by Stephen Caesar
Yearly excavations at the Philistine city of Ashkelon (Judg. 14:19) by Harvard University have turned up numerous proofs of the historicity of the Old Testament. The first major Ashkelon discovery relates to the gold calf-idol which the Israelites constructed in Moses' absence (Ex. 32:4). The prototype of this Canaanite idol was excavated by the expedition in 1990. Time magazine reported: "...while scientists have unearthed a few examples of bovine idols, they have never found a calf that predates the Exodus, which scholars think took place between 1500 and 1200 BC. Last week, though, a team of Harvard archeologists announced they had done just that."1 Dr. Lawrence Stager, director of Harvard's Semitic Museum and the expedition's leader, dated the calf to around 1550 BC. This date, derived from the pottery around the diminutive calf-idol, "supports the belief that the Israelites took some of their religious practices from other Canaanites," according to Time.2 The Old Testament contains numerous condemnations of the Israelites' abandonment of Yahweh in favor of Canaanite gods (1 Kgs. 18:21, 2 Kgs. 23:13, etc.).
Destruction of Ashkelon
The expedition of 1995 provided even more details regarding the Old Testament's historical accuracy. Jeremiah 47 recounts the conquest of Philistia by the Chaldeans under Nebuchadnezzar. This army obliterated Philistia's major cities, including Ashkelon. Excavators there unearthed two large mud brick towers on the crest of a sloping wall, about 60 feet apart. Stager surmised that they were part of a defensive chain of 50 towers fortifying the city during the Chaldean assault. He dated the destruction of the towers to the very late seventh century BC, the time of Nebuchadnezzar's invasion.
Examining the ruins of the city's interior, Stager found graphic evidence of the Babylonian conquest, including charred wood, crushed pottery, charcoal, a plundered bazaar, and mud bricks that had been turned to glass by the fire that destroyed the city.3 The evidence for the fiery destruction of Ashkelon was so overwhelming that Dr. Stager wrote: "One thing is clear: this large, sophisticated Philistine metropolis of the late seventh century BC was thoroughly destroyed. The destruction of Philistine Ashkelon was complete and final."4
Another discovery reinforcing the Old Testament's historical reliability involved a collapsed roof that Stager's team found amid the rubble of the conquest. Sitting on top of the remains of the roof was a small sandstone altar used to offer burnt incense to the Philistine gods. Jeremiah 32:29 condemns the apostate Israelites for adopting just such a sin: "And the Chaldeans, that fight against this city, shall come and set fire on this city, and burn it with the houses, upon whose roofs they have offered incense unto Baal." Dr. Stager comments on his discovery of this rooftop pagan altar: "This is the first time anyone has found stratified evidence for rooftop altars....Jeremiah obviously knew what he was talking about, and we now have an example of a rooftop altar from Ashkelon."5
The above examples are only a handful in an entire panoply of evidences bolstering the historical accuracy of the Old Testament. It is little wonder that so many top archaeologists have publicly stated that their field of study has firmly established the historical reliability of the Old Testament. Among them is Avraham Biran, head of the team that discovered the "House of David" inscription. Prof. Biran commented, "I would say the evidence (establishing the validity of the Old Testament) is overwhelming."6
Keith N. Schoville, professor of archaeology at the University of Wisconsin - Madison, wrote that "archaeological excavations have produced ample evidence to prove unequivocally that the Bible is not a pious forgery. Thus far, no historical statement in the Bible has been proven false on the basis of evidence retrieved through archaeological research."7
J. A. Thompson, Ph.D., Director of the Australian Institute of Archaeology and chairman in the Department of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Melbourne, stated: "...it is perfectly true to say that biblical archaeology has done a great deal to correct the impression that was abroad at the close of the [nineteenth] century and in the early part of [the twentieth] century, that biblical history was of doubtful trustworthiness in many places. If one impression stands out more clearly than any other today, it is that on all hands the over-all historicity of the Old Testament tradition is admitted" [Archaeology and the Religion of Israel (1966), p. 176].8
Elsewhere Dr. Albright, director of the American School of Oriental Research, professor of Semitic languages at Johns Hopkins University, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences, wrote: "The historical foundations of early Israelite tradition are becoming more and more solidly established by the progress of archaeological discovery."9
Other well-respected archaeologists convinced of the historicity of the Old Testament include Prof. Kathleen Kenyon, formerly director of the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem and author of Archaeology in the Holy Land, and Dr. Nelson Glueck, director of the American School of Oriental Research in Jerusalem and field director of the American School of Oriental Research in Baghdad.
Dr. Glueck wrote: "...it may be stated categorically that no archaeological discovery has ever controverted a biblical reference. Scores of archaeological findings have been made which confirm in clear outline or in exact detail historical statements in the Bible. And, by the same token, proper evaluation of Biblical descriptions has often led to amazing discoveries. They form tesserae in the vast mosaic of the Bible's almost incredibly correct historical memory."10
Based on statements like these and on the discoveries discussed above, it can safely be said that there is no longer any need to doubt the historicity of the Old Testament from an archaeological point of view.
Stephen Caesar is currently pursuing his master's degree in archaeology at Harvard University. He participated in that institution's excavation at Ashkelon last summer.
1 Michael Lemonis, "A figurine backs the tale of Moses and the idolatrous Israelites," Time, 6 Aug., 1990, p. 57.
3 Lawrence Stager, "The Fury of Babylon: Ashkelon and the Archaeology of Destruction" Biblical Archaeology Review 22, No. 1 (1996), p. 76.
4 Ibid., p. 69.
5 Ibid., p. 59.
6 Michael S. Arnold, "Palestinians' new gospel: their history of Israel," Boston Globe, 14 Sept., 1997, p. D3.
7 Keith N. Schoville, Biblical Archaeology in Focus (Grand Rapids, Baker Book House, 2nd printing, 1982), p. 156.
8 J. A. Thompson, The Bible and Archaeology (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1962), p. 5
9 William Foxwell Albright, From the Stone Age to Christianity, 2nd ed. (Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1957), p. 13.
10 Nelson Glueck, Rivers in the Desert (New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1959), p. 31.