Archeology and the Recovery of Ancient History

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The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary : The Holy Bible With Exegetical and Expository Comment.

Archeology and the Recovery of Ancient History

I. The Birth of Biblical Archeology

When Sir Isaac Newton wrote his Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms (published in 1728) his source material consisted of the Bible and the works of classical Greek and Roman writers. His conclusions drawn from the historical parts of the Bible have stood the test of time, and need only slight corrections even today, but his reconstruction of ancient history built on secular classical information was completely erroneous. According to Newton, Sesac, the Biblical Shishak who despoiled the Temple at Jerusalem in the time of Solomon’s son Rehoboam, not only invaded Africa and Spain but crossed the Hellespont and also marched toward India, where he set up victory pillars on the river Ganges. None of all these campaigns except the one recorded in the Bible was undertaken by Shishak, as we know now. Newton had the great king Ramses living in the 9th century b1.c. instead of the 13th, and had him followed by the builders of the great pyramids of Gizeh—Cheops, Chephren, and Mycerinus! We know today that these kings of the Fourth Dynasty of Egypt lived many centuries earlier, and that their pyramids were already famous monuments of their builders’ glory in the time of Moses.

Bible commentators writing in the early 19th century, like Adam Clarke, were in the same predicament as Sir Isaac Newton. Wherever they tried to throw light on Biblical history of the pre-Persian period by ancient records, to place the Bible stories in their historical setting or against their backgrounds, they were on uncertain ground. Consequently, their explanations regarding historical events are usually misleading. The source material available to the student of ancient history in the early 19th century was obscure, vague, distorted, and erroneous, and contained great but unrecognizable blank spaces. Legendary figures were also presented as historical characters, so that it was impossible to reconstruct a true history of the ancient world. Even today, with our much greater knowledge of ancient history, we are still far removed from a correct understanding of all the interwoven happenings of the ancient nations, and are still unable to identify in all cases the figures and events described by the classical authors.

The unreliable nature of ancient source material as preserved by Greek and Roman writers was recognized through the discovery of contemporary evidence. When it was shown that much of the information of the ancient writers had been misunderstood, or was entirely false, a skepticism developed among scholars toward all ancient literature. For example, not only was Homer’s Iliad declared to be a legend, but the very existence of the city of Troy was denied until Heinrich Schliemann excavated it and proved its existence.

This skepticism toward ancient writings, well founded in many cases, was then also extended to the writings of the Bible. Many people thought that the Biblical records about this world’s ancient history, and the stories about the patriarchs, prophets, judges, and kings, were in most cases just as legendary as those of other ancient peoples which had come down to us through Greek and Latin writings. The most famous historians and theologians of the 19th century were the greatest doubters of the veracity of the stories of the Bible, and were among its most vigorous critics.

This attitude has greatly changed since the turn of the century. Much more respect is now shown toward the Old Testament, its narratives, and its teachings than was shown a few decades ago. The results of explorations in the Near East have done more than anything else to bring this about.

In the flood of light thrown by archeology upon the ancient civilizations the Old Testament stands forth not only as historically reliable but also as unique in scope, power, and lofty ideals in comparison with the best products of the ancient world. One authority on history, who does not himself accept the inspiration of the Bible, remarks on this fact:

“It is possible to claim that, judged as historical material, the Old Testament stands higher today than when its text was protected with the sanctions of religion. …

“The historian … should not judge it from the modern standpoint. He should not compare Genesis with Ranke, but with the product of Egypt and Assyria. Judged in the light of its own time the literature of the Jews is unique in scope as in power”

(James T. Shotwell, An Introduction to the History of History, p2. 80).

And he adds: “That the outlook [of “the Deuteronomist”] was really exalted—the finest in the Old Testament—any one will admit who reads the fifth to the eleventh chapters of Deuteronomy and then compares them with the rest of the world’s literature before the climax of antique civilization” (I3bid., p. 92).

Extensive surface explorations and numerous excavations of ancient buried sites have brought to light evidence that has not only resurrected ancient civilizations before our eyes but also allows us to reconstruct ancient history and place the Bible narratives in their true historical settings.

Keys were found that enabled modern scholars to decipher long-forgotten scripts like the Egyptian and Hittite hieroglyphs, the Sumerian and Babylonian cuneiform writing, or the alphabetic scripts of the ancient inhabitants of Palestine and Syria. Languages dead for thousands of years were resurrected, and their grammars and vocabularies established. The sands of Egypt and the ruins of Western Asia revealed a wealth of literary material that had been hidden and preserved for millenniums. This enables the modern scholar to reconstruct much of the ancient history of those nations as well as their religion and culture. Cities like Lachish, Hazor, Megiddo, and Nineveh—to mention only a few—whose names appear in the Bible or other ancient sources, but whose location was entirely unknown, were rediscovered and excavated. Their ruined temples and palaces were uncovered, their schools, libraries, and tombs were found. They surrendered their long-kept secrets, and contributed to the fast-accumulating increase of knowledge about the ancient world, a world in which the men of the Bible lived and in which its sacred pages were produced. Millions of dollars have been spent to recover the ancient Orient, noble men of learning have given their health and in many cases their lives for this aim, and thousands of bulky volumes have been written to record the findings of the last one and a half centuries.

The providence of God can be seen in this development. How else can it be explained that all this priceless material was hidden from the view of men for so many centuries, when no one would have profited by it, and when it was not needed to establish the still unchallenged reliability of the Scriptures? Why is it that all this material came to light when it was most desperately needed to show the veracity of God’s Word and the truth of sacred history? A watchful Eye had preserved it for the day when it would do its part to witness for the truth, and fulfill the prediction of Jesus Christ that when the living witnesses would cease to testify for Him and the truth, the very stones would cry out.

To introduce the history of this marvelous development of archeological endeavors in the various Bible lands, a few quotations from W. F. Albright, perhaps the foremost Orientalist of his day, may be given to show the tremendous profit Biblical studies have gained from archeological research, and the great change that has come over the scholarly world in their evaluation of the stories of the Bible. In 1935 he said:

“Archaeological research in Palestine and neighbouring lands during the past century has completely transformed our knowledge of the historical and literary background of the Bible. It no longer appears as an absolutely isolated monument of the past, as a phenomenon without relation to its environment. It now takes its place in a context which is becoming better known every year. Seen against the background of the ancient Near East, innumerable obscurities become clear, and we begin to comprehend the organic development of Hebrew society and culture. However, the uniqueness of the Bible, both as a masterpiece of literature and as a religious document, has not been lessened, and nothing tending to disturb the religious faith of Jew or Christian has been discovered”

(The Archaeology of Palestine and the Bible, p. 127).

The same author discusses at some length the discoveries that have disproved the dogmatic and often cynical claims of higher critics—like those of the school of Julius Wellhausen—that the Bible contains many legends, stories of folklore, and a mythology which has also been called “pious fraud.” This brings him to the following conclusion:

“Conservative scholars are, we believe, entirely justified in their vigorous denunciation of all efforts to prove the existence of fraudulent invention and deliberate forgery in the Bible. They are equally within their rights in objecting most emphatically to the introduction of a spurious mythology and a thinly veiled paganism into the Bible” (Ibid., p. 176).

Since these words were written, additional discoveries, some of them sensational, have attested the reliability of the Bible narratives and the accuracy of its text in many details. In reviewing this vast amount of new material Albright said:

“Archaeological discovery has been largely responsible for the recent revival of interest in biblical theology, because of the wealth of new material illustrating text and background of the Bible. … New archaeological material continues to pour in, compelling revision of all past approaches to both Old and New Testament religion. It becomes clearer each day that this rediscovery of the Bible often leads to a new evaluation of biblical faith, which strikingly resembles the orthodoxy of an earlier day. Neither an academic scholasticism nor an irresponsible neo-orthodoxy must be allowed to divert our eyes from the living faith of the Bible”

(“The Bible After Twenty Years of Archaeology,” Religion in Life, v4ol. 21, Autumn, 1952, p. 550).

II. The Resurrection of Ancient Egypt

When we speak of Egypt there rises before our eyes a country where one of the oldest civilizations flourished, principally a long, narrow river valley which on the map looks like a serpent, averaging little more than 5 miles in width, but 500 miles long. This land, over which Joseph was once prime minister, and where Moses the lawgiver received his education, is a land of extremes. Ninety-nine per cent of its population live on about 4 per cent of its soil; the rest is desert. “Egypt is the gift of the Nile,” said Herodotus. The narrow fertile strip of land has always owed its life to this river, since the almost complete absence of rainfall has forced its population to depend on the yearly inundation of the Nile. The exceptionally dry climate is responsible for the preservation of many buildings and of a tremendous amount of perishable material that in other countries would have disintegrated long ago. Furthermore, no ancient nation possessed greater architects and builders than Egypt, and its fascinating monuments in stone, like the pyramids, obelisks, and temples, have survived the millenniums and are still eloquent witnesses to the remarkable engineering art of the ancient Egyptians.

The birth date of Biblical archeology in general and of Egyptian archeology in particular is the year 1798, when Napoleon on his military campaign to Egypt was accompanied by a large group of scholars, architects, and artists to whom the assignment was given to study and describe the remains of ancient Egypt. These men did a marvelous job and published 24 stately volumes as the result of their studies. These books are still valuable, because many monuments and inscriptions described by these French scholars have since been destroyed.

The greatest discovery, however, was made by the French Army in finding the now famous Rosetta stone in 1799, which became the key for deciphering the mysterious Egyptian hieroglyphic writing. This black basalt slab came with the spoils of war into the hands of the British, and has been since that time one of the most valuable objects in the fabulous collections of the British Museum in London. The trilingual inscription on the stone is repeated in Greek, demotic (cursive late Egyptian), and hieroglyphics (early picture writing). Scholars immediately tried, with the help of the readable Greek portion, to solve the riddle of the other two unknown scripts. The Swedish diplomat Akerblad made a successful beginning at deciphering the demotic portion in 1802, and the English physician Thomas Young was able to publish the correct reading of a few hieroglyphic signs in 1819, after many years of fruitless efforts. However, the complete decipherment was made by Jean François Champollion, a brilliant young Frenchman, in 1822.

Although Egyptian texts could be read from that time on, it took the combined efforts of many more scholars, in whose foremost ranks have stood Erman, Sethe, and Gardiner, to put the reconstruction of the ancient Egyptian language on a sound scientific basis. It was almost 70 years after Champollion’s pioneering work before the first satisfactory grammar of hieroglyphic Egyptian was published, and more than 100 years before an adequate Egyptian dictionary of 4,200 pages was produced. Since the Egyptian texts was written in a pictorial script with only consonants—no vowels—in hundreds of characters, the reading and interpretation of them is still a difficult task for every Egyptologist. However, a vast amount of secular and religious literature and historical evidence has become available, which has placed the reconstruction of the political and religious history of ancient Egypt on a sound basis.

Hand in hand with this language research went the field work of the archeologist. This was carried out in the first half of the 19th century by recording expeditions which copied temple inscriptions, and described all the visible remains of ancient Egypt. For lack of space, only the most important one of these can be mentioned here, the great Prussian expedition of 1842-45 under Lepsius, which copied and described almost everything visible throughout Egypt. The result appeared then in 12 monumental volumes, which have hardly ever been surpassed in size, each measuring 30 by 24 inches when closed.

During the first half of the 19th century no systematic excavating was done. Only the natives dug up and sold profuse numbers of antiquities to the representatives of the great museums of the European nations, which during that time built up rich and fabulous collections. A change came through the appointment of Mariette to head the young Department of Antiquities of the Egyptian Government, when in search of Coptic manuscripts he had by a lucky stroke found the Serapeum, the temple where the sacred bulls were kept and buried. By perseverance, ruthlessness, and even the use of force he succeeded in stamping out illegal digging, and concentrated the control of all excavations in his own hands and those of his subordinates. During his time the fabulous treasures of ancient Egypt began to flow into the Cairo Museum, which by now has become the greatest collection of ancient Egyptian art in the world.

During Mariette’s administration of 31 years a great discovery was made—the secret hiding place that had housed a great number of famous Pharaohs for more than 3,000 years. Their tombs had been robbed in ancient times, and a pious king had collected the mummies of his illustrious predecessors and deposited them in an artificial cave high up in the cliffs of the western desert near the Upper Egyptian capital of Thebes. From this cave came the body of that great war lord Thutmose III, who conquered all Palestine in the early 15th century b.c., and probably was the Pharaoh of the oppression of the Israelites. There was also Ramses II, the hero of the battle of Kadesh against the Hittites, the mummy of Ramses III, who became the savior of Egypt when the Sea peoples threatened to invade it in the 12th century. With them there were many other monarchs of name and fame. For many years the unwrapped and naked bodies of these men, before whom nations had trembled, and who had been worshiped as gods by their contemporaries, were exhibited in the Cairo Museum in showcases under glass, mute but impressive witnesses of the passing of worldly glory and power. They are more recently to be seen only in a special room of the museum.

When Gaston Maspero took over the administration of the department of antiquities in 1881 a new era began. Foreign scholars and institutions were invited to study the ancient remains of Egypt, and to carry out excavations. Since a fair share of the discovered objects was promised them as a reward for their efforts and expenses, a goodly number of scientific institutions, museums, and governments availed themselves of this opportunity. They did a tremendous amount of work to recover the ancient culture and history of Egypt as long as such a generous policy toward archeological work of foreign scholars continued in force.

No survey of Egyptian archeology would be complete without mentioning Sir Flinders Petrie, who began to work in the 1880’s as a young man, and who became the father of scientific excavation by initiating careful methods of digging, recording, and preserving every find made. This indefatigable worker carried out excavations in Egypt and neighboring Palestine for almost 60 years, and published, alone or as a joint author, more than 80 books on archeological subjects.

Space does not permit listing the many expeditions that have worked in Egypt since the 1880’s. The pyramids, more than 100 in number, have been carefully explored and surveyed, and their adjoining temples excavated. Thousands of royal and private tombs have been cleared, and the wealth of their contents has been published and brought into the art collections of the principal museums of Europe and America. The greatest and most sensational discovery in this respect was the finding of the unrobbed tomb of King Tutankhamen by Carter, in 1922. In his search for the spot, Carter had moved 70,000 tons of sand and rubble over a period of several years. This tomb with its thousands of objects—jewelry, furniture, tools, weapons, vessels, and clothing—and the many sarcophagi enclosing the innermost one of the pure gold, in which the king lay, did more to popularize Egyptology and to draw tourists to that mysterious land of hoary antiquity than all the combined efforts of the previous 100 years.

III. Egyptian Archeology and the Bible

The discoveries of the archeologist in Egypt have been as profitable to the student of the Bible as to the linguist, the historian, the lover of art, or the student of ancient religions. No other country has preserved more wall paintings, reliefs carved in stone or wood, more ancient objects of daily use like furniture, household utensils, musical instruments, tools of artisans and farmers, weapons of hunters and warriors, or more documents written on perishable material. Any Bible dictionary will reveal at a glance that no other land has furnished more illustrative material helpful in understanding the cultures and civilizations of Bible times. Through the color pictures and reliefs of ancient Egypt we know the dress and appearance of the Amorites, Canaanites, Philistines, and Hittites, and their special tools, weapons, and manner of warfare. The objects found in Egypt give us an idea of how the ancients furnished their homes, what kind of musical instruments were in use, and how they were played. In brief, a tremendous amount of light has been thrown on the many details of everyday living in Bible times through the marvelous discoveries made in Egypt during the last century and a half.

The following few examples of important discoveries made in Egypt have greatly helped us to understand better the stories of the Old Testament. From the 20th century b.c. dates the story of Sinuhe, an Egyptian court official who for reasons unknown to us fled of his life to the East, like Moses a few centuries later. After an adventurous journey he found a haven of refuge in Syria and lived there among the Canaanites for many years, as a refugee, until he was pardoned and allowed to return to Egypt. His description of the Canaan of his time, approximately a century before Abraham’s migration to that country, is most interesting, and valuable for understanding the conditions the patriarchs met.

There was found in the tomb of an Egyptian nobleman from the time of Abraham a colored wall picture that depicts the arrival of 37 people—men, women, and children—from Palestine. This painting, so well preserved in spite of being almost 4,000 years old that it looks as if it had been painted a few years ago, gives us a good idea of Abraham’s visit to Egypt described in Gen. 12.

Of an entirely different nature are several series of magical texts—written curses by which Egyptian kings sought to destroy their domestic and foreign enemies. Egypt was pre-eminently a land of magic in the ancient world, as we know from Moses’ experience when he stood before Pharaoh and saw the divine miracles performed by him and Aaron imitated by the magicians of Egypt. Two series of such magical “execration texts” come from the patriarchal period. Their importance lies in the names of about 100 rulers of Canaanite cities. More than half of them can be identified as being Amorite, a fact that agrees well with the statements of the early books of the Bible that Palestine was in the hands of the Amorites in the time of the patriarchs (see Gen. 14:13; 15:16). Jerusalem is mentioned in those texts, and two kings of Jerusalem bearing good Amorite names are cursed among the enemies of Egypt. Some of the Biblical cities mentioned in these texts are Ashkelon, Accho, Aphekah, Lachish, Hazor, Shechem, and many others.

From the Egyptian Empire period, the time probably preceding and following the Exodus, we possess the descriptions of many military campaigns carried out in Palestine, like the famous account of the battle at Megiddo that took place perhaps 30 years before the Exodus. Besides annals, the Egyptian kings have left us lists containing hundreds of names of cities of Palestine and Syria conquered in their campaigns. For a better understanding of the geographical chapters of the book of Joshua these Egyptian contemporary lists are of great value. The last of these lists of conquered Palestinian cities is that carved on the temple walls at Karnak by King Shishak, who spoiled Jerusalem in the fifth year of Solomon’s son Rehoboam (1 Kings 14:25, 26).

From the 14th century b.c. we possess a complete royal archive—a collection of official documents consisting of hundreds of letters received by the Egyptian kings Amenhotep III and IV from their Palestinian and Syrian vassals. These so-called Amarna Letters, found accidentally in 1887 by a peasant woman, proved to be one of the most sensational discoveries ever made in Egypt. They showed to the amazed world of scholarship that the diplomatic language of that time was Babylonian, and that the Babylonian cuneiform script (to be described later) was also used in correspondence between the Egyptian court and its vassal kings in Palestine and Syria. These letters prove the political weakness of Egypt in the 14th century b.c., during the time when, it is believed, the Israelites under Joshua and the elders took possession of the land of Canaan. Some of these letters come from the king of Jerusalem, Abdu-khepa—a Hittite—who pleads for weapons and soldiers from Egypt to defend his city from the invading Habiru, who have already taken over great parts of the country, and threaten to overrun the whole land. If the Habiru of these letters are the Hebrews, as most likely they are and as many scholars believe, we have in these Amarna Letters the story of the conquest of Canaan by the Hebrews as the Canaanites saw it. These documents are most important in helping us to understand better the conditions that existed in Palestine during the time of the conquest as described by Joshua.

Monuments in the form of high stone pillars were frequently erected by the Egyptian kings to commemorate their victories and political success. One of these so-called steles set up by Pharaoh Merneptah, probably in the period of the judges, mentions Israel as an (unsettled) people he had defeated during one of his Palestinian campaigns. Although this encounter of the Egyptian king with the Israelites is not mentioned in the Bible, this inscription is of importance for giving us the first extra-Biblical mention of Israel, and as witness for the existence of the Israelites in Palestine in the 13th century, which for many critical scholars is hard to harmonize with their favored idea of placing the Exodus in the time of that same king. Those who cling to such a late date for the Exodus have even been forced to create the fanciful theory that not all the Israelites had gone down to Egypt under Jacob, and that Merneptah encountered those in Palestine who had remained behind. If the Biblical date is accepted that places the Exodus 480 years before Solomon (1 Kings 6:1), no such difficulties of interpretation are encountered, since Israel, in that case, had been in Canaan some 170 years by the time Merneptah came to the throne.

In this connection the discoveries of the earliest alphabetic inscriptions on the Sinai peninsula must be mentioned. They were found in 1904-5 by Sir Flinders Petrie in his explorations of the ancient Egyptian copper and turquoise mines in two valleys of western Sinai. Subsequent expeditions added to the number of inscriptions, and the combined studies of numerous scholars during the last 35 years have succeeded in deciphering and interpreting them.

The many hieroglyphic inscriptions left by the Egyptians in and near those mines reveal their history of exploitation in all details, and also the fact that Semites from Canaan were usually employed to work in the mines for the Egyptians. One of these Canaanites, while observing the Egyptians in their use of the cumbersome hieroglyphs for writing down records, made one of the greatest inventions of all time in the field of writing. In fact, he invented a system of writing that to the present day has scarcely been improved or simplified, the alphabet of about 25 characters.

The Egyptians and other peoples who possessed systems of writing needed hundreds, and even thousands, of different characters in order to express their ideas in writing. Symbols were used, each of which represented either a syllable (for example, en, ne, in, ni, nen, nan), or a complete idea such as the picture of an eye. Then this unknown Semite on Sinai came upon the idea of isolating singly the consonantal sounds by using one single character for each consonant and not connecting it with a vowel sound. This was a great improvement over all previous systems of writing, because only a small number of characters is needed to put in writing everything the human tongue can express.

It must be attributed to the providence of God that this invention was made in the neighborhood of the region where the first books of the Bible were written by Moses, and just before Moses’ time. If the Bible had been written in the complicated systems of either the Egyptian hieroglyphs or the Babylonian cuneiform, which could be mastered only after many years of study, very few people would have had an opportunity to read the Bible for themselves. On the other hand, an alphabetic system of writing with only about 25 characters was so easy to learn that everyone could master it in a short time, and thus could read the Bible for himself. Through this marvelous invention it would not take long for most of the people of Israel to learn to read and write. To this conclusion we must come not only through the archeological evidence that the soil of Palestine has furnished us but also from some statements made in the Bible. The ability to read and write was evidently common in Transjordan in Gideon’s time, as can be learned from the story narrated in Judges 8:14 (R5SV). For Gideon captured a boy from Succoth who “wrote down for him the officials and elders of Succoth, seventy-seven men.”

Scholars are not yet certain when this alphabetic system of writing was devised in the Sinai mining district—in the 16th or 19th century b.c.—although they agree that it was accomplished before Moses’ day. The importance of this discovery to the spread of the knowledge of God’s Word can be compared only with the invention of printing by movable type prior to the Reformation, in the 15th century of the Christian Era. As this latter invention made it possible to distribute the Bible in an inexpensive form among all nations of the globe, the former made possible the writing of it in a form easily understandable to a man of meager education.

The discovery of the earliest alphabetic inscriptions at Sinai, which contain nothing more important than names and some dedicatory formulas, has done much to banish doubt that Moses could have written the books ascribed to him. Before that time critics claimed that the Hebrew Bible could not have been written in Moses’ time, that no writing system for that language existed then.

Besides annals of wars with the Philistines and with Syrian and Canaanite peoples in the time of the judges, the Egyptians have left us ancient records of travel to and through Palestine. One narrates the journey of Wen-Amun, an Egyptian official, sent to the Phoenician port city of Byblos to buy cedarwood for a sacred Nile boat. The weakness of Egypt during that period is vividly illustrated by the hectic experiences the man had in Palestine and Syria, and the disrespectful way in which he was treated by the different rulers with whom he had to deal. The story of Wen-Amun’s journey to Byblos and the letter describing the ambassador’s trip through Palestine give us excellent illustrations of the Biblical statement that characterizes the period of the judges in the following words: “In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25).

A satirical letter of the same period describes the trip of an Egyptian ambassador through Palestine on his way to a northern country. The letter tells us how the Egyptian official’s horse was stolen one night, and about the numerous difficulties he encountered on account of the insecurity that reigned in the land.

A great amount of ancient “wisdom literature” has been preserved by the sands of Egypt. This particular kind of literature flourished in that country more than in any other, and the fame of it is reflected in the Bible when it is said that Solomon’s wisdom surpassed even “all the wisdom of Egypt” (1 Kings 4:30). Many modern scholars compare the “wisdom literature” of the Old Testament (Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes) with that of the Egyptians, and believe that the Old Testament writers borrowed from their Egyptian neighbors. However, there is no actual evidence that this was ever done. In the case of the “Instructions of Amenemope,” which contain very close parallels to many passages in the Biblical book of Proverbs, it is even possible that Amenemope could have borrowed from Solomon’s literary productions, because the language, vocabulary, word form, and style of writing used in the document containing Amenemope’s instructions prove it to be the product of a later age than that of Solomon. Only those who believe with the higher critics that the book of Proverbs was not written by Solomon, but produced by some anonymous writer in much later times, can maintain that Proverbs has borrowed its material from the Egyptian Amenemope.

In 1904 a collection of well-preserved Aramaic papyri was found by natives on the Upper Egyptian Nile island of Elephantine. More of such documents came to light in an excavation during the years of 1906 and 1907 on the same island, and in 1947 others, found in the personal effects of C. E. Wilbour, a collector of Egyptian antiquities, were placed in the Brooklyn Museum. All these papyri, more than 100 in number, originated from a colony of Jewish soldiers who defended the south Egyptian border in the 5th century b.c., about the time of Ezra and Nehemiah.

These and similar documents found in other parts of Egypt from the same time inform us about the secular and religious conditions of the Jewish colonies in Egypt, and also about their history. These Aramaic documents, written in a language practically the same as that of the Aramaic portions of Ezra and Daniel, are also very important, for they demonstrate that similar ones in the books of Ezra and Esther are not forgeries (see The Languages, Manuscripts, and Canon of the Old Testament). Furthermore, they are our only extra-Biblical sources for the kind of calendar the Jews employed at that time, and the system according to which they counted the years of the reigns of the Persian kings. A study of this material helps to prove that the events described in Ezra 7 took place in the year 457 b.c., and not in 458, a date accepted by most modern historians and theologians. (For the Jewish calendar, see Jewish Calendar in Egypt; for the date of Ezra, see Dates of Ezra and Nehemiah Established); see also Fall-to-Fall Jewish Reckoning Demonstrated.

We see thus that the soil of Egypt has preserved material that sheds light on different Biblical periods, on the times of the patriarchs, the Exodus, the judges, the kings, and on the age after the Babylonian Exile. Merely a few examples have been given here, each corroborating only some little incident or a single text. But the accumulated evidence from Egypt, taken as a whole, vindicates the records of the Old Testament and attests the accuracy of its history.

In reviewing some of the abundant material archeology has provided the Old Testament scholar, one should not forget that Egypt’s soil has preserved equally important material for the student of the New Testament. Innumerable Greek papyri that have helped us to understand better the language of the New Testament books have come to light. Since these discoveries do not fall within the scope of this article, they are not discussed further here.

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