Written by Kevin Jennings
The Bible is the best-selling book of all time, with an estimated 5 billion copies having been produced and sold. The importance that the Bible has had in shaping human history could not be overstated, but there are many different interpretations of the book. To some, the Bible is the work of God with every word meant to be taken literally. To others, it is a combination of history and parables, figurative metaphors intended to teach some moral rather than being treated as literal events. And of course, to many people it is nothing more than a work of fiction.
Despite controversy over the contents of the book, scholars generally agree that Jesus was a real, historical figure. The consensus is that he was baptized by John the Baptist, debated Jewish authorities on the subject of God, and was crucified by Pontius Pilate, the fifth governor of the Roman province of Judaea. All other aspects of the life of the historical Jesus are much more contested.
In addition to writings by Christians, Jesus, his followers, and his crucifixion are mentioned by several Roman historians as well, such as Pliny the Younger and Tacitus. However, though these historical references have brought about a general consensus on the existence of the historical Jesus, there isn’t actually any direct evidence. No relic or artifact that is claimed to be tied to Jesus is proven to be authentic.
But the Bible is a big book with lots of stuff going on, and much of the Old Testament is intended as a historical record of the origins of the Israelites. It’s no surprise then that discoveries have been found that confirm parts of the book to be based in fact, rather than fiction.
The Merneptah Stele
Merneptah, the son of Ramses the Great, was an Egyptian pharaoh for ten years during the late 13th century BC. In 1896, an inscription was found in Thebes that became known as the Merneptah Stele.
The stele was 28 lines long, and chronicled Meneptah’s victory of the ancient Libyans. However, the last three lines of the stele shift away from the Libyans and to the region of Canaan. In this section, it is stated that “Israel is laid waste”. This inscription is the oldest non-biblical reference to Israel, and the only reference from Ancient Egypt.
This was a massive discovery, as the Old Testament is largely viewed by historians as more of a national myth than as an accurate historical chronicle of the Israelites. Thanks to the discovery of the Merneptah Stele, it is known that Israel was its own nation with its own culture occupying land in Canaan at least as far back as the 13th century BC.
The Tel Dan Inscription
Aside from Jesus, no character in the Bible has as much depth and character development as King David. David was essentially a nobody. His family was not wealthy or important, and he was the smallest of eight brothers. Following a message from God, David was secretly named Israel’s true king, before going on to become its greatest king.
David conquered Jerusalem, which was then made Israel’s political and cultural center. He annexed the coastal lands, and he defeated the Philistines with such severity that they would never dare threaten the Israelites again. And for a long time, scholars believed that he was entirely fictitious.
In 1993, an archaeological team was studying Tel Dan, a city from ancient Israel. In their research, they discovered remnants of a stone wall. The wall bore an inscription, though the entire inscription did not remain intact.
The inscription was written in Aramaic, and it details victories over two kings of Israel. The first name is partially cut off, but it almost certainly reads Jehoram, son of Ahab. The other king does not appear to be mentioned by name, only identified as the “king of the House of David”.
The Tel Dan inscription is dated to the 9th century BC, and this simple message of battle corroborates many passages from the Bible. To start, the House of David would mean the lineage of King David. This was only written roughly 150 years after King David would have died, which seems like too short a time for someone to fraudulently attempt to establish a noble family lineage to a king that never even existed. It’s not definitive proof that King David existed, but it is certainly evidence that it is more likely true than not.
The Aramaic inscription also points to other passages from the Book of Kings being true as well. Though Aramaic was common amongst the Israelites, the government and the wealthier citizens predominantly wrote in Hebrew. Had this conflict come from within the nation of Israel, the inscription surely would have been in Hebrew.
According to the Bible, Jehoram was killed by the Aramean king Hazael, whose language would have been Aramaic. The dates of Hazael’s reign line up with the date of the Tel Dan inscription, so this biblical Book of Kings is likely more fact than fiction.
Gates at Hazor, Gezer and Megiddo
King Solomon is portrayed as a wise, powerful, and wealthy King of Israel. Like David, he was one of the 48 Jewish prophets. Also like David, there was a healthy dispute over whether or not Solomon ever existed.
Regardless of whether Solomon existed, both sides generally agreed that the lavishness of the Israelite empire during this time period is an exaggeration. It’s also unlikely that the story of Solomon’s Judgment, in which he proposed cutting a baby in half to deduce who the real mother was, is an historical event. There were many similar stories in folklore from that region, and while the account of Solomon is the oldest written example, others could have predated it in oral tradition.
Archaeological excavations at the settlements of Hazor, Gezer, and Megiddo have uncovered six-chambered gates that allegedly date back to the 10th century BC when biblical chronology states that Solomon would have been king. These gates would provide evidence of the impressive construction that the Bible claims took place under Solomon’s reign. There is some disagreement on the dating of these gates, particularly at Gezer, with some scholars believing they were built centuries later.
There are no references to King Solomon in any historical texts outside of the Bible, something that could call his entire existence into question, however this is not necessarily meaningful on its own. Once of the things that made Solomon’s reign so unusual was that it was a time of peace, with no wars or battles fought at all. Records from 3000 years ago are scarce to begin with, and if King Solomon wasn’t leading an army into battle against anyone, there wouldn’t have been much of note for those outside of Israel to write about.
These three gates may not provide as strong evidence for the existence of Solomon as the Tel Dan inscription did for the existence of David, but if they are indeed from the 10th century BC then they corroborate much of Bible’s text regarding the construction and renovation that took place under Solomon’s reign, even if those projects weren’t quite as extravagant as the Bible may make them out to be.
The Moabite Stone
In 1868, the Moabite Stone was found at the ancient site of Dibon, what is modern day Dhiban, Jordan. A papier-mâché impression of the stone was made on behalf of an archeologist based in Jerusalem. At this time, the area was being heavily scoured for any evidence that would prove the historical accuracy of the Bible.
When word got out about the Moabite Stone, France, England, and Germany all set forth trying to acquire the valuable piece of history. The Bani Hamida tribe who were in possession of the stone didn’t like the idea of these other nations coming in and laying claim to their artifact, so in an act of defiance they smashed it into several pieces and sold it on the antiquities market. Many of these pieces have been recovered, though not all of them.
So why is the Moabite Stone so important? The translation of the stone has been updated several times to become more accurate, but the general meaning remains the same. The 34 lines of text begin, “I am Mesha, son of Chemosh-gad, king of Moab.”
The stone is most likely a victory stone designed to explain who Mesha was and to outline his military victories. In the text, Mesha tells of his war against the Israelites and their King Jehoram. This same war is outlined in the Bible’s Book of King’s. The accounts aren’t identical, but if anything this highlights their authenticity as being depictions of the same conflict from opposing viewpoints.
The Moabite Stone emphasizes Mesha’s victories over Israel and the capturing of cities. On the other hand, the Bible places the emphasis on Israel’s successful counterattacks against the Moabites. These two accounts don’t contradict one another, they simply tell the opposing sides of the same story with each side playing up their own victories and ignoring their own defeats.
This provides further evidence that much of the Old Testament history of the Israelites may indeed by an accurate telling of events as told from their point of view, even if some details, particularly in regards to King Solomon, were exaggerated.
Parting of the Red Sea
Though there was thought to be some truth to it, the Book of Exodus has long been considered by scholars to be the founding myth of the Israelites rather than a particularly historical account. The book follows the exodus from the Israelites out of Egypt and into the promised land of Canaan. We know from the Merneptah Stele that the Israelites had established themselves in Canaan by the 13th century, but how much of what happened before then could be historically accurate?
Perhaps the most famous portion of the Book of Exodus is when Moses parts the Red Sea, allowing the Israelites to walk across before the water came crashing back to drown the pharaoh’s army. There is no non-biblical evidence that such an event ever occurred. Indeed, the story sounds like the sort of thing that would have to be taken entirely on faith. However, recent research has discovered that such an event is actually scientifically possible.
There are two key elements of the story that are extremely important, one of which is often overlooked. In movies like The Ten Commandments, Moses is always depicted as raising his arms and causing the sea to immediately part by the will of God. However, this isn’t actually how it’s described in the biblical text. The King James translation of Exodus 14:21 reads, “And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the Lord caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all that night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided.” Across all translations, the important part of this passage does not change: the sea did not instantly part, but rather it was the result of a strong wind blowing for an entire night.
The other key element of this story is the discrepancy in translations. While Moses is often cited as parting the Red Sea, the more accurate translation is believed to be the Sea of Reeds. This leads to some assumptions on behalf of researchers as to the exact topology of the area at the time and where the Sea of Reeds would have been, but they’ve found a candidate.
Just south of the Mediterranean Sea is Take Tanis, which it is believed would have met with the Nile Delta thousands of years ago when this event would have taken place. Lake Tanis was and still is an ideal place for wild reeds to grow, which lends some credence to the idea that this area could have been the Sea of Reeds.
Whether this was the actual location of the story or not, the parting sea could have been the result of a “wind setdown”. This is a coastal phenomenon where extended periods of strong wind push the water back completely. It’s not just a hypothetical theory either, as it is also something that has been seen fairly recently both at the Nile Delta and in Lake Erie.
If the proposed location is correct, easterly winds exceeding 60 mph for the entire night could have pushed back the water, creating a land bridge with water on either side. Computer models of exactly what this weather pattern would have done show that the Israelites would have had 4 or 5 hours to cross the land bridge of roughly 1.8-2.5 miles in length. Even with the terrain likely being muddy, that’s an extremely reasonable pace. Once the wind stopped, the water would quickly come crashing back and cover the newly created land bridge.
Though this doesn’t confirm the parting of the Sea of Reeds did happen, it shows that it is absolutely possible that it could have happened, especially taking into account that the Bible specifically notes that it took an entire night for the water to recede rather than being nearly instantaneous. Even if this was a real historical event, the idea of the pharaoh’s chariots being in hot pursuit and then being drowned by the waters, while very technically possible, would likely be an embellishment. It just goes to show that even stories that were largely dismissed as fiction could have a basis in historical fact.