Extraordinary insights from archaeology and history
Source: U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT
The workday was nearly over for the team of archaeologists excavating the ruins of the ancient Israelite city of Dan in upper Galilee. Led by Avraham Biran of Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, the group had been toiling since early morning, sifting debris in a stone-paved plaza outside what had been the city's main gate. Now the fierce afternoon sun was turning the stoneworks into a reflective oven. Gila Cook, the team's surveyor, was about to take a break when something caught her eye -- an unusual shadow in a portion of recently exposed wall along the east side of the plaza. Moving closer, she discovered a flattened basalt stone protruding from the ground with what appeared to be Aramaic letters etched into its smooth surface.
She called Biran over for a look. As the veteran archaeologist knelt to examine the stone, his eyes widened. "Oh, my God!" he exclaimed. "We have an inscription!" In an instant, Biran knew that they had stumbled upon a rare treasure. The basalt stone was quickly identified as part of a shattered monument, or stele, from the 9th century B.C., apparently commemorating a military victory of the king of Damascus over two ancient enemies. One foe the fragment identified as the "king of Israel." The other was "the House of David."
The reference to David was a historical bombshell. Never before had the familiar name of Judah's ancient warrior king, a central figure of the Hebrew Bible and, according to Christian Scripture, an ancestor of Jesus, been found in the records of antiquity outside the pages of the Bible. Skeptics had long seized upon that fact to argue that David was a mere legend, invented by Hebrew scribes during or shortly after Israel's Babylonian exile, roughly 500 years before the birth of Christ. Now, at last, there was material evidence: an inscription written not by Hebrew scribes but by an enemy of the Israelites a little more than a century after David's presumptive lifetime. It seemed to be a clear corroboration of the existence of King David's dynasty and, by implication, of David himself.
Beyond its impact on the question of David's existence, however, the discovery provided a dramatic illustration of the promise and peril that come into play whenever the Bible is weighed on the scales of modern archaeology. In one moment, the unearthing of an inscription or artifact can shed new light or cast a shadow on a passage of Scripture and in the process shatter the presuppositions of biblical scholarship. One kind of truth is confirmedńor replacedńby another. In extraordinary ways, modern archaeology has affirmed the historical core of the Old and New Testaments -- corroborating key portions of the stories of Israel's patriarchs, the Exodus, the Davidic monarchy, and the life and times of Jesus. Where it has faced its toughest task has been in primordial history, where many scholars find the traces of human origins obscured in theological myth.