From time to time, one will see a list of the top ten finds in biblical archaeology, usually within a certain time period (e.g., “the top ten finds of 2014”). In this blog post, I have created a “top ten” list of potential future finds in biblical archaeology. This list is restricted to finds that I think are potentially discoverable, and does not include items such as the ark of the covenant or the holy grail that are very probably undiscoverable.
#10: An ancient library of Greek and Latin literature
The world of early Christianity included several great libraries which housed comprehensive collections of all the major Greek and Latin literature that was then known. The two most famous libraries of classical antiquity were housed at Alexandria and Pergamum, each of which contained hundreds of thousands of scrolls. Some historians who are knowledgeable about Roman archeology are convinced that many people who were household names in the Roman world of the first century AD are completely unknown to us today. Most of the books that were then in existence have been lost, and many of the famous authors of the day are completely unknown. Fewer than one-tenth of the writings of a man as significant as Aristotle have been preserved, despite his obvious prominence and his tutelage of Alexander the Great. If somehow, somewhere, a well-preserved trove of classical literature were discovered—like the discovery of the documents held by the Essenes at Qumran—such a discovery would vastly improve our understanding of the biblical world. A complete and unedited manuscript of the Babylonian historian Berossus, for example, would potentially fill huge gaps in our understanding of the history of Babylon, and would give context for Berossus’ passing reference to a certain “King Darius” at the time of Babylon’s fall, in a quotation of Berossus from Eusebius (cf. Dan 5:31). Other classical authors would fill many gaps in our understanding of the culture and history of the ancient world, while annals, census records, and tax receipts would give us direct access to the raw data of history. Let us hope that such a find will soon be made.
#9: The skeleton of one of the Nephilim
Critics have long scoffed at the Bible’s description of giants, casting these accounts as myths and legends (see, e.g., Gen 6:1-4; Num 13:32-33; Deut 2:11; 9:2; 1 Sam 17:4; 2 Sam 21:16-22; 1 Chr 20:4-8). The discovery of an actual skeleton, or even just a leg bone, of a powerfully built man 10-14 feet tall would be an indisputable testimony to the accuracy of the Bible’s accounts of the Nephilim. (The bedstead of Og king of Bashan, for example was 13½ feet long and 6 feet wide [Deut 3:11].) Of course, the bones would have had to survive at least 3,000 years (which is about the time when the last recorded Nephilim were killed [2 Sam 21:15-22]), but in all probability there is some direct physical evidence of the Nephilim that remains to be discovered; Augustine claims that human bones of incredible size were still occasionally found in his day (City of God XV.9). An analysis of existing extrabiblical documents and archeological evidence does show ample evidence for a race of giants in ancient times, but the evidence that already exists is not seriously analyzed because it is dismissed out of hand as scientifically impossible. For example, some Greek legends describe giants, and this ABR article points out relief drawings of quite large men. See also this video by Joel Kramer. The direct physical evidence of bones of huge men would force archeologists to take the rest of the evidence seriously.
#8: Coffins of the patriarchs
Modern monuments mark the traditional gravesites of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (in Hebron) and Joseph (in Shechem). Unfortunately, the tombs only contain cenotaphs, and evidently do not contain the original coffins or bones of the patriarchs. While it is possible that the graves were robbed in antiquity, or that the bones have rotted away, there is a chance that they still exist in some undiscovered location. Both Jacob (Gen 50:2) and Joseph (Gen 50:26) were embalmed, so their corpses could still remain to this day. Both Jacob and Joseph were probably buried in elaborate coffins, given Joseph’s position as ruler over the land of Egypt (second only to Pharaoh). If Jacob’s and Joseph’s coffins still exist and are found, not only would they serve as a powerful testimony to the biblical history of the Israelite nation, the coffins might also give the name of the Pharaoh who promoted Joseph, among other information which would be extremely useful for understanding the archeological context of the Genesis narratives. In addition, DNA analysis would probably be performed on the corpses to verify their identity, which in turn would allow for positive genetic verification of living descendants of Jacob and Joseph. If coffins of Jacob’s other sons and their embalmed remains were discovered somewhere, these would allow for genetic identification of living members of each of Israel’s twelve tribes.
#7: The remains of the Egyptian army drowned in the Red Sea
Critics have long denied the historicity of the biblical book of Exodus, and believers have long debated the location and date of the famous crossing of the Red Sea (which some identify as merely a lake or a swamp). Yet nearly everyone has heard of Moses and the exodus which he led from Egypt, which is still remembered annually by the Jews in the feast of Passover. Evidently there has never been a serious effort to find the remains of Pharaoh and his Egyptian army under the waters of the Red Sea, where the Bible says they were drowned when the waters which had parted for the passage of the Israelites returned. (Most of the dead bodies washed up on the shore [Exod 14:30].) Dredging up and sifting the mud on the bottom of the northwestern end of the Gulf of Suez—where I believe the crossing of the Red Sea took place—would be a significant undertaking, but the potential significance of the find would be even greater. Finding the remains of an ancient Egyptian army’s military hardware underneath the sea would silence many critics, since it would definitively prove when and where the crossing of the Red Sea took place. It would also, of course, attest to the historicity of the exodus from Egypt (for those who are not convinced from the Bible), since Pharaoh’s horses and chariots and foot soldiers could hardly have ended up at the bottom of the Red Sea (or on the beach) in any other way than that described in the book of Exodus. Additionally, if Pharaoh’s chariot and his ring were found, it would allow for a definitive identification of the Pharaoh of the exodus.
#6: An extrabiblical text of any royal decree in the book of Daniel
Among the royal decrees mentioned in the book of Daniel, there are two that are specifically said to have been promulgated to all the lands of an empire: the letter of Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 4, and the decree issued by Darius the Mede in Daniel 6:25-27. Since these decrees were issued to all peoples and languages, presumably copies were made in the Akkadian language on clay tablets, and it is possible that those clay tablets survive somewhere to the present day. If extrabiblical copies of these decrees in Akkadian or in any other language were discovered, not only would they be a great boon to the study of the book of Daniel, they would also confound the critics who regard the book of Daniel as mythical and legendary. Both of these decrees relate extraordinary miracles which were confirmed by the king himself as an eyewitness and participant, and both attest to the power of the God of heaven. Both decrees specifically name Daniel, and the decree of Daniel 6:25-27 names Darius the Mede. Such a find would be of particular interest to me, since I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation on Darius the Mede; see my website and this blog article for more information.
#5: The treasures of the Second Temple
The Arch of Titus depicts the golden menorah, the silver trumpets, the altar of incense, and other items looted from the temple being paraded in the great victory celebration in Rome. The menorah is mentioned as late as the sixth century AD as being carried on parade in Constantinople. If indeed any or all of the temple treasures still exist somewhere (unlikely but possible), the discovery of them would be a phenomenal find, and the objects might be used in a rebuilt Jewish temple. (The Bible describes a rebuilt Jewish temple in the end times [Dan 9:27; Matt 24:15; 2 Thess 2:4]. Any such temple would be spiritually illegitimate in the present age, although the construction of the third temple is necessary to fulfill prophecy.) Besides these objects, according to Josephus, the Romans seized the official copies of the OT Scriptures (“the Law of the Jews”) from the temple when they destroyed Jerusalem in A.D. 70 (Wars 7.5.5 [7.150]; 7.5.7 [7.162]). Josephus claims that Titus later gave him these scrolls (“the holy books”) as a personal favor upon his request (Life 75 ). What became of them afterward, if Josephus is telling the truth, is not clear. These scrolls would have contained the most accurate text of the Old Testament available at the time, and if they still exist somewhere they would be a tremendous help to the study of the text of the Old Testament. (The original temple vessels were made by Bezalel under the direction of Moses [Exod 37–39], taken to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar [Jer 52:18-19], taken back to Jerusalem by Sheshbazzar [Ezra 1:7-11], stolen from the temple by Antiochus IV and presumably destroyed [1 Macc. 1.21], and replaced by the Maccabees [1 Macc. 4.49-50].)
#4: Jeremiah’s deed of purchase
As the final stage of Judah’s exile to Babylon was approaching early in the sixth century B.C., the prophet Jeremiah was commanded by God to buy from his cousin Hanamel a piece of land that was under the control of the Babylonian army which encircled Jerusalem (Jer 32:1-9). In all likelihood, Jeremiah’s cousin simply wanted to get a little extra money to buy food during the siege; a Babylonian-occupied piece of land was worthless property. Jeremiah, however, was commanded by God to purchase the property as a sign that someday the nation of Israel would reoccupy the land. Jeremiah carefully followed formal procedure by signing two identical deeds of purchase and sealing one of them shut before witnesses (Jer 32:10-12). Jeremiah then commanded his scribe Baruch to place the deeds of purchase in a clay container in some place where they would be preserved for a long time (Jer 32:13-15). Since God’s purpose in having these documents preserved in a clay jar was to have them function as a prophetic sign, it is not unlikely that they will be rediscovered. If so, this find would be a dramatic affirmation of Israel’s eschatological restoration—a divine sign that the restoration is God’s work. It would also be yet another profound setback for critics of the book of Jeremiah, as more and more of the history described in that book is discovered in the archeological record. And, for any archeologist, a discovery of actual deeds of purchase from pre-exilic Jerusalem would be a remarkable and significant find. The authenticity of the find could be verified by comparing it with a seal impression of “Baruch the son of Neriah” that has already been found.
#3: Noah’s ark
The biblical account of the Flood of Noah’s day, and of the ark which Noah built to survive the Flood, is generally ridiculed today by the majority of people in the world. But the Bible does teach that Noah built a huge ship to carry both his own family and large numbers of animals through a worldwide Deluge. The ark is said to have come to rest in the mountains of Ararat (Urartu), and a ship as large as the ark, coated with pitch, would not have rotted away quickly. The landing site of the ark would have remained well known for a long time after the Flood, and the ship itself would have been visible from a great distance (the pitch coating and the nails would have made it difficult to dismantle and reuse). Gordon Franz and Bill Crouse have recently published research which argues convincingly that the ark did not land on the mountain called “Mount Ararat” today, but that it rather came to rest on a much lower mountain in Turkey called Cudi Dagh (Mount Cudi). The ark’s landing site on that mountain is attested by a great number of sources from all ancient periods and extending to the present day. A German geologist even dug some trenches in the area around the shrine which marks the site, where traces of the boat’s shape are still visible, and he found what appeared to be ancient decayed remains of a ship’s hull. What is really needed is a large-scale, very public, excavation of that site, which would have the potential to confirm the exact size and shape of the ark, if indeed the remains at Cudi Dagh match the measurements given in the Bible. One could also test the type of wood used, the type of pitch used, the nails, and other construction materials; perhaps the division of compartments on the lower level of the ark might even be traceable. An excavation of Noah’s ark would certainly rank as one of the greatest discoveries in the history of archaeology, and it would have the potential to powerfully confirm the biblical story of Noah’s Flood. Such an excavation would greatly strengthen the faith of believers, and it would literally present a huge problem for those who attempt simply to laugh away the biblical account.
#2: The original tablets of the ten commandments
According to Exodus 32:15-16, when Moses came down from Mount Sinai after spending forty days with the God of Israel, he held in his hands two stone tablets that had been hewed and engraved by God Himself, which contained the ten commandments. (There were two identical copies made so that the one could be checked against the other to ensure it was not altered.) According to Exodus 32:19, when Moses came out of the cloud of glory on the top of the mountain and saw the people dancing around the golden calf they had made, he angrily threw the two tablets down to the base of the mountain, where they were shattered. Moses later made two new tablets to replace the ones he had broken (Exod 34:1). The remains of the original broken tablets evidently are still at the base of Mount Sinai, perhaps covered in sand. One would think that some parts of them would still be readable. There are several different proposed locations of Mount Sinai, since problems exist with identifying the traditional site since the Byzantine period, Jebel Musa, as the real Mount Sinai. Bryant Wood favors Jebel Khashm et-Tarif, but other proposals exist; a find of the original tablets of the ten commandments at the base of the mountain would settle the issue. The tablets would also show how the Hebrew language was written at the time of Moses—in the perfectly shaped letters written by God Himself. Any expedition to look for these tablets would have to be organized very carefully, because skeptics would immediately label such a remarkable find as a forgery if there was any way they could cast doubt upon it. Needless to say, the remains of those two tablets would be a great national treasure for the state of Israel, and they would cause much spiritual reflection among the Jewish people.
#1: An autograph (original manuscript) of any book of the Bible
Does an original manuscript of a book of the Bible survive to the present day, waiting to be discovered? Probably not; but it is not impossible that one does, and I would rank such a find as the most significant discovery in the whole history of archaeology. A late second-century church father speaks of the autographs of the books of the New Testament as still in existence and able to be viewed in the churches to which they were originally sent (Tertullian De Praescriptione Haereticorum Chapter 36). There were two periods of intense persecution in the history of the early church when the Romans specifically sought to destroy the church’s manuscripts of the Bible—the Decian persecution (250) and the persecution by Diocletian (early fourth century). Most or all remaining autographs were likely destroyed at those times. Nevertheless, one church father who died near the end of the Diocletian persecution, Peter of Alexandria, claims (in Fragment 1) that the autograph of John’s Gospel was still held by the church in Ephesus. Many New Testament manuscripts did survive the persecutions, and it is possible that some devout Christian hid one or more of the autographs in order to prevent their destruction. If the Christian who hid the autograph was then executed, no one would know where the hidden autograph was located, and it might still be in existence today if it has not rotted away over time. Or, as manuscripts were smuggled around the empire during the persecutions, the fact that a particular manuscript was the autograph could have been forgotten, and the autograph could have been taken to some remote monastery and placed in an archive. As for Old Testament books, the autographa would have originally been kept in the temple as official reference copies. Many or all of the autographs which survived until the pogrom of Antiochus IV (ca. 167–164 B.C.) were probably destroyed by him (see Josephus Ant. 12.5.4 [12.256]; 1 Macc 1.56; Dan 8:12). But, once again, it is possible that someone hid some manuscripts to prevent their destruction (as the Jews later did during the Jewish War of A.D. 66–73), and it is not impossible for at least fragments of a manuscript from 400 B.C., or even a thousand years earlier, to survive until the present day under the right conditions. Since the original manuscripts were used frequently in the temple, it is likely that they would have worn out over time, but once again it is more likely that the worn out copies would have been kept in a geniza (storage area) rather than burned as scrap paper or thrown out with the garbage. The great significance of the discovery of an autograph of a book of the Bible would be in the certainty it would give us of the original text of the Word of God. The manuscript itself would have no special power; it is the original words themselves that are significant, but the original manuscript would infallibly attest to those original words.
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Wayne Stiles said:
These would be some great finds indeed, Steven. You’ve just outlined a great series of Indiana Jones movies! Thanks for thinking outside the box. It’s amazing that we haven’t found more—and yet what we do have is tremendous. Thanks.
I’d like to find the Annals of the Kings of Judah and Israel that are referred to in the books of Kings and Chronicles.
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