Digging up evidence of the Bible

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Tuesday the 1st of October, 2019. Well, thanks for listening today! I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up on The World and Everything in It: digging up Jerusalem’s past.

Archaeological digs all over Israel have turned up discoveries that affirm the truth of Biblical history. These artifacts reveal much about the cultural context of events described in the Bible. One site in particular has yielded some important finds in recent years.

REICHARD: The excavation at Mount Zion sits at the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem. Archaeologists from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte have picked over the hillside for a decade now. Each layer they peel back reveals more about life in the ancient city. 

Joining us now to talk about some of their latest discoveries is professor Shimon Gibson. He co-directs the Mount Zion Excavation.

Good morning, professor!

GIBSON: Good morning!

REICHARD: Can you start by telling us a little bit about the site itself? What is its significance and where is it relative to some of the landmarks of ancient Jerusalem?

GIBSON: OK. Well, we’re digging on Mount Zion, which is the traditional Mount Zion—not the Biblical Mount Zion which is connected to a place of the Jewish temple, the temple of God. This is on the other side of the city and from the third century onward it was regarded as Mount Zion. We’re outside the city, but it’s quite sort of strange, but we’re actually inside the city. And the reason is that the medieval city shrank and so it left the area where we’re digging outside the city whereas all the way from the time of King Hezekiah at the end of the 8th century B.C. and all the way up to the period in 11th century A.D., this was within the city. But it does mean we can dig down straight into the Islamic period and then immediately below that, all the way back to the Iron Age, which is the Biblical city referred to in the Old Testament.

REICHARD: Fascinating. Well, this summer you announced a significant find: a piece of gold jewelry. Tell us about that.

GIBSON: Yes, well, we’ve been going through all these different levels. There had been occasional finds dating back to the iron age. That is, between the end of the 8th—from the time of King Hezekiah—and all the way down to the Babylonian destruction of the city, which was quite substantial in the early 6th century when they destroyed the city. They destroyed the Temple of God and basically depopulated the city and got to all of the inhabitants, or some of them, to Babylon. So that was quite an amazing sort of point in history. And we came across this burned level—full of ashes and arrowheads of the Skivian time, typical of the 7th and early 6th centuries B.C. And in it was this piece of gold and silver. And when we looked at it closer and then we had it cleaned, turns out to be what seems to be either a tassel or perhaps an earring made out of gold with the shape of a little bell. And then below it a cluster of silver grapes. Exquisite. Amazing. Museum kind of piece. And it indicates that this was, you know, the people inside the city at the time didn’t have time to retrieve all of their belongings. They fled for their lives. Or, perhaps, they were killed.

REICHARD: What information can you glean from this item, do you think?

GIBSON: Well, it indicates that the people who were living in the city at the time of Nebuchadnezzar’s siege of the city, I mean, you know that he’s referred to by the prophet Jeremiah as the destroyer of nations. He was—he really—you know, he would come and flatten a place and destroy it so there’s nothing left. And there’s a very detailed account, as you know, in 2 Kings 25 as verses 1-9 there’s a lengthy description of what happened during that battle. And it said that all the houses were destroyed—even the important houses. And, of course, the most important house was the Temple of God. The people who were living in this house, part of which we’ve just started digging, probably were able to look straight across the city at the Temple of God that eventually went up in flames and their house also went up in flames. And we’ve now got to continue excavating the further parts of this house. And that’s why I’m sort of biting my fingernails. I really want to go back as quickly as possible, but that’ll have to be in the summer of 2020.

REICHARD: Some of what you found this year confirm Biblical accounts of Jerusalem’s destruction at the hands of the Babylonians. Tell us about those things.

GIBSON: Well, in terms of, as I said, Nebuchadnezzar, he destroys the city in the early 6th century which would be about the year 587 or 586. There’s a slight dispute amongst scholars as to which year it takes place. It’s evident and does take place. There’s destruction which takes place across the city. It was substantially sort of built up, really good buildings. And as I mentioned before, the jewelry that we’ve been finding indicates the wealth of the inhabitants. I mean, it was a city that Nebuchadnezzar had wanted to break into. He wanted to have the booty for his soldiers. And you can just imagine the devastation—the soldiers marauding through the streets, the houses going up in flames, inhabitants rushing for shelter and trying to find some way out of the city with some of their belongings. I mean, it was a terrible scene. And we as archaeologists have to feel humility. Were they happy when we find destruction levels because we get lots of interesting finds—pottery and arrowheads and this piece of jewelry that I mentioned—but it’s at the cost of the people who suffered all that time ago.

REICHARD: Shimon Gibson is a professor of archaeology at UNC Charlotte. He co-directs the Mount Zion Excavation. Thanks so much for joining us today!

GIBSON: My pleasure. Thank you very much.

(Photo/University of North Carolina Charlotte)

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