Do not leave the path

Who Tells the Truth—the Bible or Archaeology?

Credibility of the Hebrew Bible as a source for ancient Israel’s history has been disputed since at least the mid-1970s, when the historicity of the patriarchs of Genesis suffered a serious blow in the works of Thomas L. Thompson and John Van Seters.1 Biblical scholars of the last 35 years or so thus split into two camps of thought: historical minimalism and historical maximalism. The minimalists would argue that most of the Hebrew Bible has little value for the study of history because it is made up of prose fiction, folk tales, legends and theological treatises, while the maximalists would defend the Bible’s claims regarding the early history of ancient Israel.2 In “Whom Do You Believe—The Bible or Archaeology?” in the May/June 2017 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, eminent archaeologist William G. Dever explores the difficult subject, giving BAR readers a sneak-peak of his upcoming book.

It is fair to acknowledge that Biblical archaeology had failed to deliver the evidence that the founding fathers of the discipline—William F. Albright and George E. Wright—thought it would in support of the Bible as history. But as much as Biblical archaeology fell short of the quest to “prove the Bible,” it helped to show just how misguided those initial expectations from Biblical archaeology were. As a result, many scholars have grown suspicious of the Biblical text, rejecting even the most central narratives of early Bible history, such as the Exodus, the military conquest of Canaan, the existence of the United Monarchy and, most recently, the very historicity of figures such as Saul, David or Solomon.

Aided by new trends in literary studies and coinciding with a more general shift in the European historiography, the skeptical views of historical minimalism seem to dominate especially in Europe. The maximalist views, on the other hand, were able to stand their ground in Israel and the United States, where the public discourse is generally more optimistic about the Bible and the early history of ancient Israel as portrayed in the Hebrew Bible.

The tangled tale of Biblical archaeology as practiced in the USA is best symbolized by two still fairly recent decisions by the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR), a leading academic institution devoted to the study of the Near East: ASOR changed the name of its popular journal from Biblical Archaeologist to Near Eastern Archaeology in 1998, and it also decided to separate its annual meetings from those of the Society for Biblical Literature.

Over the years, the discussion between minimalists and maximalists has been characterized by inflamed rhetoric and bitter personal attacks. This is a little more understandable if we acknowledge that the current discourse continues to be fueled by the insertion of moralistic views and matters of faith and even modern political agendas and nationalist sentiments. It is then also less surprising that the skeptical and often hyper-critical approach of the minimalists is labeled as cynical, nihilist and immoral by some maximalists. On the other side, the most radical voices occasionally transcend the minimalist–maximalist debate, calling for the dismissal of the whole of the Biblical studies as we know it because the field is allegedly obsolete and irrelevant to modern society.3


Called the Large Stone Structure, these massive walls excavated in the City of David belong to the original King David’s palace in Jerusalem, affirm many. What is the evidence for this claim? Circumstantial at best, caution others. Photo: Eilat Mazar.


One possibility is to deal with the Biblical texts and archaeological data independently and then look for “convergences,” suggests William G. Dever, Professor Emeritus of Near Eastern Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Arizona, who is arguably the most influential voice among the maximalists. But it did not escape Dever’s critics that in checking the Bible against material evidence (or vice-versa), archaeology is not speaking for itself. For his approach, Dever has been castigated with others for actually falling into the trap of “proving/disproving the Bible”—an honorable pursuit for some, a methodological trespass for others.

To be sure, Dever understands that both archaeology and the Bible as historical sources have their limits. An experienced archaeologist, Dever rightly points to the chronic cause of disappointment and frustration among Biblical scholars: people have been asking the wrong questions of archaeology!

At the same time—as his critics object—Dever acknowledges the privileged position of archaeological data as being closer to the “real” life and, hence, more reliable for the Bible history than are the Biblical texts, which were written or edited centuries after the supposed events that they relate. And while recognizing that most of the Pentateuch, or Torah, is contaminated by legendary and even fantastic materials, which might disqualify the first four books from historical consideration, Dever with other maximalists also believes that these Bible books are a result of long oral traditions with a real historical core and that history can be distilled from the books immediately following them: Deuteronomy through 2 Kings. Dever’s critics, therefore, point out that his positivist method based on verifiable data is incoherent and circular and that his scholarship actually demonstrates the pitfalls of any attempt to use Biblical archaeology in the quest of uncovering the “true” Bible history. Some critical voices would also question whether Dever’s cautious judgments about the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers still qualify as maximalist.

As should be apparent by now, the issues at hand are rather complex. And they are potentially explosive because they transcend the boundaries of academia and can touch on people’s core values and identities.

For William G. Dever’s latest thoughts on this multi-layered and slippery subject, read his article “Whom Do You Believe—The Bible or Archaeology?” in the May/June 2017 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, where Dever attempts to demonstrate how we can marry archaeology and the Bible in the study of ancient Israel.



1. See Thompson’s The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1974) and Van Seters’s Abraham in History and Tradition (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1975).

2. For an open confrontation between scholars of the two camps, read Hershel Shanks, “Face to Face: Biblical Minimalists Meet Their Challengers,” BAR, July/August 1997.

3. Hector Avalos, The End of Biblical Studies (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2007).

Meet King Tut’s Father, Egypt’s First Revolutionary

Picture of damaged bust of Pharaoh Akhenaten in German museum Neues

Sometimes the most powerful commentary on a king is made by those who are silent. One morning in Amarna, a village in Upper Egypt about 200 miles south of Cairo, a set of delicate, sparrowlike bones were arranged atop a wooden table. “The clavicle is here, and the upper arm, the ribs, the lower legs,” said Ashley Shidner, an American bioarchaeologist. “This one is about a year and a half to two years old.”

The skeleton belonged to a child who lived at Amarna more than 3,300 years ago, when the site was Egypt’s capital. The city was founded by Akhenaten, a king who, along with his wife Nefertiti and his son, Tutankhamun, has captured the modern imagination as much as any other figure from ancient Egypt. This anonymous skeleton, in contrast, had been excavated from an unmarked grave. But the bones showed evidence of malnutrition, which Shidner and others have observed in the remains of dozens of Amarna children.

“The growth delay starts around seven and a half months,” Shidner said. “That’s when you start transition feeding from breast milk to solid food.” At Amarna this transition seems to have been delayed for many children. “Possibly the mother is making the decision that there’s not enough food.”

Until recently Akhenaten’s subjects seemed to be the only people who hadn’t weighed in on his legacy. Others have had plenty to say about the king, who ruled from around 1353 B.C. until 1336 B.C. and tried to transform Egyptian religion, art, and governance. Akhenaten’s successors were mostly scathing about his reign. Even Tutankhamun—whose brief reign has been a subject of fascination since his tomb was discovered in 1922—issued a decree criticizing conditions under his father: “The land was in distress; the gods had abandoned this land.” During the next dynasty, Akhenaten was referred to as “the criminal” and “the rebel,” and pharaohs destroyed his statues and images, trying to remove him from history entirely.

Opinion swung to the opposite extreme during modern times, when archaeologists rediscovered Akhenaten. In 1905 Egyptologist James Henry Breasted described the king as “the first individual in human history.” To Breasted and many others, Akhenaten was a revolutionary whose ideas, especially the concept of monotheism, seemed far ahead of his time. And the archaeological record has always been thin enough to allow for excavations of the imagination. Dominic Montserrat, whose Akhenaten book is subtitled History, Fantasy and Ancient Egypt, noted that we often take scattered evidence from ancient times and organize it into narratives that make sense in our world. We do this, he wrote, “so that the past could be held up to the present, like a mirror.”

That modern mirror of Akhenaten has reflected almost every identity imaginable. The king has been portrayed as a proto-Christian, a peace-loving environmentalist, an out-and-proud homosexual, and a totalitarian dictator. His image was embraced with equal enthusiasm by both the Nazis and the Afrocentrist movement. Thomas Mann, Naguib Mahfouz, and Frida Kahlo all incorporated the pharaoh into their art. When Philip Glass wrote three operas about visionary thinkers, his trinity consisted of Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi, and Akhenaten. Sigmund Freud once fainted during a heated argument with Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung about whether the Egyptian king had suffered from excessive love of his mother. (Freud’s diagnosis: Akhenaten was oedipal, almost a thousand years before Oedipus.)

Archaeologists always tried to resist such interpretations, but key pieces of the puzzle were missing. Much study of Amarna has focused on elite culture: royal sculpture and architecture, and inscriptions from the tombs of high officials. For years scholars hoped for the opportunity to study the burial places of common people, knowing that Amarna’s brief window of existence—17 years—meant that a cemetery would provide a rare snapshot of everyday life. But it wasn’t until the early 2000s that a detailed survey of the surrounding desert finally located evidence of four separate cemeteries.

After the discovery, archaeologists and bioarchaeologists spent nearly a decade excavating and analyzing the largest of these cemeteries. They collected a sample of skeletons from at least 432 people, and their findings were grim. Of the burials where age at death was known, 70 percent of the individuals had died before reaching 35, and only nine appear to have lived beyond 50. More than one-third were dead before they turned 15. The growth patterns of children were delayed by as much as two years. Many adults had suffered spinal damage, which bioarchaeologists believe is evidence that people were being overworked, perhaps in order to build the new capital.

In 2015 the team proceeded to another cemetery, to the north of Amarna, where they excavated 135 bodies. Anna Stevens, an Australian archaeologist who directs the cemetery fieldwork, told me that excavators soon noticed something different about these burials. Many of the bodies appear to have been buried hastily, in graves that contain almost no goods or objects. There isn’t evidence of violent death, but family groupings seem to have broken down; in many cases it looks as if two or three unrelated people were tossed together into a grave. They were young—92 percent of the individuals in this cemetery were no older than 25. More than half died between the ages of seven and 15.

“This is very clearly not a normal death curve,” Stevens said. “It may be no coincidence that this area had the king’s limestone quarries. Is this a group of workers who are being conscripted on the basis of their youth—and effectively being worked to death?” In her opinion, one thing is clear: “It absolutely dispels any lingering sense that Amarna was a nice place to live.”

For Akhenaten, Amarna represented something pure and profoundly visionary. “No official has ever advised me concerning it,” the king wrote proudly of his founding of the brand-new capital city. He chose the site, a broad stretch of virgin desert above the east bank of the Nile, because it was uncontaminated by the worship of any god.

Picture of limestone stela with Akhenaten and Nefertiti and three daughters under the sun god Aten.

He also may have been motivated by the example of his father, Amenhotep III, who was one of the greatest builders of monuments, temples, and palaces in Egyptian history. Both kings were part of the 18th dynasty, which came to power after defeating the Hyksos, a group from the eastern Mediterranean that had invaded northern Egypt. The forefathers of the 18th dynasty were based in southern Egypt, and in order to drive out the Hyksos, they incorporated key innovations from their enemy, including the horse-drawn chariot and the composite bow. The Egyptians professionalized their military, and unlike most previous dynasties, the 18th maintained a standing army.

They were also skilled at diplomacy, and the empire eventually stretched from current-day Sudan to Syria. Foreigners brought new wealth and skills to the Egyptian court, and the effects were profound. Under Amenhotep III, who ruled from around 1390 to 1353 B.C., the style of royal art shifted in ways that would be described today as more naturalistic.

Even as Amenhotep III welcomed new ideas, he was also looking back to the distant past. He studied the pyramids of kings who had lived more than a thousand years earlier, and he incorporated traditional elements into festivals, temples, and royal palaces. He continued to worship Amun, who was the patron god of the city of Thebes. But Amenhotep III also began to emphasize Aten, a form of the sun god Re, portrayed as a solar disk, that recalled older patterns of worship.

The king’s son took the throne as Amenhotep IV, but during the fifth year of his reign he made two momentous decisions. He changed his name to Akhenaten—Devoted to Aten—and he decided to move the capital to the site now known as Amarna. The king called his city Akhetaten, or Horizon of the Sun Disk, and soon this stretch of empty desert became home to an estimated 30,000 people. Palaces and temples were built quickly, at astonishing scale—the Great Aten Temple, the city’s largest ritual complex, was nearly a half mile long.

Meanwhile Egyptian art was also being revolutionized. For centuries strict traditions had defined the correct subject matter, proportions, and poses of paintings and sculptures. Under Akhenaten, artisans were unleashed from these guidelines. They created lifelike, fluid scenes of the natural world, and they began to portray Akhenaten and his queen, Nefertiti, in unusually natural and intimate poses. Often the royal couple would be shown kissing and caressing their daughters; one scene even featured the king and queen about to get into bed together. The portrayal of Akhenaten’s features seems designed to shock: massive jaw, drooping lips, and elongated, otherworldly eyes.

In the king’s vision, religion became radically simplified. Egyptians worshipped as many as a thousand gods, but Akhenaten was loyal only to one. He and Nefertiti functioned as the sole intermediaries between the people and Aten, taking on the traditional role of the priesthood. Nefertiti was named co-regent, and while it’s unclear whether she wielded political power, her religious and symbolic status was highly unusual for a queen.

All of this must have threatened priests of the old order who served Amun. After a few years at Amarna, the pharaoh ordered work crews to gouge out all images of Amun in state temples. It was an act of unbelievable boldness: the first time in history that a king had attacked a god. But revolutions have a way of turning against their greatest enthusiasts, and this violence eventually would consume Akhenaten’s own creations.

I arrived at the site of the Great Aten Temple one day just as Barry Kemp found a piece of a broken statue of Akhenaten. Kemp is a professor emeritus from Cambridge University who directs the Amarna Project, and he’s worked at the site since 1977. He’s spent more than three times as many years digging through the city’s ruins as Akhenaten spent building it.

“This is beautifully made,” he said, holding up the piece of carved stone statuary, on which only the king’s lower legs were visible. “This is not accidentally damaged.” Amarna archaeology has a forensic quality because so many artifacts were deliberately destroyed after the sudden death of the king around 1336 B.C. His only son and heir was Tutankhaten, no more than 10 years old, who soon replaced the “Aten” in his name with the title of the god that his father had hated: Tutankhamun. He abandoned Amarna and returned to the old traditions. Tutankhamun died unexpectedly, and soon the head of the army, Horemheb, declared himself pharaoh—possibly the first military coup in history.

Horemheb and his successors, including Ramses the Great, dismantled Amarna’s royal buildings and temples. They destroyed statues of Akhenaten and Nefertiti, and they omitted the names of the heretic king and his successors from official lists of Egyptian rulers. This act of damnatio memoriae was so successful that it was one of the reasons Tutankhamun’s tomb escaped significant looting in the Valley of the Kings. Tut’s tomb may even contain further secrets—during the past year archaeologists have been investigating signs of possible hidden doorways in two walls of the burial chamber. In pharaonic times generations of looters usually combed through such tombs, but Tut’s was largely left intact. People simply forgot that it was there.

AKHENATEN’S NEW CAPITALEgypt’s two primary capitals in centuries past were the strategic and religious centers of Memphis and Thebes. But Akhenaten built a new capital, Amarna, on an isolated patch of desert, signaling a break from Egypt’s religious and ideological past.


They also forgot most details of Amarna life. Kemp’s recent excavations have shown that the Great Aten Temple was destroyed and rebuilt sometime around Akhenaten’s 12th regnal year. The piece of statuary that he showed me dated to this event—it had been shattered at the command of the king himself, not his successors.

“It’s an odd thing for them to have done, from our perspective,” Kemp said, explaining that Akhenaten used such fragments as the foundation for a new, revised temple. “The statue is no longer needed, so they reduce it to hard core. We have no commentary on what’s going on.”

But other evidence is often remarkably intact. Ancient settlement sites were usually located in the Nile Valley, where millennia of floods and habitation destroyed original structures. In contrast, Amarna is situated in the desert above the river, where drinking water had to be hauled in. This was why the site was uninhabited before Akhenaten, and it’s why it was abandoned so completely. Even today you can still see the original brick walls of Amarna houses, and broken pottery is everywhere. It’s possible to visit the 3,300-year-old building where the famous painted bust of Nefertiti was excavated by a German archaeological team in 1912.

Kemp told me that he was originally attracted to Amarna by the intact city site, not the outsize figure of Akhenaten. He believes that too many modern characteristics have been ascribed to the king, and in Kemp’s opinion, even the word religion is “mischievous” when applied to ancient Egypt. Like most scholars nowadays, he does not describe Akhenaten as a monotheist. The word is too charged by subsequent religious traditions, and during Akhenaten’s reign most Egyptians continued to worship other gods.

Nevertheless, Kemp can’t entirely resist speculating about the king’s character. He’s impressed by the changeability of Akhenaten’s mind and by his ability to force workers to carry out his whims. At the Great Aten Temple, Kemp showed me traces of several large mud-brick offering tables that would have once been heaped with food and incense as part of rituals. The number of these tables is staggering—more than 1,700. “It’s an insight into his mind, a man with a rather obsessive literalist mind,” Kemp said. He once wrote: “The danger of being an absolute ruler is that no one dares tell you that what you have just decreed is not a good idea.”

This lack of accountability probably also inspired artistic freedom. Ray Johnson, who directs the Chicago House, the University of Chicago’s research center in Luxor, believes that Akhenaten must have been “wildly creative,” despite his obsessive and despotic tendencies. “The later artistic representation at Amarna is so beautiful you could cry,” Johnson said. “Akhenaten rejected his own early exaggerated art style for a much softer naturalism later in his reign. The representations of women in particular are incredibly sensual.

Johnson has recently pieced together broken wall reliefs and statuary from collections scattered all around the world. Digitization makes work like this faster. Johnson showed me a virtual “join” in which he had matched a photograph of one fragment located in Copenhagen with another in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “They’re 4,000 miles apart, but I realized that they join,” he said. The connection reveals a surprising scene: Akhenaten performs a ritual not with Nefertiti, but with Kiya, another wife, who didn’t have the status of queen.

A small number of scholars are involved in such work, and the ones I met seemed to have a softer view of Akhenaten, perhaps because of intimate contact with the art. This proved to be the king’s most lasting legacy, at least until his rediscovery in modern times. His city and his ritual practices were quickly abandoned, but the Amarna artistic style influenced subsequent periods. Marsha Hill, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, told me that handling Amarna’s sculpture fragments makes her feel more positive about Akhenaten.

“Everybody likes revolutionaries at some level,” she said. “Someone who has a real good, strong idea that makes it seem like things are going to get better. I don’t see him as destructive. Of course, it didn’t work out. It usually doesn’t. Steam builds up under the ground until it explodes, and then you have to put it all together again.”

This story appears in the May 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Akhenaten and Moses

Defying centuries of traditional worship of the Egyptian pantheon, Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten decreed during his reign in the mid-14th century B.C.E. that his subjects were to worship only one god: the sun-disk Aten. Akhenaten is sometimes called the world’s first monotheist. Did his monotheism later influence Moses—and the birth of Israelite monotheism?

In “Did Akhenaten’s Monotheism Influence Moses?” in the July/August 2015 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, University of California, Santa Barbara, emeritus professor of anthropology Brian Fagan discusses this tantalizing question.

Egyptian King Akhenaten, meaning “Effective for Aten”—his name was originally Amenhotep IV, reigned from about 1352 to 1336 B.C.E. In the fifth year of his reign, he moved the royal residence from Thebes to a new site in Middle Egypt, Akhetaten (“the horizon of Aten,” present-day Tell el-Amarna), and there ordered lavish temples to be built for Aten. Akhenaten claimed to be the only one who had access to Aten, thus making an interceding priesthood unnecessary.

In the BAR article “The Monotheism of the Heretic Pharaoh,” Donald B. Redford, who excavated Akhenaten’s earliest temple at Karnak (in modern Thebes), describes how Akhenaten instituted worship of Aten:

The cult of the Sun-Disk emerged from an iconoclastic “war” between the “Good God” (Akhenaten), and all the rest of the gods. The outcome of this “war” was the exaltation of the former and the annihilation of the latter. Akhenaten taxed and gradually closed the temples of the other gods; the images of their erstwhile occupants were occasionally destroyed. Cult, ritual and mythology were anathematized, literature edited to remove unwanted allusions. Names were changed to eliminate hateful divine elements; and cities where the old gods had been worshipped, were abandoned by court and government.

Akhenaten destroyed much, he created little. No mythology was devised for his new god. No symbolism was permitted in art or the cult, and the cult itself was reduced to the one simple act of offering upon the altar. Syncretism was no longer possible: Akhenaten’s god does not accept and absorb—he excludes and annihilates.

Did Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten’s adamant worship of one deity influence the Biblical Moses, leader of the Israelite Exodus? Was Akhenaten’s monotheism the progenitor of Israelite monotheism? According to BAR author Brian Fagan, we are talking about two different kinds of monothesisms:

“Israelite monotheism developed through centuries of discussion, declarations of faith and interactions with other societies and other beliefs,” Fagan writes. “In contrast, Akhenaten’s monotheism developed very largely at the behest of a single, absolute monarch presiding over an isolated land, where the pharaoh’s word was divine and secular law. It was an experiment that withered on the vine.”
When Tutankhaten—the second son of Akhenaten; we know him as the famous King Tut—ascended to the throne, he, working with his advisers, restored worship of the traditional Egyptian pantheon and its chief god, Amun. Tutankhaten also changed his name to Tutankhamun, meaning “the living image of Amun.”

First Person: Misogyny in the Bible

Christopher Rollston is one of the world’s leading paleographers of ancient Near Eastern inscriptions. I have been harshly critical of some of his views, principally regarding unprovenanced inscriptions—inscriptions that have surfaced only from the antiquities market, not from a professional archaeological excavation. They may be forgeries, he argues. Although my criticism of Chris’s position is intense,1 we remain good friends and regularly share a meal. Chris is also a master carpenter. Above my office door hangs a beautiful polished wooden plaque expertly carved with my name in paleo-Hebrew script—the kind of Hebrew letters used before the Babylonian destruction of the Solomonic (First) Temple in 586 B.C.E.

Several years ago, when Chris was teaching at Emmanuel Christian Seminary, a Tennessee seminary affiliated with the Restoration Movement, he wrote an article about the Bible’s sometimes “unfair” or unequal treatment of women.2 He recently published a revised and augmented version of this controversial article.3

Here are some examples from his article:

Noah and his wife had three sons (Shem, Ham and Japheth—Genesis 5:32) who were each married. All eight were on the ark. We know the names of all the men, but none of the women (Genesis 8:18), not even Noah’s wife.

Rollston finds the marginalization of women obvious and “clear” in the Ten Commandments: “The wife is classified as her husband’s property, and she’s listed with the slaves and work animals. There is also a striking omission in this commandment: Never does it say, ‘You shall not covet your neighbor’s husband.’”

Rollston continues with other examples:

An unmarried woman could be compelled to marry her rapist, as long as the rapist could pay the standard bride price and the woman’s father was comfortable with the marriage (Deuteronomy 22:28–29). Polygyny (a man having multiple wives at the same time) was not condemned, but was an accepted and legal custom (Deuteronomy 21:15–17; Genesis 4:19–24; and 2 Samuel 3:2–5). A woman’s religious vow could be nullified by her father or her husband (Numbers 30:3–15). And the assumption of the text is that the priesthood is all male (Leviticus 21). In short, within the legal literature of the Bible, women were not accorded the same status as men.

Other examples come from the New Testament; here is one of Rollston’s examples:

[1 Timothy 2] begins by stating that “men should pray” (and the word used here for men is andras, a gendered word that refers only to males) and then says “women should dress themselves modestly and decently” (vv. 8–9). So men are to pray, and women are to dress modestly. That’s quite a contrast. But there’s more: “Let a woman learn in silence and full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to be silent” (vv. 11–12). The author’s rationale: “For Adam was formed first, then Eve, and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor” (vv. 13–14). According to this text, women were to be silent in worship gatherings (and men were certainly not told to be silent), and the rationale for this mandate is that woman (Eve) was created second and sinned first. And the final blow is this: A woman “will be saved” (the future tense of the standard word for “be saved,” “be given salvation”) “through childbirth if she remains in faith and love and sanctification with modesty” (1 Timothy 2:15).

Rollston recently told us in writing what we already knew. This criticism of the Bible led to his “forced ouster” from Emmanuel Christian Seminary.

Not long after his “forced ouster,” I saw Chris and told him that this could be the best thing that ever happened to him. And so it turned out. Eventually he obtained a tenured position at the George Washington University (GWU) in Washington, D.C. Soon thereafter the prestigious position of editor of the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research (BASOR) opened up, and Chris and his distinguished colleague Eric Cline at GWU were appointed as coeditors to fill the position. Seldom do we write stories with such happy endings.


1. See Hershel Shanks, “Predilections—Is the ‘Brother of Jesus’ Inscription a Forgery?”Biblical Archaeology Review, September/October 2015.

2. Christopher Rollston, “The Marginalization of Women: A Biblical Value We Don’t Like to Talk About,” Huffington Post, August 31, 2012.

3. Christopher A. Rollston, “Women, the Bible, and the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution,” in Frances Flannery and Rodney Alan Werline, eds., The Bible in Political Debate (New York: Bloomsbury, 2016).

‘Invaders of Obscure Race?’ Understanding the Hyksos

By: Anna-Latifa Mourad

From the time of the first pharaoh, ancient Egyptian civilization saw over a thousand years of unbroken development, with dynasty after dynasty of divine kings building pyramids and overseeing the growth of a rich culture. But after this ‘classical age’ of the Old Kingdom, toward the end of the third millennium BCE, Egypt faltered and splintered into separate realms. Then, in the early second millennium, it experienced something unprecedented: foreign rule by the ‘Hyksos.’ Their origins and impact on Egypt are deeply controversial issues, clouded by the bitterness of Egypt’s own memories.


The term ‘Hyksos’ has its origins in the works of third-century BCE Egyptian priest, Manetho, quoted by later writers like Josephus. Despite their late date, these Greek works formed the basis of inquiry into the Hyksos for most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries CE. Thus, we learn that

… unexpectedly, from the regions of the East, invaders of obscure race marched in confidence of victory against our land. By main force they easily seized it without striking a blow… Their race as a whole was called Hyksos, that is ‘king-shepherds’…

Manetho, Aegyptiaca, frag. 42, 1.75-83

The Hyksos apparently destroyed cities and temples, massacred locals, and placed one of their own as king and founder of the Fifteenth Dynasty. Tribute was levied from the Egyptians, and the citadel of Avaris, fortified with both men and high walls, was built in the Delta. The Hyksos became associated with ruthless invaders who forced control over Egypt.

Egyptian Records

Agreeing with Manetho’s perception are texts from the Seventeenth Dynasty (contemporary with the Fifteenth, dating ca. 1650-1550 BCE), and from the subsequent Eighteenth Dynasty. A leader from the southern city of Thebes, Kamose, evidently mounted a campaign to expel the foreigners from Egypt. He designates the Hyksos king and his people as an ‘Aam’ group who had desecrated the land. Their king was titled ‘heqa ny Retjenu’, ‘ruler of Retjenu’, and his city, Avaris, was described with high walls and harbours docked with 300 cedar ships filled with a plethora of goods including gold, silver and ‘all the fine products of Retjenu’. Around a century later, Queen Hatshepsut is quoted as having restored what was destroyed during the Hyksos period when the Nile Delta was occupied by the abominable ‘Aam’ people.

Such texts link the Hyksos with (1) the ‘Aam’, (2) Retjenu, and (3) a fortified city, known as Avaris, in the Delta. But who were these Aam? Where was Retjenu? And is there truly a city by the name of Avaris?

The term ‘Aam’ is a well-attested ethnonym that labels individuals from the Levant, the area that currently incorporates Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Translated by Egyptologists as ‘Asiatic’, the term first appears in the late Old Kingdom, becoming more frequent from the second half of the Twelfth Dynasty (ca. 1900 BCE) in texts naming newly migrated northeasterners as well as those of mixed Egyptian-Levantine origin (see Figures 1-3).

Figure 1. ‘Aam’ men in a procession of Asiatics. The first on the right is labelled ‘heqa khaset’, ‘ruler of a foreign land’. The tomb of Khnumhotep II, Beni Hassan, Dynasty 12. Image courtesy of the Australian Centre for Egyptology (photograph by Effy Alexakis).

Figure 1. ‘Aam’ men in a procession of Asiatics. The first on the right is labelled ‘heqa khaset’, ‘ruler of a foreign land’. The tomb of Khnumhotep II, Beni Hassan, Dynasty 12. Image courtesy of the Australian Centre for Egyptology (photograph by Effy Alexakis).

Figure 2. ‘Aam’ people in a procession of Asiatics. The tomb of Khnumhotep II, Beni Hassan, Dynasty 12. Image courtesy of the Australian Centre for Egyptology (photograph by Effy Alexakis).

Figure 2. ‘Aam’ people in a procession of Asiatics. The tomb of Khnumhotep II, Beni Hassan, Dynasty 12. Image courtesy of the Australian Centre for Egyptology (photograph by Effy Alexakis).

Figure 3. A ‘Aamet’ woman with the Egyptian name Senebheqa. Stela of the Egyptian ‘overseer of the treasury’, Senebsuma, Dynasty 13. After H. de Meulenaere, ‘Les monuments d’un haut dignitaire de la 13e dynastie’, CdE 40 (1985), fig. 1 (drawn by Anna-Latifa Mourad).

Figure 3. A ‘Aamet’ woman with the Egyptian name Senebheqa. Stela of the Egyptian ‘overseer of the treasury’, Senebsuma, Dynasty 13. After H. de Meulenaere, ‘Les monuments d’un haut dignitaire de la 13e dynastie’, CdE 40 (1985), fig. 1 (drawn by Anna-Latifa Mourad).

The Aam are also recorded to have come from Retjenu, a toponym which remains unidentified. Egyptian texts do, however, suggest that it is located in the Levant, possibly north of modern Israel. So, if Kamose’s stela refers to a ‘ruler of Retjenu’, how is this associated with the Hyksos and Manetho’s ‘king-shepherds’? Here, Manetho’s translation can be explained as a garbled reading of an Egyptian title used for foreign lords, ‘heqa khasut’, or literally ‘ruler of foreign lands.’ The title was not only used for the Hyksos but it is also attested for a range of individuals from the Levant as well as Nubia (see Figure 1). What distinguishes the Hyksos is that they used this title while ruling parts of Egypt. In other words, they defined themselves as both rulers of Egypt, as well as rulers of a foreign realm. But how were they able to do so? What led them to become such powerful rulers?

The Discovery of Avaris

In recent decades, significant data has emerged from excavations at a site located in Egypt’s northeastern Delta: Tell el-Dab’a (see Figure 5). Explorations by the Austrian Archaeological Institute in Cairo and the Institute of Egyptology at the University of Vienna have revealed the remains of a harbour city dating from the First to Third Intermediate Period. Spanning an area of approximately 1200 hectares, the site features administrative districts, palatial complexes, cemeteries, temples and residential sectors that were occupied during the Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period. These occupations included widespread cultural remains that are not wholly Egyptian. Due to the magnitude of this settlement as well as its remains, the city is now identified with Avaris, capital of the Hyksos.

 Figure 5. Map of Tell el-Dab’a. After M. Bietak, ‘The Impact of Minoan Art on Egypt and the Levant: A Glimpse of Palatial Art from the Naval Base of Peru-nefer at Avaris’, in J. Aruz et al. (eds), Cultures in Contact. From Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean in the Second Millennium B.C. (New York, 2013), fig. 1 (drawn by Anna-Latifa Mourad).
Figure 5. Map of Tell el-Dab’a. After M. Bietak, ‘The Impact of Minoan Art on Egypt and the Levant: A Glimpse of Palatial Art from the Naval Base of Peru-nefer at Avaris’, in J. Aruz et al. (eds), Cultures in Contact. From Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean in the Second Millennium B.C. (New York, 2013), fig. 1 (drawn by Anna-Latifa Mourad).

The identification of Avaris has helped illuminate the nature and rule of the elusive Hyksos. Contrary to Manetho, the evidence from Tell el-Dab’a does not point to a sudden invading foreign force. Instead, it suggests that Egyptians founded the site but that foreigners were present from the very beginning of the Middle Kingdom. By the late Twelfth Dynasty, the variety and number of foreign elements increased. Vessels imported from the Levant are found in Egyptian temples and tombs, burials began to include non-Egyptian, Levantine traditions, and houses were designed with Levantine features. The inhabitants practiced both Egyptian and Levantine customs, signifying that they were (a) a largely Egyptian populace heavily influenced by the Levant; (b) partly of Levantine origin but influenced by the Egyptian culture (‘Egyptianised’); or (c) a mixture of both.

This ‘heterogenous’ character evolved into the Thirteenth and Fifteenth Dynasties. The population grew, displaying both hybrid elements that merged Egyptian and Levantine features, as well as completely new and innovative creations. Pottery of Levantine style was locally made. Temples following Levantine architecture were built and utilised for non-Egyptian rituals. Trade flourished with the Levant, Cyprus and Nubia. By the Fifteenth Dynasty, Tell el-Dab’a was a thriving commercial hub that was controlled by an elite with close ties to the Levant, if not of Levantine origins. Inhabited by a multicultural populace, the metropolis progressed from a harbour town under Egyptian rule to an independent centre and capital of the Hyksos.

Understanding the Hyksos Period

Recent excavations and studies agree with the picture painted by the remains at Avaris. The Twelfth Dynasty itself was likely established and secured with the help of Levantine warriors. Trade and diplomacy ensued as Egypt imported a variety of goods from its northeastern neighbours, while Levantine sites, such as Byblos, Sidon, Ashkelon and Tell Ifshar, also received Egyptian commodities. The Levantine elite was even involved with the Egyptians in an expeditionary venture in Sinai that spanned over 20 years. Such demand for and persistence of Egyptian-Levantine relations led to the growth of Tell el-Dab’a’s commercial significance, its lords steadily gaining power and wealth.

These developments not only affected the elite. Finds throughout Egypt point to an increasing number of Asiatics and individuals of Asiatic origin working and residing across the land (see Figure 3). By the end of the Thirteenth Dynasty, many had already been in Egypt for over 100 years, occupying various positions within Egyptian institutions, industries, and households. Migrations into major sites as Tell el-Dab’a also continued as Levantines sought opportunities in the land of Egypt.

As such, the rise of the Hyksos can no longer be seen as an invasion by an ‘obscure race.’ There was no invasion; rather, people gradually and peacefully entered Egypt throughout the Middle Kingdom. By the end of the Thirteenth Dynasty, native Egyptian administration had weakened, control over the Delta was lost and Egypt became fragmented. In turn, this allowed Tell el-Dab’a’s increasingly rich and powerful lords to become independent, establishing the Fifteenth Dynasty. As they provided prosperity and security, the population of their capital increased, the settlement expanded, and additional sites in the Delta were developed, their inhabitants also bearing mixed Egyptian-Levantine traits. The Hyksos became a formidable force in the Mediterranean, managing both local and regional trade across land and sea.

It is, therefore, no surprise that such a force would come into conflict with other emerging powers in the fragmented land of Egypt, particularly one in the south at Thebes. Ultimately the Thebans were victorious, their succeeding rulers misrepresenting the defeated enemy. The Levantine-influenced Hyksos as well as their ‘Asiatic’ people became the scorn of Egypt: the first ‘foreigners’ in Egyptian memory to rule their land, and the first to evidently do so with the support of both locals and foreigners. Despite attempts to cloud their reign, archaeological and historical inquiry will continue to illuminate the true nature of the Fifteenth Dynasty and its cross-cultural attributes, enhancing our knowledge of Egyptian-Levantine affairs, and strengthening our understanding of the Hyksos.


Ancient Mayan Superhighways Found in the Guatemala Jungle

Ancient Mayan Superhighways Found in the Guatemala Jungle – Seeker

An ancient network of roads that stretched over 150 miles has been discovered in the jungle of Guatemala, according to high-tech scanning carried out in the area.

Used by the Maya for travel and transporting goods, the causeways were identified in the Mirador Basin, which lies in the far northern Petén region of Guatemala, within the largest tract of virgin tropical forest remaining in Central America.

Also known as the Kan Kingdom, El Mirador is considered the cradle of Mayan civilization. Prior to its abandonment in 150 A.D., it was the largest city-state in the world both in size — 833 square miles — and population. It boasted the largest known pyramid in Central America, and was home to at least one million people.

Researchers have known about the presence of these roads since 1967, when British Mayanist Ian Graham published a map of Mirador showing causeways crossing the swamp regions. Now laser-based remote sensing has been used to map the area, providing new insights into the massive system of superhighways.

The Light Detection and Ranging tool, known as LiDAR, is capable of penetrating the thick jungle vegetation at a rate of 560,000 dots per second, producing detailed images that mimic a 3-D view of the scanned areas.

“LiDAR uses laser pulses that bounce from the Earth’s surface through leaves and back to a computer mounted in a plane,” said Arlen Chase, an archaeologist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who is working on the project. “While most people felt the technology would not be successful based on past experiments in Central America, we became convinced by 2006 that it could be used to determine what was on the ground in terms of Maya sites under the jungle canopy.”

Researchers with the Mirador Basin Project, which is led by archaeologist and anthropologist Richard D. Hansen of the University of Utah, have so far scanned and analyzed more than 430 square miles of the basin.

“The results were beyond our wildest expectations,” Chase said.

LiDAR-derived images accurately portrayed structures, agricultural terraces, pyramids, canals, corrals and a network of 17 roads.

Hansen, who has been excavating causeways since 1990, has found detailed evidence of the roads’ construction, destinations and locations.

“With the LiDAR technology, we have been able to investigate the incredible size and complexity of these causeways,” he said, revealing that the Maya rivaled the ancient Romans in road construction skills.

LiDAR was capable of penetrating thick jungle vegetation at the northern Guatemalan regions where the roads were detected. Credit: FARES 2016“These causeways are 130 feet wide, up to 20 feet high and in some cases they extend as far as 25 miles,” Hansen said.

The first building of the causeway between Mirador and Tindall and Mirador and Nakbe dates to 600 and 400 B.C., while other causeways date from 300 BC to 100 A.D.

“The creation of these causeways allowed unification of what appears to be the first state-level society in the Western Hemisphere,” Hansen added.

According to Hansen and colleagues, the sophisticated system of corrals, or animal pens, that was identified through the LIDAR scans may have been established first by the inhabitants of Mirador.

This would suggest that meat production in the Mirador Basin existed at an industrial level, with transportation relying on the superhighways.

“The causeways allowed transport of food, materials, tribute, rulers, armies and all the trappings of political, economic and social complexity,” Hansen explained. “The system is similar to the autobahn system in Germany, or the freeway system in the U.S., and allows unification, homogeneity of society and permits the administration of centralized government.”

LiDAR image showing features and causeways within the Guatemalan forest. Credit: FARES 2016.The discovery of the ancient network of roads will provide the Cuenca Mirador researchers with more Maya sites to investigate. Hansen and his colleagues believe the new findings may help to understand why the Mirador Basin civilization declined after 150 A.D.

The collapse is being investigated by a variety of researchers from 34 universities and institutions from around the world.

The Mirador Basin is currently being considered for protection by the Congress of the Republic of Guatemala as a wilderness area. The site lies in the heart of the Maya Biosphere Reserve, which is considered one of the environmental and cultural lungs of the Americas.

The Parables of Jesus

Jesus’ parables were among the earliest of his sayings to be collected. One collection of parables formed the basis of the fourth chapter of the Gospel of Mark. The author of the Gospel of Matthew then used this Markan material and added more parables from other sources, thus assembling in a unified speech in chapter 13 seven parables: the parables of the Sower (Matthew 13:1–9), the Tares (13:24–30), the Mustard Seed (13:31–32), the Leaven (13:33), the Hidden Treasure (13:44), the Pearl of Great Price (13:45–46), and the Drag-net (13:47–50). Most of these parables will be read this summer from church lectionaries, which provide biblical passages to be read during Sunday services.

By the time these parables were written down, they had gone through a long period of use by Christian churches, sometimes significantly altering their original meaning. That is most evident in the Parable of the Sower, to which already Mark (4:13–20 = Matthew 13:18–23) had added an allegorical interpretation in which each feature of the parable is given a special meaning. In the Parable of the Sower, the allegorical interpretation understands the different types of earth on which the seed falls as four types of people who receive the word of God: (1) those from whom Satan is able to snatch the word, (2) those who receive it at first joyfully but then lose faith in times of persecution, (3) those in whom the word cannot grow because they are deceived by wealth, and (4) those in whom the word takes root and grows and brings fruit 30-, 60-, 100-fold.

Such an understanding is fundamentally different from the original meaning of Jesus’ words. As Jesus told the parable, it was much shorter, more like the brief version found in the recently discovered non-canonical Gospel of Thomas (#9):

Now the sower went out and took a handful of seeds and scattered them. Some fell on the road; the birds come and gathered them. Others fell on rock, and did not take root in the soil and did not produce ears. And others fell on thorns; they choked the seed and worms ate them. And others fell on good soil and it produced good fruit; it bore 60 per measure and 120 per measure.

In this form, the parable focuses only on the seed that fell on good soil and brought unbelievably rich fruit, while the seeds that were wasted and produced nothing are mentioned only for the sake of contrast. This is what the kingdom of God is like: Although much of the seed is lost, and although the sower is rather careless throwing so many seeds on the road, on rock and under the thorns, the results are nevertheless rich beyond belief. Thus Jesus originally illustrated God’s power to do miracles. The point of this parable was therefore analogous to the parables of the Mustard Seed and the Leaven.

The Parable of the Tares (Matthew 13:24–30) also received a secondary allegorical interpretation in Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 13:36–43): the “sower of the good seed” is the Son of Man, the “field” is the world, “the good seeds” are the sons of the kingdom, “the bad seeds” are the sons of the evil one, the “enemy” is the devil and the final burning after the harvest is the last judgment. However, the parable originally did not speak of wheat and weeds and burning with hidden meanings. Rather, it told a simple story about a farmer who had sown good-quality seed in his field and had the patience to wait, as a wise farmer would, in spite of all the weeds growing up together with the wheat. Jesus thus admonished his hearers to be patient and trusting and not to be alarmed if they see so much evil in the world.

Matthew’s tendency to understand parables as allegories with hidden meanings is finally all too evident in his interpretation of the Parable of the Drag-Net. In its original form the parable spoke about the wisdom of selecting that which is good. As the parable is told in the Gospel of Thomas (#8), it is still clear that it wants to illustrate wisdom:

The man is like a wise fisherman who cast his net into the sea and drew it up from the sea full of small fish. Among them the wise fisherman found a fine large fish. He threw all the small fish back into the sea and chose the large fish without difficulty.


One of the most famous parables of Jesus is the Good Samaritan parable, yet it is frequently misunderstood. Read “Understanding the Good Samaritan Parable” in Bible History Daily.

Matthew 13:49–50 on the other hand, changed the conclusion so that it pointed to the Final Judgment: “So it will be at the close of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous, and throw them into the furnace of fire.”

As the parables were told originally by Jesus, they were addressed to all people and could be understood by all. They did not communicate a hidden meaning that only the initiated insider could discover through complicated allegorical interpretation. Scholars have come to recognize that the allegorical meanings were added to the parables at a later stage of transmission. By the time the parables appear in the canonical Gospels, they were thought to be understandable only to those who have received “the mystery [or mysteries] of the kingdom,” and that they conceal their true message so outsiders would not be able to comprehend them (Matthew 13:10–15 = Mark 4:10–12). The church, characterizing the parables as secret teaching, claimed them as a peculiar Christian doctrine and used them to explain experiences in the life of Christian communities. Christians wanted to know why so many people were losing their faith during persecution (“the word had not taken root in their soul,” Matthew 13:21), why others could not develop their faith to bear fruit (“wealth had deceived them,” Matthew 13:22) and whether evil-doers would eventually be punished (“at the end of the age, they will be thrown into the eternal fire,” Matthew 13:42, 50). However, the original parables are still preserved and their message can still be heard: They speak of patience, wisdom and trust in God’s power.


Helmut Koester was the John H. Morison Research Professor of Divinity and Winn Research Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Harvard Divinity School, where he had taught since 1958. His research was primarily in the areas of New Testament interpretation, history of early Christianity, and archaeology of the early Christian period. He passed away on January 1, 2016.

Neolithic Man’s Face Reconstructed

LONDON, ENGLAND—The face of a man who lived 9,500 years ago in Jericho, near the Jordan River in the West Bank, has been reconstructed based on a scan of his skull, according to a report from Seeker. The “Jericho Skull” is one of seven discovered by archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon in 1953 and is now housed at the British Museum. It consists of a face modeled in plaster over a man’s skull. “He was certainly a mature individual when he died, but we cannot say exactly why his skull, or for that matter the other skulls that were buried alongside him, were chosen to be plastered,” says Alexandra Fletcher of the British Museum. “It may have been something these individuals achieved in life that led to them being remembered after death.” The 3-D reconstruction of the man’s face was produced using a micro-CT scan of the skull, which detected the structure of his face bones. The scan revealed that the man had broken and decayed teeth and a healed broken nose, and that his head had been bound from a young age to alter the shape of his skull, which suggests that he had elite status.Jericho skull facial reconstruction

Does the Gospel of Mark Reveal Jesus’ Anger or His Compassion?


Codex Bezae

In the fifth-century C.E. Codex Bezae, an early edition of the New Testament written in Greek, the Gospel of Mark describes Jesus’ anger before healing a leper (Mark 1:41). While later scribes changed Jesus’ anger to compassion, it is likely that Codex Bezae preserves the original reading. Image: Cambridge University Library/ff.288v & 289r from Nn.2.41.

Textual variants among ancient manuscripts aren’t usually as controversial as chapter 1, verse 41 of the Gospel of Mark. Sometimes one scribe spelled a word differently on his manuscript, while another might have accidentally skipped or repeated some of the text he was copying. These cases are minor variants and don’t really change the meaning of the text. Other times, however, scribes added to or even changed text to clarify a passage or suit the theological preferences of their communities. That’s when things get interesting, and this passage in the Gospel of Mark offers an especially intriguing example.

In Mark 1:41, a leper has approached Jesus seeking to be healed. Most Greek manuscripts (the New Testament was originally written in Greek), as well as later translations, say that Jesus was moved with compassion and healed the man. A few manuscripts, however, say that Jesus’ anger was kindled before he healed him. So did the verse mean to convey Jesus’ anger or his compassion? If this were a popularity contest, the “compassion” reading would surely win. In 1998, the authoritative book Text und Textwert recorded only two Greek manuscripts (and a few early Latin ones) that contained the reading expressing Jesus’ anger. But, as Dr. Jeff Cate announced in The Folio,* the bulletin of the Ancient Biblical Manuscript Center at the Claremont School of Theology, close examination of one of those two Greek manuscripts has shown that it does not contain the word for either anger or compassion. Just as Matthew and Luke did when retelling Mark’s story in their gospels (cf. Matthew 8:2–4; Luke 5:12–16), the scribe of this Markan manuscript simply left it out.

This now leaves the other Greek manuscript, the fifth-century C.E. Codex Bezae, as the sole Greek witness to the reading expressing Jesus’ “anger.” Much like the cheese in “The Farmer in the Dell,” Codex Bezae stands alone.


Mark composes his account of the life of Jesus in this scene from a 12th-century manuscript from Constantinople.

But most interesting of all, the Codex Bezae may in fact have the better (i.e., original) reading. As New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman pointed out in a 2005 article in Bible Review, “one factor in favor of the ‘angry’ reading is that it sounds wrong.”**It is much easier to believe that early scribes were troubled by Jesus’ anger and changed it to his feeling compassion, rather than the other way around. Later scribes also would have preferred the easier “compassion” reading and copied it until it became the more popular reading. (As Ehrman explains, there are other passages in the Gospel of Mark that seem to support the reading conveying Jesus’ anger.) Thus does Codex Bezae now stand as a lonely witness to what is very likely the original Greek text of Mark 1:41.

Create a free website or blog at

Up ↑