Science in Christian Perspective



A. F. Rainey

From: JASA 16 (December 1964): 118-120.

JERUSALEM, ISRAEL-Many secrets of antiquity have been uncovered by the archaeologists' spade during 1963-64. New light has been shed on various aspects of Biblical history.


Masada. The longest continuous season of excavation ever carried out in Israel came to an end. Prof. Yigael Yadin, the expedition's director, reports that about two-thirds of this magnificent site have been uncovered thus far. Masada is an awesome natural fort near the shore of the Dead Sea. The grueling six and onehalf months' toil has produced a host of important finds. These include over 2,200 coins (among them 20 rare silver shekels, the first ones to be f ound on an archaeological site), and nearly 200 ostraca (inscribed potsherds). Manuscript fragments include portions of Psalms, Leviticus, Genesis, and samples of non-biblical literature identical to works found at Qumran (site of the original "Dead Sea Scrolls"). Furthermore, the archaeological context in which it was found proves that the Dead Sea Scrolls were written before the fall of Masada in 73 A.D. The closing days of the season were crowned by the discovery of fragments from the apocryphal Ecclesiasticus, also called the Wisdom of Jesus the son of Sira. These finds demonstrate that Ecclesiasticus was originally written in Hebrew, thus confirming the authenticity of the Hebrew text discovered many years ago in the Cairo Geniza (a synagogue storeroom for "burying" old manuscripts). The text discovered at Masada was written not later than 50 B.C. and corresponds to "MSB" of the Cairo version. The variants match those recorded in the margins of the latter manuscript. Some fragments of the Hebrew Ecclesiasticus had previously been discovered at Qumran, containing only three decipherable words.

The history of Masada from the Chalcolithic Age (4th millenium. B.C.) down to the Byzantine period (4th through 6th centuries A.D.) has been illuminated by these excavations. Its most important buildings date from the New Testament period, i.e. the magnificent fortifications built by King Herod the Great. Herod's palace, built on a series of three terraces at the northern tip, included a colonaded portico decorated with Roman frescoes which remind one of Pompeii. On the cliff above his palace Herod had constructed a classical Roman bath house containing the usual four rooms: a dressing room and the tepid, cold, and hot baths. Next door was the military storehouse made up of long, narrow rooms full of storage vessels and other interesting artifacts from the Roman period. The so-called "western palace" also testified to elaborate ornamentation, including a beautiful mosaic floor. The small church located almost in the middle of the site possessed a later mosaic which apparently belongs to the 5th century A.D.

Every building on Masada had its own well-plastered water cistern. In addition there was an elaborate system of water storage pools in the northwestern side of the cliff. These cisterns had been fed by an aqueduct which brought water down from the hills on the west. Though the water supply had been cut off by the Romans, one can still see the line of its channel. Prof. Yadin mentioned that he and his staff had many opportunities to witness the aqueduct's effectiveness during this winter's heavy rains!

By far the most dramatic discoveries of all have come from the casemate fortification wall by which Masada was defended. It was reinforced with towers every 60 to 70 yards, as described by Flavius Josephus. The wall itself consists of a series of compartments, which doubtless served as the barracks for Herod's troops. In the Jewish revolt of 66 A.D. the zealots occupied Masada and subdivided many of these compartments into smaller rooms. One of the larger compartments had benches around the walls and is almost certainly a synagogue oriented towards Jerusalem. In another casemate on the southeastern side the excavators discovered a Jewish ceremonial immersion pool (mikveh). The important manuscript discoveries mentioned above were made within these various compartments.

The Romans besieged Masada for several months, during which time they constructed a series of encampments and a circumvallation wall at the foot of the mountain. They finally breached the upper fortifications after building a huge ramp for bringing up their siege engines and towers. On the eve of the final assault, when the valiant defenders knew there was no more hope of resistance, they committed mass suicide rather than be sold into Roman slavery. The tragic remains of these zealots in their blood-spattered dwellings testifies to the accuracy of Josephus' account.

The work of restoration has been going on simultaneously with the excavation. The Israel Society for the Preservation of Historic Sites will continue its work of reconstruction until November when another fourmonth season of excavation will begin. It is hoped that Masada will again be open to the public by May, 1965. (For extensive background material cf. M. AviYonah, et al., "The Archaeological Survey of Masada," Israel Exploration Journal, Vol. 7 [1957], pp. 1-60).

En-gedi. Prof. B. Mazar has just concluded another season of excavation at En-gedi. (Cf. JASA, June, 1963, p. 61) Efforts were concentrated in two areas, some Persian buildings located on the northwestern side of the tell and a Roman bath house discovered near the shore of the Dead Sea. This latter find has led Prof. Mazar to suspect that a typical Roman forum may have existed in its general vicinity which still awaits the archaeologists' spade. Though the bath house dates to about the 2nd century A.D., its floor was made up of reused stone capitals in the so-called Herodian style; this means that an elaborate building must have existed there during the New Testament period. The excavators planned to resume their work at En-gedi again in October, 1964.


Arad. Dr. Y. Aharoni's second season at this marvelous Judean fortress in the northern Negeb (cf. JASA, June, 1963, p. 61) reached a dramatic conclusion last August with the discovery of a small temple, or "high place," dating to the Judean Monarchy. The last week of the season was spent in uncovering the holy of holies of this temple. It appears to have had its beginning in the 10th century and to have remained in use until the reign of King Hezekiah. Two stone altars guarded the raised entrance to the sacred room; three stelae, one painted red, stood just inside. Upon hearing of this discovery, Prof. Mazar made a re-examination of the Biblical passages concerning Hobab, the Kenite, Moses' father-in-law, who led his clan in the conquest of this region. The Kenites seem to have had a long tradition as cultic specialists (cf. Num. 10: 29-32, priests and prophets accompanied the expeditions of antiquity; they gave directions by furnishing oracles and interpreting signs). The Arad temple was evidently a Kenite shrine. One should not be surprised to find a Judean temple outside of Jerusalem; such "high places" were tolerated by many Judean kings (e.g. I Kings 15:14; 22:43). But Arad has provided a striking illustration of H Kings 18:4 which states that King Hezekiah put an end to the worship at these local shrines (cf. the taunting words sent by the king of Assyria, H Kings 18:22). The Arad temple went out of use when it was bisected by a huge fortification wall that dates to Hezekiah's reign.

The total number of ostraca found from both seasons now stands at about 50, Besides an abundance of pottery and other important material from the Iron Age, an Early Bronze city was brought to light on Arad's lower terrace. The third season of excavations is scheduled to open in July.

Ashdod. The second season at this important Philistine city has already been reported (D. N. Freedman, Biblical Archaeologist, Vol. 26 [19631, pp. 134-139). Some 20 strata of occupation were identified at various points on the tell. Ashdod began its career as a great commercial and military center towards the end of the Late Bronze Age (16th-13th centuries B.C.). An important public building rich in Mycenaean and Cypriot pottery has been uncovered from this period. The Late Bronze city was violently destroyed in the mid-13th century B.C. as evidenced by a three-foot layer of ash. The Philistine occupation is represented by a fortress from the 12th and 11th centuries B.C.

Philistine pottery had also been found elsewhere on the tell during the first season (cf. JASA, loc. cit.). The most remarkable Iron Age strata came to light some 300 yards from the main tell. A shrine, or cultic center, was found there from which the excavators have extracted an extensive collection of figurines, both human and animal, and hollow-ringed libation vessels, with animal heads and cups attached, plus some miniature votive altars in the shape of human figures with four-legged tables forming the lower part of their bodies. In the next stratum above, the cultic installation was replaced by an extensive pottery-making industry. A complex of pottery-kilns were found with many samples of contemporary ware in situ. This Iron Age city was also destroyed. It is quite likely that the catastrophe was brought about by Sargon H of Assyria who conquered Ashdod in 712 B.C. (cf. Isa. 20:1). The details of his campaign in the Levant are well known from various inscriptions, both at his capital city (Khorsabad) in Assyria and elsewhere. Three fragments of a similar victory stele were discovered at various places on the tell of Ashdod. Dr. Hayim. Tadmor of the Hebrew University, who examined the text and script of these fragments, believes that the content of the inscription was quite similar to that of others already known. It probably described the actual conquest of Ashdod. Evidently the Ashdodites smashed the stele when they revolted against their Assyrian overlords. The Persian period is represented by a considerable amount of characteristic pottery and several artifacts, such as a tiny golden ibex, almost identical to one found at Enkomi on Cyprus (4th century B.C.). An ostracon containing two words and additional markings, written in Aramaic script of the 5th century B.C., belongs to the period of Ezra and Nehemiah (cf. Neh. 13:23-24 concerning the Ashdodite dialect). In the New Testament period Ashdod was called Azotus. Excavations continued to uncover important buildings from this period on the main tell. The expedition has apparently discovered a cult place which was part of the city's great market. A plaque was found there depicting a local goddess with what seems to be a fish's tail.

The expedition to Ashdod has obviously enriched our knowledge with one of the finest and most varied collections of artifacts to be discovered in many years.

Achzib. The University of Rome is cooperating with the Israel Department of Antiquities in investigating the ancient site of Achzib on Israel's northern coast. An east-west cut made on the tell itself revealed a fortification typical of the Hyksos period, consisting of alternating layers of clay and earth, finally covered with stones and another layer of clay. Above this a wall from the Israelite period was found. Inside of these walls six levels of occupation came to light, dating from the 9th to the 4th centuries B.C. The ceramic finds included many samples of Cypriot and Greek imports testifying to Achzib's commercial connections in the Israelite, Persian, and Hellenistic periods. Outside of the wall a series of floors were dis covered dating to the early stages of the Persian period, apparently the 6th and 5th centuries B.C. Beneath them were found four typical Phoenician tombs. One of them contained a warrior buried with his weaponsa double axe, a spear, and a sword. A woman was buried at his side, and many other artifacts had been placed around them in the tomb. Investigations were also continued in the eastern necropolis.

Metsad Gozal. Among the many smaller excavations carried out in Israel this year, one of the most recent is that conducted by Dr. Y. Aharoni on a small Edomite fort at the shore of the Dead Sea. The dig was sponsored by the American Institute for Holy Land Studies (Jerusalem), whose students fully participated in the work. The most ancient structure on this site was an Edomite stockade about 20 by 20 yards in size. The walls were built on a foundation of very large stones, and between every two or three courses wooden beams had been inserted; the wood from these braces was still preserved in large measure (carbon14 tests on this material are now being conducted).

The building complex consisted of a central court with rooms on all sides. The excavators uncovered a room in one corner about seven yards long and two and one-half yards wide. Its walls and floor had been plastered. The pottery dates to about the 11th century B.C., and signs of a fierce conflagration indicate that the place was destroyed near the beginning of the 10th century. Above the burnt layer there were obvious traces of sediment from the Dead Sea, which proved that the fort had been entirely covered by water at a later period. A Byzantine vessel found at a higher level, which was also covered with sedimentary salt, bears witness to a second inundation.

On the last day of work Dr. Aharoni took the students and other volunteers on a brief survey of the Dead Sea area during which they identified an additional fort close to the Beersheba-Sodom Highway. Traces of the wooden beams between courses of the wall were plainly visible. It would appear that these forts belonged to a network of Edomite border stations on the western side of the Arabah similar to those discovered by Nelson Glueck on the fringe of the eastern desert. This western network is apparently the "border of Edom" mentioned several times in the Bible (e.g. Num. 20:16, 23; Josh. 15:21). The destruction level at Metsad Gozal bears witness to David's conquests in the Edomite sphere (cf. II Sam. 8:13-14; 1 Kings 11:15-16; 1 Chron. 18:12-13).

Some interesting conclusions of a scientific nature can be deduced from these excavations concerning the level of the Dead Sea which is associated directly with the annual rain fall. At present the top of the fort is over 30 feet above the water level (the Dead Sea itself is about 1200 feet below sea level). Twenty or 30 years ago the sea had risen to a point some 10 feet or so below the top of the fort. However, at the time when the Edomites occupied the site, the Dead Sea must have been at about the same level as today. The ex perts presently examining this evidence will therefore be able to tell us something about climatic conditions in the Davidic period.

This representative sampling will give some idea of the intensive archaeological activity taking place here in Israel. Surveys, excavations, and accidental discoveries are being made in every region of the country.

Contributed by A. F. Rainey, Lecturer in Ancient Semitic Languages at Tel Aviv University and lecturer in Historical Geography at American Institute for Holy Land Studies, as requested by G. Douglas Young, contributing editor.

Figure 1.