Top Ten Biblical Discoveries in Archaeology – An Introduction

The Discipline of Archaeology fits nicely with the world of the Bible. At its root the word archaeology consists of two Greek words: ἀρχαῖος and -λογία Archaeos means, “Ancient” and “ology” is “the study of.” The word Archaeology lexically refers to the study of the ancients. Since the Bible is an ancient book it makes sense for Archaeology to have something to say regarding its claims.

Modern Archaeology developed in Europe in the 19th century. Since then the land of the Bible has been given a growing amount of attention. Why so much attention? The Bible is not only an ancient book, but a detailed historical document. The sixty-six books of the Bible consist of nearly 5,000 locations along with many people, events and cultural details…all of which can be analyzed through Archaeology.

Our Top Ten Discoveries will fall into three main categories.

1. Words of the Bible

Archaeological discoveries can either support or refute the words of the Bible. Has the exact wording of the Bible become corrupted over time? What has archaeology shown regarding the trustworthiness of each word of the Bible? Some of our top ten items will speak into this category.

2. Land of the Bible

Some discoveries will focus on the land of the Bible. Are the cities, rivers, mountains, geographic features mentioned in the Bible accurate? The Bible paints a detailed picture, is the picture accurate? What does our top ten list suggest?

3. World of the Bible

Some of our top ten discoveries will focus on the world of the Bible. Are the political, economic, agricultural and social details mentioned in the Bible accurate? Was a certain king from a certain land really the king at the date suggested from the biblical book? Some of our top ten Discoveries will speak into the accuracy of the World of the Bible.

What makes an archaeological discovery significant?

Primarily, there are two criteria.

The Impact of the Discovery

The first criterion is the impact of the discovery. How has the discovery contributed to our understanding of the Words of the Bible, the Land of the Bible or the World of the Bible? The impact of a discovery is certainly subjective. For this reason some people will disagree with my ranking of the top ten. Furthermore, there have been thousands of biblically significant discoveries. Making a top ten list will obviously mean all but 10 of those thousands of discoveries will be left out.


The second criterion to make an archaeological discovery significant, in addition to impact, is provenance. Provenance is the trump card in archaeology. Provenance, from the French provenir, “to come from”, means the origin, or the source of something, or the history of the ownership or location of an object. If a discovery, no matter how amazing, has a questionable provenance it should be thrown in the garbage (not literally of course, but it should receive no attention). An item with questionable provenance deserves to be guilty until proven innocent. Christians can save themselves a lot of embarrassment by only being interested in discoveries with a reputable history. Provenance, not popularity, must be adhered to in deciding the significance of an archaeological discovery.

Stay away from these three types of people who dislike focusing on the provenance of a discovery:

The Photoshop Hack

Photoshop HackThe Photoshop Hack thinks he will save or destroy Christianity by his (or his 11-year old nephew’s) less than stellar Photoshop skills. The Photoshop Hack appeals to those who could care less about provenance. They don’t care about the trustworthiness of the story behind the supposed discovery; they’re primarily looking for fanciful evidence to prop up their shaky faith.

An email from a Photoshop Hack recently made its way into my inbox. A man claimed to have discovered a large human skeleton. The skeleton would prove to everyone the existence of giants like Goliath and the Anakim. You can believe in God now…because of my terrible Photoshop skills.

The Indiana Jones Wannabe

Indiana JonesStay away from the Indiana Jones Wannabe. This person is usually a weekend warrior. Why actually get a reputable degree in archaeology when you only need to buy a plane ticket, put on a leather hat and carry a whip?

This person will always be traveling to a secret place. They alone have the treasure map. If you really wanted to go where they went to confirm their discovery, they’d have to kill you after revealing their secret locale. They are always jumping over barbed-wired fences, eluding local law enforcement and making the greatest of all discoveries. The Indiana Jones Wannabe is more sophisticated than the Photoshop Hack, but the Wannabe can still be equally terrible at Photoshop.

The Wannabe does not like provenance. His word, video and photos should be sufficient. A reputable provenance, unfortunately, is the trump card for any discovery. Sorry Indiana. Scuba diving the Red Sea and secretly climbing Mt. Ararat looking for the ark seem to be favorite missions for the Wannabe. If you get an email from a Wannabe, hit delete not forward.

The Sophisticated Scoundrel

James OssuaryThe Sophisticated Scoundrel is the hardest person to spot and the most dangerous of the three. The scoundrel is usually well connected, wealthy, and very knowledgeable in the world of ancient artifacts. Why does the scoundrel exist? The scoundrel loves money and/or fame. The scoundrel is content leading many people astray if it means a full bank account. The recently “discovered” James ossuary is a great example of the Sophisticated Scoundrel.

The scoundrel in this case is a man named Obed Golan. Golan took an already amazing find, a beautiful first century ossuary, and decided to make it infinitely more valuable. An ossuary is basically a small casket. Once a body had fully decomposed people would then take the bones and place them in an ossuary. On October 21, 2002 a press conference was called where it was revealed Golan had “discovered” an ossuary from the first century with the phrase, “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” etched on the side. The inscription was amazingly accurate first century Aramaic. The inscription had been weathered. An ossuary valued in the thousands of dollars was now valued in the millions. This would be the greatest New Testament archaeological discovery. The provenance was unknown. Remember, the proper response with an unknown provenance should be guilty until proven innocent.

Obed Golan became greedy and called another press conference in 2003 reporting another amazing inscription discovery regarding King Jehoash. In December 2004, he was indicted with four other defendants and accused of being at the center of an international antiquities forgery ring. Golan is currently the poster child for the Sophisticated Scoundrel.

Our forthcoming Top Ten discoveries are all items of significant impact AND provenance. We will discuss the provenance of every item and why it should be considered a great discovery. Let’s put on our khaki pants and dig in.

What do you consider to be the greatest biblical archeological discoveries?

15 Responses to “Top Ten Biblical Discoveries in Archaeology – An Introduction”

  1. What!!!??? You mean that the giant skeleton isn’t real and that R.W. didn’t discover Sodom, Noah’s Ark, the Ark of the Covenant, the real Mount Sinai? My faith is totally shaken. What will I do! ;-(

  2. I’m looking forward to your next article, Tim.

  3. Squeaky Woo Woo June 29, 2010 at 8:10 pm

    This looks like it could be a great series – looking forward to the next post. Personally, I’ve probably heard more fraudulent / hoax discoveries declared as fact in the churches I have been to. It’d be good to also have a “top 10 fake discoveries to not repeat in your sermon or lecture”. Inevitably this will probably mean 10 Ron Wyatt discoveries, but still, it would be useful to point them out, because a lot of people still don’t realise that the “discoveries” of Sodom, the Ark of the Covenant, chariot wheels in the Red Sea etc etc are actually hoaxes.

  4. Provenance is most certainly important, but Biblical Archaeology Review magazine and other archaeologists do not share your opinion that uncertain or questionable origins automatically means that a piece should be ignored.

  5. Ted,

    The sentence after I said we should ignore a piece with questionable provenance I stated that a piece with this background is guilty until proven innocent. This infers a discovery can certainly become innocent, or a legitimate discovery over time. We shouldn’t permanently ignore a piece if it is shown over time and close reputable scrutiny to be legitimate. BAR and other archaeologists will support the importance of provenance and a need to heed caution and use of patience for any discovery with unknown provenance. Christians and Pastors have embarrassed themselves time and again rushing to point to something that ends up being a hoax.

    Please keep in mind this discussion is in the context of the top ten biblical discoveries to date. For the very important discoveries provenance plays a larger role because these discoveries need to be unquestionable. Each of these discoveries are priceless…the motivation to forge them would be great.


  6. Thanks for this, I’m really looking forward to the top ten….

  7. In our society many appeal to science as the only key to true knowledge. I believe that your Top Ten will be a good answer to those who wish for empirical evidence.

    Are there any good Biblical archaeology books you would recommened for those wanting to learn more of the findings that have proven to be provenant?

  8. Great introduction, can’t wait for the top 10.

  9. Tim-

    Appreciate your nuance on vetting the legitimacy of out-of-setting pieces. Regarding the authenticity of the James ossuary, I think its best to say the jury is still out. After several years, no verdict has been issued in the trial against Obed Golan, and media outlets like BAR have reported that the prosecution’s case has fizzled.

    In a classroom or preaching setting, it’s legitimate to make people aware of pieces like the James Ossuary, but it’s important to state that they’re HIGHLY DISPUTED and explain why–because it was first “discovered” on an antiquity dealer’s shelf and not in its original archaeological setting.

    Nevertheless, as you will show, there are plenty of trustworthy pieces that illuminate the testimony of Scripture. Looking forward to which 10 you will pick!

  10. From the way you describe your three categories it sounds as if your top 10 are related to proving/disproving the ‘accuracy’ of the Bible. I’d be curious to know if there are really significant finds that don’t have anything to do with ‘accuracy’ and more to do with shaping how we might understand a given text. This seems to me to be possibly more important than the disputed discussions of ‘accuracy.’

  11. I’m guessing the Dead Sea Scrolls will be amongst the ten, as well as the Merneptah Stele, the tunnel that I think Hezekiah built.

    And what about the Jesus family tomb?! I see that Simcha Jacobovici and James Cameron fit #2 (Indiana Jones Wannabe) nicely.

  12. Sadly, when I was a teenager. I fell hook, line and sinker for Ron Wyatt. 20 years later, I know better.

  13. Yeah, when I just became a Christian I read The Gold of Exodus and believed it at first. Same with The Exodus Decoded. Now I know better too.

  14. I fell hook line and sinker for some things, including Ron Wyatt for a short time.

    Does anyone know where I could get the “scoop” on Ron Wyatt? I mean technical or sophisticated – hard evidence – answers to his claims. Not just someone’s blog who is smashing him one way or the other, but someone knowledgeable or qualified. I don’t live in the US, so anything I see would have to be via Internet.

    Thanks a lot and thanks for the site.

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