Archaeology and the Bible

I recently shared about our 9th season of excavation at Khirbet el-Maqatir in Israel’s West Bank. Located 10 miles north of Jerusalem, we call this dig “The Search for Joshua’s Ai at Khirbet el-Maqatir.”

Directed and sponsored by the Associates for Biblical Research, all 9 seasons have been under the direction of Dr. Bryant Wood. Unfortunately, for the first time since we started excavating at Khirbet el-Maqatir, Dr. Wood was home with medical problems and not in the field with us. Since I have been with him every dig season since he first stepped on the site in 1994, it was my responsibility to lead the team in his absence this year. 

This year’s focus was three different time periods in three different parts of our site. 

1.)    The 4th-6th century AD Byzantine monastery on the rise to the northwest

2.)    2.) The 2nd century BC through 2nd century AD Hellenistic/Roman settlement on the low rise to the northeast 

3.)    Our major focus, and the reason for choosing Khirbet el-Maqatir in the first place, the 15th century BC fortress of Ai from Joshua’s time in the saddle between these other two sets of ruins

After returning home and going back to my job this week, I pulled out The Palestinian Dwelling in the Roman-Byzantine Period by Yizhar Hirschfeld (1995). Hirschfeld (1950-2006) was an Israeli archeologist who specializing in Greco-Roman and Byzantine archaeology and I have frequently used this book in my study of ancient houses and daily life in the Biblical world. Consequently, in what I am calling a practical overview of our finds this season, I refer to him often.  Admittedly this might be more information than some of you are interested in knowing, but I thought some might be interested in all the things that offer Biblical insights. So here are the results of our excavation at Khirbet el-Maqatir in 2011.    

1.      The 4th-6th century AD Byzantine monastery

Our monastery has been well documented to include a single apse Byzantine church. Early churches were built with a single apse while later Byzantine churches were built with three, all in the church’s east wall. This season, we excavated our monastery’s eastern wall, which included clearing the foundation of the church’s apse to bedrock. But, in the process, he also uncovered the foundation of another apse on bedrock in the south. Unfortunately, the area where a matching apse north would be located was not excavated, but there is no doubt that one once existed there and next year’s excavation should reveal its foundation on bedrock, as well. The southern apse was completely new information, never mentioned by any of the 19th century explorers who visited the site. The triple apses suggest construction in the later Byzantine period.   

Fired pottery roof tiles were apparently introduced to Palestine during the 1st century AD, possibly by the Roman legion (Hirschfeld 1995: 222). We found many of them in the ruins of the monastery. They remind us of the New Testament reference to the tiled roof that 4 men broke up to get their sick friend to Jesus (Lu 5:19). Common homes in the Roman period did not have tiled roofs, so this passage suggests a pretty nice roof and the owner probably had to deal with his attitude that such an expensive roof would have to be repaired! 

Mosaic paving stones (tesserae) were first used in Israel during the second century BC, but the art reached its peak in the Byzantine period (Hirschfeld 1995:270-1).  Obviously, only the wealthy could afford such floors in their homes, generally in connection with various washing installations (Hirschfeld 1995: 270). But mosaic paving was the flooring of choice in Byzantine churches and explains the 11,000 tesserae we found in the ruins. 

Among other interesting finds from the monastery were seven coins. It will take a few months to properly clean and analyze them, but they seemed to span a couple of centuries. But one was quite clear and has been identified as minted by Herod Agrippa I, grandson of Herod the Great. Ruling from AD 37-44, he was the Herod of Acts 12 who was eaten by worms and died in the Herodian palace at Caesarea. Inscribed with “King Agrippa” on the obverse, the reverse is dated LS (year 6 = AD 42/43). The most common of Agrippa’s coins, it was the only one which did not depict a portrait of the emperor or Agrippa, himself, (“graven images”) – apparently because it was for circulation in the Jewish territories. 

We have identified a limekiln on the site, near the monastery, but it may be from a later period. Presumably there was also one in the Byzantine period. Mortar with an admixture of lime was of much higher quality than clayey soil and water (with or without straw) and such a mix can rightly be called cement. Utilizing such cement on wall construction, the average house wall could be built to full height without dressed stones, using just hammered and field stone. 

Such a lime admixture was also adapted as the base for plastering walls and ceilings in typical houses of the Roman and Byzantine periods (Hirschfeld 1995: 218; 223-4). We found plaster still clinging to interior stone walls of the monastery, as well as an underground plastered installation at the spring of an arch, near the monastery’s central apse.

2.      The 2nd century BC through 2nd century AD Hellenistic/Roman settlement

In the area of the Hasmonean (Greek period in Israel) settlement at Khirbet el-Maqatir, we excavated two cisterns cut into bedrock. The first, with a typical square-cut Roman opening, was already known but found to be situated in the floor of a room from a Roman period structure. The second cistern had been buried for hundreds of years and, appears to be much older than the Roman one. In fact, our Palestinian host who has lived in that local village all his life and, as a boy, climbed down into every cistern there, said he had never seen that one before. Once completely cleared and examined, I hope it will offer us some interesting insights about periods even earlier than Roman times.    

Probably most fun for me was a structure which appeared to be used in the Roman and Byzantine periods. In two separate but adjoining rooms they apparently reached floor level. While we are familiar with ancient houses being built of mudbrick superstructure on stone foundations, our house was made of one-strongman-can-carry-one-stone kind of hammered and semi-dressed stones – a feature typical of Roman period houses (Hirschfeld 1995: 219). But our stone walls did not seem to have any lime plaster between them. 

While floors in typical Roman houses were of beaten earth, the unroofed courtyard was often paved (Hirschfeld 1995: 270). Our larger room had a number of paving stones across its north end, apparently the latest floor level. Its size may indicate an open courtyard, which may help explain the very smoothly cut “threshold” stone on the east side of the room’s doorway (on the east wall in the southeast corner). 

An interior wall on the south side of the large room looks like a Byzantine renovation. Built with three interior openings, a feature known from numerous Roman and Byzantine houses and called a “window wall” (Hirschfeld 1995: 27, 29). In fact, window walls seem to have often been associated with domestic stables – where animals were kept in part of the house. We believe we also reached the beaten earth floor in this smaller room, at a similar level to the paving stones in the bigger room to the north. 

I actually think that such a space was the location of Jesus’ birth in Joseph’s ancestral home of the house of David at Bethlehem (about 15 miles south of our site). You can read my take on the idea at This interior wall seems to illustrate the “complete separation between the human occupants and the livestock” in ancient Palestinian homes from the Roman and Byzantine periods, as mentioned in ancient texts (Hirschfeld1995: 259-260; 267-8; 293). Interestingly, at nearby et-Tell, I know of two 12th century BC houses (the time of the Judges) which seemed to have animal pens with short doorways connected to the house.           

Thinking about Roman period construction also reminds me of the reference to Jesus being a teckton (Mk 6:3). While regularly translated “carpenter,” I think the better translation and understanding of his vocational training is “builder” (see Hirschfeld 1995: 226-7). In Roman Palestine, that would mean Jesus worked with stone, mudbricks and mortar and he would have built structures like we were excavating. All that adds special meaning, for me, to His frequent references to architecture (Mt 7:13-14; 24:1-2) and construction (see Mt 7:24-27; 21:42-44; Lk 14:28).

3.      The 15th century BC fortress of Ai from Joshua’s time 

Unfortunately, while we found pottery from the time of Joshua in almost every square – even one beneath the foundation of the monastery – this season we did not reach architecture from the fortress in any of the squares we excavated. That is what we came to find, but as archaeologists doing good science, we simply must deal with what we find under the ground. We did, and it was very interesting and meaningful. We will take many of those squares deeper next season and hope to get down to Joshua’s Ai. 

Archaeology shows us that we can trust the Bible for the past (history).  Since that is true, we can also trust it for the future (eternity). But I would suggest that is not enough, we need to also learn to trust it for the present (today) – living one day at a time. Archaeology helps make that whole process work for me and that’s why I enjoy digging. Our finds this season will give us a better understand and trust God’s Word. 

One dig season at a time,
Pastor Gary Byers
Spiritual Life Director