HISTORICAL AND ARCHAEOLOGICAL EVIDENCE by John Oakes
??So David triumphed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone; without a
sword in his hand he struck down the Philistine and killed him.? Many of us
grew up hearing this story at a Sunday school class or on our parent?s laps.
Is this a quaint story; a fable with a religious message, or is this a faithful
record of an actual event; part of the saga through which God brought the Son
of David, Jesus Christ, to Israel? This is an absolutely key question at the
very heart of Christianity. The Bible, far more than any other religious book,
finds its fundamental message steeped in an historical context.
If Moses did not really lead God?s people out of Egypt, as described in the
book of Numbers, then the Law of Moses is a man-made tradition. If David was
not the anointed ruler of Israel, then Jesus, the Son of David, was a pretender
to a false legacy. If the stories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph are just
the creation of imaginative and pious Jew in the second century BC, then Paul?s
statement in Romans 4:16,17 concerning Abraham, ?He is the father of us all.
As it is written: I have made you a father of many nations.? becomes meaningless,
Let us put it out there very clearly, if the events recorded in the Old Testament
are just religious stories with little or no basis in fact, then both the Old
and the New Testament lose nearly all their meaning, and Christianity becomes
a man-made religion. In that case, Christianity becomes what many religious philosophers
claim it is?one of many paths to the same thing. Do not be deceived. This is
the view of the vast majority of the intellectual elite, and believe it or not,
even of many supposed Christian theologians today.
Did David kill a giant of a man named Goliath with a stone from his sling, and
was this event a stepping stone to his eventually becoming king of Israel? These
questions are no mere intellectual exercise. And there is no middle ground here.
Either David killed Goliath or he did not. Fortunately, the discoveries of modern
archaeologists shed considerable light on this question. Archaeologists have
excavated the fortress at Gibeah. This was the chief fortress of Saul, the first
king of Israel. This is the same Saul who, according to the Biblical account,
tried to loan his armor to David for his battle with Goliath. The excavators
at Gibeah found proof that sling-shots were a primary part of the arsenal in
Saul?s army. David did not use a child?s toy to kill Goliath. In fact, given
Goliath?s far superior physical strength, David chose what was the most effective
military weapon available to him in the arsenal of the king.
It was quite common for theologians in the nineteenth century to claim that
King David was a fictional character, created by Jewish teachers in the post-exilic
period to teach moral lessons to Hebrew children. Did the teachers in the second
century BC know that the sling-shot was a standard weapon in the army of Israel
eight hundred years before? If King David is just a fictional character, then
how is one to explain the discovery by Avaram Biram in 1994 of an inscription
from the ninth century BC? This discovery, known as the Tel Dan inscription,
refers both to King David himself and to the dynasty which it calls the House
The Old Testament is absolutely full of historical details which could only
have been known to authors who were recording actual events in their own lifetimes
or soon thereafter. We will see many examples of this principle in the present
chapter. The excavation of King Saul?s palace, the evidence that slingshots were
a standard part of the military arsenal of Israel in the eleventh century BC,
the discovery of a stone inscription mentioning the household of King David
all lend historical credence to the story of David and Goliath.
Is there any actual physical evidence that David killed a huge soldier in the
Philistine army? No. In fact, it is difficult to imagine what that physical
evidence might be. The only conceivable direct evidence would be a carving in
bas-relief representing the battle. The problem with this is that the Jews were prohibited
from making carvings in human likeness by one of the Ten Commandments. Bear
in mind that the book of 1st Samuel records events which occurred three thousand
years ago. This is three hundred years before the founding of Rome, and over five
hundred years before the flowering of the Greek culture. The reign of King Saul
followed by only about one hundred years the semi-mythical battle of Troy, as
recorded in Homer?s Iliad. To date, there is no direct physical evidence of the
battle between David and his very tall adversary, but this is not surprising.
What the evidence of archaeology tells us is that the events recorded in 1st
Samuel are in perfect accord with both the historical and the cultural setting
of tenth and eleventh century BC Palestine. The book of 1st Samuel has every
appearance of being an accurate account of actual events.
This claim gains credence from a number of the events recorded in 1st Samuel
and the parallel account in 1st Chronicles that have been substantiated by archaeological
discoveries. For example, 1st Samuel mentions that after King Saul was slain
in battle, his armor was put in the temple of Ashtaroth (a Canaanite goddess)
in the city of Beth Shan. This is found in 1 Samuel 31:10. In what has been
described as a contradiction by Bible critics, 1st Chronicles records that King
Saul?s head was put into the temple of Dagon (a Philistine god) in the same city.
This story is found in 1 Chronicles 10:10. Those who would try to prove that
the Biblical accounts are a late fabrication have claimed that it is very unlikely
that there would have been temples to both Ashtaroth and Dagon in the same city
at the same time. They would claim that the accounts in 1 Samuel and 1 Chronicles
are in historical conflict with one another. Archaeological discoveries have
proven the Bible critics wrong once again. Excavations at Beth Shan have revealed
that there were indeed two separate temples in the city?one devoted to Dagon,
the other devoted to the Ashtoreths. In fact, the two temples were only separated
by a hallway. Those who would attack the historical reliability of the Old Test
ament will have to explain how the combined record of two separate authors could
be in such complete accord with the archaeological evidence. What are the chances
that someone writing an allegorical moralistic fable hundreds of years later
could have known that there were temples to both gods in Beth Shan at the time
of the death of King Saul?
A number of other archaeological finds which lend great credence to the Biblical
accounts of the life of David could be cited, but first it will be helpful to
back up and take a look at the big picture.
THE BIBLE AS HISTORY
The Bible is not a history book, but it is a book entirely immersed in history.
This is especially true of the Old Testament. In fact, it is impossible to understand
the New Testament message fully unless one sees the ministry of Jesus Christ
and the gospel itself as the culmination of the drama which was worked out in the
history of God?s people as recorded in the Old Testament. The story of the Old
Testament is the story of God preparing a people through whom to send the savior
of the world. As stated above, this makes Judaism/Christianity unique among
world religions. It is impossible to separate these religions from their history.
For anyone who is in doubt about the claim that the Old Testament is immersed
in history, consider the first three chapters of Joshua. These three chapters
alone contain the names of twenty-nine places, ten individual people and no
less than sixteen ?peoples? (the modern word nation does not really apply here).
Each of the twenty-nine cities or other places either existed or they did not.
One can search for these cities, and in fact a large proportion of the places
mentioned in these three chapters have been identified and at least partially excavated.
One gets the strong impression from reading the book of Joshua that in the fourteenth
century BC, Canaan contained a large number of small walled cities. Again, this
claim is verifiable. In addition, the sixteen ?peoples? of these three chapters,
such as the Hittites, the Hivites, the Jebusites and so forth either are real
or imaginary. Either they were real ethnic/cultural groups at that time or they
were not. Of course, Bible critics have in the past attacked all or nearly all
the peoples listed in Joshua as mere inventions. Archaeological studies to date
have confirmed the existence of nearly every group mentioned in these chapters.
Canaan in the fourteenth century BC was an extremely ethnically diverse place.
Does anyone really care what the names of all these peoples and cities were?
That is not the point. What is essential to the Bible believer is that the book
of Joshua records God using Joshua to lead his people from the wilderness, across
the Jordan River, into the Promised Land. Joshua, a living, breathing, historical
figure, is a symbol of Jesus, who brings followers of Jesus from the wilderness
of a sinful life, through the water (not of the Jordan river, but of baptism),
into the promised land of salvation and a life in fellowship with God. If the story
of Joshua is historical fiction, then the entire picture does not work. In Hebrews
4:8-11 the writer impiles that what Joshua did physically is what Jesus does
spiritually. If Joshua did not ?save? Israel physically, then in what sense does
Jesus save people spiritually?
For this reason, the question of the accuracy and reliability of the history
recorded in both the Old and New Testaments is absolutely essential to the validity
of the claims of Christianity. The goal of this chapter is to examine this question
It is not as if the writers of the Old Testament were professional historians.
In fact, at the time much of the Old Testament was written, there was no such
thing as a professional historian anywhere in the world. There was not a single
author who was trained to write a carefully researched historical account. The
methodology of careful historical writing had not even been invented. If the
Bible turns out to contain accurate and unbiased history, that would certainly
reveal a powerful mark of inspiration.
It will be helpful to compare the Bible as history to the work of the greatest
historians of the ancient world. Perhaps most appropriate is to compare it to
the works of the Greek writer Herodotus. Herodotus lived from about 480-425
BC. The Bible was written down over about a one thousand year span, beginning somewhere
around 1400 BC, ending with the writing of Malachi, in approximately 440BC.
Therefore, the last of the biblical writers was a contemporary of Herodotus,
the ?father of history.?
Clearly, there were many chroniclers in the ancient world before Herodotus.
Since the beginnings of human kind, oral histories had been passed down. These
oral histories, of course, were extremely susceptible to distortions, exaggerations,
and downright fabrications. Herodotus is considered by most historians to be
the first true, systematic historian. He took pains to travel throughout the
known world looking for primary sources. Besides, Herodotus was a great writer.
Many consider him not only the first, but also the greatest historian of the ancient
world. The question is, in terms of accurate and reliable history, how does
Herodotus compare to the Old Testament as history?
Remember, this is a key question in the overall case for the inspiration of
the Bible. If the Bible contains bogus or highly distorted historical accounts,
as its critics would claim, then the statement of Paul in 2 Timothy 3:16, ?All
Scripture is inspired by God,? is simply not correct. Jesus himself often referred
to events recorded in the Old Testament as if they were factual events. There
is no getting around this question, so it must be faced. Therefore, it is necessary
to ask the question, how does the Bible as history stand up to Herodotus?
There is much to be commended in the writings of Herodotus. As already stated,
he took great pains to find primary sources. He studied inscriptions and where
possible interviewed eyewitnesses or those who had known eyewitnesses to events.
He traveled from Greece to Italy, Asia Minor, Southern Russia, Palestine, Babylon,
Susa (the capital of Persia), Egypt and other parts of Northern Africa. His
attention to detail and the clarity of his writing style serve even today as
a model for historians. However, despite his painstaking efforts, the histories
of Herodotus cannot even hold a candle to that found in the Old Testament in
terms of accuracy and reliability. This is a big claim, but consider some of
Although Herodotus did do a lot of his own research, he accepted into his histories
much of what is clearly local myth and fable. He did this, not so much because
he could not tell the difference between fact and myth, but more likely to liven
up his writings. Herodotus was not unwilling to include a fable if it served as
a useful illustration of one of the themes of his histories. One finds his writings
laced with the phrase ?It is said,? or ?I was told,? as Herodotus recorded local
legends which even he obviously did not take at face value. In fact, Herodotus
often said in his histories, ?But I did not believe a word of it.? Can you imagine
a phrase like that in the Bible?
For example, Herodotus described of the founding of the Oracle of Zeus at Dodona.
?Two black doves, long ago, flew from Thebes in Egypt (over a thousand miles
away). One arrived on an oak at Dodona and spoke (in Greek?) with a human voice,
telling all there that in that place would be founded an oracle of Zeus. Here
Herodotus included what is obviously a local fable in his histories.
Herodotus also chronicled the campaigns of the Persian King Cambysses in Egypt.
He described the Ethiopians, who ?manacled their prisoners with gold chains,
lived to be a hundred and twenty, drank water from a spring which smelled like
violets, used bows which no one but themselves could bend,?? and the like. According
to Herodotus, the entire army of Cambysses, a quarter of a million men, was
lost in a sandstorm in the desert and never seen again. Herodotus described
ants ?as big as foxes? in India as well as flying snakes in Arabia. According
to the Father of History, the female flying snakes bit off the heads of the
males after mating. Herodotus also passed on the reports of a tribe of one-eyed
Scythians and griffins who guarded their gold. In the words of one historian;
Thus we have in Herodotus? account, mixed up with first-hand
reporting of the greatest value and interest, a number of
contemporary folk-tales and local legends which, though not
history in the strict sense, are yet assuredly a part of history,
as representing what the common man believed about his
Does the Bible, like the Histories of Herodotus, contain folk-tales, local legends
and stories which represent ?what the common man believed about his past?? The
emphatic answer is no. As we will see clearly, the Bible is free of such clutter
in its history.
The histories of Herodotus contain not only fables, but also obvious inaccuracies.
He had Solon, the great Athenian statesman, visiting Croesus, king of Lydia,
well after Solon was dead. He described the armies of the Persian King Xerxes
as he crossed the Dardenelles Straits. According to Herodotus, the army was composed
of two and one-half million soldiers. In addition, he mentioned two and one-half
million camp workers of all sorts, besides an innumerable group of other hangers-on.
This would be an army with a total of well over five million people. No wonder Herodotus
described this army as literally drinking the rivers of Greece dry! No one can
believe these numbers. Despite the claims of its critics, we will see that the
Old Testament simply does not contain this type of blatant errors.
One could list hundreds of examples of blatant inaccuracies, as well as of obvious
myths and legends from the writings of Herodotus. However, his contemporaries
criticized Herodotus, not for these problems, but for his obvious bias toward
his friends the Athenians. The principle subject of his histories was the struggle
of the Greeks to repel the attacks of the Persians under Darius and Xerxes,
and the subsequent civil wars between Athens and her allies and the Spartans
and their allies. In these events, Herodotus is persistently favorable to the
Athenian version of the events. To quote the historian Aubrey de Selincourt;
However, it is not for this sort of innocent falsification
of fact that the Father of History came to be known as the
Father of Lies. It was for a much more characteristically
human reason, namely, that the tone of Herodotus? book is
strongly pro-Athenian, and the enemies of Athens, very
naturally, resented what they considered this absurd prejudice
and did what they could to discredit the author of it.
In calling Herodotus the ?Father of Lies? his critics were being unfair to him.
Despite his obvious bias, Herodotus generally did not fabricate lies to make
Athens look good. To be fair to Herodotus, he probably wrote a more fair-minded
history than just about any before him. Nevertheless, he was guilty of blatant
bias in favor of his friends. Can the same be said for the history recorded
in the Bible? Did the Biblical writers record a version of events which ignored
the failings of Israel, and exaggerated the failings of her enemies? Does the history
recorded in the Old Testament paint a rosy picture of God?s people and especially
of the leaders of the Israelites?
Anyone who has read even a little bit of the Old Testament will find that question
very easy to answer. The Old Testament is brutally honest about the failings
of both the people and their leaders. This is absolutely unique amongst ancient
writings. Virtually all the chronicles left behind by ancient cultures mention only
their victories. If they refer to the defeats of their kings or their armies
at all, they are referred to in a very indirect way. The Old Testament is a
striking exception to this rule. The many defeats and humiliations of the people
of Israel are described in as much detail as the great victories.
In the inscriptions left behind by such leaders as the pharaohs of Egypt or
the Emperors of Assyria, the leaders are praised for their wisdom and strength.
These rulers seem almost god-like in their perfection. Anyone reading these
accounts can be sure that these are highly biased records. To quote a well-known
The peoples of the ancient Near East kept historical records to impress their
gods and also potential enemies, and therefore rarely, if ever, mentioned defeats
or catastrophes. Records of disasters would not enhance the reputation of the
Egyptians in the eyes of their gods, nor make their enemies more afraid of their
In the Bible, the greatest heroes are presented ?warts and all.? King David
is a hero, but also an adulterer and a poor father. Jacob is a man of great
faith, but he is also a jealous deceiver. Abraham, Gideon, Solomon, and Hezekiah
are all Bible heroes, but they all are seen to have sins and character weaknesses.
To an extent far greater than any other ancient history, the Bible authors were
not afraid to air their dirty laundry. Again, the Old Testament shows its history
to be far superior to that of Herodotus, the ?Father of History.?
One is forced to ask how it could be that the history recorded in the Old Testament,
written by dozens of authors over a thousand year period could be singularly
superior in both its accuracy and lack of bias to all the histories of contemporary
peoples. Even the father of history cannot hold a candle to the Old Testament.
To put it simply, the Old Testament is the greatest, the most accurate, the
most reliable, the most unbiased historical account we have from the ancient
world. How could this be? Could this be a sign of inspiration?
Actually, the rather strong claims for accuracy and lack of bias for the Old
Testament made in the previous paragraph have not yet been proven, at least
not in this book. Perhaps the author has gotten ahead of himself. It is required
to present a detailed case for the accuracy of the Bible as history. Let the story of
David and Goliath serve as an opening example. It is time to start with Genesis
and continue right on through to Revelation, investigating the Bible as history.
HISTORY AND THE OLD TESTAMENT
The purpose of this section, then, is to present evidence relating to the accuracy
and reliability of the Old Testament as an historical document. Actually, the
examples used will not start with Genesis chapter one. The accounts contained
in Genesis chapters one through ten, including the creation and fall of man, the
story of Cain and Abel, and the account of the flood are from a period of pre-history.
It is difficult or impossible to even assign dates to these events, despite
attempts by some to do so. Our study of the Old Testament as history will begin
Before doing a more detailed study, it will be useful to keep a few points in
mind as one looks at the Old Testament.
1. From the time of Abraham to the time Israel left Egypt under
Moses, the people of God are described in the Bible as a small and
relatively insignificant tribe. It would be expected that records of
actual people and events described in the Old Testament from this
period will not be found by archaeologists for the simple reason that
the people of God had very little impact on historical events. As
much as you or I might hate to admit it, we will probably not be
remembered by historians a thousand years from now. In this
section, what will be required is to show that the language, the
traditions, the culture, the religious background and so forth found
in the biblical accounts are in agreement with what is known from
archaeological evidence of the same time and place as the events
recorded in Genesis.
2. From the time of King David on (about 1050 BC), there should be
increasing actual historical and archaeological evidence in support
of the Biblical accounts, because at this point, Israel became a
3. The cultural/historical/religious background for Genesis chapters
11-38 (Abraham through Jacob) should be that of Mesopotamia
somewhere between 2000 and 1800 BC. Anything found in this
part of Genesis from outside this culture and time frame would be
4. The cultural/historical/religious background of Genesis 39 through
Deuteronomy (Joseph through Moses) should be that of Egypt from
around 1800 to 1400 BC.
5. The cultural/historical/religious background of Joshua through 2nd
Chronicles (Joshua through the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC)
should be that of Palestine after about 1400 BC.
Included below is a table which supplies time periods for the important phases
in the history of Israel. For the earlier periods, the years are only approximate.
For the later periods, dates become fairly exact because comparison to historical
records and astronomical events can be made. In addition, a table relating the
dominant political power in Palestine over the same time period is supplied.
This will provide helpful context to the archaeological evidence to be presented.
Important periods in the history of Israel
Period in the history of Israel
The Patriarchs; Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph
Moses and Joshua; the Exodus and the Conquest.
The Period of the Judges. Deborah, Jephthah, Gideon and Samuel.
The United Kingdom. Saul, David, Solomon and Rehoboam.
The Northern Kingdom (Samaria). Destruction and captivity under Assyria.
The Southern Kingdom (Judah). Destruction and captivity under Babylon.
Defeat and destruction of Jerusalem. The period of the exile in Babylon.
Return of the captives, rebuilding of the temple and of Jerusalem.
The period ?between the Testaments.?
THE PATRIARCHAL PERIOD
We will begin, then, with the time of Abraham. In the Bible, Abraham is the
father of Israel, both spiritually and by descent.
Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by
grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham?s offspring?not
only to those who are of the law but also to those who are of
the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all. As it is
written, ?I have made you the father of many nations.?
Abraham is an extremely important figure in the history of Israel. However,
he was a fairly minor player on the stage of world history. Therefore, one would
not expect to find much in the way of direct physical evidence of Abraham and
his clan. What is expected is that if the account of Abraham and his descendents,
Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob and Esau is accurate, then Genesis 11-38 should reflect
what is known of the history, the culture and the religious atmosphere of Mesopotamia
in around 1800 BC.
Dominant powers in Palestine during
Hittites and the Egyptians
Alexander and the Greek Dynasties
After 63 BC
First of all, the Bible records that Abraham was born in the city of Ur. The
remains of the city of Ur are located in southern Iraq, in Mesopotamia. Ur was
one of the leading cities in the Babylonian period, around 2000 BC. It has been
excavated by Sir Leonard Wooley and others. Ur was a large city with prosperous
trade industries. This was definitely not the case twelve hundred or more years
later when Bible critics contend the story of Abraham was made up. How did these
people know of Ur? Genesis chapter eleven records Abraham?s father Terah moving his
family to Haran. One gets the impression that Haran was a smaller city, more
on the outskirts of Babylonian culture. This is exactly the case. The ruins
of Haran have also been excavated. It is a smaller, but still significant city in the
Northwest of Mesopotamia. The city was abandoned around 1800 BC, not long after
the biblical account has Abraham living there. It is extremely unlikely that
someone making up a story of Abraham hundreds of years later would have had him
living in a city which had not even been heard of for hundreds of years.
need a map of the Near East here
Another example of archaeological evidence which parallels Genesis is in the
names of places and people. In 1975 a storeroom in the ancient city of Ebla
was uncovered which contained 17,000 clay tablets. Ebla was a powerful city
in what is now Syria, in the region between Mesopotamia and Palestine. The peak
of importance for Ebla was around 2500-2000 BC. On these tablets, a number of
names are recorded. Included are the names Isaac, Jacob, and Abraham, as well
as the names of Abraham?s father, grandfather and great grandfather, Terah, Nahor and
Serug. These names are also known from other sources in Northwest Mesopotamia
in both Babylonian and Old Assyrian texts. Interestingly, the names of the patriarchs
are rare or unknown in extant material from later centuries. To understand the importance
of this evidence, imagine reading a letter which is claimed to habe been written
in the U. S. in the year 1900, referring to people named Tabitha or Courtney.
One would know right away that the letter was a fake. Similarly, if one were
to reading a letter between friends in the 1990?s containing names such as Harold,
Rutherford or Gertrude, one would know a serious mistake was made. As expected,
the names of the patriarchs fit the historical and cultural context of Mesopot
amia at around 2000 BC.
It is not just the names of Abraham?s relatives which fit the correct context
as described in Genesis. For example, Genesis 14 mentions a coalition of kings
which fought against Abraham and his allies. Among them is Kedorlaomer, king
of Elam. At first, it may seem unlikely that Kedorlaomer would be involved in
a campaign in Palestine, as Elam is very far from Palestine. Yet, the name Kedorlaomer
has been found in ancient Elamite inscriptions. Could someone making up a story
hundreds of years later have known that Kedorlaomer was the name of a ruler in