Biblical archaeology provides glimpses into the lives of ancient people who helped to shape our modern culture. The discoveries I have chosen to highlight are from the top ten Biblical archaeology finds of the twentieth century as identified by Dr. Keith N. Schoville of the University of Wisconsin. The commentary is excerpted from Schoville's notes. Except for the Dead Sea Scrolls, these are largely unknown to the general public, but they are quite spectacular. They are also quite uncontroversial: Biblical archaeologists are pretty much in agreement as to what they are and what inferences can be drawn from them. More extensive commentary and citations are available at the link:
1. The Dead Sea Scrolls
Among the more than eight hundred documents represented by whole scrolls, incomplete scrolls, and a myriad of fragments which have been recovered are complete copies or portions of all the books in the Hebrew Bible (our OT), except for the Book of Esther. These texts are older by at least a thousand years than any previous biblical texts written in Hebrew that we had prior to the discovery. They provide a window into the textual history of the OT prior to the closure of the canon.
2. The House of David inscription
The pavement and the wall where [this fragment and others mentioning the House of David] was found was laid at the end of the 9th or beginning of the 8th century BC, according to pottery fragments recovered in probes beneath the flagstone pavement. Since the fragment and the entire pavement was covered by the debris of the Assyrian destruction of Tiglath Pileser III, in 732 BC, it could not have been laid latter than that year.
The discovery [of this fragment] provides an archaeological connection to the biblical references to the ruling dynasty established by King David approximately two centuries before the events that are mentioned in the inscription. It is the first mention of King David and the earliest mention of a biblical figure outside of the Bible. The discovery is of particular importance in the face of those scholars who were either skeptical or denied the historical existence of King David.
3. The amulet scroll
[This artifact is] "a rolled-up amulet bearing the tetragrammaton, the name of God (the consonantal letters yod, he, waw, he), YHWH.
The tomb dates to the end of the Davidic dynasty, approximately the seventh century BC. The silver amulet thus dates to the end of the seventh or early sixth century. The prayer-like inscription containing the divine name provides the oldest extra-biblical evidence for the name of God thus far archaeologically recovered in Jerusalem. The scripture passage on the amulet is from the Aaronic or priestly blessing found in Num 6:24-25. The owner apparently wore the inscribed, rolled-up silver amulet during his/her lifetime, and people felt it appropriate that such objects should accompany the owner in death as in life.
4. The Galilee boat
This is the first . . . ancient boat . . . discovered in the Sea of Galilee.
. . . On the basis of pottery fragments found in the boat, it has been dated between the latter part of the first century BC to approximately the mid-century AD . . . . Evidence was found that the boat could be both sailed and/or rowed. Apparently the boat could accommodate four oarsmen plus a helmsman. It is estimated that the boat could hold some fifteen individuals, similar to the boats in which Jesus and his twelve disciples traveled across the sea. . .
5. The Baruch bulla
Once an official document was written [in ancient Israel], it would be rolled up, one end folded in one-third of the breadth and the opposite end similarly folded in. The document, now shortened by folding, was tied with a string ;and a lump of clay [called a bulla] was impressed on the knotted string. . . .
The script used [in this bulla] is the pre-exilic ancient Hebrew linear script, rather than the post-exilic script adopted by Jews from the contemporary Aramaic script. Reading the Hebrew from right to left, the first letter, Heb (l), is the preposition "to, belonging to," and the last three letters, (yhw)is a shortened form of the name of God, (yhwh), the shortened form was likely pronounced "yahu." Baruch's name means "Blessed of the Lord (Yahweh)."
This bulla was without doubt from the impression of Baruch ben Neriah , the scribe who wrote to the dictation of the prophet Jeremiah (Jer 36:4).
6.The Caiaphas ossuary
An ossuary is a stone bone box, used for secondary burials. Initially the body is laid to rest in a burial niche. After decomposition, the bones were collected and placed in an ossuary, making the burial niche available for a subsequent burial. Tombs belonged to families, so subsequent burials were normal. Two of a dozen ossuaries in [a] tomb [discovered in 1990] contained a form of the name Qafa', or Caiaphas. Several of the ossuaries were decorated with traditional carved rosettes, zig-zag patterns, and other designs. The most intricately carved ossuary was decorated with two circles each containing five rosettes, and twice carved into an undecorated side appears the name, "Yehosef bar Qafa'" (Joseph son of Caiaphas). The ossuary contained the remains of six people: two infants, a child aged two to five, a boy aged 13 to 18, an adult female and a man about 60 years old. The latter are believed to be the bones of Caiaphas, before whom Jesus was brought for questioning.
7. The Pontius Pilate inscription
[This] dedicatory stone . . . bore a three-line inscription: Tiberieum/[Pon]tius Pilatus/[Praef]ectus Iuda[eae], "Tiberius [the Roman emperor of the period]/Pontius Pilate/Prefect of Judea." The stone, in secondary use in the theatre at Caesarea, had been shaped to fit its new use and in the process some of the inscription had been mutilated, although it was easily reconstructed. The inscription not only confirms the historicity of Pilate, it clarifies the title that he bore as governor.