Last week we looked at a few examples of ancient witnesses that archaeology provides. These witnesses uphold the claim that Israel has deep historical ties to the Holy Land, thus validating their right to possess it and live there.
The following witnesses are related in some way to the most central and important Jewish historical connection of all—the holy Temple in Jerusalem.
• Hebrew Letter (7th–6th cent. BC). An ostracon is a pottery shard on which something has been written. One such ostracon was found at the ancient Jewish fortress of Arad. It appears to be a letter from Jerusalem informing the recipient that a certain individual “is in the house of God.” This is the earliest reference to Solomon’s Temple outside of the Bible.
The silver scrolls’ inscriptions are almost 500 years older than the Dead Sea Scrolls, making them the oldest verses from the Bible ever found.
• The Priestly Blessing Amulet (6th cent. BC). An archaeologist in 1979 discovered two amulets in a burial cave just south of Jerusalem’s Hinnom Valley. They were tiny silver scrolls with Hebrew writing on them. One of them included the “priestly blessing” from Numbers 6:24–26. The silver scrolls’ inscriptions are almost 500 years older than the Dead Sea Scrolls, making them the oldest verses from the Bible ever found.
• King Uzziah Tablet Epitaph (1st cent. BC–1st cent. AD). Although King Uzziah was Judah’s king in the 8th century BC, he could not be buried in a tomb with the other kings of Jerusalem since he was a leper (2 Chronicles 26:23). God had struck Uzziah with leprosy because he had tried to burn incense in the Temple, a duty reserved only for priests. Apparently, some 700 years later, Uzziah’s burial place needed to be moved. When it was, an Aramaic epitaph was written in limestone which read, “Here were brought the bones of Uzziah, King of Judah. Do not open.” The tablet was discovered in 1931 in a collection of artifacts at a convent on the Mount of Olives.
• Place of Trumpeting Stone Block (1st cent. BC). The first-century Jewish historian Josephus wrote, “One of the priests stood of course, and gave a signal beforehand, with a trumpet, at the beginning of every seventh day, in the evening twilight, as also at the evening when the day was finished, as giving notice to the people when they were to leave off work, and when they were to go to work again.” (War 4:582) This place of trumpeting to signal the start and end of the weekly Sabbath was on top of the Temple complex at the southwest corner. The Hebrew inscription “To the place of trumpeting” was carved into the stone parapet to mark the place where the priestly trumpeter was to stand. When the Romans destroyed the Temple in AD 70, they broke off the stone inscription and threw it onto the street 138 feet below. In 1969 it was recovered by archaeologists. It remains today a strong testimony of the existence and location of Herod’s Temple.
• Temple Warning Inscription (1st cent. BC–1 cent. AD). Josephus also wrote of stone slabs written in Greek and Latin that warned Gentiles, on pain of death, not to pass a barrier that surrounded the sanctuary of Herod’s Temple (War 5:194; 6:124–126). Two of these stone slabs have been found. A complete one, found in 1871, is in Turkey. The other, in poorer condition and found in 1936, is in the Israel Museum. The warning reads, “No foreigner shall enter within the forecourt and the balustrade around the sanctuary. Whoever is caught will have himself to blame for his subsequent death.” This is why Jewish worshipers were furious at the apostle Paul when he was falsely accused of bringing Gentiles beyond the barrier and into the sanctuary area (Acts 21:28). This is also the same barrier Paul says has been broken down so that in Jesus the Messiah Jew and Gentile might be one (Ephesians 2:14).
• Caiaphas Ossuary (1st cent. AD). There are scores of first-century tombs surrounding Jerusalem. Many have reusable niches where the deceased’s body would be laid until after decomposition. At that point, the bones of the deceased would be placed in a stone box or depository called an ossuary. Some ossuaries were plain, others had elaborate designs. It was not uncommon for the name of the deceased to be carved into the side or end of the box. In 1990, road workers in southern Jerusalem accidentally removed the top of a burial cave. Inside, archaeologists found 12 ossuaries. One of them, elaborately decorated, had the inscription in Aramaic, “Joseph son of Caiaphas” (Josephus states the high priest’s name was “Joseph, who was called Caiaphas”; Ant. 18:95). The consensus among most archaeologists is that this was indeed the ossuary of the high priest Caiaphas in the New Testament, the one who condemned Jesus and delivered Him to Pontius Pilate.
These are just a few of the multitude of archaeological evidences that give witness to the presence of Jewish people in the land of Israel going all the way back to biblical times. And this is not even to mention the 700 ancient ritual bath (Heb. mikvah) locations scattered throughout Israel, with 200 of them in Jerusalem and 50 near the Temple Mount. These ubiquitous baths constructed 2,000 years ago, used strictly for ritual purification, give overwhelming historical testimony that the people who were using them in the land of Israel were in fact Jewish.
Why would a pagan empire mint a coin to commemorate the defeat of a nation in a land the conquerors themselves called Judea if that nation never existed or ever lived there?
Israel’s historical ties to the land include an artifact I purchased once from my friend Lenny, the antiquities dealer in Jerusalem. It’s a silver coin, almost 2,000 years old. It was minted in Rome around AD 70. On one side is the embossed likeness of Caesar Vespasian. On the other side is a woman sitting on the ground, forlorn and captured. The inscription under her reads, “Judaea.” The coin commemorates the defeat of Judea by the Romans in the first Jewish war, the same war in which Jerusalem and the Jewish Temple were destroyed. One can look at that coin and ask, “Why would a pagan empire mint a coin to commemorate the defeat of a nation in a land the conquerors themselves called Judea if that nation never existed or ever lived there?”
The truth is the Jewish people have lived in the land of Israel for more than 3,400 years. Their population has varied, but they’ve always been there. They’ve considered Jerusalem to be their capital for 3,000 years. There are more than 130 verses in the Bible that reiterate the fact that the land of Israel has been divinely given to the Jewish people (Genesis 17:8). God is the owner. The people of Israel are the eternal tenants. Some may dispute that today, but not one verse of Scripture does.
And the ancient witnesses of archaeology help to confirm it.