What Biblical Archaeology Can and Cannot Prove!

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Does Archaeology Really Support the Bible?

Biblical archaeology is the study of the peoples, places, and events of the Bible through the interesting and engaging record buried in the earth. The archaeologist digs and then he analyzes, analyzes, and reanalyzes some more.

In Archaeology and the New Testament, John McRay highlights the contributions and limitations that archaeological investigations have made to the study of the New Testament.

Those contributions include that:

  1. Archaeology has enlightened our understanding of the geographical setting in which some biblical events occurred.

For example, ancient Gergesa, the place where Jesus encountered the demoniac who lived among the tombs, and cast the demons into swine which then ran into the Sea of Galilee, has been identified as being either Gerasa (modern Jerash in Jordan) or Gadara (modern Umm Qeis in Jordan).  These locations certainly reveal cities from the Roman period; however, both are located miles from the Sea of Galilee and are therefore unlikely to be the Gergesa referred to in the New Testament.

Gadara in the Promise Land of Jesus’ Time

An important discovery was made in 1970 in modern Kursi in Jordan, of a Byzantine church built over an earlier burial vault, and evidence indicates this to be a more likely location for the following reasons:

  • The Byzantines built churches over important Christian sites and there is only one recorded visit of Jesus going to the “other side of the sea.”
  • It is the only place on the entire east coast where tombs have been found in the adjacent hills and where a cliff comes out to the sea.
  1. Archaeological excavation has contributed to our understanding of the religious situation at the time.
Yale Papyrus Fragment from the Nag Hammadi Gnostic Library Codex III

For example, the extensive Gnostic library that was discovered at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945 provides a greater understanding of some of the heresy in the early church and the nature of the New Testament canon at this time.

  1. The results of archaeological excavations help to put New Testament contexts squarely in the realm of history and geography and constrain the imaginations of scholars who would mythologize the New Testament.

    Examples include:

  • From the book of John there have been discoveries of the Well of Jacob (John 4:12), the Pool of Bethesda (5:2), the Pool of Siloam (9:7), the probable location of the Gabbatha or stone pavement near the Jaffa Gate where Jesus appeared before Pilate (19:13) and the name of Pilate himself on a stone in the Roman theatre at Caesarea, have all lent historical credibility to the text of John.
  • The name of Erastus (Rom. 16:23) has turned up on an inscription in the stone pavement near the large theatre in Corinth.
Erastus Inscription
Inscription mentioning Erastus, first century C.E., Corinth, Greece. Photograph by Todd Bolen.

Discovered in 1924 at the location of ancient Corinth in Greece.  The text reads “Erastus… bore the expense of this pavement.”

  • The name of Quirinius (Luke 2:2) has turned up recently on a coin.
  • Gallio (Acts 18:12) left an inscription bearing his name in Delphi and reference to Claudius’s expulsion of the Jews from Rome (Acts 18:2) appears in the Teaching of the Addai, Orosius’s Seven Books of History Against the Pagans, and Suetonius’s Lives of the Caesars.
  1. Archaeological excavation often recovers the evidence necessary for reconstructing and understanding the biblical text.

Some recent and important examples are the Egyptian papyri which contain portions of the New Testament text, written in Greek and dating from the late first to mid-third century, have radically altered understanding of the Greek text. 

The discovery of ostraca (broken pieces of pottery used for writing) provide a glimpse of life in the ancient world. They often contain examples of transactions and details about the people involved in those transactions. For example a perfectly preserved Hellenistic age dwelling was uncovered during a dig at Khirbet el-Kom in modern day Israel and within this building laid a cache of ostraca.

One of the ostraca contained a transaction between an Edomite named Qos-yada’ and a Greek named Nikeratos. This transaction was recorded in both Edomite and Greek and included that Qos-yada’ was called a kapelos. This Greek word appears once in the New Testament in 2 Corinthians 2:17 and the King James Version translated kapelos as “corrupt,” whereas several modern versions translate it as “peddle.”

2 Corinthians 2:17 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

17 For we are not, like so many, peddlers[2] of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ.
[2] A deceptive greedy businessperson, a tavern keeper, or a wine merchant, a petty retailer, a huckster, a peddler.

This word is common in Greek Literature, inscriptions, and papyri where it is commonly translated as “retailer,” “shopkeeper,” “peddler” or “huckster.” The ostraca found at Khirbet el-Kom provide examples of the kapelos being involved in money-lending and therein broadening the understanding of the word.

This kind of discovery as Lawrence T. Geraty correctly claims aids lexicographers[1] to “carefully define the semantic range of words used in the original languages of the Bible.” Now, let’s turn our attention to the Old Testament.

The Tower of Babel

In the Bible, the Tower of Babel was a large construction project. (Gen. 11:1-9) Interestingly, archaeologists have discovered throughout the ruins of ancient Babylon the sites of numerous ziggurats, or pyramid-like staged temple-towers, which include the ruined temple of Etemenanki (a ziggurat dedicated to Marduk in the ancient city of Babylon), which was within Babylon’s walls. Ancient documents concerning such temples frequently contain the words, “Its top shall reach the heavens.” King Nebuchadnezzar is recorded as having said, “I raised the summit of the Tower of stages at Etemenanki so that its top rivaled the heavens.” One fragment relates the fall of such a ziggurat as follows: “The building of this temple offended the gods. In a night they threw down what had been built. They scattered them abroad and made strange their speech. The progress they impeded.” – Bible and Spade, 1938, S. L. Caiger, page 29.


The Siloam Tunnel is also known as Hezekiah’s Tunnel

Hezekiah’s Tunnel is a water channel that was carved beneath the City of David, located in the Arab neighborhood of Silwan in eastern Jerusalem, in ancient times. Its popular name is due to the most common hypothesis that it dates from the reign of Hezekiah of Judah (late 8th and early 7th century BC) and corresponds to the “conduit” mentioned in 2 Kings 20:20 in the Hebrew Bible. According to the Bible, King Hezekiah prepared Jerusalem for an impending siege by the Assyrians by “blocking the source of the waters of the upper Gihon and leading them straight down on the west to the City of David” (2 Chronicles 32).

The Siloam inscription or Shiloah inscription known as KAI 189, is a Hebrew inscription found in the Siloam tunnel which brings water from the Gihon Spring to the Pool of Siloam, located in the City of David in East Jerusalem neighborhood of Shiloah or Silwan. The inscription records the construction of the tunnel, which has been dated to the 8th century BCE on the basis of the writing style. It is the only known ancient inscription from ancient Israel and Judah which commemorates a public construction work, despite such inscriptions being commonplace in Egyptian and Mesopotamian archaeology.

Support for the dating to Hezekiah’s period is derived from the Biblical text that describes the construction of a tunnel and to radiocarbon dates of organic matter contained in the original plastering. However, the dates were challenged in 2011 by new excavations that suggested an earlier origin in the late 9th or early 8th century BC.

The tunnel leads from the Gihon Spring to the Pool of Siloam. If indeed built under Hezekiah, it dates to a time when Jerusalem was preparing for an impending siege by the Assyrians, led by Sennacherib. Since the Gihon Spring was already protected by a massive tower and was included in the city’s defensive wall system, Jerusalem seems to have been supplied with enough water in case of siege, even without this tunnel. According to Aharon Horovitz, director of the Megalim Institute, the tunnel can be interpreted as an additional aqueduct designed for keeping the entire outflow of the spring inside the walled area, which included the downstream Pool of Siloam, with the specific purpose of withholding water from any besieging forces. Both the spring itself and the pool at the end of the tunnel would have been used by the inhabitants as water sources. Troops positioned outside the walls wouldn’t have reached any of it, because even the overflow water released from the Pool of Siloam would have fully disappeared into a karstic system located right outside the southern tip of the city walls. In contrast to that, the previous water system did release all the water not used by the city population into the Kidron Valley to the east, where besieging troops could have taken advantage of it.

The curving tunnel is 583 yards (533 m; about ​1⁄3 mile) long and by using the 12-inch (30 cm) altitude difference between its two ends, which corresponds to a 0.06 percent gradient, the engineers managed to convey the water from the spring to the pool.

According to the Siloam inscription, the tunnel was excavated by two teams, one starting at each end of the tunnel and then meeting in the middle. The inscription is partly unreadable at present and may originally have conveyed more information than this. It is clear from the tunnel itself that several directional errors were made during its construction. Recent scholarship has discredited the idea that the tunnel may have been formed by substantially widening a pre-existing natural karst. How the Israelite engineers dealt with the difficult feat of making two teams digging from opposite ends meet far underground is still not fully understood, but some suggest that the two teams were directed from above by sound signals generated by hammering on the solid rock through which the tunnelers were digging.

Biblical Interpretation

1884 sketch of the tunnel, by Charles Warren and Claude Reignier Conder, showing the tunnel as well as Warren’s Shaft, the Pool of Siloam and the Fountain of the Virgin.

The Bible verses relating to a tunnel in Hezekiah’s time are these:

“The rest of the deeds of Hezekiah and all his might and how he made the pool and the conduit and brought water into the city, are they not written in the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah?” (2 Kings 20:20)

“And when Hezekiah saw that Sennacherib had come and intended to fight against Jerusalem, he planned with his officers and his mighty men to stop the water of the springs that were outside the city; and they helped him. A great many people were gathered, and they stopped all the springs and the brook that flowed through the land, saying, ‘Why should the kings of Assyria come and find much water?’” (2 Chronicles 32:2-4)

“This same Hezekiah closed the upper outlet of the waters of Gihon and directed them down to the west side of the city of David. And Hezekiah prospered in all his works.” (2 Chronicles 32:30)

“You made a reservoir between the two walls for the water of the old pool. But you did not look to him who did it, or see him who planned it long ago.” (Isaiah 22:11)

This tunnel, the Siloam Tunnel, averaged 1.8 m (6 ft) in height and was cut through rock for a distance of some 533 m (1,749 ft) from Gihon to the Pool of Siloam in the Tyropoeon Valley (within the city). It, therefore, appears to be the project of King Hezekiah described at 2 Kings 20:20 and 2 Chronicles 32:30.

The Bubastite Portal at Karnak, showing the cartouches of Shoshenq I.

Shishak’s Victory Relief

Shishak, king of Egypt, is mentioned seven times in the Bible. The Bubastite Portal, a relief discovered at Karnak, in Upper Egypt, and similar reliefs on the walls of a small temple of Amun at el-Hibeh, shows Pharaoh Shoshenq I holding in his hand a bound group of prisoners. The names of captured towns are located primarily in the territory of the kingdom of Israel (including Megiddo), with a few listed in the Negeb, and perhaps Philistia. Some of these include a few of the towns that Rehoboam had fortified according to 2 Chronicles 11:5–12.

The portal is generally believed to record a historical campaign of Sheshonq I in Judah, but it makes no mention of Jerusalem being sacked, nor of Rehoboam or Jeroboam. Various explanations of this omission of Jerusalem have been proposed: its name may have been erased, the list may have been copied from an older pharaoh’s list of conquests, or Rehoboam’s ransoming the city (as described in the Second Book of Chronicles) would have saved it from being listed.

The stone not only mentions the name of King Omri of Israel but also, in the 18th line, contains God’s name in the form of the Tetragrammaton.
Om’ri. (pupil of Jehovah).
1. Originally, “captain of the host,” to Elah, was afterward, himself, king of Israel, and founder of the third dynasty. (B.C. 926). Omri was engaged in the siege of Gibbethon situated in the tribe of Dan, which had been occupied by the Philistines. As soon as the army heard of Elah’s death, they proclaimed Omri, king.
Thereupon, he broke up the siege of Gibbethon and attacked Tirzah, where Zimri was holding his court as king of Israel. The city was taken, and Zimri perished in the flames of the palace, after a reign of seven days. Omri, however, was not allowed to establish his dynasty, without a struggle against Tibni, whom “half the people,” 1Ki_16:21, desired to raise to the throne. The civil war lasted four years. Compare 1Ki_16:15 with 1Ki_16:23. After the defeat and death of Tibni, Omri reigned for six years in Tirzah. At Samaria, Omri reigned for six years more. He seems to have been a vigorous and unscrupulous ruler, anxious to strengthen his dynasty, by intercourse and alliances, with foreign states.

The Moabite Stone was one of the earliest discoveries of extreme significance in the area east of the Jordan. It was found in 1868 at Dhiban, N of the Arnon Valley. It presents Moabite King Mesha’s account of his uprising against Israel. (See 2 Kings 1:1; 3:4-5.) In part, the inscription says: “I (am) Mesha, son of Chemosh-[. . .], king of Moab, the Dibonite . . . As for Omri, king of Israel, he humbled Moab many years (lit., days), for Chemosh [the god of Moab] was angry at his land. And his son followed him and he also said, ‘I will humble Moab.’ In my time he spoke (thus), but I have triumphed over him and over his house, while Israel hath perished for ever! . . . And Chemosh said to me, ‘Go, take Nebo from Israel!’ So I went by night and fought against it from the break of dawn until noon, taking it and slaying all . . . And I took from there the [vessels] of Yahweh, dragging them before Chemosh.” (Ancient Near Eastern Texts, edited by J. B. Pritchard, 1974, p. 320) Therefore, the stone specifically mentions the name of King Omri of Israel. In the 18th line, includes God the Father’s personal name in the form of the Tetragrammaton (Heb., יהוה, YHWH). The Moabite Stone further mentions numerous places referred to in the Bible: Ataroth and Nebo (Num. 32:34, 38); the Arnon, Aroer, Medeba, and Dibon (Josh. 13:9); Bamoth-baal, Beth-baal-meon, Jahaz, and Kiriathaim (Josh. 13:17-19); Bezer (Josh. 20:8); Horonaim (Isa. 15:5); Beth-diblathaim and Kerioth. (Jer. 48:22, 24) It thus supports the historicity of God’s Word.

The Reading Culture of Early Christianity From Spoken Words to Sacred Texts 400,000 Textual Variants 02

King Sennacherib’s Prism

The prisms contain six paragraphs of cuneiform written in Akkadian. They are hexagonal in shape, made of red baked clay, and stand 38.0 cm high by 14.0 cm wide. They were created during the reign of Sennacherib in 732 BC.

Sennacherib’s Annals

Taylor Prism, London

Oriental Institute Prism, Chicago

Jerusalem Prism, Israel

Sennacherib’s Annals of his military campaign (732–681 BC), including his invasion into the Kingdom of Judah






Akkadian cuneiform


c. 690 BCE


From 1830

Present location

Final editions in the British Museum, Oriental Institute of Chicago, and the Israel Museum

The Taylor Prism is thought to have been found by Colonel Robert Taylor (1790–1852) in 1830 at Nineveh, which was the ancient capital of the Assyrian Empire under Sennacherib, before its initial excavation[clarification needed] by Botta and Layard more than a decade later. Although the prism remained in Iraq until 1846, in 1835 a paper squeeze was made by the 25-year-old Henry Rawlinson, and a plaster cast was taken by Pierre-Victorien Lottin in c.1845. The original was later thought to have been lost, until it was purchased from Colonel Taylor’s widow in 1855 by the British Museum. (Colonel Taylor may have been the father of John George Taylor, who, himself, became a noted Assyrian explorer and archaeologist.)

Another version of this text is found on what is known as the Sennacherib Prism, now in the Oriental Institute. It was purchased by James Henry Breasted from a Baghdad antique dealer in 1919 for the Oriental Institute. The Jerusalem prism was acquired by the Israel Museum at a Sotheby’s auction in 1970. It was only published in 1990.


The three known complete examples of this inscription are nearly identical, with only minor variants, although the dates on the prisms show that they were written sixteen months apart (the Taylor and Jerusalem Prisms in 691 BC and the Oriental Institute prism in 689 BC). There are also at least eight other fragmentary prisms preserving parts of this text, all in the British Museum, and most of them containing just a few lines.

The Chicago text was translated by Daniel David Luckenbill and the Akkadian text, along with a translation into English, is available in his book The Annals of Sennacherib (University of Chicago Press, 1924).

Significance of Prisms

Jerusalem as inscribed on the prism
Hezekiah of Judah as inscribed on the prism

It is one of three accounts discovered so far which have been left by Sennacherib of his campaign against the Kingdom of Israel and Kingdom of Judah, giving a different perspective on these events from that of the Book of Kings in the Bible.

Some passages in the Hebrew Bible (2 Kings 18–19) agree with at least a few of the claims made on the prism. The Bible recounts a successful Assyrian attack on Samaria, as a result of which the population was deported, and later recounts that an attack on Lachish was ended by Hezekiah suing for peace, with Sennacherib demanding 300 talents of silver and 30 talents of gold, and Hezekiah giving him all the silver from his palace and from the Temple in Jerusalem, and the gold from doors and doorposts of the temple. Compared to this, the Taylor Prism proclaims that 46 walled cities and innumerable smaller settlements were conquered by the Assyrians, with 200,150 people, and livestock, being deported, and the conquered territory being dispersed among the three kings of the Philistines instead of being given back. Additionally, the Prism says that Sennacherib’s siege resulted in Hezekiah being shut up in Jerusalem “like a caged bird”, Hezekiah’s mercenaries and ‘Arabs’ deserting him, and Hezekiah eventually buying off Sennacherib, having to give him antimony, jewels, ivory-inlaid furniture, his own daughters, harem, and musicians. It states that Hezekiah became a tributary ruler.

On Sennacherib’s prism, he says this of Hezekiah: “As for the king of Judah, Hezekiah, who had not submitted to my authority, I besieged and captured forty-six of his fortified cities, along with many smaller towns, taken in battle with my battering rams. … I took as plunder 200,150 people, both small and great, male and female, along with a great number of animals including horses, mules, donkeys, camels, oxen, and sheep. As for Hezekiah, I shut him up like a caged bird in his royal city of Jerusalem. I then constructed a series of fortresses around him, and I did not allow anyone to come out of the city gates. His towns which I captured I gave to the kings of Ashod, Ekron, and Gaza.” The tribute given by Hezekiah is then mentioned but, in this account, nothing is said of Sennacherib capturing the city of Jerusalem.

Lachish letter III replica (front side)

The Lachish Letters

The Lachish Letters or Lachish Ostraca, sometimes called Hoshaiah Letters, are a series of letters written in carbon ink containing Canaanite inscriptions in Ancient Hebrew on clay ostraca. The letters were discovered at the excavations at Lachish (Tell ed-Duweir).

The ostraca were discovered by James Leslie Starkey in January–February 1935, during the third campaign of the Wellcome excavations. They were published in 1938 by Harry Torczyner (name later changed to Naftali Herz Tur-Sinai) and have been much studied since then. Seventeen of them are currently located in the British Museum in London,[1] a smaller number (including Letter 6) are on permanent display at the Rockefeller Museum in East Jerusalem.[2] The primary inscriptions are known as KAI 192–199.

English Bible Versions King James Bible KING JAMES BIBLE II


The individual ostraca probably come from the same broken clay pot and were most likely written in a short period of time. They were written to Jaush (or Ja’osh), possibly the commanding officer at Lachish, from Hoshaiah (Hoshayahu), a military officer stationed in a city close to Lachish (possibly Mareshah). In the letters, Hoshaiah defends himself to Jaush regarding a letter he either was or was not supposed to have read. The letters also contain informational reports and requests from Hoshaiah to his superior. The letters were probably written shortly before Lachish fell to the Babylonian army of King Nebuchadnezzar II in 588/6 BC during the reign of Zedekiah, king of Judah (ref. Jeremiah 34:7).

Text of the Letters

YHWH on Lachish letters number 2

Letter Number 1

Girmiyahu son of Hatzliyhu,Yahzinhu son TavShalem, Chagav son of Yahzinu, Mavtichu son of Jeremiah, Matanyahu son of Naryahu.

Letter Number 2

To my lord, Jaush, may JHVH cause my lord to hear tiding(s) of peace today, this very day! Who is your servant, a dog, that my lord remembered his [se]rvant? May JHVH make known(?) to my [lor]d a matter of which you do not know.

Letter Number 3

Your servant, Hoshayahu, sent to inform my lord, Jaush: May Jehovah cause my lord to hear tidings of peace and tidings of good. And now, open the ear of your servant concerning the letter which you sent to your servant last evening because the heart of your servant is ill since your sending it to your servant. And inasmuch as my lord said “Don’t you know how to read a letter?” As Jehovah lives if anyone has ever tried to read me a letter! And as for every letter that comes to me, if I read it. And furthermore, I will grant it as nothing. And to your servant it has been reported saying: The commander of the army Konyahu son of Elnatan, has gone down to go to Egypt and he sent to commandeer Hodawyahu son of Ahiyahu and his men from here. And as for the letter of Tobiyahu, the servant of the king, which came to Sallum, the son of Yaddua, from the prophet, saying, “Be on guard!” your ser[va]nt is sending it to my lord.[7]

Notes: This ostracon is approximately fifteen centimeters tall by eleven centimeters wide and contains twenty-one lines of writing. The front side has lines one through sixteen; the back side has lines seventeen through twenty-one. This ostracon is particularly interesting because of its mentions of Konyahu, who has gone down to Egypt, and the prophet. For possible biblical connections according to Torczyner, reference Jeremiah 26:20–23.


Letter Number 4

May Jehovah cause my [lord] to hear, this very day, tidings of good. And now, according to everything which my lord has sent, this has your servant done. I wrote on the sheet according to everything which [you] sent [t]o me. And inasmuch as my lord sent to me concerning the matter of Bet Harapid, there is no one there. And as for Semakyahu, Semayahu took him and brought him up to the city. And your servant is not sending him there any[more —], but when morning comes round [—]. And may (my lord) be apprised that we are watching for the fire signals of Lachish according to all the signs which my lord has given, because we cannot see Azeqah.

Letter Number 5

May Jehovah cause my [lo]rd to hear tidings of pea[ce] and of good, [now today, now this very da]y! Who is your servant, a dog, that you [s]ent your servant the [letters? Like]wise has your servant returned the letters to my lord. May Jehovah cause you to see the harvest successfully, this very day! Will Tobiyahu of the royal family c<o>me to your servant?[9]

Letter Number 6

To my lord, Jaush, may Jehovah cause my lord to see peace at this time! Who is your servant, a dog, that my lord sent him the king’s [lette]r [and] the letters of the officer[s, sayin]g, “Please read!” And behold, the words of the [officers] are not good; to weaken your hands [and to in]hibit the hands of the m[en]. [I(?)] know [them(?)]. My lord, will you not write to [them] sa[ying, “Wh]y are you behaving this way? […] well-being […]. Does the king […] And […] As Jehovah lives, since your servant read the letters, your servant has not had [peace(?)].

Letter Number 7

This letter contains 10 lines on one side and 4 on the other, but the letters are unreadable due to degradation.

Letter Number 9

May Jehovah cause my lord to hear ti[dings] of peace and of [good. And n]ow, give 10 (loaves) of bread and 2 (jars) [of wi]ne. Send back word [to] your servant by means of Selemyahu as to what we must do tomorrow.

Belshaz’zar. (prince of Bel). The last king of Babylon. In Dan_5:2, Nebuchadnezzar is called, the father of Belshazzar. This, of course, need only mean, grandfather or ancestor. According to the well-known narrative, Belshazzar gave a splendid feast in his palace, during the siege of Babylon, (B.C. 538), using the sacred vessels of the Temple, which Nebuchadnezzer had brought from Jerusalem. The miraculous appearance of the handwriting on the wall, the calling in of Daniel to interpret its meaning, the prophecy of the overthrow of the kingdom, and Belshazsar’s death, accorded in Daniel 5. The baked-clay Nabonidus Cylinder, from Sippar (modern Tell Abu Habbah, Iraq), displays a text telling how Nabonidus repaired temples. Nabonidus claimed he found the deeply-buried foundation deposit for the temple of the god Shamash, laid 3,200 years previously. Nabonidus also prayed to the god Sin: “Guard me … from offending against your divinity. Give me long life. Cause Belshazzar, my eldest son, to revere your great godhead …” The Bible never mentions Nabonidus. References in Daniel 5 to Belshazzar’s “father” Nebuchadnezzar probably mean “predecessor.” Belshazzar’s father Nabonidus was not related to former kings.
‎Dan 5:1–31, Dan 7:1, Dan 8:1
‎© Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons, from Wikimedia Commons. License: CC BY-SA 2.5
The Epistle to the Hebrews Paul PAUL AND LUKE ON TRIAL

The Nabonidus Chronicle

The Nabonidus Chronicle is an ancient Babylonian text, part of a larger series of Babylonian Chronicles inscribed in cuneiform script on clay tablets. It deals primarily with the reign of Nabonidus, the last king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, covers the conquest of Babylon by the Persian king Cyrus the Great, and ends with the start of the reign of Cyrus’s son Cambyses, spanning a period from 556 BC to sometime after 539 BC. It provides a rare contemporary account of Cyrus’s rise to power and is the main source of information on this period; Amélie Kuhrt describes it as “the most reliable and sober [ancient] account of the fall of Babylon.”

The chronicle is thought to have been copied by a scribe during the Seleucid period (4th-1st century BC) but the original text was probably written during the late 6th or early 5th century BC.[3] Similarities with the Nabonassar to Shamash-shum-ukin Chronicle, another of the Babylonian Chronicles, suggest that the same scribe may have been responsible for both chronicles. If so, it may date to the reign of Darius I of Persia (c. 549 BC–486 BC).

Description of the tablet

The Nabonidus Chronicle is preserved on a single clay tablet now kept at the British Museum in London. Like the other Babylonian Chronicles, it lists in an annalistic (year-by-year) fashion the key events of each year, such as the accession and deaths of kings, major military events, and notable religious occurrences. It follows a standard pattern of reporting only events of immediate relevance to Babylonia, making it of somewhat limited utility as a source for a wider history of the region. The tablet itself is fairly large, measuring 140 mm wide by 140 mm long, but is significantly damaged with its bottom and most of the left-hand side missing. The text was composed in two columns on each side, originally consisting of some 300-400 lines. What remains is extremely fragmentary; little more than 75 lines of text are still legible. The missing portions consist of most of the first and fourth columns, along with the bottom of the second and the top of the third. There appears to have been a colophon at the bottom of the tablet, but it too is largely missing.

Although the writing is of a good standard, the copying was decidedly imperfect, and the scribe made a number of errors that are visible in the text.

The tablet was acquired by the British Museum in 1879 from the antiquity’s dealers Spartali & Co. Its original place of discovery is unknown, though it has been presumed that it came from the ruins of Babylon. It possibly represents part of an official collection of annals in the possession of the Achaemenid governors of Babylon.[6] The text, known at the time as “the Annals of Nabonidus.” was first discussed in print by Sir Henry Rawlinson in the Athenaeum magazine of 14 February 1880, with the first English transliteration and translation being published two years later by Professor T. G. Pinches in the Transactions of the Society for Biblical Archaeology (1882). It has since been translated by a number of scholars, notably Sidney Smith, A. Leo Oppenheim, Albert Kirk Grayson, Jean-Jacques Glassner, and Amélie Kuhrt.


The Text of the Nabonidus Chronicle

The text of the chronicle begins presumably with the accession of Nabonidus in 556 BC, though the start of the text is so poorly preserved that none of this portion is legible. It mentions campaigns by Nabonidus against a place named Hume and unnamed localities in “the West” (Arabia?). Cyrus’s pillaging of Ecbatana, the capital of Astyages, is recorded in the sixth year of the reign of Nabonidus. The chronicle goes on to describe in several entries the self-imposed exile of Nabonidus in the Arabian oasis of Tema (mentioned as Teiman in Hebrew in the Dead Sea Scrolls fragment 4Q242 known as the Testimony of Nebonidus dated to 150 BC) and the disruption that this caused to the Akitu (New Year) festival for a period of ten years. The king spent ten years in Arabia and left Babylonia administered by his son, Bel-shar-usur (Belshazzar of the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament). The eighth year is purposefully left blank; apparently the scribe did not have any significant events to record for that year. Another campaign by Cyrus is recorded in the ninth year, possibly representing his attack on Lydia and capture of Sardis.

Much of the rest of the text is fragmentary. A possible reference to fighting and Persia appears in what is presumably the entry for the sixteenth year. A long surviving section describes the events of Nabonidus’s seventeenth and final year as king, when Cyrus invaded and conquered Babylonia. The celebration of the Akitu festival is recorded, indicating Nabonidus’s return to Babylon. The chronicle provides no information on why Cyrus chose to invade Babylonia at that time but records that the gods of various cities “entered Babylon”, apparently referring to an in-gathering of cultic statues in advance of the Persian invasion – perhaps a measure taken by Nabonidus to prevent the Persians capturing the divine idols. It provides a terse description of the Battle of Opis, in which the Persians decisively defeated Nabonidus’s army, massacred the retreating Babylonians and took a great haul of loot. The Persian army went on to capture the cities of Sippar and Babylon itself without further conflict.[12] Cyrus is reported to have been received with joy by the city’s inhabitants and appointed local governors. The gods that had previously been brought to Babylon were returned to their home cities on the orders of Cyrus. The legible portion of the text ends with a lengthy period of mourning for the lately deceased king’s wife (presumably meaning the wife of Cyrus, as Nabonidus was no longer king by this time) and a mention of Cambyses, the son of Cyrus. Only a few scattered words are legible in the remainder of the tablet.

Analysis of the Nabonidus Chronicle

The Nabonidus Chronicle appears to have been composed by the (Babylonian) priests of Marduk, the chief god of Babylon. It has been characterized as “a piece of propaganda at Cyrus’s service” and as possibly “the result of the propaganda of the priesthood of Marduk to vilify Nabonidus.” Julye Bidmead attributes the priests’ hostility to Nabonidus’s unsuccessful attempts to introduce the worship of the moon god Sîn. In particular, the chronicle repeatedly asserts that the Akitu festival could not be held because of Nabonidus’s absence. This is dubious, as others could have participated in the celebration in Nabonidus’s place. The chronicle is seen as part of a series of pro-Persian documents, including the Cyrus cylinder and Verse Account of Nabonidus, that attack Nabonidus for alleged religious infidelity and contrast his actions with those of Cyrus and Cambyses. However, Amélie Kuhrt describes it as “the most reliable and sober ancient account of the fall of Babylon.”

Limitations of Biblical Archaeology

Archaeology cannot prove the existence of God per se. NT Archaeologist John McRay states that “Those who make such demands from the discipline are going beyond the purpose of excavation and inadvertently betray the uncertainty of their own approach to religion.” (McRay 1991, 19)  Scholars tend to be cautious when making claims to the point where they are not allowing the evidence to see the light of day to the extent possible.  We have only listed a few major finds here. We could have gone on to talk about the Cyrus Cylinder, Denarius Coin with Tiberius’ Inscription, Pontius Pilate Inscription, the Areopagus, and the Arch of Titus. But that would have only scratched the surface. Biblical archaeology has logged many thousands of finds that give us confidence in the historicity of the Bible, the trustworthiness of the Scriptures. Let’s not overplay our hand on what biblical archaeology can do, but let’s not underplay our hand either. For students of the Bible, biblical archaeology is very beneficial, since its findings often enhance their knowledge of life, conditions, customs, and languages in Bible times. The discoveries of archaeologists have resulted in an improved understanding of many aspects of Bible times. Even secular history and archaeology in general, as well as biblical archaeology, have revealed much about the people, places, and events described in the Bible? archaeology has proven the Bible to be very accurate?

“It is perfectly true to say that Biblical archaeology has done a great deal to correct the impression that was abroad at the close of the 19th century and in the early part of the 20th century, that Biblical history was of doubtful trustworthiness in many places.” So states J. A. Thompson in The Bible and Archaeology. “In Palestine, places and towns that are frequently mentioned in the Bible are being brought back once more into the light of day. They look exactly as the Bible describes them and lie exactly where the Bible locates them.” So says Werner Keller in The Bible As History, Introduction. He goes on to say, “There kept hammering in my brain this one sentence: ‘The Bible is right after all!’” These comments were made before 1970. Can we imagine just how much more has been accomplished in the 50 years, with the technology we have had since then? Much!

by Tania Fenwick, Edward D. Andrews, and Wikipedia


McRay J. Archaeology & the New Testament, Baker Academic: Grand Rapids, 2008.

Avraham Negev, The Archaeological Encyclopedia of the Holy Land (New York: Prentice Hall Press, 1990).

Alfred Hoerth, Archaeology and the Old Testament Illustrated (Grand Rapids, Baker Academic, 2009)

[1] Lexicographer: writing of dictionaries: the writing and editing of dictionaries




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