New evidence for Jewish exiles found in clay tablets

Here’s a brief article by Mark Chavalas (University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse) about some clay tablets that reveal what life was like for Judeans exiled from their homeland by the Babylonians in the sixth century BC.

A snippet:

The texts were written by professional Babylonian scribes on behalf of their Jewish lower middle-class clients, who engaged in the cultivation of grains and date palms, bought and sold cattle, rented houses, loaned silver, sold slaves, and engaged in marriage alliances. Though some even prospered economically, most were settled in state-owned land in return for military service for Babylon, By a cursory study of the personal names in the tablets, it appears that at least three generations of Jews lived in Al-Yahudu and surrounding towns.

Read more here: Mark Chavalas: New evidence for Jewish exiles found in clay tablets.

You’ll even discover the origin of Zumba!

A clay tablet from 572 BCE, the earliest known text documenting the Judean exile in Babylonia, now on display at the Bible Lands Museum (photo credit: Ardon Bar-Hama courtesy of The Bible Lands Museum, care of The Times of Israel)

Why did Jesus die?

For Good Friday, I’m reissuing a post I wrote a few years ago. And appropriately, this Good Friday (April 3rd) is exactly 1982 years to the day since the death of Jesus.


I really enjoy the ‘rock opera’ Jesus Christ Superstar by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice.¹ Despite its somewhat apocryphal take on the events leading up to Jesus’ death, one of the things it tries to do is explore the reasons why Jesus, about whom there was so much excitement, ended up dead on a Roman cross. In the climactic title song, Judas asks of Jesus,

Did you mean to die like that — was that a mistake?
Or did you know your messy death would be a record breaker?

There are a numbers of ways we could answer the question ‘Why did Jesus die?’ On the historical level, we can say that Jesus was caught between the crunching gears of apocalyptic messianic expectation, Jewish temple politics, and Roman imperial intrigue. On the theological level, there is so much more to say.

On the Sunday before his death, Jesus entered Jerusalem riding a donkey to the frenzied cheers of his followers. It was a provocative messianic stunt, aimed at fulfilling the image of the returning Davidic King in Zechariah 9.9. And his followers were not blind to its significance. Their cry of ‘Hosanna!’ was a slogan meaning ‘To the rescue!’ Here was the Davidic messiah coming to his royal capital to overthrow the current order, free his people, and establish the new Kingdom of God. The following day, in a brash act prefiguring the end of the old order, Jesus marched into the temple complex and overturned the tables of the moneychangers and opened the pens holding sacrificial animals for sale. A small riot seems to have ensued. By doing this symbolic act, Jesus was clearly stating that he believed the temple and the authorities that ran it were no longer in favour with God. Time was rapidly running out — the time of judgement and the dawn of a new era were now imminent. Jesus was, in other words, playing the part of an apocalyptic prophet.

For the remainder of the week, the temple authorities worked to arrest Jesus. After trying unsuccessfully to discredit him publicly, and fearing the incendiary riot that a public arrest would probably spark, they managed to arrest him on the sly by bribing Judas Iscariot, a member of Jesus’ inner circle. A summary Jewish trial ensued. In fact, it was probably an illegal trial, since it was held during the midnight hours within the house of the High Priest, Caiaphas. It seems that those present tried to pin the charge of treason on Jesus by implicating him for threats against the temple, the institution that stood at the heart of Jewish identity and piety. This would be akin to charging someone today with a plot to blow up the White House. Given events earlier in the week, one would have thought it would be easy to implicate Jesus. However, the Gospels tell us that the witnesses brought forward could not agree, and therefore Jesus could not definitively be found guilty. However, the High Priest, Caiaphas, used another strategy. He asked Jesus if he was the Son of God. In asking this, Caiaphas was probably not asking Jesus whether he believed he was the second person on the Trinity. Rather, he was asking Jesus whether he believed himself to be the messiah — the son of David who was to sit eternally on the throne of Israel, for the son of David in the Hebrew Bible was also seen as the ‘son of God’ (see 2 Samuel 7.14). Jesus’ response implied that he did believe this. But even more than this, Jesus appealed to the image of the Son of Man in Daniel 7 — an apocalyptic image of God’s chosen one who would bring about the end of the world order and establish God’s eternal kingdom. In the eyes of the authorities, this was an admission of revolutionary intent. Jesus was found guilty.

Since the Jewish authorities at this time were unable to exact the death penalty (it had been revoked by Rome a few decades earlier), Jesus was hurried off to the Roman Prefect, Pontius Pilate. Politically, Pilate was fighting battles on two fronts. On the one hand, Pilate was probably a protégé of Aelius Sejanus, who had been running the Roman Empire for a few years while the emperor, Tiberius Caesar, enjoyed a leisurely lifestyle on the Italian isle of Capri. However, in October, AD 31, Sejanus was executed for conspiracy against the emperor. Anyone connected to him was now also under suspicion. Pilate, therefore, would have had to watch his steps very closely to demonstrate unambiguously that he was loyal to Tiberius Caesar. On the other hand, though, Pilate had to maintain face and an air of authority over those he governed. In the years before Sejanus’ ignominious death, Pilate had thrown his weight around in various displays of power. Amongst those he needed to keep in check were the Jewish temple authorities. One of the ways he had managed to do so was to plunder the temple’s treasury for public works, and to keep the High Priest’s ceremonial garments under lock and key in the Antonia Fortress. These measures were belittling to the Jewish temple authorities and told them in no uncertain terms who was boss.

So, on the morning of Friday, April 3rd, AD 33, the Jewish authorities brought Jesus to Pilate to seek the death penalty for him. Normally, it would appear that the Jewish authorities were in the position of grovelling subordinates, and thus for Pilate to agree to the death penalty would simply be a show of his own authority. However, Pilate also had to contend for his own reputation now that he was in the spotlight after Sejanus’ death. He could not afford to show any weakness before those he governed, and acquiescing to their request could now be interpreted as just such a weakness. And yet, he could not be seen to be letting a potential revolutionary go free either. That would endanger his standing with the emperor. Accordingly, Pilate attempted to hand the decision over to someone else — to Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee and Perea, who was in Jerusalem at the time. However, the move backfired. Jesus was returned to Pilate, who now had to make a decision. Not wishing to imply that he was vulnerable or susceptible to weakness, Pilate himself questioned Jesus, flogged him in a display of Rome’s discipline, and was then on the verge of releasing him. By thus overriding the request of the Jewish leaders for the death penalty, Pilate was stamping his authority over them. However, Caiaphas and his comrades were not stupid. They now held the trump card. John’s Gospel tells us that the Jewish authorities said to Pilate, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend” (19.12). They were implying that if he were to release Jesus, Pilate would be letting an insurrectionist go free to destabilise one of the imperial provinces that Tiberius governed directly (as opposed to consular provinces, which were governed via the Roman Senate). This would implicate Pilate as a traitor to the emperor. To put it another way, the Jewish authorities were asking Pilate, “Whose skin do you want to save: this nuisance from Nazareth’s, or your own?”

Checkmate!

Pilate summarily ordered the execution of Jesus. He was led outside the city walls of Jerusalem with two other condemned criminals, and was barbarically nailed to a cross and left to die a searingly painful death. The charge against him? Jesus of Nazareth: King of the Jews.

On the surface of things, it seems that Jesus was in the wrong place at the wrong time — a victim of circumstance, crushed by political machinations that were far bigger than he could humanly control. Some have pointed to the apocalyptic outlook that Jesus had, in wanting to draw the old order to a close and establish a new order, concluding that it was idealistic, unreal, and fraught with danger — that his beliefs and motivations just got him in too deep. Indeed, one can understand why most of his followers abandoned him and became so disillusioned by his death. He was an apparent failure. All the expectation surrounding him had come to nought, and like so many others before him, he fell foul of theauthorities and lost his life because of it.

But history also tells us something else. It tell us that not long after these events, Jesus’ followers reassembled and began boldly proclaiming that on the Sunday after his death Jesus had emerged from his tomb alive again. And despite attempts to silence them by the very same authorities who had Jesus arrested and killed, they continued to proclaim the resurrection of their master. He had not been a failure. He had been a fulfiller. He had indeed brought the old era to an end and inaugurated a new one, but had done so in a way that no one had anticipated: through his death. The Acts of the Apostles tell us that on one occasion, after being reprimanded by the Jewish authorities, Jesus’ followers prayed to God affirming, “In this city, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, conspired against your holy servant,Jesus, whom you anointed, doing what your hand and your plan had predestined to take place” (Acts 4.27–28). This had been no accident of history. In fact, this was what God had been mobilising all of history towards: the death and resurrection of Jesus. It was a moment of supreme fulfilment. This was the central moment of human history that held significance for every man, woman, and child who has ever lived or ever will live. The final bell on the old order, characterised by sin, death, hate, hostility, and human failure, had sounded. The new era offorgiveness, life, love, peace, and reconciliation was now dawning. Jesus had not only met expectations, he far exceeded them.

So why did Jesus die? There are so many things we could say to unpack the significance of Jesus’ death and his resurrection. The Apostle Paul puts it succinctly well, though, in Romans 4.25: “He was handed over for our transgressions, and raised for the sake of our justification.” And our response? Paul again captures it well in Galatians 2.20: “The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

Related: Why the Tearing of the Temple Curtain is a Bad Thing


¹ This is not an endorsement of the ‘theology’ of Jesus Christ Superstar (in fact, I have major problems with some of it). It’s merely an acknowledgement that I enjoy it as a musical and thematic experience, just as someone might really enjoy a movie without endorsing all the action that occurs within it. Appreciation does not necessitate agreement.

New Perspectives on the Philistines by Aren Maeir

Aren Maeir (Bar Ilan University) heads up the excavation team at Tell es-Safi (the site of ancient Gath). Not only is he one of the world’s leading experts on the ancient Philistines, he’s also a really nice guy, and a would-be pirate (just call him ARRRen).

Aren Maeir beside a Philistine altar excavated at Tell es-Safi (ancient Gath)

Aren recently presented a lecture at the College de France in Paris, in which he discussed the most recent archaeological evidence that has led us to update our understanding of Philistine origins, culture, and interactions with the Israelites. It’s fascinating stuff, and a must for those wanting to get up to speed with where research is currently at.

The lecture is in the clip below. Please also check out Aren’s blog on the excavations at Gath here: https://gath.wordpress.com/

Enjoy!

Have we found a stone block from the Actual Second Temple Building?

Israeli archaeologists have discovered an unusual stone among the many making up the Western Wall in Jerusalem. The Western Wall is the only remaining structure of the Second Temple that was lavishly refurbished by Herod. The stone in question was discovered beneath the soil at the lowest foundations of the Wall. What’s so unusual about it? All the large stone blocks used in the Western Wall are ‘bossed’ masonry. That is, they have a carved margin around the edges that give the blocks a sense of depth. But this one particular stone lacks the margin, making it unique.

Eli Shukron examines bossed stones at the foundations of the Western Wall (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner, 2011)

So the question is why is this one stone block unbossed, and why was it buried amongst the foundations of the Western Wall? Israeli archaeologist Eli Shukron has a theory:

This stone came from the Temple Mount, from the surplus stones that were used in the construction of the Temple itself. Those stones were high-quality, chiseled and smooth, like this unusual one, which was discovered among the Western Wall’s foundations. This stone was intended for the Second Temple, and stones like it were used to build the Temple — but it was left unused. The builders of the Western Wall brought it down here because it was no longer needed up above — and this is how the other stones of the Temple looked,” he says, adding, “Anyone who passes a hand gently over this stone feels a slightly wavy texture, just like the Talmud describes.

In other words, Shukron believes that this stone block was originally meant to be part of the actual temple sanctuary building—the heart of the entire temple complex.

Is Shukron’s theory plausible?

Here are a few points on which to reflect:

  1. As the report on Israel Hayom states, Shukron ‘led the Antiquities Authority’s effort to expose the foundations of the Western Wall in the Jerusalem Archaeological Park, an effort that was funded by the Elad non-profit organization.’ Elad, also known as the Ir David Foundation, exists for the purpose of strengthening the Jewish connection to Jerusalem. In other words, it is not a scholarly organisation, but a political one. The interpretation of finds that come from Elad-sponsored efforts must bear this political aim in mind, and realise that there is almost always an alternative interpretation. In this particular case, interpreting a stone block as being from the temple sanctuary building could easily be seen as a political claim to the Temple Mount, which currently hosts the Islamic holy places of the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque.
  2. It seems clear now that the Western Wall was not built during the reign of Herod himself. As Shukron and his colleague, Ronny Reich, observe, coins found in the soil used to cover the structures over which the Western Wall was built were minted in the time of Valerius Gratus, the Roman Prefect of Judea from AD 15–26 (the predecessor of Pontius Pilatus). In fact, the coins can be pinpointed to AD 17/18, giving us a date for the beginning of construction at the Western Wall. Shukron and Reich argue the wall was then completed in the time of Agrippa I (AD 41–44) or Agrippa II (48–66). However, the sanctuary building at the top of the temple complex was begun by Herod long before this in 19 BC. John 2.20 states that the temple took 46 years to build. This probably refers to the building of the sanctuary itself rather than the entire complex. Construction throughout the complex continued right up until AD 62—just four years before the outbreak of the Jewish Revolt would eventually see the destruction of the temple complex. So if the sanctuary took 46 years to build, and began in 19 BC, we can date its completion to AD 28. This overlap allows the possibility that a stone intended for use in the sanctuary ended up buried with the foundations of the Western Wall. Shukron’s theory is possible.
  3. As possible as Shukron’s theory is, a key question is why more such stones have not been found. Is it possible that there was a surplus of only one single stone block from the materials used to build the sanctuary? Could surplus stones not have been used in other peripheral structures around the temple complex? Eilat Mazar, director of the City of David excavations, says, “It is hard to construct a theory on the basis of a single stone. If another stone or two like it should be found in the future — and that could happen — that will be a somewhat stronger basis for Shukron’s theory that the stone came from a surplus that had been intended for the Temple of the type that had been used to build it.”
  4. Shukron notes the high quality of the stone when surmising it came from the temple building. Yet perhaps it came from another building within the temple complex, rather than from the sanctuary building itself. After all, the temple complex was enormous and, well, complex. There were numerous courtyards, rooms, and gates throughout it. There is every possibility that the stone had been intended for use in one of these peripheral structures.
  5. Another plausible theory is that the stone in question was a surplus block not from the sanctuary at the top of the complex, but from the Western Wall itself. Perhaps the stone was not needed in the construction of the wall, and so the masons did not bother carving the bossed effect, and ended up burying it rather than trying to haul it elsewhere. These were, after all, giant blocks of stone that took considerable effort to move in a pre-mechanised world.

So have we found a stone from the temple sanctuary in Jerusalem? Maybe, but we just can’t be sure because at present we have no way to corroborate or falsify the claim. What is almost certain is that it derives from the temple complex as a whole, but the stone’s original purpose is debatable. If we had some other stones from the temple sanctuary itself, we would be able to make direct comparison. But such a comparison is currently impossible. Our dilemma reminds us of the words of one particular Jewish figure who lived at the time of the temple’s construction: ‘Do you see these great constructions? Not one stone will be left here on another that will not be demolished!’ (Mark 13.2)

The extensive Holyland model (scale 1:50) of first century Jerusalem includes the temple complex as it would have looked at its completion. Pictured here is the large sanctuary building and surrounding courtyards. The Jerusalem temple was the largest sacred compound of its day.

Map of modern-day Jerusalem’s Old city, showing the location of the tunnel in which excavations at the base of the Western Wall of the Temple Mount are being conducted.

 


Quotes and information about the recent find came from Israel Hayom.

HT also to Antonio Lombatti.

Have we found the remains of the last Hasmonean King?

Could this be the jawbone of the last Hasmonean king of the Jews, Antigonus II Mattathiah, and one of the nails used to crucify him?

Antigonus II Mattathiah was an ambitious man. He was an active opponent of Antipater and Herod, the Idumean father and son pair who attempted to gain control of Judea, Samaria, and Galilee in the mid to late first century BC. Eventually, with Parthian backing, Antigonus II became King of the Jews in 40 BC. His alliance with the Parthians, however, put him out of favour with the Romans, who were attempting to maintain control of the region against the Parthian threat. As a result, Rome awarded kingship over the Jewish nation to Herod in 39 BC. And so, for the next couple of years, Antigonus and Herod wrestled for control of the Jewish nation.

Antigonus’ grip on power rapidly slipped, and in 37 BC Herod gained control of Jerusalem. He captured Antigonus and dispatched him to Antioch for Roman justice at the hands of Herod’s Roman patron, Mark Antony. Jewish historian Josephus (AD c.100) claims Mark Antony had Antigonus beheaded (Ant 15.8–10):

Now when Antony had received Antigonus as his captive, he determined to keep him against his triumph; but when he heard that the nation grew seditious, and that, out of their hatred to Herod, they continued to bear good will to Antigonus, he resolved to behead him at Antioch, for otherwise the Jews could no way be brought to be quiet. And Strabo of Cappadocia attests to what I have said, when he thus speaks:—“Antony ordered Antigonus the Jew to be brought to Antioch, and there to be beheaded; and this Antony seems to me to have been the very first man who beheaded a king, as supposing he could no other way bend the minds of the Jews so as to receive Herod, whom he had made king in his stead; for by no torments could they be forced to call him king, so great a fondness they had for their former king; so he thought that this dishonorable death would diminish the value they had for Antigonus’s memory, and at the same time would diminish the hatred they bare to Herod.”

Josephus’ account is corroborated by his Roman contemporary, Plutarch. However, later Roman historian, Dio Cassius (early third century AD), claims a slightly different end for Antigonus (Roman History 49.22.6):

These people [i.e. the Jews] Antony entrusted to a certain Herod to govern; but Antigonus he bound to a cross and flogged, — a punishment no other king had suffered at the hands of the Romans, — and afterwards slew him.

Dio Cassius’ testimony leaves open the possibility that Mark Antony tortured Antigonus by crucifixion ‘and afterwards slew him’ by beheading him. If this is the case, then we may have found some of the remains of Antigonus.

Ariel David of Haaretz provides the details. Is he right? Here are the main highlights of David’s article:

In 1970, a rock-cut tomb was discovered by workers building a private house in Jerusalem’s Givat Hamivtar neighborhood. Inside the two-chambered burial, dating back to the first century BCE, archeologists found a decorated ossuary – a limestone box containing the bones of the deceased – and an enigmatic Aramaic inscription affixed to the wall.

“I am Abba, son of Eleazar the priest,” proclaimed the 2,000-year-old text. “I am Abba, the oppressed, the persecuted, born in Jerusalem and exiled to Babylon, who brought back Mattathiah son of Judah and buried him in the cave that I purchased.”

[…] Now. new research indicates that the initial interpretation of the find, that has long been dismissed, may have been right all along. This view identifies the Abba cave as the final resting place of a key figure in Jewish history: Mattathiah Antigonus II, the last king of the Hasmonean dynasty…

[…] Historians initially came up with the Antigonus II theory based on the names on the inscription and the tomb’s unusual features. Abba’s boastful claim and the painstakingly decorated ossuary, considered by archeologists one of the finest ever found, pointed to an important personage.

At the same time, the cryptic text, the fact that the ossuary lacked any identifying inscription and that it was found buried in a niche under the floor of the cave suggested that Abba may have acted in secret, which is consistent with the persecution the Hasmoneans and their followers suffered after the fall of Mattathiah.

[…] The theory that Abba may have retrieved the Hasmonean king’s body from Antioch… and secretly buried it in his family tomb received a boost in 1974, when Nicu Haas, Israel’s top physical anthropologist at the time, discussed his analysis of the bones found inside the ossuary on Israeli television.

[…] Haas said he had identified the bones of at least two individuals, one older and one a young adult, around the age of 25, who had suffered a horrific death. Three nails where found in the ossuary with pieces of hand bones attached to two of them, suggesting the victim had been crucified.

Haas also identified clean cuts on the man’s second vertebra and lower jaw, indicating he had been decapitated with a sword or other sharp object. These findings were consistent with Mattathiah’s age and with the account of his execution given by ancient historians Josephus Flavius and Dio Cassius who recount that Marc Antony had the king crucified, scourged and beheaded.

With Haas’ analysis, all the pieces of the puzzle seemed to fall into place. But then… Haas… spent the last 13 years of his life in a coma and never published his findings on the cave.

The bones were passed on for analysis to Patricia Smith, an anthropologist from the Hebrew University. While agreeing that the remains included the skull fragments of a young man, she concluded that the cut jaw belonged to the elderly person – and that this individual was a woman. In her report, published in 1977 in the Israel Exploration Journal, she also dismissed the idea that crucifixion had occurred because the nails had not passed through the bones.

[…] Based on Smith’s analysis, the Hasmonean hypothesis was abandoned…

In a paper published last year in the IEJ, Yoel Elitzur, a Hebrew University historian… notes that in Jewish texts and manuscripts the name Abba and Baba were often used interchangeably. He identifies Abba as the head of a family mentioned by Josephus as the “the sons of Baba” and described as being supporters of the Hasmoneans long after Herod had taken power.

Elitzur also speculates that following Haas’ accident, Smith may have received a disorganized mix of bones including remains from other sites, leading to a possible mistake in identifying the person with the cut jaw as a female.

[…] In yet another twist of this puzzling cold case, Haaretz can reveal that researchers did not return all the bones for reburial in the cave.

Some key remains, including the nails and the cut jaw and vertebra, were sent for safekeeping to Tel Aviv University anthropologist Israel Hershkovitz and remained untouched in his lab for years.

After reading Elitzur’s paper, Hershkovitz re-examined the remains. He analyzed the nails using an electron microscope, determining that they did break the bones of the hand, as would occur in crucifixion. This itself is a blow to skeptics, since Romans rarely crucified women, Hershkovitz said.

He also doubts Smith’s finding that the time-worn jaw belonged to a woman.

[…] Hershkovitz has been trying to extract DNA from the jaw in order to confirm whether it belonged to a man or a woman. Though that would not confirm Mattathiah’s identity, it would give weight to all the other evidence that points to him, he said.

“Once you remove the idea that the cut mandible belonged to a woman, you are left with all the other elements that prove that this is Mattathiah,” he said. “In this case, the writing was literally on the wall.”

60 Royal Mummies from the 14th century BC

Archaeologists from Basel University working in Egypt have stumbled upon the burial chamber of almost 60 mummies purported to belong to ancient Egypt’s 18th Dynasty. This is one of Egypt’s more well known dynasties, claiming the likes of Ahmose (credited with ousting the Hyksos from Lower Egypt), the imperial expansionist Thutmose III, the heretic Pharaoh Akhenaton (Amenhotep IV), and his son, the modern celebrity, Tutankhamun.

The mummies discovered are specifically from the time of father and son, Thutmose IV and Amenhotep III.

The official press release from the University of Basel, which conducted the excavations, states:

The scientists discovered mummified remains of at least 50 people in the center chamber and in three side chambers. Based on inscriptions on storage jars, Egyptologists were able to identify and name over 30 people during this year’s field season. Titles such as “Prince” and “Princess” distinguish the buried as members of the families of the two pharaohs Thutmosis IV and Amenhotep III who are also buried in the Valley of Kings. Both pharaohs belonged to the 18th dynasty (New Kingdom) and ruled in the 14th century BC.

This is a remarkable find. Eric Cline (George Washington University) is hoping that among the mummies might be found some of Amenhotep III’s Mitannian and Babylonian wives. We’ll have to wait and see. But in any case, we have here not only a valuable insight into this period of Egyptian history, but also the actual remains of people who once lived and walked in this incredible part of the earth so long ago.

Ahram Online also has a brief new article about the find.

Seal of Sargon II Found in Galilee

Antonio Lombatti alerted to me the discovery in Galilee of a seal of Sargon II, the Assyrian king who claimed the destruction of Samaria and the deportation of its population in 722 BC. The find was reported in the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz. Here’s a snippet of the article:

Prof. Ziona Grossmark of Tel-Hai Academic College in northern Israel conducted research on the seal, along with Baruch Brendl from the Israel Antiquities Authority. “The seal depicts a battle between a winged figure and a bull standing on its hind legs,” says Grossmark, adding that “comparative research allows us to date it to the time of Sargon II, an Assyrian king who ruled between 722 and 705 B.C.E. and completed the conquest of ancient Israel. The seal was apparently brought to Israel by one of his subjects. What happened to the seal after that remains a mystery, but ancient seals like this one are very rare − only a few of this nature have been found in remains from the Roman period, mostly in graves and temples.”

Relief of Sargon II (Louvre, Paris)

Another nice find!

No Connection between Ahmose’s ‘Tempest Stela’ and the Exodus

A few days ago, Simcha Jacobovici made the claim that ‘there’s a dramatic scholarly breakthrough linking archeology to the Biblical Exodus.’ Jacobovici is best known for his TV specials, such as the one in which he claimed to have found the family tomb of Jesus—a claim that the vast majority of specialists in the field evaluated and rejected. In this most recent claim about ‘proof’ for the Exodus, Jacobovici points to the following article:

In this article, Egyptologists Ritner and Moeller examine afresh an ancient Egyptian stela that has been known for some time: the ‘Tempest Stela’ of Ahmose I.

The ‘Tempest Stela’ of Ahmose I

Previously, this stela was interpreted in one of two ways—either as a description of a localised natural disaster during the reign of Pharaoh Ahmose I (16th century BC—founder of Egypt’s 18th Dynasty), or as a metaphor for the oppression of Egyptians at the hands of the Asiatic Hyksos rulers. Ritner and Moeller re-examine the evidence and conclude the stela describes a real natural disaster, but on a much bigger scale than previously thought. This disaster consisted of unusual darkness and harsh storms, which affected the entirety of Egypt, not just a small area of it, wreaking widespread death and destruction. Their contention is that this storm was likely the aftermath of the cataclysmic explosion of Thera (Santorini)—the volcanic eruption that triggered the collapse of the Minoan civilisation on Crete.

Ritner and Moeller admit a chronological difficulty with their theory: the eruption of Thera can be dated with 95% accuracy to 1627–1600 BC, while Ahmose’s reign probably started sometime between 1570 and 1544 BC—that is, between 30 to 83 years later. But given the instability of absolute markers for certain periods of Egyptian chronology, and the stela’s detailed description of a cataclysmic event, Ritner and Moeller propose shifting Ahmose’s reign back a few decades to overlap with the eruption of Thera. This is a big move! While I can see the possibility of matching the disaster described on the stela to the Thera event, I will leave it to Egyptologists to work out whether it’s plausible.

But how does this relate to the Exodus?

Jacobovici asserts that this new interpretation proves the biblical Exodus because the natural disaster that the ‘Tempest Stela’ describes matches up with the plague of darkness described in the Exodus narrative (Exod 10.21–29). Jacobovici claimed back in 2006 that this stela was a key piece of evidence for finding the Exodus in the archaeological records of Egypt. And now, he says, here is the final proof.

Is he right? Has proof of the Exodus finally be found?

I wish it were true, but I highly doubt it.

Here are some of my reasons:

  1. The article by Ritner and Moeller is a follow up to a previous article from 1996. They acknowledge that the earlier article was used by some as tentative evidence for the Exodus, but seem dismissive or agnostic at best about this connection in their new article. In fact, in this new article, they make no connection between the events described on the stela and the Exodus at all.
  2. The ‘Tempest Stela’ makes no mention of slaves, Hebrews, or any other kinds of events that might be identified with any of the other plagues described in the Exodus narrative.
  3. Jacobovici claims that the storm described on the stela ‘displayed the “wrath” of a “great God”,’ and that ‘this God was “greater” than the “gods” of Egypt.’ However, Ritner and Moeller argue something quite different. They translate the relevant portion of the stela to say ‘Then His Majesty [i.e. Ahmose] said: ‘How much greater this is than the wrath of the great god, [than] the plans of the gods!’ (p.7) In other words, it reads as though Ahmose interprets the natural disaster as something even bigger than the mighty anger of any particular god.
  4. The stela mentions that darkness accompanied the disaster, such that ‘no torch could be lit in the Two Lands [i.e. Upper and Lower Egypt]’. However, Ritner and Moeller demonstrate that the primary focus was not the darkness, but rather the abnormally harsh rain storm. The darkness ‘is noted secondarily to the rain’ (p.7). In other words, the natural disaster was not darkness, during which it rained, but rather a severe storm, during which it grew dark.
  5. Ahmose I was the founder of the 18th Dynasty—the period of the New Kingdom. He is credited with the overthrow of the Asiatic Hyksos people who ruled the Nile Delta for a couple of centuries. Jacobovici makes a direct link between the Hyksos and the Israelite slaves of the Exodus narrative. He is not the first to make this link, but it creates a series of other problems. For example, the Hyksos ruled a portion of Egypt, which contradicts the Exodus narrative that states the Israelites were slaves, not rulers. There are also chronological difficulties, including seeming clashes with the archaeological record of a settlement into Canaan.
  6. Jacobovici talks of Ritner and Moeller now providing ‘proof’ for the biblical Exodus. This seems a rather overstated definition of ‘proof’. When something provides ‘proof’, it means the evidence is so decisive that there is little to no contrary evidence, and little to no way of reading the data in a different way. In other words, ‘proof’ constitutes something being either categorically undeniable or at least beyond reasonable doubt. The analysis Ritner and Moeller provide for the ‘Tempest Stela’ does not, in my opinion, give us such confidence for a connection to the Exodus. In fact, I highly doubt Ritner and Moeller would see any such connection either. We must be careful here to distinguish between ‘evidence’, which is a piece of a puzzle, and ‘proof’ which is the decisive piece that solves the puzzle once for all. I can’t see how the ‘Tempest Stela’ brings us anywhere near ‘proof’ for the Exodus, or even that it provides good ‘evidence’ for it.

So have we found ‘proof’ of the Exodus? No. Have we found any suggestive evidence for it? Probably not.

I’ll be glad the day we do find evidence for the Exodus outside the Bible. But today is not that day.

For another similar opinion, check out Chris Heard’s blog piece.

Altar found at Shiloh—but let’s not get carried away

Archaeologists digging at the ancient site of Shiloh have uncovered an altar. Shiloh is known in the Bible as an early Israelite shrine that housed the Ark of the Covenant (1 Sam 1–4). It’s perhaps best known as the place where Samuel first encountered Yahweh in a night vision, during the priesthood of Eli and his corrupt sons, Hophni and Phinehas (1 Sam 3).

The site of Shiloh

The altar is small, measuring 60 x 60 cm wide, and 40 cm tall. Excavators say it was found in an installation dating to the Byzantine period, but claim the altar shows signs of having been used much earlier. What these signs are is not specified in the announcement by Israel National News (click HERE to read it). However, the archaeologists claim it dates to the Iron Age (1200–539 BC). This is a fairly vague statement. So given there is not much detail here, we should be very cautious about claiming to have found an altar mentioned in the Bible—especially one at a site which housed the Ark of the Covenant (calling Indiana Jones!). We need many more details about the altar, and a better knowledge of the stratigraphy of Shiloh before we make any definitive conclusions about this discovery.

So let’s wait and see what details surface over the next while to fill in the picture. Whatever these details turn out to be, this is certainly another exciting find.  But let’s not get carried away by hype.