Buried Coins: Jesus and the Parable of the Talents

Back in 2014, news broke that archaeologists digging near the Jerusalem–Tel Aviv Highway had uncovered a cache of ancient Jewish coins. The inscription and images on the 114 bronze coins allow us to date them precisely to AD 70—the exact year that the Romans conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the temple. In the midst of this turbulent time, a Jewish person saw fit to place the money in a small ceramic box and bury it for safekeeping.

“Evidently someone here feared the end was approaching and hid his property, perhaps in the hope of collecting it later when calm was restored to the region,” said one of the archaeologists involved in the excavations.

Readers of the Gospels will no doubt recall Jesus’ Parable of the Talents (Matt 25:14–30), in which a similar action occurs. In this context, a “talent” was a very large sum of money (not a special ability). The parable goes like this:

“For it is just like a man going on a journey. He called his own slaves and turned over his possessions to them. To one he gave five talents; to another, two; and to another, one—to each according to his own ability. Then he went on a journey. Immediately the man who had received five talents went, put them to work, and earned five more. In the same way the man with two earned two more. But the man who had received one talent went off, dug a hole in the ground, and hid his master’s money.

“After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. The man who had received five talents approached, presented five more talents, and said, ‘Master, you gave me five talents. Look, I’ve earned five more talents.’

“His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave! You were faithful over a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Share your master’s joy!’

“Then the man with two talents also approached. He said, ‘Master, you gave me two talents. Look, I’ve earned two more talents.’

“His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave! You were faithful over a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Share your master’s joy!’

“Then the man who had received one talent also approached and said, ‘Master, I know you. You’re a difficult man, reaping where you haven’t sown and gathering where you haven’t scattered seed. So I was afraid and went off and hid your talent in the ground. Look, you have what is yours.’

“But his master replied to him, ‘You evil, lazy slave! If you knew that I reap where I haven’t sown and gather where I haven’t scattered, then you should have deposited my money with the bankers. And when I returned I would have received my money back with interest.

“‘So take the talent from him and give it to the one who has 10 talents. For to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will have more than enough. But from the one who does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him. And throw this good-for-nothing slave into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’” (HCSB)

The third slave in the parable does basically the same thing the owner of these newly discovered bronze coins did: bury them in the ground. Evidently it must have been a reasonably common thing to do. What’s interesting, though, is that the owner of the bronze coins buried them in the context of war. He or she was living at a time when the Jewish nation was collapsing under the onslaught of Rome’s forces. Judea was falling! In the hope of surviving the calamity, the owner buried the coins in order to come back to them at a later time.

This action helps us understand Jesus’ Parable of the Talents a little better. The dynamic at work in the parable is not merely economic investment, but rather measures taken during a time of war. Let’s unpack this.

To begin with, let’s notice the context. The parable comes near the tense culmination of Jesus’ ministry in Matthew’s Gospel. On arriving in Jerusalem, Jesus clears the moneychangers out of the temple (Matt 21:12–13). He tells the Parable of the Wicked Tenants (Matt 21:33–46), in which he takes aim at the Jewish leaders, who also happened to be wealthy landowners. Jesus uses the way they would no doubt have treated recalcitrant tenants on their lands to describe what God would do to them because they were rejecting Jesus and plotting to kill him. Jesus also puts the leaders in their place when they try to trap him with the question of paying taxes to Caesar (Matt 22:15–22). In Roman-occupied Judea, the question of paying Roman taxes was an incendiary issue. But using a coin with Caesar’s image on it, Jesus beats the leadership at their own game. There are economic themes running throughout these incidents, and in all cases they point to the villainy of the nation’s leaders. They were sealing the fate of the nation.

Finally, Jesus launches a verbal attack on the leaders before he laments over the future of Jerusalem (Matt 23). Jesus unpacks this in Matthew 24, explaining that not one stone of the temple would remain upon another (Matt 24:2). The nation was heading for downfall under the current corrupt leadership, and the people would find themselves in dire circumstances.

The Parable of the Talents then comes after the Parable of the Ten Virgins (Matt 25:1–13). Both parables have the theme of acting now in preparation for what’s to come. And what is to come? The nation’s downfall.

It is not all dire news, however. Throughout the Gospel, Jesus has been gathering a new people of God around himself—a remnant whose faith in him will enable them to survive as the people of God beyond the downfall of the nation. These are people who repent in the face of the coming Kingdom of God (Matt 4:17). They listen to Jesus’ words and, as it were, build their house on a rock, rather than on sand (Matt 7:24–27). When the future storm comes to pound the nation, theirs is the house that will survive. The storm was the catastrophe of AD 70, in which the nation fell and its “house” (the temple) was left desolate (Matt 23:38).

In the Parable of the Talents, we are not told the reason why the master departs and leaves his property in the keeping of his slaves. If we removed the parable from its context, we might suppose he went on a business trip. But the whole surrounding context is one of doom. It is more in keeping with the tense atmosphere of this end of the Gospel if the master were actually heading away on affairs of state or a military endeavour. Notice that as soon as Jesus finishes the parable, he discusses the Son of Man coming in all his glory to judge the nations (Matt 25:31–32). There is a clear parallel here: just as the master comes to settle affairs with his slaves, so the Son of Man comes to judge the nations. In both cases, the master figure returns in triumph. By implication, his absence is a time of tension and uncertainty.

This helps explain the actions of the third slave in the Parable of the Talents. He buries the money allotted to him because this is what many did in a time of war. This is just what the ancient owner of the bronze coins discovered under the highway in Israel did as Jerusalem was falling to the Romans in AD 70—the very event Jesus had in mind.

The slave’s actions in the parable, however, are not just lazy, but also evil (Matt 25:26). Why? Because he evidently didn’t think his master would succeed in his endeavours and return. If he had thought so, he would have put the money allocated to him to good use for the sake of his master. The other two slaves in the parable evidently had confidence in their master’s return—enough to risk the danger of flaunting money in wartime.

Civilians in the ancient world often hid their resources to prevent harassment and pillage by soldiers. That these two slaves not only put the money to good use, but even made a return suggests not merely their economic savvy, but also their bravery and loyalty in the face of adverse circumstances.

The third slave, however, does no such thing. By burying the money, he tries to keep out of danger in the hope of riding out the current adversity, surviving his master, and then taking the money for himself. The master’s unexpected return, however, puts paid (excuse the pun!) to this servants plans, exposing him as a faithless coward. The master is not angry with this slave because he expected more money from the slave to feed his own greed. He is angry because the slave had been disloyal, lacking faith in his master and seeking to take advantage of his absence for personal gain.

In the larger context of the Gospel, this parable is an indictment on the Jewish leaders—those to whom much was given. They are characterised as disloyal towards God. They had turned the temple, a house of prayer, into a bandit’s lair (Matt 21:12–13), making money off the common person and turning worship into a weapon of oppression. They failed to show the fruit that was expected of them (Matt 21:18–22). They rejected Jesus, the master figure, in order to feather their own nests. This would, however, be a profitless endeavour, for it would end with their demise. Only those who placed their confidence in Jesus would survive the coming adversity and live to share their master’s joy.

We have no way of knowing whether the person who buried the money found under the highway in Israel was a master or a slave. Nonetheless, the cache of coins demonstrates the currency (excuse the pun again!) of the imagery Jesus used to decry the leadership of his day and foretell the calamitous events of AD 70—the very events that led the person to bury that money in the hope of returning some day to collect it.

Unfortunately, that person never returned.

BuriedCoins


This is an updated version of a post I wrote for another blog soon after the coin discovery was announced in 2014. The photo above appeared with the original news article.

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Why did Jesus die?

Here’s a piece I wrote a few years ago, and which I’ve touched up slightly. In the lead up to Easter, I hope you find it informative and thought provoking.


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 in the highest!’ was not an exclamation of praise, the way it is often used today. Rather, it was a slogan. ‘Hosanna’ means ‘To the rescue!’ ‘In the highest’ does not refer to people’s praise reaching the highest heaven, but rather an urging of Jesus to reach for the highest echelons of power in his rescue of Israel. 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. And by claiming the right to bring the temple down and rebuild it, he was making a clear claim to be the rightful Davidic king of Israel—the son of David who builds the temple and establishes a permanent kingdom (cf. 2 Sam 7:11–13).

JerusalemTemple

Visualisation of the Jerusalem Temple. Credit: Courtesy of The Western Wall Heritage Foundation

To the Jewish authorities, for whom the temple was their institutional power base at the heart of Jewish identity, Jesus was dangerous. For the remainder of the week, they worked to arrest Jesus. After trying unsuccessfully to discredit him publicly, and fearing the incendiary riot that a public arrest would spark, they managed to arrest him on the sly by bribing Judas Iscariot, a member of Jesus’ inner circle—one of his twelve commissioners (i.e. ‘apostles’) responsible for the dissemination of Jesus’ claims and for gathering people around him. The arrest occurred at night, as Jesus and his other eleven commissioners were trapped in an olive grove in the Kidron Valley, just outside Jerusalem’s walls. Jesus gave himself up to his captors, and successfully pleaded for the release of his followers, who then abandoned him.

Jesus was taken under arrest, questioned and tried overnight. In fact, it was probably an illegal trial, since it was held during the midnight hours within the houses of former High Priest, Annas, and his son-in-law, the incumbent High Priest, Caiaphas. It seems that they 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’ (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, given a beating, and sentenced to death.

Since the Jewish authorities at this time were unable to exact the death penalty (it had been revoked by Rome a few years earlier), Jesus was hurried off to the Roman Prefect, Pontius Pilate. If they wanted Jesus dead, they would have to ask Pilate to enact the death penalty.

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. Pilate seems to have been convinced that Jesus was harmless. Jesus had been separated from his followers, was unarmed, and did not really hold any human power. 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, stripped naked, and barbarically nailed to a cross where he was 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—his eleven remaining ‘commissioners’ and other hangers-on—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 arrested Jesus and ensured his execution, 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 of forgiveness, 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.

Have we found the seal of the prophet Isaiah?

News comes this week of the discovery of a bulla (the clay imprint from an inscribed seal), and some are asking whether it belonged to the prophet Isaiah. The bulla was discovered in wet sifting of material taken from an excavation trench in the Ophel area of Jerusalem (just south of the temple mount). A fuller report from The Times of Israel can be found here.

Isaiah-Seal-impression-1024x640

Isaiah Bulla, a 2,700-year-old clay seal impression which potentially belonged to the biblical prophet Isaiah. (Ouria Tadmor/© Eilat Mazar).

The bulla is fragmentary. In the upper register, it seems to have had a pictorial representation of some kind, though it’s hard to make out what it was. It might be something similar to the winged sun disk observable on the seal of King Hezekiah (see picture below), but there is just too much broken off to be sure.

Beneath this there are two lines of writing. The first line contains the letters לישׁעיה (lyšʿyh), which means “Belonging to Isaiah.” The name was almost certainly common in ancient Judah, so this alone does not indicate that the bulla came from the seal of Isaiah the prophet. It’s the second line that is of interest. The second line is incomplete, but the letters נבי (nby) are clearly seen at the beginning of the line. There are two things this could possibly be:

  1. It might be a name, Nabi or Nabiah (“Yahweh has prospered”) which is not found in biblical texts, but is attested outside the Bible.
  2. It might be part of the Hebrew word נביא (nbyʾ), which means “prophet.”

So which is it?

Well, first of all, a comment about the letters on the bulla. They represent good Paleo-Hebrew script that conforms with the type seen on other seals/bullae from the 8th–6th centuries BC. We can, for instance, find very similar letters on the bullae of King Hezekiah. The issue with seals and bullae, though, is that because they are so small, one doesn’t expect a huge variation in the form of letters. So a wide timeframe is the best we can do. Isaiah the prophet, though, who lived the late 8th to early 7th century BC, certainly fits into this timeframe.

Second, the bulla was found in a controlled excavation. It would be good to get more details on exactly where it was found. At present, all we know is that it was found in material taken from “an Iron Age layer close to bedrock that was near a foundation trench cut for a wall of a Herodian vault.” How we do we know the layer dates to the Iron Age? And which portion of the Iron Age did it come from?

Finally, is it likely that this is the seal of the prophet Isaiah?

Unfortunately, I don’t think so, though I can’t completely discount the possibility. I have three reasons for this.

  1. The final letter א (aleph), which would make the Hebrew noun for “prophet,” is not there. Admittedly, the bulla is broken at this point, so we can’t be sure if it was. But we just don’t know if we’re grappling with the noun for prophet, or just a name.
  2. If the second line refers to a “prophet,” it seems quite unusual that it would be missing the Hebrew definite article, which is just a single letter placed at the front of a word: הנביא (hnbyʾ). There is ample room for it. Although we do have job descriptions in the second line of seals and bullae, these always seem to be definite expressions produced by the grammatical construct state. We see this, for example, on Hezekiah’s seal, where he is named [מלכיהו[דה (mlkyhw[dh])—”the king of Judah.” But there’s nothing to indicate such a grammatical construct state here, which makes the lack of a definite article fairly glaring.
  3. It’s totally normal to have a patronym (father’s name) on the second line of a seal, even without “son of.” There seems to have been plenty of room to have included the word בן (“son of”) on this line, but it’s quite normal for it to be missing.
HezekiahBulla

Bulla of “Hezekiah, King of Judah,” with pictorial representation of a winged sun disk in the centre.

These three factors lead me to conclude that it’s more likely this is the seal of some called “Isaiah [son of] Nabi” or “Isaiah [son of] Nabiah,” than to be the seal of “Isaiah the prophet.” However, even though the lack of a definite article on the second line is significant, I can’t discount the possibility that it might be referring to a prophet in more stilted terms: “Isaiah. Prophet.” In that case, the status of the biblical prophet, Isaiah son of Amoz, especially in the royal court of Hezekiah, means this might be from his personal seal. And this makes us wonder what document he might have sealed with this bulla?

But, as I said, this is, in my estimation, the less likely interpretation. It’s possible, and certainly plausible that this is Isaiah’s seal. But I don’t think it’s probable. I think it’s the second most likely explanation. I believe in this case we simply have the seal of another, less historically illustrious Isaiah, who was the son of Nabiah.

Is the new Jerusalem Papyrus Authentic or a Forgery?

The Israel Antiquities Authority recently announced the find of a new papyrus apparently dated to c. 700 BC, which seems to mention the delivery of wine to the king in Jerusalem. While the IAA declared it genuine, I still have my doubts. And leading epigrapher, Christopher Rollston, does too. He has ten points that should make us pause and re-evaluate. You can find his brief blog article HERE.

 

A Seal of King Hezekiah

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem has announced the discovery of an ancient ‘bulla’ (a clay seal with a personal stamp impressed upon on it) bearing the name of Hezekiah, King of Judah. This is not the first seal bearing Hezekiah’s name to come to light. Nonetheless, it is an exciting find, especially since it was found in situ.

 

The Discovery

This particular bulla was originally found in 2009 during soil sifting at the excavations on the Ophel ridge to the immediate south of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. The soil was part of ancient garbage debris that had been dumped between buildings in the northern section of ancient Jerusalem (Iron II). Eilat Mazar, head excavator at the site, interprets a nearby building as a royal storehouse.

Excavators initially misunderstood the writing on the bulla, reading the name as ‘Hezekiah [son of] Malkiah’. It was only recently, after a second check, that the writing on the bulla was deciphered more precisely and the personal name reinterpreted.

 

The Bulla

Measuring just 13 x 12 mm, the bulla itself is small enough to rest on a fingertip. The writing is, therefore, almost microscopic. An excellent photograph by Ouria Tadmor, however, provides good resolution for analysis.

 

 

The front (obverse) is clearly stamped by a personal seal that includes writing and iconography. The rear (reverse) reportedly bears the impressions of two cords that were held in place by the bulla. This suggests the bulla probably sealed a document of some kind. Unfortunately, the document is now lost—presumably a papyrus of some kind, which probably did not survive antiquity.

 

The Writing

The obverse has two registers, one each on the upper and lower extremities of the seal. The letters are Palaeo-Hebrew, and conform to the epigraphic style we see on a number of seals that can be dated to approximately the early seventh century BC. There is some damage in the upper register, and it is difficult to make out the letters on the far left side of both registers. The words are separated by a small but discernible dot, which is a common practice.

Taking these factors into account, we can offer the following transcription (partially or fully damaged letters are in orange):

לחזקיהו.אח
ז.מלך.יהדה

Belonging to Hezekiah [son of] Ah-
az, King of Judah.

The Hebrew word for ‘son of’ (בן) is omitted. Such an omission was common practice in seals, which were too small to host many letters.

The name is clearly reconstructed to Hezekiah, son of Ahaz. More than this, he is specifically given the title ‘King of Judah’. The word ‘Judah’ appears to be incomplete. The daleth (ד) is only partially visible and the final latter, he (ה), is missing altogether. However, some of Hezekiah’s other seals clearly give the name of the kingdom of Judah in full as יהדה (yehudah). Therefore, we can be confident that the stamp itself did have the fuller spelling of ‘Judah’ on it, but this particular bulla lacks it because of the way the stamp was impressed into the clay.

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Drawing of a scarab beetle bulla of Hezekiah. The top line reads יהדה (‘Judah’), and the bottom line reads לחזקיהואחזמלך (‘belonging to Hezekiah [son of] Ahaz, king’).

 

King Hezekiah

Hezekiah, son of Ahaz, is known from both biblical and Assyrian sources. The exact dates of his reign are debated, but 715–687 BC are the most commonly espoused dates. The Bible tells us that Hezekiah’s father, Ahaz, made the kingdom of Judah a vassal to the Assyrians, against the advice of the prophet Isaiah (Isa 7–8). Ahaz did this in order to procure Assyrian help against an alliance of Damascus and Israel that was threatening him. This set the dominoes toppling that would see both Damascus and Israel fall to the Assyrian armies and be absorbed as provinces into the Assyrian imperial structure. Hezekiah may have been co-regent for a time with his father, Ahaz, but he at least reigned in his own right just after the downfall of the kingdom of Israel in 722 BC.

While Ahaz was content to be an Assyrian vassal, it appears Hezekiah was not. Instead, Assyrian sources tell us he took the political risk of meddling in Philistine affairs. The Bible portrays Hezekiah centralising his power (including the cult of Yahweh) in Jerusalem, thereby extending his sovereignty over his kingdom more directly. This provoked the ire of the Assyrian king, Sennacherib, who invaded Judah in c. 701 BC. Sennacherib claims to have destroyed 46 cities of Judah and deported their survivors. He even depicted the siege of Judah’s second largest city, Lachish, on the walls of his palace. The Bible tells us that Hezekiah tried to bribe Sennacherib with treasure from the temple in Jerusalem, and even appealed to Egypt for military help. However, all this failed. In his annals, Sennacherib claims to have cooped Hezekiah up in Jerusalem like a bird in a cage.

Surprisingly, Sennacherib did not end up taking Jerusalem. The fact that Hezekiah provoked the unrestrained wrath of Assyria, experienced the full-scale barbaric invasion of his country, which brought Judah to the very brink of destruction, only to emerge still on the throne in an unscathed Jerusalem (there is no layer of destruction or evidence of Assyrian siege in the relevant archaeological strata) with the Assyrian armies returning to Mesopotamia is perhaps one of the greatest stories of political survival against the odds in history. It’s no wonder the Bible attributes this to the divine intervention of Yahweh himself and gives Hezekiah a generally glowing report card.

 

Iconography

In the centre of the bulla is a sun disk. It emits six rays and has a set of wings that curve gently downwards in a posture of protection. The imagery of a winged sun disk is ubiquitous in the ancient Near East. It can be found in Egyptian, Assyrian, Persian, and Ptolemaic iconography. The sun usually is a cipher for the chief deity of the culture to which the owner of the seal belonged. In Assyria and Persia, the disk is often augmented with the depiction of a personal figure—the god Asshur in the case of Assyria, and the god Ahura Mazda in Persian depictions. However, no such personal depiction of a deity is seen in the sun disk here.

There are two options for interpreting the sun disk here.

First, it might be depicting the sun god, showing Egyptian influence. To that end, we note that on the right side of the bulla we see the ankh, the Egyptian symbol for life. The faint vestiges of a second ankh are just visible on the far left side of the bulla also. Hezekiah is known to have appealed to Egypt for military assistance against Sennacherib, though this was unsuccessful. Thus, in his anti-Assyrian stance, Hezekiah may well have absorbed Egyptian influence. Some of his other seals display a scarab beetle, which is clearly influence by Egyptian iconography. Furthermore, we know that in the early sixth century BC—a century after Hezekiah—the sun god was worshipped in the Jerusalem temple, though the practice is condemned in Ezekiel 8.16–18. This particular understanding of the iconography has explanatory power, though it is at odds with the biblical depictions of Hezekiah as an avowed exclusive Yahwist.

The alternative option is to understand the sun disk as a compatible cipher for Yahweh, the national deity of Israel and Judah, and patron deity of the Davidic dynasty in Jerusalem. While it is clear that Hezekiah did adopt Egyptian iconography, this does not necessitate his own worship of Egyptian deities. The compatibility of such iconography with Yahwistic religion is seen in a couple of places in the Bible. For example, Psalm 84.12 [84.11 Heb] says, ‘For sun and shield is Yahweh God; favour and glory does Yahweh give.’ In Malachi 4.2 (3.20 Heb), Yahweh declares, ‘But for those who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings’. This verse probably refers to the winged sun disk as a symbol of Persian authority, as the Persians often depicted their deity Ahura Mazda that way. The Persians were also content to identify Ahura Mazda with certain ‘compatible’ deities of their subject peoples, Yahweh being one such deity. Malachi, then, most likely sees Yahweh’s blessing on his devotees as coming through Persia’s favour. The iconography of Persia is, therefore, baptised into Yahwism in such a way that it provides a compatible cipher for Yahweh’s own favour. The iconography on this bulla may well be doing the same thing: using common Egyptian symbols in the service of Yahwism.

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Relief of a sun disk with depiction of Ahura Mazda from the ruins of Persepolis.

The press release from Dov Smith (Hebrew University, Jerusalem) suggested the two ankh signs on the bulla might be connected to Hezekiah’s recovery from a life-threatening illness, depicted in 2 Kings 20.1–8 and Isaiah 38. The logic was that Hezekiah’s earlier seals contained scarab beetles rather than a sun disk, and were devoid of any ankh signs. The sun disk is suggestive of healing (cf. Mal 4.2 [3.20] mentioned above) and the ankh is a clearly a symbol of life.

As tantalising as the suggestion is, we must urge caution. First, to my knowledge there is nothing that allows us to date the scarab bullae specifically earlier than this sun disk bulla. So the dating is speculative. However, we have only three possibilities for ordering the respective bullae: either (1) the scarab bullae are earlier; (2) the sun disk bulla is earlier; or (3) the bullae are contemporary. So the suggestion is not implausible—just uncertain. But, secondly, the dramatic survival of Hezekiah and Jerusalem in the face of Sennacherib’s invasion is just as plausible an explanation of this seal’s iconography. The symbols might even be multivalent, since Hezekiah had more than one close call in his lifetime—especially if we remember the threats to Jerusalem during the reign of his father, Ahaz. Therefore, the suggestion in the press release is not wildly speculative—it’s a plausible suggestion. However, it’s not the only one.

 

The Significance of Authenticity

This bulla is significant because it was found in situ. That is, archaeologists found it in the course of excavation in Jerusalem. This is different to the other bullae of Hezekiah, which were not found in situ, but rather turned up on the antiquities market from unknown sources. When that happens, we have no way of verifying the authenticity of these bullae, and therefore, we can only make provisional evaluations of them at best. Since this new bulla was found in situ during a controlled dig, we can be confident about its authenticity. And this allows us to say with a far greater degree of confidence that the other bullae purportedly from Hezekiah’s personal seals are probably also authentic.

Two such bullae in particular deserve mention. They are, for all intents and purposes, identical to this ‘new’ authenticated bulla, though they first came to late in the 1980s and 1990s. We have, therefore, three practically identical bullae displaying the same configuration of iconography and with the exact same inscription, and one of them is positively genuine. It’s almost certain, then, that all three are genuine. The unprovenanced bullae were discussed in an article by Robert Deutsch titled ‘Lasting Impressions: New Bullae Reveal Egyptian Style Emblems on Judah’s Royal Seals’, published in Biblical Archaeology Review 28.4 (2002), 42–51, 60.

Furthermore, the discovery of this ‘new’ bulla in the excavations at the Ophel ridge in Jerusalem confirms that we are dealing with strata related to the Judean monarchy in Iron II, and the historical significance of Hezekiah. While these were not really in serious doubt, we still see here a positive corroboration between a number of sources. The authenticity of this bulla sees a very neat intersection between ancient literary sources (Assyrian annals, the Bible) and archaeological artefacts.

 

 

 

 

 

Antiochus IV’s Acra Fortress in Jerusalem Has Purportedly Been Found

History has remembered the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175–164 BC) as one of the greatest villains of antiquity. In 167 BC, he outlawed Judaism, desecrated the Jerusalem temple by sacrificing swine on its altar, and set up an image of himself in the guise of Zeus in its courts. His persecution was the culmination of the pressure that Hellenism was exerting over Judea at the time. This pushed conservative Jews to breaking point, and sparked the Maccabean Revolt. Under the leadership of Judas Maccabeus, the Jewish nation successfully overthrew Seleucid sovereignty and established a Jewish commonwealth that lasted a century until the arrival of Rome’s celebrity general, Pompey (63 BC).

A coin (tetradrachm) of Antiochus IV minted in Acco-Ptolemais (c. 167 BC)

As part of his program to control Judea and provide a better launching platform for operations against Ptolemaic Egypt, Antiochus constructed a fortress in Jerusalem. This fortress was known as the ‘Acra’, from the Greek word ἄκρα (akra), meaning ‘citadel’ or ‘summit’. The term is seen in the word ‘Acropolis’, which means ‘fortified city’ or ‘city on the summit’. 1 Maccabees 1.33–36 gives us this account of Antiochus’ construction of the Jerusalem Acra:

Then they fortified the city of David with a great strong wall and strong towers, and it became their citadel. They stationed there a sinful people, men who were renegades. These strengthened their position; they stored up arms and food, and collecting the spoils of Jerusalem they stored them there, and became a great menace, for the citadel became an ambush against the sanctuary, an evil adversary of Israel at all times.

The Acra, then, housed a garrison of Seleucid Greek soldiers, and their cache of weapons. It was approximately 250 x 60 m in area, and towered tall enough to provide a vantage point for all activities being conducted in the Jewish temple. Understandably, it was viewed by conservative Jews as a symbol of oppression.

The exact location of Antiochus’ Acra has been a subject of debate. If it afforded a good view into the temple courts, it would seem to have been located either to the immediate north or west of the temple. Yet nothing has been forthcoming in excavations and surveys.

But now, it seems, the riddle has been solved.

Archaeologists excavating in the Giv’ati Car Park in the City of David (just south of the Old City of Jerusalem) have uncovered what they believe to be the remains of the Acra fortress. While the ruins have been exposed for some time now, archaeologists have only recently been able to understand their configuration properly. They are now quite confident that they have indeed located the Acra. Furthermore, this makes complete sense of the reference in 1 Maccabees to its location in the ‘City of David’.

Excavations at the Giv’ati Car Park, Jerusalem—the location of the Acra.

The surprising thing about this is that the Acra was located on ground that was a good deal lower than the Temple Mount. Yet, we must realise that the Temple Mount in the second century BC was lower than its current level. The Second Temple was renovated on a monumental scale by Herod the Great (beginning in 19 BC), and he built the massive retaining walls that achieved the levels we can observe today. But before Herod’s renovation, the temple was most likely sitting at a lower altitude (albeit on the same spot). In any case, the Acra was located at a lower altitude. Therefore, it must have been quite an imposing tower to provide the garrison with its vantage point into the temple complex.

The Acra is a very significant find, as it dominated the landscape of Jerusalem at a critical time of its ancient history. It will be interesting to see if archaeologists can determine whether construction of the Acra in 167 BC compromised previous levels of occupation (‘strata’) from earlier historical periods.

What eventually happened to the Acra?

Judas Maccabeus was able to take Jerusalem and besieged the Acra in the course of his campaign. Yet the garrison managed to hold out for quite some time. With the Greco-Syrian soldiers watching on, Judas rededicated the temple in December 164 BC (or January 163 BC, depending on calendrical calculations). This was the origin of the festival of Hanukkah. Judas and his successors, his brothers Jonathan and Simon, managed to fortify Jerusalem effectively against the garrison, eventually winning complete freedom for the Jewish nation. Simon besieged the garrison and starved them out in 142 BC. Josephus tells us what Simon then did with the Acra in Antiquities 13.6.7:

He… cast it down to the ground, that it might not be any more a place of refuge to their enemies, when they took it, to do them a mischief, as it had been till now. And when he had done this, he thought it their best way, and most for their advantage, to level the very mountain itself upon which the citadel happened to stand, that so the temple might be higher than it. And, indeed, when he had called the multitude to an assembly, he persuaded them to have it so demolished… so they all set themselves to the work, and levelled the mountain, and in that work spent both day and night without any intermission, which cost them three whole years before it was removed, and brought to an entire level with the plain of the rest of the city. After which the temple was the highest of all the buildings, now that the citadel, as well as the mountain whereon it stood, were demolished.

Here’s a news clip with some good visuals of the excavations.

Here is Israeli archaeologist, Doron Ben Ami, speaking about the discovery of the Acra:

You can also read further articles on the discovery by clicking the following links:

http://greekcurrent.com/a-2000-year-old-greek-fortress-has-been-unearthed-in-jerusalem/

http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/11/03/us-archaeology-jerusalem-idUSKCN0SS1GD20151103?feedType=RSS&feedName=lifestyleMolt

Aerial view of Jerusalem today. The Givati Car Park, where the Acra was discovered, is located in the very centre of the picture.

Where the Trial of Jesus Took Place

The place where Pontius Pilatus tried Jesus has just become accessible to the general public.

All four Gospels agree that Jesus was tried before the Roman Prefect of Judea, Pontius Pilatus. A widely held tradition places the location of the trial at the Antonia Fortress, where the local Roman garrison was stationed. The Antonia was situated at the northwest corner of the Temple Mount. The Via Dolorosa (‘Way of Suffering’), with its stations of the cross, is said to trace the path that Jesus took from the place of his trial to the place of his execution.

Unfortunately, this path is historically improbable.

The site of Jesus’ execution—Golgotha, where the current Church of the Holy Sepulchre stands—is almost certainly correct. But the Antonia was almost certainly not the site of his trial. The current course of the Via Dolorosa, which starts at the site of the Antonia on the north side of the Old City, stems back only to medieval times. In the preceding Byzantine era, the route began at the Old City’s west.

From the writings of the late first century Jewish historian, Josephus, we know the Roman Prefects and Procurators of Judea lodged in Herod’s dazzling palace on Jerusalem’s Western Hill. So grandiose was the palace that Josephus says it surpassed every other building and had features that simply defied adequate description (Wars 5.177–81 [5.4.4]). Normally, the Roman Prefect resided at Caesarea Maritima, on the coast. But on certain occasions, like the festival of Passover, the Prefect and detachments of the Italian Legion would venture up from Caesarea Maritima to Jerusalem, with the Prefect taking up residence in Herod’s grand palace on Jerusalem’s western hill. Josephus gives an account of the final Procurator, Gessius Florus (AD 64–66), lodging in this palace and holding public court on a platform in front of it (Wars 2.301 [2.14.8]; cf. 2.328–29 [2.15.5]). This was probably ‘The Stone Pavement’ (Greek: Lithostroton; Aramaic: Gabbatha) mentioned in John 19.13.

Florus presumably followed the protocol of his predecessors, like Pontius Pilatus, Prefect from AD 26–36.

So when the Jewish authorities brought Jesus to Pilatus on that April morning in AD 33, it would have been to Herod’s Palace, since this is where the Roman Prefect conducted business.

Reconstruction of Herod’s Palace (Second Temple Model, Jerusalem)

From the palace, it was a short walk of about 400 metres to Golgotha. The fact that Jesus required the assistance of Simon of Cyrene to carry his cross this short distance speaks to the kind of condition he must have been in after the Romans had flogged him.

Current map of Jerusalem's Old City, showing the location of relevant sites.

Present-day map of Jerusalem’s Old City, showing the location of relevant sites.

Thanks to Josephus’ work, the location of Herod’s grand palace has always been known. It is to the immediate south of the current Jaffa Gate on the western edge of Jerusalem’s Old City. The palace was largely destroyed in the downfall of Jerusalem in AD 70, and has since been built over. The site today is known as both ‘The Citadel’ and the ‘Tower of David’, despite having nothing to do with King David. It currently houses a museum.

View of the Tower of David on the site of Herod’s palace in Jerusalem.

Excavations to extend the museum began some fifteen years ago, but were halted numerous times. Nonetheless, the foundations of Herod’s palace now seem to have been uncovered. The Tower of David Museum is now offering tours of the ruins. So for the first time, the general public will have access to the remains of the site where Jesus was tried before Pontius Pilate.

The photo below comes courtesy of the Tower of David Museum.

View of the middle of three walls that are part of the foundations of Herod’s palace in Jerusalem.

The Huffington Post has more photos.

The Washington Post has more on this story.

Recreation of first century Jerusalem, looking towards the west. The Temple Mount dominates the foreground, with the Antonia fortress at its top right (NW) corner. The Palace of Herod is along the western edge at the top left. The site of Golgotha (Calvary) is at top centre.