Blog #372: Top Ten Archaeological Finds in 2023 Found in Bible Lands

Bryan Windle, writing on the website on December 27th, 2023, gives the ten most significant studies and/or discoveries from 2023 from archaeological digs in the lands of the Bible. He writes, ‘Here are the top ten discoveries in Biblical archaeology in 2023:

10. Four Roman Swords Discovered in Judean Cave (Sept. 2023). Four 1900-year-old Roman swords were discovered in a cave in the Ein Gedi Nature Reserve near the Dead Sea in Israel with a well-known stalactite that bears an inscription written in ancient Hebrew script that is similar to that used during the First Temple period. While there they happened to find the swords lodged in a crevice. Three of the iron swords were still in their wooden and leather sheaths, while the fourth sword was a shorter ring-pommel sword. The initial theory is that these swords were taken from Roman soldiers by Jewish rebels during the Bar Kokhba Revolt (AD 132 to 135) and hidden in the cave. According to a report in the Autumn 2023 edition of Artifax magazine, the shorter, ring-pommel sword was likely a pugio (daggar) which Roman soldiers carried as a side-arm weapon; “the sword (Greek: machaira) used by Peter to cut-off the ear of the High Priest’s servant, almost certainly would have been called pugio by the Romans”.

9. Gold Bead from the Roman Era Discovered in Jerusalem (Feb. 2023). In February 2023, it was announced that a volunteer working at the Emek Tzurim National Park sifting site found a 1,600-year-old gold bead in material from the nearby Pilgrimage Road excavations, made of ten tiny balls of gold that were attached to each other in the shape of a ring. This method of construction is known from ancient Mesopotamia. The bead was likely once part of a necklace or bracelet and may have been accidentally lost when the jewelry broke. Gold artifacts are rare finds, making this a sensational discovery in the news.

8. Early City Planning as Evidence of Extent of Davidic Kingdom (June 2023). Prof. Yosef Garfinkel from Hebrew University has published a new academic article in which he provides evidence of urban organization in the Kingdom of Judah around the time of King David. In the article he demonstrates that all five cities (he studied) had similar urban layouts, including an outer wall that had houses on one side of it and a road on the other side. All were connected by important roads within the kingdom, and several of the sites have yielded inscriptions, indicating a certain level of written communication at that time. This runs counter to the narrative of minimalist scholars who believe the Bible is inaccurate and unreliable in its description of the extent of David’s kingdom.

7. Ancient Inscription from the Book of Psalms Discovered at Judean Desert Fortress (Sept. 2023). Archaeologists from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem unearthed an inscription from the book of Psalms dating to the Byzantine era at Hyrcania in the Judean Desert. Hyrcania, located ten miles southeast of Jerusalem, was constructed in the first or second century BC by the Hasmonean ruler John Hyrcanus or his son Alexander Jannaeus. It was enlarged by Herod the Great but was abandoned after his death. Finally, it was occupied by a small Christian monastery at the end of the fifth century AD. The Byzantine-era inscription was discovered on the side of a large building stone and is written in Koine Greek. It adapts Psalm 86:1–2 addressing it to Jesus; below a red cross and inscribed in red ink are the words, “Jesus Christ, guard me, for I am poor and needy. Guard my life, for I am faithful to you”. The original psalm of David reads, “Hear me, Lord, and answer me, for I am poor and needy. Guard my life, for I am faithful to you; save your servant who trusts in you. You are my God” (NIV). The find may be the first Koine Greek rendering of a psalm ever discovered inscribed on stone rather than on parchment or papyrus.

6. Destruction Layers from Both the Babylonians and Romans Discovered on Mount Zion (Aug. 2023). A team from the Mount Zion Archaeological Excavation, led by Shimon Gibson and Rafi Lewis, have unearthed evidence of both the destruction of the Babylonians in 587/586 BC and of the Romans in AD 70. The destruction levels displayed conflagration in strata that were separated by a couple of meters. This is the first time destruction layers from the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and the Roman destruction of the city have been found in the same area. In addition, ample pottery from the Persian era (539-322 BC) was unearthed by the team.

5. New Radiocarbon Study Clarifies the Dating of Gezer’s Famous Six-Chambered Gate (Nov. 2023). A new radiocarbon study analyzes 35 radiocarbon dates from seven occupation layers at Gezer. One interesting finding is that stratum 8, which includes the famous six-chambered gate, a casemate wall, and an administrative structure dates to early in the tenth century BC. This means these structures were built within the reign of Solomon, as the Bible says (1 Kings 9:15). These findings also contradict the view of Israel Finkelstein, who has publicly stated that he believes Gezer was built about a century later by the Omride dynasty of the Northern Kingdom.

4. New Study of Mesha Stele (Moabite Stone) Affirms the Inscription Includes the Phrase “House of David” (Jan. 2023). André Lemaire and Jean-Philippe Delorme recently published an article in Biblical Archaeology Review summarizing new evidence supporting the claim that the Mesha Stele (Moabite Stone) refers to Beit David, the “House of David.” While Lemaire first suggested the possibility 30 years ago, recent developments in photography have provided new images to analyze. In 2015, a group of researchers from the University of Southern California used Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI), combining multiple, high-resolutions photos taken from different angles into a single 3D image. In 2018, a team from the Louvre Museum took new photos by shining a light through the original squeeze of the damaged part of the stele. Since the phrase “House of David” occurs in a section that covers both the original stone inscription and damaged part that remains only through the squeeze that was taken, both of the new developments in photography have been helpful. The new photographs clearly establish that there are word dividers in the form of dots that occur before and after these letters, implying it is a single phrase. The Mesha Stele is a victory monument set up by the Moabite king, Meshja, recording events during his reign, including his rebellion against Israelite subjection (2 Kings 3).

3. Third-Century Syriac Translation of the Gospel of Matthew found (April 2023). A scholar from the Austrian Academy of Sciences has discovered a palimpsest fragment of a third-century Syriac translation of the Gospel of Mathew in the Vatican Library. The Syriac Gospel of Matthew was erased over 1,300 years ago by a scribe who reused the parchment for another work. In a study published in the journal, New Testament Studies, Grigory Kessel reports that the manuscript was discovered while researchers were using ultraviolet light to reveal the hidden text that had been erased. This manuscript is only the fourth known textual witness to the Old Syriac translation of the Gospels discovered to date.

2. New Papyrus Published Containing Sayings of Jesus (Sept. 2023). A papyrus fragment contains – which dates to the late second or early third century – contains small portions of Matthew and Luke 12, making it the oldest manuscript with text from Matthew 6.

1. First-Century Discoveries at el-Araj/Bethsaida? (Aug. & Nov. 2023). The el-Araj Excavation Project completed its summer and dig seasons and uncovered more evidence showing that the site was a first-century fishing village, possibly the New Testament town of Bethsaida. This summer the team excavated and continued to find evidence of occupation in the first century. These finds included coins, pottery, fishing weights, and stone vessels. In addition, an inkwell was discovered in a home that also contained numerous fishing weights. This would seem to indicate that first-century fishermen could be literate. Some scholars have suggested that fishermen like Peter and John could not have written New Testament books because they were merely illiterate fishermen. The discovery of an inkwell in a fisherman’s home challenges this assumption. 

Conclusion: Top ten lists, by definition, focus on extraordinary finds. There are many, many ordinary finds at numerous digs all across the Bible lands. Biblical archaeology consistently illuminates and affirms details in the biblical text, as well as helps us better understand the biblical world. The ten significant studies/discoveries listed above from 2023 will help students of the Bible in many ways. But so will the many, many ordinary finds from many of the other excavations.’

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