The most important biblical discoveries of 2019

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Israel and its neighbors are a rich archaeological ground. Hardly a month goes by without the excavation of some 2,000-year-old bit of human history.

Read on for some of the most intriguing biblical discoveries of 2019.

A 2,000-year-old “lost” street built in Jerusalem by Pontius Pilate has been uncovered for the first time since the city was sacked by the Romans in 70AD.

The ancient walkway most likely used by pilgrims as they made their way to worship at the Temple Mount was first discovered in 1894 by British archaeologists in the “City of David” within the walls of Jerusalem.

Researchers have now found more than 100 coins beneath the paving stones that date the street to around the year 31AD.

The finding provides strong evidence that the street was commissioned by Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of the province of Judaea, best known for being the official who presided over the trial of Jesus and ordered his crucifixion.

After six years of extensive archaeological excavations, a team from the Israel Antiquities Authority and Tel Aviv University have uncovered a 220m section of the ancient street.

The road ascends from the Pool of Siloam in the south to the Temple Mount. Both monuments are hugely significant to followers of Judaism and Christianity.

The Temple Mount, located within the Old City of Jerusalem, has been venerated as a holy site for thousands of years. It is where Jesus is said to have cured a man’s blindness by sending him to wash in the Siloam Pool.

The excavation revealed more than 100 coins trapped beneath paving stones. The latest coins were dated between 17AD and 31AD, which provides firm evidence that work began and was completed during the time that Pilate governed Judea.

Study co-author Dr Donald Ariel, an archaeologist and coin expert with the Israel Antiquities Authority, said: “Dating using coins is very exact.

Map plots excavation sites along the road (SWNS)

“As some coins have the year in which they were minted on them, what that means is that if a coin with the date on it is found beneath the street, the street had to be built in the same year or after that coin had been minted, so any time after.

“However, our study goes further, because statistically, coins minted some 10 years later are the most common coins in Jerusalem, so not having them beneath the street means the street was built before their appearance, in other words only in the time of Pilate.”

The street – 600 metres long and around eight metres wide – was paved with large stone slabs, as was customary throughout the Roman Empire. The researchers estimate that some 10,000 tons of quarried limestone rock was used in its construction, which the research team say would have required considerable skill.

The opulent and grand nature of the street coupled with the fact that it links two of the most important spots in Jerusalem – the Siloam Pool and Temple Mount – is strong evidence that the street acted as a pilgrim’s route.

Co-author Dr Joe Uziel, of the Israel Antiquities Authority, said: “If this was a simple walkway connecting point A to point B, there would be no need to build such a grand street.

“At its minimum it is eight metres wide. This, coupled with its finely carved stone and ornate ‘furnishings’ like a stepped podium along the street, all indicate that this was a special street.”

Study author Nahshon Szanton added: “Part of it may have been to appease the residents of Jerusalem, part of it may have been about the way Jerusalem would fit in the Roman world, and part of it may have been to aggrandise his name through major building projects.”

The paving stones of the street were found hidden beneath layers of rubble, thought to be from when the Romans captured and destroyed the city in 70AD. The rubble contained weapons, including arrowheads and sling stones, remains of burnt trees, and collapsed stones from the buildings along its edge.

The researchers say it is possible that Pilate had the street built to reduce tensions with the Jewish population.

Dr Ariel added:“We can’t know for sure, although all these reasons do find support in the historical documents.”

The study was published in the Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University.

An altar with a tale to tell

A stone altar discovered in Ataroth, Jordan, is etched with tantalizing clues about a rebellion that took place more than 2,800 years ago.

The rebellion is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, which tells of an uprising by the kingdom of Moab against the kingdom of Israel. According to the Biblical tale, Moab had to pay Israel tribute in the form of lambs and wool.

Then, the king of Moab, Mesha, grew frustrated with this arrangement and raised an army against the larger power. A stele, or inscribed stone, discovered in 1868 in Dhiban, Jordan, records that Mesha successfully conquered the Israeli-controlled city of Ataroth.

The altar, first excavated in 2010, was analyzed and its contents reported in the journal Levant this year. Its inscription — partly written in the Moab script — confirms that Mesha and his army did conquer Ataroth, mentioning the loot of bronze from the defeated city. Another portion of the inscription describes 4,000 foreign men “scattered and abandoned in great number” and mentions a “desolate” city.

Church of the Apostles?

A Byzantine-era church discovered in northern Israel may be a long-lost place of worship built above the home of the apostles Peter and Andrew.

The structure was discovered this year near the Sea of Galilee. It dates back about 1,400 years and still holds the remains of intricate mosaics and carved marble.

Its discoverers believe that the church may be on the site of the Jewish fishing village of Bethsaida, the town where Jesus Christ is said in the Bible to have fed 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish.

If so, the church could be the legendary “Church of the Apostles,” which was built to honor two of Jesus’ original disciples, one of whom (Peter) would become the first leader of the early Christian church.

The claim, however, is disputed by other researchers, who argue that they’ve been excavating Bethsaida at a nearby site called et-Tell. Stay tuned for further excavations that might settle the debate.

Archaeological discovery helps prove Babylonian conquest of Israel

The current find is one of the oldest and perhaps the most prominent in its historical significance, as the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem is a major moment in Jewish history.

Archaeologists have unearthed evidence pointing to the validity of the Babylonian Conquest of the Holy City of Jerusalem in 587/586 BCE, as described by the Bible, according to a release published earlier this week.A team of researchers from the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, who have been excavating the hill known as Mount Zion in Jerusalem, say they have discovered arrowheads dating from the period, layers of ash, Iron Age potsherds, as well as a “significant” piece of jewelry – a gold silver tassel or earring – archetypal of the period in question.

“The team believes that the newly-found deposit can be dated to the specific event of the conquest because of the unique mix of artifacts and materials found — pottery and lamps, side-by-side with evidence of the Babylonian siege represented by burnt wood and ashes, and a number of Scythian-type bronze and iron arrowheads which are typical of that period,” the UNC archaeological team wrote in a statement.The Mount Zion Archaeological Project is co-directed by UNC Charlotte professor of history Shimon Gibson, Rafi Lewis, a senior lecturer at Ashkelon Academic College and a fellow of Haifa University, and James Tabor, UNC Charlotte professor of religious studies.

The group has been working in the area for more than a decade and has made numerous significant finds relating to the ancient city’s many historical periods.In July 2019, the archaeologists found evidence concerning the sack of the city during the First Crusade.The current find is one of the oldest and perhaps the most prominent in its historical significance, as the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem is a major moment in Jewish history.

The researchers say that the unique mix of artifacts and materials found, together with the way they were found – covered in layers of ash – solidify both the time period and that there was some type of destructive event that took place at that time.

“Alternative explanations for the artifacts can be eliminated,” the researchers claim in their release. “Nobody abandons golden jewelry and nobody has arrowheads in their domestic refuse. Frankly, jewelry is a rare find at conflict sites, because this is exactly the sort of thing that attackers will loot and later melt down.

Gibson explained that the arrowheads are known as “Scythian arrowheads,” and have been found at other archaeological conflict sites from the 7th and 6th centuries BCE.”They were fairly commonplace in this period and are known to be used by the Babylonian warriors,” he explained.

“Together, this evidence points to the historical conquest of the city by Babylon because the only major destruction we have in Jerusalem for this period is the conquest of 587/586 BCE.”The potsherds help date the discovery further, considering the lamp shards found are typical to the period.”It’s the kind of jumble that you would expect to find in a ruined household following a raid or battle,” Gibson said.

“Household objects, lamps, broken bits from pottery which had been overturned and shattered… and arrowheads and a piece of jewelry which might have been lost and buried in the destruction.”The Babylonian Conquest, spearheaded by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar, was a tragic battle that resulted in the loss of life, the complete destruction of the city, as well as the annihilation of King Solomon’s Temple.

The Torah recounts effects the Babylonian siege had on the residents of Jerusalem, before the conquest: “The city was besieged unto the eleventh year of King Zedekiah.

On the ninth day of the [fourth] month the famine was sore in the city, so that there was no bread for the people of the land. Then a breach was made in the city, and all the men of war [fled] by night by the way of the gate between the two walls…. And he [Nebuzaradan, the Babylonian captain of the guard] burnt the house of the Lord, and the King’s house; and all the houses of Jerusalem, even every great man’s house, burnt he with fire.” (2 Kings 25: 1-9).

Every year on Tisha Be’Av, Jews around the world pray, mourn and fast in remembrance of this event, the destruction of the First Temple and the later destruction of the Second Temple, which took place in 70 CE. Tisha Be’Av – the ninth of the Hebrew month of Av – was commemorated earlier this week.

“It is very exciting to be able to excavate the material signature of any given historical event, and even more so regarding an important historical event such as the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem,” project co-director Lewis said.

Origin of the Philistines

One of the most intriguing Biblical discoveries of 2019 occurred not in desert sands, but in the DNA of ancient individuals buried at a Philistine archaeological site.

The DNA analysis suggests that the Philistines descended from people who migrated to the Levant (an area encompassing the eastern Mediterranean) from Greece, Sardinia or the Iberian Peninsula some 3,000 years ago.

The Philistines are a people repeatedly mentioned in the Hebrew Bible and also in the writings of ancient Egyptians. These texts led archaeologists to the city of Ashkelon, in what is today Israel, where they found artifacts reminiscent of those seen in Bronze Age Greece. The new genetic analysis cements those ties, showing that these cultural relics were brought by migrants to the Levant.  

Balak: Myth or legend?

Remember that stele from Dhiban, Jordan, that told the tale of King Mesha defeating the Israelites at Ataroth? Well, that same stele was at the center of another Biblical controversy in 2019: Does its inscription confirm the existence of a Moab king named Balak?

Balak gets a mention in the Hebrew Bible’s Book of Numbers, but there hasn’t been any non-Biblical confirmation that he existed. This year, researchers at Tel Aviv University in Israel tried to decipher some of the hard-to-read portions of the Mesha stele (which is broken and held at the Louvre in France) using a rubbing of the stele that was created before it was broken. They concluded that one fragment contained a B, which may stand for Balak … or for something completely different.

“We can read one letter, b, which they’re guessing may be filled out as Balak, even though the following letters are missing,” Ronald Hendel, a professor of the Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, who was not involved in the study. “It’s just a guess. It could be Bilbo or Barack, for all we know.”

A village with ties to Jesus’ crucifixion

The Gospel of Luke in the New Testament tells the story of Jesus’ return after the crucifixion. According to the disciple, Jesus appears before two followers on the road to Emmaus, which is 60 stadia (10 to 12 kilometers) from Jerusalem. This year, archaeologists reported that they may have discovered Emmaus — though the identification remains controversial.     

Israel Finkelstein, professor emeritus at the Institute of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University in Israel, and Thomas Römer, a professor of biblical studies at Collège de France, argue that the archaeological site of Kiriath-Jearim, which sits the proper distance from the Old City of Jerusalem, is actually Emmaus. Fortifications discovered at the site match what is known from written records of Emmaus. But there are other sites that are also contenders for the real location of Emmaus, so it’s not yet clear if Kiriath-jearim is the real holder of the title.

Miraculous mosaic

A fire in the seventh century may have destroyed an elaborate church in the ancient city of Hippos, but it couldn’t wipe away a mosaic depicting one of Jesus’ miracles.

Archaeologists found the mosaic underneath a layer of ashes in the ancient church that overlooked the Sea of Galilee and was built in the fifth or sixth century. The mosaic depicts five loaves of bread and two fish in one section, then baskets overflowing with loaves and fish in others — a reference to the New Testament tale of Jesus multiplying a few servings of food into a feast for 5,000.  

The secret of the Temple Scroll

The Dead Sea Scrolls are an archaeological miracle. Despite being nothing but parchment, these ancient texts survived for 2,000 years in desert caves near the archaeological site of Qumran. This year, researchers discovered the secret to the preservation of one of the most intact scrolls, the Temple Scroll.

This scroll, they found, is imbued with salty minerals that don’t come from the cave where the scroll was discovered; nor are the minerals seen on other scroll fragments. The Temple Scroll, they concluded, may have been deliberately preserved by a method that’s different from what was used on other contemporaneous scrolls. The custom brew of salts may have helped keep the scroll in tip-top condition for thousands of years.

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