Do not leave the path

Gospel of John Commentary: Who Wrote the Gospel of John and How Historical Is It?

Gospel of John Commentary: Who Wrote the Gospel of John and How Historical is It?

The Gospels, the first four books of the New Testament, tell the story of the life of Jesus. Yet only one—the Gospel of John—claims to be an eyewitness account, the testimony of the unnamed “disciple whom Jesus loved.” (“This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and wrote these things, and we know that his testimony is true” [John 21:24]). “Who wrote the Gospel of John?” is a question that remains unanswered, though noted theologians throughout the ages maintain that it was indeed the disciple John who penned the famous Biblical book.

Gospel of John commentary is easy to find—some of the most famous theologians in history have closely examined the text and underscored its importance from as early as the beginning of the third century. It is believed that Origen, an Alexandrian Christian scholar and theologian, wrote his Gospel of John commentary while in Alexandria at some point after 218 A.D. St. Augustine—a famous fourth century church father—contributed no fewer than 124 tractates in his Gospel of John commentary, while St. Thomas’s Gospel of John commentary of the 13th century is still highly regarded today by modern scholars.

We may never know for certain who wrote the Gospel of John, any more than we can know who wrote the books of Matthew, Mark and Luke. We do know that John is a gospel apart, however. Early Matthew, Mark and Luke are so alike in their telling that they are called the Synoptic Gospels, meaning “seen together”—the parallels are clear when they are looked at side by side. Matthew and Luke follow the version of events in Mark, which is thought by scholars to be the earliest and most historically accurate Gospel. John, however, does not include the same incidents or chronology found in the other three Gospels, and the fact that it is so different has spurred a debate over whether John’s Gospel is historical or not, something that has been noted in Gospel of John commentary for hundreds—even thousands—of years.

Several hypotheses have attempted to explain why so much of Jesus’ life not portrayed in the Synoptics is present in John and vice versa. One hypothesis claims that John recorded many of the events that occurred before the arrest of John the Baptist, while the Synoptics all have Jesus’ ministry beginning only after the arrest. Another holds that John was written last, by someone who knew about the other three Gospels, but who wished to write a spiritual gospel instead of an historical one. This would mean that the person who wrote the Gospel of John would not have been a contemporary of Jesus, and therefore would not have been an eyewitness as the author claims. There is also the possibility that the author of John did not know of Mark and hence did not have the same information.

One of the facts in dispute among the four Gospels is the length of Jesus’ ministry. According to the Synoptics, it lasted only about a year, while John has Jesus ministering between two and three years. The Jesus of John’s telling also knew Jerusalem well and had traveled there three or four times. The Synoptics, however, have Jesus visit Jerusalem only once. In John, Jesus had friends near Jerusalem, including Mary, Martha and Lazarus of the town of Bethany, which is just outside of the city on the east slope of the Mount of Olives.

The author of John also knew Jerusalem well, as is evident from the geographic and place name information throughout the book. He mentions, among others, the Sheep Gate Pool (Bethesda), the Siloam Pool and Jacob’s Well. The geographic specificity lends credence to the John’s account.

Another aspect of John that may be more historically accurate than the Synoptics is the account of the crucifixion and the events that led up to it. The Synoptics say that Jesus’ Last Supper was the Passover meal—held that year on a Thursday evening (Jewish holidays begin at sunset)—and they would have us believe that the Sanhedrin, the high court, gathered at the beginning of a major holiday to interrogate Jesus and hand him over to the Romans. John, in contrast, has Jesus handed over for crucifixion on “the day of Preparation of Passover week, about the sixth hour.” According to John, the Last Supper is not a Passover meal (because the holiday that year did not start until Friday evening), and Jesus is crucified and buried before Passover begins. In John’s account Jesus becomes the Passover sacrificial lamb, which was offered the afternoon before the Passover holiday. Some scholars suggest that John may be more historical regarding the crucifixion than the other three Gospels.

Given John’s familiarity with Jerusalem and its environs, it is very possible that he had visited the Pool of Siloam, which he mentions in connection with the story of the curing of the blind man (a story that appears only in John’s Gospel). It is that pool that has only recently been uncovered.

What’s Missing from Codex Sinaiticus, the Oldest New Testament?

Compare differences between the King James Version and Codex Sinaiticus

Two hundred years after Constantine Tischendorf’s birth, questions remain as to the conditions of his removal of Codex Sinaiticus from St. Catherine’s Monastery. Dating to the mid-fourth century C.E., Codex Sinaiticus is the oldest complete manuscript of the New Testament. In his article “Hero or Thief? Constantine Tischendorf Turns Two Hundred” in the September/October 2015 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Stanley E. Porter contends that Tischendorf should be considered a hero, not a thief.



The text of Codex Sinaiticus differs in numerous instances from that of the authorized version of the Bible in use during Tischendorf’s time. For example, the resurrection narrative at the end of Mark (16:9–20) is absent from the Codex Sinaiticus. So is the conclusion of the Lord’s Prayer: “For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen” (Matthew 6:13). The woman caught in adultery from John 8 is omitted in Codex Sinaiticus. According to James Bentley, Tischendorf was not troubled by the omission of the resurrection in Mark because he believed that Matthew was written first and that Mark’s gospel was an abridged version of Matthew’s gospel. If this were true, the absence of resurrection in Mark would not be a problem because it appears in the older Matthean gospel. Modern scholarship generally holds that Mark is in fact the oldest of the Synoptic Gospels, which could cause theological concerns over the omitted resurrection.

One other omission in Codex Sinaiticus with theological implications is the reference to Jesus’ ascension in Luke 24:51. Additionally, Mark 1:1 in the original hand omits reference to Jesus as the Son of God.

Below, see a visual comparison of these and other differences between the King James Version and Codex Sinaiticus.

The Markan Resurrection (Mark 16: 1–14)

King James Version
1 “And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary themother of James, and Salome, had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him.
2 And very early in the morning the first day of the week, they came unto the sepulchre at the rising of the sun.
3 And they said among themselves, Who shall roll us away the stone from the door of the sepulchre?
4 And when they looked, they saw that the stone was rolled away: for it was very great.
5 And entering into the sepulchre, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a long white garment; and they were affrighted.
6 And he saith unto them, Be not affrighted: Ye seek Jesus of Nazareth, which was crucified: he is risen; he is not here: behold the place where they laid him.
7 But go your way, tell his disciples and Peter that he goeth before you into Galilee: there shall ye see him, as he said unto you.
8 And they went out quickly, and fled from the sepulchre; for they trembled and were amazed: neither said they any thing to anyman; for they were afraid.
9 Now when Jesus was risen early the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had cast seven devils.
10 And she went and told them that had been with him, as they mourned and wept.
11 And they, when they had heard that he was alive, and had been seen of her, believed not.
12 After that he appeared in another form unto two of them, as they walked, and went into the country.
13 And they went and told it unto the residue: neither believed they them.
14 Afterward he appeared unto the eleven as they sat at meat, and upbraided them with their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they believed not them which had seen him after he was risen.
15 And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.
16 He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.
17 And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues;
18 They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.
19 So then after the Lord had spoken unto them, he was received up into heaven, and sat on the right hand of God.
20 And they went forth, and preached every where, the Lord working with them, and confirming the word with signs following. Amen.
Codex Sinaiticus
1 “And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him.
2 And very early in the morning the first day of the week, they came unto the sepulchre at the rising of the sun.
3 And they said among themselves, Who shall roll us away the stone from the door of the sepulchre?
4 And when they looked, they saw that the stone was rolled away: for it was very great.
5 And entering into the sepulchre, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a long white garment; and they were affrighted.
6 And he saith unto them, Be not affrighted: Ye seek Jesus of Nazareth, which was crucified: he is risen; he is not here: behold the place where they laid him.
7 But go your way, tell his disciples and Peter that he goeth before you into Galilee: there shall ye see him, as he said unto you.
8 And they went out quickly, and fled from the sepulchre; for they trembled and were amazed: neither said they any thing to anyman; for they were afraid.


The Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9–13)

King James Version
9 Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.
10 Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.
Codex Sinaiticus
Hallowed be thy name,Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done, as in heaven, so upon earth.

Give us day by day our daily bread

And forgive us our sins, as we ourselves also forgive every one that is indebted to us.

And bring us not into temptation.


The woman caught in adultery (John 8: 3–11)

King James Version
3 And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst,
4 They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act.
5 Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?
6 This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not.
7 So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.
8 And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground.
9 And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.
10 When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee?
11 She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.
Codex Sinaiticus
Completely absent.


Significant omitted verses

King James Version
Luke 24:51: “And it came to pass, while he blessed them, he was parted from them, and carried up into heaven.”Mark 1:1: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God;”

Luke 9:55–56: “But he turned, and rebuked them, and said, Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of. For the Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them. And they went to another village.”

Codex Sinaiticus
Omits “carried up into heaven.” Leaving no ascension in the Gospels.

Omits “the Son of God.”

Not present.



Alterations perhaps due to later theological beliefs

King James Version
Mark 1:41: “And Jesus, moved with compassion, put forth his hand, and touched him, and saith unto him, I will; be thou clean.”Matthew 24:36: “But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only.”

Codex Sinaiticus
“Jesus, angry, stretched out his hand and touched him…”

“But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, neither the Son, but the Father only.”


The Animals Went in Two by Two, According to Babylonian Ark Tablet

We all know the story of Noah’s Ark. Ever since George Smith’s 1872 translation of Babylonian texts similar to the Biblical Deluge (see “George Smith’s Other Find” below), we’ve also known about echoes of the Genesis narrative in pre-Biblical Mesopotamian texts. A recently translated Old Babylonian (c. 1900–1700 B.C.E.) tablet has literally reshaped our vision of the Babylonian vessel used to weather the storm and builds bridges across the floodwaters dividing the Biblical and Mesopotamian accounts of the flood.

The Babylonian Flood Tradition

Babylonain flood traditions have been familiar material for BAR readers since the early days of our magazine. Tikva Frymer-Kensky’s 1978 feature “What the Babylonian Flood Stories Can and Cannot Teach Us About the Genesis Flood” introduced the Sumerian Flood Story, the eleventh tablet of the Gilgamesh Epic and the Atrahasis Epic:

The Babylonian flood stories contain many details which also occur in the flood story in Genesis. Such details in the story as the building of an ark, the placing of animals in the ark, the landing of the ark on a mountain, and the sending forth of birds to see whether the waters had receded indicate quite clearly that the Genesis flood story is intimately related to the Babylonian flood stories and is indeed part of the same “flood” tradition. However, while there are great similarities between the Biblical and Babylonian flood stories, there are also very fundamental differences, and it is just as important that we focus on these fundamental differences as on the similarities.


The Babylonian accounts differ from each other. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the god Enki tasks Utnapishtim to save the world from the flood, and for his good deed, he is granted immortality (and subsequently, Gilgamesh’s envy). Later discoveries revealed that the account was an abridged and modified version of the Akkadian Atrahasis epic, a similar flood myth that was copied and adapted for centuries in the ancient Near East. Memories of an antediluvian (pre-flood) period were preserved throughout Mesopotamia: The Sumerian king list includes antediluvian kings, and reliefs of antediluvian sages known as apkallu figures (winged genies) lined the walls of Assyrian palaces and remain one of the most iconic forms of Mesopotamian art to this day.

How to Build an Ark

With such a well-documented Mesopotamian flood tradition, why is this newly translated cuneiform tablet making waves in our understanding of the Babylonian flood myth? The so-called “Ark Tablet”—a cell-phone sized piece of clay inscribed on both sides—is essentially an ark builder’s how-to guide, according to its translator, British Museum scholar Irving Finkel. Enki gives Atrahasis instructions on how to build an ark, but the resulting boat isn’t what you’d expect. According to Irving Finkel, this boat was round. In an article in The Telegraph, Finkel writes:

The most remarkable feature provided by the Ark Tablet is that the lifeboat built by Atra-hasıs— the Noah-like hero who receives his instructions from the god Enki—was definitely, unambiguously round. “Draw out the boat that you will make,” he is instructed, “on a circular plan.”

The text describes the construction of a coracle or gufa, a traditional basket-like boat that would have been familiar to Mesopotamian audiences. Of course, this is no average coracle—Atrahasis is to build a boat with a diameter of close to 230 feet across and 20-foot-high walls. The boat is made out of a massive quantity of palm-fiber rope, sealed with bitumen. This isn’t exactly the same ark that Noah built—or Utnapishtim, for that matter:

Epic of Gilgamesh Tablet XI, 54-65On the fifth day I laid out her exterior. It was a field in area, its walls were each 10 times 12 cubits in height, the sides of its top were of equal length, 10 times It cubits each. I laid out its (interior) structure and drew a picture of it (?). I provided it with six decks, thus dividing it into seven (levels). The inside of it I divided into nine (compartments). I drove plugs (to keep out) water in its middle part. I saw to the punting poles and laid in what was necessary. Three times 3,600 (units) of raw bitumen I poured into the bitumen kiln, three times 3,600 (units of) pitch …into it… Genesis 6:14-15Make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch. This is how you are to make it: the length of the ark three hundred cubits, its width fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits. Make a roof for the ark, and finish it to a cubit above; and put the door of the ark in its side; make it with lower, second, and third decks.


The Animals Went in Two by Two

At first glance, it would seem that the Ark Tablet, while extremely descriptive in its instructions—it features twenty lines just describing the waterproofing of the vessel—is describing an ark narrative that differs more from Noah’s than its other Babylonian counterparts. However,according to his Telegraph article, Finkel was shocked by the rare cuneiform signs sana in the passage describing the animals on the boat. Sanais listed in the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary as “Two each, two by two.” Compare this with the Biblical text:

And of every living thing, of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female. Of the birds according to their kinds, and of the animals according to their kinds, of every creeping thing of the ground according to its kind, two of every kind shall come in to you, to keep them alive.”

The cuneiform wedges were pressed into Babylonian Ark Tablet a full millennium before the Genesis narrative was written down, but the two bear a strong thematic resemblance in their treatment of the animals. However, this tablet describes how to build an ark, and the resulting vessel couldn’t be much more different from the Biblical boat. Would a round gufa-style boat weather the Deluge? Irving Finkel points out that a pointed ship may be easier to sail to a particular destination, but Atrahasis’s ark had nowhere to go—it merely needed to support its human and animal occupants for the duration of the flood. He toldThe Guardian:

In all the images ever made people assumed the ark was, in effect, an ocean-going boat, with a pointed stem and stern for riding the waves – so that is how they portrayed it. But the ark didn’t have to go anywhere, it just had to float, and the instructions are for a type of craft which they knew very well. It’s still sometimes used in Iran and Iraq today, a type of round coracle which they would have known exactly how to use to transport animals across a river or floods.

George Smith’s Other Find: The Babylonian Flood Tablet

Originally published as the sidebar to “The Genesis of Genesis” by Victor Hurowitz in Bible Review‘s anniversary issue. Click here to read the full article in the BAS Library.

In 1866, George Smith, a British bank-note engraver, wrote a letter to the famed Assyriologist Sir Henry Rawlinson, asking if he might have a look at the fragments and casts of Assyrian inscriptions in the back rooms of the British Museum. Rawlinson agreed—thus initiating what would become an unusually fruitful friendship between an eager amateur and the man who had deciphered cuneiform.

Smith so impressed Rawlinson that the latter hired him in 1867 to help catalogue the museum’s cuneiform inscriptions, including those excavated by Austen Henry Layard at Kyunjik (ancient Nineveh) in the 1840s and 1850s.

In the accompanying article, Victor Hurowitz describes one of Smith’s most significant discoveries: the Babylonian poem Enūma Eliš. But Smith’s most famous “find” in the British Museum store rooms was undoubtedly the Epic of Gilgamesh, with its dramatic account of a Great Deluge that threatened to wipe out humankind.

In his popular book The Chaldean Account of Genesis, Smith described the discovery: “I soon found half of a curious tablet which had evidently contained originally six columns of text; two of these (the third and fourth) were still nearly perfect; two others (the second and fifth) were imperfect, about half remaining, while the remaining columns (the first and sixth) were entirely lost. On looking down the third column, my eye caught the statement that the ship rested on the mountains of Nizir, followed by the account of the sending forth of the dove, and its finding no resting-place and returning. I saw at once that I had here discovered a portion at least of the Chaldean [Babylonian] account of the Deluge.”

According to a later source, Smith then “jumped up and rushed about the room in a great state of excitement, and, to the astonishment of those present, began to undress himself.” The British Museum has dubbed Smith’s Tablet 11, shown, “the most famous cuneiform tablet from Mesopotamia.”

After he calmed down, Smith scoured the museum’s holdings for further fragments, and soon found that his Flood tablet was the 11th tablet in a 12-tablet epic poem. On December 3, 1872, he presented his findings to the newly founded British Society of Biblical Archaeology and speculated that more of these tablet fragments remained buried in the sands of Nineveh.

Soon after, Edwin Arnold, owner of London’s Daily Telegraph, proposed that his paper sponsor renewed excavations at Nineveh, with Smith at the helm. Smith, and the museum, agreed.

Smith later wrote, “Soon after I commenced excavating at Kouyunjik, on the site of the palace of Assurbanipal, I found a new fragment of the Chaldean account of the Deluge belonging to the first column of the tablet, relating the command to build and fill an ark, and nearly filling up the most considerable blank in the story.”

The copies of the Gilgamesh Epic discovered by Layard and Smith came from the world-class library of the Assyrian king Assurbanipal (668–627 B.C.E.). The tales of Gilgamesh, the bold warrior-king of Uruk, are much older, however; many of them date back to the Sumerian period (third millennium B.C.E.). In the Old Babylonian Period (early second millennium B.C.E.), the various adventures of Gilgamesh were strung together in a cohesive narrative, which was rewritten many times. By the 12th century B.C.E., an 11-tablet version of the epic had emerged. In the eighth century B.C.E., a 12th tablet describing the death of Gilgamesh was added to the series.

The Flood story does not number among the original Sumerian tales of Gilgamesh. Rather, it was inserted into the narrative in about the 12th century, and thus appears only in the 11- and 12-tablet versions of the tale (called the Standard Babylonian versions).

According to the tale, after the death of his beloved friend Enkidu, a disconsolate Gilgamesh searches for ways to live forever. His quest leads him, on Tablet 11, to the immortal Utnapishtim—often referred to as the Mesopotamian Noah, because he saved his family from a devastating worldwide Flood. Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh that he, too, was once a mere a mortal and a king, of Shuruppak-on-the-Euphrates. In his day, five of the gods plotted to send a Flood to destroy humankind. One of the gods, Ea, surreptitiously informed the king, whispering, “Quickly, quickly tear down your house and build a great ship, leave your possessions, save your life … Then gather and take aboard the ship examples of every living creature.” Utnapishtim finishes the ship and loads his family and animals just in time: “Ninurta opened the floodgates of heaven, the infernal gods blazed and set the whole land on fire. A deadly silence spread through the sky and what had been bright now turned to darkness. The land was shattered like a clay pot. All day, ceaselessly, the storm winds blew, the rain fell, then the flood burst forth, overwhelming the people like war … For six days and seven nights, the storm demolished the earth. On the seventh day, the downpour stopped. The ocean grew calm. The land could be seen, just water on all sides, as flat as a roof. There was no life at all.” The boat runs aground on Mount Nimush. Utnapishtim sends out a dove, which flies right back, having failed to find land; he sends a swallow with similar results. Finally, he sends a raven, which never returns. The waters have begun to recede.

The gods convene and offer Utnapishtim and his family immortality. Having heard this tale, Gilgamesh recognizes he has little chance of being offered the same, and he returns home to Uruk to die.—Molly Dewsnap Meinhardt

Passages from Gilgamesh come from Stephen Mitchell’s new translation Gilgamesh: A New English Version (New York: Free Press, 2004).

How Bad Was the Babylonian Exile?

Biblical Archaeology Society Staff   •  09/22/2016

“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat, sat and wept, as we thought of Zion.”
—Psalm 137:1 [JPS]

The Babylonian Exile that resulted from King Nebuchadnezzar’s sixth-century B.C.E. capture of Jerusalem has traditionally been portrayed with the Judahites lamenting their circumstances. But the textual remains left by the Babylonians and even some Judahites may reveal an entirely different story.


The Babylonian Exile began in 597 B.C.E. with the deportation of Judahite king Jehoiachin, his family, skilled craftsmen, warriors and 10,000 additional captives (2 Kings 24:12–16). Two more deportations took place: one in 586 B.C.E., when Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed, and another in 582 B.C.E. Jeremiah 52:28–30 claims that a total of 4,600 Judahites were displaced in the Babylonian Exile. Psalm 137:1–2 poetically recounts the feelings of the deported Judahites: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat, sat and wept, as we thought of Zion. There on the poplars we hung up our lyres.”

University of California, Berkeley, Lecturer in Akkadian Laurie E. Pearce explores the evidence in her article “How Bad Was the Babylonian Exile?” in the September/October 2016 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review. According to Pearce, despite the melancholic tone of Psalm 137, life in Babylon was actually pretty good for many of the Judahite deportees.

According to the Bible, notes Laurie E. Pearce, King Jehoiachin was given special treatment—even over other imprisoned kings (2 Kings 25:30; Jeremiah 52:31–34). Moreover, cuneiform ration lists discovered in Nebuchadnezzar’s South Palace in Babylon show that captive kings and high officials received monthly rations of grain and oil.

The lives of non-royal Judahites, too, are preserved in Babylonian records. Texts from Nippur contain the names of Judahites who served as witnesses in land contracts. The Judahite identity of the witnesses is revealed by their Yahwistic names—names formed from the Israelite divine name YHWH. The texts record the business activities of a family whose patriarch was an entrepreneur named Murašû. Since witnesses to contracts usually have the same social status as those engaged in the transaction, this would suggest, Laurie E. Pearce argues, that a number of Judahites were as successful as the Murašû family.

Records from the city of Susa (Biblical Shushan, where the book of Esther is set) reference Judahites with Yahwistic names serving as royal courtiers, and in Sippar, a few Yahwistic names appear under the designation “royal merchant.” However, the majority of Pearce’s evidence that the Babylonian Exile wasn’t so bad is focused on cuneiform texts from in and around a settlement called Judahtown (Babylonian āl-Yāḫūdu).

“These texts, along with approximately 160 texts written in nearby towns,” Pearce writes, “provide balance to the known documentation, now attesting to the lives of the lowly as well as high-born Judean and other West Semitic exiles, in rural as well as the previously documented urban landscapes, from the start of the Judean Exile to the time of the rebuilding of the Temple and beyond.”

The evidence reveals a diversity of experiences for the Judahite exiles, and the picture of the Judahite experience in the Babylonian Exile that emerges is perhaps not as morose as previously believed.

To learn more about the Judahite experience during the Babylonian Exile as gleaned through the Biblical and archaeological evidence, including the texts from Judahtown, read the full article “How Bad Was the Babylonian Exile?” by Laurie E. Pearce in the September/October 2016 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.


Third Gender Figures in the Ancient Near East

In the ancient Near East, there was a social standard by which men were ideally expected to behave. In the 21st century CE, expectations still exist, albeit in different forms. Normative masculinity through ancient Mesopotamiatypically concerned male-female interactions. In sexual intercourse, for example, the male was the active person and initiator, with the female as the passive recipient. Another important characteristic was that of descendants. Males, as progenitors of family lines, were expected to have virility, prowess, and strength. Naturally, then, normative masculinity afforded men important social and economic posts in cultic and government organizations. Furthermore, each characteristic of normative masculinity was performed in the public domain, rather than the domestic setting which tended to be regarded as feminine.

Alabaster Relief of an Assyrian Royal Attendant

According to a recent argument by Ilan Peled, author of Masculinities and Third Gender, men with normative masculinities attempted to maintain clear, distinguished differences between men and women by institutionalizing non-normative men as third gender figures. This allowed those of normative masculinity to define “clear social markers of rules of conduct and normative behavior patterns” (Peled, 294).


Before the kalǔ, the Sumerian gala worked as a “chanter of laments” and was not associated with any particular deity. Simply working as a professional lamenter categorized him as feminine because laments were typically performed by women. During the Old Babylonian period, the role of the gala expanded, became a synonym ofkalǔ, and was incorporated into the cult of Ishtar. The kalǔ, like the gala in the Sumerian period, was considered a singer and was in charge of many rituals related to music and song. Beyond association with cult practice, association with Ishtar reinforced the gender ambiguity of the kalǔ. In Lady of Largest Heart, a composition for Ishtar, we read a revealing characteristic about her: “Turning a male into a female and a female into a male is yours” (Sjöberg, 190). This perceived ability is important because it demonstrates how the kalǔ were institutionalized into religious practice and ritual of Ishtar in order to maintain strong social distinctions between men, women, and the third gender, characterized as ambiguous, like Ishtar.



Like the kalǔ, the assinnu may be understood as ambiguous as a result of being institutionalized into the cult of Ishtar, a gender-ambivalent deity. Throughout texts referring to the assinnu, the figure is often represented as being a passive male, at one point “listed among a group of female cultic attendants” (Peled 2016: 283). As mentioned above, the male was supposed to be sexually active while the female took on the passive role. Because of the assinnu’s passivity, he was categorized as a third gender figure.

The kurgarrǔ was often associated with the assinnu, gala, and kalǔ. In the case of the kurgarrǔ, though, he is often represented with weapons, especially daggers and swords. Some scholars consider this evidence of apparent self-mutilation or castration; yet, as Peled notes, references to actual self-mutilation never occur. Thus, according to Peled, kurgarrǔ were part of the cultic performance for Ishtar as militant and masculine. The kurgarrǔ can be considered a third gender figure due to his involvement in the cult of Ishtar and association with other third gender figures.


lύ-sag and ša rēši are synonymous terms for the same figure: a palace attendant typically in charge of women’s quarters within a palace. They were permitted to do so because they were castrated and eunuchs. Attestation of this figure as castrated is only apparent, though, in the Middle and Neo-Assyrian periods. While they functioned in the same manner prior to these periods, evidence of castration is lacking. Somelύ-sag / ša rēši even acted as military commanders. As eunuchs, though, they maintained some masculine gender identity. For virility could still be maintained were the castration only partial. Even so, the consequences of castration meant they were not considered normative in regard to masculinity, hence their institutionalization in royal bureaucracies as military commanders or people in charge of women’s quarters.


Unfortunately, there is not enough textual evidence to provide a complete image of third gender figures. However, a few others may be worth mentioning: girseqû, a childless male figure within palace administration; tiru/tīru, likely a childless castrate and part of palace bureaucracy; SAG-UR-SAG, “effeminate cultic personnel similar to theassinnu… after the end of the Old Babylonian period the office of the SAG-UR-SAG ceased to exist” (Peled 2016, 267); and pilpilû, a member of the Ishtar cult with feminine traits.

Men throughout the ancient Near East were marginalized by men of normative masculinity for improper adherence to the social order. As Peled notes, ”

Members of the third gender were not excluded from mainstream society because of their peculiarity. On the contrary, they were invented and re-invented each period by hegemonic [or normative] masculine men of their own society…, social anomalies who constituted an integral part of their society. (Peled, 294)


Digital Dead Sea Scrolls Reveal New Biblical Insights

David Malamud  •  07/26/2016

Four and a half years of scans and reinterpretation of newly legible parts of the Dead Sea Scrolls have revealed intriguing insights into 2,000-year-old Biblical texts, including the idea that the roof of Noah’s Ark was pointed, reports Haaretz.

Digital Dead Sea Scrolls: The badly damaged textual fragment describing the apocalyptic struggle of Melchizedeck was barely legible before scanning (top), but once digitized, the faded ink becomes clearer (bottom). Photo: Israel Antiquities Authority.

The Israel Antiquities Authority created a laboratory, equipped with a custom camera, to scan tens of thousands of Dead Sea Scroll fragments and complete the Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library project. Researchers photographed each fragment 28 times in high resolution, employing different wavelengths of light. This technique allowed erased or burned fragments to be readable. The historical dictionary department of the Academy of the Hebrew Language read and reinterpreted these texts and presented their findings at a Dead Sea Scroll conference held at the academy.

In a passage describing Noah’s ark, the once-illegible word following “the ark’s tallness” can now be read as ne’esefet, or “gathered,” and describes the ark’s pointed roof, according to researcher Dr. Alexey Yuditsky. Yuditsky cited other sources as evidence, including a similar Greek verb in the Septuagint (the earliest ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible). Maimonides, the famous medieval Jewish commentator, also suggested the ark had a pointed roof, a claim now supported by the team’s discovery.

Interested in the history and meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls? In the free eBook , learn what the Dead Sea Scrolls are and why are they important. Find out what they tell us about the Bible, Christianity and Judaism.

Yuditsky and fellow researcher Dr. Esther Haber deciphered an apocalyptic text that depicts a mythical hero, Melchizedek, triumphing over an enemy, Belial, by freeing “captives.” Researcher Chanan Ariel argues that these captives were forgiven of their sins because of the sabbatical—or shmita—year, thus suggesting that monetary debt could replace sin. This view is similar to the medieval Catholic Church and its use of pardons—and antithetical to Judaism—but the researchers do not know if the practice as recorded on the scroll was the inspiration for the Catholic Church.

Furthermore, after centuries of debate, the researchers discovered what the ptil was that Judah gave to his daughter-in-law Tamar, who was disguised as a prostitute, to guarantee his payment (Genesis 38). Two fragments, once reunited, explained that the “ptil is his belt.”

Exciting new interpretations may continue to be released as the researchers work to scan and interpret the last 20 percent of the scrolls. Who knows what the laboratory and academy will shed light on next?
David Malamud is an intern at the Biblical Archaeology Society.

Alexander in the East




Alexander the Great never reached his goal of conquering all the inhabited earth. This was simply beyond his army’s endurance. But he did get as far east as ancient Bactria, in modern Afghanistan. More than two thousand years later, archaeologists have begun to recover evidence of Greek settlers Alexander left behind at a village called Ai Khanoum. Unfortunately, much of what remains in this remote area of war-torn Afghanistan is being looted from the site and plundered from museums. The tale is nonetheless heroic, even if it ends in tragedy.

History, it is said, is a huge mirror, a reflection of who we were and are. If so, archaeology is the painstaking recovery of pieces of that fragile looking glass, and the life of Alexander the Great (356–323 B.C.) represents but a tiny sherd of that mirror.1

Archaeologists have turned up Alexander’s traces in Egyptian temples, Apulian vases, Etruscan reliefs, Pompeian mosaics, Gandharan sculptures and medieval medallions—as well as in a village in Afghanistan. Perhaps someday they will “unearth” his image from the remains of the opulent Alexander Suite in Donald Trump’s Taj Mahal Casino in Atlantic City.

Over and over, succeeding generations of Greek heroes, Roman imperialists, saintly medieval kings and modern totalitarian dictators have recognized reflections of their own glory in Alexander’s grand, panoramic career.2


The Alexander I see was neither a ruthless monster nor a poster-boy for world peace and brotherhood.3 He was cultured and charismatic but also cunning and cruel. He grew up in a dangerous world of war and intrigue that gave no quarter to real or imagined weakness. His native Macedonia in northern Greece embraced the old warrior code of Homer’s Iliadand Odyssey: No challenge went unanswered, no insult passed unpunished. Men fought hard, hunted recklessly and drank epically—monarchs most of all.

Macedonian kings did not order their armies into battle; they led them. Alexander, like his father Philip II, bore the conspicuous scars of brutal combat as badges of leadership. A mutilated eye, arm, collarbone and leg distinguished Philip among friends and foes. Alexander endured wounds to the head, neck, shoulder, chest, thigh, leg and ankle. Never safe, the threat of assassination also haunted these restless heads of state. Alexander witnessed the murder of his father during a royal procession in 336 B.C.; in later years, his mother, two wives and son would also be killed. Every one of Alexander’s relatives died at the hands of assassins.4

Although bred for battle, Alexander nonetheless received the finest education possible under the tutelage of the philosopher Aristotle. The young heir-apparent proved himself a devoted student of Greek culture, and as king he was a lavish patron of the arts. He built or refurbished many shrines and temples, founded cities (usually named Alexandria) and vied to outdo the deeds of his avowed ancestors, both mortal and divine: Zeus, Herakles, Achilles.

That Alexander set out to conquer Greece’s traditional enemy, the Persian Achaemenid Empire,a should come as no surprise. The conquest of Persia had been his father’s unfulfilled dream, and the promise of gold and glory fired the ambitious young king’s imagination. But the magnitude of Alexander’s successes—the swiftness and decisiveness of his victories—remains shocking even after 23 centuries.

Backed by a shaky coalition of Greek city-states, Alexander led an army of 37,000 troops against Persia in the spring of 334 B.C. He soon rocked the cradle of civilization with astonishing victories: the Battle of Granicus in 334, the Battle of Issus in 333, the Siege of Tyre in 332 and the Battle of Gaugamela in 331. In just four years, Alexander overran and occupied the rich territories of the modern Middle East, including Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq and Iran. The Persian “King of Kings,” Darius III, lay dead, his palaces plundered and his armies—which had always outnumbered Alexander’s—scattered. At the age of 26, Alexander had become the mightiest, wealthiest and most celebrated conqueror of all time.5

But he did not stop there. Although his army was anxious to return home to Greece, Alexander decided to push ever eastward toward the fringes of the then-known world. How he drove his men through the hardships to come remains a mystery of military science.

For the next three years (329–327 B.C.), Alexander’s forces struggled desperately to win control of Bactria, the harsh, inhospitable region of modern Afghanistan.6 At times, weather seemed the Greeks’ worst enemy. A lack of provisions and waist-deep snows in the Hindu Kush mountains compelled the men to eat their baggage animals raw; howling blizzards in the Pamir Mountains actually froze many Greeks where they stood or slept. In summer the burning plains of Bactria claimed more lives than any battle fought by these long-suffering troops. Dehydration and brackish water debilitated everyone, including Alexander.

Superstock, Inc. The idealized image of Alexander is captured in this Roman marble bust (compare with photo of mosaic from Pompeii’s House of the Faun).

All the while, the local peoples put up fierce resistance. First led by Bessus, a kinsman of the dead King Darius, and later more ably by one of Bessus’s generals named Spitamenes, the native populations engaged the Greeks in a new style of warfare—the hit-and-run guerrilla combat that still works so well in Afghanistan. In 328 B.C., while Greeks back home gathered to celebrate the 113th Olympic Games, Alexander’s army competed in a much grimmer contest 3,000 miles away. They stormed mountain fortresses and chased mobile insurgents all over the region. The Greek soldiers faced stern opposition, with enemies coming at them from all sides; it was like trying to put out a forest fire that kept breaking out in different areas. In an essay on Alexander, the Greek historian Plutarch (c. 46–120 A.D.) chooses a different metaphor:

But if the spirit of Alexander had not been great, had not drawn strength from virtue, had not defied Fortune, then would he not have wearied and given up marshalling and arming his troops, besieging cities, chasing down subjects in numerous revolts, desertions, and riots, pursuing faithless kings to Bactra, Maracanda, and Sogdiana as if he were cutting off the heads of the Hydra which always grew back in renewed wars.7

Under the strain, some of Alexander’s men became mutinous and the king himself cracked: He murdered a Macedonian general named Cleitus the Black—who had once saved his life in battle—simply for insulting him at a dinner party.8

To retain control of the region, Alexander settled his men in military colonies at strategic points in Bactria. These soldiers lamented their orders, which required them to spend their careers living so far from the sun-splashed beaches and balmy climate back home in Greece. In 327 B.C. Alexander finally enjoyed a change of fortune. Spitamenes’s own exhausted troops (or his unhappy wife, as one source reports) betrayed him and delivered his head to the Greek camp.9 Seizing the moment, Alexander married the daughter of a captured Bactrian leader, Oxyartes, to win favor among the disheartened locals. His young bride, Roxanne, may seem a romantic figure, but she was a mere pawn queened by her father and husband in a move toward peace in central Asia. Leaving behind 13,500 reluctant soldier-settlers to garrison Bactria, Alexander headed east once again.

Photograph by Sharon Suchma, courtesy of the American Numismatic Society The ancient Greek silver decadrachm shown here was minted in 323 B.C. (possibly in Babylon) and depicts a mounted Alexander charging an Indian war elephant (compare with photo of medieval miniature). During the Battle of the Hydaspes River, many of the wildly trumpeting elephants panicked, trampling Porus’s foot soldiers, while Macedonian archers picked off his cavalrymen. The Indian rajah’s defeat was devastating; his casualties have been variously estimated at 12,000 to 23,000 men. Yet Alexander saluted his foe’s bravery by magnanimously permitting Porus to continue to rule—under Greek control, of course.

In 326 B.C., Alexander’s troops encountered yet another hostile world in northwest India. The monsoons swamped the invading army and made the five great rivers of the Punjab nearly impassable. On the far side of one of these raging torrents, the Hydaspes River, the forces of a defiant rajah named Porus lay in wait. His elephant corps, the panzers of the ancient past, complicated Alexander’s task immensely but did not stop the Greeks. Alexander outmaneuvered the Indians, ferried his main army across the river under cover of rain and darkness, and overwhelmed Porus with a surprise dawn attack. After a harrowing fight punctuated by the screams of trampled men and trumpeting elephants, the Indian forces collapsed and Porus was captured.

Unexpectedly, Alexander rewarded the rajah’s bravery by restoring his throne, a rare outcome indeed for an ancient battle. Many historians consider the Battle of the Hydaspes to be Alexander’s greatest victory and compare it to the Norman invasion of Britain or (conversely) the Allied landing at Normandy.10 It turned out to be the last major battle of Alexander’s career. Soon thereafter his weary Greeks begged to turn back. Alexander’s personal goal, reaching the end of the inhabited earth, obviously lay far to the east across the Indian subcontinent, well beyond the limits of his army’s endurance. Grudgingly, the 30-year-old king settled on a less grandiose plan: He would build a fleet and subdue the Indus Valley as far south as the Indian Ocean, then divide his forces and return by land and sea to Babylon.

Still leading by fearless example, Alexander suffered grievously during these last campaigns. Attacking the town of Multan in India, he was the first man over the wall and sustained a life-threatening arrow wound to the chest. Afterward, on his arduous trek westward across the bleak Gedrosian Desert, the king refused water in order to share the suffering of his men. This march cost many lives and left a rare stain on his exemplary record of logistical planning.11



Undaunted by torrential monsoon rains, Alexander crossed the Hydaspes River in 326 B.C. to take on the elephant-mounted troops of the Indian rajah Porus—a scene captured in the medieval miniature shown here (compare with photo of Greek silver decadrachm). Alexander displayed his tactical genius during the battle, confusing Porus with feints and mounting an attack on the Indian army’s flanks.

Some modern scholars insist that these hardships drove Alexander to despair, even dementia.12 He put to death some of the high-ranking officials in his imperial government, ordered the Greeks to worship him as a god, mourned excessively the death of his dearest friend, Hephaestion, compelled many of his generals to marry Persian noblewomen and dreamed of improbable conquests across Africa, Asia and Europe. Although his body was battered by war, his mind raced ahead to envision a supranational world under his divine power. Then, swiftly and unexpectedly, Alexander sickened and died in Babylon, probably the victim of either typhus or malaria.13 He was only 32 years old. According to tradition, his final prophetic words were, “I foresee a great funeral contest over me.”

Alexander had single-mindedly carved out an empire ranging from the Adriatic Sea to the borders of India. His ambitious generals gradually killed off all the conqueror’s kinfolk, including Roxanne and her royal son Alexander IV, so that the empire could be whittled into new dynastic kingdoms: Antigonid Macedonia, Seleucid Syria, Ptolemaic Egypt, Attalid Pergamum, Diodotid Bactria and others. Alexander’s remarkable conquests and untimely death gave birth to a new epoch, called the Hellenistic Age (323–30 B.C.); its civilization has generally been considered more like ours than any other in history. We can see in that ancient world similar patterns of imperialism and colonialism, and a comparable array of social and ethnic tensions. Then, as now, economies boomed, scientific discoveries dazzled the public, cults and astrology flourished, and people sought personal liberation. According to one modern scholar, the Hellenistic Age confronts us with “an overpowering sense of déjàvu.”14

Phototgraph by Sharon Suchma, courtesy of the American Numismatic Society East meets West on the two sides of the silver tetradrachm shown here, minted in the Bactrian city of Panjhir around 145 B.C. The obverse is inscribed with Greek writing and a helmeted bust of Menander, a Hellenistic Bactrian king who converted to Buddhism in the mid-second century B.C. The coin’s reverse is written in the local Kharosthi script—which uses an alphabet derived from Aramaic—and depicts Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, hurling a thunderbolt.

There is, however, one notable blind spot in this mirror of history. We can see with some clarity the Mediterranean and Mesopotamian regions of Alexander’s old empire, but the eastern edge has long eluded us.15 Ancient texts tell us simply that Alexander’s legacy in Bactria and India was a troubled one. After Alexander’s death, the unhappy Greeks who had settled in Bactria tried to pack up and leave their posts, but they were compelled to stay under penalty of death by Alexander’s generals, among them Seleucus, the founder of the Seleucid dynasty. In 318 B.C., further east, Greek settlers assassinated Porus (the rajah whom Alexander had conquered and then returned to power), leaving Seleucus little choice but to trade India back to the natives for 500 war elephants. The literary sources tell us little more; they provide only a fantastic image of Greek merchants and mercenaries adrift in central and south Asia—a land beyond history where fierce griffins flew, strange rivers oozed oil and honey, native peoples ate their aging parents, and giant ants heaped up mounds of gold. Ancient geographers and poets wrote of a thousand lost cities in this neverland of monsters and missing Greeks. In the 13th century A.D., Marco Polo sought the lost cities in vain; Chaucer imagined one of their kings, Emetrius, as a man who rode a splendid steed “like Mars,” attended by an entourage of lords, lions and leopards.
When Englishmen arrived in the 19th century to play out the infamous “Great Game” between Czarist Russia and British India, they found the hoary ghosts of Alexander and his army everywhere in Afghanistan. Tribesmen in remote valleys claimed to be the direct descendants of the ancient Greeks; even the ancestors of their horses, it was said, had been sired by Alexander’s famous steed, Bucephalus. Lakes and towns bore many variations of the ubiquitous name Iskendar (Alexander), as did such leaders as Sha Sikander Khan. These tireless legends even trickled into Rudyard Kipling’s tale “The Man Who Would Be King.” Not long ago, a Tadjik native told me about an amateur archaeologist who took a skull he had found to a local museum. “Alexander’s,” the man proudly informed the curator. Pleased by the museum’s eagerness to display his find, the man quickly returned with a smaller skull. “Alexander’s, too,” he reported, “only a little younger!”

Alexander himself will never be found in Afghanistan (the king’s mummy, with one head only, was actually entombed in Alexandria, Egypt). But what of his lost colonists in the Alexandrias of central Asia? What became of the Greeks forced to build a new life in that far-off land?

Superstock, Inc. The towering mountains of the Hindu Kush overlook the Bamiyan valley of Afghanistan, where Taliban soldiers recently reduced most of the famed Buddhas of Bamiyan to rubble (see John C. Huntington, “The Buddhas of Bamiyan”). Alexander’s troops faced punishing weather and terrain as they made their way through narrow mountain passes. (Alexander’s tutor, Aristotle, had conjectured that the ends of the earth should be visible from the peaks of the Hindu Kush.) Alexander moved on, conquering Bactria and sweeping into the Punjab, finally reaching the Indian Ocean near the modern city of Karachi, Pakistan. The Greek conqueror then returned westward through Persia and Mesopotamia, where he died suddenly in Babylon in 323 B.C.

The scientific search for them began in earnest with the foundation of the Délégation Archéologique Française en Afghanistan (DAFA) in 1922. Alfred Foucher, a French expert on the Greco-Buddhist art found in Gandhara, guided this mission in the belief that Alexander’s colonies in Bactria were the obvious missing link in the evolution of Greek-style art in ancient India (See Rekha Morris, “Imagining Buddha”). Hellenistic cities must have survived in central Asia long after Alexander was gone, but where were they? Foucher excavated in vain. No traces of Greek cities or monumental art turned up anywhere in Afghanistan, forcing the exhausted archaeologist to declare 20 years later that he had been chasing a “mirage.”16 Others continued the search until finally, in 1961, the mirage lifted and revealed a significant piece of the mirror of history near a village named Ai Khanoum.

On a royal hunt in a remote corner of his realm, King Muhammad Zahir Shah of Afghanistan spotted a strange outline in the dry soil between two rivers. Looking down from a hillside at this confluence of the Amu Darya (ancient Oxus) and Kochba rivers, the king could see traces of a well-planned ancient city: A wall and defensive ditch stretched from the hill to the Oxus, broken only by a gateway leading to the main street inside the settlement. The shapes of many large buildings bulged underneath the thin carpet of dirt, and at least one Corinthian column rose up like a signpost of Hellenistic civilization. Here, at last, was Alexander’s elusive legacy in the East.

In 1965, the DAFA commenced full-scale work at Ai Khanoum that continued until the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. During those years, under the very fortunate direction of French archaeologist Paul Bernard, archaeologists wrested the remarkable story of Hellenistic Bactria from the ruins of Ai Khanoum.17

The Greek founder of this colony, which may have been called Alexandria Oxiana,b was a man named Kineas, whose fourth-century B.C. shrine and tomb stood in the heart of the city. Kineas may have been one of Alexander’s soldiers, sent to settle this strategic fortress on the frontiers of Bactria. There are indications of an attack on the site soon after Alexander’s demise, perhaps part of the disturbances that took place when Greek settlers attempted to abandon Bactria. Fifty years later, under the aegis of the Seleucid dynasty, a major building phase began. True to Greek cultural traditions, the later citizens of the city enjoyed a large theater, a gymnasium with a pool, and quantities of olive oil and wine. Papyrus for writing was transported from Egypt.

The Archaeology of Afghanistan Inscribed at the base of the funerary monument of Kineas, the founder of the city of Ai Khanoum, are five Delphic maxims (shown here, compare with photo of confluence of the Oxus and Kochba Rivers)—exhortations to follow certain ethical behaviors at each of life’s stages. A high premium was placed on preserving such Greek values in imperial backwaters like Ai Khanoum. The philosopher Clearchus made a special trip to Delphi to make a transcript of the maxims and carried them all the way back to Ai Khanoum to inspire the city’s inhabitants.

These ancient Greeks built large, luxurious private homes and a great sprawling palace. Their Greek names and political titles appear on tombstones and government records. To preserve Greek values in this alien land, an Aristotelian philosopher copied the Delphic Maxims in Greece and carried them all the way to Bactria. An inscription found at Ai Khanoum explained to the colonists that these maxims were the wise counsel of earlier Greeks as codified by priests at the sacred site of Delphi. Their closing lines convey the idea of this Hellenic creed “blazing from afar”:

As a youth, be self-controlled.
As an adult, be just.
As an elder, be wise,
As one dying, be without regrets.18

Ancient Ai Khanoum must also have been visited by numerous itinerant merchants and nomads, from both East and West. Archaeologists have found a few ostraca (texts inscribed on potsherds) in Aramaic, a Semitic language closely related to Hebrew that the Persians used for administrative purposes. (Aramaic also influenced the development of contemporary Indian scripts, such as Kharoshthi.)

What of the Bactrians themselves, the natives who fought Alexander and outnumbered the Greek immigrants? Are they reflected in the mirror of history as equal partners at Ai Khanoum or as an exploited underclass? The archaeological record reflects a picture that is disturbingly similar to the ghettos and barrios of our own cities. The Bactrians (ancestors of today’s Tadjik peoples) huddled in single-room houses—well away from the guarded mansions and public buildings of the Greek ruling class. Some Bactrian names appear in lists of the city’s officials, but only in the very lowest ranks and always under Greek supervisors.

Coins minted at Ai Khanoum and other Bactrian sites give us the first real evidence of cultural integration. On these coins, the Greeks introduced images of native deities and even inscriptions in local languages. Square coins, like those favored in India, were also minted. The more valuable the coin, the more purely Greek it tended to be, and some of this money was precious indeed. The largest gold and silver coins ever minted in the ancient world came from the Greek kings of Hellenistic Bactria.

The Bactrian kings condensed as much information as they could onto these portable billboards: royal names, titles, portraits, regalia, religious patronage, dynastic connections and military victories. Their coin inscriptions reveal that new dynasties continued to arise in Bactria. In about 250 B.C., the region rebelled against the Seleucids and established itself as an independent Greek kingdom under Diodotus I and II, an ambitious father and son who fell in turn to Euthydemus I and his family. This next dynasty flourished and carried Greek power back into India, retracing and then surpassing Alexander’s original conquests. One Euthydemid king, Agathocles, honored Alexander’s memory with a special coin. In the second century B.C., the usurper Eucratides—the first Greek king to call himself “the Great”—defeated the Euthydemids, but was then assassinated by his own son around 150 B.C.

All of this in-fighting weakened Hellenistic Bactria. As a result, 200 years after the reign of Alexander, the Greek settlements along the Oxus River were overwhelmed by nomadic invaders from the north.19 The settlement at Ai Khanoum was among the first to be abandoned, its inhabitants fleeing into the mountains or moving south into India.

Paul Bernard Archaeological excavations (the outlines of the ancient city near the confluence of the Oxus and Kochba Rivers can be seen in this photograph, compare with photo of Kineas funerary monument inscription) have revealed that Ai Khanoum’s colonists also took these maxims seriously and built institutions—a large theater, palace library and gymnasium—that fostered traditional Greek mores.

Lost for 2,000 years, these Hellenistic settlements are vanishing once again—this time, forever.20 In war-ravaged Afghanistan, the tangible traces of Alexander’s legacy are being systematically destroyed. Ai Khanoum lies looted, its buildings cratered into a lunar landscape by clandestine digging, its treasures trucked away for sale. Artifacts excavated by the DAFA and “safely” stored in the National Museum at Kabul have also been plundered; some of these antiquities are now being publicly auctioned on the World Wide Web to collectors in Europe and America.21 So once again the fragile mirror of history has been shattered; its sherds swept up by the greedy among us. We may at least be grateful to archaeology for providing us with a fleeting glimpse of a tumultuous era hauntingly similar to our own.

I dedicate this article to the unsung heroes of the Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage.

Frank Holt, a professor of history at the University of Houston

Where Did the Philistines Come From?



Where Did the Philistines Come From?

The excavations at Tell es-Safi/Gath, the site of Gath of the Philistines mentioned in the Bible (e.g., 1 Samuel 6:17), have produced many fascinating finds,* and the summer of 2011 was no exception.

While uncovering an impressive destruction level dating to the second half of the ninth century B.C.E., when Gath was the largest of the five cities of the Philistines and perhaps the largest city in the Land of Israel during the Iron Age, excavators found an exceptionally well preserved horned altar reminiscent of the Israelite horned altars described in the Bible (Exodus 27:1–2; 1 Kings 1:50).

Had it not been for a stroke of luck, the horned altar may never have been discovered. Like most archaeological digs, the Tell es-Safi/Gath excavation leaves unexcavated “balks” between the excavation squares, thereby allowing easier access to the squares as well as providing a profile view of the excavated layers. In the winter of 2010/2011, however, strong rainstorms caused some of the balks to collapse.

Our free eBook Ten Top Biblical Archaeology Discoveries brings together the exciting worlds of archaeology and the Bible! Learn the fascinating insights gained from artifacts and ruins, like the Pool of Siloam in Jerusalem, where the Gospel of John says Jesus miraculously restored the sight of the blind man, and the Tel Dan inscription—the first historical evidence of King David outside the Bible.

When the team came back to the field in July 2011, one of their first priorities was to clean up and straighten the collapsed balks. As they cleaned one of the balks in Area D (in the lower city), they came upon an unusually shaped stone object just 10 inches below the surface. Work was immediately stopped as they probed further, and, lo and behold, one of the horns of the altar appeared. Once they realized what they had discovered, the team began the slow, delicate process of excavating the entire horned altar.

The horned altar stands nearly 3.5 feet high and measures just over 1.5 feet on each side. These dimensions more or less match the dimensions given in the Bible (Exodus 30:2) for the Israelite incense altar of the Tabernacle (though this altar shows no signs of having been used to burn incense). Moreover, the decorative features of the altar, including its horns and the groove and raised band of the base, are similar to Israelite altars described in the Bible (Exodus 27:2), as well as other Iron Age altars that have been found throughout the southern Levant.

But why does this altar have only two horns, when we know from the Bible and excavated examples that the altars of both the Israelites and, later, the Philistines, typically had four horns?**

The fact that the Tell es-Safi/Gath horned altar has only two horns may have to do with the cultural origins of the Philistines. As Louise Hitchcock, senior staff member of the Tell es-Safi/Gath excavations, has suggested, the very motif of the horned altar in the Levant may have been influenced by earlier Minoan “horns of consecration,” symbolic representations of the horns of the sacred bull in Minoan culture. In fact, there is an altar from the Late Bronze Age site of Myrtous Pigadhes in Cyprus that also has only two horns. The unique horned altar from Tell es-Safi/Gath, the earliest stone altar ever found from the land of the Philistines, may be another indication of the Aegean influences on early Philistine culture and quite possibly a hint to their origins.

——————Based on Aren M. Maeir, “Prize Find: Horned Altar from Tell es-Safi Hints at the Origins of the Philistines,”Biblical Archaeology Review, January/February 2012. Originally published in Bible History Daily on January 19, 2012.

First-Ever Philistine Cemetery Unearthed at Ashkelon

Discovery brings us face to face with the Israelites’ archenemy


The first and only Philistine cemetery ever discovered has been found outside the walls of ancient Ashkelon. As one of the major Philistine city-states during the Iron Age, Ashkelon was a significant Mediterranean port and boasted a thriving marketplace. Excavations at Ashkelon have revealed many details about how the Philistines lived: the kind of houses they built; the food they ate; the plates, bowls, cups, pots and jars they made; the tools and weapons they used; the jewelry they wore; the imports they bought; the way they made clothes; and much more.Now Ashkelon has yielded the Philistines themselves.

Directed by Lawrence E. Stager, Dorot Professor of the Archaeology of Israel, Emeritus, at Harvard University, and Daniel M. Master, Professor of Archaeology at Wheaton College, the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon discovered the Iron Age cemetery in 2013 and began excavating it extensively in 2014. Three seasons of significant investigation have revealed previously unknown details of the Philistines in death—and life. First of all, the cemetery provides a window into Philistine burial practices.

“Ninety-nine percent of the chapters and articles written about Philistine burial customs should be revised or ignored now that we have the first and only Philistine cemetery found just outside the city walls of Tel Ashkelon, one of the five primary cities of the Philistines,” said Lawrence E. Stager.

Various theories have been proposed about Philistine burial practices: Some thought that the Philistines were burned at death, like Patroclus and other figures in Homer’s Iliad. Others connected late 13th-century B.C.E. Egyptian anthropoid ceramic coffins with the Philistines. While a cemetery has been found at Azor (dated to the Iron Age 1), located at the northern boundary of Philistia, Ashkelon’s cemetery is the first to be found in the heartland of Philistia—and the first to be indisputably Philistine. As such, it is the standard for measuring all other burials claimed to be Philistine, such as the tombs found at Tel Farah (South) and near Tel Eitun, which were found beyond the limits of Philistia but argued by some to be Philistine. All of these “Philistine” burials and practices must be reevaluated in light of Ashkelon’s cemetery—as should perhaps the cemeteries found at Ruqeish (dated to the Iron Age 2) and Erani (Iron Ages 1–2), located at Philistia’s southern and eastern boundaries, respectively.


More than 210 individuals have been excavated from Ashkelon’s cemetery. Their burials have varied from simple pit internments and cremations in jars to interments in ashlar-built tombs—with the most frequent being pit internments. Grave goods dated from the 11th–8th centuries B.C.E. accompanied some of the Philistine burials. The most common items included in Philistine burials are small juglets. Storage jars, bowls and juglets have been found next to many individuals; these installations consist of a storage jar standing upright with a bowl sitting on its top opening and a juglet resting inside the bowl.


Many of the decorated juglets from the cemetery were imported from Phoenicia. This is not surprising since the Philistines had close ties with Phoenician cities of the central Lebanese coast, such as Tyre, Sidon and Byblos. This close relationship is reflected in the Hebrew Bible (see, e.g., Jeremiah 47:4). From other excavated areas at Tel Ashkelon dated to the 12th–7th centuries B.C.E. (the Iron Age), we see that the largest portion of Ashkelon’s imports came from Phoenicia.

As the point where three of the world’s major religions converge, Israel’s history is one of the richest and most complex in the world. Sift through the archaeology and history of this ancient land in the free eBook Israel: An Archaeological Journey, and get a view of these significant Biblical sites through an archaeologist’s lens.

In addition to the many ceramic vessels from Ashkelon’s cemetery, jewelry, amulets and weapons have also been discovered. Individuals were found wearing delicate silver earrings, as well as bronze necklaces, bracelets, earrings and rings. A few bracelets with alternating bronze and carnelian beads and necklaces with alternating carnelian beads and cowrie shells were found; although the strings that originally connected these beads had long deteriorated, the beads themselves stayed in their original positions.


Amulets and scarabs were found with some individuals, as were weapons. Notably, one warrior was buried with a quiver full of bronze arrows. This discovery was made by Adam Aja, Assistant Curator of Collections at the Harvard Semitic Museum and the Expedition’s Assistant Director, who supervised the excavation of Ashkelon’s Philistine cemetery. Although the cemetery has produced a large quantity of grave goods, the majority of the Philistines were buried without personal items.The difference between Philistine burials and other burials in the region is compelling. The earlier Canaanites, as well as the Israelites and Judahites of the Iron Age, buried their dead in two steps. They first laid out their dead—usually on a bench in a tomb—and waited for the corpses to deflesh. Then about a year later, they gathered the deceased’s bones into niches in the tomb—repositories—where the bones were mixed with those of their ancestors. This process is not seen in Ashkelon’s Philistine cemetery, which has instead yielded many fully articulated skeletons. Sometimes burial pits would be dug again, and new individuals would be laid on top of previous burials—with their own grave goods—but the earlier burials were not intentionally disturbed. Relationships between those buried in the same pits and tombs are currently being investigated.

Not only does Ashkelon’s cemetery shed light on Philistine burial practices, but it also illuminates the Philistines as a people group.

“After decades of studying what the Philistines left behind, we have finally come face to face with the people themselves,” said Daniel M. Master, Co-Director of the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon. “With this discovery we are close to unlocking the secrets of their origins.”

The Bible records that the Philistines, Israel’s archenemy, came from Caphtor (see, e.g., Amos 9:7). Many correlate Caphtor with the island of Crete. An Aegean heritage for the Philistines lines up well with the archaeological finds from Philistia. Modern excavations at the Philistine sites of Ashdod, Ekron, Ashkelon, and Gath (Tell es-Safi)—four city-states of the Philistine Pentapolis—have demonstrated that the Philistines brought their own distinctive types of pottery, building styles, weapons, jewelry and weaving with them when they settled on the southern coast of Israel around the 12th century B.C.E.

Ashkelon’s cemetery supports the Philistines’ distinctness from their neighbors and may be able to connect the Philistines to related populations in the Aegean world. Bone samples of the cemetery’s population are undergoing DNA testing, radiocarbon dating and biological distance studies (the degree of genetic relatedness). The results of these investigations may give us a better picture of the Philistines’ heritage, when Ashkelon’s cemetery was in use, and how the population of the cemetery was related to one another.


Sherry Fox, the head forensic anthropologist analyzing Ashkelon’s Philistine burials, has already identified some of the illnesses and traumas that plagued the Philistines. Her team’s study of the material is sure to yield many other insights into the Philistines, such as common traits and average life span. Although their investigations are just beginning, Fox and her team have noted a curious phenomenon: The vast majority of the individuals from Ashkelon’s cemetery are adults. Just a small percentage is children and infants. In a culture that surely experienced high rates of infant mortality, this is surprising. Where did the Philistines bury all of their babies? This question warrants further investigation.The discovery of Ashkelon’s cemetery was announced today, July 10, 2016, at a press conference in Jerusalem and coincides with the opening of Ashkelon: A Retrospective, 30 Years of the Leon Levy Expedition, an Israel Museum exhibition at the Rockefeller Archaeological Museum in Jerusalem. The exhibit features discoveries from the Philistine cemetery, as well as artifacts uncovered from recent excavations at Tel Ashkelon that are representative of the site’s long, diverse occupational history from the Chalcolithic period through the Crusades. Highlights include the famous Canaanite silver calf (dated to the 16th century B.C.E.) that was found in a shrine on Ashkelon’s ramparts and beautiful imported Greek pottery from Ashkelon’s Philistine marketplace that was well-preserved due to Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of the city in 604 B.C.E.

2016 marks the final season of the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon, which began excavating the site in 1985. The discovery of the Philistine cemetery is a nice addition to 30 years of extraordinary finds at Ashkelon.

Blog at

Up ↑