Is the bible literally true? Are at least parts of it plausible? In digs throughout the region, biblical archaeology sets out to shed light on these questions. It is a difficult task made all the harder by the pull of our deepest wishes: Even artifacts found in situ, exactly where they had been left thousands of years ago, can be of controversial origin, let alone purpose.
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What else but yearning could have led distinguished experts to look at a weird gold-coated object found in Jerusalem that looked – to be polite – screamingly industrial, not to mention useless, and postulate that it might be Temple treasure? It wasn't: after months of musing, the stumped experts consulted the general public, and got an answer within hours. It was a New Age ‘healing device’ called, ironically, a Weber Isis Beamer. Other finds were more enlightening. Yet others advanced our cause of understanding not at all - but are still very intriguing. Here are some of the most interesting finds this year.
Philistines, we wish we barely knew ye
Who exactly were the Philistines, so reviled by the peoples of the Levant? Where did they come from? The great discoveries of biblical archaeology in 2015 include shining fresh light on that mystery, which goes back more than 3,000 years, not to mention revealing their taste in spices to jazz up the food they took from the peoples they raided.
"Nobody could stand them," remarks archaeologist and columnist Julia Fridman, presumably because the conquered peoples of the region did not like cowering before the ascendant Philistines. As the great civilizations of the Levant collapsed like dominoes around 3200 years ago, the Philistines rose to power, spreading like an invasive species around the Mediterranean Sea basin, seizing control, wreaking havoc and generally upsetting the locals. Yet nobody knew where these pesky Philistines originated, until new discoveries in Tel Tayinat, a site in southern Turkey, upset the usual theory of an origin somewhere in the Aegean.
Sugar, spice and everything nice and opium
Apparently the Philistines didn't come raiding empty-handed. Archaeologists concluded that not only was cumin, a Middle East staple spice, brought to ancient Israel by the Philistines. So was opium and none other than the sycamore tree, which was unknown in the land before the raiders arrived. The sycamore was however well known in ancient Egypt and may have been brought by the Philistines marauding northeastwards, from there to Canaan.
Meanwhile, in Washington
Apropos Egyptian and biblical archaeology, Haaretz puts to rest a misconception bruited about by Republican candidate Ben Carson, a Seventh Day Adventist by affiliation. The ancient Egyptian pyramids were indeed tombs, not grain silos, Egyptologists confirm, though some grain was evidently stored in some small part of them. And no, the pyramids were not built by the patriarch Joseph, who was not the Egyptian official Imhotep.
Parking tickets no more
Meanwhile in Jerusalem, archaeologists finally solved a mystery plaguing them for over a century: where the devil the Akra (or Acra) was. The Hellenistic stronghold erected in Jerusalem by Epiphanes, the Seleucid conqueror, who had destroyed the city in 168 BCE had been torn down by the Maccabee rebels in the 2nd century BCE and not a stone was left standing. Yet it has been found, in a parking lot. Or rather, under it.
Hezekiah, not a shepherd
Certainly by the time the Maccabees and Romans were fighting over it, the importance of Jerusalem was no longer in question. Scholars and archaeologists are still wrangling over the status of earlier Jerusalem, though, with theories ranging from unimportant hilltop village to capital city of powerful empires (albeit changing ones, as control over the city was wrested from its rulers). Now strong evidence that Jerusalem was a powerhouse as far back as the biblical king Hezekiah has been found, in the form of a bulla, which is the impression of the great king's own seal – found in situ, in his collapsed administrative building right by the Temple Mount. King Hezekiah, mentioned in the bible, was a vassal of Assyria and borrowed its royal symbolism of a winged sun and ankhs in his seal.
Other "discoveries" announced in 2015 were more ambiguous in significance. The 1st-century house in Nazareth that "might" have been where Jesus lived could have been where anybody else lived. There is no reason whatsoever to think Jesus lived there, beyond the fact that churches were built around it – centuries after Jesus' lifetime. Chinese whispers going down centuries can get things a little distorted. Or not.
The spot of Jesus' trial?
Apropos Jesus, digging below the floor level of an Ottoman-era prison in Jerusalem, another set of archaeologists found remains from King Herod's palace – and the spot where they think Jesus may have been put on trial. The find of palatial remains is not controversial but any other conclusions about what happened there remain in the realm of probabilities and speculation.
The original Sodom
The same goes for the so-called "discovery" of ancient Sodom in Jordan. What was found, years ago and not in 2015, was a significantly big Bronze Age city at a site called Tall el-Hammam that could be as old as 5,500 years. Was it Sodom? Who knows. Some say yes, some say no. Some point out that we don't know for sure whether there was any such city as Sodom, let alone where it was.