaiah the Prophet. 

Mazar is survived by a daughter and three sons.

In March of 2019, I had the privilege of meeting Eilat Mazar in Jerusalem. Ferrell Jenkins and I were visiting the archaeologist with whom I have worked, Prof. Yossi Garfinkel, who introduced us. May her family find comfort in this difficult time.

(L to R) Luke Chandler, Prof. Yossi Garfinkel, Dr. Eilat Mazar, Ferrell Jenkins in the pottery lab at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 2019.
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New BiblePlaces volume for 2 Samuel now available

The BiblePlaces photo collections continue to grow. The 2 Samuel volume is now available, and on sale.

This set illustrates the entire book through 2,900+ photos and is pre-formatted in PowerPoint for teaching. Each photo slide is accompanied by researched, scholarly commentary in the Notes. You can read a fuller description of the 2 Samuel (“Book of David”) volume here.

The 2 Samuel volume is currently on sale for $39, but this price won’t last. Order this resource now and begin to enjoy its benefits. Whether you’re a student or teacher, this will benefit your understanding of the people, places, and events in the Bible.

While ordering, be sure to browse for other Bible photo collections you haven’t yet acquired!

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ca. 2,000 year-old Bible texts found by Dead Sea, First since Dead Sea Scrolls

Scholars just announced the discovery of ancient biblical manuscripts in a previously-excavated cave near the Dead Sea. They appear to be from a scroll of the Minor Prophets and include passages Zechariah and Nahum. The texts are written in Greek but the name of God is rendered in Hebrew letters.

Read more about these and other finds in the cave here, here and here. You can also enjoy this short video of the discovery and the overall project.

This is the first actual text discovered in an ongoing project to salvage ancient artifacts and texts around the Dead Sea and Wilderness regions before looters get them first.

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